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The Pursuit of Truth

The Pursuit of Truth: A Historian's Memoir

William H. McNeill
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    The Pursuit of Truth
    Book Description:

    William H. McNeill's seminal book The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community (1963) received the National Book Award in 1964 and was later named one of the 100 best nonfiction books of the twentieth century by the Modern Library. From his post at the University of Chicago, McNeill became one of the first contemporary North American historians to write world history, seeking a broader interpretation of human affairs than prevailed in his youth. This candid, intellectual memoir from one of the most famous and influential historians of our era, The Pursuit of Truth charts the development of McNeill's thinking and writing over seven decades. At the core of his worldview is the belief that historical truth does not derive exclusively from criticizing, paraphrasing, and summarizing written documents, nor is history merely a record of how human intentions and plans succeeded or failed. Instead, McNeill believes that human lives are immersed in vast overarching processes of change. Ecological circumstances frame and limit human action, while in turn humans have been able to alter their environment more and more radically as technological skill and knowledge increased. McNeill believes that the human adventure on earth is unique, and that it rests on an unmatched system of communication. The web of human communication, whether spoken, written, or digital, has fostered both voluntary and involuntary cooperation and sustained behavioral changes, permitting a single species to spread over an entire planet and to alter terrestrial flows of energy and ideas to an extraordinary degree. Over the course of his career as a historian, teacher, and mentor, McNeill expounded the range of history and integrated it into an evolutionary worldview uniting physical, biological, and intellectual processes. Accordingly, The Pursuit of Truth explores the personal and professional life of a man who affected the way a core academic discipline has been taught and understood in America.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7204-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Chapter 1 From Childhood to World War II 1917–1941
    (pp. 1-44)

    I was born on 31 October 1917 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. That day happened to be the four hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in Germany, and my father, who was then teaching church history at a newly established Presbyterian college in Westminster, B.C., noted that fact with some satisfaction. Later in life I was more impressed by the fact that my birth occurred a week before Lenin inaugurated the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia—a different, and more fleeting, historical landmark.

    These coincidences did not make me into a historian. Instead it was my father’s example....

  5. Chapter 2 From Basic Training to The Rise of the West 1941–1963
    (pp. 45-76)

    When I first put on an army uniform I expected to retain my academic habits and learn Russian in spare time. But lack of a light to read by in the barracks soon made initial gestures in that direction abortive. Altogether, I spent five years and two months on active duty, and by the time of my final discharge in November 1946, I had risen from private to captain. The variety of experiences that came my way was unusual and made me a better historian, not least by giving me insights into aspects of military organization and behavior.

    Basic training...

  6. Chapter 3 From The Rise of the West to Plagues and Peoples 1963–1976
    (pp. 77-104)

    The years between the publication ofThe Rise of the Westin 1963 and the appearance ofPlagues and Peoplesin 1976 were in many respects the apex of my career. I became chairman of the Department of History in 1961, nourishing the ambition of expanding the department to embrace the history of every part of the world. President George Beadle and Provost Edward Levi encouraged me in the attempt, and six years later, when I stepped down, the department had almost doubled in numbers. New fields—Indian, Japanese, African, Mexican, and Ottoman history—and new themes—Black history, European...

  7. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  8. Chapter 4 From Plagues and Peoples to Retirement 1976–1987
    (pp. 105-130)

    These twelve years saw the apex of my professional reputation but were also a time of diminution as our children left home, ties with the University of Chicago weakened, and my physical and perhaps intellectual energies began to decline. My mother died in Vermont in 1970, and my father followed her five years later while visiting us in Chicago. This closed a chapter of my life. Then in 1979 we sold the handsome house on University Avenue that we had bought from Mrs. Enrico Fermi in 1956. That was where my children grew up: home for them and for my...

  9. Chapter 5 Retirement in Colebrook 1987–
    (pp. 131-160)

    In March 1987, I retired from the University of Chicago, with forty years of teaching and variegated participation in the university community behind me. The Department of History arranged a farewell dinner at which Hanna Gray, president of the university, spoke briefly. The whole occasion was marred for me by the fact that I knew by then that world history was not going to continue at the University of Chicago. Michael Geyer, a specialist in twentieth-century German history, had been appointed as my successor, so I concluded that a majority of my colleagues were glad to see me and world...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 161-166)
  11. William H. McNeill Publications
    (pp. 167-174)
  12. Index
    (pp. 175-190)