Thought Experiment on a Science of Civilization

24 February 2019

Sunday


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1949. Photograph by John E. Fletcher and Anthony B. Stewart.

Supplement to an Addendum

Recently I posted Technological Civilization: Second Addendum to Part III, in which I employed a thought experiment to explore what I call the Marxian Thesis, which is the idea that the intellectual superstructure of a civilization is determined by its economic infrastructure. That post was an addendum on the series of posts investigating the nature of technological civilization, which is, in turn, a device I am using to take technological civilization as a lens with which to focus on civilization simpliciter. This post is a supplement to that addendum, following up on the thought experiment of the addendum with another thought experiment that leads us in a different direction–but still a thought experiment exploring the idea of civilization, and especially the possibility of a scientific study of civilization.

In my Euclid/Darwin swap thought experiment I thought about the possibility of an ancient Darwin introducing natural selection during classical antiquity, but civilization would have to wait for a Victorian Euclid to introduce higher mathematics and axiomatics into history. How different would the history of western civilization be under these circumstances? Wouldn’t a scientific biology have been a much greater benefit to early agricultural civilizations than advanced mathematics? Another kind of thought experiment in historical counterfactuals could derive from swapping existing figures with non-existent figures. This may sound rather curious, but I will try to explain what I mean by this.

In my previous post I noted that Euclid and Darwin both wrote books that defined a discipline. Euclid wrote The Elements while Darwin wrote his Origin of Species. There are other examples of definitive works, for example, Clausewitz’s On War and Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. In the present context I want to especially focus on Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations, but I suppose I could just as well take Clausewitz as my example: both Smith and Clausewitz represent the application of Enlightenment ideals of scientific knowledge to a particular domain of human experience and activity. For Smith, it was economics; for Clausewitz, it was war.

Adam Smith published his The Wealth of Nations at the high water mark of the Enlightenment. The book was immediately influential, and arguably has only grown in influence since then. Smith’s book effectively created the modern discipline of economics, much as Darwin’s Origins effectively created scientific biology. There were books on economics written before Adam Smith (as there were books about biology written before Darwin), but earlier economics treatises (like earlier biological treatises) did not provide the conceptual framework adequate for the foundation of a discipline on scientific principles. One could say that the financial needs of the industrial revolution meant that someone would inevitably formulate a scientific economics (and this would be evidence for the Marxian Thesis), but we have already seen that this does not always happen. One could equally well claim that the biological needs of agricultural civilization would have inevitably resulted in a scientific biology, but this did not happen.

Suppose that, instead of Adam Smith initiating the development of scientific economics during the Enlightenment, or in addition to this, some other scientific discipline, viz. one not yet in existence today, had its origins during the Enlightenment. So this is my sense of a thought experiment that involves swapping an existing person and text with a non-existent person or text. Suppose we swap Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations with a non-existent founder of a science of civilization and a definitive book that initiated the development of the scientific study of civilization. In this scenario, some author writes a definitive text on a science of civilization in the late 18th century or early 19th century more-or-less single-handedly formulating an adequate conceptual framework for the study of civilization and creating a social science with civilization as its special object of scientific investigation. This text then goes on to be the basis of an ongoing scholarly tradition, so that a science of civilization beginning in the Enlightenment grows into a formal academic discipline with entire departments of universities devoted to its study.

It should be noted that the social sciences during the Enlightenment were far behind the development of the natural sciences, with which latter the scientific revolution began. There was no parallel development of the social sciences (much less a science of civilization) on the order of what was going on in physics, chemistry, biology, and geology at this time. However, this near total absence of an equally well developed social science tradition did not stop Adam Smith from initiating modern economics as a social science discipline. Perhaps economics was the first social science to assume a modern form, and it may be relevant that economics is the most formalized and mathematized of the social sciences today. If we take history to be a social science, then history is certainly far older than economics, but history stagnated from classical antiquity until the modern period, and did not become the basis of a growing social science tradition in the way that economics became something of a template for the social sciences that would follow in the 19th and 20th centuries.

