The 2017 Toynbee Prize Lecture: “Arnold Toynbee and the Problems of Today” (Jürgen Osterhammel)

The 2017 Toynbee Prize Lecture:
Arnold Toynbee and the Problems of Today”

Professor Jürgen Osterhammel (University of Konstanz)

January 6, 2017
Annual Convention of the American Historical Association

It is one of the greatest possible privileges for a speaker to give a surprise address under nothing but a formal title. Today: “The Toynbee Lecture”. This precious opportunity not to be constrained by a topic chosen many months in advance and to present one’s work and thought almost at the moment of creation allows me to share a few vague and fleeting ideas with you. In this lecture, gratefully overwhelmed by an award that is much too big for someone who is anything but a “typical” global historian and who represents no particular tendency or school, I am going to take Arnold Toynbee as my guide.

The same role might have been played by several others on the list of illustrious recipients of the Toynbee Prize: by Christopher Bayly in whose memory I had the sad privilege to speak in Cambridge last June; by Dipesh Chakrabarty whose turn to issues of climate will become even more urgent and important in the future (as will John McNeill’s work in environmental history); by Ralf Dahrendorf whose books I have been reading continuously since 1968 and whose lectures I followed at the LSE in 1977; or by Raymond Aron who was one of the most astute observers of the twentieth century. Aron, perhaps even more so than the other scholars und intellectuals mentioned, was a truly universal mind – in the universe of universalisms the very opposite of Toynbee, though there were certain proximities in their respective comments on their own age.

I will be playing, if you forgive this conceit, Dante to Toynbee’s Virgil leading the way. Rather than confront you head-on with my own ideas about what global history is or ought to be, I will let my thoughts pass through the prism of the work of a master, a master remote and strange enough not to keep me in intellectual bondage. In other words: not my master.

My chosen title is “Arnold Toynbee and the Problems of Today”. It echoes one of the greatest, though nowadays almost entirely unknown, essays ever written in German by an economist and sociologist. In 1926, Joseph Alois Schumpeter published a long article entitled “Gustav von Schmoller und die Probleme von heute” where he paid tribute to the influential Nationalökonom and economic historian. Proceeding from his homage, he then used motives from Schmoller’s work to shed light on a contemporary scene that had changed dramatically since the time of Schmoller, who had died during World War I.

Arnold Toynbee in Context

The Toynbee Foundation is no Toynbee Society. It is not devoted to celebrating the memory of the great man. Most of you probably don’t care very much for Toynbee. It may therefore not be inappropriate to remind us of who Arnold Toynbee was and what he stood for.

In the late 1960s, Toynbee, born – with Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Charlie Chaplin and Adolf Hitler – in 1889, was a world-famous public intellectual and widely, especially in the United States, hailed as the greatest historian alive. A few British and Dutch critics were decidedly of the opposite opinion and accused Toynbee of sloppy work und megalomania. His main claim to fame was the completion, by 1961, of his twelve-volume A Study of History, altogether more than 7,000 pages. However, being incredibly erudite and having the stamina for a multi-volume work, that carried a nineteenth-century work ethic over into a more hectic and nervous age, is probably not enough for immortality.

Bulk is one of the more vulgar attributes of scholarly production. Outside Germany where until recently quite a few professorial careers have been capped by massive trilogies (or worse), the reading public has lost patience with shelf-bending monuments. The only mega work that still enjoys an undiminished and well-deserved reputation is Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilisation in China, a work of such powerful momentum and potential that it keeps propagating long after the principal author’s death.

It may, incidentally, be taken as a discouragement from such excessive onslaughts on readers’ precious energy and time that some of the greatest minds of the past hardly ever finished a proper monograph. Leibniz, Max Weber, Wittgenstein or Isaiah Berlin belong to this distinguished category, and quite a few historiographical masterpieces – not just Theodor Mommsen’s history of imperial Rome – have never been committed to paper.

Toynbee’s merits as a world historian cannot be seen in isolation from his global celebrity. Yet, the one does not explain the other. Many world historians languished in obscurity, and books of the very first order have failed to reach a wider audience. Conversely, a Behemoth work (of a similar size as Toynbee’s twelve volumes) like Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization, published between 1935 and 1975, was a great favorite with the public. The Durants were free-lance authors with a liberal and quasi-Enlightenment message. Their well-documented volumes sold much better than Toynbee’s, one reason being that the authors possessed an ability that Toynbee also had, though he did not make much use of it in A Study of History: the ability to write well and to tell nicely crafted stories. The Durants’ ten fat volumes, a kind of history of Europe projected on a global canvas, have never been considered first-rate historical writing, although their impact on audiences in many countries must have been immense. One looks in vain for them in the historiographical literature.

