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Old March 25th, 2012, 05:45 PM   #1

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Toynbee and Spengler in the 21st century?


What if any continual relevance does the work of Arnold J. Toynbee and Oswald Spengler have as we continue into the 21st century? Are they relics of a bygone era?

Beetle might have something to say on the matter.
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Old March 30th, 2012, 06:39 AM   #2

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Just finding this thread today. Great discussion idea.

I'll throw this out there: We won't really be able to pass judgment on Spengler until 2200 AD/CE or so when, according to his ideas, the full implications of his much misunderstood "decline" work themselves out.
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Old April 3rd, 2012, 11:15 AM   #3

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I assessed their separate theories a half century ago and was unimpressed. I believe that their failure and that of Lewis Mumford, W. Hunington, Pitirum Sorokin and others to come up with a viable explanation of why civilizations rise and fall was so embarassing to social theorists that they decided to cancel the word "civilization" and substitute "culture," a word which in a few short years afterwords came to have so many meanings that it now has no meaning at all.
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Old April 4th, 2012, 11:24 AM   #4

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I think it is clear that neither writer gave us the comprehensive view of human history they set out to create. And, really, that is no surprise to the historian who knows how difficult it is to truly comprehend a whole. (In that sense, Toynbee, whose grasp of actual historical facts was remarkably solid, had less excuse.) Ironically, both The Decline of the West and A Study of History illustrate well the limitations of the 'rise-and-fall-of-civilization' concept.

I have always seen Spengler in particular as a philosopher of cultural development and not as a 'macro-historian'. As such, his work is sprinkled with some interesting insights (e.g. how a society ripens for "Caesarism" after it has been thoroughly monetarized, or how cultures swing back and forth between faith-based intuition and ultra-rational empiricism). His dogmatic timing of these 'cycles' is laughable, of course.
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Old April 4th, 2012, 11:48 AM   #5
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I confess my ignorance of SPengler even tho the little I know about his ideas fascinate me. My ignorant impression is that his ideas are valid if all the emphasis on race is eliminated. For example pure bred dogs are inferior to mongrel dogs. Cluturaly mixed civilizations are superior to pure ones. Germany was culturaly superior ( MOzart, beathoven,kant, schopenour etc) because it was where the east and west met.
Gree ce similarily was superior, as was rome when it co opted other cultures.
Of course one may say that I am rejecting spenglers central thesis. I am only saying that seen from the perspective that I have just given perhaps will give some insights into history. Its like finding insights into chemistry by reading old alchemical texts or finding cures for disease by readingancient medical scrolls. Many cures have been found by visiting primitive tribes. There reason for the cure is superstition and yet it works because of scientific reasons.
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Old April 4th, 2012, 12:19 PM   #6

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Interesting responses thus far. Sorry for my own lack of participation right now.
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Old April 4th, 2012, 12:34 PM   #7

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Quote:
Originally Posted by Tuthmosis III View Post
I think it is clear that neither writer gave us the comprehensive view of human history they set out to create. And, really, that is no surprise to the historian who knows how difficult it is to truly comprehend a whole. (In that sense, Toynbee, whose grasp of actual historical facts was remarkably solid, had less excuse.) Ironically, both The Decline of the West and A Study of History illustrate well the limitations of the 'rise-and-fall-of-civilization' concept.
Myself, I see the rise-and-fall concept very useful. The perfect example is the Islamic civilization. It began with Muhammed taking over Medina, reached its peak about 1200, and has been in irregular decline (relative to the rest of the mainstream world) ever since. Both the Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations had an area of beginning, growth, maturity, decline and both ended.

Quote:
I have always seen Spengler in particular as a philosopher of cultural development and not as a 'macro-historian'. As such, his work is sprinkled with some interesting insights (e.g. how a society ripens for "Caesarism" after it has been thoroughly monetarized, or how cultures swing back and forth between faith-based intuition and ultra-rational empiricism). His dogmatic timing of these 'cycles' is laughable, of course.
Yes, I agree. My first book on the civilization subject was entitled "The Cycle of Civilization"---a rather poor beginning! Civilizations have a definite beginning, peak, decline and end, i.e., they have a viable life cycle, but the length of the cycle is irregular and unpredictable. Also, the early civilizations were much longer and the life cycle of subsequent ones have all been (so far) ever shorter into current times. Civilizations also have periods of irregular growth and collapse---sort of like we have economic booms and busts.

