Arnold Joseph Toynbee

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Arnold Joseph Toynbee

Arnold Joseph Toynbee was in the twentieth century the foremost contemporary representative of what is sometimes termed “speculative philosophy of history.” In some respects he occupied a position analogous to that of Henry Thomas Buckle in the nineteenth century.

Like Buckle, he sought to discover laws determining the growth and evolution of civilization and to do so within the context of a wide comparative survey of different historical societies; like Buckle again, the results of his investigation became a storm center of controversy and criticism.

To support his hypotheses, Toynbee, however, was able to draw on a vast fund of material of a kind unavailable to his Victorian predecessor, and the imposing examples and illustrations in which his work abounds make Buckle’s much-vaunted erudition look strangely threadbare. As a consequence, Toynbee’s historical theory is worked out in far greater detail; in fact, it represents a highly articulated and complex structure with many ramifications and appendages.

progressive development
progressive development

Moreover, the materialist optimism underlying Buckle’s linear conception of history as a continuous progressive development is wholly absent from Toynbee’s analysis of the rise and decay of different cultures, while, in place of Buckle’s positivistic rationalism, there runs through all Toynbee’s work, especially his later books, a strain of mysticism and religious idealism.

Toynbee was educated at Balliol College,Oxford, and was a tutor there from 1912 to 1915. Subsequently, he became professor of Byzantine and modern Greek language, literature, and history at London University (1919–1924) and then for thirty years held the post of director of studies in the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

He wrote on a wide variety of topics concerning Greek history, international politics, and contemporary affairs, but his main work was his A Study of History, the first ten volumes of which were published between 1934 and 1954.

major revision
major revision

As of 1967, two other volumes appeared, the last, titled Reconsiderations, being largely an attempt to meet points raised by his numerous critics and, where he has thought it necessary, to qualify previous claims in the light of their objections. Toynbee always listened carefully to those who have disagreed with him, although he has apparently never felt that their observations justified any major revision of his views.

A Study of History

Toynbee claimed that his project was first suggested to him when, at the beginning of World War I, he became aware of certain striking affinities between the courses taken by the Greco-Roman and modern European civilizations.

It occurred to him that similar parallels might be discernible elsewhere, that there is, as he puts it, “a species of human society that we label ‘civilisations’” and that the representatives of this species which have thus far appeared on this planet may exemplify in their various histories a common pattern of development.

Study of History
Study of History

With this idea forming in his mind, Toynbee came across Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West, in which he found many of his own intimations affirmed and corroborated. Nevertheless, it seemed to Toynbee that Spengler’s account was defective in important ways.

The number of civilizations examined (eight) was too small to serve as a basis for safe generalization; little attempt was made to explain why cultures rise and decline in the manner described; and, in general, Spengler’s procedure was marred by certain a priori dogmas that distorted his thinking, leading him to display at times a cavalier disregard for the facts.

What was required was a more empirical approach, one in which it was clearly recognized that a problem of explanation existed and that the solution of this problem must be in terms of verifiable hypotheses that can stand the test of historical experience.

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empirical approach

THE PATTERN OF HISTORY. Toynbee repeatedly referred to his own method as essentially “inductive.” His aim (initially, at least) was to “try out the scientific approach to human affairs and to test how far it will carry us.”

In undertaking this program, he was insistent upon the need to treat as the fundamental units of study “whole societies,” as opposed to “arbitrarily insulated fragments of them like the nation-states of the modern West.”

In contrast with Spengler, he claimed to have identified twenty-one examples (past and present) of the species “civilization,” though he admitted that even this number is inconveniently small for his purpose—“the elucidation and formulation of laws.”

respective histories
respective histories

He argued, however, that a significant degree of similarity is discernible between the careers of the societies he examined and compared; certain stages in their respective histories can be seen to conform to a recognizable pattern too striking to be ignored, a pattern of growth, breakdown, and eventual decay and dissolution. Within this pattern certain recurrent “rhythms”may be detected.

When a society is in a period of growth, it offers effective and fruitful responses to the challenges that present themselves; when in decline, on the other hand, it proves incapable of exploiting the opportunities and of withstanding or overcoming the difficulties with which it is confronted.

Neither growth nor disintegration, Toynbee holds, is necessarily continuous or uninterrupted. In disintegration, for instance, a phase of rout is frequently succeeded by a temporary rally, followed in turn by a new, more serious relapse.

Pax Romana

As an example he cited the establishment of a universal state under the Augustan Pax Romana as a period of rally in the career of the Hellenic civilization, coming between a time of troubles which, in the form of revolutions and internecine wars, preceded it and the first stages of the Roman Empire’s final collapse, which followed in the third century.

Toynbee contended that clearly comparable rout-rally rhythms have manifested themselves in the disintegration of many other civilizations, such as the Chinese, the Sumerian, and the Hindu. In these, too, we encounter the phenomena of increasing standardization and loss of creativity that were apparent when the Greco-Roman society was in decline.

HISTORICAL MODELS. Toynbee’s tendency to interpret the history of other civilizations in terms suggested by that of the Hellenic culture is marked, and many of his opponents have claimed that it has led him into imposing artificial schemes upon the past and into postulating parallels by no means borne out by the historical material. In his most recent work Toynbee has shown himself to be sensitive to criticism of this kind.

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Hellenic culture

He has maintained, however, that for an investigation of the kind he envisaged it was at least essential to start with a model of some sort, his chief doubts being whether the model he chose was ideally suited to his purpose and whether a future student of the comparative history of civilizations would not be better advised to employ a diversity of specimens, rather than a single example, to guide his inquiries.

However, it is not clear that in proposing this amendment to his original procedure, Toynbee has fully appreciated the principal points at issue. He still seems to be searching for some single pattern of interpretation to which the histories of particular societies can be seen to stand as specimen cases, and in so doing, he overlooks two considerations, both of which have been stressed by various critics.

First, he continues to leave obscure the question of how the identity of a given civilization is to be determined. This is by no means a trivial matter, since in his practice Toynbee has often given the impression of identifying civilizations by reference to the very principles of development that in other places he has claimed to have elicited purely through an empirical survey of their actual careers. He thereby exposes himself to the charge of treating as factual discoveries what are no more than disguised tautologies.

#Sculpin in soft #coral
explanatory device

Second, it has been argued that insofar as the term suggests an explanatory device capable of rendering intelligible a certain range of phenomena, Toynbee’s references to models in the context cited are misleading.

To maintain that a number of other societies have tended to follow a path significantly similar to the course taken by a selected specimen is by itself to explain nothing; at best, it is to point out that there is something requiring explanation—namely, the existence of the similarities in question.

But although such an objection has force, Toynbee has, in fact, attempted to account for the correlations he believes himself to have discovered. He is not, as some have alleged, content simply to enumerate like instances and has always taken the problem of seeking explanations seriously.

disintegration of civilizations
disintegration of civilizations

Thus, when trying to account for the disintegration of civilizations, he has invoked such notions as the “intractability of institutions” and the “nemesis of creativity,” as well as pointing to the development of “internal” and “external” proletariats and of “dominant,” as opposed to “creative,”minorities.

Whether the explanations he has sought to provide are plausible or convincing is, of course, another matter. Frequently, they seem to involve an appeal to laws too vague to afford adequate support, and at other times Toynbee enlists the services of highly dubious or irrelevant analogies. He also tends to treat literary or folk myths as if they in some way gave evidential backing to his generalizations.

ORDER OR CHAOS. In defending his position, Toynbee has frequently attacked what he calls “antinomian historians,” upholders of “the dogma that in history no pattern of any kind is to be found.”

the whole system
the whole system

He has argued that to deny the existence of patterns is implicitly to deny the possibility of writing history, for patterns are presupposed by the whole system of concepts and categories a historian must use if he is to talk meaningfully about the past.

But patterns of what sort? Toynbee sometimes implies that it is essential to choose between two fundamentally opposed views. Either history as a whole conforms to or manifests some unitary order and design, or else it is a “chaotic, disorderly, fortuitous flux” which defies intelligible interpretation.

As examples of the first he cites the “Indo-Hellenic” conception of history as “a cyclic movement governed by an Impersonal Law” and the “Judeo-Zoroastrian” conception of it as governed by a supernatural intellect and will.

the rise and fall
the rise and fall

A combination of these ideas appears to underlie Toynbee’s own picture of the human past as it finally emerges in A Study of History, particularly in the later volumes, where the suggestion that the rise and fall of civilizations may be susceptible to a teleological interpretation is explicitly put forward.

It would seem, however, that Toynbee has posed his dilemma in altogether too simple terms. There are a number of familiar ways in which historians may be said to reduce the material of history to order and coherence, none of which involves the acceptance of all-embracing beliefs regarding the historical process as a whole of the type he instances.

Of course, if the notion of the intelligibility of the past is initially defined in a manner that presupposes the validity of such beliefs, it is possible to accuse historians who deny that it is necessary or even legitimate to adopt them of making nonsense of their subject. But why, it may be asked, should such a stipulation be accepted?

human history
human history

REPUDIATION OF OLDER SCHEMES. In fact, Toynbee does not really intend to advance so exclusive a claim. He does not deny that historians may be able to make sense of particular segments of human history without being committed to universalistic positions of the sort mentioned, imperfect and incomplete though such explanations must ultimately be judged to be.

He does, however, strongly suggest that the piecemeal approaches and categories of traditional history leave much to be desired, applying to them such terms as archaic, infantile, and crude. Here, possibly, lies the true source of his objections to “antinomianism.”

He wishes to condemn the old structures and clich├ęs, the worn axioms unconsciously assumed in conventional historical thought. In particular, he is critical of the lines along which historians have been prone to cut up the past, both geographically and temporally.

lily by Dmitry Arhar
Middle Ages

He distrusts the artificial cohesion they have projected into certain periods through the use of comprehensive simplifying labels like “the Renaissance” and “the Middle Ages,” and he questions the unity and self-sufficiency implicit in their conception of “European history.”

It is, of course, perfectly acceptable to appraise and seek to revise the conceptual schemes of previous historians in the light of fresh empirical knowledge and discoveries, but it is quite another thing to propound a general theory of historical development which appears in its final form to rely heavily upon extrahistorical considerations and preconceptions of a metaphysical or religious kind.

Toynbee has perhaps never sufficiently appreciated the force of this distinction; even so, it would be churlish not to recognize the imaginative fertility, the sheer inventiveness, which is so marked a feature of his system, whatever its shortcomings in other respects.

social scientists
social scientists

A Study of History is rich in methodological suggestions and contains a profusion of original interpretative concepts and frameworks. Whether any of these will be found of value by future historians or social scientists remains to be seen.

Freedom and Law in History

A word may be said about Toynbee’s views regarding the future of Western civilization and their relation to his general theory. He frequently speaks as if Western society were in an advanced state of breakdown; at the same time he repeatedly shows himself unwilling to draw the conclusion that it is in fact doomed to final disintegration, and he speaks of the possibility of a “reprieve” granted by God.

The “determinism” implicit in his thought when he is seeking to apply “the scientific approach to human affairs” tends thus to conflict with the “libertarian” principles to which he claims to subscribe when discussing the nature of human actions and which are connected with his own metaphysical and religious beliefs.

logical difficulties
logical difficulties

The later volumes of the Study display a persistent uneasiness over this apparent contradiction, yet it cannot be said that the efforts he has made in these volumes to reconcile the roles of law and freedom in history have proved satisfactory. Rather, they serve to highlight the logical difficulties that had already revealed themselves at earlier stages in Toynbee’s work.
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