Who Are the Civilizationists

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Matthew Melko:

"Much begins with Oswald Spengler. He had his predecessors, but he put together the first civilizational theory. He stressed the plurality and autonomy of high cultures, which we now call civilizations. He placed great emphasis on what A. L. Kroeber would call style and David Richardson, worldview. And he perceived a pattern of rise and fall that would be accepted and modified by other civilizationists. He has been much maligned as a dogmatic, racist Nazi, but in Charles Atkinson's translation, his Decline of the West [1980, (1932)] still reads well and often leaves the reader saying, yes, that's how it is (not every reader in the same sections, of course). Recently, Spengler has been incisively reassessed by John Farrenkopf [2001],

Arnold J. Toynbee's famous (or infamous) Study [1934-1961] expanded and rounded off Spengler's ideas. He insisted that his approach was different, but civilizationists have linked the two. It could be said that most civilizationists who have written since Spengler have been expanding on or reacting to the perceptions of these two scholars. Toynbee wrote at great length and seemed to have had an aversion to editing. But his much amended list of civilizations comes closer to the lists we accept today, his theory of peripheral domination has proved valuable to civilizationists and world systems analysts alike, his concept of general war has invoked a lively sub-discipline in political science. His variations on Spengler's ideas, e.g. Times of Troubles and Universal States, seem to have been more acceptable to English writing succes-sors. Both Spengler and Toynbee, damned in their own time, seem to have provided fruitful hypotheses that are still being explored. While Pitirim A. Sorokin's Social and Cultural Dynamics (1937-41, 1957) strongly discounted the whole civilizational idea, much that he has written can be fitted into the civilizational paradigm.

Ironically, Sorokin first attempted to establish a paradigm [1963, (1950)], though it wouldn't have been so called at the time it was published, reviewing the work of authors who pursued broad social philosophies. His own basic model, however, provided a broader cyclical perception, a different macrohistorical interpretation. He did agree with Spengler that there were cyclical patterns in history, and that historical epochs, like Spengler's cultures, had distinctive characteristics. A. L. Kroeber, in Configurations of Culture Growth [1944], presented a cooler, less dogmatic approach to civilizational questions. His concept of pattern or style was closer to Spengler's presentation of cultural creativity, and he was interested in the rise and decline of such pat-terns. But he was less insistent on finding recurrent durations. Like Sorokin, he also wrote about what we would now call a paradigm of historical writing [1957]. Indeed, it could be argued that Kuhn's paradigm for science, which we all love to expand, is an example of a Kroeberian pattern, which the latter used to describe configurations of related work in art, literature and philosophy.

Carroll Quigley, intending to take a fresh and incisive approach to civilizational questions, also provided a brief and clear summary of civilizational problems. His answers, like Spengler's and Sorokin's, were dogmatic but clarifying. Probably his Evolution of Civilizations [1979 (1961)], which he said he thought about for 30 years and wrote in six weeks, is the best starting point for anyone who would like a readable introduction to the study of civilizations.

Rushton Coulborn, a student of Kroeber's and friend of Toynbee and Sorokin, applying Kuhn's idea of paradigm, in retrospect saw him-self as an early normal scientist focusing on the initial stages of civilizational development [1969]. But, like Quigley, he was also one of the paradigm creators [1956, 1958, 1966]."