A third example complicates the picture: the youthful work of another great humanistic scholar and Toynbee’s peer in many respects, Ernst Gombrich’s A Little History of the World (first published in German in 1935, and in the current American edition with Yale University Press comprising 280 pages – four per cent of Toynbee’s work in terms of pages, much less in terms of words), remains an unfading classic. Originally written for children, it has in no way damaged Gombrich’s reputation as one of the leading art historians of the twentieth century.

What explains Arnold Toynbee’s unique status as the only world historian other than Fernand Braudel among the recognized giants of twentieth-century historiography? The contrast to Fernand Braudel is revealing. Braudel (who died in 1985, exactly ten years after Toynbee) shared with Toynbee a dislike of narrative history and the history of political events. They both pursued a certain theoretical ambition. Toynbee devised a scheme for understanding world history as such, which he decided to begin with the Sumerian Empire. Braudel was much more cautious. Apart from his semi-popular book Grammaire des civilisations (1963), he limited himself to three or four centuries.

Just like Toynbee who began as a specialist on Ancient and modern Greece and who ended his career with a scholarly work on Hannibal and his legacy, Braudel started out as a historian of the Mediterranean. The second edition (1966) of his book on the Mediterranean World in the 16th century arguably remains his greatest work. Braudel reached out to the world rather late, only with his trilogy Civilisation matérielle, économie et capitalisme (XVe–XVIIIe siècles) published simultaneously in 1979 when the author was 77. At age 84 he modestly returned to French history with yet another three-volume work. Whereas Toynbee offered a key to almost all history, Braudel’s theoretical contribution was much more modest and focused: Firstly, La Méditerranée provided a model of how to analyze a large geographical space where several civilizations coexisted and interacted. Models are always easier to apply and to adapt than theorems and even general laws. This explains why a Braudelian perspective was highly influential and could easily be modified for the study of other seascapes and, in general, vast spaces all over the world. Toynbee never had this kind of impact on concrete research. He had followers but few disciples. There seems to have been not a single first-rate monograph in Toynbee’s footsteps – compared to Kirti Chaudhuri, Denys Lombard and many others making creative use of Braudel’s suggestions.

Secondly, Braudel was influential with two other simple, but potent models, that are basically useful distinctions rather than elaborate theories: on the one hand the differentiation between three layers or orders of time with their specific paces, and on the other a model of ranges of action and experience upwards form every-day life to the great “wheels” moving the world economy. Thus, Braudel who never forced detail under the yoke of dogmatic schemes (as Toynbee was sometimes – by no means always – tempted to do) was aware of the local-global problem and developed a sense of “glocalization” long before that term existed.

Thirdly, Braudel in his ripe old age struck up a mutually beneficial collaboration with a rising star of sociology: Immanuel Wallerstein who was Braudel’s junior by 28 years. Wallerstein’s first (and foundational) volume of The Modern World-System appeared in 1974. It had taken on board ideas that Braudel had developed in a kind of pilot volume to his later trilogy of 1979: Civilisation matérielle et capitalisme, published in 1967. Braudel in turn referred to Wallerstein in his trilogy. The dialogue between the two went on until the French master’s death and deserves further study.

The comparative point to make is that Toynbee, too, had a theoretical bend of mind, but, despite his insatiable appetite and capacity for reading, failed to team up with the social sciences. Admittedly, that would have been more difficult in the Britain of the 1920s, the time when Toynbee developed the basic ideas of his great enterprise. British sociology was backward compared to the European continent, and even geography (so important for Braudel) was of limited use. Even so, Toynbee’s lack of interest in authors from neighboring disciplines (apart from archaeology and religious studies) is astonishing.

I see him as a very good historical sociologist who had the misfortune to fall under the spell under Oswald Spengler, a philosophical mediocrity with high pretensions and a patchy knowledge of history. (Shockingly, according to data bases, Spengler remains the most frequently cited German historian, especially abroad.) Until his last interviews, Toynbee expressed his admiration for Spengler’s vision of rising and dying civilizations. While criticizing the Munich prophet’s biologistic language and disagreeing with his right-wing political views, Toynbee remained loyal to Spengler’s idealistic Geschichtsphilosophie that inhabited an intellectual island remote from the exciting sociology, ethnology and economics all around it. This identification with a particular kind of philosophical speculation about the past (and the future) isolated Toynbee from the social sciences and deprived him of vital intellectual inputs. It also nourished a self-identification as a philosopher that became stronger over the decades.