We can even speculate on how a social science of civilization might have come about during the Enlightenment. There was a time in the late 18th century and the early 19th century–the late Enlightenment, when both Adam Smith and Kant were active–when an individual with sufficient resources could have traveled the world almost as extensively as today, if a bit more slowly. This was at the same time when young English noblemen took the “Grand Tour” of Italy (cf. Brian Sewell’s television documentary about the Grand Tour, Brian Sewell’s Grand Tour of Italy), traveling through Europe at a time when European societies were strikingly different from each other. This was also an age of gentlemen amateurs, some of whom became great scientists. Given the resources to travel, and a sufficiently robust constitution that would allow for a bit of discomfort, one would have had, at this time, an historically unique opportunity to travel the world and to see profoundly different civilizations little influenced by each other in comparison to the level of cross-cultural influence today.

With this in mind, we could even construct an imaginary backstory for our counter-factual author of a counter-factual 18th century treatise on civilization, consisting of the social and cultural equivalent of Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, subsequently returning home to reflect upon his experiences. Alternatively, a sedentary scholar (like Kant) might seclude himself in his library with the great travelogues being written about the same time (because travel on a planetary scale was now possible)–I am thinking of the likes of Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), James Bruce (1730–1794), Richard Burton (1821-1890), Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913), Charles M. Doughty (1843-1926), and others of the time–and draw from these accounts of nearly pristine civilizations the ideas for a scientific account of civilization.

Some world-traveling gentleman amateur would have had the opportunity to witness regional civilizations uncontaminated by all but immediate neighbors, piquing the curiosity of our traveler, much as Darwin’s curiosity was piqued by his naturalist observations made during his time on the Beagle in its expedition around South America. Returning home to ruminate over all he had seen, he begins collecting more information about every known civilization, and eventually sets pen to paper to record his collected observations and the principles employed to unify his observations. Travel and reading would have made possible the study of civilization in an empirical, scientific manner by visiting regional civilizations, observing them, and perhaps even measuring them by whatever means might have been available to social science metrics of the time (perhaps creating these methods, as Galileo created his own methods of quantitative research of physical phenomena).

We tend to think of the 19th century conception of civilization as naïve or worse, but in so far as it was, for those who traveled, informed by direct observations of regional civilizations (more isolated from each other than civilizations are today) it was a more sophisticated understanding based on first-hand knowledge, and before the resistance to comparing and contrasting civilizations that we see today (cf. Comparative Concepts in the Study of Civilization). In order to identify the common core of civilization one must be willing and able to analyze civilizations, and analyzing civilizations would mean reducing them to their constituent parts and determining the relationship of the parts to the whole. To do this with civilization requires a certain social environment that is not present today. Civilizations as we see them today have been racked on the Procrustean Bed of universalism and can no longer be seen for what they are because of the strong ideological overlay of scholarship.

If the rudiments of a science of civilization had been initially presented by a definitive text of the Enlightenment, or even of the romantic era, and subsequently refined and formalized as economics and biology have been refined and formalized since their inception as modern scientific disciplines, how might the world have been different? Would the history of western civilization have been altered by the self-understanding made possible by a science of civilization? In On a Science of Civilization and its Associated Technologies I discussed how a science of civilization could lead to technologies of civilization, just as biological science has led to biological technologies. With a science of civilization issuing in technologies of civilization, we would be in possession of the means to actively intervene in the process of civilization in order to attain certain ends. One could see in this ability both profound dangers and great opportunities. Existential risks are always the flip side of existential opportunities.

Even though there was this opportunity for the study of civilization when civilizations are largely isolated from each other, it didn’t happen, and so as I have presented it here in this thought experiment this scenario will forever remain a counter-factual unrealized in our history. We could still today begin the scientific study of civilization, but the evidence of isolated and pristine civilizations is being lost by the day, just as the archaeological and the geological record are degraded by the passage of time and further human activity. The earlier a science appears in history, the more it can take advantage of an historical record that is degraded with the passage of time.

One of the essential elements in the development of a civilization is the order in which sciences and technologies appear. We could formulate alternative historical sequences for civilizations in which sciences and technologies appear in a different order than they did in fact in terrestrial history, or alternative historical sequences in which particular sciences or technologies are missing that have been present in human history, or which are present that have been absent in human history. A science of civilization is an example of the latter, so that we can posit a counterfactual civilization in which a science of civilization is robustly present, and whether this science has its origins near the beginning of the history of a civilization (as with higher mathematics) or later in the development of a civilization (as with biology and economics) would also affect the developmental trajectory of a civilization that possessed the knowledge that would be produced by a science of civilization, that the technologies of civilization made possible by that knowledge.

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