Tag Archives: Toynbee

Ideas and Intellectuals

Not long ago, seated for lunch in a meeting of academics, I participated in a discussion about the future of the university. The subject of what it takes to be an intellectual came up. Imagine my surprise when one of the scholars at the table contended that academics were the only people who could lay claim to that title. Having spent twenty years of my life at the Office of Technology Assessment, engaging in what I had always thought to be intellectual pursuits, I was truly taken aback! I asked, But what about Erasmus? What about experiential learning? My colleague looked at me, somewhat disdainfully, from across the table, a wry smile on his face. And I experienced what I imagined Arnold Toynbee might have felt, in the face of his critics.

I asked: But what about Erasmus? What about experiential learning? My colleague looked at me, somewhat disdainfully, from across the table, a wry smile on his face.

Ironically, many of today’s scholars are seeking to flesh out a number of theoretical propositions by conducting empirical experiments that are aimed to provide them a better grasp of what constitutes experience, and how it affects not only behavior, but also their own, specific realms of inquiry. In my previous blog, I mentioned the work of Joshua Epstein, who uses computational technologies to model artificial communities. Equally relevant, especially in the context of the recent discussion of the nature of cooperation, is the volume, edited by Herbert Gintis, Samuel Bowles, Robert T. Boyd, and Ernst Fehr, entitled Moral Sentiments and Material Interests: The Foundation of Cooperation in Everyday Life (MIT, 2005). Going somewhat further than Brian Skyrms’ narrative in The Stag Hunt, the editors, together with a diverse collection of authors, claim that the inclination to cooperate, and to act equitably, is inherent in mankind, and reinforced through the evolutionary process. Their arguments are based not only on the logic of game theory; as well, they build on a variety of human-based experiments. In another mode, Martin Nowak, Professor of Biology and Mathematics at Harvard University, has used mathematical models to formally account for cooperative behavior, using an array of cases that rival Toynbee’s history, ranging, for example, from a study of cancer cells to more generalized types of human behavior. Beautifully written, so as to be accessible to the lay reader, Nowak’s book, Evolutionary Dynamics: Exploring the Equations of Life is an absolute tour de force. Most appealing to me, as a professor in the Communication, Culture and Technology Program, obsessed by networks in whatever their form, is the author’s claim that the thing that evolves in any networked organism or organizational entity is information itself.

Moral Sentiments and Material Interests (2005)

Moral Sentiments and Material Interests (2005)

So I ask myself, do ideas and intellectuals evolve in much the same way that cooperation and language do? Are they the result of interactions? Ron Burt, who I mentioned in an earlier post, would — I believe –respond affirmatively to such a claim. In his recent book, Brokerage and Closure (2005), Burt talks about what is it that characterizes good ideas. According to Burt, people are likely to have good ideas to the extent that they reach out and engage in multiple directions, thereby incorporating a variety of new — and as importantly — diverse perspectives. In contrast, according to Burt, people who limit their conversations to the narrow set of members in their own group, or — as I might add, to their own disciplines — are unlikely to go very far. In Burt’s characterization, they might as well be in an echo chamber, where ideas are endlessly recycled. Under these circumstances — that is to say, when surrounded by poor ideas — few intellectuals can survive.

As Burt suggests, the answer has to do with crossing boundaries — organizational as well as disciplinary.

According to my understanding, the goal of universities, as well as intellectuals, is to generate good ideas. Doing this will require taking on new challenges, some of which — compared to our traditional way of doing things — may appear risky. The question is how do we break out of our traditional ways of doing things without sacrificing that which is best about them? As Burt suggests, the answer has to do with crossing boundaries — organizational as well as disciplinary. As a recent convert to blogging, I would suggest that this is a good place to start.

Reading, Writing… and Scientific Inquiry

When I was a young girl living in New Jersey, my father would try to console me, whenever my world seemed upside down, by talking about Toynbee’s optimum challenge. He noted that the historian Toynbee had concluded — based on his comparative history — that societies prosper when they have a challenge that stimulates them into action, but one that does not overwhelm them at the same time. Accordingly, my father would interpret my situation — however unfortunate it might have been — as “an opportunity for growth as well as for the development of my character.” As one might imagine, more often than not, I would protest, sotto voce, saying that I was satisfied with the amount of character that I already had. However, with the wisdom of years, as well as the opportunities and challenges of raising a child of my own, I have come to appreciate Toynbee’s perspective and incorporate it into my own way of thinking. Just ask my son!

Perhaps it is time to give Toynbee another look. In today’s increasingly complex world, narrowly focused analyses that are based on rigid, disciplinary methodological standards sometimes miss the point.

In the academic world, Toynbee was generally appreciated for the extent of his knowledge. However, he was typically criticized — and sometime scathingly so — for what others perceived to be his scientific pretensions. His writings were ambitious, to say the least. For example, Toynbee’s A Study in History employs a number of case studies to examine the process of history. It aims to identify plausible generalizations, if not Laws, about the way in which the world works. It was in this regard that Toynbee’s work was not always well received by the scholarly community: His critics felt that he went much too far in making generalizations based on, what they claimed to be, faulty methodology, subjective interpretations, and an inadequate and incomplete empirical body of knowledge.

Perhaps it is time to give Toynbee another look. In today’s increasingly complex world, narrowly focused analyses that are based on rigid, disciplinary methodological standards sometimes miss the point. Looking comparatively, at an ever-unfolding, evolutionary process of history, Toynbee — without the benefit of today’s electronic technologies — brought into relief, even while trying to simplify, the extraordinarily complex nature of the interconnections and interactions that drive human existence forward. A similar case can be made for Fernand Braudel’s historical work, which focuses on the longue durée. One need only consider his three volume masterpiece in which he analyzes the evolution of world capitalism through the lens of all of its varied aspects — social, political, cultural, demographic, as well as economic (1992). It seems to me that Joshua Epstein’s most recent book Generative Social Science: Studies in Agent-Based Computational Modeling (2007), is in this tradition. Looking for a way to bring all of the social sciences to bear in accounting for societal evolution (and in particular the disappearance of the Anasazi), he takes advantage of new, computational technologies to model their behavior. Optimally challenging, this book is a major contribution to the furtherance and interaction of all academic disciplines.

Arnold J. Toynbee (1961)

Arnold J. Toynbee (1961)

While Toynbee’s work may not be scientific in the strictest sense of the word, to be sure it is very insightful and, as importantly, meaningful in providing guidance about the difficult choices that we, as intelligent humans, must make. I imagine what my life might have been like had I been risk-adverse, and not taken Toynbee’s revealing insight about optimal challenges to heart. I might never have taken courses in economics; selected in the early Sixties to have been one of only five women in my graduate class at Columbia; backpacked in the area of Glacier Peak, in the North Cascades; lived on Kibbutz Ketura in Israel’s southern desert; or survived, and even been a good caretaker, as my husband successfully battled the dread disease, multiple myeloma. As well, I might never have accepted my husband’s challenge to undertake this exciting and new blogging adventure. And, who knows, in today’s environment, Toynbee, too, might very well have been a blogger!