Arnold Toynbee and Thought Experiments in Civilization

Part of a Series on the Philosophy of History

Nick Nielsen
14 min readApr 14, 2024

Sunday 14 April 2024 is the 135th anniversary of the birth of Arnold Joseph Toynbee (14 April 1889–22 October 1975), who was born in London on this date in 1889.

Toynbee is in the paradoxical position of having an outsized influence and reputation even while both historians and philosophers of history distance themselves from Toynbee’s work and tend to hold him in low esteem. There are some exceptions. An excellent essay on Toynbee’s philosophy of history by a contemporary philosopher is “Toynbee’s Study of History: An ‘Abortive’ Idealist Philosophy of History?” (2017) by Bogdan Ivaşcu. Ivaşcu belongs to a small cohort of Toynbee scholars who keep his work alive, after a fashion.

The ideas of an influential work can form a legacy in a couple different ways. In the religious or traditional paradigm, ideas are maintained in an unchanged form. In this paradigm it is the task of each generation to pass along a revered legacy in its pristine form, without addition, subtraction, or alteration. In the rational or scientific paradigm, ideas become the basis of a research program, in which the essential theoretical motivation is unchanged, but the idea is subjected to every possible kind of variation and development. This is part of what Einstein meant when he said, “No fairer destiny could be allotted to any physical theory than that it should of itself point out the way to the introduction of a more comprehensive theory, in which it lives on as a limiting case.” The same is true for any theory in the social sciences.

We find an indirect acknowledgement of Toynbee’s failure to found a school of thought that could have continued to develop Toynbee’s ideas in MacNeill’s biography of Toynbee:

“Had he been able to create a Cambridge school of world historians, however, his influence might have been greater in the long run.” (p. 209)

Toynbee’s work occupies an awkward middle ground between the two familiar forms of influence I have described. There are the dedicated Toynbee scholars who want to preserve his legacy as a tradition, and there are, as I noted above, a small number of scholars who seek to build on his work. Because Toynbee scholars of both kinds are to be found, they can’t come together into a cohesive scientific research program. Also, there are fundamental elements of Toynbee’s program that are not scientific and cannot be assimilated to a program of research in history or the study of civilizations. In a scientific research program, the unscientific aspects of Toynbee’s thought simply would have to be abandoned, but some find these to be the most interesting or valuable part of his legacy and so will not abandon them.

Many of the criticisms of Toynbee are honest accounts of the unscientific aspects of Toynbee’s thought. Often the scholars that point of these awkward truths about Toynbee are so repulsed by the unscientific elements that it blinds them to what is of value in Toynbee. My own reading of Toynbee began with Walter Kaufmann, who might be counted among those repulsed by Toynbee. I started reading Walter Kaufmann’s books in 1987. The first one I read through was The Faith of a Heretic. Eventually I got a copy of his From Shakespeare of Existentialism, the final two chapters of which are on Toynbee.

I had heard Toynbee’s name before finding it in Walter Kaufmann, but I guess I hadn’t paid much attention to it. For me, this is a familiar pattern. I don’t really notice an author until I run into a strong criticism, and Kaufmann does not hold back on the venom when he tears into an author. Toynbee was no exception for Kaufmann. The next step in this pattern of mine is, once having encountered the criticism, I go to the original to see if it is really as bad as all that. In some cases, I agree with the criticisms that drove me to the original. In other cases, I see that the criticisms have their point, but they have missed much that is of value. In yet other cases, I find that the criticisms were based on a false premise or a misunderstanding, and I often eventually find the original to be far superior to the picayune criticism.

With Kaufmann and Toynbee, again, Toynbee ends up in an awkward middle ground. I still agree with many of Kaufmann’s criticisms, but I have also found much of interest in Toynbee. One place where Kaufmann went wrong with Toynbee, or at least partly wrong, is his repeated claims that Toynbee’s popularity was due to his willingness to tell people what to want to hear. Kaufmann was particularly annoyed by Toynbee’s religious interjections:

“Today there is a wide demand for the integration of knowledge, for ‘a whole view,’ for the supradepartmental course; but surely there is no special virtue whatever in a fusion of poor history with unsound science and wretched poetry, even if it is spiced with ever so frequent references to God.” (p. 390)

This is a rough way to treat an author, but it is accurate and even fair. Kaufmann isn’t entirely wrong, but it is partly wrong, and in being partly wrong it is misleading. Toynbee has just as often been accused to telling people what they don’t want to hear. Pieter Geyl, a consistent critic of Toynbee, called Toynbee a “Prophet of Doom” along with Spengler, to whom Toynbee is frequently compared, and with whom Toynbee is frequently placed in the same category, whatever that category happens to be.

