20th Century Attempts To Define a Grand Model of Human Developmental History

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Andrew Targowski:

"In Western historiography, six attempts were undertaken in the last century to define a grand model of human developmental history. These undertakings generated more criticism than applause, and the Polish study is not widely known to the historical community.


The German philosopher Oswald Spengler published a study The Decline of the West (1932), in which he reflects the pessimistic atmosphere of Germany after World War I. Spengler maintained that history has a natural development in which every culture is a distinct organic form that grows, matures, and decays. He insisted that civilizations are independent from external influences. He predicted a phase of “Caesarism” in the future development of the Western Culture, which he believed was in its last stage.


The English historian Arnold Toynbee published his greatest work in the twelve-volume A Study of History (1957). He compared the history of 26 different civilizations, every one of which presumably follows a similar pattern of evolution through a cyclical pattern of growth, maturity, and decay. He believed that societies thrive best in response to challenges and that a society’s most important task is to create a religion. He was less anxious than Spengler with characterizing civilizations, and more concerned with the criteria by which they are to be determined. He stressed religious and philosophical factors as guiding civilizations. Withal, he never defined “civilization” clearly. Though he saw the Western civilization to be in its decay phase, he saw hope for the future formation of one spiritually-oriented world community.


The Polish historian Feliks Koneczny wrote three books on the theory of civilizations: On the Plurality of Civilizations (1962), For an Order in History (1977), and History Laws (1982). His works on civilizations were never published in communistic (then Stalinist) Poland. Koneczny, who published 173 works, was an empirical theoretician who discerned (in contrast to Spengler’s a priori model) that there is no one linear history of mankind. He perceived seven major civilizations and examined their common laws. A civilization for him is a regime of collective life. His main inquiry was to find factors differentiating civilizations. These are named Quincunx: truth, goodness, beauty, health, and prosperity. Also the Triple Law (family law, inheritance law, and property law) differentiates civilizations. Human attitudes toward the Quincunx and laws are the key to understanding the civilization process. He was against the idea of cycles of civilizations and formulated two laws of civilizations. According to the first law, each civilization has a cause and purpose. The second law states that to endure, each civilization must harmonize interrelations among categories of existence and laws. Otherwise, a civilization may vanish.

Mergers between civilizations lead to chaos, disintegration, and decay, since civilizations may have opposing attitudes toward categories of existence and the Triple Law. Toynbee, in a preface to the English edition of On the Plurality of Civilizations, judged highly Koneczny’s contributions and called him “indomitable,” because the Polish historian wrote his last works during the German occupation of Poland, when he found himself in very poor conditions.


Russian-born Pitirim Sorokin, professor at Harvard, in his Social and Culture Dynamics (1937), quantified all conceivable components of a culture from Greco-Roman to Western. He collected data spanning a period of 2,500 years and discovered a pattern of recurrent fluctuation between “sensate” and “ideational” value systems:

• During a sensate period, life is controlled by a materialistic worldview, and economic and scientific activities blossom, particularly during the “active” phase. During the “passive” phase, hedonistic behavior prevails, and in the final “cynical” phase the sensate mentality negates everything, including itself. • During an ideational period, life is controlled by spirituality and moves from the “ascetic” phase to the “active” (expansionistic) phase, and finally degenerates into the “fideism” phase (a desperate effort to sustain the faith by means of official persecutions).

• Occasionally, a harmonious combination of the best elements of both types may occur. Sorokin calls these happy periods “idealistic,” and they are characterized by a balance of faith, reason, and empiricism (Greece during the age of Socrates and Europe during the Renaissance are examples of this type.) Other mixed types of periods do not demonstrate this agreeable integration.

• These fluctuations of value systems are, according to Sorokin, controlled by two principles:

1. The principle of “immanent self-determination,” which means that a socio-cultural system unfolds according to its inherited potentialities. Although external factors can impact the development of the system, they cannot change its fundamental nature.

2. The principle of “limits,” which states that growth cannot last forever, since sooner or later it exhausts its creativity and begins to wane. According to Richard (1996), several scholars attempted to replicate Sorokin’s findings. Results were mixed, but no one recommended abandonment of his general theory.

Sorokin wrote his theory about 50 years ago when he argued that we in the West had entered a sensate period, in which cynicism is the dominant theme. We had also entered a period of “transition and crisis,” marked by the international conflicts, social pathology and so forth. Sorokin’s approach is very useful in analyzing world events; however, it is not applied by him to define or classify civilizations. He criticizes Toynbee’s classification of civilizations, which he says were “dumps of cultural phenomena mistaken for vast socio-cultural systems……..vast pseudo-systems of civilizations, taken out of an enormous mass of other cultural complexes without any uniform fundamentum divisionis, on the basis of different and somehow indefinite criteria” — a procedure both illogical and unscientific (Wilkinson, 1996).

Later, Toynbee revised his list of civilizations (1961) and Sorokin agreed with the new classification. Sorokin perceived a civilization as “a cultural field where a multitude of vast and small cultural systems and congeries — partly mutually harmonious, partly neutral, partly contradictory — coexists” (Sorokin, 1950, p. 213).

Sorokin was not a civilizationist and his units of study are not civilizations, but he was the founding president of the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations, and he has been given considerable attention by members of the ISCSC.


Alfred Louis Kroeber, the doyen of American anthropology, was interested in (among other topics) historical synthesis at the world level, particularly in the history of civilized societies, both ancient and modern.

The basis of Kroeber’s point of view is the natural history of culture, with strong emphasis on:

a) humanistic factors, particularly silent ones,

b) classification of cultures, and

c) culture as a phenomenon.

