The Historical Distinctiveness of Central Europe

A Study in the Philosophy of History

by Krzysztof Brzechczyn (Author)
©2020 Monographs 394 Pages
Open Access


The aim of this book is to explain economic dualism in the history of modern Europe. The emergence of the manorial-serf economy in the Bohemia, Poland, and Hungary in the 16th and the 17th centuries was the result of a cumulative impact of various circumstantial factors. The weakness of cities in Central Europe disturbed the social balance – so characteristic for Western-European societies – between burghers and the nobility. The political dominance of the nobility hampered the development of cities and limited the influence of burghers, paving the way to the rise of serfdom and manorial farms. These processes were accompanied by increased demand for agricultural products in Western Europe

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Preface
  • Contents
  • Part I On the Nature of the Developmental Differentiation of Central Europe
  • 1 In Defense of the Theory of the Historical Process
  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 On the Schematization of the Theory of the Historical Process
  • 3 On the Prognoses in the Theory of the Historical Process
  • 4 On the Loss of Nostalgia for the Metanarrative
  • 5 On the Teleology of Substantial Philosophy of History
  • 6 On the Need for the Theory of the Historical Process
  • 2 The Concept of Central Europe
  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 On the Criteria of Distinguishing Central Europe
  • 3 On the Borders of Central Europe
  • 4 On the Nature of the Distinctiveness of Central Europe
  • 3 On the Distinctiveness of Central Europe
  • 1 Theories Referring to External Factors
  • 1.1 The Concept of Marian Małowist
  • 1.2 The Concept of Immanuel Wallerstein
  • 2 Theories Referring to Internal Factors
  • 2.1 The Concept of Robert Brenner
  • 2.2 The Concept of Jerzy Topolski
  • 2.3 The Concept of Benedykt Zientara
  • 3 Combined Theories
  • 3.1 The Concept of Daniel Chirot
  • 3.2 The Concept of Władysław Rusiński
  • 3.3 The Concept of Jeremy Blum
  • 3.4 The Concept of Jan Rutkowski
  • 4 A Recapitulation
  • Part II Methodological Assumptions
  • 4 The Method of Idealization in the Historical Sciences
  • 1 Idealization in the Social Sciences: Case Studies
  • 2 The Method of Idealization
  • 3 The Idealizational Law and Its Concretization
  • 4 Operationalization of the Idealizational Theory
  • 5 On Some Extensions of the Idealizational Theory of Science
  • 5.1 On Different Kinds of Counter-Factual Assumptions
  • 5.2 On the Specification of Idealizational Statements
  • 6 The Comparative Method and Idealization
  • 7 The Method of Modeling in the Economic History
  • 7.1 Classification of Economic Models
  • 7.2 Evsey Domar’s Theory of the Rise of Exacerbated Serfdom
  • 7.3 Witold Kula’s Theory of the Feudal System in Poland
  • 7.4 Jerzy Topolski’s Model of Economy of Greater Poland
  • 7.5 Frédéric Mauro’s Theory of Intercontinental Trade
  • 7.6 A Recapitulation
  • 8 The Limitations of the Method of Idealization
  • 5 The Methodological Characterization of the Cascade Effect
  • 1 Two Types of Essential Structures
  • 2 On Small Causes and Huge Effects
  • 3 The Interaction of Factors in the Cascade
  • 4 The Cascade Effect and the Scientific Theory
  • 5 The Cascade Effect and the Historical Narrative
  • 6 The Cascade Effect in Light of Categorial Ontology
  • 7 The Rationale of Idiographism in the History
  • 8 The Cascade Effect and Economic Dualism in Modern Europe
  • Part III Theoretical Assumptions
  • 6 The Basic Ideas of Non-Marxian Historical Materialism
  • 1 Presentation of Basic Ideas
  • 1.1 A Typology of Societies
  • 1.2 A Model of Evolution of a Purely Political Society
  • 1.3 The Global Model of a Political Society
  • 2 On the Class Divisions in the State of Teutonic Knights
  • 2.1 Problem
  • 2.2 The Social Structure of the Teutonic State
  • 2.3 Evolution of a Teutonic Society
  • 2.4 Conclusions
  • 3 Alternative History and the Rise of Socialism in Russia
  • 7 Ownership and Revolution in Non-Marxian Historical Materialism
  • 1 On Some Basic Mechanisms of Social Development
  • 1.1 Adaptive Mechanisms
  • 1.2 The Mechanism of a Class Struggle
  • 2 On Two Models of Economic Society
  • 2.1 The Basic Model of Purely Economic Society
  • 2.2 An Economic Model of Feudal Society
  • 3 On Two Types of an Economic Revolutions
  • 3.1 Non-rationalistic Model of a Man
  • 3.2 Critique of the Reconstruction of a Christian Model of Man
  • 3.3 A Non-rationalistic Model of Man in the Area of Economy
  • 3.4 Two Types of Revolutions in the Model of an Economic Society
  • Part IV The Conceptualization of the Distinctiveness of Central Europe
  • 8 Models of the Source of a Cascade
  • 1 Model II: An Economic Society with a Surplus of Manpower
  • 1.1 Assumptions of the Model
  • 1.2 Social Resistance of the Unemployed
  • 1.3 Social Resistance of the Employed
  • 1.4 The Image of Social Resistance of Direct Producers
  • 1.5 Development of an Economic Society with a Surplus of Manpower
  • 2 Model III: An Economic Society with a Shortage of Manpower
  • 2.1 Assumptions of the Model
  • 2.2 The Shortage of Manpower versus the Social Resistance
  • 2.3 Development of an Economic Society with a Shortage of Manpower
  • 2.4 A Scope of the Historical Application of Models
  • 9 The Genesis of European Differentiation
  • 1. On the Peculiarities of Feudalism in Central Europe
  • 2 The Emergence of a Cascade of European Differentiation
  • 2.1 The Core of the Cascade of European Differentiation
  • 2.2 The Polish Variant
  • 2.3 The Hungarian Variant
  • 2.4 The Bohemian Variant
  • 3 Summary
  • Conclusions
  • Appendices
  • Civilizational Dimensions of Non-Marxian Historical Materialism
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Civilizational Aspects of Non-Marxian Historical Materialism
  • 3. Social Practice versus Types of Class Stratification
  • 4. Between Ecological Conditions and Socio-economic Practice
  • An Individual and Two Approaches toward Political Revolution
  • List of Figures
  • List of Tables
  • Bibliography
  • Name Index
  • Subject Index
  • Series index

