World Systems: A Philosophical Engagement with Trans-Civilizationality

GS “Sial Mirza” Goraya
12 min readApr 26, 2021

A world system is essentially a trans-civilisational entity : which allows us to and leads us towards understanding human history as an integrated whole. This does not mean that one theoretical framework can explain or account for all ideas, institutions or personalities or even explain the human experience of all people of the world; arguably, no historical theory can do that, in fact nothing imagined by human beings can, for that one would need to be a god.

However, we as students of history can select a limited dimension of reality, primarily created out of words and numbers, and maybe historical artefacts, and we can create frameworks to understand this dimension. It will never be a reflection of the complete human experience, but a small scale model : much like a globe is of the earth.

The world systems theory is such a model. Since we spoke of dimensions, a dimension is essentially a field, or a space. We can use theoretical models to map and understand the textual dimension, and by comparing the textual dimension and the geo-dimension (our geographies of being), by putting them together as two layers of reality, we can get a deeper understanding of both.

Thus we create better models. We progress from a physical globe to Google Earth.

While I will attempt to explain what I mean by our specific understanding of such a world systems theory: we should also admit that such theories are nothing new. All human societies, across time and space have and have had their own world system theories. I have written on Sumerians and Mesopotamians, and on Ancient Egypt – their mythology and cosmologies were also world system theories. And this need not be specifically religious : Marxism in the 20th century had its own world systems theory; arguably even western liberalism did, in the liberal international order, which is collapsing much sooner and much more rapidly than one would have expected. An ussrean collapse.

One could say these world systems theories exist in various scales of the geo-dimension; or they each exist in their own understanding of the world. So, if we return to what we mentioned earlier: about putting the geo-dimension alongside the textual dimension, all these worlds have their own textual traditions as well, which are books or texts written to explain their understanding of the being.

One might in fact say this interaction between the textual and the geo-dimension in fact creates a world within the larger world-of-worlds.

Two ideas are important here : different human beings operate in different understanding of what the world is. These worlds emerge from interactions between different dimensions: the geo-dimension of physical space, the dimension of text, and intermediated by the subconscious mind. New spaces that we create, like cyberspace; or discover, I cannot deny the reality of the spiritual dimension, have a role to play in the creation of different worlds, then inhabited by different people.

Fundamental to this process is the operation of the psychological aspect of the process of civilisation: on which Henri Francfort and Jacquetta Hawke have some excellent ideas, specifically about imagination interacting with and shaping the materiel of understanding physical world to create forms, and from an aggregation of these creative-imaginative enterprises, civilisation is born.

What we mean by world systems theory then is. a model which can be used to study these different civilisational worlds, each existing within their own space and time, ‘each within a language and life cycle of its own’ (in the words of William McNeil in Gunder Frank and Gillis).

Across history, various scholars such as Plutarch, Sima Qian and Ibn Khaldun have written grand histories of their worlds: the graeco Roman, the Chinese and the Islamic World respectively. The Mahabharata too is a different form of treatment of the Indian world – on which, more later. While Herodotus was at least in my mind a stand out scholar who attempted to understand other worlds from the inside out. In modern times, Georg Wilhelm Hegel attempted to do this, but his understanding of the Spirit of World history was still essentially Germanic, much like Aurobindo in India; in the 20th century, scholars like Oswald Spengler and then Arnold Toynbee that an approach towards understanding various civilisational worlds as equivalent and unique in their own right was attempted. I could mention many other stalwarts of the mind who all attempted the same.

Again, I highlight the word attempted. Can such a thing be done, especially by a contextually located human being who is, we must keep in mind, inhabiting a world too, and is looking inside out, from his world into another – I don’t know. Maybe we need to wait for an AI historian to write a truly unplaced history. But then again, the AI would be writing from cyberspace, which has been created by us, and of which we are the gods – petty gods, much like those animistic and sensually unstable ones of the worlds of antiquity. Perhaps cyberspace too will need its own Prometheus one day, but that is a thought too scary to contemplate.

But returning to why Spengler and Toynbee made an important advance in the study of history, they presented an idea, in the words of William McNeill, ‘an idea that humankind had developed a number of comparable civilisations, whose rise and fall had approximately parallel lines’ and this idea was a crucial departure from earlier ethnocentric visions of history – no doubt such world embracing visions were articulated by philosophers before, but to be systematised by historians and actually applied to the study of global history.