The mature Braudel remained a historian with far-reaching interests beyond the confines of his own discipline, powerful as an academic mandarin and one of the heads of the Annales school – as a member of the Académie Française firmly entrenched at the pinnacle of French culture, in short: a multiply embedded scholar. By contrast, during the last two or three decades of his life, Arnold Toynbee presented a highly paradoxical picture.

He was widely revered, even hyped, as the world’s foremost historian. Yet, few of his colleagues agreed with that assessment. He was certainly not a historian’s historian. At the same time, only a handful of his admirers are likely to have penetrated the dense prose of his principal achievement – volumes 1 to 6 of A Study of History, published between 1934 and 1939. He was famous for the wrong reasons.

Whereas Braudel was a man of the cultural establishment, Toynbee half endured, half cultivated the role of an outsider, compared, for example, to a quintessential insider like George Macaulay Trevelyan, the best-selling doyen of British historical studies in the first half of the 20th century. Toynbee was never appointed to a big chair in the British university system (the Stevenson Chair at the LSE of 1948 was more or less a formality) or a leading position in an Oxbridge college. He taught very little and had hardly any influence on academic pupils. He was never awarded a knighthood as his contemporary Lewis Namier was, or a life peerage like the cultural historian Kenneth Clark, also a Toynbee Prize winner.

Still, his views were solicited world-wide, and he commented on any topic under the sun. I still keep a clipping of an interview on the Biafra crisis that he gave to DER SPIEGEL, Germany’s leading political magazine, in August 1968. In statements like these, he neither spoke as a world historian nor as a philosopher of history but rather with the undefined authority of a universally competent sage. We young students did not care for him. Our long path toward world history or global history did not begin with studying Toynbee. We read Karl Marx, the philosophers of the Frankfurt School, American civil rights activists, Frantz Fanon, Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, US critics of the war in Vietnam, and the early dependencia theorists. That was my generation’s earliest exposure to political globality. Here we face Toynbee’s last paradox: He was omnipresent in the media, but not many people listened to him any more.

Toynbee’s Fragile Success

Coming back to the still unanswered question: What accounts for Toynbee’s success?

First of all, Mr Somervell. A two-volume abridgement of A Study of History, cleverly done by the English schoolmaster David Churchill Somervell on his own initiative was the true key to Toynbee’s world-wide fame. This slimmed-down, though still door-stopping version sold very well, was translated into many languages (whereas there seems to have been not a single complete translation of the twelve volumes) and has remained in print ever since the publication of the first volume in 1946. Still, one of those Toynbeean paradoxes prevails.

Even Somervell’s space-and-time-saving digest is a difficult book – “putdownable” for those who believe world history should be a thing to enjoy. Earning the eternal gratitude of the serious reader, Somervell – no doubt with the author’s consent – preserved the original structure of the work. What he discarded were volumes 10 to 12 and 4.000 pages of material from the other volumes. A brief glance at the intricate table of contents reveals that this is not a narrative world history from Sumer to Harry Truman’s America. The book is arranged systematically in a way requiring careful study and puzzling the unprepared reader. It is hard to imagine what to expect behind chapter headings such as “The Stimulus of Hard Countries” or “The Mechanicalness of Mimesis”. This enigmatic attraction, as we might call it, must have drawn a certain type of adventurous reader right into a book that presents itself as some kind of enchanted garden with mysteries behind every bush.

Why such a complex theoretical work became a bestseller among the less adventurous as well is not difficult to explain. Somervell’s resistance to popularization put the abridgement in a relation to the original like that of a bottle of brandy to a cellar full of good white wine. In other words, you get the value at a fraction of cost and effort. Whether read or resting untouched on the shelf: the high-proof digest preserves the mystique of the original. This also implies the advice to the Toynbee novice to tackle Somervell with a good conscience. His one thousand pages are indeed the essence of Toynbee’s work. From here, it is absolutely no problem to turn to the full version and go deeper into any matter of personal interest. Inversely however, the success achieved by the good history master at Tonbridge School casts a shadow on Toynbee’s own skills as a writer of history and theory. Imagine anyone condensing Edward Gibbon or Marc Bloch, Chris Bayly or Natalie Zemon Davis! So much for the size and oversize of books and, by the way, for the supreme artistry that makes Gibbon’s more than 3,000 pages a perennial pleasure to read.

