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Book Review


Cole, Adrian and Stephen Ortega. The Thinking Past: Questions and Problems in World History to 1750. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Glossary, Illustration Credits, and Index. Pp. ix + 545. $54.95 (paper).


     As an overview of the human story from prehistory to the year 1750, The Thinking Past is a good text. Adrian Cole and Stephen Ortega manage to write their world history capably, maintaining a narrative flow as they guide the reader through history in a conversational tone. The story is never lost.

     Considering the monumental undertaking of writing a world history, this is no small achievement. The authors are required to master dozens of diverse areas of history as well as relevant contributions from the sciences, knowing that it will be impossible to satisfy the specialists in any of these areas, and at the same time they must identify common threads that represent great environmental, cultural and technological forces moving through all history.

     In this respect, the organization of The Thinking Past is the book's strongest feature. Each chapter focuses on a question of particular concern in world history, e.g., "What does trade do?", "What role did technology play in cultural exchange and expansion?", etc. The authors discuss the controversies surrounding each question and contextualize their discussion in terms of issues that remain unresolved and open to interpretation. They manage to balance theme versus chronology by focusing on case studies in each age. For example, in the chapter "What is an empire?", which continues the story of classical antiquity from the previous chapter, the examples of empire are roughly contemporary and represent diverse regions: the Mediterranean Romans, the Han Chinese, the Persian Achaemenids, and the Mauryan dynasty in India.

     Another strength of The Thinking Past is the deployment of challenging questions throughout the text. Many of the questions are impressively brave and intelligent and provide students with a chance to consider implicit assumptions about the past and the human condition. They include some classic ones, for instance asking if the shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture has been a good thing or a bad thing for humanity. The authors take this one step further and ask if it's been a good thing for planet Earth. Another remarkable example of a question put to the reader is if the European Renaissance was truly the turning point it is portrayed as, or whether this is hyperbole produced by Eurocentric attitudes.

     The authors make an effort to introduce the reader to a wide range of significant historians and researchers by providing their arguments on various issues, although I didn't always understand the rationale behind their selections. They rely more heavily on some scholars than others, such as historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto or political scientist Francis Fukuyama. Fukuyama is a good example of the problem with this: he is cited on some matters of which he is not a leading specialist, for example he is quoted on why China remained 'despotic' in contrast to the West, and cited on the definition of sovereignty.

     There's nothing terrible about that, but they represent missed opportunities to introduce other scholars of interest, such as Jonathan Spence on China or Immanuel Wallerstein on sovereignty. In addition, it's worth pointing out that Fukuyama's judgement has been called question, even within his own field. His "End of History" theory, that the domination of liberal democratic values in our present age represents an end to ideological struggle (that is, the end of 'historical' struggle), boils down to the unoriginal claim that the world we presently live in must be the terminus of history, the best of all possible worlds. This claim is contra to what the study of world history tends to reveal, that that the human story is following an uncharted course towards an unknown destination by means of an infinite number of possible variations and developments.

     Another point I would challenge the writers on is the decision to end the book with a discussion of the uncertainties of the human future. It's clear their intent is to provide the instructor with a basis for a final discussion that wraps up the course. But because the text ends at 1750 and never arrives at the present day, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to finish with the future. The book is written for a course which takes a sweeping overview of tens of thousands of years, across dozens of cultures and geographies; it would have been worthwhile to stop and look back rather than forward, to take in the view as it were. After absorbing so much fascinating information, it would be more productive to ask students to describe how their sense of the past has changed, and subsequently their sense of human civilization too.

     Ortega and Cole write in the introduction that they hope to generate a "sense of wonder" in their readers (xxiii). "A sense of wonder" is a rather standard platitude, suggesting profundity but more often than not meaning a moment or two of elevated interest from individuals usually not interested in history to begin with. In its deeper meaning, "a sense of wonder" describes a transformative experience, because the student's perception of life itself has changed. I remember my own introduction to world history, reading H.G. Wells' Outline of History as a young man. Prior to reading a world history, I had no clear sense of the human story. I, like most people, had read selectively based on my interests. A few books on the Second World War, of course, and some others on historical events that had captured my attention for one reason or another.

     As I read I developed a growing sense that the human story was neither simple nor black and white. It is full of unresolved contradictions and mysteries. It is made of violence and tragedy, and creativity and bravery. At the borders of one vast and complex society are dozens of others. The achievements of one so-called superior culture are humbled to their place on a single twig of the great tree of civilization when lined up beside the achievements of many others. Taking in the view, I had the impression that something far from mundane was driving the human species, although what that was and where we are headed has yet to be revealed. I came to understand that I was an inheritor and a participant in this extraordinary story. This is what "a sense of wonder" means to me. I found that same sense was produced in me again as I read The Thinking Past, a significant achievement.

Steven Henry Martin is an alumnus of Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, with a Master's in History. He works as a freelance journalist and mental health worker. He can be reached at


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