Five Ways to Think about Civilization

17 November 2019


Twelve months down on the farm. An illustration from Liber ruralium commodorum, by Pietro de’ Crescenzi; for a description of the tasks illustrated cf.

Twelve months down on the farm. An illustration from Liber ruralium commodorum, by Pietro de’ Crescenzi; for a description of the tasks illustrated cf.

On the Reflexive Self-Awareness of Civilizations (or the Lack Thereof)

For all the faults and failings of agrarian civilizations, there is a sense in which the self-awareness of agrarian civilizations exceeded the self-awareness of industrialized civilizations. Almost all agrarian civilizations were rigidly hierarchical and stratified, but from the bottom to the top of the feudal hierarchy of agrarian civilizations everyone understood that agriculture was the source of the wealth and productivity of their society. Wealth was measured in land and in the number of peasants working the land. Income was formulated in terms of the annual produce of the land, which, over time, became more formalized as part of a commercial economy. It is due to this background that we read in nineteenth century novels that so-and-so had an income of so many pounds per year: this is the survival of the accounting of agricultural civilization into the early developmental stages of industrialized civilization.

This reflexive self-awareness on the part of agrarian civilizations of the economy that sustained that civilization is not shared by industrialized civilization. Very few today seem to understand that the source of our wealth and productivity is science. This is a failure of collective self-knowledge, and a failure that may have consequences for our very young industrialized civilization. Even the putative “leaders” of contemporary society seem to have little awareness of the centrality of science to the economy, but if the scientific method had not been systematically applied to industry, we would not have progressed more than incrementally beyond the technology and engineering of earlier civilizations. That we have outstripped these earlier civilizations many times over in terms of wealth and productivity is a measure by which the scientific method and the cultivation of scientific knowledge can transform an economy.

How should we define scientific civilization?

How should we define scientific civilization?

Five Ways of Conceptualizing Scientific Civilization

This reflection on the lack of self-knowledge on the part of our would-be scientific civilization suggests a way in which scientific civilization might be defined, specifically, that a scientific civilization is a civilization that knows itself to be a scientific civilization, and in which all sectors of society know that the wealth and productivity of their society is derived from science, and from technology and engineering made possible by science. In previous posts I have suggested several other ways in which scientific civilization might be defined. For example:

In Scientific Civilization: The Economic Perspective I suggested that a scientific civilization could be defined as, “a civilization that invests a significant portion of its economic activity in science.”

In Scientific Civilization: The Central Project I implied that a scientific civilization is a civilization that has science, or the pursuit of scientific knowledge, as its central project. (A view that I later elaborated in more detail in Properly Scientific Civilization and The Central Project of Properly Scientific Civilizations.)

In Sciences Hard and Soft I suggested that a scientific civilization is a civilization in which science has come to full maturity, by analogy with Nick Bostrom’s use of the term “technological maturity” — but how scientific maturity can be defined may be more difficult to say.

In The Conditions of Scientific Progress I said that we could define a mature scientific civilization as one in which science could be conducted in complete openness, both in the technical terminology of the discipline in question as well as in the intuitive terms according to which idea flow functions in a social context. This is the kind of intellectual context in which it would be possible for everyone to imbibe the spirit of science, and, rather than accepting any results as a new orthodoxy, press forward with extending scientific inquiry so that we not only have idea flow but the acceleration of idea flow and even idea proliferation.

In my notebooks I have several additional ways in which scientific civilization might be defined, though I have not yet given an exposition of these other ideas for defining scientific civilization. For example, skimming a notebook from few years ago I find this entry on 11 June 2016:

Science communication is only a problem in a non-scientific civilization in which there is a disconnect between science and the non-scientific public. One way to define a scientific civilization is as a civilization in which there is no disconnect between scientific research and popular knowledge, as scientific knowledge is pervasively present in the general public. (There would still be disagreements, and different scientific research programs would find differing degrees of support in different sectors of society, but it would be understood that these disagreements will be resolved by further research even as new scientific problems appear on the horizon.)

This idea could be assimilated to the last of the four ideas above, as both are concerned with science communication and scientific literacy, which presumably would be greatly facilitated in a truly scientific civilization, but which suffer in a suboptimal scientific civilization, or in a non-scientific civilization (as in agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization).

