On a Science of Civilization and its Associated Technologies

18 January 2018


The Science and Technology of Civilization

In several contexts I have observed that there is no science of civilization, i.e., that there is no science that takes civilization as its unique object of inquiry. I wrote a short paper, Manifesto for the Scientific Study of Civilization, in which I outlined how I would begin to address this deficit in our knowledge. (And I’ve written several blog posts on the same, such as The Study of Civilization as Rigorous Science, Addendum on the Study of Civilization as Rigorous Science, and The Study of Civilization as Formal Science and as Adventure Science, inter alia.) Suppose we were to undertake a science of civilization (whether by my plan or some other plan) and thus began to assemble reliable scientific knowledge of civilization. Would we be content only to understand civilization, or would we want to employ our scientific knowledge in order to effect changes in the same way that scientific knowledge of other aspects of human life have facilitated more effective action?

Can we distinguish between a science of civilization and technologies of civilization? What is the difference between a science and a technology? One of the ways to distinguish science from technology is that science seeks knowledge, understanding, and explanation as ends in themselves, while technology employs scientific knowledge, understanding and explanation in order to attain some end or aim. Roughly, science has no purpose beyond itself, while technology is conceived specifically for some purpose. Thus if we wish to use scientific knowledge of civilization not only to understand what civilization is, but also to shape, direct, and develop civilization in particular ways, we would then need to go beyond formulating a science of civilization and to also construct technologies of civilization.

This distinction, while helpful, implies that technologies follow from science as applications of that science. This implication is misleading because technologies can appear in isolation from any science (other than the most rudimentary forms of knowledge). Epistemically, science precedes technology, but in terms of historical order, technology long preceded science. Our ancestors were already shaping stone tools millions of years ago, and by the time civilization emerged in human history and the first glimmerings of science can be discerned, technology was already well advanced. However, the greatest disruption in the history of civilization (to date) has been the industrial revolution, and the industrial revolution marks the point at human history in which the historical order of technology followed by science was reversed by the systematic application of science to industry, and since that time the most powerful technologies have been derived from following the epistemic order of starting with science and only then, after attaining scientific knowledge, applying this scientific knowledge to the building of technology.

Social Engineering for Preferred Outcomes

If we were to formulate a science of civilization today, it would be a science formulated in this post-industrialization historical context, and we would expect that we could converge on a body of knowledge about civilization that could then be applied reflexively to civilization as technologies in order to achieve whatever results are desired (within the scope of what is possible; assuming that there are intrinsic modal limits to civilization). At the same time, thinking of civilization in this way, and looking back over the historical record, we can easily see that there have been many technologies of civilization (i.e., technologies of civilization preceding a science of civilization) in use from the beginnings of large-scale social organization. (In an earlier post I called these social technologies, among which we can count civilization itself.)

Almost all civilizations have intervened in social outcomes in a heavy-handed way through social engineering. The inquisition, for example, was a form of social engineering intended to limit, to contain, to punish, and to expunge religious non-conformity. While this is perhaps an extreme example of social engineering through religious institutions, since most central projects of civilizations have been religious in character, most of human history has been marked by the use of religious institutions to shape and direct social life. Or, to take an example less likely to be controversial (religious examples are controversial both because those who continue to identify with Axial Age religious faiths would see this discussion as an affront to their beliefs, and also because religiously-based social engineering could be taken to be a soft target), law can be understood as a technology of civilization. From the earliest attempts at the regulation of social life, as, for example, with the code of Hammurabi, to the present day, systems of law have been central to shaping large-scale social organization.

The Structure of Civilization through the Lens of Social Technologies

Elsewhere I have suggested that civilization can be understood as an institution of institutions. This is a very low resolution conception, but it has its uses. In the same spirit we can say that civilization is a social technology of social technologies, and this, too, is a very low resolution concept. I have also proposed that a civilization can be defined as an economic infrastructure linked to an intellectual superstructure by a central project (for example in my 2017 Icarus Interstellar Starship Congress presentation, The Role of Lunar Civilization in Interstellar Buildout). This conception of civilization is a bit more articulated, as it gives specific classes of social institutions that jointly constitute the social institution of civilization, and how these classes of institutions are related to each other.

In revisiting the question of civilization from the perspective of a science of civilization that might make technologies of civilization available, I have come to realize that the definition one gives of the structure of civilization will reflect (in part) the concepts employed in the analysis of civilization. What I have previously identified as the economic infrastructure and intellectual superstructure of civilization could mostly be classed under the concept of technologies of civilization, and this can be employed to present a structural model of civilization slightly different from that I have previous presented.

As noted above, technologies are purposive, and in order to organize purposive activity it is necessary to define or otherwise specify these purposes. This is the function of the central project of a civilization. From this perspective, the structure of civilization is a central project that delineates purposes and all the other institutions of civilization are social technologies that implement the purposes of the central project. This account of the structure of civilization does not contradict my definition of civilization in terms of superstructure and infrastructure joined by a central project, but it does give a distinctly different emphasis.

