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Tragedy and the limits of reason : Arnold J Toynbee's search for a middle way

Becque, Paul (2009) Tragedy and the limits of reason : Arnold J Toynbee's search for a middle way. Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) thesis, University of Kent. (doi:10.22024/UniKent/01.02.94202) (KAR id:94202)


This thesis argues that Arnold J. Toynbee’s life-work is of considerable importance for our understanding of contemporary world politics. His quest to understand the drama of history - best exemplified in his monumental A Study of History - forced him to attempt to transcend the limits of his own culture’s thinking. Toynbee understood that his work was affected and indeed limited by the particular way of thinking prevalent in modern, Western societies. He understood these limits to be the limits of Western rationality, of the particular Western brand of reason. In his creative encounters with other, non-Western ways of experiencing reality, Toynbee’s work explores these limits and pushes beyond them. In this context we suggest that Toynbee’s interest in, and engagement with, Mahayana Buddhism was not an idle endeavour of a historian who had lost his way, as many of his academic critics would have it, but meaningful attempts to reach beyond the limits of his thinking. As we will explore in this thesis, Toynbee considered the Bodhisattva acting in the world as comparable to the Passion of Christ. The Bodhisattva action results from the logic and insights of ‘emptiness/openess’ (Sanskrit- Sunyata or Japanese- Ku) that are possibly ‘without equivalent’ in Western philosophical traditions, and accordingly it entailed one possibility to lead beyond the limitations of these Western traditions. Moving beyond these limits and their implications was the key motif in Toynbee’s work. We thus re appraise Toynbee’s project from his evolving multicultural perspective, one that informed his interest in Buddhist thinking. He thereby assumes the role of a ‘pioneer’, of someone who explored and transcends the limits of Western rationality from within. This is where we discover his contemporary significance, as the limits of Western reason are a crucial factor in today’s world politics.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctor of Philosophy (PhD))
DOI/Identification number: 10.22024/UniKent/01.02.94202
Additional information: This thesis has been digitised by EThOS, the British Library digitisation service, for purposes of preservation and dissemination. It was uploaded to KAR on 25 April 2022 in order to hold its content and record within University of Kent systems. It is available Open Access using a Creative Commons Attribution, Non-commercial, No Derivatives ( licence so that the thesis and its author, can benefit from opportunities for increased readership and citation. This was done in line with University of Kent policies ( If you feel that your rights are compromised by open access to this thesis, or if you would like more information about its availability, please contact us at and we will seriously consider your claim under the terms of our Take-Down Policy (
Uncontrolled keywords: Mahayana Buddhism; Arnold J. Toynbee
Subjects: J Political Science > JZ International relations
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Human and Social Sciences > School of Politics and International Relations
SWORD Depositor: SWORD Copy
Depositing User: SWORD Copy
Date Deposited: 20 Dec 2022 10:38 UTC
Last Modified: 20 Dec 2022 10:38 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

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