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Arnold Toynbee's philosophy of history between anthropocentrism and theocentrism


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Durmišević, Behija. (2015). Arnold Toynbee's philosophy of history between anthropocentrism and theocentrism. PhD Thesis. Filozofski fakultet u Zagrebu, Department of Philosophy. [mentor Veljak, Lino].

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Arnold Toynbee is one of the most important representatives of the modern philosophy of history. Through his main work, A Study of History, he influenced a whole generation of historians, sociologists and philosophers. An initial approach to Toynbee’s texts already shows that one of the most important points of his research expresses the attitude that smallest intelligible fields of historical study were whole societies and not arbitrarily insulated fragments of them like the nation-states of the modern West of city-states of the Greco-Roman world. Another important point of the author’s research relates to the history of all societies belonging to species called civilisations, which the author discusses as parallel and, in a certain sense, contemporary processes. At the very beginning of considering Toynbee’s theory of civilisations, it becomes evident that the author introduces the categories of geneses, growths, breakdowns and disintegrations as the key determinants of the respective processes. The issue of how long a civilisation has lasted or will last has no particular theoretical relevance in these contexts. What is important here is the fact that the cycle theory offers an interpretation of the past arising from the validation of the present, converging to a particular image of decadence and criticism of Eurocentrism. When considering civilisations, the author first discusses the notion of history, which he defines as a common term for huge currents of life for which linguistic differentiation introduces terms of a higher order such as: Sumerian civilisation, Egyptian civilisation, Mayan civilisation, Andean civilisation, Islamic civilisation, etc. His further discussion explicitly offers three significant features of the notion of civilisation. Here, Toynbee defines civilisation as: a) smallest but intelligible field of study, b) common ground between individual fields of action of different people, c) representative of a separate species of society.Toynbee defines society as: a) the total network of relations between human beings, b) a system of relations between individuals, c) a field of action, where the source of any action is in individuals making the society. At the theoretical level, Toynbee devotes considerable attention to the emergence or rise of civilisations. He dismisses both the race and environment theories as ridiculous and delusional. For, simply put, civilisations emerged in various geographical and social conditions – the Nile Valley saw the rise of Egyptian civilisation, the jungle saw the Mayan civilisation, the plateau the Mexican one, the archipelago the Minoan civilisation, while continental conditions saw the rise of the Chinese and Indian civilisations. According to Toynbee, the cause of the genesis of civilisation is not at all simple but complex, not an entity but a relation. Consequently, the true meaning of the genesis of civilisation can be understood by grasping its deepest mechanism that, according to Toynbee, is reflected in the challenge-and-response process placed in the man-geographical environment context. This idea plays the crucial role in Toynbee’s understanding of the course of human affairs. In an attempt to explain the essence of the challenge-and-response mechanism, emphasising that it is a relation between the internal and external factors, Toynbee says that, in the language of science, the function of the external factor is to offer a stimulus to the internal creative factor, which would incessantly provoke creative variations. Consequently, environment arises as a challenge that civilisation is a response to. According to Toynbee, there are six civilisations resulting from this mechanism. They are also the primary civilisations: Sumerian, Egyptian, Minoan, Chinese, Mayan and Andean. Toynbee paid considerable attention to another way of the rise of civilisations. Its essence is reflected in the secession of the proletariat from the previous civilisation. Generally, according to Toynbee, the term proletariat includes all displaced persons, refugees, dislocated and deported persons, no matter how highly endowed or distinguished they may be. The category also includes mercenary soldiers, no matter how highly paid, all subdued peoples and all rebels. Thus, when in the course of development, a creative majority, having for quite a while expressed readiness in effective actions to the welfare of all the members of a society, becomes stunted and turns into a dominant minority that is static by definition, the existence of universal principles that shape a common basis of universal religions, while particularities of religions mostly result from differences in cultural circumstances of their development. Furthermore, this picture of the universe strengthened Toynbee’s belief that the physical