4 May 2012
When a future science of civilizations begins to take shape, it will need to distinguish broad categories or families of civilizations, or, if you will, species of civilizations. In so far as civilizations are out outgrowth of biological species, they are an extension of biology, and it is appropriate to use the terminology of species to characterize civilizations.
Just a few days ago in A Copernican Conception of Civilization I distinguished between eocivilization (i.e., terrestrial civilizations), exocivilization (extraterrestrial civilizations), and astrocivilization (an integrated conception of eo- and exocivilization taken together). This is a first step in identifying species of civilizations.
Given that astrocivilization follows directly from (one could say, supervenes upon) astrobiology, it is particular apt to extend the definition of astrobiology to astrocivilization, and so in A Copernican Conception of Civilization I paraphrased the NASA definition of astrobiology, mutatis mutandis, for civilization. Thus astrociviliation comprises…
…the study of the civilized universe. This field provides a scientific foundation for a multidisciplinary study of (1) the origin and distribution of civilization in the universe, (2) an understanding of the role of the structure of spacetime in civilizations, and (3) the study of the Earth’s civilizations in their terrestrial and cosmological context.
Some time ago in A First Image from the Herschel Telescope I made the suggestion that particular physical features of a galaxy might result in any and all civilizations arising within that galaxy to share a certain feature or features based upon the features of the containing galaxy. This is a point worth developing at greater length.
Of the images of the M51 galaxy I wrote:
If there are civilizations in that galaxy, they must have marvelous constellations defined by these presumably enormous stars, and that one star at the top of the image seems to be brighter than any other in that galaxy. It would have a special place in the mythologies of the peoples of that galaxy. And the peoples of that galaxy, even if they do not know of each other, would nevertheless have something in common in virtue of their relation to this enormous star. We could, in this context, speak of a “family” of civilizations in this galaxy all influenced by the most prominent stellar feature of the galaxy of which they are a part.
We can generalize about and extrapolate from this idea of a family of civilizations defined by the prominent stellar features of the galaxy in which they are found. If a galaxy has a sufficiently prominent physical feature that can witnessed by sentient beings, these features will have a place in the life of these sentient beings, and thus by extension a place in the civilizations of these sentient beings.
There is a sense in which it seems a little backward to start from the mythological commonalities of civilizations based upon their view of the cosmos, but it is only appropriate, because this is where cosmology began for human beings. If we remain true to the study of astrocivilization as including, “the search for evidence of the origins and early evolution of civilization on Earth,” the origins and early evolution of civilization on earth was at least in part derived from early observational cosmology. We began with myths of the stars, and it is to be expected that many if not most civilizations will begin with myths of the stars. Moreover, these myths will be at least in part a function of the locally observable cosmos.
The more expected progress of thought would be to start with how the physical features of a particular galaxy or group of galaxies would affect the physical chemistry of life within this galaxy or these galaxies, and how life so constituted would go on to constitute civilization. These are important perspectives that a future science of civilizations would also include.
Simply producing a taxonomy of civilizations based on mythological, physical, biological, sociological, and other factors would only be the first step of a scientific study of astrocivilization. As I have noted in Axioms and Postulates in Strategy, Carnap distinguished between classificatory, comparative, and quantitative scientific concepts. Carnap suggested that science begins with classificatory conceptions, i.e., with a taxonomy, but must in the interests of rigor and precision move on to the more sophisticated comparative and quantitative concepts of science. More recently, in From Scholasticism to Science, I suggested that these conceptual stages in the development of science may also demarcate historical stages in the development of human thought.
It will only be in the far future, when we have evidence of many different civilizations, that we will be able to formulate comparative concepts of civilization based on the actual study of astrocivilization, and it is only after we have graduated to comparative concepts in the science of astrocivilization that we will be able to formulate quantitative measures of civilization informed by the experience of many distinct civilizations.
At present, we know only the development of civilizations on the earth. This has not prevented several thinkers from drawing general conclusions about the nature of civilization, but it is not enough of a sample to say anything definitive about, “the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of civilization in the universe.” The civilizations of the earth represent a single species, or, at most, a single genera of civilization. We will need to study the independent origins and development of civilization in order to have a valid basis of comparison. We need to be able to see civilization as a part of cosmological evolution; until that time, we are limited to a quasi-Linnaean taxonomy of civilization, based on observable features in common; after we have a perspective of civilization as part of cosmological evolution, it will be possible to formulate a more Darwinian conception.
In the meantime, while we can understand theoretically the broad outlines of a study of astrocivilization, the actual content of such a science lies beyond our present zone of proximal development. And taking human knowledge in its largest possible context, we can see that our epistemic zone of proximal development supervenes on the maturity and extent of the civilization of which we are a part. This does not hold for more restricted forms of knowledge, but for forms of knowledge of which the study of astrocivilization is an example (i.e., human knowledge at its greatest extent) it becomes true. Not only individuals, but also whole societies and entire civilizations have zones of proximal development. A particular species of civilization facilitates a particular species of knowledge — but it also constrains other species of knowledge. This observation, too, would belong to an adequate conception of astrocivilization.
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29 April 2012
Elsewhere I have written that the Copernican Revolution still has much unfinished business. For practical men who suppose that the whole of life is dictated by drives and appetites and impulses it might sound like an extraordinary claim to say that the ordinary business of life is contingent less upon one’s responses to stimuli and more upon one’s idea of the world, but just as G.K. Chesterton said that “…for a landlady considering a lodger, it is important to know his income, but still more important to know his philosophy,” I would add that she should also know her tenant’s cosmology. Indeed, philosophies and cosmologies are likely to overlap, and in some cases they coincide.
In Eo-, Exo-, Astro- I wrote about Joshua Lederberg’s distinction between eobiology and exobiology, and how both of these have been absorbed into the more comprehensive science of astrobiology. Astrobiology can be considered an extrapolation and extension of terrestrial biology. This same schema of extrapolation and extension can be readily applied beyond biology to the other life sciences and earth sciences. Ultimately, the result of the systematic extension of our conceptions of science would yield a Copernican conception of science and knowledge in which the earth would no longer be the center, either literally or metaphorically.
A Copernican conception of the sciences, and the production of Copernican knowledge on the basis of a Copernican conception of the sciences, must ultimately move beyond the natural sciences and also embrace the social sciences. I would argue that the social sciences are in more acute need of the Copernican Revolution than the natural sciences, but that it is more difficult to effect a conceptual revolution within the social sciences given their less quantifiable procedures and the inherent ambiguity of observation and evidence in the social sciences. But the fullness of time must inevitably bring us a Copernican political science, a Copernican sociology, a Copernican cultural geography, a Copernican cultural anthropology, and so forth.
Beyond science, we can also seek to extend the Copernican Revolution throughout familiar conceptions of human knowledge that have unwittingly been based on Ptolemaic conceptions of the cosmos. Despite Ptolemaic cosmology now being a scientific museum piece, it continues to influence our thought because its terms and ideas are embedded in our knowledge. Just as we must make an extra effort in order to think in selective terms, according to an evolutionary paradigm — an effort that can be surprisingly difficult because it is so much easier to think in teleological terms, according to a theological paradigm — so too we must make an extra effort to think in non-earth-centered terms, according to a Copernican paradigm, instead of thinking in earth-centered terms, according to a Ptolemaic paradigm. Ultimately, pushing the familiar categories of our thought to the limit, we must formulate a Copernican conception of civilization.
