A Note on Quantitative Civilization

2 July 2009


Toybee Volume One

Yesterday in Two Conceptions of Civilization I made a distinction between quantitative civilization and qualitative civilization. The terminology is imperfect, but the idea that I sketched yesterday should be sufficiently simple.

The distinction between quantitative and qualitative civilization was discussed in the context of Toynbee’s A Study of History, Kenneth Clark’s documentary Civilisation, and Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis.

The more I think about it, especially in relation to Toynbee’s critique of the unity of civilization (discussed in Revisiting Civilization Revisited), the more on reflection it seems to me that the quantitative conception of civilization is extraneous and epiphenomenal to what is essential in civilization.

In A Study of History, Volume I, I. Introduction, C, III., (b), Toynbee writes:

…in modern times, our own Western Civilization has cast the net of its economic system round the World and has caught in its meshes the whole living generation of Mankind and all the habitable lands and navigable seas on the face of the planet. This economic unification on a Western basis has been followed up by a political unification on the same basis which has gone almost as far; for though the conquests of Western armies and governments have been neither as extensive nor as thorough as the conquests of Western producers and manufacturers and carriers and technicians, it is nevertheless a fact that almost all the sixty or seventy states in the contemporary world, including the surviving states of non-Western origin, are now members — in various ways and different degrees — of a single world-wide comity of states; and this world-wide comity is a direct extension of the system of states into which our Western Society has articulated itself since the beginning of the modern age.

For all his flaws (and there is much in Toynbee with which I take issue), I think Toynbee is right about this. And his analysis implies that this “world-wide comity of states” is distinct from civilization — distinct both from the individual civilizations Toynbee considers and distinct from what I have called the phenomenon of civilization.

At present, I am of the mind that civilization and its artifacts must be identified and judged qualitatively if at all. A consequence of this is that a definition of civilization cannot be reduced to a finite algorithm, or, if it is, at least one (or some, or all) of the steps in the algorithm will be non-quantifiable or non-finite elements. Qualitative thinking must slip the surly bonds of formal reasoning, and this is unquestionably problematic. However, we ought not to avoid that which is problematic simply because it is problematic. Life is problematic, and the way to avoid it is suicide — thus Camus defines suicide as the only true philosophical question.

Such thinking (i.e., qualitative thinking) is alien and uncongenial to the present age. Quantitative thinking is all the rage today. Algorithmic thinking is all the rage. Digitization in the form of discrete and quantifiable data is all the rage, finite precision errors and finite dimension errors be damned. Reductionism is all the rage (but, then again, reduction is always the rage, it is only a question of what one is reducing to what).

The Age of Information and the Age of Computers has encouraged, among the more vulgar acolytes of the disciplines of information and information processing, and among those who prefer the unconditional formulations of emotional outburst to the well-tempered formulations of cautious reason, a kind of technological reductionism. But civilization cannot be reduced to technology, cannot be defined in terms of technology, and may, essentially, have nothing to do with technology. But that latter may be yet another unconditional formulation of the sort to raise suspicions. So let us merely say that technology is not a sufficient condition for any civilization. Whether or not technology is a necessary condition for civilization is a question that we will leave for another time.


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