The best books on humankind’s place in history

Brett Bowden Author Of The Strange Persistence of Universal History in Political Thought
By Brett Bowden

Who am I?

The search for meaning in history is all part of the search for meaning in life. Whether archaeologists or historians, economists or physicists, they are not just looking for artefacts when digging in the dirt or scanning the skies, they are looking for evidence to piece together a bigger picture—meaning in the minutiae. I’m sceptical, but the philosophy of history remains a fascinating subject, which is why I’ve explored ideas about civilization, progress, and progressive history in a number of books and articles. My primary concern about teleological accounts of history is that they tend to deny people's agency, especially non-Western peoples.


I wrote...

The Strange Persistence of Universal History in Political Thought

By Brett Bowden,

Book cover of The Strange Persistence of Universal History in Political Thought

What is my book about?

Prominent in Western political thought since the middle of the eighteenth century, the idea of universal history holds that all peoples can be situated in the narrative of history on a continuum between a start and an end point, between the savage state of nature and civilized modernity. Despite various critiques, the underlying teleological principle still prevails in much contemporary thinking and policy planning, including post-conflict peace-building and development theory and practice. Anathema to contemporary ideals of pluralism and multiculturalism, universal history means that not everyone gets to write their own story, only a privileged few. For the rest, history and future are taken out of their hands, subsumed and assimilated into other people’s narrative.

The books I picked & why

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The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

By David Graeber, David Wengrow,

Book cover of The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

Why this book?

This book has quickly become a bestseller and instant classic. Quite remarkable for such a hefty tome. As the title suggests, it is a new history of humankind; and when the authors say new, they mean new. Drawing on a wide range of material from anthropology and archaeology, Graeber and Wengrow set out to turn our long-held ideas about human history on their head. The traditional narrative of a neat step-by-step linear history is called into serious question. The alternative interpretations of the historical record are fascinating. Not every reader will be convinced by it all, some won’t be convinced by much, and some will likely be outraged. No matter, you cannot help but admire the ambition and originality of the undertaking.


Europe and the People Without History

By Eric R. Wolf,

Book cover of Europe and the People Without History

Why this book?

This is another important work by an anthropologist challenging the genealogy of the West and its ideas and institutions. It exposes the myth of history as a supposed moral success story: ancient Greece… Rome… Christian Europe… Renaissance… Enlightenment… liberal democracy… the pursuit of happiness, etc. Wolf systematically highlights why this is a flawed and fraught notion, especially for those people who do not fit neatly into the schema.


Art, Politics, and Development: How Linear Perspective Shaped Policies in the Western World

By Philipp H. Lepenies,

Book cover of Art, Politics, and Development: How Linear Perspective Shaped Policies in the Western World

Why this book?

I love the way this book brings together two seemingly unrelated topics, art, and socio-political organization, to offer a new perspective on the development of human societies—linear, of course. The policies and practices of development agencies do not just draw on the latest fads of economics, rather, our thinking about the shape and trajectory of ideal societies has long been influenced by the way we quite literally see and perceive the world.


New Worlds for Old: Reports from the New World and Their Effect on the Development of Social Thought in Europe, 1500-1800

By William Brandon,

Book cover of New Worlds for Old: Reports from the New World and Their Effect on the Development of Social Thought in Europe, 1500-1800

Why this book?

We know that the arrival of Europeans in the Americas had significant impacts, many of them negative, on the peoples of the New World. Encounters with Amerindians were also highly influential in shaping ideas about human development and universal history. It was not a one-way street, however, reports from missionaries, trappers, explorers, soldiers, and settlers about what they saw in the New World served to challenge and shape the thinking of Europe’s intellectual elite, especially concerning Native American ideas about freedom, equality, and community. Thirty-five years after the publication of this book, Graeber and Wengrow returned to the idea of “Indigenous critique” for one of the more contentious sections in their New History


The German Conception of History: The National Tradition of Historical Thought from Herder to the Present

By Georg G. Iggers,

Book cover of The German Conception of History: The National Tradition of Historical Thought from Herder to the Present

Why this book?

It is difficult to settle on just five books; I include Iggers here because this book transcends its primary subject, German historiography. It offers an insight into some of the key thinkers that have helped to shape predominant and pervasive thinking about human progress and socio-political development. Thinkers such as Kant and Herder, Hegel and Schiller. It is important to have a good understanding of the foundations of a train of thought, and Iggers knows his subject matter well and astutely highlights the various strengths and weaknesses. 


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