Arnold Joseph Toynbee

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Toynbee, Arnold Joseph


Born Apr. 14, 1889, in London; died Oct. 22, 1975, in York. English historian and sociologist.

Toynbee was a professor at the University of London from 1919 to 1924 and at the London School of Economics from 1925 to 1955. He served on the board of directors of the Royal Institute of International Affairs from 1925 to 1955 and was coeditor, with V. M. Boulter, of A Survey of International Affairs, published annually from 1925 to 1965.

Toynbee achieved fame with his magnum opus, A Study of History (vols. 1–12, 1934–61). Influenced by O. Spengler, he attempted to reinterpret the historical and social evolution of mankind as a succession of local, or individual, civilizations. According to Toynbee’s thesis, the history of mankind is not a single and continuous chronicle, but a collection of the histories of individual civilizations, each of which is distinctive and self-contained. Originally the historian counted 21 civilizations, but he later reduced the number to 13, coming to regard as secondary those civilizations whose development had been arrested before they could complete their natural cycle. Every major civilization, Toynbee contended, goes through a series of stages: genesis, growth, breakdown, and disintegration, after which it disappears, giving way to another civilization. Discerning similarities in the social processes that occur in all civilizations, Toynbee sought to derive from them empirical laws of social development, on the basis of which it would be possible to predict major events in the modern world as well.

Following H. Bergson, Toynbee considered the moving force in a civilization’s development to be the “creative minority, ” defined as the bearer of the mystical élan vital. This minority, by responding successfully to various historical challenges, is able to carry the “inert majority” along with it. The nature of these challenges and responses determines the distinctive features of a civilization, among which are its hierarchy of social values and the philosophical views it holds on the meaning of life. Once a creative elite, however, proves incapable of solving the social or historical problems confronting it, it becomes a dominant minority, seeking to impose its will by force rather than through accepted authority. At that point the alienated mass of the population becomes the “inner proletariat, ” which, together with the barbarian periphery, or “outer proletariat, ” eventually destroys a civilization—if the civilization is not first destroyed as a result of some major military defeat or natural catastrophe. In endeavoring to introduce in his conception of history the element of progressive development, Toynbee remarked on the progress of mankind in spiritual perfection, envisaging its religious evolution from primitive animistic beliefs through universal religions to a single syncretic religion in the future.

Toynbee’s conception of history constitutes an idealist response to the positivist theory of evolution; it also stands as an original response to Europocentrism. In his works, Toynbee turned increasingly to contemporary social problems of the capitalist West. He believed that the solution to the profound inner contradictions of the capitalist system and to the conflict between the West and the Third World lay in spiritual rejuvenation and in the renunciation of mercantilist philosophy, with its absolutization of material values. He was sympathetic toward national liberation movements and advocated peaceful coexistence and mutual understanding between the West and the socialist countries. Toynbee’s ideas had a great influence on the social philosophy and social consciousness of the capitalist West.


The World and the West. London, 1953.
A Study of History, vols. 1–2. Abridged by D. Somervell. London, 1946–57.
America and the World Revolution. New York, 1962.
Change and Habit. London, 1966.
Experiences. London, 1969.


Kosminskii, E. A. “Istoriosofiia A. Toinbi.” Voprosy istorii, 1957, no. 1.
Kon, I. S. Filosofskii idealizm i krizis burzhuaznoi istoricheskoi mysli. Moscow, 1959.
Arab-ogly, E. A. “Kontseptsiia istoricheskogo krugovorota.” In Istoricheskii materializm i sotsial’naia filosofiia sovremennoi burzhuazii. Moscow, 1965.
Markarian, E. S. O kontseptsii lokal’nykh tsivilizatsii. Yerevan, 1962.
Semenov, Iu. N. Obshchestvennyi progress i sotsial’naia filosofiia sovremennoi burzhuazii. Moscow, 1965. Chapter 1.
Chesnokov, G. D. Sovremennaia burzhuaznaia filosofiia istorii. Gorky, 1972.
Rashkovskii, E. B. “Struktura i istoki filosofsko-istoricheskoi kontseptsii A. D. Toinbi.” Voprosy filosofii, 1969, no. 5.
Anderle, O. F. Das universalhistorische System A. J. Toynbees. Frankfurt am Main, 1955.
Toynbee and History. Edited by A. Montagu. Boston, 1956.
Popper, M. A Bibliography of the Works in English of Arnold Toynbee, 1910–1954. London-New York, 1955.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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