If their rise and fall really interests you, you might take a look at my webpage.
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Old April 4th, 2012, 06:06 PM   #8

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Quote:
Originally Posted by wittgenstein View Post
I confess my ignorance of SPengler even tho the little I know about his ideas fascinate me. My ignorant impression is that his ideas are valid if all the emphasis on race is eliminated. For example pure bred dogs are inferior to mongrel dogs. Cluturaly mixed civilizations are superior to pure ones. Germany was culturaly superior ( MOzart, beathoven,kant, schopenour etc) because it was where the east and west met.
Gree ce similarily was superior, as was rome when it co opted other cultures.
Actually, when I first read Spengler's thoughts on race it became clear why he didn't get along with the Nazis! Apparently, "race" for him was not about biology - and certainly not about 'purity' - but rather group history influenced by location:

"A race has roots. Race and landscape belong together.... A race does not migrate. Men migrate, and their successive generations are born in ever-changing landscapes; but the landscape exercises a secret force upon the plant-nature in them, and eventually the race-expression is completely transformed by the extinction of the old and the appearance of a new one." (p. 254)
"Of course, it is often quite justifiable to align peoples with races, but 'race' in this connexion must not be interpreted in the present-day [early 1920s] Darwinian sense of the word. It cannot be accepted, surely, that a people were ever held together by the mere unity of physical origin, or, if it were, could maintain that unity for ten generations." (p. 265)

(quotes from The Decline of the West, Arthur Helps one-volume abridged edition)
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Old April 4th, 2012, 06:33 PM   #9

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Quote:
Originally Posted by charles brough View Post
Myself, I see the rise-and-fall concept very useful. The perfect example is the Islamic civilization. It began with Muhammed taking over Medina, reached its peak about 1200, and has been in irregular decline (relative to the rest of the mainstream world) ever since. Both the Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations had an area of beginning, growth, maturity, decline and both ended.
The rise and fall concept certainly can be useful, but it has its limits - starting with the fact that, as you pointed out, the very definitions of civilization and culture stubbornly remain fluid. 'Decline' is a tricky word also: the connotation is usually 'stagnation' or 'precipitous fall' when what is actually happening is relative. And when does a civilization "end"? In a sense, Egypt and Mesopotamia (and the rest) will live as long as there are books and museums.

Quote:
Originally Posted by charlesbrough View Post
If their rise and fall really interests you, you might take a look at my webpage.
I will do so, sir. (As you may have gathered by now, I have done a little reading in 'civilizations theory' over the years. Heady stuff, especially the running debates. But I always like to keep a decent world history textbook - with bibliography - handy to help me identify and steer clear of the more silly generalizations!...)
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Old April 4th, 2012, 07:23 PM   #10

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Quote:
Originally Posted by Tuthmosis III View Post
The rise and fall concept certainly can be useful, but it has its limits - starting with the fact that, as you pointed out, the very definitions of civilization and culture stubbornly remain fluid.
That's true, although it also makes the subject far more fascinating in my opinion. As I noted in the one discussion here on the nature of civilization itself, we can certainly discern certain general themes and characteristics, but we can never fully make an exhaustive list of what is and what is not a civilization. I mean writing is usually a key component to most civilizations, but what about the Incas? So since human communities and associations tend to be fluid by nature anyways, it goes without saying so will civilizations. This relates to the general differences between social/human sciences and natural sciences; the former being more fluid by nature whilst the others being more precise and exact.

This also means a certain modesty and acceptance of open-endedness on the part of scholars studying the nature of civilizations, especially their rises and falls. This is one reason why I often prefer Toynbee over Spengler since Toynbee seems to leave more room for such open-endedness in the fate of civilizations, in that there is no predetermined course although there maybe general patterns observed in history. This is contrast to Spengler, who seems to have a more closed system of predetermined course for civilizations.

You brought up a very good point earlier about how many of Spengler's specific points seem to have merit whilst his overall framework is deeply flawed. I would agree, and argued to some extent the opposite is true for Toynbee.


Quote:
'Decline' is a tricky word also: the connotation is usually 'stagnation' or 'precipitous fall' when what is actually happening is relative. And when does a civilization "end"? In a sense, Egypt and Mesopotamia (and the rest) will live as long as there are books and museums.
Comparative is probably the best term to use here, not relative per se. We can certainly see certain civilizations and cultures have declined and collapsed, but not exactly in the same manners.


*Whew! Managed to muscle enough energy together to write all that!*

Last edited by Belloc; April 4th, 2012 at 07:42 PM.
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