History of International Relations Textbook

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Unesco and the unity of mankind


Right after UNESCO — the UN’s cultural organization — was established in 1946, they planned to publish a book on the world history of science and culture which was to put an emphasis on the exchange between countries and civilizations, not their uniqueness. Spreading the word regarding the unity of mankind was thought of as UNESCO’s distinct contribution to the prevention of future wars.  Joseph Needham and Lucien Febvre were a part of the project and at a meeting in Mexico in 1947 they wrote up a draft of an outline:

The Scientific and Cultural History of Mankind

1. Humanity’s unity in diversity
2-3. Interchange and communication
4-5. Show what each part has received from the others — undo the “fiction” of a partitioned earth
6, Conclusions & synthesis repeating the above

Nothing came of the project in the end.  The only thing that materialized was a book by Febvre, “International origins of a civilization” (published in 2012 as “Nous sommes tous des sang-melés”). Another result, however, was an invitation from UNESCO to Lévi-Strauss to write about “race and history,” which he did.

Karine Chemla, a historian of science at NYU — most famous for her work in the history of Chinese mathematics — has done research on the UNESCO project, and also collected the various prefaces which Needham wrote to his magistral Science and Civilization of Ancient China, showing how Chinese traditions can be understood in the context of the scientific development of mankind as a whole.

No, we are not engaged in a project of quite this scale — and we are not comparing ourselves to any of these scholars — but we’e doing our little bit. E plurubus unum.

(Thanks to Magnus Fiskesjö for the information, and to Karine Chemla whose talk he listened to at NYU, Shanghai).


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