From brownh Thu Aug 22 21:33:33 2002
Date: Thu, 22 Aug 2002 21:33:32 -0400
Subject: Re:

Arnold Toynbee and classical political economy

By Haines Brown, 22 August 2002

This is part of a personal exhange with a student and has been edited for the sake of clarity.

> From: “Thurman, Kathy” <>
> Date: Thu,
> 22 Aug 2002 12:59:01 -0400
> Do you have anything by Arnold Toynbee on his adversity theory?
> Kathy Thurman

Unfortunately, what I have on Toynbee has more to do with religion or his concept of civilization than his notion of challenge and response as the engine of historical change.

But I think your concern is an important one. Toynbee assumed that it was the barbarian at the gate (in whatever form that happened to take) which forced civilizations to remain vigorous and inventive. Otherwise, they would slide into lethargy, stagnate or even decline.

There are several very general issues raised by such a perspective. One is that emergence (creativity, progressive struggle, social development) arises because of exogenous factors. This implies an infinite regression, for why do the barbarians have the capacity to launch such a serious challenge unless they themselves were not subject to some external challenge such as a threat from another group of barbarians? The persuasive short-range account really fails to explain anything in the long run.

The only alternative to this infinite regression would be the assumption that the outsiders were essentially (“racially”?) different from the insiders. This raises some other troubling issues. I suspect the consensus today is that people throughout history have been essentially the same.

Another problem is that in the 20th century, we have stepped back from a purely political explanation and see a variety of factors as important in historical explanation. In Toynbee, it is always the political elite that responds to a political challenge in political ways. While political narrative is a quite legitimate historiographical form in short-range historiography, it seems rather narrow and anemic in the context of world history. Also, with our democratic ethos, we also like to see someone other than the elite get some credit for historical development.

Finally, it is hard to miss that his approach tends to be ideological. It is hard to argue on theoretical grounds that potentials are simply realized by bringing the right set of factors into conjunction. The Scottish Enlightenment invented the word rationality to refer to those causal relations that result in an increase in one's own “talents” or resources, and that remains the assumption of capitalist political economy, which have converted the original decription into an explanation.

However, as explanation, it remains problematic and hard to justify. The result of two systems, taken in themselves, brought into conjunction should, in (thermodynamic) principle, be their mutual dissipation. While our experience of daily life appears to be the opposite, when fully understood an engine of development can be discovered. In fact, in Adam Smith' view, new value was not created merely by “trucking and bartering”, but from labor.

I may be biased, but I suspect that Toynbee's adversary theory can only be appealing if someone is already ideologically inclined to see things in terms of the capitalist marketplace, in which new value is realized in the sphere of exchange, in Toynbee through instances of challenge and response.

People have never been particularly enthusiastic about Toybee's conception of history, although admiring his erudition and verbosity. The notion of challenge and response seems merely an application of classical political economy to a new unit of analysis, to civilizations rather than the truckers and barterers. So generally his conception of world history strikes us as contrived and lacking in substance.

Sorry I couldn't be of help.

Haines Brown