My second argument also has a general core. It raises a question that can (and should) be directed at any kind of history writing, the question of its location in its own time, its place in life (“Sitz im Leben”). Historical research and writing does not only evolve within autonomous academic institutions. It responds to contextual demands and ideally addresses an audience outside academia. Reading Hervé Inglebert’s new history of world histories – I am referring to his magnificent book Le monde, l’histoire: Essai sur les histoires universelles (2014) – one contemplates the problem (not thoroughly discussed by Inglebert himself) of the social and cultural circumstances under which the globalification of historical writing (a generic term I use for “global turns” in various discourses) is likely to occur.

It would be a naive mistake to think that global history simply reflects globalization in the real world. When, where and why did waves of historiographical globalification emerge, and how did they ebb away and vanish? Why that first golden age of European world history writing from Voltaire to Hegel? Why the great revival of the 1990s of which we still form a part?

One should not hope for any general rules, but a few observations concerning Toynbee are possible. Toynbee started to work on A Study of History in 1921, and he completed the series after the interruption by the Second World War. He was a post-catastrophic writer twice over, responding to the two most devastating disasters in modern world history.

The two historical situations differed. After 1918 two sentiments were characteristic for intellectuals in Western Europe. The first was the impression of a general decline of Europe vis-à-vis other parts of the world. Oswald Spengler was only the most melodramatic representative of that view, but no one drew the consequence of a rejection of Eurocentrism more radically than Toynbee, and he did it in a remarkably tough-minded mood and without the lamentations of the Spengler camp.

The other attitude was a widespread disillusion with technical progress that, after all, had led to industrial warfare of unprecedented destructiveness. Other writers, Heidegger for example, threw themselves into extended critiques of instrumental reason. Toynbee, in contrast also to H. G. Wells, simply marginalized in his conception of history what Marx had called “the means of production”. His vision of history revolved around growth without progress. Technical, political and moral progress had ceased to serve as a passepartout to world history.

Toynbee thus threw overboard the entire progressivist intellectual baggage of the 18th and 19th centuries without losing himself in metaphysical pessimism. In this sense, the 1930s volumes of A Study of History were a major analytical statement. Although he emphasized the clash of civilization that he had personally witnessed between Greek and Turks in the Eastern Mediterranean, his politics were those of liberal internationalism. The was a League of Nations man until, as William H. McNeill points out in his splendid biography, the spring of 1936, when Britain and France abandoned Ethiopia to Italian aggression.

After 1945, and especially after 1954 when volumes 7, 8 and 9 appeared (11 was to be an atlas and 10 und 12 somewhat lame conclusions and responses to his critics), Toynbee became a global celebrity less on the strength of new insights than of his Stakhanovite reputation and his ubiquity as a lecturer, broadcaster and author of innumerable short pieces for which he found time in retirement from 1955 onward. Since there was no upswing of world history after 1945 comparable to the 1920s (a strange phenomenon still to be investigated), Toynbee virtually found himself alone in the field. Who nowadays remembers his few competitors, people like Christopher Dawson? Toynbee was “Mister World History” and everyone turned to him for the broadest possible picture.

His personal mood and also that of the period in Western Europe and the United States was much more optimistic than after 1918 – despite an even more violent war. “Civilization” with a capital “C” had survived its mightiest challenge and was now set to bloom in a peaceful age. The errors of the Versailles settlement would not be repeated, and the emancipation of the colonies was regarded by the serene world historian as a natural course of events. Toynbee was no hardliner in the Cold War and considered Soviet Russia to be a civilization in its own right. Of course, he was no socialist. He offered a comprehensive world-view suitable for liberals and moderate conservatives in the US-dominated West. The integrative scope of his vision – Big (or biggish) History avant la lettre – in a way distracted from the horrors of the recent past and assigned everyone a legitimate place in the great drama of civilizational evolution. This is why he had many admirers in West Germany. For some, Toynbee’s ideas served to counter the only other historiographical grand design pitched at the same level of generality: the Marxist drama of class struggle, modes of production and imperialist exploitation. Yet, intellectual Marxism had been bled white under Stalin’s tyranny and offered few attractions until the rise of a less arid neo-Marxism in the 1960s.

Toynbee, this is my second point in explaining the extraordinary resonance he found late in life, said many critical and incisive things about specific topics; he never lost his well-trained ability to interpret international politics. But he mainly enjoyed a kind of Olympian harmony with the dominant mood in the post-war West. His prominence may have exceeded his influence, and not always did his wisdom suffice to give satisfactory answers to the very big questions that his numerous interviewers loved to put to him. He did not always retain the enormous intellectual precision of Raymond Aron, Lord Ralf Dahrendorf or, another Toynbee Prize winner, George F. Kennan. The public had difficulty following his preoccupation with religious universalism and a world state: no doubt a noble vision, but one where he drew on personal spirituality rather than on the scholarly authority of the professional historian who feels uncomfortable when he moves too far away from his sources.