1 In Defense of the Theory of the Historical Process

1 Introduction

From its very birth in the ancient Greece, philosophical thought has included a reflection over human society and its past. However, philosophy of history, as a separate philosophical discipline conscious of its object of study and methods, emerged in the Age of Enlightenment. Giambattista Vico, the Italian intellectual who lived at the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries, was named the pioneer of the discipline. He termed it the “new science.” Philosophical reflection over history was “new” in the sense that, in the Age of Reason, it escaped from the influence of religion and theology. Voltaire introduced the term “philosophy of history” in 1765.1 In the course of its evolution, the discipline has been understood as:

an interpretation of the past or of a fraction of the past using philosophical categories and concepts, or an explication of the past provided with reference to laws/models/theories responsible for social development;

a description of the past perceived from the perspective of universal history of human kind;

an evaluation and a search for meaning in history, or in separate historical events;

a theory of knowledge and historical cognition.

The Anglo-Saxon world offers an additional distinction into two branches of analytic (or critical) and speculative (or substantial) philosophy of history.2 ←19 | 20→Analytic philosophy of history belongs to philosophy of science, and it deals with the following issues concerning historical knowledge: modes of explanations, nature of a historical fact, structure of a historical narrative, status of historical laws. Substantial philosophy of history puts forward statements concerning the course of the historical process. Out of the above list, substantial philosophy of history has the first three features and analytic philosophy of history has the last feature. The substantial philosophy of history may predominantly emphasise the explanatory aspect of a given dimension of the past under study. Then it can be alternatively described as “theory of the historical process,” or “theoretical history.” When a given concept from substantial philosophy of history includes also the axiological aspect of the past, it is termed historiosophy.3

Regardless of the understanding of the substantial philosophy of history – minimalistic or maximalist – this type of humanistic reflection has raised a lot of controversy: from Karl R. Popper’s criticism of the impossibility to formulate laws governing historical development to Jean-François Lyotard’s claims about a totalitarian virus present in the very intention of constructing metanarratives. The present chapter offers a critical analysis of the accusations formulated by Isaiah Berlin, Karl R. Popper, Jean-François Lyotard, and Aviezer Tucker against the substantial philosophy of history.

