The early modern period challenged traditional European thoughts. The scientific revolution, modern philosophy, the commercial revolution, the industrial revolution, and European expansion all challenged traditional European thoughts about the world. Cultural exchanges, at the heart of expansion, influenced what would become Universal History. Before the 19th century, before racial theories, Europeans believed humans were the same throughout, though they believed cultures differed, but they considered these differences conventional. Historians and proto-anthropologists believed that social growth developed through stages and these stages applied to all societies—this was Universal History. Universal history influenced writers of the Enlightenment, such as Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant, Hegel and Marx. Today, the residue of Universal History is alive and well, especially in development theories and policies. Post-modernism critized Universal History as grand narratives based on Eurocentrism. Post-colonial writers were among the most fervent attackers of Universal History. Although they undermined the intellectual foundations of UH, its thought and policies continue to haunt the world—as Brett Bowden notes in The Strange Persistence of Universal History in Political Thought (2017).
Universal History reflected the intellectual precursors to Western hegemony because it claimed that human societies followed the same general laws of progress, which Euro-American countries were examples. Subsequent universal claims did not stop at society and history, but also claimed superiority over biology and other forms of scientific knowledge (epistemic habitus, norms). While universalism suggests that all people are generally the same, 19th century science divided people into racial categories, which largely reflected the social hierarchies found in grand narrative of Universal History. In the 20th century, two grand narratives competed—Communism and Liberal Capitalism (though they were more alike than people give credit). Western, and especially American power allowed the West to dictate political economic development programs to make former colonies more like western countries in terms of consumption and production. Today’s political economic divide between the North and South reflect the ‘stages of growth’ presumption inherent in Universal history.
“John Locke’s claim that ‘in the beginning all the world was America,’ is taken to mean that all peoples literally emerged in a stage of nature. According to Gavin Kennedy, Locke’s quote allowed for people to understand that all societies have the same experiences, that the state of nature was natural to all societies. “The rude societies of America, therefore were a veritable theme park of the lives of Europe’s distant ancestors.”
“The idea of universal history,” according to Bowden, “means that all peoples share the same history… from developing nations, to the affluent West.” All people, all nations, “can be situated in the narrative of human history on a continuum between start and end point: all are destined to travel the same path and arrive… at the same end point, modernity.”This implies universal freedom and egalitarianism similar to liberalism. Historian Ryan Nisbet, for instance, stated that “no single idea has been more important than…the idea of progress in Western civilization for nearly three thousand years. He suggests “the idea of progress holds that mankind has advanced in the past from some aboriginal condition of primitiveness, barbarism, or even nullity—is now advancing , and will continue…” By the 19th century, Nanneral Keohane argues that progress “became an article of faith.” It was “a universal religion.”One of the defining aspects of the Enlightenment, Bowden tells readers, is progress. George Iggers states that the “idea of progress in its Enlightenment form represented the first theory of modernization.” The Enlightenment, progress, liberalism, and modernity are all interrelated parts of Western hegemony discoverable through history. Alan Wolfe connects Locke’s comments about the Americans state of nature with liberalism y suggesting “that in the beginning all the world was America is to claim that freedom and equality would become forces too powerful to resist. That, in turn, became the single most influential component of liberalism: the dominant, if not always appreciated, political philosophy of modern times.” LIBERALISM. Liberalism, according to Wolfe spread because of its universal appeal.The Amerindians, for instance, played a significant role in what would come to be called universal history. Adam Ferguson said: “it is in their [American savages] present condition that we are to behold, as in a mirror, the features of our own progenitors; and from thence we are to draw our conclusions with respect to the influence of situations, in which, we have reason to believe, our fathers were placed.”According to author Brett Bowden, by equating Amerindians contemporary lifestyle with that of early Europeans “led to a redefinition of history along a linear time scale providing a secular telos as the basis of the historical process.”
