Thursday, May 16, 2013

Marshall Poe on Ricardo Duchesne's Uniqueness of Western Civilization

Prof. Marshall T. Poe
University of Iowa

In checking out more reviews of Ricardo Duchesne's Uniqueness of Western Civilization, I found historian Marshall Poe's brief summary, with access to an audio interview over an hour in length, so of course, I didn't have time to listen to the entire exchange of views, but I did learn that Duchesne was born in Puerto Rico and moved to Canada as a teenager, attending college in Montreal though never losing his Spanish accent. Here's Poe's summary of Duchesne's views, along with some prefatory remarks:
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 tries to demonstrate, using the best literature available on a wide variety of topics, that the Hegelian-Nietzschean 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-Nietzschean 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.
I'm coming to have a clearer sense of Duchesne's argument, and assuming he's right, we should be reading Beowulf more deeply than we've been doing if we want to really understand the root of Western success, which he argues grows from the "aristocratic egalitarianism of Indo-Europeans," which sounds like a rather paradoxical concept, since "aristocratic" ordinarily refers to a type of elitism, but "egalitarianism" to an ethos of equality.

I'll have to look into this some more . . .

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At 8:55 AM, Anonymous Sperwer said...

I have managed to snag a copy of Duchesne's book for 50 bucks, and will share it with you when it arrives.

At 9:49 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Wow! Doesn't a new copy cost five times that amount? I wonder if the former owner dropped it in the bathwater!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:55 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Or maybe over 2.5 times as much, for I think Kevin made a typo:

"Now on sale on for the low, low price of $133.97 or $268.60!"

Confusing calculation . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Speaking of books, I just received my copy of your BBB book. Now I must find time to actually read it!


At 8:38 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

As Einstein proved, time is money, so I ought to be paying you to read it.

I apologize for the typos in the text -- those happened in the editing process (out of my hands, sort of).

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:52 PM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

The Amazon price is fluctuating, I see, but what I'd written wasn't a typo: the prices were as I'd originally quoted them.

At 2:53 PM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

I can't find my original comment. Where'd it go?

At 4:13 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

It's on a different post.

Jeffery Hodges

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