Later, however, this idea was challenged again by more popular history writers like Samuel Huntington, who of course began as a political scientist. But more importantly, by the Eurocentric world systems theory of Immanuel Wallerstein. Wallerstein proposed that the world system began around the year 1500, as various civilisations were integrated into a West based capitalist system. To which Andre Gunder Frank replied that the world system was in fact 5000 years ago, and began with the Mesopotamian civilisation.

My personal view is that both views are right and wrong. Wallerstein used the term World system in a very strict economic-materialist sense, what we might call a framework of understanding the world, which in his view was the globe that is the earth, as an integrated economic system. Now that, whether one likes it or not, was created by Europeans and was as a fact of logic a Eurocentric one. Of course prominent in this interpretation, is the logic of geography, or the geodimension – where the psychological materiel of this modern world came from is a matter of much interest to historians of early modernity these days. The new zeitgeist loves the Mongolian Empire’s turn of the wheel of time in books such as Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. But this again highlights the importance of looking at the interactions of a world system, or a world-of-worlds, which grows or evolves through multifarious influences across time, space and mind.

A. Gunder Frank attempted to fuse the technocratic and the longue duree and used the term world system more in a civilisational sense, with the second dimension that we spoke about earlier, the textual dimension, especially, but which we might expand as the knowledge dimension, playing an equally important role as the techno-economic one.

And this he says began 5000 years ago with Mesopotamia at its core.

But here comes my argument: if Gunder Frank is right, and I believe he is right at least in a directional sense, then such a system in fact existed much earlier too.

Ideational networks were crucial in the spread of agricultural technology, from 10,000 years ago, and arguably for other key technologies like clothing, weapons making and housing even during the long Ice Age.

However, one crucial element of civilisational development correlates with Gunder Frank’s 5000 year international system – and that is the development of writing. Now all civilisationalists that we mentioned before treat writing as a crucial element of civilisational consolidation- as a counter to civilisational ephemerality. We have to keep in mind that sophisticated oral knowledge based cultures have also existed, prospered and have even dominated textual writing based cultures, such as the various Indo-European people who have the ancestors in a sense of a significant proportion of civilisations which exist even till today. But in the longue duree their dominance has been ephemeral.

Now, while scholars such as James Scott would propose that these oral cultures have only been ignored because they ‘chose’ to not leave behind textual records – I would say – borrowing from world systems theory, these cultures would constitute a ‘periphery’ in our knowledge dimension. That is not to say that they were unimportant, but in the longer run, the oral basis of their society was rendered a ‘technological’ standard which could not compete with the written text based system for organising knowledge. Consequently, oral cultures were drawn into the ‘core’ of text based cultures, ultimately having to adopt the text-as-writing standard for civilisation. And, inadvertently accepting the redundancy of their oral standard.

For why text based writing was adopted as a standard for civilisation, by the ‘great founders’ who built them, we might turn to network theory (refer David S. Grewal’s work on this) which tells us that once a standard becomes dominant in any network, beginning with its utilitarian value, it becomes more and more beneficial for additional participants in that network to adopt it as well, and more and more costly for them to not do so. But what networks are we talking of?

We mentioned ideational networks: it takes a high degree of proficiency in writing before any society can pass on its ideas across time and space through written texts. Mesopotamia reached such a level of proficiency between 3000 and 2000 BC, towards the end of which epics like the legend of Gilgamesh were put into verse. Earlier texts were purely bureaucratic in nature, though some ‘history’ was recorded in inscriptions on monuments and artefacts. Egypt developed similar proficiency after 2000 BC. On the other hand, while writing was invented in India, for higher order ideas, knowledge was transmitted across generations through oral texts, till around 600 BC. At the other end of the Indo-European world, the Greeks also had to wait till 500 BC to ‘rediscover’ the importance of writing for higher order ideas. Other Mediterranean peoples, such as the Mycenaeans and Phoenicians, had most likely not used writing for higher order ideas transmission but continued with oral transmission. It was left to latter day historians such as Philo of Byblos to convert the oral into the textual.

From 5000 BC to around 500 BC, there was in fact competition between two ideas for the use of writing. In no way was the civilisation of the Mycenaeans or Indians less culturally sophisticated than that of the Mesopotamians or Egyptians but writing for higher order thinking as an idea won out against writing merely for bureaucratic record keeping. Perhaps in the process something was lost, but for the people who adopted this standard of civilisation, some other utility was gained.