The four itemized ideas above from previous posts (with the last of these four ideas assimilated to the idea from my old notebook), plus the idea above incorporating reflexive self-knowledge, gives us five ways to think about scientific civilization:

1. A scientific civilization is a civilization that knows itself to be a scientific civilization.

2. A scientific civilization is a civilization that invests a significant portion of its economic activity in science.

3. A scientific civilization is a civilization that has science, or the pursuit of scientific knowledge, as its central project.

4. A scientific civilization is a civilization in which science, or scientific knowledge, has come to full maturity.

5. A scientific civilization is a civilization in which there is no disconnect between scientific research and popular knowledge.

None of these ideas are as yet definitively formulated. I could easily point out ambiguities in any of these formulations. For example, in No. 3, concerned with the economic definition of scientific civilization, there is considerable ambiguity involved in what it would mean for a civilization to invest a significant portion of its economic activity in science. Does this mean that, as a matter of fact, that science constitutes a major economic sector, like agriculture or transportation? Or does this means that a highly productive industrialized civilization chooses to plow a significant portion of its surplus value into scientific research? There are other ways to interpret this beyond these two alternatives. I beg the reader’s indulgence to take these imperfect formulations charitably, extracting whatever value there is in them, and setting aside what is incoherent or poorly expressed.

Different definitions of scientific civilization would yield different civilizations identified as a scientific civilization, though some of the above definitions may overlap or coincide. For example, it is entirely possible that, in a civilization that has the pursuit of science as its central project, all sectors of the populace would understand the centrality of science to that civilization, so these two definitions of scientific civilization may coincide. However, I think that the idea of scientific maturity is much further off even than the possibility of a civilization with science as its central project, if scientific maturity is attainable at all, so that these definitions do not coincide, but they might coincide at some point in the distant future. Indeed, it may require a civilization that takes science as its central project to drive the development of science to scientific maturity.

Ideally, given a multitude of possible definitions of scientific civilization, it would be possible to reduce all the definitions to one, or to single out one definition that is, in principle, preferable to all others, or to have the various non-coinciding definitions of scientific civilization systematically related in some essential way, as in the degrees of continuum, or as stages in the development of scientific civilization.

It may be that only a fully scientific civilization could understand what definition of scientific civilization is adequate, and, if the Hegelian principle holds good, that the owl of Minerva takes flight only with the setting of the sun, it would not be possible to adequately define scientific civilization until a scientific civilization was already senescent.

Defining Agrarian Civilizations in Hindsight

Defining Agrarian Civilizations in Hindsight

Generalizing a Definition of Civilization Derived from one Class of Civilizations

Can we, then, apply these conceptions retroactively, mutatis mutandis, to some civilization, or, better, to some kind of civilization, that has already passed out of history? Do these characterizations of scientific civilization admit of formulations of sufficient generality that they can be applied to other civilizations, non-scientific civilizations? Let us take these five ways of characterizing scientific civilization and apply them to agrarian civilizations, and see how they fare in this context.

Consider these reformulations of the above five conceptualizations of scientific civilization, here stated in terms of agricultural civilization:

1. An agrarian civilization is a civilization that knows itself to be An agrarian civilization, and in which all sectors of society know that the wealth and productivity of their society is derived from agriculture, and activities related to agriculture.

2. An agrarian civilization is a civilization that invests a significant portion of its economic activity in agriculture.

3. An agrarian civilization is a civilization that has agriculture, or the pursuit of agricultural production, as its central project.

4. An agrarian civilization is a civilization in which agriculture has come to full maturity.

5. An agrarian civilization is a civilization in which there is no disconnect between agronomy and popular knowledge, as agronomy is pervasively present in the general public.

