Journal of World History 7.1 (1996) 131-133
[Access article in PDF]
Marshall Hodgson died more than a quarter of a century ago, but his ideas about the conceptualization of world history have continued to inform all serious discussion of the subject. William H. McNeill and Leften Stavrianos readily acknowledge his influence. When Philip D. Curtin introduced me to world history in his "Expansion of Europe" class at the University of Wisconsin in 1963, he assigned Hodgson's article "The Interrelations of Societies in History" alongside the first printing of McNeill's Rise of the West.
Hodgson's work, however, is not as well known among world history teachers as are the writings of Curtin, McNeill, and Stavrianos. Hodgson's career ended just when world history as a field of teaching and research was beginning to take shape. Since the 1950s he had been working on a comprehensive study that he eventually entitled "The Unity of World History." He was still revising it when he died, and the draft manuscript was not published. He did, however, publish a series of seminal articles in journals in the 1950s and 1960s. Together, these essays present his vision of world history as a discipline, though not all of them have been easily available to students. He also explicates his methodology in the first part of his monumental three-volume work The Venture of Islam, which was published posthumously in 1974. Despite its importance as a treatise on world history, however, Venture has been too readily categorized as a work mainly of interest to Islamicists and Middle Eastern historians. [End Page 131]
The publication of Rethinking World History is an opportunity for the profession to look again at Hodgson's conceptual vision and to re-evaluate his place among the leading lights of global and comparative history. Edmund Burke III, an Islamic expert and globalist who has been reflecting on Hodgson's ideas for many years, has brought together most of the scholar's scattered writings on world history and on the problem of situating Islamic and European civilization within it.
Part I of the book is a collection of Hodgson's important articles summarizing his views on the value of interregional history, the civilization as a conceptual formulation, and the weaknesses of the Eurocentric model as an approach to the global past. Readers will be especially intrigued by a short piece (a letter written to John Voll in 1966) that includes a brief (and rather brusque) critique of The Rise of the West.
Part II is a set of four articles on Islam and world history that reveal Hodgson's extraordinary talent for making grand sweeps across the Eastern Hemisphere and for connecting and comparing phenomena at the highest levels of social patterning. Part III comprises the last three chapters of "The Unity of World History," and Burke deserves much credit for making them available to the field for the first time. Because Hodgson had not finished his book, the writing is quite rough, and the abstractions are sometimes exasperating. Nevertheless, he argues eloquently that would-be world historians will always suffer from a certain myopia unless they recognize the explanatory power of genuine interregional history, as opposed to historical generalizing that always stops at the frontiers of nations or culture areas.
Burke's brief introduction skillfully summarizes Hodgson's main ideas about world history. His concluding essay is a masterful synthesis of The Venture of Islam, demonstrating that Hodgson's universalist morality and his conviction of the need for "a radical reorientation of our historical and geographical attitudes toward the rest of the world" (p. 307) deeply informed his interpretation of Islam's dynamic role in world history. In situating Muslim civilization in a global context rather than a mainly Middle Eastern one, Hodgson argues not simply that Western scholars must transcend their...