All civilization as we have known it, has been eocivilization; this is terrestrial civilization confined to the surface of the earth. In so far as human beings are a natural product of the earth, and civilization is a natural product of human beings, civilization ought to be the ultimate object of study of a greatly extended conception of the earth sciences. Early in the history of this blog, in Life and Landscape (as well as in subsequent posts, like Art and Landscape), I attempted to show how the ideas by which we live are ultimately grounded in the landscape in which we have made our lives. This is a theme that I have occasionally worked to develop, but the definitive formulation of the idea continues to elude me, even as I continue to pursue it, coming at it from different angles, the better to catch it unaware, as it were. This present formulation here, of civilization as the ultimately object of the earth sciences, is a continuing part of my struggle to precisely delineate the connections between life and landscape.
Civilization as we might imagine it to be off the surface of the earth, either in the form of a greatly expanded human civilization of the future, or in the form of an extraterrestrial civilization not of human origin, would constitute exocivilization. A future science of civilizations would embrace the study both of eocivilization and exocivilization, and in the spirit of scientific objectivity the study of exocivilization ought to be quite indifferent to whether such exocivilization is derived from human civilization or not.
The larger and more comprehensive point of view would be that of astrocivilization, which would comprehend and include both eocivilziation and exocivilziation. The NASA definitions of astrobiology that I quoted in Eo-, Exo-, Astro- can be nicely reformulated (or, if you like, exapted) to express the idea of astrocivilization:
“Astrocivilization is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of civilization in the universe. This multidisciplinary field encompasses the search for civilized societies in our Solar System and civilized societies outside our Solar System, the search for evidence of the origins and early evolution of civilization on Earth, and studies of the potential for civilization to adapt to challenges on Earth and in space.”
“The study of the civilized universe. This field provides a scientific foundation for a multidisciplinary study of (1) the origin and distribution of civilization in the universe, (2) an understanding of the role of the structure of spacetime in civilizations, and (3) the study of the Earth’s civilizations in their terrestrial and cosmological context.”
I must admit that I rather like the sound of these, and they strike me as an edifying definition of a future science of civilizations.
Problems remain, and there would need to be further revisions of these formulations. We no longer hope to find other civilizations in our own solar system, while at one time this hope was once quite high. Percival Lowell’s poetic vision of a dying Martian civilization building canals to transport remaining water from the poles to the equatorial regions, and H. G. Wells’ darker take on this same vision, making it less poetic and less romantic, but perhaps also more believable, are testimony to the fact that exocivilizations (as well as their motivations and intentions) have been of interest on earth for some time.
More important from a scientific standpoint (since we ought to keep an open mind about other civilizations within our solar system) is the systematic ambiguity between formulating descriptive concepts of civilizations on the one hand, on the other hand and the scientific study of these civilizations. The same ambiguity persists in the term “history,” which can either mean the actual events of the past, or the study of the events of the past. Thus “astrocivilization” could mean the actual civilizations of the universe (which is intuitively quite clear) or the study of such civilizations (which is intuitively not quite as clear, partly because we don’t have an established vocabulary and terminology for the study of eocivilization — except the already-noted ambiguous term “history”).
Much work remains to be done on the study of civilization, just as much work remains to be done in completing the Copernican Revolution.
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4 April 2012
In yesterday’s The Hierarchy of Perspective Taking I suggested that developmental psychology formulated in terms of perspective taking can be iterated throughout life and indeed on macro-historical scales, since the continual extension of human knowledge results in the formulation of ever more comprehensive concepts, and these more comprehensive concepts suggest in turn more comprehensive perspectives that can be attained.
In a future science of civilizations, it may be possible to formulate the developmental path of civilizations. It should be pretty straight-forward to acknowledge that civilizations develop, but this is actually a politically controversial case to make because if civilizations develop that means that different civilizations will be at different stages of development, and that in turn means that different civilizations have achieved different stages of civilizational maturity. This is a controversial claim to make, because in contemporary thought it is considered the height of ill manners to suggest that any one civilization is “higher” or “more advanced” or “more mature” or “superior” to any other civilization. I previously discussed this in The Very Idea of “Higher” Civilization.
Nevertheless, I will stick my neck out and make the unfashionable claim that civilizations do develop, that there are broad patterns of development (thought not anything necessary or categorical), and that the implied corollary — that some civilizations are in a more advanced stage of development than others — is also true. Moreover, I hold that entire civilizations can develop perspective taking, just as individuals can develop perspective taking. The breadth and scope of perspective that a given civilization can subsume constitutes a quantitative measure of its progress to civilizational maturity.
Given, then, that there is the possibility of a developmental psychology (or even a developmental cognitive science) that might do a reasonably good job of outlining the growth of the individual’s knowledge and ability to coordinate multiple perspectives, and given also that a future science of civilizations might formulate a developmental epistemology that would do a reasonably good job of outlining the social growth of knowledge, we obviously here have an ontogenetic development and a phylogenetic development.
Making this explicit, then, ontogenetic epistemic development is the growth of knowledge of the individual, while phylogenetic epistemic development is the growth of knowledge of social wholes. Each is dependent upon the other in a escalation of knowledge. (As we shall see below, there is nothing necessary or inevitable about the escalation of knowledge.)
The individual who achieves a new level of perspective taking can pass this knowledge along socially so that others can learn it without having to independently make the breakthrough on their own. Societies incorporate perspective taking into socially constituted bodies of knowledge and passes this along to individual members of a society. Thus there is an interplay, a dialectic, between the individual’s development and the development of the society of which the individual is a member. Each can spur the other to attain to a perspective that either in isolation would not achieve.
Since the emergence of settled civilization, epistemic escalation has been the rule, but it has been a rule with many exceptions. Even given the dialectical interplay between individual and society, the intrinsic tension of which implies a creative resolution, there are times when knowledge stagnates and societies experience retrograde development.
Stagnation and retrograde development is almost as controversial as maintaining that civilizations experience development. Also, historians have come to distance themselves from “loaded” evaluative terms like “dark ages,” and rightly point out that things are usually more complex than a distinction between “progress” and “dark ages.” This is much like my observation yesterday that Erik Erikson’s developmental stages are overly simplistic. The critique that I gave of Erikson yesterday could be applied equally to individuals and civilizations.
Progress and stagnation are probably too simplistic, but sometimes they are apt. However, there is another way to conceive the situation that might present novel possibilities of cognizing civilizational development, and this comes from further analogizing between individuals and civilizations (or, if you like, between the microcosm and macrocosm of knowledge). When an individual experiences stagnation or retrograde development, this is usually the result of mental illness. Now, there is still a certain evaluative disapproval that attaches to mental illness, but this is becoming less acute, and most people today see mental illness as less a moral issue and more of a medical issue. (This perspective, of course, has problems of its own, which I discussed in Banishing Despair.)
If we come to understand civilizational decline, then, not as a moral issue, not as a result of decadence, but as a pathology of civilization, as the sickness of civilization, we might formulate an understanding of stagnation and retrograde development that has eluded us in our earlier use of moral concepts to explain decline.
