Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Position Paper #7 Arnold J. Toynbee


Challenge and Response

Arnold Toynbee considers Civilization as the important unit in the analysis of History because civilization is the aggregate in which cultures, institutions and all the human acts interact with each other and are united. So I believe that History can simply be a study of civilizations. Civilization shows not only materialistic and social development of human species but also all the aspects of human life, specifically how human reason has been developed and progressed. Civilization truly contains everything that we need to analyze and understand the past. Therefore, the view of Toynbee, taking civilization as the important subject in History, is reasonable and appropriate in studying History.

What distinguishes a man from an animal? It is the rational ability of the mankind. It led mankind to take ways of life that was different from other animal species. Man’s reason and potentials have caused the developments and progressions of human species and it came to be shown as the emergence of Civilization. Civilization is truly the work of human reason. About the emergence of Civilization, Toynbee insists that the emergence of civilization was caused by challenges and their rightful responses. It means that as human species faced various problems and difficulties in their lives, they tried to do something in response to overcome the problem and the result of the response was the development and progresses of civilization. Truly I believe that everything human invented and innovated is made to satisfy the needs of human species. The needs of men have always come when they face the challenges.

I actually agree with Toynbee’s challenge and response theory. I would like to support his idea with one of Kant’s nine theses. Kant states:

Fourth Thesis: The means employed by Nature to bring about the development of all the capacities of men is their antagonism in society, so far as this is, in the end, the cause of a lawful order among men. (Kant, 1784)

This thesis of Kant, which is in some ways inconsistent, can give us important keys to understand the challenge and response theory of Toynbee. Mankind meets the challenge of antagonism in its society which brings conflicts and disorder. However we see that human species respond to this challenge by establishing law and order among them. That is why Kant insists social antagonism causes the lawful order among men.

Likewise, most of the changes and innovations have taken place as a response to the challenges and needs that mankind faced. If there was no challenge of floods that damaged the lives of people in Nile River, there could not possibly be a development of irrigation. If there was no challenge of illnesses, there could not be a development of medical science. History proves that when human beings face challenges they work to overcome it and through this struggle they achieve the progressions in their society.

I would also like to point out the fact that dialectic process is applied to the theory of challenge and response. Hegel insists that the human societies and civilizations are developed through dialectic process. Dialectic process proposed by Hegel is defined as: an interpretive method, originally used to relate specific entities or events to the absolute idea, in which some assertible proposition (Thesis) is necessarily opposed by an equally assertible and apparently contradictory proposition (antithesis), the mutual contradiction being reconciled on a higher level of truth by a third proposition (Synthesis). (Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary) Actually, antithesis challenges against thesis. However we see that the coming of antithesis leads us to reach synthesis which is better than thesis. Without antithesis (challenge), synthesis (response) would never come.

I strongly believe that men are overcomers. I would like to refer human species to a surfer. Surfer does not fear the big waves. For him, it is a chance to go higher and overcome the waves. Likewise, we need the waves of challenge because they will give us the way to develop and progress in our civilization.


Transitional Period

According to Toynbee, when a civilization begins, they tend to pass four phases: Growth, Breakdown, Disintegration, and Universal state.

First, the growth of civilization is achieved through the challenges and responses. Human species face various obstacles, but as they overcome them, the civilization goes forward and progresses. Growth happens because of creative individuals who exhibit a pattern of withdrawal from and return to society.

Second, the breakdown of civilization in ‘a time of trouble’ happens when the minority of creative individuals loses their creativity because of their habit of “resting on their oars”. As they tend to stay in their success in the past, they stop distributing creative ideas. Therefore, they fail to meet the next challenge successfully.

Third, the breakdown of civilization is followed by the disintegration of civilization. It splits into three crucial elements: ‘a dominant minority’, which is a degenerate stage of a formerly creative minority; ‘internal proletariat’ which is a mass of people within the civilization who no longer have any allegiance to the dominant minority and may rebel against it, and an ‘external proletariat’ that exists beyond the frontiers of the civilization and resists being incorporated into it.

Last, the universal stage appears as a part of disintegration of civilization. It brings political unity and during this stage there is “endeavor to create a state of society in which the whole of mankind will be able to live together in harmony, as members of an all-inclusive family” (Toynbee.) So in this stage, they offer unintended advantages to other institutions although sometimes universal stages fail to save themselves,
I couldn’t totally agree with Toynbee’s view of ‘breakdown of civilization’ and ‘disintegration of civilization’. I believe that the human civilizations and societies always advance forward. I do not deny that there are times that seem to breakdown and cause disintegration of civilization. However I say that those times are just another process for the civilization to go up to the next steps. Times of trouble do not mean the end of civilization; rather it means the coming of new civilization which is more developed. So I would rather call those periods as transitional periods than the breakdown and disintegration of civilization. During those times, the minority of people who were once creative is replaced by another new minority of creative people who will lead the next civilization. The time of trouble itself is the challenge to the world. Through successfully responding to the challenges the civilization will grow more. And it is shown as coming of new civilization with new creative minority.

The civilizations like Mesopotamian, Indus, Egyptian, and Chinese have vanished into History. However I do not want to say that they are destroyed or broken down. I believe every civilization has existed before has become a manure for the next civilization’s development. Therefore, I insist that the world always advances forward but does not retrogress.


Toynbee, A. J. (1935-1948). A study of history (Vol. 1). London: Oxford University.

Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View(1784). Translation by Lewis White Beck. From Immanuel Kant,“On History,”The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1963. Retrieved June 13, 2009, from htm

Hegel, G.W.F. (2001). The philosophy of history (J. Sibree, Trans.). Kitchener, Ontario:
Batoche Books.

Marie Hughes Warrington (2009). 50 Key Thinker on History New York: Routlege

Nonfiction Classics for Students (2002). New York: Thomson Gale


  1. too much long .. try to summarize it .. so that the readers will not find it as a boring blog .. haha !

  2. Not too long at all; but I thought the four phases were genesis, growth, decay (or deterioration, and then disintegration. Your twist on the universal state is valid, but new to me. I need to review Toynbee and ruminate on that a bit. Thank you for the perspective.