It is a matter of debate, how we judge this almost unique public performance. The historian as sage and as councillor to the powerful has not disappeared from the scene. Alexander Dugin in Putin’s Russia is such a figure, preceded by the slightly less sinister Lev Gumilev. And Henry Kissinger is still active as an oracle. How many world historians appeared in the Obama White House, how many will be summoned to Trump Tower? How many will run their own TV shows? Arnold Toynbee personified the dilemmas of the historian in the media and on the marketplace. On the one hand, the humanities desperately need spokespersons who prove the usefulness and legitimacy of “soft” disciplines to people who have no time to read books. If they fail to reach those people (which seems more than likely), they should speak up critically in the public forums accessible to them. On the other hand, handling the media rather than being handled by them is tricky business. Even Toynbee, the media virtuoso disguised as a quaint English professor, would surely have struggled today.

Let me add a personal observation to these remarks on historians and politics. Germany may lag a little behind the United States in the development of global history studies. Therefore, this observation probably does not fully apply to the US. The current generation of our (German) PhD candidates and postdocs is the first, that comes to global history without a strong political motivation. Their interest originates from inside a fairly well-established sub-discipline. They have been socialized within research programs, they design their work as “projects” and know where to present their papers and publish their articles. In short, they follow the path-dependency of firmly established research routines and are thereby the beneficiaries of specialization and professionalization. They live in the academic cocoon. This enables them to produce work far superior to what was possible thirty years ago. For them, Arnold Toynbee is an antediluvian figure.

He became a world historian because he wanted to preserve peace after two world wars. My generation, born sixty or seventy years later than Toynbee, arrived at global history via twisted and highly individual paths. We were not trained as global historians as that specialty did not exist in German universities, and even the history of Asia and Africa was seldom taught in history departments. We had primarily a political motivation, call it an “extrinsic” impetus, that did not emerge from inside academia. What impressed us was the end of empires, the attempt of new nations to establish viable societies, persistent misery in the global South, military dictatorships in Latin America, China’s course of international autonomy and, above all, the Vietnam War that ended in 1975, the year when Arnold Toynbee died.

For us, non-Western history was “Third World” history; it was a political project originating at a time when as yet nobody talked about “globalization”. This kind of global history antedated the internet, the collapse of communist rule in Russia and Eastern Europe, and the economic rise of China. It had nothing to do with an old-style world history of the so-called “great civilizations” and it was absolutely free from any Rise-of-the-West triumphalism. Quite to the contrary: Looking from Europe towards Asia in the 1970s, one could not avoid a strong feeling of “rise of the East“: Japan’s economic miracle, Vietnam’s military victory, China’s position of independence between the superpowers, the sudden bargaining power and affluence of oil-producing Arabia, the toppling of a Westernizing client-regime during the Iranian Revolution of 1979. All these were exciting developments we wanted to understand. Those among us who got a chance to do that professionally, were happy that at some point someone invented the glamorous label “global history” and made academic life at the margins of the discipline a little easier for us.

The three Professor Toynbees

Arnold Toynbee reinvented world history less as a feat of compilation than as a serious intellectual enterprise. His massive tomes are useless for checking facts and figures; a great number of canonical topics are left undiscussed. They basically contain an empirically based philosophy of history that has to be judged by the quality of its reasoning alone. For an author, this is a risky strategy to pursue. In the end, Toynbee’s harshest critics have claimed, he combined the worst of two worlds: bad history and bad philosophy.

There were three different Toynbees: (1) the sage of the last twenty years of his life, (2) the constructivist master of world-historical comparison of the 1930s, and (3) the analyst of the contemporary scene which he became through the publication of his first book in 1915 and which he somehow remained to the last. Toynbee the Director of Studies at the British (later: Royal) Institute of International Affairs – his bread and butter job from 1925 to 1955 – prevented Toynbee the Historian from getting lost in the endless depths of world history. He always kept an eye on the twentieth century.

Toynbee No. 2, the author of volumes 1 to 6 of A Study of History (published in two batches in 1934 and 1939), would have been a worthy recipient of the prize named after him. In those volumes he showed himself a social science historian, developing his own brand of historical sociology, uneasily camouflaged as a philosophy of history. As you have long understood, my counterfactual dream is that Toynbee might have read Max Weber.