2 On the Schematization of the Theory of the Historical Process

According to Isaiah Berlin, the characteristic feature of conceptions formulated within the substantial philosophy of history is their recognition of the past reality as a homogenous and universal developmental model. Berlin, such an understanding of history assumes that

[t];here is some single explanation of the order and attributes of persons, things, and events. Usually this consists in the advocacy of some fundamental category or principle ←20 | 21→which claims to act as an infallible guide both to the past and to the future, a magic lens revealing “inner,” inexorable, all-pervasive historical laws, invisible to the naked eye of the mere recorder of events, but capable, when understood, of giving the historian a unique sense of certainty – certainty not only of what in fact occurred, but of the reason why it could not have occurred otherwise.4

Substantial philosophy of history understood as above bears two characteristic features: it generates one universal model of history concerning a certain distinguished social entirety, such as Humanity, in which separate historical facts are perceived as necessary components of an order of events. According to Berlin,

[t];o understand is to perceive patterns. To offer historical explanations is not merely to describe a succession of events, but to make it intelligible; to make intelligible is to reveal the basic pattern – not one of several possible patterns, but the one unique plan which, by being as it is, fulfils only one particular purpose, and consequently is revealed as fitting in a specifiable fashion within the single “cosmic” overall schema which is the goal of the universe, the goal in virtue of which alone it is a universe at all, and not a chaos of unrelated bits and pieces [. . .]. Unless an event, or the character of an individual, or the activity of this or that institution or group or historical personage, is explained as a necessary consequence of its place in the pattern (and the larger, that is, the more comprehensive the schema, the more likely it is to be the true one), no explanation – and therefore no historical account – is being provided. The more inevitable an event or an action or a character can be exhibited as being, the better it has been understood, the profounder the researcher’s insight, the nearer we are to the one embracing, ultimate truth.5

For Berlin, this kind of approach to history was a manifestation of a “metaphysical fantasy.”6 His argument can be reconstructed in the following way: historical reality is typically multi-formed and multi-streamed. It is significantly more complex in reality than according to a philosopher of history, who is armed with “categories and rules,” hence it cannot be forced to fit into a Procrustean bed of any philosophy of history.7

←21 | 22→

A closer look at conceptions belonging to the substantial philosophy of history reveals that they can be divided into three types, according to the criterion of the degree of universality of the formulated statements:

According to universalistic conceptions, theories/models/dependencies or developmental mechanisms formulated within them pertain to all societies equally. It needs to be admitted that the formulated dependencies are being frequently applied in a dogmatic manner in order to explicate a historical reality.

A good example of the approach to history described above is the Stalinist version of historical materialism popularized in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and in the socialist states of the Eastern Bloc in the years 1944–1956. Joseph Stalin put forward a binding interpretation of this form of Marxism in his work Dialectical and Historical Materialism published in 1938, where “the great leader of the proletariat” in a very authoritative manner outlined five-staged developmental model including primitive communal system, slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and socialism. The Marxist ideology proved detrimental to Marxism as such because, by legitimizing a totalitarian social system, it ceased to be a scientific theory developed by virtue of internal criticism and confrontation with empirical data.

However, the aforementioned universalism of the substantial philosophy of history is not characteristic solely for Marxism. It is also present in the social philosophy of liberalism, for example in Walt Whitman Rostow’s theory of modernization. According to this conception, the principal social factor is the development of modern science. The evolution of modern science and the successful application of its achievements brought about a modernization of economy, which, in turn, resulted in a creation of a modern nation state. According to Rostow, the history of all human societies evolves through the following five stages of economic development: traditional society, pre-conditions to modernization take-off, modernization take-off, drive to maturity, and age of mass consumption.

