Thursday


The Science and Technology of Civilization

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

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

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

Social Engineering for Preferred Outcomes

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

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

The Structure of Civilization through the Lens of Social Technologies

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

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

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

Partial and Complete Definitions of Civilization

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

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

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

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Saturday


A medieval illustration of the four humours: melancholic, choleric, phlegmatic, and sanguine (clockwise from upper left).

What is a definitive formulation?

Recently on my other blog I discussed the philosophical pursuit of definitive formulations. What is a definite formulation? The reader will, I am sure, immediately see that giving a concise and accurate idea of what constitutes a definitive formulation would itself require a definitive formulation of a definitive formulation.

I don’t yet have a definitive formulation of what constitutes a definitive formulation. I could simply say that it is a formulation of a concept that could serve as a definition, but this wouldn’t be very helpful. Here is how I characterized it in my other post:

“…a handful of short, clear, concise, and intuitively accessible sentences…”

And…

“…to put this in clear and simple terms, if I have a definitive formulation, that means if you stopped me on the street and asked me to explain myself while standing on one foot, I could do it. Lacking definitive formulations, the attempted explanation would go on a little too long to be comfortable (or safely balanced) on one foot.”

Lacking a definitive formulation of an idea that is central to our thought means that we can only say what Augustine said of time in his Confessions:

What then is time? If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not: yet I say boldly that I know, that if nothing passed away, time past were not; and if nothing were coming, a time to come were not; and if nothing were, time present were not. (11.14.17)

quid est ergo tempus? si nemo ex me quaerat, scio; si quaerenti explicare velim, nescio. fidenter tamen dico scire me quod, si nihil praeteriret, non esset praeteritum tempus, et si nihil adveniret, non esset futurum tempus, et si nihil esset, non esset praesens tempus.

In some cases, I think that we can move beyond this Augustinian limit to definition, and it is when we hit upon a definitive formulation that we are able to do this.

It seems appropriate that I should give a concrete example of something that I would identify as a definitive formulation, and since I have recently hit upon a formulation that I rather like, I will try to use this to show what a definitive formulation is.

Call it what you will… temperament, personality, disposition… but people are not all the same.

What is temperament?

I have written several posts about temperament, including Temperamental Diversity, A Third Temperament, Intellectual Personalities and Temperament and Civilization. I don’t think that philosophy, science, or socio-political thought has yet done justice to the role that temperament plays in the world.

But what is temperament? The seventh of ten definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary (which of the ten is the closest to the sense of “temperament” as I have been using the word) defines temperament as follows:

“Constitution or habit of mind, esp. as depending upon or connected with physical constitution; natural disposition”

The sixth of the OED definitions defines temperament in terms of the four humours recognized in medieval medical theory and practice:

“In mediæval physiology: The combination of the four cardinal humours (see humour n. 2b) of the body, by the relative proportion of which the physical and mental constitution were held to be determined; known spec. as animal temperament; also, The bodily habit attributed to this, as sanguine temperament, choleric temperament, phlegmatic temperament, or melancholic temperament (see the adjs.).”

In traditional philosophical parlance, a dictionary definition gives us a nominal definition, but as philosophers what we really want is a real definition. While the philosophical distinction between nominal and real definitions is ancient and widely familiar, and therefore probably ought to remain untouched, I think it is more intuitive to call these two kinds of definition formal definition and metaphysical definition. A formal definition situates the meaning of a term within a formal system, perhaps within the system of language, whereas a metaphysical definition situates the meaning of a term within the structure of the world. So I guess what I am saying here is that one function of a definitive formulation is to give a metaphysical definition — but to be able to do so without requiring the exposition of an entire metaphysical system. You can imagine why this might be difficult.

So, what would I offer as a definitive formulation of temperament, that (hopefully) goes beyond the formal (i.e., nominal) definition in the OED? I define temperament as follows:

Temperament is the intellectual expression of individual variability.

I hope that the reader doesn’t find this too anti-climactic. I’ll try to explain why I find this to be a fruitful formulation.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, former Russellian, later anti-Cantorian

The charm of an idea

A definitive formulation, as I understand it, has an aphoristic quality: it is brief, concise, sententious, and pregnant with meaning. It also has a certain indefinable “appeal” that, like most forms of appealingness, is compelling to some even while it leaves others cold.

Wittgenstein formulated this appeal by calling it the “charm” that some proofs in mathematics and the foundations of mathematics possess. The later Wittgenstein was concerned to criticize the whole Cantorian conception of set theory and transfinite numbers, and much of Wittgenstein’s later philosophical of mathematics has this purpose implicitly as the center of the exposition. (In connection with this, I have previously mentioned Brouwer’s influence on Wittgenstein in Saying, Showing, Constructing, and more recently wrote more about Brouwer in One Hundred Years of Intuitionism and Formalism.)

Here’s what Wittgenstein said about mathematical “charm” in his lectures of 1939:

“The proof has a certain charm if you like that kind of thing; but that is irrelevant. That fact that is has this charm is a very minor point and is not the reason why those calculations were made.–That is colossally important. The calculations have their use not in charm but in their practical consequences.”

“It is quite different if the main role or sole interest is this charm — if the whole interest is showing that a line does cut when it doesn’t, which sets the whole mind in a whirl, and gives the pleasant feeling of paradox. If you can show that there are numbers bigger than the infinite, your head whirls. This may be the chief reason this was invented.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Wittgenstein’s Lectures on the Foundations of Mathematics, Cambridge, 1939, edited by Cora Diamond, University of Chicago Press, 1989, p. 16

With this in mind, I am well aware that the “charm” that I find in my definitive formulation of temperament may well be lost on others. The fact that an idea that has a certain charm for one person has none for another is itself a function of temperament. Individuals of different temperaments will find an intellectual charm in different formulations.