Explicitly or implicitly, Toynbee has raised many questions that continue to be relevant, even if most of his answers do not satisfy us any more. His deficiencies jump from the page after the briefest immersion in his texts: He had little use for economic history in a technical sense. He wrote before the great upswing of social history. Eschewing the tools of Marxist or Weberian social analysis, he lacked a convincing approach to analyzing “societies” (a word he uses frequently) rather than “civilizations”. He devoted two volumes of A Study of History to contacts between civilizations, and it is a caricature to say that he studied cultures as isolated monads the way Spengler did. But this interested him much less than it does today’s global historians, and he theorized it somewhat narrowly – though innovatively in the 1930s – as “the impact of external forces” and the encounter with “the Modern West”. What is perhaps the defining concept of global history – dynamic connectivity – lay outside his intellectual horizon. The notion of “circulation”, in his time mostly used in medicine and economics, was left unexplored – as it was until about twenty years ago.

To do him justice: How could someone who started his career with a thorough examination of the relations between Greeks and Turks ever neglect encounters? He was a trained expert on classical and modern Greece, but his sympathy for the Turkish side cost him his first professorial appointment. Writing his best books in the 1920s and 1930s with a keen sensitivity for the world around him, all his experience prevented him from being a naive ideologue of the rising West. Nobody since Gibbon had studied dissolution and breakdown with a greater seriousness.

Toynbee did not really care for globality as such: His preferred levels of analysis were intermediate structures, large spaces, civilizational ecumenes, empires. Many of us, too, feel more comfortable with such units than with the planet as a whole. His geographical coverage was patchy: South America and Subsaharan Africa rarely caught his attention. This, too, should be seen as a pardonable sin, and it reflected the state of archaeological and ethno-historical knowledge in the 1930s. Good world history and global history does not bow to the vulgar demand for encyclopaedic completeness.

Toynbee was a cultural historian with a sense for much more than just elite culture. Whereas the mainstream of 19th-century Historismus, that offspring of German idealist philosophy, had excised nature from history, narrowly defined as a story of unfettered human agency and individual choice, Toynbee brought it back in, writing comprehensively on climate and environmental determinants. His most famous concept – “challenge and response” – is a simple environmental model. He is incomparably more materialist than Spengler and the Kulturphilosophen in Spengler’s footsteps, people such as Alfred Weber, Max Weber’s brother. Thus he remains largely immune to those essentialist fantasies, popular in the early 20th century, that attributed “souls” or “physiognomies” to individual cultures or even endowed them with “racial” characteristics – though, it has to be admitted, some of his remarks on “race” betray the spirit of his time.

A Few Systematic Questions

In short, while unsuitable as a blueprint for global history, Toynbee’s work addresses questions of lasting importance. Let me briefly discuss a few of them.

Firstly: Krishan Kumar, in a thoughtful reassessment published three years ago, recommends Toynbee, above all, as a theorist of “civilization”, much more sophisticated than the crude Samuel Huntington who made that somewhat stale concept fashionable again. My own response would be, that we have moved beyond a simple mapping of humanity, past and present, in terms of a set of “great civilizations”. Toynbee was honest and playful enough to admit that he arrived at different numbers whenever he started counting his civilizations: sometimes twenty-three, sometimes thirteen, or anything in between. He did not really care.

But the general problem has not changed since Toynbee’s day: What are suitable units of global history if we want to avoid the nation-state? I somehow managed to do without “civilizations” in my own book The Transformation of the World (2014). Yet, we often need some kind of macro-unit, perhaps, faute de mieux, “civilization”. In that case, two major theorists provide more refined concepts than Toynbee: S. N. Eisenstadt and Jóhann Páll Árnason (whose comments on Toynbee are full of insight).

Secondly: the temporal framing. Nowadays one receives e-mails from demanding readers: “I enjoyed your book on the 19th century. But why didn’t you start with the Big Bang?” Well, Toynbee would have faced this with gentlemanly composure. The time scale was not an a priori problem for him, no matter of fundamental belief. The famous conductor Sergiu Celibidache used to say, a little whimsically, that tempo in music was a function of the musical structure. Likewise for Toynbee – and this seems to be a sensible point of view – the problem at hand decides about temporalities. He studied civilizations. Where else should he begin than with the first cities? Unlike Braudel, Toynbee has no original theory of historical time. He did not need one.

A third issue concerns methodology. World history since the time of Spengler, H.G. Wells and the inter-war Toynbee has struggled hard to overcome its fatal image of irresponsible dilettantism – dilettantism being the naive accumulation of knowledge regardless of its origin and validity. The problem is not just one of scholarly critique and correct scientific methods. It has far wider ramifications and concerns world history more than any other kind of history.

