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The 2015 Telos-Paul Piccone Institute Conference
February 13–15, 2015
New York, NY

The Telos-Paul Piccone Institute, in collaboration with
Deutsches Haus at New York University, presents

Universal History, Philosophical History,
and the Fate of Humanity

View the conference program (PDF)
Videos of the roundtables and keynote presentation
Conference papers posted at the Telos Press website

History in the Western tradition has always had a pretension to universality, to encompassing all human beings within a single interconnected story. This desire can be traced from Polybius and Diodorus Siculus in the classical world through to the Christian writings of Eusebius, Augustine, Bede, and Otto of Freising. The Enlightenment attempted to construct universal history on more philosophical and scientific principles, including the stadial model of history. Universal history thereby linked itself to philosophical history, and the nineteenth century witnessed a flowering of such history ranging from Hegel to Marx to liberal advocates of progress. From the Enlightenment onward, universal/philosophical history has been constitutive of the many utopian projects of the West.

These attempts were based on a very limited knowledge of human history, with much philosophical history owing more to philosophy than to historical understanding. Perhaps only in the last thirty years has the requisite knowledge been made available for writing something approaching a genuine history of humanity. But such a contemporary writing of universal history would have to expand beyond traditional philosophical orientations in order to include the inextricable factors of science, technology, capitalism, ecology, and mass media. At the same time, the recent expansion of historical knowledge has also revealed competing non-Western narratives regarding the human story emanating, for example, from the Islamic world and China. Thus it is no longer possible to write a universal/philosophical history based purely on the West.

This challenge to the Western perspective has not arisen solely from broader knowledge and alternative non-Western narratives. It has also emerged from the Western historical profession itself. In addition to an increasing orientation toward non-Western perspectives, recent academic history has been characterized by excessive specialization and the abandonment of grand narratives. One of the consequences of the decline of political history in favor of social and cultural studies has been the elimination of the very integrative core (e.g., the state) of any larger narrative, without which universal histories are impossible. Indeed, the increasing disappearance of diplomatic and military history from academic faculties has eliminated two quintessential aspects by which humanity has interacted historically on a global scale. Any claim to an essential Western component to universal history has likewise fallen victim to postmodernist indeterminacy, creating doubts concerning the necessity, ability, or even desire to make value judgments about competing narratives. Yet many contemporary global trends in value systems retain the essence of their Western origins (in Stoicism, Christianity, Liberalism, Marxism), as illustrated by the very concept of "humanity" and its corollary of universal human rights.

The 2015 Telos-Paul Piccone Institute conference will consider the philosophical, historical, and political significance of universal history in the contemporary world by focusing on three problem areas: the possibility of universal history, the alternatives to universal history, and the value of universal history.

1. What would be the historical and philosophical basis for universal history today?

Is the project of constructing a universal/philosophical history still worthwhile or, given the level of complexity involved, even possible? Does a globalized world in fact demand a universal history? What role does universal/philosophical history play in Western culture? What is the continuing value of earlier forms of universal history such as the stadial model, Marxism, the idea of history as progress, Hegelian history, history as degeneration? How adequate, for example, is the idea of the Axial Age for an understanding of the history of humanity?

2. How would universal history deal with the problem of human diversity?

How do non-Western narratives accord with those histories produced by the West? Is universal history just another historical model of the West and how would it relate to other non-Western competing universal histories? Is the discourse or narrative of universal history a meta-history or fiction produced by the West aimed at reasserting its political and cultural hegemony in the world? Does universal history falsify traditional or hegemonic discourses of identity? Does the desire for local stories and chronicles undermine universal history?

3. What is the relationship between universal history and values?

Would the decline of universal history imply the decline of universal values such as human rights? Is there a crisis in the way in which universities approach the researching and teaching of history? Has Western academia lost the will to engage in the debate over competing universal narratives and, if so, what are the concrete effects of this historical disengagement for the future of the West? Do the newer approaches to world history not only downplay the importance of Western civilization but actually undermine national histories in Western as well as non-Western areas, thereby weakening the identities and traditions essential to state formation and national loyalties?

This conference addresses the issues surrounding the place of universal, philosophical, "big" and world history both at the current point of time and in the past, in the West and other civilizations. It also examines those characteristics of modernity that would need to be addressed by universal history, such as economics and technology, capitalism and industrialization, global transportation and communication. Papers will discuss the issues listed above, as well as related aspects, e.g., religious visions of history, the role of history in cultural identity, global agricultural ecologies, and the universalizing effects of epidemics.

Conference Videos

Universal History, the West, the East, and the Rest
Moderated by Marcia Pally, the roundtable included Russell A. Berman, Adrian Pabst, Ulrike Kistner, Jay Gupta, Christopher Coker, and Wayne Hudson.

Keynote Presentation by Jonathan Israel
The Enlightenment Reconsidered: A Contemporary Controversy
Keynote Presentation at the 2015 Telos Conference. The presentation was chaired by Wayne Hudson.

The Future of History: A New Universal Vision or Dissolving into Particularities?
Moderated by Adrian Pabst, the roundtable included Wayne Hudson, Joseph Bendersky, Greg Melleuish, Aryeh Botwinick, Jonathan Israel, and Tim Luke.

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