History of Humanity

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Description of Project

 

Societies are making greater demands than ever on history, but urgent as they might be, these demands by various groups are not altogether straightforward. Some societies look to historians to define their identity, to buttress the development of their specific characteristics or even to present and analyse the past as confirming a founding myth. Conversely, other societies, influenced both by the Annales school of historiography and by the geographical, chronological and thematic enlargement of history, aspire to the building of bridges, the ending of self-isolation and the smoothing out of the lack of continuity that is characteristic of the short term.

In 1946 those attending the meeting of the first Preparatory Commission of UNESCO agreed that it was part of fundamental mission of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to lay the foundations for a collective memory of humanity and of all its parts, spread all over the world and expressing themselves in every civilization. The International Scientific Commission came into being four years later with the apparently gigantic task drafting a History of the Scientific and Cultural Development of Mankind. Publication of the six volumes began in 1963, marking the successful conclusion of an international endeavour without parallel, but not without risks. Success with general public was immediate and lasting, notwithstanding the reservations expressed by the critics, who often found certain choices disconcerting but were not consistent in the choices and interpretations they proposed as alternatives.

For its time - not the time of its publication but that of long preparation - the first edition of the History of the Scientific and Cultural Development of Mankind must be seen a daring achievement, having a number of faults inherent in the very nature of historical knowledge but opening up avenues and encouraging further progress along them.

In 1978, the General Conference of UNESCO decided to embark on a new and completely revised edition of the History of the Scientific and Cultural Development of Mankind because it realized that the considerable development of historiography, the improvement of what are called its auxiliary sciences and its growing links with the social sciences had combined with an extraordinary acceleration of day-to-day history. What it did not know, however, was that the pace of this acceleration would continue to increase until it brought profound changes to the face of the world.

It scarcely needs saying that the task laid upon the International Scientific Commission, under the chairmanship of the late Paulo de Berrędo Carneiro and then of my eminent predecessor, Professor Charles Morazé, was both enormous and difficult.

First of all, international teams had to be formed, as balanced as possible, and co-operation and dialogue organized between the different views of the major collective stages in the lives of people, but without disregarding the cultural identity of human groups.

Next, attention had to be given to changes in chronological scale by attempting a scientific reconstruction of the successive stages of the peopling of our planet, including the spread of animal populations. This was the goal pursued and largely attained by the authors of the present volume.

Lastly, steps had to be taken to ensure that traditional methods of historical research, based on written sources, were used side by side with new critical methods adapted to the use of oral sources and contributions from archaeology, in Africa for the most part.

To quote what Professor Jean Devisse said at a symposium in Nice in 1986 on 'Being a historian today': 'If we accept that the history of other people has something to teach us, there can be no infallible model, no immutable methodological certainty: listening to each other can lead to a genuine universal history.'

Although historians must be guided by a desire for intellectual honesty, they depend on their own views of things, with the result that history is the science most vulnerable to ideologies. The fall of the Berlin Wall a few weeks after I assumed office symbolized the end of a particularly burdensome ideological division. It certainly makes the work of the International Scientific Commission easier whenever it has to come to grips with the past-present dialectic from which history cannot escape.

In a way, the impact of ideologies will also be lessened by the fact that the Chief Editors of each volume have sought the invaluable co-operation not only of experienced historians but also of renowned specialists in disciplines such as law, art, philosophy, literature, oral traditions, the natural sciences, medicine, anthropology, mathematics and economics. In any event, this interdisciplinary, which helps dissipate error, is undoubtedly one of the major improvements of this second edition of the History of Humanity, Scientific and Cultural Development of Mankind over the previous edition.

Another problem faced was that of periodization. It was out of the question systematically to adopt the periodization long in use in European history, that is Antiquity, the Middle Ages, modern times, because it is now being extensively called into question and also, above all, because it would have led to a Eurocentric view of world history, a view whose absurdity is now quite obvious. The seven volumes are thus arranged in the following chronological order:
Volume I: Prehistory and the beginnings of civilization
Volume II: From the third millennium to the seventh century BC
Volume III: From the seventh century BC to the seventh century AD
Volume IV: From the seventh to the sixteenth century
Volume V: From the sixteenth to the eighteenth century
Volume VI: The nineteenth century
Volume VII: The twentieth century.

It must be stated at once that this somewhat surgical distribution is in no way absolute or binding. It will in no way prevent the overlapping that there must be at the turn of each century if breaks in continuity and the resulting errors of perspective are to be avoided. Indeed, it bas been said that we are already in the twenty-first century!

In his preface, Professor Charles Morazé has clearly described and explained the structure of each of the volumes, with a thematic chapter, a regional chapter and annexes. This structure, too, may be modified so as not to upset the complementarity of the pieces of a mosaic that must retain its significance.

When the International Scientific Commission, the Chief Editors of the volumes and the very large number of contributors have completed their work - and this will be in the near future - they will be able to adopt as their motto the frequently quoted saying of the philosopher Etienne Gilson:

We do not study history to get rid of it but to save from nothingness all the past which, without history, would vanish into the void. We study history so that what, without it, would not even be the past any more, may be reborn to life in this unique present outside which nothing exists.

This present will be all the more unique because history will have shown itself to be not an instrument for legitimizing exacerbated forms of nationalism, but an instrument, ever more effective because ever more perfectible, for ensuring mutual respect, solidarity and the scientific and cultural interdependence of humanity.

Georges-Henri Dumont

 

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