The popular book market, history magazines and the various media from television to internet games, abound with crude world history, ranging from the trivial to the lunatic. To this day, world history is a favorite verbal and visual idiom for myth-making, panic mongering and conspiracy theories. We should know and confront this fantasy world that many of us only meet through questions from popular audiences, who believe in evil empires and pharaonic curses and have been told that the Chinese discovered Australia and that Charlemagne never existed.

Until the Herculean labours of William H. McNeill and Fernand Braudel, the respectability of world history remained in doubt. Toynbee himself was attacked from many quarters as a waffling fraud, and it is (by the way) amazing how readily he conceded ground to his critics. That academic world history managed to pull itself out of this quagmire is due to several factors. One is that it now uses the full range of possible primary sources, and that it successfully applies the normal methods of the historical sciences and adheres to their standard methodologies. World history, as Raymond Grew pointed out a long time ago, gained respectability by not being special.

However, this can only be one half of the story. The other half concerns the peculiarities of world and global history. Are there methods and approaches characteristic of and, perhaps, unique to world history, or in this context more precisely: global history, methods created or refined in this particular subdiscipline? Might they even be exportable to other fields? Can non-global historians learn from them? Is there a methodological surplus to be gained by taking a global view?

Toynbee is not completely reticent about methodology, although he never treats it in a systematic fashion: that was something to be left to R. G. Collingwood, his exact English contemporary. Volume 1 of A Study of History begins with a reflection on “the relativity of historical thought”, and later in the book Toynbee digresses on the “comparability of societies”. Both chapters still repay reading. They open debates that have never ended.

The “relativity” of historical thought was no original discovery. Already the German Enlightenment author Johann Martin Chladenius had developed a theory of “Sehepunkte”, and 19th-century hermeneutics was keenly aware of the epistemological problem of perspectivity. Toynbee discusses it within a decidedly post-World War I context. His powerful critique of national conceptions of history establishes a close connection between national visions of history and the kind of nationalist and self-centred politics that led to the catastrophe of 1914. Acknowledging the relativity of points of view is a methodological and, at the same time, moral, pedagogical and political corrective against ethnocentrism. Before the War, Toynbee memorably says in 1934, nation-states and other “communities” had “an aspiration to be universes in themselves” (AStoH, I,15). Nowadays they must learn to see themselves as “parts of some larger universe” (ibid.). The world historian should help both national historians and the reading public to overcome their dangerous narrow-mindedness.

Toynbee’s politics, more hinted at than made explicit in the early volumes of A Study of History, is similar to that of Marc Bloch in his famous address “Pour une histoire comparée des sociétés européennes” which he delivered at the International Congress of Historical Studies at Oslo in 1928. Bloch combined his methodological case for comparison with the hope, that talking about variants of a common European experience would transform the “dialogue among the deaf” (as he put it) into a genuine exchange across borders. He himself later compared European and Japanese feudalism as an example of relating independent occurrences of similar phenomena to one another. Bloch and Toynbee shared an interest in comparison at several levels, and it might be fruitful to read their programmatic texts of 1928 and 1934, respectively, in parallel. Comparison is best understood looking at the practice of comparative historians. Those who expect Toynbee to compare systematically between his various “civilizations” will be surprised to discover that he does nothing of the kind. One does not find anything in his work resembling the carefully laid-out comparison between Ancient Greece and China of which Geoffrey Lloyd at Cambridge (UK) is such a great master. I would describe Toynbee’s procedure (one hesitates to call it a “method”) as a kind of fast-moving change of contexts in the service of generalization. Amazingly, it reminded me faintly of my own practice – in The Transformation of the World, though not in other books – of micro-comparison across varying distances. Since I had not read Toynbee for decades, some mysterious subliminal force must have been at work.

Today, the vigorous debates between comparatists and champions of transfer analysis are over. In the late 1990s, the transfer faction seemed to have carried the day. The consensus now apparently is, in the words of Sebastian Conrad, that “comparative history in recent years has taken a global turn as well, and indeed there are no inherent contradictions between the two approaches” (2016, 39). In historiographical practice, however, the problem of balance reasserts itself. As soon as attempts are made to integrate world history (understood as a comparative history of discontinuous phenomena on a planetary scale) with global history (as a history of connections), fine-tuning is necessary between static and dynamic factors. Comparative thinking prefers observable structures of a certain stability; relational thinking favors flux and dissolution, metamorphosis and hybridity. To bring the two together is possible but difficult.

Since this particular problem is more pronounced in global history than in other fields of historical (and in general: social science) inquiry, it may be one of those specificities mentioned before. Even more than in the past, the methodology of global history should focus on a theory of dynamics and motion, of speed, acceleration and retardation, of unilinear and reversible processes, of flows, counterflows and the non-flowing. This moves far beyond Toynbee and requires the kind of cooperation with the social sciences that he himself neglected.