world of phenomena is not the only reality and that non-material reality is above it. The physical world is only a shadow of a higher reality that cannot be experienced through senses as the senses can simply not grasp it. Its essence is testified to by the human spirit and intellect. Related to this is also the position that people are an image of this dual reality, where the physical body is subject to the laws of physics, birth and death, while the other aspect of human existence is not subject to decay or disappearance but, rather, identical to the intellect or spirit representing its soul. In the modern West, maintains Toynbee, this other aspect of reality is often forgotten and neglected. Toynbee’s image of the universe also sends the message that man has an often neglected predisposition for intuitive perception of the absolute truth and nature of reality. This awareness is the man’s ultimate goal, while the search for it and its perfection are largely the purpose of human existence. This ultimate reality is most usually called God, who represents the absolute principle that everything springs from and that everything returns to. In religions such as Buddhism, Jainism or Taoism, the Absolute can, in a certain sense, be distinguished from that in religions such as Abrahamic ones, but the fundamental principle remains the same. Thus, according to Toynbee, religious tradition represents the roots of a single tree with branches rich in spiritual, intellectual and cultural experience of peoples from all the Earth's meridians. Toynbee’s impressive work A Study of History has attracted readers’ attention for decades. Its value is not only in the magnificent and voluminous historical image of the world but also in a number of lucid insights on the essence of the Western civilisation. Toynbee emphasised that one of the reasons he undertook to write A Study of History was intellectual revolt against the egocentrism of Western civilisation. In many a passage of the work, the author tried to present the equal value of all civilisations and people that made them. He believed and stressed that, by the nature and purpose of existence, members of all the civilisations were equal. With regard to criticism that he underestimated the size and originality of the West, Toynbee replied that he was a Westerner and that he appreciated the Western civilisation but,at the same time, he stressed that, alongside its bright achievements, there were also dark sides to this civilisation. In this regard, he stated that the modern times were marked by the triumph of power: the power of forgetting the laws and regularities of nature and intelligence of man. This forgetfulness produced, among other things, a crisis of historical awareness, obliteration of the other as the other, obliteration of the world in which different worlds and ways of human existence may be expressed. According to Toynbee, the arrival of high technologies and the huge power of new-age natural science in all the forms of human cognition and manifestation of life have long since fundamentally changed the face of the earth. The change has opened a wide road to free movement of omnipotent technological potential, fetishism of science legitimising the truth as the scientific truth alone, forced progress in its entire fatality. Here all the people, including the most powerful, the richest and particularly privileged ones, are only objects deprived of the unique and distinctive authenticity. Toynbee wonders if it is at all possible to act, think or generally live differently. He argues in favour of a different experience of the world, experience recognising the plurality of worlds, where what is good eventually becomes something that might be beautiful and true, fruitful and meaningful. Modern realities, according to Toynbee, hardened in schematism of premonitions on insanely rationally governed world, demonstrate the powerful paradigm of a single civilisation alone. Gazing into itself, in circular dominion over time and nature, in the compulsion of turning action into work, this civilisation loses the basic form of understanding. Toynbee explicates that scientific knowledge is the central nervous system of the Western civilisation but emphasises that there is the truth beyond it as well. It opens through logic that refuses to accept disintegration of the present, the pathos of action, it comes with the logic of preservation and grace. It awakens the sense of possible, of what reveals itself and hides itself in the intertwinement of figures of the secret and images of the transparency. Certainly, in the passages revealing a critical discourse against the Western civilisation, Toynbee wants to preserve the dialogue of ideas, to reconstruct their new discourse, which is less anxious, which ponders a new world, the world that does not exclude other worlds and their cores of truth. Herein lies the purpose of the world’s peace, the world as music. It is characterised by trust and friendship to people, but also by a changed relation to the world and its manifestations.According to Toynbee, to contemplate the world beyond the logic and possibilities of a new and different world, in the present time, means to deceive the abilities of experience