The Incommensurability of Civilizations

8 November 2009


Samuel Huntington

Samuel Huntington told us that civilizations are clashing, but didn't really tell us why they are clashing, other than a laundry list of differences of history, language, culture, tradition and religion.

A Thought on the Clash of Civilizations

To observe that civilizations do indeed clash is not yet to say why civilizations clash. As soon as I write this I realize that this constitutes a non-constructive conception (in the logical sense of “constructive”) of what it is for civilizations to clash, which immediately suggests in turn the possibility of a constructive conception of what it means for civilizations to clash. Only the details of history can exhibit the reasons that civilizations clash; history is an inherently constructive mode of thought. But we will not consider this further here. Rather, we will pursue this observation from a scientific rather than a logical perspective, at least for the moment.

Observation is the beginning of induction, and it would be a sensible and defensible approach to systematically observe many civilizations, to the extent that this is possible, and from the knowledge gained from systematic observation to converge upon a hypothesis. This would constitute the scientific approach to the problem posed by the nature of civilization.


Philosophy of science, however, has made us aware of some of the limitations of the scientific method, and these limitations are especially glaring when dealing with social and cultural phenomena like the phenomenon of civilization. One of these limitations is rooted in the fact that all observation is theory-dependent. This means that one cannot simply observe. If you put ten people in the same place and instruct them, “Observe!” they may well observe ten different things.


The modern tradition of scientific observation begins with Galileo, who aimed a telescope into the heavens and saw things that had never before been see. Often he saw flaws and imperfections, which at the time were thought to be impossible in celestial bodies.

There is a tradition of scientific observation that gives consistency and stability to the knowledge derived from observation. Experimental methodology channels observations into science-like observations. Such observations are theory-laden, i.e., such observations already incorporate a scientific theory. Science-like knowledge is derived from science-like observations.


Louis Pasteur was a great pioneer of the experimental method, deriving science-like knowledge from science-like observation.

While there are research methods for the social sciences, they are more problematic than research methods for the natural sciences. We do not say that they are simply wrong or compromised; it is a matter of degree. Observations in physics are theory-laden just as observations of human behavior are theory-laden (the LHC is an embodied research program), but human behavior has an emotional and intellectual content for the human observer that pure physics divorced from human activity does not have. Consequently, the human sciences are the most compromised; but, again, it is a matter of degree.


The LHC will make it possible for physicists to search for evidence for the Higgs boson, but this is a research program that is only meaningful in the context of the 'standard model' of particle physics. This is observation and induction, but very finely tuned observation and induction.

Civilization ought to be an object for the social sciences, and following the scientific method observations of civilization might converge upon a list of the particulars that distinguish one civilization from the other, and one might conclude that these distinctions are the reasons that civilizations clash. But this method would not be adequate to understand the clash of civilizations.

We use the one word “civilization” to identify very different social entities, and we are right to do so. We cannot think and we cannot understand anything unless we have general terms that cover a multitude of particular cases. But there is more than one sense in which civilizations could differ. If there is a Platonic idea, a Form, of civilization, then each civilization is a real civilization, a genuine civilization, in so far as it embodies the Form of civilization. Let us call this the Platonic account of civilization.


Plato more or less founded the Western tradition of philosophical inquiry, and the spirit of Plato still looms large. Platonism (that is to say, Plato's theory of ideas) still has legs.

In contradistinction to the Platonic account of civilization, there is the Nominalist account of civilization, the kind of account of the word “civilization” that one would expect from Ockham’s nominalist terminist logic. For Ockham, terms are just terms; they do not indicate an idea. For Ockham, there may be Forms, but language does not embody them. Ockham was the original philosophical minimalist, and as such he ought to be regarded as the patron saint of contemporary Anglo-American analytical philosophy, which is thoroughly minimalist in character. It was Ockham who gave us Ockham’s razor, also known as the principle of parsimony, which is the injunction to prefer the simpler explanation.


William of Ockham was one of the greatest philosophers of the Western tradition, who more-or-less single-handedly inaugurated the tradition of philosophical parsimony that still reigns today.

I hold, then, a Nominalist theory of civilization, implying that the diverse social entities we call civilizations fall under the same term, but not in virtue of an idea or Form that all possess in common. However, I do not deny civilizations do have an idea at bottom that structures the kind of social entity that each is. There’s the rub.

Each civilization is not only distinct, but each is based on a distinct idea of civilization. Thus civilizations clash because each has an idea of what civilization is and ought to be that is not shared by other civilizations, each of which are similarly are based on an unshared idea. Thus it is not the case that all civilizations embody, each perhaps in its own distinctive way, one and the same idea of civilization. In short, civilizations are incommensurable.

Civilization is not one, but many.

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