I am not a theorist and I am happy to leave to those better qualified than me the challenges of historical theory. A few final remarks may suffice.

Toynbee was pilloried by his contemporary critics for having invented his own terminology: “challenge and response, withdrawal and return, blows, pressures, standardization, disintegration, cataclysm”, and so on. In the eyes of a good historicist (in the sense of Historist) this was a sin against the spirit. The historian’s language had to keep as close as possible to the sources, more precisely: the historian was a mediator between the language of the sources and the language of the educated reading public in her or his time. It is difficult to imagine the shock caused by the bombshell of Toynbee’s initial volumes. Three decades before, the much more restrained Karl Lamprecht had been ostracized for similar reasons. To be sure, both innovators had produced readable prose; their terminology should not be confused with jargon. From our present perspective, the riddle is easily solved: Toynbee offered social science history, and the modern social sciences from Adam Smith via Comte, Marx and Spencer to Toynbee’s contemporaries (whom he ignored) based their very existence on terminological innovation. Toynbee’s analytical language was idiosyncratic and few of his key concepts have caught on. Even so, he made a laudable effort, absolutely worth discussing. That such a discussion did not take place, is a major missed opportunity in twentieth-century historiography.

Historical studies, beyond Historismus, are dependent on terminologies that they borrow from economics, sociology, psychology, anthropology, cultural geography, political science, law, and, recently, also from the natural sciences. They then have to adapt those concepts to their own specific needs. Global history, for example, profits from a critical and selective appropriation of the language of globalization studies.

The very concept of the “network” comes along with heavy theoretical baggage and shouldn’t be used in a merely metaphorical way. From time to time, imaginative historians themselves are successful as terminological innovators and introduce such seminal concepts as “the frontier”, “the invention of tradition”, the “gunpowder empire”, the “Columbian exchange” or “the industrious revolution”. Toynbee would have felt comfortable in their company.


The Toynbee of the 1930s (whom I earlier called “the constructivist master of world-historical comparison”) is closer to us than the Toynbee of the 1950s and after – “the sage”. He surely does not rank among the greatest classics to whom one returns time and again. He is no Tacitus, Gibbon, or Marc Bloch. Some of his books deserve a few more readers, though not his problematic last work Mankind and Mother Earth. My personal favorites, next to the early volumes of A Study of History, are an account of a journey to East Asia in 1929/1930 and a collection of essays on current affairs: Civilization on Trial, published in 1948. One of his late books containing dialogues with Japanese interlocutors carries a title that is of obvious urgency in January 2017: Surviving the Future.

Toynbee lived through two world wars. He took part in the Paris Peace Conference and chronicled the emergence of the second big war at close quarters from his office at Chatham House in London. He alerts us to the burning issues of war, peace and the military which not prominent enough in current global history. It certainly was in a Toynbeean spirit that William H. McNeill wrote his book The Pursuit of Power. Looking at the contemporary scene, Toynbee would be puzzled about the marginalization of organized violence in today’s global history studies. Likewise he would be surprised that global history and international history have parted ways. For some readers, a long chapter in my Transformation of the World on international orders and war appeared as a redundant relic of an out-of-date type of historiography. It is nothing of the kind. The most pressing problems of global significance – above all, climate change and nuclear armament – cannot be solved by the benign working of global governance alone. They still require the old instruments of inter-state diplomacy. Toynbee knew all about it. So did Raymond Aron and George F. Kennan, and so does Sir Brian Urquhart – at age 97 the oldest living member of our imaginary Toynbee Prize club.

Great women and great men are most impressive when they remain down to earth. I once invited Professor Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt (who spent a few days at the University of Konstanz) to my class. We expected the most eminent living sociologist to make some grandiose statement about theory or the world as such. Instead, he brought along the morning paper and immediately started up a conversation with the students about the frontpage news. It is hard to imagine how Arnold Toynbee would have behaved in a similar situation. What is certain is that, until his final years when he was really old, he rarely succumbed to pomposity and over-generality. That is a temptation, of course, not for young researchers who are the ones to take global history forward, but for superannuated professors past a certain age.

I remember a world historian talking on a radio panel. When he was asked to comment on last year’s European refugee crisis, the answer was: “Well, there have been population movements throughout history. Societies have mostly coped, and sometimes they have not.” This sort of cloudy wisdom from stratospheric detachment will not do. The generalist Toynbee would have been much more incisive. He did his duty as a commentator and as an educator of the public. And it is with his encouragement that we should now turn to the task ahead: surviving the future.

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