Civilization and Idea Diffusion

30 August 2010


Food storage technology: independent origins or idea diffusion? There is actually an interesting philosophical problem buried in this question.

The study of the origins of human culture have long been debated in terms of independent origin vs. idea diffusion. Call it a dialectic of the discipline if you like. This is one of those perennial debates that will never be settled because they represent fundamentally distinct interpretations of culture based on distinct conceptions of the world, and the evidence available is too scanty to definitively settle any theoretical dispute over origins long since lost in the mists of time.

It has recently occurred to me, however, that if what I said in The Incommensurability of Civilizations (and again in Addendum on Incommensurable Civilizations) has any value whatever (on a charitable interpretation, if in no other way) then it has something to say about this dialectic of historiography.

In these earlier posts I argued that distinct civilizations and are not merely distinct in terms of the obvious litany of distinct histories, languages, cultures, traditions, dress, cuisine, and religions (all of which I have come to see as mere contingencies of history), but that distinct civilizations are based on distinct ideas and therefore the representatives of one civilization cannot even recognize the idea that lies at the foundation of a truly distinct civilization. (This is one source of genocide; if we could recognize another civilized people for what they are, we would probably be less likely to engineer their annihilation.)

If civilizations are based on distinct ideas, we obviously cannot appeal to idea diffusion as the source of the spread and growth of civilization, given that idea diffusion is the negation of the thesis that civilizations are based on distinct ideas. If we accept that distinct civilizations are based on distinct ideas of civilization, then we cannot also hold that these distinct civilizations are the result of idea diffusion. Contrariwise, if we hold that the distinct civilizations of the world are the result of idea diffusion, then we cannot also maintain that civilizations are based on fundamentally distinct ideas.

This is all very neat and tidy, and of course it is not as simple as this in fact. Civilizations involve ideas at many levels. One may well deny that there is a fundamental idea to a civilization and yet accept that there is a cluster of typical ideas that are associated with a given civilization, and vice versa. And even if one allows that there are truly distinct civilizations based on distinct ideas of civilization, there can still be a diffusion of civilization based on the ephemera and contingencies of civilization, even if the idea that lies at the basis of these ephemera and contingencies is not understood or is misunderstood.

Imagine (a thought experiment, if you will) that a nomadic hunter-gatherer happens upon a civilized society, and passes in wonderment through the streets of an urban conurbation, astonished at this way of life that is so different from what he knows. He sees potters at their wheels, he sees gardens, he sees social hierarchies, and he sees public edifices and public ceremonies in which the people jointly participate. Now say (since in a thought experiment we can say whatever we like, however unlikely) that said nomadic traveler returns to the happy hunting grounds of his people, and, finding them encamped in their tents, begins to unfold for them a tale of what he has seen, and these people then unanimously decide that they too will establish a settled civilization and henceforth give up their hunter-gatherer ways.

This new civilization established by a distinct people might mimic the potters and the gardens and the social hierarchies and the public edifices and the public ceremonies of the people who had preceded them in civilization, and yet this civilization might be animated by a very different fundamental idea. In such a scenario, the ideas of various civilized technologies, even, we might say, various aspects of civilization, are mimicked but are mimicked as technologies and as contingencies, and no effort is made to reproduce the fundamental idea that motivated the origins of the first civilization.

Under these conditions, is the second civilization the result of idea diffusion? Is the second civilization based on a unique and distinct idea of civilization?

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