Partial and Complete Definitions of Civilization

There are many definitions of civilization that have been proposed. Civilization is a multivariant phenomenon (it is characterized by many different properties) and so each time we look at civilization a bit differently, we tend to see something a bit different. I have been thinking about civilization for many years, writing up my ideas in fragmentary form on this blog, and continually re-visiting these ideas and testing them for adequacy in the light of later formulations. In the above I have tried to show how different definitions of civilization (especially definitions of varying degrees of resolution) can be compatible and do not necessarily point to contradiction. However, this is does not entail that all definitions of civilization are compatible.

Formally, we will want to know which definitions of civilization are different ways of looking at the same thing, and thus ultimately compatible if we can fit them together properly within an overarching framework, and which definitions are not singling out the same thing, either because they fail to single out anything, or they fail to single out civilization specifically. Someone may set out to define civilization, and they end up defining culture or society instead (and perhaps conflating culture, society, and civilization). Some others may set out to define civilization and end up producing an incoherent definition that doesn’t allow us to converge upon civilizations in any reliable theoretical way. More often, attempts at defining civilization end up defining some part or aspect or property of civilization, but fail to illuminate civilization on the whole.

Partial definitions of civilization mean that the definition does not yet capture the big picture of civilization, but partial definitions can still be very helpful. As we have seen above, the institutions that jointly shape civil society can be distinguished between a class of institutions of the economic infrastructure (the ways and means of civilization) and a class of institutions of the intellectual superstructure (exposition of the ends and aims of civilization), but that all of these institutions can also be seen as falling within the same class of social technologies employed to implement the central project of a civilization.

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3 Responses to “On a Science of Civilization and its Associated Technologies”

  1. xcalibur said

    While this analyzes the role of the central project, another question is identifying the central project of a civilization. It seems to me that the megastructures and institutions of a society must provide evidence of the central project. For example, the central project of Ancient Egypt must have had something to do with its pyramids, temples, priesthood and hieroglyphs. Likewise, the central project of Classical Antiquity must have been related to the forums, roads, aqueducts, and republican form of government. For medieval Europe, it was cathedrals, castles, and monasteries. For China, it was the Grand Canal, Great Wall, Forbidden City, and examination system.

    Identifying central projects is challenging, but I can make an attempt. I think the central project of Ancient Egypt was maintaining a stable, top-down hierarchy governed by notions of gods and the afterlife. For Classical Antiquity, I think it was the ‘good life’ and creating the best possible individuals and society on earth. For medieval Europe, I think it was building a stable society to provide power and influence to the Church Militant and help individuals get to heaven. For China, it was a stable hierarchy guided by Confucian ideals of harmony and morality, which were executed by an elite literati.

    Notwithstanding the shortcomings and failures of these central projects, these identifications can all be supported by the relevant megastructures and institutions. As for the modern industrial West, I’m not sure what our central project is, but surely skyscrapers, the stock market, and the internet have something to do with it. One significant difference is that our central project seems to be oriented towards progress rather than stability, which was characteristic of the agricultural civilizations I considered above.

    • geopolicraticus said

      I pretty much agree with everything you wrote here, though I might phrase it a bit differently. I’m working on a better way to characterize central projects, hopefully converging upon a structural model of the central project analogous to the structure I employ for the whole of civilization itself.

      In my presentation in Monterey last year I tried to make the point that, as civilizations mature and become more complex, the central project becomes more difficult to identify, and a highly complex civilization — like our planetary civilization today — probably admits of multiple overlapping central projects. This further contributes to the anomie of industrialized society, because there is no strong, monolithic central project with which individuals can identify themselves and from which they can draw meaning and value. I call this the “differentiation conjecture” (because a civilization becomes more internally differentiated as it matures, like a climax ecosystem). A corollary of the differentiation conjecture is that complex civilizations without a clearly identifiable central project tend to drift without clear purpose and may Balkanize into smaller groups that can sustain a clearly defined central project.

      I identify the central project of contemporary planetary civilization (assuming that this civilization continues to converge upon urbanization, industrialization, and modernization) as being roughly the Enlightenment project, with some revisions and extensions to the ideas that emerged from the Enlightenment.

      Best wishes,


      • xcalibur said

        That makes sense, and explains why I had difficulty identifying the central project(s) of the modern world. Yes, I too am aware of the sense of drift and anomie, as are many others. This is indeed caused by a lack of overarching purpose, something which previous civilizations, for all their faults, successfully provided. I too have noticed the parallel between ecosystems and civilization, especially the fact that as both mature, they support a greater degree of specialization.

        I agree that the Enlightenment and its ideals are the best candidate for our central project. However, I would also argue that our drive and focus towards Enlightenment ideals has wavered over time. This inconsistency in pursuing a central project is unlike previous civilizations, who may have fallen short in execution, but not in spirit.

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