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29 March 2012
Science has become central to industrial-technological civilization. I would define at least one of the properties that distinguishes industrial-technological civilization from agriculturalism or nomadism as the conscious application of science to technology, and the conscious application in turn of technology to industrial production. Prior to industrial-technological civilization there were science and technology and industry, but the three were not systematically interrelated and consciously pursued with an eye toward steadily increasing productivity.
The role of science within industrial-technological civilization has given science and scientists a special role in society. This role is not the glamorous role of film and music and athletic celebrities, and it is not the high-flying role of celebrity bankers and fund managers and executives, but it is nevertheless a powerful role. As Shelley once said that poets were the unacknowledged legislators of the world, we can say that scientists are the unacknowledged legislators of industrial technological civilization. Foucault came close to saying this when he said that doctors are the strategists of life and death.
I have previously discussed the ideological role of science in the contemporary world in The Political Uses of Science. Perhaps the predominant ideological function of science today is the role of “big science” — enormous research projects backed by government, industry, and universities that employ the talents of hundreds if not thousands of scientists. When Kuhnian normal science has this kind of backing, it is difficult for marginal scientific enterprises to compete. Big science moves markets and moves societies not because it is explicitly ideological in character, but because it is effective in meeting practical needs (though these needs are socially defined by the society in which science functions as a part).
Despite the fact that progress in scientific research is driven by the falsification and revision of theories through the expedient of experimentation, the scientific community has been surprisingly successful in closing ranks behind the most successful scientific theories of our time and presenting a united front that does not really give an accurate impression of the profound differences that separate scientists. Often a scientist spends an entire career trying to get a hearing or his or her idea, and this effort is not always successful. There are very real and bitter differences between the advocates of distinct scientific theories. The scientist sacrifices a life to research in a way not unlike the soldier who sacrifices his life on the battlefield: each uses up a life for a cause.
I have some specific examples in mind when I say that scientists have been successful as closing ranks behind what Kuhn would have called “normal science.” I have written about big bang cosmology and quantum theory in this connection. In Conformal Cyclic Cosmology I noted at least one theory seeking empirical evidence for the world prior to the big bang, while in The limits of my language are the limits of my world I discussed some recent experiments that seem to give us more knowledge of the quantum world that traditional interpretations of quantum theory would seem to suggest is possible.
No one of a truly curious disposition could ever be satisfied with the big bang theory, except in so far as it is but one step — and an admittedly very large step — toward a larger natural history of the universe. Given that the entire observable universe may be the result of a single big bang, any account of the world beyond or before the universe defined by the big bang presents possibly insuperable difficulties for observational cosmology. But the mind does not stop with observational cosmology; the mind does not stop even when presented with obstacles that initially seem insuperable. Slowly and surely the mind seeks the gradual way up what Dawkins called Mount Improbable.
Despite the united front that supports fundamental scientific theories (the sorts of science that Quine would have placed near the center of the web of belief), we know from the examples of Penrose’s conformal cyclic cosmology and the recent experiments attempting to simultaneously measure the position and velocity of quantum particles that scientists are continuing to think beyond the customary interpretations of theories.
The often-repeated claims that space and time were created simultaneously in the big bang and that it is pointless to ask what came before the big bang (as earlier generations were assured that it was illegitimate to ask “Who made God?”), and the claims of the impossibility of simultaneous measurements of a quantum particle’s position and velocity have not stopped the curious from probing beyond these barriers to knowledge. One must, or course, be careful, for there is a danger of being seen as a crackpot, so such inquiries are kept quiet quiet until some kind of empirical evidence can be produced. But before the evidence can be sought, there needs to be an idea of what to look for, and an idea of what to look for comes from a theory. That theory, in turn, must exceed the established interpretations of science if it is too look for anything new.
We know what happens when scientists not only say that something is impossible or unknowable, but also accept that certain things are impossible or unknowable and actually cease to engage in inquiry, and make no attempt to think beyond the limits of accepted theories: we get a dark age. A recent book has spoken of the European middle ages as The Closing of the Western Mind. (In the Islamic world a very similar phenomenon was called “Taqlid” or, “the closing of the gates of Ijtihad“.) When scientists not only say that noting more can be known, but they actually act as though nothing more can be known, and cease to question normal science, this is when intellectual progress stops, and this has happened several times in human history (although I know that this is a controversial position to argue; cf. my The Phenomenon of Civilization Revisited).
It is precisely the fact that science continues to be consciously and systematically pursued in the modern era despite many claims that everything knowable was known that sets industrial-technological civilization apart from all previous iterations of civilization.
Science goes on behind the scenes.
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17 March 2012
One of the greatest contributions to science in the twentieth century was Jane Goodall’s study of chimpanzees in the wild at Gombe, Tanzania. Although Goodall’s work represents a major advance in ethology, it did not come without criticism. Here is how Adrian G. Weiss described some of this criticism:
Jane received her Ph.D. from Cambridge University in 1965. She is one of only eight other people to earn a Ph.D. without a bachelor’s (Montgomery 1991). Her adviser, Robert Hinde, said her methods were not professional, and that she was doing her research wrong. Jane’s major mistake was naming her “subjects”. The animals should be given numbers. Jane also used descriptive, narrative writing in her observations and calculations. She anthropomorphized her animals. Her colleagues and classmates thought she was “doing all wrong”. Robert Hinde did approve her thesis, even though she returned with all of his corrections with the original names and anthropomorphizing.
Most innovative science breaks the established rules of the time. If the innovative science is eventually accepted, it eventually also becomes the basis of a new orthodoxy. Given time, that orthodoxy will be displaced as well, as more innovative work demonstrates new ways of acquiring knowledge. As the old orthodoxy passes out of fashion it often falls either into neglect or may become the target of criticism as vicious as that directed at new and innovative research.
I have to imagine that it was this latter phenomenon of formerly accepted scientific discourses falling out of favor and becoming the target of ridicule that inspired one of Foucault’s most famous quotes (which I have cited previously on numerous occasions): “A real science recognizes and accepts its own history without feeling attacked.” Here is the same quote with more context:
Each of my works is a part of my own biography. For one or another reason I had the occasion to feel and live those things. To take a simple example, I used to work in a psychiatric hospital in the 1950s. After having studied philosophy, I wanted to see what madness was: I had been mad enough to study reason; I was reasonable enough to study madness. I was free to move from the patients to the attendants, for I had no precise role. It was the time of the blooming of neurosurgery, the beginning of psychopharmacology, the reign of the traditional institution. At first I accepted things as necessary, but then after three months (I am slow-minded!), I asked, “What is the necessity of these things?” After three years I left the job and went to Sweden in great personal discomfort and started to write a history of these practices. Madness and Civilization was intended to be a first volume. I like to write first volumes, and I hate to write second ones. It was perceived as a psychiatricide, but it was a description from history. You know the difference between a real science and a pseudoscience? A real science recognizes and accepts its own history without feeling attacked. When you tell a psychiatrist his mental institution came from the lazar house, he becomes infuriated.
