One of the standard assumptions of modern Western social science (history included) is that material conditions drive historical development. All of the “Great Transitions” in world history–the origins of agriculture, the birth of cities, the rise of high culture, the industrial revolution–can, so most Western social scientists claim, be associated with some condition that compelled otherwise conservative humans to act in new ways. This premise is of course most closely linked to Marx, but it is found throughout post-Marxist big picture scholarship (including my own humble contribution to that literature).
Ricardo Duchesne argues in his new The Uniqueness of Western Civilization (Brill, 2011) that we have it all wrong. History, he claims, is driven by creative people and their ideas, not by the conditions they find themselves in. If you see a bit of Hegel and Nietzsche here, you are not wrong: Duchesne embraces them both (and throws in a considerable amount of Weber to boot). But he goes much further. He trys to demonstrate using the best literature available on a wide variety of topics that the Hegelian-Nietzschian view of historical development is correct. This is not a book of theory alone; it’s an attempt to empirically demonstrate a theory. Even more radically, Duchesne uses the Hegelian-Nietzschian view to argue that since the invasion of the Indo-Europeans, a pastoral people who were imbued with unique aristocratic-warrior ethos, the West has been more creative than other world historical civilizations, and that this creativity explains in large measure the “Great Divergence” that we have seen in modern time.
This is a challenging book, and one that requires study. It is not light reading. But anyone who is brave enough to try to understand what it says will be greatly rewarded. I know I was.
PS: Brill, could you please put out an affordable paperback edition of this book, or perhaps release it in electronic version once it’s been sold to all the libraries that will buy it?