Geyl was in good and abundant company in called Toynbee a prophet of doom and in comparing him with Spengler. We find the following in Henri Frankfort’s The Birth of Civilization in the Near East:

“…the two men who have devoted their life’s work to the problem of the genesis of civilization have done so under a compelling awareness of its decline. Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee both wrote under the shadow of an impending world war; and their work is, to some extent, warped by their preoccupation with decay.”

On the next page, Frankfort makes a more surprising claim:

“Spengler… writes, like Toynbee, under the spell of the nineteenth century and attempts to interpret history in the terms of science.”

Today, Spengler and Toynbee are rarely said to be scientific, and are never condemned for being too scientific, but note that Frankfort not only says that they are trying to be scientific, but also he implies that this is a mistake. I assume that Frankfort was thinking of Buckle — like Toynbee, admired by many and criticized harshly by others, like Lord Acton — in making this criticism of Toynbee’s “scientific” approach to history. For Frankfort, history is not supposed to be scientific. All we can say about this now is that archaeology has change quite a bit since Frankfort’s time. However, Frankfort also is among those, like Kaufman, who says that Toynbee was telling people what they want to hear:

“Toynbee merely projects postulates which fulfill an emotional need in the West into human groups whose values lie elsewhere.”

MacNeill in his biography of Toynbee says the opposite, that Toynbee was engaged in a Copernican project of banishing Western civilization from the center of history, as when he remarks on Toynbee’s “demotion of Western civilization to the status of one specimen among twenty-one “philosophically equivalent” civilizations” (p. 164) and, “his ‘Copemican’ denial of the centrality of national and West European history for the human past as a whole.” (p. 163)

The criticism of Toynbee forms a kind of loosely related network in which we find one cluster of criticisms in one author, another cluster in another author, with still other authors overlap with the first two, but all the criticisms taken together are no more coherent than Toynbee’s work itself. We could say, a bit uncharitably, that an author gets the critics he deserves; Toynbee was a scattered thinker, so he gained scattered critics and scattered criticisms.

With so many criticisms, and such diverse and contradictory criticism, where are we to start with Toynbee? One of the best guides to Toynbee is José Ortega y Gasset, generally remembered as an existentialist, but also the author of a book-length study of Toynbee titled An Interpretation of Universal History, based on lectures from 1948–1949. Ortega y Gasset is that rarest of rare birds, an existentialist with common sense. In his writings, he comes across as clear, good-natured, and even easy-going. Ortega y Gasset is by turns appreciative and critical, which is exactly what we need in reading Toynbee. Ortega y Gasset even gives us a good one paragraph summary of Toynbee’s conception of the origins and development of civilization:

“Toynbee believes he can establish the list of those characteristics or symptoms distinctive of a civilization. The greater part of these, he thinks, proceed, in their existence, in this form: they begin with a Völkerwanderung, a migration of barbarous people, the ‘external proletariat,’ who destroy a preexistent universal state in an earlier civilization; they then inherit from that civilization a universal religion created by an ‘internal proletariat’ of the conquered state. This is followed by centuries of chaos, after which come slow and peaceful centuries of formation. These are then interrupted by centuries of revolt which end in one of those nations subjugating the other, and then creating the atrocious awkwardness of a public power by itself, which is the universal state, a Pax from whence surges, as if gushing from its deep proletarian breasts, a universal religion. These are the filial or derived civilizations, but these date back to six original and primary civilizations which do not inherit from any earlier one.” (Lecture XII, p. 283)

A couple of pages on, Ortega y Gasset says, “These three concepts — Völkerwanderung or the migration of peoples, universal state, and universal religion — are the three fundamental concepts of Toynbee’s thought.” (p. 285) These are the fundamental ideas, but how do they hang together? Thereupon hangs a tale.

