If the modern technical age is to remain human, it cannot overlook the truth that our ancestors have left with us. –Marshall G.S. Hodgson
Marshall G.S. Hodgson (1922–1968) was a World historian and Islamicist who has had a secondary but persistent and insightful influence on the development of both disciplines. He was a vegetarian, pacifist Quaker from a middle-class background who was imprisoned as a conscientious objector during the second world war. After the war he resumed his studies at the University of Chicago, where he graduated and taught until his death.
His most important work is the first of the three volumes of The Venture of Islam (1974), in which he argued that Islam had to be situated within a world historical (as opposed to a Eurocentric) context. It was unfinished at the time of his death, and the other two volumes had to be compiled from his notes. A retrospective of unfinished essays, entitled Rethinking World History (1993), was also released. Hodgson’s method was a combination of Weberian sociology and then-current civilizational studies.
For Hodgson, the locus of world history lay in the Oikoumene, or the “Afro-Eurasian Complex”—that is to say, the network of cities, connected by commerce through a southern (oceanic) and northern (overland) commercial network, more or less continuously extended from Beijing to London, Fez, and Belfast. Within this network he locates four “high cultural traditions,” the Greek, the Islamicate, the Hindu (except he actually calls it something else), and the Confucian, each with its own distinctive texts and outlooks. He focuses on the Islamicate because, in light of its central location and broad geographic expanse, it offers a gateway into world history.
Hodgson believed that the root of civilization, and the proper object of ground-up history, is the moral individual (or, as he says, the “piety-minded”), who earnestly endeavors to put into practice the ideals that a certain conscience, developed from a “high cultural tradition,” has instilled in him from youth. His history is therefore subtitled Conscience and History in a World Civilization. People who do not make this attempt are prima facie uninteresting as objects of historical study—Hodgson emphasizes this point by studiously ignoring the great and the powerful in his history, and concentrating instead on the pious and the idealistic. It is their struggle to live according to the precepts of conscience that he thinks is important in history. It is an idiosyncratic approach, to say the least, and has not had any heirs of whom I am aware.
Traditional notions of a stagnant East are so much imperialist and obscurantist nonsense, as is the central location of Europe on the Mercator map, and the arbitrary designation of Europe as a continent, when it is in fact merely a peninsula of Asia, while India, which is larger, more diverse, more populous, and throughout history more important, than Europe, is denigrated as a mere sub-continent. Hodgson believed that these misconceptions were indicative of a larger and a pernicious Eurocentric bias in history—hence the need for world history, which would recontextualize Europe as, for most of its history, a backwater of the far more complex and affluent areas between the Nile and Yellow rivers, and give due respect and attention to people from other areas, who are no less important as human beings simply because they were born outside of Europe.
Islamicate civilization, which he locates in the “Nile-Oxus heartland,” was vibrant, flourishing, and dynamic until Iberians replaced Arabs as the carriers of the Afro-Eurasian trade along the southerly route, which had the effect of starving Islamicate civilization of the wealth required to sustain that vibrancy. As “The Great Western Transmutation” took root in Europe, Islamicate and the other civilizations went into decline—for economic reasons, not cultural, he insists.
This transmutation is explained, à la Jared Diamond, as the result of cumulative efforts across the entire Oikoumene, and not as the result of internal developments within Christendom. In other words, he displaces the vertical integration of Greek philosophy, Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Industrial Revolution with the lateral integration of compass, gunpowder, printing, and the emergence of a vast cross-cultural market. That there should be a transmutation of some kind was, in Hodgson’s view, necessary; that it should occur in Europe was contingent. Its essential features were technicalism (i.e., concentration on technical proficiency) and an exponential increase in social power (i.e., the ability of institutions to mobilize and organize human energy and potential.) Once this process of transformation achieved a certain momentum, it could not be stopped, escaped, or entirely incorporated by other areas, which were rapidly impoverished in the economic, cultural, and political senses of the word. That is to say, they became underdeveloped.
Hodgson was, in certain respects, well in advance of his time. He predates Said’s Orientalism in a number of important respects, and he was clearly asking the right questions. However, his critique of Eurocentric scholarship was not as thoroughgoing as later postmodernist critics would have wanted, since his insistence on a single human community does not escape, but rather assumes, the totalizing imperative of modernity. Today he is remembered principally for his contributions to world history and to Islamic studies; his conscience-based approach to history is one of the paths not taken.
This post is the twenty-seventh is a series on the philosophy of history; the previous article in the series is here, the next is here.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the History of Science and Technology of nineteenth-century Germany. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.
Christopher Frederick says
I think the photo you have up for this post is that of Christopher Blayly and not Hodgson.
Daniel Halverson says
Thanks for this. You are quite right, and I’ve asked the editors to change the picture to reflect that. Daniel