Author Brett Bowden, in The Strange Persistence of Universal History in Political Thought, writes: “The Enlightenment idea of universal history idea holds that all peoples can be situated in the narrative of history on a continuum between that start and en end point, what we call civilization.” Universal history was teleological, it moved toward a goal, a universal goal. Despite racial differences that would emerge in the 19th century, Enlightenment thinkers sought human universalism, but this came at a price for non-Europeans. As we can see, Europeans considered themselves at the top of the proverbial food chain. Not only were they ‘civilized,’ unlike other societies, but they knew of historical stages. Contemporaries ‘discovered’ Universal History through a human faculty of Reason. Reason separates humans from animals, but humans do not always or automatically use Reason, it must be learned and refined or else humans can revert to their animalistic instincts-often referred to as passions. Philosophers like Montesquieu believed climate had a major impact human faculties. In the Torrid Zone, for instance, caused people to revert to their passions at the expense of Rationalism. They became base, animalistic, etc. Learning to use Reason appropriately i.e. think like Europeans was a quintessential step toward becoming civilized.
For Kant human progress is not only teleological, but it is also accumulative and communitive. Humans transcend barbarism by living together and building civic communities. Reason develops through social living because the animalistic instincts have no part in cooperative endeavors. Human progress is a law of nature, intelligible to those using Reason. Nature’s goal, as mentioned above, is a civic community. “The greatest problem for the human race, to the solution of which nature drives man is the achievement of a universal civic society, which administers law among men.” Commerce, for Kant, is a means of building community. Although history might appear to work in cycles, nature has a plan, even if it is not directly obvious to contemporaries, that’s why the study of history using Reason will allow humans to understand the laws of nature-the laws of history-which expanded on past events toward greater freedom and liberty that can only be achieved through living in a civic cosmopolitan community. The teleological zenith, for Kant, is liberty.
“The only Thought which Philosophy brings with it to the contemplation of History, is the simple conception of Reason; that Reason is the Sovereign of the World; that the history of the world, therefore, presents us with a rational process.” According to Hegel, the development of history has been a rational process. “Nature is an embodiment of Reason; that it is unchangeably subordinate to universal laws.” History is not happenstance even if it seems that way. Investigating Universal History, Hegel argues is akin to investigating the realm of the Spirit, it transcends nature. “On the stage on which we are observing it-Universal History-Spirit displays itself in its most concrete reality.” “History is the progress of freedom.” Each age has a spirit or zeitgeist. History advances to something better, even though through the seasons, it seems like history moves in circles. Development is the Spirit striving to realize itself. History moves toward freedom, realized through the state, this freedom, however, is spiritual freedom. Although Hegel is abstract and not as clear as, say, Smith or even Kant, he presents the ideas of development and teleology of history moving toward something better-this ‘better’ is freedom; just like other Enlightenment thinkers, just like Karl Marx.
Writings form authors such as Montesquieu, Condorcet, Turgot, Kant, and Hegel addressed Universal History from an Eurocentric perspective, often implying that Europeans had reached a stage of development, which other societies had yet to achieve. Embedded in the ideas of universal history was concepts of teleological development. Teleology for Kant and Hegel were quintessential to their ideas of progress and history. However, they did not limit their writings to European societies. In other words, they well knew of different societies and tried to incorporate ‘others’ into their framework even though their writings are overtly Eurocentric.
William Lehmann, in John Millar and the Scottish Enlightenment: family life and world history(2017), writes about the complexity and competition among Scottish writers concerning the political economy. Scottish writers, including Adam Smith, developed a timeline of evolutionary history, which scholars, in the humanities and social sciences, continue to use. Scottish philosophers used a four-stage theory:
- Hunting, where property only extended to what one could carry on one person (savagery),
- Pastoralism, where shepherding witnessed the development of animal property (barbarism),
- Agriculture, where society became settled and landed property became pivotal in the production of sustenance (civilization),
- Commercial society, defined by contemporary Europe.