It often happens with authors who conceive a great work that things don’t turn out as planned. Gibbon is a rare exception, since he not only carried out his plan, he extended and expanded his plan, and yet he completed the whole thing. One of Gregorovius’ criticisms of Gibbon, and his motivation for writing his own history of Rome, was that Gibbon had departed from his plan, and this is true, but he departed his original plan for a more ambitious plan, which came to full fruition. This is the exception and not the rule. Many authors abandon their plans as their thought develops. Heidegger originally called Being and Time “Part I” but Part II never appeared.

Toynbee’s thought also changed in the writing of his magnum opus. Instead of abandoning the work, however, he kept on publishing additional volumes of A Study of History, but he took a sharp turn. A Study of History appeared in three tranches: the first three volumes appeared in 1934; the next three volumes appeared in 1939; volumes 7 to 10 didn’t appear until 1954, 15 years later, and, in the meantime, Toynbee’s focus and aim had changed. Previously we were given to understand that Toynbee’s great project was to detail the careers of civilizations as the proper objects and units of analysis of historical study. In volume 7, Toynbee reveals that universal states exist only in order to lay the groundwork for universal churches:

“…we shall have first of all to revise our previous tacit and uncritical assumptions about the raison d’etre of civilizations. We shall have to think of the civilizations of the second generation as having come into existence, not in order to perform achievements of their own, and not in order to reproduce their kind in a third generation, but in order to provide an opportunity for fully-fledged higher religions to come to birth; and, since the genesis of these higher religions was a consequence of the breakdowns and disintegrations of the secondary civilizations, we must regard the closing chapters in the secondary civilizations’ histories chapters which, from their standpoint, spell failure as being their justification for existence and their title to significance.”

In other words, civilizations are the womb in which universal churches are brought to term. Toynbee has obviously changed his mind between volumes 6 and 7, sending the work in a new direction, so we see that universal states and universal churches hang together differently in the first six volumes as compared to how they hang together in volumes 7 and after. Toynbee could have pulled the plug on A Study of History and started a new series of volumes, but he chose to keep the series and its title intact, despite the change in direction. We could hail this flexibility, or we could say that he couldn’t admit he was wrong. Take it however you please.

Still, there’s something to be learned here. I value Toynbee’s work on universal churches because it is a rare example of someone who has tried to imagine something that has not happened in history. Usually when we extrapolate the future, we take the present and add, subtract, or modify what has come before. The imagined future is usually bigger and more elaborate than the present, but it is rarely unrecognizably different. But actual history time and again challenges our expectations. The unprecedented occurs, and then we have to adapt our conceptual framework to accommodate the new reality that we failed to see coming. Toynbee’s universal churches constitute an attempt to imagine a post-civilizational institution that could take the place of civilizations, and a future history in which civilizations are not the proper objects of study and units of analysis.

For all that Toynbee has influenced the study of civilization, his views on civilization are pretty weak. He is famous for his list of 21 civilizations is a bit difficult to take seriously. MacNeill in his biography calls this, “…twenty-one fully developed civilizations…” (p. 164; my italics) With the qualification of “fully developed” a term of art is introduced. If Toynbee had a thorough discussion of what constitutes a fully developed civilization, and how to distinguish a fully developed civilization from a civilization that is not fully developed, then his list of 21 civilizations would be more defensible. To his credit, Toynbee does discuss abortive and fossilized civilizations, which are presumably civilizations that are not fully developed, but on his list of 21 civilizations we are supposed to believe that what he calls Syriac and Hittite civilization are fully developed civilizations on a par with India and China. This strains credulity.

