Journal Reco: Globalization and Global History in Toynbee

Image by via Flickr


This article traces the intellectual history of Arnold J. Toynbee. It centers on early twentieth-century British social thought and its synthesis of idealism and evolution. Toynbee used this framework to interpret imperial and international affairs, and, like his mentors, he focused especially on the unprecedented, progressive possibilities of global integration. With the failure of the Paris Peace Conference, however, Toynbee began to regard globalization as a contradiction between social unity and spiritual disjuncture. A Study of History, his endeavor to bring historical writing into its global present, followed from this opposition, which he sought to explain and hoped to resolve. By the mid 1930s, world events finally overwhelmed Toynbee’s commitment to the old conceptual synthesis. He returned to such thinking after World War II, but his brief declaration of methodological limitations illuminated for historical study the antinomy of the global scale.

Universal history must be construed and denied.

To many world historians today, Arnold J. Toynbee is regarded like an embarrassing uncle at a house party. He gets a requisite introduction by virtue of his place on the family tree, but he is quickly passed over for other friends and relatives. For much of the twentieth century though, Toynbee was perhaps the world’s most read, translated, and discussed living scholar. His output was enormous, hundreds of books, pamphlets, and articles. Of these, scores were translated into thirty different languages. In 1947, Time magazine considered his historical significance to be on par with Marx.2 Among intellectuals, response to his work was de rigueur. Indeed, the critical reaction to Toynbee constitutes a veritable intellectual history of the midcentury: we find, for example, Aron, Frye, Huxley, Kennan, Kracauer, Kroeber, Morgenthau, Mumford, Niebuhr, Ortega y Gasset, Popper, Ricouer, [End Page 747] and Sweezy, as well as a long list of the period’s most important historians, Beard, Braudel, Collingwood, and so on.

A survey of these responses consistently reveals odd contradictions between positions. In recent historical work, for example, Reba Soffer aligns 1930s-era Toynbee with Britain’s “radical right,” while Christopher Brewin describes his politics of the same period as “progressive liberal.”3 In Toynbee’s own time, two of the most sustained attacks came from E. H. Carr and Pieter Geyl, each in a certain way the inverse of the other. Carr translated the Marxist critique of bourgeois moralism into his study of international relations; he assailed Toynbee’s “utopian prescriptions” as so many alibis for British national interest. And as in Marxism, spotlight on the furtive particular in turn revealed a sturdier universal, in this case, what Carr called “the nature of politics.” Geyl, on the other hand, read Toynbee’s “impossibly universalist system” not as façade for a specific concern, but as its disintegration; he deemed Toynbee’s world history as an attempt to “escape” the uniqueness of the West. Toynbee’s “passion for unity,” Geyl wrote, was “fundamentally antagonistic to history, the guardian of the particular.”4 So which was it: the camouflage of self-interest or an ecumenical hallucination? And which was the corrective to Toynbee’s grand failure? Naturalism or historicism? Siegfried Kracauer shook his head: “There is something schizophrenic about Toynbee.”5

One approach toward understanding this contradiction can be found in Karl Löwith‘s brief comments on Toynbee in Meaning in History. All modern temporality, according to Löwith, was an “inconsistent compound” of ancient Greek cyclicality and a Christian theology of history. In addition, the latter’s eschatology endowed the historical process with “universality,” evoking above every smaller narrative the single, imagined identity of “mankind.” With this broad phrasing, Löwith fittingly characterized the two-sidedness of Toynbee’s thinking,[End Page 748] but he left unattended Toynbee’s struggle against a categorical universalism.6 Löwith’s high degree of abstraction offers little to the historiographer assessing world history and the varied circumstances that have contributed to its diverse formulations. My own reading stays considerably closer to the text. For in understanding Toynbee, philosophical generalization, like a quick dismissal, misses the struggles and contradictions in his attempt at world history. These break points help elucidate the history of the field, as well as the history of global thought and twentieth-century intellectual currents more generally. Perhaps too, they present to contemporary world-historical thinking an insight of value, even as Toynbee’s system has long stood in ruins.

The basis for Toynbee’s historical logic, and the source of its core difficulty, derived from a set of ideas which are best described as “evolutionary idealism.” One of the dominant trends in early twentieth-century British social thought, evolutionary idealism sought to combine Darwinian naturalism and teleological purpose, two positions hitherto locked in debate. Writers applied this synthesis to questions of imperial affairs, and it underscored much of the era’s thinking on the globe and its history. From this conceptual framework, Toynbee reckoned that the single most significant feature of his age was world integration, a “unification [that] . . . has caught in its meshes the whole living generation of mankind and all the habitable lands and navigable seas on the face of the Planet.”7 Indeed, Toynbee’s entire career as historian and political analyst can be read as a massive reflection on what came to be called globalization. His earliest such writings fully mirrored the evolutionary idealism of his educators. Yet this outlook faced a serious challenge in the immediate aftermath of World War I. The strains of colonial violence and worldwide turmoil fragmented teleology into a multiplicity of beliefs and interests. Toynbee persistently and loudly emphasized this problem of difference. At the same time, and throughout the interwar years, he remained committed to evolutionary idealism and strained to refashion it for the new, polycentric world. Both his rationale and his method for a history of the globe followed from that effort. The contradictions, however, could not be contained, and by the late 1930s, internal adjustments appeared inadequate. With the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and the attendant fiasco at the League of [End Page 749] Nations, Toynbee renounced his previous position. For a brief but significant moment, he neither synthesized nor hybridized the unity of the globe and its diversity of ideals. World integration rendered the universal and the particular into categories at once interdependent and irreconcilable, at once complementary and contradictory. After World War II he returned to the principle of synthesis with ever new and ever unsatisfactory attempts at reconciliation. Across Toynbee’s reception then, as in Carr and Geyl, his key concepts hopelessly chased each other in circles. Yet this indetermination anticipated in a uniquely interrelated way some of the major philosophical and historiographical currents of later years, expressing the irresolvability of postmodernism, the renewed interest in religion, and world history itself.

Read more: Michael Lang. “Globalization and Global History in Toynbee.” Journal of World History 22.4 (2011): 747-783. Project MUSE. Web. 25 Nov. 2011. <;.


One thought on “Journal Reco: Globalization and Global History in Toynbee

Join the conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s