Addendum on Incommensurable Civilizations

11 November 2009



Aristotle formulated some useful distinctions that we can employ in our continuing quest to understand the nature of civilization.

More Thoughts on Civilization

In The Incommensurability of Civilizations I argued that civilizations differ not only in regard to the obvious (and superficial) respects of history, language, culture, tradition and religion but also in respect to the idea that they embody, and that distinct civilizations embody distinct ideas. In Aristotelian terms this could be expressed by the formulation that history, language, culture, tradition, and religion are accidental to civilization whereas the idea upon which a civilization is constructed is essential. Or, perhaps better, we could invoke another Aristotelian distinction and say that the obvious properties of a civilization represent its matter whereas the idea of a civilization is its form. This allows us to do justice to the Platonic Form embodied by civilization while acknowledging the contribution of matter such as in the above list (history, language, culture, tradition and religion) to the life of a civilization.

The obvious qualification to my post of a couple of days ago is that distinct civilizations can embody distinct ideas, but they do not necessarily embody distinct ideas. A survey of familiar civilizations reveals that the farther apart two given civilizations are in space and time, the more likely it is that they will be based on a distinct idea, and from such a survey we could arrive at a rough typology of the ideas upon which civilizations are based. Of course, philosophers of the past have not been shy to do so, Hegel most notoriously so. But we can share Hegel’s view that distinct civilizations embody distinct ideas, and draw up a typology of civilizations on this basis, without adopting Hegel’s assumptions, ideas, or typology.

A survey of human history reveals clusters of civilizations that share many of their properties, and perhaps also share the idea of civilization that each embodies — or, if not exactly the same idea, we could say that there is a family resemblances of these ideas, which overlap and intersect (with a nod to the later Wittgenstein). For example, the cluster of the earliest civilizations that arose in the Fertile Crescent at the end of the Neolithic and before the rise of the great empires of antiquity, seem to exhibit a family resemblance to each other, as do the empires that followed them.


The Fertile Crescent, with the Tigris, the Euphrates, and the Nile rivers, was the point of origin for a cluster of civliizations that ultimately issued in the later civilizations of Europe and West Asia.

Another obvious qualification is that a continuous but changing tradition of civilization may embody one idea, the conception of which changes over time, and as that conception of the basal idea of civilization changes, the civilization changes. The example I have in mind is Western civilization. Recently in Civilization: a Rope or a Broom?, I invoked the continuity of Western civilization, that maintains its identity even while falling into distinctly different civilizations over time.

tripartite western history

The tripartite periodization of Western history: classical antiquity, the Middle Ages, and modernity.

We can explain both the continuity and the periodizations of Western civilization by reference to a basal ideal that changes over time. It occurred to be yesterday that the idea of the individual that has been so central in Western civilization has taken radically different forms throughout western history that correspond to the periodizations of Western civilization. Ancient individualism takes the form of Athenian democracy and Roman republicanism; the synthesis of both political traditions are central to the political life of Western civilization still today. In medieval civilization, the concern for the individual is expressed in and through the doctrine of personal salvation history, complete with the resurrection of the body and personal immortality. The contemporary conception of individualism since the advent of modernity constitutes of secularization (on which see Karl Löwith’s classic study, Meaning in History) of the extreme individualism of personal immortality brought to such a high pitch of development by medieval civilization.


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