Truth, Power, Self: An Interview with Michel Foucault — October 25th, 1982, Martin, L. H. et al (1988) Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault, London: Tavistock. pp.9-15
It remains true that many representatives of even the most sophisticated contemporary sciences react as though attacked when reminded of their discipline’s history. This is true not least because much of science has an unsavory history — at least, by contemporary standards, a lot of scientific history is unsavory, and this gives us reason to believe that many of our efforts today will, in the fullness of time, be consigned to the unsavory inquiries of the past which carry with them norms, evaluations, and assumptions that are no longer considered to be acceptable in polite society. This is, of course, deeply ironic (I could say hypocritical if I wanted to be tendentious) since the standard of acceptability in polite society is one of the most stultifying norms imaginable.
It has long been debated within academia whether history is a science, or an art, or perhaps even a sui generis literary genre with a peculiar respect for evidence. There is no consensus on this question, and I suspect it will continue to be debated so long as the Western intellectual tradition persists. History, at least, is a recognized discipline. I know of no recognized discipline of the study of civilizations, which in part is why I recently wrote The Future Science of Civilizations.
There is, at present, no science of civilization, though there are many scientists who have written about civilization. I don’t know if there are any university departments on “Civilization Studies,” but if there aren’t, there should be. We can at least say that there is an established literary genre, partly scientific, that is concerned with the problems of civilization (including figures as diverse as Toynbee and Jared Diamond). Even among philosophers, who have a great love of writing, “The philosophy of x,” there are very few works on “the philosophy of civilization” — some, yes, but not many — and, I suspect, few if any departments devoted to the philosophy of civilization. This is a regrettable ellipsis.
When, in the future, we do have a science of civilization, and perhaps also a philosophy of civilization (or, at very least, a philosophy of the science of civilization), this science will have to come to terms with its past as every science has had to (or eventually will have to). The prehistory of the science of civilization is already fairly well established, and there are several known classics of the genre. Many of these classics of the study of civilization are as thoroughly unsavory by contemporary standards as one could possibly hope. The history of pronouncements on civilization is filled with short-sighted, baldly prejudiced, privileged, ethnocentric, and thoroughly anthropocentric formulations. For all that, they still may have something of value to offer.
A technological typology of human societies that is no longer in favor is the tripartite distinction between savagery, barbarism, and civilization. This belongs to the prehistory of the prehistory of civilization, since it establishes the natural history of civilization and its antecedents.
Edward Burnett Tylor proposed that human cultures developed through three basic stages consisting of savagery, barbarism, and civilization. The leading proponent of this savagery-barbarism-civilization scale came to be Lewis Henry Morgan, who gave a detailed exposition of it in his 1877 book Ancient Society (the entire book is conveniently available online for your reading pleasure). A quick sketch of the typology can be found at ANTHROPOLOGICAL THEORIES: Cross-Cultural Analysis.
One of the interesting features of Morgan’s elaboration of Tylor’s idea is his concern to define his stages in terms of technology. From the “lower status of savagery” with its initial use of fire, through a middle stage at which the bow and arrow is introduced, to the “upper status of savagery” which includes pottery, each stage of human development is marked by a definite technological achievement. Similarly with barbarism, which moves through the domestication of animals, irrigation, metal working, and a phonetic alphabet. This breakdown is, in its own way, more detailed than many contemporary decompositions of human social development, as well as being admirably tied to material culture and therefore amenable to confirmation and disconfirmation through archaeological research.
Today, of course, we are much too sophisticated to use terms like “savagery” or “barbarism.” These terms are now held in ill repute, as they are thought to suggest strongly negative evaluations. A friend of mine who studied anthropology told me that the word “primitive” is now referred to as “the P-word” within the discipline, so unacceptable has it become. To call a people (even an historical people now extinct) “savage” is similarly considered beyond the pale. We don’t call people “savage” or “primitive” any more. But the dangers of these terminological obsessions are that we get hung up on the terms and no longer consider theories on their theoretical merits. Jane Goodall’s theoretical work was eventually accepted despite her use of proper names in ethology, and now it is not at all uncommon for researchers to name their subjects that belong to other species.
Some theoreticians, moreover, have come to recognize that there are certain things that can be learned through sympathizing with one’s subject that simply cannot be learned in any other way (score one posthumously for Bergson’s conception of “intellectual sympathy”). Of course, science need not limit itself to a single paradigm of valid research. We can have a “big tent” of science with ample room for many methodologies, and hopefully also with plenty of room for disagreements.
It would be an interesting exercise to take a “dated” work like Lewis Henry Morgan’s book Ancient Society, leave the theoretical content intact, and change only the names. In fact, we could formalize Morgan’s gradations, using numbers instead of names just as Jane Goodall was urged to do. I suspect that Morgan’s work would be treated rather better in this case in comparison to the contemporary reception of its original terminology. We ought to ask ourselves why this is the case. Perhaps it is too much to hope for a “big tent” of science so capacious that it could hold Lewis Henry Morgan’s terminology alongside that of contemporary anthropology, but we have arrived at a big tent of science large enough to hold Jane Goodall’s proper names alongside tagged and numbered specimens.
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7 March 2012
Some day in the far future, if humanity (or some successor species) survives and if we establish ourselves as a spacefaring civilization, we will eventually have the opportunity to research whatever other civilizations exist in the universe and which we are able to find. With a study of multiple civilizations as a point of reference for the idea of civilization, we will not only possess a much richer conception of civilization, we may be able for formulate a genuine science of civilizations — a formal and theoretical science of civilization based on classificatory, comparative, and quantitative concepts that can be applied to known civilizations and employed in the prediction of not-yet-known civilizations.
Let us begin, however, with something smaller and much more modest than entire civilizations, but something upon which civilizations are crucially dependent. Let us, then, begin with ideas.
I recently posted the following to Twitter:
The natural history of non-temporal transcendencies is the history of their epistemic order in human knowledge.
This remark could use some elucidation, since I have alluded to some ideas that are perhaps not widely known.
When I mentioned “non-temporal transcendencies” I was thinking of Husserl’s use of this idea in his 1905 lectures on time consciousness. here is a passage from the very end of his lectures, from the last two paragraphs of the last section:
“…we must say: the ‘presentation’ (appearance) of the state of affairs is presentation, not in the genuine sense, but in a derived sense. The state of affairs, properly speaking, is not something temporal either; it exists for a specific time but it not itself something in time as a thing or even is. Time-consciousness and presentation do not pertain to the state of affairs as a state of affairs but to the affair that belongs to it.”
“The same is true of all other founded acts and their correlates. A value has no place in time. A temporal object may be beautiful, pleasant, useful, and so on, and these may be for a definite period of time. But the beauty, pleasantness, etc., have no place in nature and in time. They are not things that appear in presentations or re-presentations.”
Edmund Husserl, On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time (1893-1917), translated by John Barnett Brough, Kluwer, 1991, sec. 45
I think that in this final passage of his lectures on time consciousness that Husserl has gone beyond a strictly phenomenological account and has almost imperceptibly passed over into metaphysics with his assertion that, “beauty, pleasantness, etc., have no place in nature and in time.” In other words, Husserl makes the claim that non-temporal transcendencies have no natural history. But in phenomenology nature has been suspended, so it is not within the competency of phenomenology to say that anything has no place in nature. Husserl is here struggling with the problem of apparently non-temporal objects in the light of the universality of constituting time consciousness, and he can’t quite yet see his way clear to a purely phenomenological treatment of non-temporal transcendencies.
