Karl Jaspers, the Axial Age, and a Common History for Humanity
By Ricardo Duchesne
From the nineteenth century through the 1960s and 70s, World History books did recognize the varying accomplishments of all civilizations in the world, but most authors and teachers took for granted the fact that Europeans deserved more attention particularly in view of their irrefutable influence on the rest of the world after their discovery of the Americas, development of modern science and global spread of modern technology.
But this Western-oriented teaching was increasingly rejected by historians who felt that all the peoples of the earth deserved equal attention. A major difficulty confronted this feeling: how can a new history of all humans — "universal" in this respect — be constructed in light of the clear pre-eminence of Europeans in so many fields?
It soon became apparent that the key was to do away with the idea of progress, which had become almost synonymous with the achievements of the West. The political climate was just right, the West was at the center of everything that seemed wrong in the world and in opposition to everything that aspired to be good: the threat of nuclear destruction, the prolonged Vietnam War, the rise of pan-Arabic and pan African identities, the "liberation movements" in Latin America, the Black civil rights riots, the women's movement.
More than anything, the affluent West was at the center of a world capitalist system wherein the rest of the world seemed to be systematically "underdeveloped" at the expense of the very "progression" of the West. Millions of students were being taught that the capitalist West, in the words of Karl Marx, had progressed to become master of the world "dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt".