“Big History” Old and New: Presuppositions, Limits, Alternatives

In recent years David Christian and others have promoted “Big History” as an innovative approach to the study of the past. The present paper juxtaposes to Big History an old Big History, namely, the tradition of “universal history” that flourished in Europe from the mid-sixteenth century until well into the nineteenth century. The claim to universality of works in that tradition depended on the assumed truth of Christianity, a fact that was fully acknowledged by the tradition’s adherents. The claim of the new Big History to universality likewise depends on prior assumptions. Simply stated, in its various manifestations the “new” Big History is rooted either in a continuing theology, or in a form of materialism that is assumed to be determinative of human history, or in a somewhat contradictory amalgam of the two. The present paper suggests that “largest-scale history” as exemplified in the old and new Big Histories is less a contribution to historical knowledge than it is a narrativization of one or another worldview. Distinguishing between largest-scale history and history that is “merely” large-scale, the paper also suggests that a better approach to meeting the desire for large scale in historical writing is through more modest endeavors, such as large-scale comparative history, network and exchange history, thematic history, and history of modernization.