Fortunately, although Husserl himself didn’t seem to make the leap, all the elements necessary to that leap are there in his thought, and it doesn’t take much phenomenological reflection to realize that non-temporal transcendencies have a peculiar way of appearing to consciousness, and that being a non-temporal transcendency is nothing more (for the phenomenologist as phenomenologist) than this peculiar way of appearing — a presentation in the derived sense, as Husserl calls it.
When I wrote about the “epistemic order in human knowledge” in the same Twitter aphorism I was thinking about Hans Reichenbach’s distinction between the context of discovery and context of justification. Here is how Reichenbach drew the distinction:
When we call logic analysis of thought the expression should be interpreted so as to leave no doubt that it is not actual thought which we pretend to analyze. It is rather a substitute for thinking processes, their rational reconstruction, which constitutes the basis of logical analysis. Once a result of thinking is obtained, we can reorder our thoughts in a cogent way, constructing a chain of thoughts between point of departure and point of arrival; it is this rational reconstruction of thinking that is controlled by logic, and whose analysis reveals those rules which we call logical laws. The two realms of analysis to be distinguished may be called context of discovery, and context of justification. The context of discovery is left to psychological analysis, whereas logic is concerned with the context of justification, i.e., with the analysis of ordered series of thought operations so constructed that they make the results of thought justifiable. We speak of a justification when we possess a proof which shows that we have good grounds to rely upon those results.
Hans Reichenbach, Elements of Symbolic Logic, 1947, The Macmillan Company
I have elsewhere discussed rational reconstruction so I won’t go into any detail on that here, though the idea of rational reconstruction is fundamental to Reichenbach’s project and in fact inspires the distinction. Reichenbach’s distinctions implies that there are at least two orders into which human knowledge can be organized: in the order of discovery or in the order of justification (presumably in a mature theoretical context).
What Reichbach does not say, but which we can extrapolate from his distinction, is that there are both ontogenetic and phylogenetic orders of discovery. The individual’s order of discovery may well differ from the order of discovery chronicled as “firsts” in the history of science. There may also be individual and social orders of justification — ideally there would not be, since this would imply multiple theoretical contexts, and even a personal theoretical context, but we must at least acknowledge the possibility.
With these references in mind consider again my Twitter aphorism again:
The natural history of non-temporal transcendencies is the history of their epistemic order in human knowledge.
While what Husserl called nontemporal transcendencies have no “history” of their own, no development or evolution, they do however have a human history in the order in which they have been grasped by human minds, and then in the forms in which they have been sedimented in human cultures. Moreover, their presentation in a derived sense exhibits characteristic forms of order, and among these forms of order are the order of discovery and the order of justification.
Given what I recently wrote about the problem of other minds in The Eye of the Other, an obvious generalization of the above would be to formulate the same free of anthropic bias (to the extent that this is possible), thus:
The natural history of non-temporal transcendencies is the history of their genetic order in the epistemic frameworks of sentient beings.
Any sentient being capable of cognizing a non-temporal transcendency (i.e., thinking abstractly about an idea) constitutes an instance in the natural history of ideas, whether that instance of cognition is human cognition, another terrestrial species, or some non-terrestrial species. In this way, we understand that ideas may be mirrored in the consciousness of many different peoples. Under the aspect of the plurality of conscious minds, the natural history of ideas takes on a new and far more complex aspect.
If we could plot the natural history of ideas (i.e., the derivative appearance of non-temporal transcendencies in cognition of sentient beings of any species whatever) on a graph, I think that this would go a long way toward formulating a science of civilization, since civilization is founded on ideas, albeit ideas that are always found in their implemented form. Mapping the emergence of ideas in a wide variety of diverse civilizations may even suggest empirical generalizations, and from empirical generalizations laws could be formulated and predictions made.
The more research we are able to do in the natural history of ideas (possibly one day extended by the technology of a spacefaring civilization), the more likely we are to find unusual or unexpected instantiations of an idea. There are likely to be some very interesting exceptions to the rule. At the same time, a large body of research could eventually establish some norms for particular classes of civilizations and how these relate to each other. The Kardashev scale is perhaps the first step in this direction.
We might even formulate quantitative concepts of civilization into a graphic representation analogous to the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, which in its simplicity reveals the “main sequence” of stars by considering only the variables of luminosity and surface temperature. We may discover that there is a “main sequence” of civilizations, and perhaps this civilizational “main sequence” corresponds to the macro-historical sequence of humanity thus far — nomadism, followed by settled agriculturalism, followed by settled industrialism. I suspect that we will always find that settled agriculturalism is the civilizational prerequisite for the emergence of industrial-technological civilization.
Michio Kaku, in his book Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100, suggests a quantitative measure of civilization based on the Kardashev scale and Carl Sagan’s information processing typology. While Kaku’s thought remains on a primarily classificatory or typological level, we could easily plot a civilization’s energy use (or energy flows, if you prefer) on one axis of a graph and its information processing ability on the other axis of a graph and come up with a quantitative presentation of civilization typologies. We would plot known earth civilizations on such a graph, but we wouldn’t really get all that far considering only earth civilizations. Ideally we would want to plot as diverse a set of civilizations as we plot diverse stars from all over the universe on the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram.
It could also be observed that, in the same circumstances as stated above, in the far future of a human spacefaring civilization, that human beings (or their successor species) will also gather an enormous amount of information about the universe, and possibly also the multiverse (should the world reveal itself to be more than that which can be seen with contemporary technology). No doubt many strange and wonderful things will be discovered. But we have sciences that are capable of comprehending such things. Extended conceptions of astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology will be able to include within their growing bodies of knowledge every outlandish natural phenomenon that we might chance to encounter in the wider universe, but there is nothing, either in a present form or in an inchoate extended form, that can do this for civilization. There is no science of civilization at present, or, at least, nothing worthy of the name.
We could formulate a science of civilization exclusively on the basis of civilizations on the earth — it could be argued that this is what Toynbee attempted to do — although this would be anthropically biased and not as valuable as a future science of civilization that could draw upon the data of many different civilizations on many different planets. While we are on the verge today of just being able to glimpse other planets around other stars, it will be some time yet before we are able to glimpse other civilizations, if there are any.
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25 February 2012
About a week ago I was browsing in a used book store and had the good fortune to come across a book that I’d never heard of, but just the title told me that it was something that would immediately appeal to my particular perspective on history. The book, which I purchased, is Western Civilization in Biological Perspective: Patterns in Biohistory by Stephen Boyden.
The author, I learned upon investigation, has had a long and varied career — exactly the sort of thing that would give a person the kind of broad perspective that would be needed to write the history from western civilization from a biological perspective.
Recently, in a series of posts — Geopolitics and Biopolitics, Addendum on Geopolitics and Biopolitics, and A Further Note on Geopolitics and Biopolitics — I took the idea of “biopolitics” and “biopower” from Foucault and developed it as a possible alternative to geopolitics as a form of strategic analysis.
There is nothing of Foucault in Boyden’s book. Foucault’s name does not appear in the index, and a search of the text reveals no reference to Foucault. More importantly, the nature of the text itself is utterly divorced from Foucault and from continental philosophy generally speaking — it seems to employ no terminology or concepts in common with the continental tradition, and treats of none of the familiar preoccupations of this tradition (Marx and Freud are mentioned in passing in a couple of places, but are in no sense a focus of the text; they do not even influence the terms of the discussion).