All of these formulations are highly suggestive, but the parallelism is not always perfect between agrarian and scientific civilizations, and, viewed from the perspective of agrarian civilization, we can see how these conceptualizations are beholden to our ideas of the relationship of science to society today. Let us consider each in turn:

1. Here the parallelism is at its strongest, because I began with this reflection on agricultural civilizations being aware that their wealth flowed from working the land, and applied it to scientific civilization to see how well it worked in that context. But what is reflexive self-awareness at a civilizational scale? Must this awareness be represented throughout society, or is it sufficient that some sector of society, or some sector of the economy, knows what kind of civilization they have and subsequently act efficaciously upon this knowledge? Above I have specified all sectors of society, and arguably this was the case for agrarian civilizations, in which even the mythology of the central project reflected the crops and the agricultural calendar of the civilization in question. However, it is also arguable that the awareness of the agricultural basis of agricultural civilization was sufficiently distant from the mythological central projects of agrarian civilizations that many individuals in the society were so invested in the mythology that they were unaware of agriculture as the driving economic force of their society. Indeed, religious rituals intended to ensure good harvests might be said to invert any valuation placing agriculture at the central of agricultural civilization, as it implies that the agriculture engine of the civilization is fueled by supernaturalistic processes, which are the true drivers of civilization.

2. We have seen above that there are obvious ambiguities with any claim of a society’s investment in some given sector. Moreover, any such “investment” in pre-modern civilization takes a radically different form than what we think of today as investment in some sector of the economy of some sector of society. From our industrialized point of view, investment in a sector means taking surplus value generated by economic activity on the whole and literally using this capital to further some sector by investment in capital equipment or better working conditions in the sector, etc. Most of all, we would conceive of investing in a sector of the economy as funding major research and development projects that would expand and improve the sector, hopefully resulting in major innovations that contribute to increases in productivity and efficiency. This sort of investment in agriculture began to appear during the British Agricultural Revolution, but this was already after the scientific revolution (it was the scientific revolution applied to agriculture) so after western civilization was already beginning the developments that would lead it to industrialization. Even then, investment into basic research didn’t appear until the 19th century, and didn’t become consequential until the 20th century. Nevertheless, agrarian civilizations prior to the scientific revolution of necessity poured resources into agriculture, because if it failed to do so, starvation would result. The elite culture of the period that we now value, and visit museums in order to see, was the result of a small fraction of the wealth of the agricultural economy skimmed off by elites and employed for their own purposes (e.g., prestige projects). In this sense, 2. seems to hold for agrarian as for scientific civilization, but the sense in which it holds is not exactly in the spirit in which it holds for scientific civilization.

3. I have elsewhere used the binomial nomenclature “agrarian-ecclesiastical civilizations” to describe most agrarian civilizations, because these civilizations almost without exception (I can’t think of a counterexample) do not have agriculture as the central project, but rather religion as the central project, or some close religious surrogate as a central project. The economic infrastructure is almost entirely agricultural, but the intellectual superstructure is almost always derived from a religion, and this intellectual superstructure tells us that the central project of the civilization in question is the fulfillment of the requirements of religious doctrine. This fulfillment might take a popular form, as in the demand that all souls be saved, which entailed both the salvation of the agricultural laborer as well as expansionist warfare to enable the salvation of peoples outside the civilization, or this fulfillment might take on an elite form, as when Mesoamerican elites engaged in ritualized bloodletting. Of course, it would be possible to imagine, as a thought experiment, an agrarian civilization in which agriculture was the central project; perhaps such civilizations have existed, perhaps they could still exist, but this has not been the paradigmatic form of agrarian civilization. It may be this disconnect between central project and economic infrastructure in agrarian civilizations that inspired Marx to make the distinction between economic base and ideological superstructure, as this distinction is less in evidence in contemporary industrialized civilization.

4. It is a very interesting question whether agricultural civilization came to full maturity before it yielded its place as the central form of civilization to industrialized civilizations. It is entirely possible that a civilization might endure for a significant period of time and then go extinct, without ever achieving full maturity. This is the case with what Nick Bostrom calls permanent stagnation: a civilization that never comes to maturity. Agricultural civilizations tend to stagnation, so it may be in the nature of agricultural civilizations to converge on permanent stagnation, and, when they do transcend this stagnation, they do it at the cost of being transformed into another kind of civilization, in which case the consequence is no longer an agrarian civilization. It could be argued that agricultural civilization has not yet reached full maturity at the present time, because the techniques of scientific agriculture that began to transform agriculture during the British Agricultural Revolution continue to be revolutionized by scientific discovery. The latest techniques of gene-editing can be used to create new crops, so that agricultural technology is as open-ended as any industrial technology. Does it follow that agricultural civilization as agricultural civilization can never achieve maturity, and that it can only achieve maturity by the means of industrialized civilization?