←22 | 23→

In traditional societies, modern science was yet to be developed and environmental conditions restricted economic growth. Family ties and clan relations dominated the social aspect of public life, and the entire social life had a hierarchical character. In traditional societies, the system of values was permeated with fatalism, or a conviction that, in all generations, individual members of society will have the same scope of life chances. According to Rostow,

[i];n terms of history then, with the phrase “traditional society” we are grouping the whole pre-Newtonian world: the dynasties in China; the civilization of the Middle East and the Mediterranean; the world of medieval Europe. And to them we add the post-Newtonian societies, which, for a time, remained untouched or unmoved by man’s new capability for regularly manipulating his environment to his economic advantage.9

The second stage described by Rostow as “pre-conditions to modernization take-off” is characterized by the application of the inventions of budding modern science, which brings about economic development. Simultaneously, agriculture was still the primary economic sector. In order to initiate a modernization take-off a society had to satisfy three conditions: to produce enough food to feed the growing town population, to serve as an outlet for production of the means of production, and owners should invest profits from agriculture into industrial production. This stage is characterized by the beginnings of international market and creation of nation states what is condition for a modernization take-off.

This was followed by an accelerated industrialization and urbanization of society. At this stage, the level of investment increased to 5–10 % of net national income, and a rapid advancement of particular industrial branches took place resulting in the development of remaining economic fields and transformations of political and public life. Rostow argues that all societies experienced the following developmental stage in various moments in history:

one approximately allocate the take-off of Britain to the two decades after 1783; France and the United States to the several decades preceding 1860; Germany, the third quarter of the nineteenth century; Japan, the fourth quarter of the nineteenth century; Russia and Canada the quarter-century or so preceding 1914; while during the 1950’s India and China have, in quite different ways, launched their respective take-offs.10

In the subsequent stage of historical development, which Rostow terms “the drive to maturity,” achievements of the previous stage were consolidated. In this phase of development, around 10–20 % of net national income was invested ←23 | 24→in economic growth. In the previous stage, mining and heavy industries were developed, while now the major investment was in the development of chemical, electrical, and machinery industries.

The final stage – the age of mass consumption – was reached when the primary income of the greater part of members of society had allowed for satisfaction of other demands, which go beyond basic needs, such as food, accommodation, and clothing. As society became predominantly urban, the majority of people was employed in the service sector. In the age of mass consumption, all members of society are capable of achieving prosperity – on account of welfare state institutions. At the time when Rostow formulated his claim, the United States (1946–1956), Western Europe and Japan (1950s) entered this stage of social advancement.

A contrast between European and Asian societies has become the foundation of dualistic theories. For instance, Karl August Wittfogel put forward a theory of hydraulic societies, which has revitalized the discussion on Asian social formation after the Second World War.11 According to Wittfogel, the tradition of distinguishing between occidental and oriental lines of development originates from the period when nomadic tribes proceeded from hunting and gathering to a sedentary life based on cultivation of land. The line of historical development was influenced by access or lack of access to water. In Europe, the abundance of water reservoirs ensured individual access to aquatic resources. However, the areas of Near East and Far East experienced shortages of water and rainfall. In order to survive, these societies were forced to organize irrigation works designed to tame large-scale rivers. The state was established to organize irrigation works and supervise the process of organization of production. Subsequently, it was no longer necessary to conduct regular irrigation works but the state organization founded for this purpose remained. In Asian societies, despotic-bureaucratic systems were established, hampering the development of private property and subjugating religious organizations.

With regard to the degree and scope of state interference into socio-economic life, Wittfogel distinguished between classic, marginal, and sub-marginal hydraulic societies. In classic hydraulic systems, state exercised direct control over irrigation works and organized them. Classic societies included: ancient ←24 | 25→Chinese, Egyptian, Indian, Inca, and Mesopotamian societies. In marginal hydraulic societies, the state dealt with building facilities and organization of ventures directly not associated with building canals, and additionally fulfilled a number of social functions, such as tax collection and defense. The Byzantine Empire is a good example of such society. Finally, in sub-marginal hydraulic systems developed in Russia and Turkey, state manifested its power in enforcing collection of taxes, developing defense systems against external aggression and maintaining legal order.