Although Boyden’s treatment of biohistory has virtually nothing to do with Foucault, I can’t imagine a more perfect theoretical foundation for biopolitics than a scholarly treatment of biohistory as found in Boyden. Boyden brings the kind of Anglo-American objectivity (though he is an Aussie) to biohistory that could greatly sharpen and improve the formulations of biopolitics, which latter are vulnerable to the enthusiasms of continental philosophy. Foucault himself insisted upon the “grayness” of genealogy, and the patient analysis of Boyden constitutes a de facto genealogy of biopower, which is something Foucault said that he had to write, but which he did not get to before he died.
A biohistory of civilization would be, in effect, an ecology of civilization, and Boyden employs ecological concepts throughout his study. One way to bring further analytical clarity to an ecology of civilization would be the systematic use of ecological temporality in the exposition of biohistory. This is something that I will think about.
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19 February 2012
Recently (in Don’t Cry for the Papers) I wrote that, “Books will be a part of human life as long as there are human beings (or some successor species engaged in civilizational activity, or whatever cultural institution is the successor to civilization).” While this was only a single line thrown out as an aside in a discussion of newspapers and magazines, I had to pause over this to think about it and make sure that I would get my phrasing right, and in doing so I realized that there are several ideas implicit in this formulation.
Since I make an effort to always think in terms of la longue durée, I have conditioned myself to note that current forms (of civilization, or whatever else is being considered) are always likely to be supplanted by changed forms in the future, so when I said that books, like the poor, will always be with us, for the sake of completeness I had to note that human forms may be supplanted by a successor species and that civilization may be supplanted by a a successor institution. Both the idea of the post-human and the post-civilizational are interesting in their own right. I have briefly considered posthumanity and human speciation in Against Natural History, Right and Left (as well as other posts such as Addendum on the Avoidance of Moral Horror), but the idea of a successor to civilization is something that begs further consideration.
Now, in the sense, everything that I have written about futurist scenarios for the successor to contemporary industrial-technological civilization (which I have described in Three Futures, Another Future: The New Agriculturalism, and other posts) can be taken as attempts to outline what comes after civilization in so far as we understand civilization as contemporary industrial-technological civilization. This investigation of post-industrial civilization is an important aspect of an analytic and theoretical futurism, but we must go further in order to gain a yet more comprehensive perspective that places civilization within the longest possible historical context.
I have adopted the convention of speaking of “civilization” as comprising all settled, urbanized cultures that have emerged since the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution. This is not the use that “civilization” has in classic humanistic historiography, but I have discussed this elsewhere; for example, in Jacob Bronowski and Radical Reflection I wrote:
…Bronowski refers to “civilization as we know it” as being 12,000 years old, which means that he is identifying civilization with the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution and the emergence of settled life in villages and eventually cities.
Taking this long and comprehensive view of civilization, we still must contrast civilization with its prehistoric antecedents. When one realizes that the natural sciences have been writing the history of prehistory since the methods, the technologies, and the conceptual infrastructure for this have been developed since the late nineteenth century, and that paleolithic history itself admits of cultures (the Micoquien, the Mousterian, the Châtelperronian, the Aurignacian, and the Gravettian, for example), it becomes clear that “culture” is a more comprehensive category than “civilization,” and that culture is the older category. The cultures of prehistory are the antecedent institutions to the institution of civilization. This immediately suggests, in the context of futurism, that there could be a successor institution to civilization that no longer could be strictly called “civilization” but which still constituted a human culture.
Thus the question, “What comes after civilization?” when understood in an appropriately radical philosophical sense, invites us to consider post-civilizational human cultures that will not only differ profoundly from contemporary industrial-technological civilization, but which will differ profoundly from all human civilization from the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution to the present day.
Human speciation, if it occurs, will profoundly affect the development of post-human, post-civilizational cultural institutions. I have mentioned in several posts (e.g., Gödel’s Lesson for Geopolitics) that Francis Fukuyama felt obligated to add the qualification to this “end of history” thesis that if biotechnology made fundamental changes to human beings, this could result in a change to human nature, and then all bets are off for the future: in this eventuality, history will not end. Changed human beings, possibly no longer human sensu stricto, may have novel conceptions of social organization and therefore also novel conceptions of social and economic justice. From these novel conceptions may arise cultural institutions that are no longer “civilization” as we here understand civilization.
Above I wrote, “human speciation, if it occurs,” and I should mention that my only hesitation here is that social or technological means may be employed in the attempt to arrest human evolution at more-or-less its present stage of development, thus forestalling human speciation. Thus my qualification on human speciation in no way arises from a hesitation to acknowledge the possibility. As far as I am concerned, human being is first and foremost biological being, and biological being is always subject to natural selection. However, technological intervention might possibly overtake natural selection, in which case we will continue to experience selection as a species, but it will be social selection and technological selection rather than natural selection.
In terms of radical scenarios for the near- and middle-term future, the most familiar on offer at present (at least, the most familiar that has some traction in the public mind) is that of the technological singularity. I have recounted in several posts the detailed predictions that have been made, including several writers and futurists who have placed definite dates on the event. For example, Vernor Vinge, who proposed the idea of the technological singularity, wrote that, “Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.” (This is from his original essay on the technological singularity published in 1993, which places the date of the advent of the technological singularity at 2023 or sooner; I understand that Mr. Vinge has since revised his forecast.)
To say that “the human era will be ended,” is certainly to predict a radical development, since it postulates a post-human future within the life time of many now living today (much like the claim that, “Verily I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power.”). If I had to predict a radical post-human future in the near- to middle-term future I would opt not for post-human machine intelligence but for human speciation facilitated by biotechnology. This latter scenario seems to me far more likely and far more plausible than the technological singularity, since we already have the technology in its essentials; it is only a matter of refining and applying existing biotechnology.
I make no predictions and set no dates because the crowding of seven billion (and counting) human beings on a single planet militates against radical changes to our species. Social pressures to avoid speciation would make such a scenario unlikely in the near- to middle-term future. If we couple human speciation with the scenario of extraterrestrialization, however, everything changes, but this pushes the scenario further into the future because we do not yet possess the infrastructure necessary to extraterrestrialization. Again, however, as with human speciation through biotechnology, we have all the technology necessary to extraterrestrialization, and it is only a matter of refining and applying existing technologies.
From this scenario of human speciation coupled with extraterrestrialization there would unquestionably emerge post-human, post-civilizational cultural institutions that would be propagated into the distant future, possibly marginalizing, and possibly entirely supplanting, human beings and human civilization as we know it today. It is to be expected that these institutions will be directly related to the way of life adopted in view of such a scenario, and this way of life will be sufficiently different from our own that its institutions and its values and its norms would be unprecedented from our perspective.
