From Universal History to World History. Carroll Quigley (1910–1977) and the Shaping of New Historical Paradigms

From Firenze University Press Journal: Cromohs

University of Florence
3 min readJan 6, 2021

Filippo Chiocchetti, Università del Piemonte Orientale

Universal History in the twentieth century is especially related to the figure of Arnold J.Toynbee (1889–1975), the historian-turned-prophet who devised a complex and fascinating interpretation of the civilizational process. He was since 1925 professor of History of International Relations at the London School of Economics and director of the Royal Institute of International Affairs. His name is associated to A Study of History, a monumental work of immense erudition that explains the evolution of civilizations through the concept of ‘challenge and response’.

Immediately after the Second World War the echo of Toynbee’s work was particularly intense and the abridged version of his magnum opus turned out to be a bestseller, especially in theUnited States where it was published in 1947 with much fanfare and the support ofHenry Luce, owner of Time magazine. However, this enormous success did not guarantee his author a significant place in the historiographical landscape of the following decades. Throughout the 1950s, reactions ranged from positive feedbacks to very harsh criticisms: as the latter prevailed, his work was almost completely marginalized.

It should be remembered that William H. McNeill, Toynbee’s ancient disciple as well as fine historian of his own, paved the way to a reconsideration by publishing his biography in 1989; but in spite of this partial renewal of interest,Toynbee still remains a minor figure in modern historiography.

We can therefore say that an initial interest quickly reversed in an estranged relationship between the British scholar and his fellow historians: as soon as in the early 1960s, not only his work but Universal History on the whole was generally at a low ebb, also in the United States. However, its fundamental core –the discovery of common patterns emerging from different cultures through the application of interpretative models–was far from being unrelated to American culture. Not only were readers familiar with a controversial author like Oswald Spengler, whose works were early translated and widely read in the 1920s; the evidence of this link can be noticed more clearly by connecting this approach to different research practices, well established in the academe outside historical departments.

This kind of scholarship, more oriented to building general paradigms than grounded in archival research, actually found a wider recognition by other communities, being especially valued among social scientists. Cultural anthropologists proved to be particularly inclined to follow this approach, as influential scholars like Alfred Kroeber lent their reputation to the comparative method, bringing credibility to concepts such as cycles and develop mental stages. From the 1930s, Kroeber introduced the concept of ‘style pattern’–whose best example is represented by artistic or philosophical schools–, intended as an ideal model that unifies and gives coherence to a culture, defines its values and directs its development: over the course of its evolution, a style is refined and reaches its own climax, whereupon it loses its effectiveness and eventually disappears to be replaced by another style. This evolutionary process of rise and fall explains how societies are transformed through the adoption of successive patterns.


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