Topics discussed at the 1961 meeting of civilization scholars in Salzburg 

Note: This analysis is based on notes compiled by Michael Palencia-Roth which, in turn, are based on a book by Othmar Anderle, "The Problems of Civilizations: Report of the First Synopsis Conference of the S.I.E.C.C. Salzburg, 8-15 October 1961." The Hague: Mouton & Co., 1964. Certain comments and conclusions are made by William McGaughey.


In October 1961, twenty-six eminent scholars of history and civilization met in Salzburg, Austria, to consider the nature of civilization. They included Arnold J. Toynbee, Pitirim Sorokin, Othmar Anderlie, Emilio Betti, Eduard Futer, Kurt Goldammer, Anton Hilckman, Paul Shi-yi Hsaio, Georg Iggers, and Kyoshiro Yajima. With the cold war in full bloom, the prospect of humanity destroying itself in nuclear was much on the minds of those attending the seven-day conference. It was hoped that the study of civilization would allow diverse peoples to understand each other better so that world peace would ensue.

An organization of civilizational scholars was created at this meeting. It was called the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations. This organization has subsequently held annual conferences at universities around the world. Its 2011 conference, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Salzburg meeting, was held at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, between June 2nd and June 4th. This article was written in memory of that earlier meeting.

The Salzburg gathering considered particular issues or themes on each successive day. They were as follows:

Day 1 - October 9th “The reality of civilization”
Day 2 - October 10th “The study of civilizations”
Day 3 - October 11th “Civilizational encounters”
Day 4 - October 13th “The problem of universal history”
Day 5 - October 14th “The future of civilizations”
Day 6 - October 15th “One world: the contribution of the human sciences to peaceful union of humanity”

This article will attempt to revive the discussion as the situation appears fifty years later. We will take each topic in turn.


Day 1: “The reality of civilization”

The entity called civilization has variously been described as “high culture” (Hochkultur), “an intelligible field of (historical) study (Toynbee’s definition), and a “cultural super-system” (Sorokin). Does such a thing even exist? Albert Schweitzer wrote in a telegram addressed to the conference that he did not believe that High Culture truly existed. Isaiah Berlin said that no single culture has a monopoly on virtue or truth.

Some questions: What is civilization? Does such a thing truly exist; or is it an academic fantasy? How might “civilization” be defined?

Some conclusions: No, civilization cannot be seen or touched as a physical object might be since it is a pattern perceived in human society and culture. Civilization is related to the cultural aspect of human society considered at its largest extent or highest level. Its field of inquiry is necessarily world wide. A civilization might variously be defined as the culture of a particular society bounded in space and time, or as a general cultural arrangement found in world history, or as a stage in human culture as a whole. If civilizations are living creatures which change consistently over time, they must, in some sense, exist. Future history validates or invalidates theories of their life cycle.

Day 2: “The study of civilizations”

Toynbee maintained that the study of civilization comprises a field of study larger than that of the nation state. It reaches for the whole culture of humanity. Since each person is acquainted mainly with his or her own regional or national culture, it is hard to find experts on civilization. Necessarily it would take several persons of differing perspective working together to have complete understanding of this phenomenon. That leads to the question of whether teams of scholars are required for civilization study. Sorokin said that the great discoveries are made by individuals with flashes of insight rather than by groups of people. Later, groups work out the details. Because civilizations are so large, it would seem impossible for anyone to become an expert in them. Consequently, the inexpert study of civilization is scorned by academic specialists.

Some questions: How is it possible for theories of civilization developed by individuals to be integrated into a science whose development as a body of knowledge involves the work of many scholars? How, in fact, is the study of civilization carried out in our universities? Can it ever become a unified field of knowledge with generally acknowledged truths?

Some conclusions: We are still bogged down in the definition of civilization so it seems that no particular theory can form the basis of more general study. We know the nature of a civilization through comparison with others. Therefore the object of study will necessarily be plural. It may be that the study of civilization is inseparable from the study of world history. Perhaps our goal as students of civilization should be to find significant patterns in history. Their predictive ability would be the test of truth in this field.

Day 3: “Civilizational encounters”

This topic assumes that civilizations are based in regional societies which were once separate but which then come together in a mutually transformative encounter. In what way and to what extent are either or both societies changed as a result of the encounter? Is the change mechanical as in the case of one billiard ball hitting another or does a biological cross-fertilization take place? The latter would suggest that new generations of civilization are produced as old ones touch each other and are changed. Toynbee said the challenge is whether human culture today can make a new integration embracing all humanity. The topic of civilizational encounter also involves the degree to which societies are open to foreign influence. There are geographical barriers to outside contact which technology helps to overcome. This topic invites scholars to look at examples of contact between different civilizations and see if there is a general pattern.

Some questions: Is change within a civilization driven primarily by contact with other civilizations or is there an internal dynamic within the civilization which produces a life cycle? Is the change mechanical or biological in nature? Do scholars with different regional backgrounds look at civilization differently? In other words, is there a Chinese, African, Anglo-Saxon, or Latin approach to the study of civilization, undercutting its objectivity as a universal field of study?

Some conclusions: No doubt encounters between different civilizations have produced important cultural changes. The most dramatic encounter would be between the Spaniards and Aztecs in the early 16th century. Clearly this encounter changed history. On the other hand, many scholars believe that civilizations become extinct through suicide rather than conquest. They become ripe before they die. Spengler and Toynbee embraced that approach. William McNeill whose views influence the World History Association, embraced the other.