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17 February 2012
More than a year ago I formulated the idea of pastoralization as a possible development of macro-historical significance, and as a possible successor form of civilization to present-day industrial-technological civilization. In that first formulation I wrote:
If humanity withdrew into sustainable cities with their own ability to grow produce, the gradually depopulated countryside would be free to be returned to wilderness or to be at the disposal of pastoralists, or both. Wild game would be available in the wilderness for those who wanted to hunt, thus satisfying both a social need and dietary need, while nomadic pastoralists cold drive their herds seasonally from one self-sustaining city to another, selling a portion of their animals for slaughter in return for goods that they could not produce given their nomadic way of life.
I cited the emergence (actually, the re-emergence) of urban agriculture and the demographic trend toward increasing urbanization as driving forces in the scenario of pastoralization. The idea of urban agriculture is also important in another macro-historical scenario, neo-agriculturalism. Pastoralization and neo-agriculturalism are only distinct by degrees, and many of the features of each may co-exist.
Two recent books make suggestive arguments that point toward the ongoing strategic trends of urbanization and urban agriculture, which, if they become the dominant strategic trends in the future, will issue in something like pastoralization or neo-agriculturalism. These two books are $20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better by Christopher Steiner and Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier by Edward Glaeser (which latter I wrote about in Cities: The Constructive Kluge).
Glaeser’s book isn’t “brilliant” (as some reviews said) nor is he a mere shill (as some reviews seem to suggest). It is probably sufficient to read the first and last chapters and skip the anecdote the fills most of the book; you can pick up most of his ideas this way and miss very little. Really, all you need to know is the full title, since the book is concerned to demonstrate the thesis that cities make us richer, smarter, greener, healthier, and happier. One need not agree with every aspect of this argument to still agree with many or most of them, and to see that a clear case can be made for urbanization.
In regard to thinking in terms of “making a case for urbanization” we are clearly thinking in political terms rather than historical terms, and this seems to be Glaeser’s orientation. He is critical of policies that have had the unintended result of harming cities, and, since he thinks that cities are the best thing to come along in the human experience, harming cities is tantamount to engaging in self-harm. The limitations of thinking in terms of policy appear when we begin to think in terms of spans of time beyond that of a single human lifespan, and across which greater spans of time unintended consequences tend to swamp intended consequences. This is the difference between urbanization as a political idea and urbanization as an historical idea (conceived parallel to the distinction I made between globalization as a political idea and globalization as an historical idea).
If one is hesitant to fully subscribe to a rationally argued case for the city, there is, alternatively, the economic case for the city, and this is what Christopher Steiner argues in his book. He makes the case that steadily rising prices for gasoline will have far-reaching consequences for the structure of contemporary life, and these changes will have radical consequences for urban, suburban, and rural life. Although both Glaeser and Steiner argue that cities are environmentally and economically more sustainable than suburban, village, or rural life, Glaeser argues additionally that cities are a good thing; Steiner, on the contrary, argues that cities are the inevitable thing because they make more environmental economic sense. Again, this illustrates the difference between urbanism as political idea and urbanism as historical idea.
Steiner is at times almost apocalyptic in making his point, but, I think, justifiably so:
“There will be plenty of small towns that simply do not make the transition from a satellite living on cheap oil to a town that’s half self-sustaining and populated by people who not only prefer a small town life, but also are stringently loyal to their small town and are willing to sacrifice for their neighbors, their town, and their way of life. The hamlets that don’t survive, like the Wal-Marts who fall ahead of them, will be home only to ghosts, gusts, and a reclaiming Mother Nature.”
Christopher Steiner, $20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better, 2010, p. 151
This is very close to what I wrote about pastoralization, although I would argue further that “reclaiming mother nature” would include those individuals who would also choose to return to Mother Nature rather than live the superfantastic urban life that Edward Glaeser praises (although does not live, since he admits in the book that he lives in the suburbs). Even while high gasoline costs could make the automobile obsolete, and that part of industrial-technical civilization based upon the automobile also obsolete, there will be other technologies (like electric cars) which can be substituted. One could also, however, substitute those robust and durable technologies that preceded the automobile. Horses could be grazed in the abandoned spaces imagined by Steiner, and used for transportation by those who opt out of urban concentrations.
One way to define the difference between my closely related scenarios of pastoralization and neo-agriculturalism is how the land freed by abandoned exurbs and rural depopulation will be put to use. If these lands are put to use in settled agriculture along a quasi-nineteenth century model, then the result will be neo-agriculturalism. If these lands are put to use (to the extent that they are “used” at all) for pastoralism, then we have the development of pastoralization. The neo-agricultural paradigm would likely converge upon (or, rather, return to) human societies exemplifying the agricultural macabre, while the pastoralization paradigm, with its mixture of extremely dense urbanism and nomadic pastoralism would produce a very different kind of society (or, rather, two societies), and it is difficult to say what this would be other than a unprecedented synthesis of urbanism and nomadism.
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8 February 2012
Clausewitz is a philosopher more closely associated with the idea of war than the idea of civilization, but Clausewitz’s conception of war can also shed some light on civilization. Allow me to review some familiar ground in regard to the Clausewitzean conception of war. Here is a famous passage from On War that gives Clausewitz’s famous formulation of war as a continuation of politics by other means:
“…war is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means. All beyond this which is strictly peculiar to war relates merely to the peculiar nature of the means which it uses. That the tendencies and views of policy shall not be incompatible with these means, the art of war in general and the commander in each particular case may demand, and this claim is truly not a trifling one. But however powerfully this may react on political views in particular cases, still it must always be regarded as only a modification of them; for the political view is the object, war is the means, and the means must always include the object in our conception.”
Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Book 1, Chapter 1, section 24
Before this Clausewitz gives a sense of how the military aim and the political aim give way to each other based on the presumed progress of a conflict:
“The law of the extreme, the view to disarm the adversary, to overthrow him, has hitherto to a certain extent usurped the place of this end or object. Just as this law loses its force, the political object must again come forward. If the whole consideration is a calculation of probability based on definite persons and relations, then the political object, being the original motive, must be an essential factor in the product.”
Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Book 1, Chapter 1, section 11
This insistence upon the political character of war is the reason Anatol Rapoport identified Clausewitz’s philosophy as a political theory of war, which Rapoport contrasted to cataclysmic and eschatological theories of war (something that I have discussed in More on Clausewitz, Toward a Dialectical Conception of War, Species of War and Peace, and War and Peace, Again).
More recently, as I have continued to think about these Clausewitzean themes, I wrote this on Twitter:
Then reformulated the same idea in A Shift in Hemispheres:
“Civilization and war are born twins. Recently on Twitter I wrote that one could uncharitably say of civilization that is is merely epiphenomenal of war, or one could say more charitably that war is merely epiphenomenal of civilization. Perhaps each is epiphenomenal of the other, and there is no one, single foundation of organized human activity — it is simply that large-scale human activity sometimes manifests itself as civilization and sometimes manifests itself as war.”
And reformulated the idea once more in The Agricultural Apocalypse:
“Only the social organization provided by civilization can make organized violence on the scale of war possible. I have even suggested that instead of seeing war and civilization as a facile dichotomy of human experience, we ought to think of large-scale human activity sometimes manifesting itself as civilization and sometimes manifesting itself as war. The two activities are convertible.”
