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Georgetown Professor Explores Myths of Prehistory in New Book

Are our beliefs about prehistoric and small-scale societies based on evidence or prejudice? In a new book, Georgetown University in Qatar (GU-Q) Professor Karl Widerquist explores the ways that contemporary political philosophers have spread unverified beliefs about prehistory.

Written in conjunction with Grant S McCall, an associate professor at Tulane University, Prehistoric Myths in Modern Political Philosophy delves into claims about the benefits of modern societies that are often passed on without question or critique. Drawing upon evidence in the fields of archaeology and anthropology, it investigates the commonly held beliefs surrounding matters such as the state of nature, the origin of property, the origin of government, and the primordial nature of inequality and war.

The book, the first in a two-part series, is the result of Widerquist’s long-held interest in the claims made about prehistoric societies. He explained:

I have always been fascinated by the gap I see in our common knowledge of prehistory. You read a lot about the human evolutionary period, and you read a lot about the rise of early literate civilisations, but 200,000 years passed between the first appearance of fully human people and the rise of the first states.’

‘Although anthropologists have learnt a great deal about this period, contemporary philosophers and social scientists often treat it as the stuff of myth.’

He added:

I’ve always been unhappy with how ready so many people are to make pronouncements about life in this period, how little responsibility they feel to provide evidence for those pronouncements, and how ready they are to use those pronouncements to justify something in the present day.’

This interest led to further exploration into the field of anthropology, with the idea of writing an academic paper on the topic. But as Widerquist explained:

The short article grew into a long article, and then a book, and finally into a two-book series. After presenting an early draft of the work at a seminar in New Orleans, Widerquist met McCall, whose research interests include archaeology and the early and Middle Stone Age, and the two decided to work together on the project.’

The author hopes that the book will help readers understand that ‘philosophy’s 2000-year-old effort to root out common prejudice from our beliefs about the world is far from complete’.

People still pass on many claims without question just because so many other people have passed them on without question.

Widerquist, who teaches political philosophy at GU-Q, holds a doctorate in Political Theory from Oxford University and an additional doctorate in Economics from the City University of New York. Prehistoric Myths in Modern Political Philosophy is the seventh book he has written or edited, with the majority of his previous research focusing on distributive justice.

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