The return of universal history

David Christian*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

61 Citations (Scopus)


The prediction defended in this paper is that over the next fifty years we will see a return of the ancient tradition of "universal history"; but this will be a new form of universal history that is global in its practice and scientific in its spirit and methods. Until the end of the nineteenth century, universal history of some kind seems to have been present in most historiographical traditions. Then it vanished as historians became disillusioned with the search for grand historical narratives and began to focus instead on getting the details right through document-based research. Today, however, there are many signs of a return to universal history. This has been made possible, at least in part, by the detailed empirical research undertaken in the last century in many different fields, and also by the creation of new methods of absolute dating that do not rely on the presence of written documents. The last part of the paper explores some of the possible consequences for historical scholarship of a return to a new, scientific form of universal history. These may include a closer integration of historical scholarship with the more historically oriented of the sciences, including cosmology, geology, and biology. Finally, the paper raises the possibility that universal history may eventually be taught in high schools, where it will provide a powerful new way of integrating knowledge from the humanities and the sciences.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)6-27
Number of pages22
JournalHistory and Theory
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2010


  • Big history
  • Creation myth
  • Historiography
  • Universal history
  • World history


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