At the 1961 meeting, Toynbee said that had he been born and raised in China rather than in England, his perspective on civilization would have been different. In an effort to be objective in our study of civilization, we must be conscious of our own regional biases and challenge ourselves to understand more of the other person’s point of view.

Day 4 “The problem of universal history”

In the past, humanity has been divided into separate communities that had little contact with each other. Each community had its own history. If world history embraces the past, it will need to include such histories. Is the universal history of humanity the sum of all those separate histories or is there a unifying element? Goldammer thought that the comparative history of religion led the way to universal history. Toynbee supposed that technology was another unifying element. Now that barriers of travel and communication between separate nations have broken down, we need to decide whether to let local communities claim our identities or go beyond this to identify with all humanity. Futer said that universal history did not presently exist although it might in the future. Because the philosophical revolution that occurred during the Axis Age affected many parts of the Old World, a certain universal value was created.

Some questions: Is world history the sum of all regional histories or is it a unified story of human experience. If the latter, how can that story be told? Are some people’s histories more important than other people’s and therefore more worthy of inclusion in a universal history? If so, how do we evaluate their relative importance?

Some conclusions: There is little doubt that a universal history can be written of the present and future now that humanity is coming together in a common experience. Regarding the past, it might be possible to conceive of world history as the story of how modern society and culture were created. In that case, some experiences are more important than others. For example, if the entire world is coming to embrace western-style democracy, the story of the Magna Carta and the rise of parliamentary government in England would deserve more space in the book of world history than the spread of democratic government to other peoples. Still, even if historical attention is not proportionate to population size, a universal history should not slight the populous nations. All peoples deserve fair representation in such histories.

Day 5: “The future of civilizations”

Participants at the 1961 conference believed that a critical question was whether civilizations were “open” or “closed”. This is equivalent to the question whether free will or determinism controls worldly events. If free will, the future becomes impossible to predict. If determinism, the future is already set. Spengler was a determinist. Toynbee himself thought that civilizations were “imperfectly closed systems”. Sorokin pointed out that he had made some detailed predictions in 1937 which later came to pass. Even so, it might not be possible to predict unique, specific events.

Anderlie distinguished between two types of prediction: (1) extrapolation from the present letting causality carry the events forward into the future and (2) following a formal structure of predictive reasoning. However, human culture is too complex to support such reasoning. In general, the conference participants disagreed on the question of open and closed systems and the ability to predict the future. General patterns might be foreseen from our knowledge of past events but specific events would be largely unforeseen.

Some questions: Is it possible to predict the future of civilization? If so, what methods of prediction can be employed? Is past experience less relevant to prediction today in view of humanity’s growing population coming in conflict with the earth’s fixed resources and humanity’s ability to destroy itself through technology?

Some conclusions: Spengler’s book, Decline of the West, popularized the idea of predicting the future through knowledge of past civilizations. His basic method was analogy. If civilizations each had predictable life cycles, we might know the future of the present civilization through comparison with past civilizations at the same stage in the cycle. In other words, if all living creatures eventually decline and die, we, too, will surely go through the same process. A problem is our definition of civilization. If a particular conception of it does not exist, then neither will the future change according to its (nonexistent) life cycle. However, we can rightly expect that the future will not resemble the past if human activity depletes the earth’s resources. Toynbee pointed out that the creation of nuclear weapons has fundamentally changed the nature of war. There will then be no winners or losers, but only losers.

Day 6: “One world: The contribution of the human sciences to peaceful union of humanity”

Conference participants sensed that humanity was moving toward a common culture. Toynbee observed that European exploration, conquest, and colonization starting in the 16th century was a principal cause of this trend even if today nonwestern peoples are rejecting western hegemony. The era of regional civilizations is coming to an end, he said. The choice is now is between living together in one world or not living at all.

Science and technology have contributed to the unity of human culture. Less progress has taken place in the areas of religion, psychology and art. Sorokin spoke of the transition from “Ideational” to “Sensate” culture. He spoke of the misuse of Ideational ideologies in human history. Still, Sorokin predicted that the current Sensate culture, dominant in the past 500 years, was yielding to “a new Integral socio-cultural order” that would have a super-rational dimension. Perhaps the Sensate masters of science and technology can lead the way to a new understanding that will support a universal ideology of spirit.

Some questions: Can human spirituality transcend regional differences as the natural sciences have done? Will objective truths be universally acknowledged so that ideological differences disappear and the world becomes a more peaceful place? What is it about current schemes of religion that makes people cling to their own parochial tradition?

Some conclusions: The natural sciences do not define human identity so diverse groups of people can accept scientific theories without feeling personally compromised. Religion originally expressed the spirituality of tribes. Even the world religions, which allow and encourage universal membership, have become associated with particular racial or ethnic peoples. For instance, Christianity is seen in the Far East as a religion of western peoples, Roman Catholicism is the religion of Irish people, Protestant Christianity is the religion of Scandinavians, etc.

Because such religion is based on belief rather than fact, it seems impossible that the arrival of a new set of facts will dissuade people from their fixed sets of belief and therefore allow them to join spiritually with people holding different beliefs. Perhaps the solution to creating a One World culture is for people to turn increasingly to alternative sources of spirituality while not explicitly rejecting the old, divisive religions. Perhaps the solution is to develop a new framework of identity which allows individuals to be both citizens of their own nation and citizens of the world.

Additional observation: The Bible reports that God rested on the Seventh Day after creating the natural world. The eminent scholars of civilization who attended the seven-day meeting in Salzburg rested in the middle of the conference, on Thursday.


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