Marx’s dialectic materialism is probably the best-known form of Universal History. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx claims: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” His view of history is like Smith’s, stated above:
- Primitive Communism
- Landed Aristocracy
- Bourgeoise Democracy and capitalism
Each of these stages involve two competing groups. For instance, the landed aristocracy’s nemesis were the capitalist Bourgeoise class. A revolution inevitably results, thus changing the modes of production and this is called the synthesis i.e. it brings in a new era of history.
In, Fukuyama’s claim history had ended after the fall of the Soviet Union was a comment on Marx’s idea that all history was the history of class conflict. For Fukuyama, liberalism defeated Marxism, there would be no historical dialectic from capitalism to socialism to communism, therefore history—as understood by Marx—ended. Marx, however, was not the first to propose universal history, the effects of which became part of the Euro-American mindset.
Events in the 20thcentury challenged the teleology of history and peoples’ hopes that technology would bring about a better world. Although UH met with challenges, it continued to thrive. Events such as WWI, the Depression, WWII, the holocaust, and end of the old world’s formal empires caused contemporaries to question the West’s moral high ground. Progress, as faith in technology, faltered when technology was used efficiently to kill people across the world in the two world wars and the rise of fascism. After WWII Britain and France lost their control over their former colonies through policy and by force from indigenous populace.
However, during this time consumer culture expanded, especially after WWII and the power of the U.S. as the world’s primary global power. Consumer offered citizens a new faith in plenty. After the New Deal and the end of the Depression Keynesian capitalism, production, and consumption i.e. economics became the new litmus test for progress and growth. Through economics, progress could be measured. Combined with post-colonial nationalism the purview lead to a different relationship between the civilized and uncivilized.
Development theory replaced the moral underpinnings of historical evolution. By measuring development according to a nation’s GNP, economists could measure the rate of growth of any country. Unfortunately, for post-colonial nations, they did not have the finances to invest in trade and infrastructure, which forced them to accept money from their previous overloads. This money, lent by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, comes at a high price.
“The idea of modernity and becoming modern is intrinsic to development discourse; both of which are entangled with the idea of progress… In line with the idea of universal history, development discourse suggests that there is really only one way to become modern.” He continues “Throughout the second half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, development is over-whelming seen as the vehicle that will help make premodern states and traditional or primitive peoples living within them to become modern.”
Western hegemony and ideas of modernity use universalism in other ways. For instance, Dipesh Chakrabarty’s, Provincializing Europe. (2009) and Gabrielle Hecht’s. Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade(2012); Objectivity(2010), by Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison; The Anatomy of Power: European Constructions of the African Body(1998), Alexander Butchartchallenge epistemological and even ontological universalism by focusing the creation of the other, the nature of uranium, and objectivity itself.
Universal History also reflect the continuity of thought over the long duree. This is partly to do with the power of Euro-American thoughts and institutions. From the 1980s to the early 2000s, scholars challenged modernity, but it still lingers, like a ghost we cannot exorcise. Universal History lies at the center of modernity and it is one of the most pervasive thoughts in global history. The problem, may be due to scholars confusing the map for the territory. It should be thought more as a Weberian ideal-type rather than an ontological reality, but would this solve anything? I do not know.
It is near impossible to incapsulate the entirety of European thought, this is a mere abbreviation.
Bowden, 2; Gavin Kennedy, Adam Smith: A Moral Philosopher and His Political Economy (Basingstoke [England]; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 63, http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&scope=site&db=nlebk&db=nlabk&AN=365658.”
Bowden, The Empire of Civilization, 49.
Bowden, The Strange Persistence of Universal History in Political Thought, 2; Alan Wolfe, The Future of Liberalism (New York: Vintage Books, 2010), 3–4.
Brett Bowden, The Strange Persistence of Universal History in Political Thought, 2017, 1.
Bowden, Brett. 2017. The Strange Persistence of Universal History in Political Thought. Springer, 72-3.