The usual way to discuss Toynbee would be to go into detail on some point like this and show how wrong he is. This isn’t an effective method for the exposition of Toynbee, and I don’t think it even gets at what remains valuable in Toynbee. Let us take a different tack. For those who persist in seeing Toynbee as a formidable scholar of history and civilization, it is difficult to explain why the pages of Toynbee’s magnum opus are populated with weirdly imaginative episodes, which explains why so little is said about this in Toynbee scholarship. It seems to me that what Ortega y Gasset calls the architectonic of Toynbee’s work is little more than a pretext for anecdotes and imaginative variations on the theme of history that are the most interesting and amusing part of reading Toynbee. Take this example from Volume 4:

“Let us imagine for a moment that, in the ninth century of the Christian Era, Western Christendom had not been thus happily relieved of the Carolingian incubus by the collapse of the top-heavy building under its own weight. Let us imagine that the Carolingian Empire had lasted on as ‘a going concern’, and that a dynastic appetite for military conquest, which had been whetted by Charlemagne’s own relatively easy victory over the Lombards, had tempted Charlemagne’s successors to take advantage of the recrudescence of the Iconoclastic Conflict at Constantinople in order to lay their covetous Frankish hands upon the outlying provinces of the East Roman Empire in Calabria and Sicily and Sardinia. Supposing that this hypothetical act of Carolingian aggression had unexpectedly precipitated a Franco-Roman hundred years’ war: in this imaginary reconstruction of our Western history in the ninth century of our Era we may conceivably have found a parallel to the unknown events in Hittite history which preceded the establishment of the Empire of Khatti and led on to the hundred years’ war between Khatti and Egypt.”

These imaginative asides aren’t merely amusing, they are potentially valuable; they point to the possibility of a methodology for the study of history and civilization. In this passage, and in many others, Toynbee has constructed a counterfactual thought experiment as an extension of actual events, further suggesting that this counterfactual extension might have resembled the development of another civilization in another place and at another time. There are several conceptual layers to this exercise, any one of which we could isolate and consider in more detail.

We could say that each civilization is an experiment in the possibilities of human social organization. We can’t observe the experiment that is civilization in real time, we can’t replicate the experiment, and we can’t even repeat the experiment under changed conditions. As such, the historical record of these naturally occurring experiments are all we have to go on. We can’t conduct an actual experiment with civilizations, so we require some method other than empirical experimentation. We study the historical record to derive all that can be derived from these naturally occurring experiments in civilization, but we also need to go beyond them. To do so, we need to learn to conduct our thought experiments under controlled conditions, as the experiments of empirical science are conducted under controlled conditions. Therefore, to study civilization, we need to develop a methodology for rigorous thought experiments, and, while Toynbee doesn’t do this, we could say that he points the way by example.

What is of most value in Toynbee, then, is not the great synthetic structure that many have admired and many have criticized, but the experimental and speculative dimension of his project. A Study of History is like the great cathedrals of Europe, which make a show of their structure — Erwin Panofsky compared the flying buttresses of cathedrals to the elaborate demonstrations of Scholastic philosophy — but the most interesting part of which is to wander through the nooks and crannies to find the little surprises that the architect has hidden for the curious observer to find.

Toynbee’s thought, then, is Gothic, not classic. Gilbert Murray, who was Toynbee’s father-in-law, wrote an amusing account of the difference between the classic and the Gothic, in which he caricatures the Gothic mind. This is from Murray’s The Classical Tradition in Poetry:

“While pegging away, month in month out, at my old cathedral, I suddenly conceived the idea of a peculiarly disgusting kind of devil, so I have stuck him in where there was a good vacant space, just over the Virgin Mary. Also, I have heard so much about the richly carved porch that those idiots [the next town over] have just had built, that I have determined to stick in an extra porch somewhere which shall be twice as richly carved. It may not exactly be necessary to the plan; but it will be one more beautiful thing to look at. And, furthermore, if you talk high doctrine to me and say that I should treat my art seriously, I answer that in real life the tragic and the ridiculous, the beautiful and the ugly, are always apt to be mixed up like that. And as for symmetry and order, that is just what you do not get in life. You get lots of beautiful and interesting things, mostly muddled together and fighting one another. So I consider my methods both freer and truer to life than yours.”

One can only imagine the inner and unspoken response of Gilbert Murray, the great classicist, to the elaborate Gothic edifice from which his son-in-law sent him excerpts, hoping for approval from that man who had come to play the role of his surrogate father. Perhaps the complexity of history at the scale Toynbee adopted — which is the temporal scale of civilization — can only be framed by a Gothic mind.