Thinking about Civilization

10 April 2015


Orders, Stages, and Waves


Theoretical Frameworks for Civilization


The problem of an adequate conceptual framework (or, if you prefer, a theoretical or analytical framework) for civilization is simply the problem of how to think about civilization. It is my ambition not merely to think about civilization, but to do so well, i.e., clearly and rigorously, and, to that end, to think about civilization scientifically and philosophically. We need a scientific body of knowledge about civilization, and then a philosophical analysis of this body of scientific knowledge, before we can say that we are capable of thinking about civilization clearly and rigorously.

In my attempt to arrive at a scientific conception of civilization I have formulated many different conceptual frameworks — many of them mere fragmentary ideas without much connection to a wider scientific context, such as in the established social sciences — that I view as something like exercises or experiments, to be tested against the historical record, and also to be extrapolated into the future. Following Carnap’s tripartite distinction of scientific concepts into the taxonomic, the comparative, and the quantitative (cf. The Future Science of Civilizations), some of these ideas are taxonomic, some are comparative, and some are quantitative.

Rudolf Carnap's account of scientific concepts from his Philosophical Foundations of Physics.

Rudolf Carnap’s account of scientific concepts from his Philosophical Foundations of Physics.

Taxonomic, comparative, and quantitative conceptions of civilization

Implicitly I have been employing a taxonomy of civilizations when I used terms such as agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization or industrial-technological civilization, and recently I have suggested that these taxa may be placed within more general taxa. For example, classical antiquity and medieval Europe were both civilizations with an agricultural base, but profoundly different in other respects. Thus if we understand that industrial-technological civilization is a scientific civilization, we can see by analogy how this civilization might be superseded by another kind of scientific civilization but which was not an industrial-technological civilization (cf. David Hume and Scientific Civilization and The Relevance of Philosophy of Science to Scientific Civilization).

In Comparative Concepts in the Study of Civilization I sketched out some of the problems of employing comparative conceptions of civilization, which are of great utility despite the moral repugnance in which such comparisons are held today. Comparative concepts remain underdeveloped because of the moral opprobrium attached to explicit comparisons among civilization, which imply explicit rankings, such as “better than” or “worse than,” “higher” or “lower,” “more advanced” or “less advanced,” “more developed” or “less developed.” Even when rankings of civilizations are carefully and tightly circumscribed so to not to judge the worth of a civilization — presumably its contribution to human history — such rankings are still routinely misconstrued, often willfully so. Even to suggest such a thing is to invite hostile criticism.

There are a number of well-known quantitative schemes for taking the measure of civilization, most especially the Kardashev rankings of Type I, Type II, and Type III (subsequently extrapolated by several authors to both higher and lower types). I wrote about Kardashev’s types at some length in What Kardashev Really Said on Centauri Dreams, so I will not repeat that analysis here. My dissatisfaction with Kardashev types led me to formulate a series of stages in the development of spacefaring civilization, which I wrote about in Beyond the Kardashev Scale and which I spoke about at the first 100YSS event 2011, and then put in essay form in The Moral Imperative of Human Spaceflight.

In brief, I treated the stages of spacefaring civilizations in terms of technological ability to overcome gravitational thresholds. These gravitational thresholds ascend from the surface of Earth (as, i.e., the difficulty of crossing mountain ranges) through planets, stars, and galaxies to the multiverse:

● Stage 0 spacefaring civilizations, or a planet-bound civilizations, have no capacity for spaceflight. (Pre-Sputnik civilization)

● Stage 1 spacefaring civilizations have the kind of minimal capacity that we now possess to loft satellites and human beings into orbit, and even to visit nearby heavenly bodies such as the moon. (Sputnik and after)

● Stage 2 spacefaring civilizations might be defined as those that have established a permanent, self-sustaining presence off the surface of the world of a given civilization’s biological origin. This could also be defined in terms of practical, durable, and routine inter-planetary travel. This is the minimal level of civilization to assure long-term survivability.