His book The Nature of Culture (1952) is the main presentation of his ideas on these topics. In his famous work Configurations of Culture Growth (1944), he analyzes cultures as anthropologically complex entities but not significantly different.

From the civilizationist’s point of view the most interesting book is Culture, a Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions (1952), co-authored by him and Clyde Kluckhohn. In this book, the authors provide a very broad review of different definitions of culture and civilizations used in different countries. They define culture as “a product; is historical; includes ideas, patterns, and values; is selective; is learned, is based upon symbols, and is an abstraction from behavior and the product of behavior.” In respect to civilization, the authors identify civilization with the objective technological and informational activities of society, but culture with subjective religion, philosophy, and art. T


The French historian Fernand Braudel was a “structuralist” who perceived human development to occur in three historical structures (“measures of time”): the quasi-immobile structure (la longue duree), the intermediate scale of “conjectures” (rarely longer than a few generations), and the rapid time-scale of individual events. Each was applied in one of the three parts of La Mediterranee (1949). In his book A History of Civilizations (1987), he contrasts his own approach to history to the “over-simple theories” of Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee.

He assumes that the history of human development is the history of civilization. A student should learn history as a whole, as only this whole is a civilization. Civilization for him is a process rather than a temporarily stabilized construct. It is a structure of transformational streams in a realm of daily activities of human life. He perceives one civilization as a human continuum or, depending upon the context, he may delimit hundreds of civilizations (e.g., “Roman civilization” or “industrial civilization”). He also, like Koneczny, developed his triple structure idea during World War II while he was a prisoner in Germany.


Rushton Coulborn, in his book The Origin of Civilized Societies (1959), debates a very difficult question concerning origins of civilized societies and addresses two questions:

1) Is there a distinction between civilized and primitive societies?

2) Were civilized societies of single or multiple origin?

He reserved the term “civilized” for the large societies and the term “civilization” for their high culture considered abstractly (he was a student of A.L. Kroeber). He found five of the first seven primary civilized societies in river valleys (Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Indian, Andean, Chinese societies), one on a small island (Cretan society) and another in a tropical forest (Middle American society). Among factors creating these societies, he perceived the following: warmer climate, settlement, creation of religion by the settlers, which led to the creation and integration of these societies, change of leadership during migrations from more to less dangerous locations, adaptation to water supplies, and establishment of a new religion based upon some parts of old religion or brought by newcomers with charismatic leaders (e.g., the Spaniards colonizing America). The most intriguing part of the author’s method is that he applies comparisons among these civilized societies, which show some analogies and some differences.

For example, he defined one distinction between civilized and primitive societies which is “perfectly clear and is not only quantitative: civilized societies are all subject to a cyclical movement of rise and fall in the course of their development, but no similar movements occur in the development of primitive societies.” From this author’s 21st-century perspective, cyclical development is controlled by growing cognition of a given society, which learns how to survive and develop itself.


Carroll Quigley, in his The Evolution of Civilizations (1961), analyzes mechanisms of civilization rise and fall, claiming that a process of change is neither rigid nor single in any society, but rather that each civilization is a confused congeries of such processes in all types of human activities. Furthermore, he insists that to recognize one decisive factor in this process is not a description of reality. He also criticizes approaches to periodizations of history, offering seven stages of human development in just the millennium 950-1950 (mixture, gestation, expansion, age of conflict, universal empire, decay, and invasion), and divides each stage into seven levels (intellectual, religious outlook, social group, economic control, economic organization, political, military) — two more than Toynbee’s.

Matthew Melko, in his book The Nature of Civilizations (1969), defines some elements of a basic model of civilizations, such as their components (outlook, aesthetics, society, economics, government, international) and their developmental stages (crystallization, transition, complete disintegration, ossification [a freezing at a crystal stage]) as well as developmental macro-phases of feudal system, state system, and imperial system, which he analyzes separately from stages. He thinks that civilizations are large and complex cultures which can control their environments. Civilizations may have different levels of cultural integration, but each of them has a basic pattern (of government, economy, war) that allows them to be distinguished from each other. Melko did not characterize any particular civilization. He recognized the civilizations’ ability to have transformations and conflicts. His strong contribution is in providing an interesting model of civilization development through three macro-phases.

Later, Melko (2008) provides a very interesting question: “Are civilizations real or simply reifications?” And answers as follows: “They are reifications (visible-invisible entities) based upon cultural and transactional observations, somewhat in the sense that Europe or Indian Ocean are reifications. All have geographical reality but depend for their identity on consensus.”

David Wilkinson (1987) proposes for current times to analyze only one central civilization, not several. For him, civilizations are not cultural groups but rather socio-political groups or poly-cultures. His civilizations are social units, larger than states, integrated by political interest. Wilkinson insists that 13 major civilizations evolved in the last 3,500 years into a Central Civilization, which today has transformed into a single global civilization. This process began in 1500 B.C., when Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations merged.

Later, the central civilization was swallowing other civilizations at different phases, such as

  1. Near Eastern (1500-500 B.C.),
  2. Greco-Roman (500 B.C.-500 A.D.),
  3. Medieval (500-1500 A.D.),
  4. Western (1500-2000 A.D.), and
  5. Global (2000-present).

Of course, penetration of ideas, people, goods, and so forth among civilizations takes place and influences internal dynamics of each one. However, particularly after September 11, 2001, the boundaries of different autonomous civilizations are well seen, and the civilization super-layer of the global civilization is well perceived in all paths of mainstream human development."