Prof. Emeritus
George Von der Muhll



September 17, 2009,
TBA, 11:30am

George von der Muhll

Why do civilizations come into being, flourish, clash, and disintegrate?  Not surprisingly, scholars have put forward radically diverse answers over many centuries to such broad questions.  Analysts from Augustine of Hippo in the 5th C CE to Arnold Toynbee in the 20th have found a comprehensive explanation for the decline of civilizations in a desiccation of the spirit, whereas, in his widely read Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse, our University of California colleague Jared Diamond has set out to show that both the rise and the disintegration of civilizations can be explained within the analytic framework of an uncompromising materialist paradigm.         

In the past few decades, professional historians were showing swiftly diminishing interest in civilizational studies.  Many found them pretentious in the scope of their ambition, overly simple in their analysis, predictably riddled with inaccuracies in their generalizations. Yet the conspicuously rising power of East Asia and now Hindu-dominant India, the retreat of Russia from avant-garde Communism to a reaffirmation of Orthodox Christian societal guidelines, the reassertion of indigenous cultural values in many restive Latin American societies, and, of course, the recent attacks by Islamic militants on sites they understandably take to be emblematic of Western material and military values have revived both popular and scholarly interest in what can be learned from such studies.  I would therefore like to explore in barest outline certain patterns that have underlain the study of civilizations, some badly formulated questions and tautological explanations that have impeded its advance, and some new directions in its study that seem promising to me.  Having done so, I should like to conclude with some observations regarding Western civilization that seem to me to maintain at its core the possibility for adaptivity, self-renewal, and growth in a world it can no longer expect to dominate on its terms.

Although born in Baltimore, George Von der Muhll spent five deeply formative years as a teenager in postwar Occupied Germany.  He obtained his BA from Oberlin College (1956), studied the interrelations of philosophy, economics, and political science at the London School of Economics, where he obtained an M.Sc. (Econ.), then a Ph.D. in Government from Harvard University.  He has since served as a regular faculty member at Swarthmore College, the University of Chicago, and UCSC.  During the last year of the Kennedy Administration he was a Congressional Fellow in Washington, where he worked for Rep. William fitts Ryan (D-NY) and then-Senator Hubert Humphrey (D-MN).
In a scholarly career best characterized as shamelessly eclectic he has taught courses in virtually every subfield of political science and several on its margins.  However, his preoccupation with the study of ancient civilizations over the past quarter century is a relatively direct outgrowth of the Core Course he taught for USCS’s Politics Board on “Political Change in the Third World”.  This course focused on the structural properties of governmental regimes that collapsed, persisted, or transformed under both internal and environmental pressures, and, together with a sustained interest in more abstract “positive” (explanatory) theories of politics, it led him to accept with alacrity an invitation to extend his analytic approach backwards to the study of earlier societies.  Both his contemporary and his historical interests have been served by the opportunity to travel through most of the world.  So far his apparently incurable eclecticism continues to be expressed in strings of journal articles not consolidated into books, but with only limited success he is fighting distractions in the hope of completing three on The Snake in the Garden: Literature and the Study of Politics; Political Science and the Quest for a Unifying Paradigm; and The Disintegration of Civilizations: A Theoretical Inquiry