● Stage 3 spacefaring civilizations would have achieved practical, durable, and routine interstellar travel.

● Stage 4 spacefaring civilizations would be defined in terms of practical, durable, and routine inter-galactic travel.

● Stage 5 spacefaring civilizations would be defined in terms of practical, durable, and routine travel in the multiverse, i.e., beyond the known universe defined by the consequences of the big bang and observational cosmology.

I conceived my above schema of stages in the development of spacefaring civilization in terms of transportation — whether by foot, canoe, horseback, sail, rail, aircraft, or spacecraft, because it is by such means that human beings came to inhabit the world entire, and by such means that civilizations have spread — but I now see that transportation is a special case of change, and that some similar schema, generalized to address all forms of civilizational change, might be employed. Recently I have been experimenting with several different schematic formulations of change based on a generalization of the stages of spacefaring civilization. Since civilization is, roughly, about large scale social organization, the idea of demographically significant change is central to my formulation. Here is one delineation of stages based on any change whatsoever:

● Stage 0: Equilibrium No change; equilibrium state.

● Stage 1: Firsts Symbolic firsts that are demographically insignificant but mark a possible trajectory for change.

● Stage 2: Growth Building on symbolic firsts, gradual (arithmetical) increase in demographic significance.

● Stage 3: Inflection Passing a threshold at which demographically significant change occurs exponentially (geometrically).

● Stage 4: Predominance At predominance the change is now the norm; a corner has been turned, and the completion of the change is now only a matter of time.

● Stage 5: Integration Full integration. The trajectory of change has been fulfilled, and full integration eventually becomes indistinguishable from an equilibrium state, or Stage 0. This new equilibrium is a more comprehensive state if the change involved growth, and a less comprehensive state if the change involved contraction.

In this schema I assume that growth could be arrested at any stage, and that it can be reversed. The growth of a pandemic that does not kill the host species may reach an inflection point or demographic predominance, but “integration” would mean the pandemic had achieved totality, at which point this would result in the death of the host. The first summit of Mount Everest has been followed by growth in the number of climbers, but this growth will never reach integration because there will not be a time in human history when the whole of humanity has climbed Everest. However, the growth of agricultural civilization very nearly did reach totality as almost all practicable arable land had been brought under cultivation by the time the industrial revolution occurred and a new form of civilization began to take shape.

This is an admittedly imperfect attempt to provide a structure for describing large-scale change of the kind that results in the emergence, growth, decay, or death of a civilization.


Cluster and Series

In a couple of recent posts — The Philosophical Basis of Islamic State and The Seriation of Western Civilization — I have mentioned that I think about the origins of civilization in terms of clusters and series. A cluster is a geographical (or synchronic) conception, while a series is an historical (or diachronic) conception. (Earlier in Synchronic and Diachronic Approaches to Civilization I had made the synchronic/diachronic distinction without relating this to the ideas of cluster and series.)

While I conceived clusters and series of civilizations in terms of the origins of civilization, the ideas could just as well be applied later in the development of civilization, if some new cluster could emerge. Since human civilization at present, however, already covers the entire planet, there are no opportunities for civilizations to originate de novo (on Earth’s surface). One could identify clusters and series of the origins of kinds of civilization (which requires a taxonomy of civilization), so that when industrial-technological civilization begins to emerge in the late eighteenth century, western Europe is the cluster for the origin of this kind of civilization, and from this cluster several diachronic series can be traced. More interesting in my view is to pull back our perspective and to consider the large-scale structure of civilization in the universe. From this perspective, we would speak of a terrestrial cluster, and as various terrestrial civilizations achieve spacefaring status each of these civilizations deriving from the terrestrial cluster would constitute a civilizational series, from which a seriation of spacefaring civilizations would follow.