and create a fetish of the availability of things and people. However, should we preserve the tension between transparency and internal secret, we shall preserve the friendly and creative aspect as well as readiness to find in each thing what resides in it, what does not violate it and what is good in it. On the other hand, standardisation of the good for the benefit of profit and all the euphoric information related to it, argues Toynbee, quite obstruct creative processes of diverse shaping. Standardisation of the good obstructs human mutuality, openness and concealment, truth, poetry, playfulness of the world and man’s trust towards the world. In this regard, Toynbee suggests to contemporary men to return to what is our own, what another man can in no way govern. Whoever understands this return properly shall save both himself and the other. For, worlds shall open to him, as well as what is creative in them. In general, this is a new way to structure worlds, traditions and orders. We can conclude that, in many passages of his principal work, Toynbee tries to stay on the path of understanding deep layers and structures of the world, reality and time of the Earth. Through an alternative discourse, he introduces differentiations with regard to modern science, offence thinking and self-perception of the modern world. Toynbee suggests that the modern man should not place his trust in the myth of evil, which incorporates the realism of power, various cynicism, indifference, dull-wittedness, brutality and egoism. We can see from the previous paragraphs that, having identified a crisis of the contemporary epoch and its self-perception, Toynbee expresses the need to restore Universalist philosophy of history. An important trait of this philosophy of history is its openness towards diverse historical experience in terms of civilisation and culture. Toynbee underlines that, although the Western civilisation has largely become planetary, it would be wrong to conclude that de facto universality of mankind is achieved. Results of Toynbee’s study show that there are other, quite different spiritual worlds that think human history, such as Chinese, Indian, Iranian, Arabic-Islamic... According to Toynbee, the modern world is not the ultimate form of human existence. In fact, in many passages of his work, he encourages human readiness to transfer to other perspective centres and temporal cores of the truth. The criticism of Eurocentric thought models and schemes is also liberation of the right to multiversal and plural image of history.According to Toynbee, modalities of human existence on the earth are manifold and are expressed through the lives of diverse civilisations. He emphasises that we cannot directly live in them and experience their specificities, but we can endeavour to clarify practical principles of the significance of this or that civilisation so as to accept and understand it as another and a different world. However, while trying to understand them, we must not impose dictates of our patterns of action and value judgements. Furthermore, Toynbee wishes to remind us that individual and separate modalities of human existence, albeit the Western ones, simply cannot display the entire diversity of the creative power of humankind in the world of life, in cultures, religions, art and science. They cannot display it in the figures of languages, scripts and customs either. Toynbee’s philosophy of history is a magnificent work, an impressive synthesis. The step of this author towards such synthesis represents progress towards the primary values and message of the moral and ethic attitude that sees ordering of the world as the space of peaceful culture, participatory effort and holistic existence, understanding and action. As we have already seen, in some passages of his voluminous work, Toynbee speaks about a reality above human individuality. However, it can be seen that his arguing in favour of the eternal is not merely an escape from the physical and objective but an attempt to ascend to a higher level and thus acquire a better insight into the lower one. It follows from the content we have singled out from Toynbee’s rich corpus that a fresh and interesting approach to bygone epochs, integral historical and sociological teachings, original analysis of almost all issues humaniore turned Toynbee’s work into an attractive field of study researched by historians, sociologists, philosophers and anthropologists. This field of study personifies a fundamental experience, experience developing into everyday living, into a unique act attempting to preserve things and people. At the same time, this experience develops the power of hoping and waiting as well. It also opens new tasks and paths of thinking. We hope that they will create new but precious forms of understanding and valuing.

Item Type: PhD Thesis
Uncontrolled Keywords: philosophy of history, civilization (genese, growth, breakdown), religion, western civilization, meaning of human history, universalist philosophy of history
Subjects: Philosophy
Departments: Department of Philosophy
Supervisor: Veljak, Lino
Date Deposited: 25 Feb 2016 09:55
Last Modified: 25 Feb 2016 09:55

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