Writing down an Epic such as the Legend of Gilgamesh might come at a risk of misportraying certain nuances of the tale; for words change meaning over time, in the longer run, and even in immediate reading it is impossible to convey tone (as we know only to well in our era of text based communication online; I have personally felt that the shift to voice based communication in forums such as Clubhouse is the recovery of an increasingly lost paradigm that is more than welcome). But, by reducing a ethno-cultural text to writing allows, for any people of an identifiably bounded culture (chiefly its elites) to take control of their ‘identity’. And control of course translates to power. The epistemic power of writing, especially for the service of elites, made its adoption a natural choice for certain kinds of polities. What was this ‘kind’? Since writing as the basis of a polity was a Mesopotamian invention, the adoption of this standard made every polity that adopted it slightly Mesopotamian.

The writing of the Epic of Gilgamesh launched humanity into its Heroic Age with the hero-king becoming, as he was in the text, the protagonist of Civilization. This was a uniquely Mesopotamian paradigm shift, which was adopted by later Bronze Age societies.

The adoption of epic writing fused with bureaucratic writing was perhaps as great a synthesis in the technology of politics as the synthesis of pastoralism and cultivation had been for the industry of sustenance.

This continued through the ages.

The Persian empire which was geographically coterminous with the ancient Mesopotamian ones, was a Mesopotamian type of polity. The Mauryan empire was a shift from a Eurasian type to a Persio-Mesopotamian type of polity as well. Interestingly, in actualising this shift, both empires began by adopting writing for glorification of the deeds of kings – in various inscriptions of Persian emperors (see Behistun) and the Pillars of Asoka – this was very similar in practice to how writing was first deployed (in the first extensions beyond its bureaucratic use) by the first lugals (Big Men) of Sumerian city states from 3000 BC.

Now, of course one should not consider this to be a wholesale shift in a civilisational identity. The Mauryan empire remained a very Indian empire governing a very Indian civilisation, and, in fact actively expanded it outwards, making in a sense a new Indo-Eurasian civilisation, in addition to birthing an Indo-Pacific one. This was the consequence of the operation of new civilisational standards in the knowledge-spirit domain.

When we apply network theory to civilisations, the best way to think of these networks is as akin to neural patterns. In fact I would argue that a civilisation essentially is an ‘entity’ (or Entity) which emerges from the sum total of the firing of the neural patterns of all its ‘members’ across time and space. Can we trace every pattern – at this stage, no. Perhaps in our times we might be able to trace neural patterns of communities – social media already allows us to begin to do that in a very rudimentary and indirect way. Once the organic barrier between our brain and cyberspace is broken we might become capable of doing more direct socio-neural pattern tracing.

But moving on, with this neural pattern based model in mind : when any leader or innovator adopts a standard from a network that is external to their civilisation, he brings into his civilisation an Influence (capitalised I, we are treating a pattern which correlates to an identifiable network standard as a separately identifiable pattern) from that external civilisation.

Now, the more such networks operate across any field of space during any unit of time, the more trans-civilisational the Field becomes.

One might agree or disagree with my thesis on writing I discussed above, but replace writing with any other ideational pattern which be traced in its origins to a specific civilisation and we tell the same story. Think of horse riding, the use of metals for exchange, or even spiritual ideas such as the Indo-European skyfather and earthmother.

I end with an engagement with William H. McNeil. He writes, ‘if the notion of a world system was tied more explicitly to a communications network and if more attention were paid to changes in that network as new means of transport and communication came into use, the notion of world system would gain greater clarity and power’ and then ‘the polarity between the term civilisation and world system would disappear and the language of world historians might gain greater precision if communications networks where to become the focus of attention’. Finally he appeals for us to realise that, ‘Communication is what makes us human; and if history was written with this simple notion in mind, networks of communication would become the centre of attention, and a more satisfactory history of the world (and of all the numerous subordinate groupings of humankind) might emerge.’

Finally, to close, Wallerstein was right especially in his specifically defined sense, about a west based capitalist world system emerging, centred around Europe, in the 15th century. But if we were to move away from the simply defined idea that movement by ships over seas if enough to create a world system – we will have to ask, where did the ideas that led to the emergence of such a world system come from? They had a long long trajectory.

Even the technology, both physical and financial, that made this world system possible, in fact, was much more global than Wallerstein might have known. As scholars of earlier modernity mentioned before stress.

Nonetheless his popularisation of the idea of a world system was an important one. As Hegel says, when a philosopher counters through argument an idea of another philosopher who preceded him, it does not mean he is proving his predecessor wrong. All it means is that his predecessor’s work now becomes a (relegated) step on the ladder towards the final truth, which is a fate, in time, the new ideas will be subjected to too. We must keep building that ladder. As of now, we have no idea of how we need to climb. But keep ascending, we must.

The adoption of the idea and then work towards building a truly integrative world systems theory using every tool and technology that is available to id today is a worthy challenge for our times.