Periodization and Progress

10 March 2010


The famous Thomas Hart Benton murals present a peculiarly American vision of economic progress.

In yesterday’s Integral History I discussed several schematic periodizations of history, including the traditional humanistic division of Western history into ancient, medieval, and modern periods, and the tripartite division of integral history into nomadic, agricultural, and industrial periods. I mentioned that one danger of appealing to such didactic conveniences is their implication of representing a totalistic scheme of history suggesting that the world was exhausted. Another danger of delineating a series of stages of social development is that one will be taken for an advocate of historical progress.

The organized violence of the twentieth century made it difficult to believe in progress, but it is a psychological fallacy to identify our ability to believe with whatever is the case in fact.

Progress has become a “loaded” term. It has become controversial to argue for progress for at least two reasons. Firstly, the scale of war, violence, and bloodshed in the twentieth century made the nineteenth century’s devotion to human progress look naive in retrospect. I am not saying that it was in fact naive, but the contrast between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries does easily give this impression. Secondly, describing stages of social development can be taken as establishing a hierarchy of societies, attaching a higher value to those at the top of the hierarchy while assigning a lower value to those at the bottom of the hierarchy. Again, I am not advocating or criticizing this view. The view has been taken, and there are reasons for this, but there are also reasons to question this view.

Arnold Toynbee, author of A Study of History

Certainly historical periodization, and social categorization, can be abused to confirm preconceived ideas about the world. Toynbee is an interesting case in point. I wrote a number of posts about Toynbee’s theories, especially the idea of challenge and response. In those posts I chose to emphasize Toynbee’s valuable contributions to the study of history, but if one wants to look for problems one can certainly find them in Toynbee.

The title page of the unabridged first volume of Toynbee's A Study of History.

Early in Volume 1 of A Study of History Toynbee contrasts civilizations to primitive societies (III, a), where he writes, “The number of known civilizations is small… The number of known primitive societies is vastly greater.” (p. 148) Anthropologists today no longer speak of “primitive” societies, and in fact the word “primitive” is now in such bad odor that it is referred to as “the ‘p’ word.”

Toynbee cites the Todas of the Nilgiri Hills as an example of a 'primitive' people. This sort of language wouldn't be used today, as it would be taken as impugning the dignity of such peoples.

Toynbee’s preconceived ideas about the relative value of civilization and primitive societies comes out in his treatment of the challenge and response schema. He treats contemporaneous hunter-gatherer societies as “primitive” and characterizes them as facing such great challenges that their social progress has been arrested at this primitive stage. The idea that a society might choose to retain a nomadic way of life as a result of a social consensus never seems to have occurred to him, nor did the idea that what he called primitive people only existed in the harsh environments at the far edges of civilization because the few remaining nomadic peoples had been pushed out of the best lands by these same civilizations.

Across the northern edge of Eurasia, from the Sami of Scandinavia to the Dukha of Mongolia, a subsistence herding economy has survived side-by-side with industrialized societies.

The contest between nomadic peoples and agricultural peoples or industrialized peoples is inherently uneven. The nomadic peoples are pushed aside, and they rarely have the wherewithal to resist effectively. If we choose to define progress as the ability to displace other societies, then the transition to agriculture and industrialization must be called progress, although I can’t imagine many historians wanting to define progress in this way. Similarly, we could choose to define progress as a stage of society that is dependent upon a transition from an earlier stage of society. This is a little more objective as a standard, as we can say that an agricultural social system must precede an industrialized social system, which latter depends upon previous developments of the former. But the more objective this measure can be made, the less any valuation can be attached to it.

The Sami are nomadic reindeer herders in the far north of Scandinavia whose 'territory' ranges over that of several nation-states. Nomadic peoples have been marginalized by the growth of civilization, but the vigor of their culture is expressed by their continued survival against the odds.

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