5. This formulation doesn’t work at all when a straight-forward substitution of agriculture for science is made. One of the reasons for the failure of this substitution is that agriculture was the dominant activity under agrarian civilizations, and so agricultural knowledge was “popular” (but, of course, it is misleading to call anything “popular” at a time before popular sovereignty). However, a slightly altered formulation would give essentially the same idea: an agricultural civilization is a civilization in which there is no disconnect between agricultural producers and consumers. While this formulation makes sense, judging its validity is another matter. Certainly the various sectors of society in agrarian civilization knew that agricultural productivity was the source of their wealth, but the rigidly hierarchical structures of feudal society meant that there was a profound disconnect between consumers and producers, who almost belonged to different worlds. So, what we learn from this is that the idea of a “disconnect” between members of the same society needs to be clarified. Individuals and classes within agrarian civilizations can be at once both tightly coupled and yet more distant from each other than any two individuals or classes in industrialized civilization; this needs to be understood in greater detail. When the elite sectors of society did begin to concern themselves with agricultural knowledge, not merely leaving this to farm laborers, the British agricultural revolution was the result. Many eminent country gentlemen became enthusiasts of agriculture and threw themselves into the betterment of their estates. While this behavior does not strike us as odd today, in a social context in which working with one’s hands was believed to be demeaning, demonstrating an enthusiasm for agriculture was to place one’s social status at risk. This development progressed so far that it eventually found its way into the fine arts, with the result being paintings like Benjamin Marshall’s “Portraits of Cattle of the Improved Short-Horned Breed, the Property of J. Wilkinson Esq. of Lenton, near Nottingham” (see below), which is, essentially, a portrait of a head of livestock.

The above disconnects are of particular interest to me because of what I wrote about disconnects in A Philosophical Disconnect and Another Disconnect and A Metaphysical Disconnect, inter alia. That contemporary industrialized civilization is marked by a disconnect between political philosophy and philosophy of law is especially significant in this connection: different kinds of civilization may be subject to different internal structural disconnects. Different structural disconnects within one and the same civilization imply different areas of reflexive self-knowledge as well as different areas where self-knowledge fails, which brings us back to where we began this post.

Portraits of Cattle of the Improved Short-Horned Breed, the Property of J. Wilkinson Esq. of Lenton, near Nottingham 1816, Benjamin Marshall 1768-1835, Bequeathed by Mrs F. Ambrose Clark through the British Sporting Art Trust 1982

From Generalization to Formalization

Now that we have applied these five ways of thinking about civilization to scientific civilization and to agricultural civilization, can we formalize these ideas so that they are applicable to any civilization whatever? Consider the following:

F(civ) knows itself to be F(civ).

The economic infrastructure of F(civ) is disproportionately invested in F.

F(civ) has F as its central project.

F(civ) such that F is mature.

In F(civ) there is no disconnect between individuals directly involved in F and individuals not directly involved in F.

In the above, F(civ) means “a civilization with the property F” which, in the particular case of scientific civilization might be expressed: “there is a civilization civ such that civ has the property of being scientific.” If we attempt to formulate this in terms of quantification theory we get something like, “There exists an x such that x is a civilization and x is scientific” or ∃x.C(x)F(x), and then any other property annexed to that civilization is simply another predicated G(x), thus 1. above becomes ∃x.C(x)F(x)G(x). Where the property of being scientific is modified by the definition we face quantifying over properties and thus shifting from first order logic to second order logic.

I’m not satisfied with any of these formulations, but that is why I titled this post “Five Ways of Thinking about Civilization.” Nothing here is definitive. These are ways of thinking about civilization, and we can employ these ways of thinking about civilization if they prove fruitful, in which case we would attempt to extend, expand, and further formalize the approach, and if they prove to be unfruitful we would not be likely to invest any more time in the approach, unless we have some nagging intuitive sense that there is something important here that has not yet been made explicit.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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