Owen Lattimore, Asia, and Comparative History

Perhaps best known today as a pioneering scholar of Inner Asia and a victim of the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s, Owen Lattimore was more basically, like his friend Arnold Toynbee, a major player in the vogue of comparative history that captured wide public attention in the second quarter of the twentieth century. His lifelong intellectual project was to develop a “scientific” model of the way human societies form, evolve, grow, decline, mutate, and interact with one another along “frontiers.” In the process of working out this model, Lattimore appropriated for his own purposes, and often later discarded, some of the analytic devices most popular in his day, including ecological determinism, biological racism, economic geography and location theory, and Marxist modes of production. At every stage in his thinking, he sought to confound complacent teleologies, both those of Western “progress” and those of Chinese “civilization” of its pastoralist neighbors.