In his comparison of the historical development of Asian and European societies, Wittfogel claimed that Asian societies are characterized by state ownership of the means of production, despotism, dominance of the collective over the individual, and social stagnation. In contrast, characteristic features of European societies included: private ownership of the means of production, political freedom manifested in bottom-up formation of civil organizations, dominance of the individual over collective and dynamic development.

According to Wittfogel, capitalistic societies derive from the feudal system formed in the Western developmental line, while the system of real socialism in the Soviet Union and China derives from hydraulic systems formed in the oriental developmental line:

The agrarian despotism of the old society, which, at most, was semi-managerial, combines total political power which limited social and intellectual control. The industrial despotism of the fully developed and totally managerial apparatus society combines total political power with total social and intellectual control.12

Based on this, Wittfogel claims that the two developmental lines had been distinguished in the past and there were no new separate developmental lines distinguished afterwards. Moreover, hydraulic societies found their continuation in real socialism and feudalism – in democratic capitalism.

Pluralistic conceptions presume existence of many types of societies evolving according to distinct regularities. Samuel Huntington’s theory, which employs the concept of civilization, is one of such conceptions:

A civilization is thus the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have short of that which distinguishes humans from other ←25 | 26→species. It is defined both by common objective elements, such as language, history, religion, customs, institutions and by the subjective self-identification of people.13

Nonetheless, nation states are the most influential entities on the international arena and, as emphasized by Huntington, their interests, making covenants, and conflicts are defined by cultural factors, which determine their civilizational identity. As cultural formations, civilizations do not have clearly defined political boundaries and their political structure is characterized by great diversity. As a result, civilizations may include a single country (i.e. Japanese civilization) or a number of sovereign countries (i.e. Western civilization). The latter type of civilizations may be centered on a recognizable leading state (i.e. Russia in the civilization of Eastern Orthodox Christianity) or there may be no leader (e.g. in the Latin-American civilization or in the Islamic civilization, a number of countries aspire to the role of a leader; however, as of now, none of them managed to gain dominance over others). Huntington differentiated seven currently existing civilizations and one emergent:

Sinic or Chinese civilization – dating back to the 15th century BC; its cultural core is Confucianism; it encompasses China, Vietnam, and South Korea and Chinese communities living abroad;

Japanese civilization – emerged from Chinese civilization between the 1st and the 4th centuries;

Hindu civilization – formed around in the 14th century BC; its cultural core is Hinduism;

Islamic civilization – created in the 7th century on the Arabian Peninsula; currently spreading over North Africa, Near East, and Central Asian countries; it encompasses a number of cultures: Arabic, Turkish, Persian, and Malayan;

Orthodox civilization – a continuation of the Byzantine civilization; differs from Western Christianity by two hundred years of Tatar rule, bureaucratic despotism and restrained contact with Western cultural tendencies: the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment;

Western civilization – dating back to the 8th and the 9th centuries; its characteristic features include: heritage of classical antiquity, Catholicism and Protestantism, a multiplicity of European languages, separation of spiritual and secular power, the rule of law, social pluralism, development of representative institutions, and individualism;

←26 | 27→

Cultural identity of a civilization to a large extent influences developmental lines of societies forming particular civilizations. Huntington states that it is a key factor in the future development of relations between the West and other civilizations.

If we treat Berlin’s criticisms as a criterion for a typology of the theory of the historical process, some of these conceptions will be subject to his charges (universalistic conceptions) and some will not.15 For this reason, Berlin’s critique is partially legitimate.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2020 (June)
modeling cascade process manorial-serf economy economic dualism economical backwardness modern history
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 394 pp., 26 fig. b/w, 2 tables.

Biographical notes

Krzysztof Brzechczyn (Author)

Krzysztof Brzechczyn is a professor at the Faculty of Philosophy in Adam Mickiewicz University in Pozna´n. He has authored several books and papers in different languages. His fields of interest include modern history, intellectual history, philosophy of history, social philosophy, and theory of historiography.


Title: The Historical Distinctiveness of Central Europe
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396 pages