Initially separate clusters, such as those that constituted the origins of civilization, or, later, the emergence of a new kind of civilization, grow together over time (what Whitehead would have called concrescence), and the growing together of originally separate civilization arguably results in a new cluster. At the present time of planetary civilization, this cluster is the terrestrial cluster. However, we can identify earlier instances when originally separate civilizations grew together, and many of these are marked by great ages of syncretism, which have arguably created some of the greatest symbols of civilization in terms of monumental architecture.

I have not yet made any systematic effort to relate these ideas of cluster and series to taxonomic, comparative, and quantitative concepts of civilization, but have employed the ideas opportunistically as they could be used to illuminate a particular problem. There are many possible ways to bring these ideas together.


The orders of civilization

Another partial conceptual framework that I have worked out for civilization is a hierarchical structure that I call the orders of civilization. These orders are as follows:

● Civilization of the Zeroth Order is the order of prehistory and of all human life and activity and comes before civilization in the strict sense.

● Civilization of the First Order are those socioeconomic systems of large-scale organization that supply the matter upon which history works; in other words, the synchronic milieu of a given civilization, a snapshot in time.

● Civilization of the Second Order is an entire cycle of civilization, from birth through growth to maturity and senescence unto death, taken whole. (Iterated, civilization of the second order is a series, as described above.)

● Civilization of the Third Order is the whole structure of developmental stages of civilization such that any particular civilization passes through, but taken comprehensively and embracing all civilizations within this structure and their interactions with each other as the result of these structures. (Clusters and series are part of the overall structure of civilization of the third order.)

This framework was primarily intended to clarify exactly what we are referring to when we invoke “civilization,” and in a sense it builds upon one of the earliest problems I took up in this blog, which I originally called The Phenomenon of Civilization, i.e., the attempt to speak about civilization as such, without referring to any particular civilization.

Notice that for every order of civilization, we can talk about one and the same civilization from these several points of view, i.e., given civilization CIVx, there is CIVx of the zeroth order, before and outside this civilization, CIVx of the first order, which is some contemporaneous snapshot of its structures, CIVx of the second order, which is the entire narrative of this civilization, and CIVx of the third order, which is the same civilization taken in the context of the life cycles of all civilizations, as one thread in a tapestry of civilization. In this context civilization can be treated formally, as any civilization could be substituted for CIVx.

Again, I have not made a systematic effort to unify these various theoretical frameworks, so that orders of civilization are precisely defined in relation to stages or clusters and series, but there are interesting ways to do this. Civilization of the second order, placed end to end, constitutes a series, while clusters and series are part of the overall structure of civilization of the third order; civilization of the third order is closest to what I previously called the phenomenon of civilization.


Orders, stages, and waves

Orders of civilization as I conceived them do not stand in isolation, but are part of a series of concepts — orders, stages, and waves — intended to offer an increasingly finely-grained account of civilization as one delves into the details of the seriation of civilizations. To a certain extent, then, my conception of the stages of spacefaring civilization mentioned above was intended from the first to be integrated into this model.

When I spoke at the second 100YSS in 2012 I had progressed farther on my typology of stages of spacefaring civilization, and had subdivided stages into waves of expansion (or contraction) — cf. my contribution to 100 Year Starship 2012 Symposium Conference Proceedings, “The Large-Scale Structure of Spacefaring Civilizations.” A wave of expansion that consolidates the achievement of a stage takes different forms depending on the technology available (because how we get there matters) and the strategy of implementing that technology in practice. At that time I distinguished between an incremental outward push in which the farthest regions are last to be inhabited and populations build up first closest to the center from which expansion starts and then later moves into the periphery, and a sudden “moon shot” outward jump (akin to what a biogeographist would call a “sweepstakes dispersal route”) in which the far frontier receives the brunt of the demographic impact, and it is only later with subsequent waves that the buffer between center and periphery is filled in. Needless to say, all of this can also be run backward in order to describe the collapse of civilization.

