Revisiting Civilization Revisited

30 June 2009


Recently in The Phenomenon of Civilization and then again in The Phenomenon of Civilization Revisited I considered the phenomenon of civilization as such, without reference to any particular civilization, but seeking generalizations that would allow something coherent to be said about the overall pattern of civilization in human history.

My considered conclusion of the above two posts was that civilization today is, on the whole, more pervasive and more robust than ever, so if we take the phenomenon of civilization inductively, such that the future can be expected to be like the past, civilization should be expected to become more pervasive and more robust over time. Thus the future of civilization looks bright, despite the long list of contra-indications that are continually brought to our attention by any number of apocalyptic prophecies of our culture.

I might mention that in a couple of different posts, Fear of the Future and The End of the End of the World, I dealt with the apocalypticism of contemporary culture, finding its source in the discontents of civilization of which Freud wrote, such that apocalyptic visions represent the overthrow of technological civilization, therefore the overthrow of the discontents forced upon us by civilization, therefore constituting a liberation, if only in our fantasies, from an oppressive force. I leave it open, at this point, as to whether the discontent intrinsic to civilization, the trade-offs it demands with our instinctive nature, could spiral upward to the point that this discontent becomes catastrophic and results in the collapse of civilization. I must regard this as a possibility, though I do not think it likely.

Today I want to consider a different but related question. Is it legitimate to think about civilization in the abstract? Is it legitimate to generalize about something that is always different in fact, different in detail? No two civilizations are alike; how then can one conception of civilization cover them all?

Producing a litany of civilizations, as in Toynbee or in Huntington, presumes a criterion or criteria by which civilizations can be isolated against the continuous backdrop of human history and so treated as distinct entities. The conception of civilization that makes it possible to identify civilizations and to distinguish those so identified must be based on a conception of civilization in the abstract. Whether one proceeds deductively by laying down conditions of what constitutes a civilization, or inductively by examining actual civilizations and from these observations finding the elements common to all civilizations, there is in either case a general conception of civilization involved. One way or another, then, we have a conception of civilization, arrived at by whatever means.

Toynbee, in defending his choice of civilizations as the unit of study for his approach to history, considers two complementary objections to his approach. The first objection is that the civilizations he identifies have no common characteristics that mark them off as civilizations as distinct from primitive societies. The second objection is that all civilizations are, on the contrary, so alike, so subordinate to common characteristics, that we must consider all civilizations as ultimately one civilization. This latter objection he calls “The Misconception of the ‘Unity of Civilization’.”

In what sense is what Toynbee calls the “unity of civilization” to be compared with what I have called the “phenomenon of civilization”? Both are related to the concept of civilization that we employ. …

When I say that civilization is pervasive throughout history do I give to “civilization” the meaning that Toynbee calls the “unity of civilization”? Certainly in regard to the contemporary world, to speak of the pervasive character of civilization is to refer to the features that Toynbee identifies as the unification of the world on Western economic and political principles. There is a loose sense in which Toynbee’s observation is like Fukuyama’s now widely criticized “End of History” thesis such that liberal democracy now has no serious political (or economic) challengers and will be the template for all nation-states from here on out. Both Toynbee and Fukuyama are looking at the same unification of the world on Western principles.

Toynbee invokes this unification only to criticize it as an inadequate conception of Western civilization. While Toynbee says that this unification has been exaggerated, and the language that he employs would now be considered offensive, he openly and explicitly acknowledges the living non-Western tradition that lies beneath apparent political and economic unification of the world.

Fukuyama invokes the unification of the world on the principles of the nation-state constituted on the basis of liberal democracy as the end of the ideological struggle that has defined history, and especially Western history. The struggle is over. One conception is triumphant without any legitimate claimants to an alternative vanguard. Fukuyama is unconcerned with defining civilization or in the larger question of the fate of civilizations. Although the statement of Fukuyama’s thesis in terms of the “end of history” gives an impression of a global temporal perspective, his enterprise is in fact much more limited and provincial; he is concerned with the development of political ideology within the modern Western tradition. He is not concerned with pre-modern societies, and he is only tangentially concerned with non-Western societies in so far as they are part of what Toynbee calls the unification of the contemporary world on western economic and political principles.

Toynbee, by contrast, is very much concerned with the larger question of civilization, including both pre-modern civilizations and non-Western civilizations in the world today. As we have just seen, Toynbee’s perspective gives us a context in which to place Fukuyama’s conception of contemporary Western history. Toynbee’s comparison and contrast of twenty-one distinct civilizations is intended to bring out the most general features of civilizations, and thus, we may suppose, to arrive at an adequate conception of civilization.

Our perspective, in turn, gives us a context in which we can place Toynbee’s endeavor. Toynbee, primarily an historian but engaged in an essentially philosophical enterprise (specifically, the philosophy of history), has an historian’s concern for the factual details of the civilizations he studies, and does not want to see this detail sacrificed to larger and more general conceptual concerns. despite the assumptions Toynbee liberally imports into his inquiry, he is, at bottom, very much a scientific historian who proceeds inductively. His exhaustive study of civilization is intended to draw concrete lessons from concrete instances of civilization. The comparison and contrast of twenty-one civilizations is to give us, if not the essence of civilization, at least a reasonable expectation of what may become of our own civilization.

The phenomenon of civilization taken in the abstract comes at the problem of civilization already with the assumption that there have been many civilizations, that civilizations grow, flourish, and decay, and that an overview of civilizations will reveal certain patterns to each of these stages, and perhaps even patterns for civilization overall. but the primary concern of adopting a perspective that attempts to look at the phenomenon of civilization from a completely general and abstract perspective is to free the mind from the detail of the scientific historian. We cannot do without detail, but whereas the inductive historian is concerned not to sacrifice the concrete detail of history to any matter of principle, it is our concern not to sacrifice principled thinking about history to any detail that might just as well have happened one way as another. A concrete fact can exemplify a principle, but it can just as well be an exception as an exemplification. And we seek not to allow exceptions to blind us to the pattern and the principle revealed in history.


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