Obviously, this has been on my mind lately. And as unlikely as this may sound, when I was writing these observations I was thinking of a passage in Hermann Weyl’s Philosophy of Mathematics and Natural Science. In an appendix to this work, after describing the response among mathematicians when Gödel’s incompleteness theorems demonstrated that Hilbert’s program (the finite axiomatization of mathematics) could not be carried out, Weyl wrote:
“The ultimate foundations and the ultimate meaning of mathematics remain an open problem; we do not know in what direction it will find its solution, nor even whether a final objective answer can be expected at all. ‘Mathematizing’ may well be a creative activity of man, like music, the products of which not only in form but also in substance are conditioned by the decisions of history and therefore defy complete objective rationalization.”
Hermann Weyl, Philosophy of Mathematics and Natural Science, Appendix A, “The Structure of Mathematics”
A generalization of Weyl’s observation beyond the exclusive concern for creative activities of man might comprehend both creative and destructive activities of man, and that human activity, whatever form it takes, is conditioned by the decisions of history and therefore defies complete objective rationalization. Of course, I doubt even Clausewitz (Enlightenment philosopher of war that he was) would have thought that war transcended history and is amenable to complete objective rationalization, but we must of course think of this in comparative terms: we would have high expectations for mathematics to conform to this ideal, and relatively low expectations for warfare to conform to this ideal, but all human activities would presumably fall on a continuum defined at its end points by that which is entirely immanent to history and that which entirely transcends history. It is the degree of being “conditioned by the decisions of history” that marks the difference between abstract and a priori disciplines like mathematics and concrete and a posteriori disciplines like war.
It would be interesting to construct a philosophy of war based upon the idea that war does in fact transcend the accidents of history and is amenable to complete objective rationalization, but I will not attempt to do that at the present moment (but I will suggest that we might call this, in contradistinction to the political, eschatological, and cataclysmic conceptions of war, the transcendental conception of war). In the meantime, I will assume that war eludes a transcendental theory and must be given a theoretical treatment (if at all) as being “conditioned by the decisions of history” to a greater or lesser extent. Moreover, I will make the same assumption about civilization, which appears to be as “conditioned by the decisions of history” as is the constant warfare that has attended civilized life. Civilization also eludes complete objective rationalization. In this, then, we already see that war and civilization belong to similar spheres of human endeavor, residing near the empirical end of the a priori/a posteriori continuum, while mathematics and logic lie at the opposite end of the same continuum. That is to say, we have similar theoretical expectations for war and for civilization.
Nevertheless, Clausewitz himself points out the continued need to elucidate philosophical truth even from historically contingent events by attending to the essential elements:
“Whoever laughs at these reflections as utopian dreams, does so at the expense of philosophical truth. Although we may learn from it the relations which the essential elements of things bear to each other, it would be rash to attempt to deduce laws from the same by which each individual case should be governed without regard to any accidental disturbing influences. But when a person, in the words of a great writer, “never rises above anecdote,” builds all history on it, begins always with the most individual points, with the climaxes of events, and only goes down just so deep as he finds a motive for doing, and therefore never reaches to the lowest foundation of the predominant general relations, his opinion will never have any value beyond the one case, and to him, that which philosophy proves to be applicable to cases in general, will only appear a dream.”
Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Book 6, Chapter 6, section 5
Clausewitz, throughout his treatise, maintains his focus on the political nature of war as a means to the end of discerning, “the relations which the essential elements of things bear to each other,” and in so doing finds his inquiry led to broader considerations such as, “the general state of intellectual culture in the country” (Bk. 1, Ch. 3, “On Military Genius”), which must be, at least in part, a function of civilization. Clausewitz goes on to say in the same section:
“If we look at a wild, warlike race, then we find a warlike spirit in individuals much more common than in a civilised people; for in the former almost every warrior possesses it; whilst in the civilised, whole masses are only carried away by it from necessity, never by inclination. But amongst uncivilised people we never find a really great general, and very seldom what we can properly call a military genius, because that requires a development of the intelligent powers which cannot be found in an uncivilised state. That a civilised people may also have a warlike tendency and development is a matter of course; and the more this is general, the more frequently also will military spirit be found in individuals in their armies. Now as this coincides in such case with the higher degree of civilisation, therefore from such nations have issued forth the most brilliant military exploits, as the Romans and the French have exemplified. The greatest names in these and in all other nations that have been renowned in war, belong strictly to epochs of higher culture.”
Thus, for Clausewitz, the highest degree of civilization coincides with the highest degree of military genius; high achievement in civilization is the necessary condition for high achievement in war. Military exploits can be the work of genius, like a sculpture of Michelangelo or a fugue by Bach. Brilliance, then, whether expressed in war or in any other endeavor of civilization, requires the achievements of high culture (presumably cultivated by civilization) to reach its ultimate expression.
All of this has been stated — as Clausewitz stated it — giving civilization the priority, but all of these formulations can be inverted ceteris paribus, with war given priority, so that, for example, the highest degree of war coincides with the highest degree of civilizational genius; high achievement in war is the necessary condition for high achievement in civilization. Here we see again, as we have seen before, that war and civilization are convertible. The antithetical view is that war and civilization are not convertible, but antithetical.
It has become a kind of truism — usually unchallenged — in discussing the violence and brutality of the twentieth century to segue into a critique, implicit or explicit, of industrial-technological civilization, which inevitably resulted in the industrialization of war and the application of science and technology to violence and brutality. We find this, for example, in Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View, in which he says in regard to the fate of some of Europe’s cultural treasures during the Second World War:
“Many buildings of the eighteenth century were erected simply to give pleasure by people who believed that pleasure was important, and worth taking trouble about, and could be given some of the quality of art. And we managed to destroy a good many of them during the war including the Zwinger at Dresden, the palace of Charlottenburg in Berlin, and the greater part of the Residenz in Wurzburg. As I have said, it may be difficult to define civilization, but it isn’t so difficult to recognize barbarism.”
Kenneth Clark, Civilisation: A Personal View, Chapter 9, pp. 240-241
In a similar vein, after the 1981 Brixton riots Margaret Thatcher was quoted as saying, “The veneer of civilization is very thin.” Earlier in the above-quoted work (p. 220), Clark made a related reference that extended his critique from industrialized warfare to industrialized civilization itself:
“…the triumph of rational philosophy had resulted in a new form of barbarism… stretching as far as the eye can reach, the squalid disorder of industrial society…”
For Clark, industrialized society and industrialized warfare is transparently barbaric and antithetical to civilization. This is what many of us would like to believe, but in order to believe this we must adopt a systematic blindness of the history of civilization, since war is implicated at every step. In every age of organized human activity, civilization has built monuments to itself, and war has destroyed most of them. A few treasures remain for us from the past, but they are the exception, not the rule. The history of civilization without war is also the exception, not the rule.
We flatter ourselves when we only condescend to give the name of civilization to a certain range of values that we believe reflect well on humanity. This reminds me of the scene in the film Dead Poets Society in which the professor ridicules the overly-refined and delicate way in which Shakespeare is often presented. In the film this is a laugh line, but in real life people really convince themselves civilization is the equivalent of the comedic presentation of Shakespeare.
Even as we attempt to flatter ourselves by associating humanity with a certain selection of values, we also impoverish ourselves. We must convince ourselves, against experience and reason, that civilization is a delicate and fragile thing, rather than the robust reality that it is, forged in war, tried by fire, and built out of sacrifices.
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