It will be obvious that these three concepts — orders, stages, and waves — were intended to be integrated into my conception of spacefaring civilizations distinguished according to gravitational thresholds attained. However, as noted above, expansion into space can be re-conceived more generally as any kind of change. Can the conceptual framework of cluster and series be fitted into the framework or orders, stages, and waves, or vice versa? I have integrated a more-or-less intuitive distinction between center and periphery into this model, as the various possibilities for civilizational expansion or retrenchment can be described in terms of the interplay between the center and the periphery of a given civilization. (Earlier I discussed the center/periphery dialectic in The Farther Reaches of Civilization.) This suggests that a place could also be made for clusters and series, which is a pretty elementary idea.

At one time I saw the analysis of civilization in terms of orders, stages, and waves to be the primary theoretical framework I would employ (I even began to assemble a PowerPoint presentation based on this framework, assuming that I would give a talk about it at some point), but I have been working on another framework that supersedes this (and hopefully resolves some of the problems with that schema) and which I hope to soon present in a systematical exposition. However, I tend to let ideas gestate for a long time before I write about them, so it may not be as soon as I hope that I write about it.



Any conclusions could only be provisional at best. As I noted above in the introduction, I consider all of these ideas to be experiments. Sometimes one idea fits a circumstance well, so I make use of it, while on another occasion that idea may not work, but another does. Each unique set of historical circumstances seems to call for a unique theoretical framework, but, of course, the challenge is to find a framework that works well generally to elucidate a wide variety of distinct civilizations. Such a framework could then with greater confidence be projected into the future and give us a glimpse of the shape of structure of civilization to come.

My views continue to evolve and I continue to formulate new concepts and frameworks. As I noted above, I am actively working an an alternative taxonomy that I hope will be more sophisticated and open to the degree of elaboration that would make it applicable not only to the past, but also to the future.

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4 Responses to “Thinking about Civilization”

  1. xcalibur said

    I just wanted to say, this blog is brilliant! This cross-references and relates to my studies. I’ll definitely add this to my reading list alongside centauri dreams.

    I’ve done some reading of Toynbee and was intrigued by his analysis and classification of civilizations. There are definitely societies and civilizations that can be understood as distinct entities. For example, the West, with its roots in Classical Greece/Rome and Israel, vs. the Far East, with its roots in ancient China. They are very different traditions.

    However, history is usually not so clear cut, and there have been many overlapping and branching societies. There have been mutations and major changes, which are often not clear cut but still discernible. For example, I was reading Origins of the Medieval World by William Carol Bark, and he was arguing that. In that case, it was the fall of Rome, Western Rome grinding to a halt and collapsing, and the Medieval world rising out of its ashes – and in the process, building a more dynamic, effective and reasonable society. He argues that it wasn’t an instant transition, but there was a period of rapid transition separating two eras.

    Overall, history is complex, and any theory that aims to scientifically map it out will have to take a number of complexities and exceptions into account.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Thanks for your kind words.

      In a number of early posts I considered Toynbee’s work (cf. Challenge and Response, A Note on Quantitative Civilization, and The Extinction of the External Proletariat, inter alia), and I still use some of Toynbee’s concepts and terminology, though always with caution and a certain amount of qualification.

      I have Bark’s book Origins of the Medieval World and discussed a passage from it in Our Place in History early in the history of this blog.

      I completely agree with you that an adequate analytical and theoretical framework for civilization, “will have to take a number of complexities and exceptions into account.” That is precisely what I am attempting to do.

      Best wishes,


      • xcalibur said

        Indeed. I don’t worship Toynbee, but I respect what he did, and the scope of his work. There’s alot of thought there, and at the very least, Challenge & Response + the Golden Mean are useful concepts.

        I did a big reply to Our Place in History. I might contribute more but I have to catch up.

      • geopolicraticus said

        I have been influenced by Walter Kaufmann’s two essays on Toynbee, which are as devastating and unflinching as most of Kaufmann’s works. But I don’t let that stop me from deriving ideas from Toynbee that I find useful.

        Best wishes,


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