Theoretical contextualization

Part of the charm that a formulation has (or fails to have) is the connections that it forges to familiar theories. A definitive formulation, among its other functions, contextualizes a less familiar or less precise concept in an established theory or theories, enabling a systematic exploration and exposition of the idea in relation to familiar and therefore more thoroughly explored theories. Well known theories provide clear parameters for an idea, which, when formerly known only in a vague and imprecise form, had no clear parameters.

In formulating temperament as the intellectual expression of individual variation I am contextualizing human temperament in evolutionary theory, and thereby suggesting an interpretation of temperament based in and drawing upon evolutionary psychology. Thus evolutionary theory provides the parameters for temperament understood as the intellectual expression of individual variability.

Individual variability is one of the drivers of natural selection. When distinct individuals have distinct properties, a selection event may favor (select for) some properties while disfavoring (select against) other properties. Usually we think of the properties of an organism as being structural features of an organism: one finch has a longer beak than another, or one ape is better at walking on two legs than another. These differences might disappear into the dustbin of natural history if no selection event comes along that favors one or the other. But if a selection event does occur, and it favors some structural attribute of an organism that varies among individuals, the favored individuals will go on to experience differential survival and reproduction.

While we usually think of selection in structural terms, a selection event can also select for behaviors. Organisms can adapt to their environment through behaviors just as certainly (and much more rapidly) than through structural changes in their bodies. Behavioral adaptation is no less significant in natural history than structural adaptation.

At very least with the emergence of human beings, and probably also with other species, both hominid precursors of homo sapiens and other large-brained mammals, mind emerged in natural history. With the emergence of mind, there emerged also a novel basis of selection. Some minds are constituted in one way, while other minds are constituted in other ways. In other words, the same individual variability we find in bodies and behaviors are also to be found in minds.

If a selection event occurs that should happen to favor (or disfavor) any one kind of mind over any other kind of mind, those possessing the favored minds will enjoy differential survival and reproduction. With individual variability of minds represented in a sentient population — individual temperaments that lead individuals to think in different ways, and value things in different ways, and deliberate over alternatives in different ways — there is the continual possibility of natural selection.

The more variety of minds that there are, the greater the number of alternatives amongst which a selection event can select, the greater the likelihood that some one temperament is more fitted to survive the particular conditions that obtain than other temperaments.

Thus to formulate temperament as the intellectual expression of individual variability is to place mind within natural history.

To place mind within nature is a metaphysical formulation.

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The Genealogy of Ideas

24 October 2010

Sunday


Previously I discussed idea diffusion in Civilization and Idea Diffusion, but even as I posted that short contribution, I realized the inadequacy of it. A suitably detailed treatment of idea diffusion and its place in the history of human experience would run to volumes. What we need is perhaps, rather than the traditional history of ideas, is a genealogy of ideas. “Genealogy” in this sense comes from Nietzsche’s use of the term and his implementation of the idea, but it is Foucault who brought this kind of Nietzschean genealogy to maturity.

In his essay “Nietsche, Genealogy, History,” (collected in the volume Language, Counter-Memory, Practice) Foucault wrote:

Genealogy is gray, meticulous, and patiently documentary. It operates on a field of entangled and confused parchments, on documents that have been scratched over and recopied many times…

Genealogy… requires patience and a knowledge of details and it depends on a vast accumulation of source material. It’s “cyclopean monuments” are constructed from “discreet and apparently insignificant truths and according to a rigorous method”; they cannot be the product of “large and well-meaning errors.” In short, genealogy demands relentless erudition. Genealogy does not oppose itself to history as the lofty and profound gaze of the philosopher might compare to the molelike perspective of the scholar; on the contrary, it rejects the metahistorical deployment of ideal significations and indefinite teleologies. It opposes itself to the search for “origins.”

Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” pp. 139-140

These are obviously the principles and practices by which Foucault pursued his scholarly research. And this is exactly what we need for the mind: instead of a history of ideas, as that discipline has been practiced, we need a genealogy of ideas that is as gray and patient and meticulous as the research that Foucault imagines (and which he in fact pursued) in reference to more familiar topics of history.

Equally obviously, I cannot do anything to even approach this in the space of a blog post, except to point out the need for such an approach, and to observe the relationship that a genealogy of ideas would have to the idea of idea diffusion as an historical process. A genealogy of ideas would trace, in detail, the paths of idea diffusion, if there are any such paths in a given case. Ideas diffuse over both time and space. The diffusion leaves a trace along the path those ideas have taken. In time, ideas experience descent with modification, and in space ideas experience adaptive radiation. These processes are not isolated from each other, but rather occur concurrently.

Foucault emphasized the meticulousness and detail required by genealogy, and we need to bring these scholarly habits to the genealogy of ideas. Because it is so difficult to deal with ideas with precision — it requires an unfamiliar effort of thought to do so — ideas have more often been given vague and ambiguous treatment that has caused them to be held in low repute. But if we can bring rigorous habits of mind to the genealogy of ideas, we could contribute to restoring ideas to their proper dignity.

For example, idea diffusion can occur on many different levels. We must pay careful attention to how we count our ideas, and how we place each idea within a hierarchy of ideas, so as not to conflate ideas of different orders of magnitude. Idea diffusion can take place on many different levels because any given particular falls under many different ideas.

How many squares are there on a chess board? It depends upon how we count them, and how we count them will depend upon how narrowly we have defined “square” in this context. Moreover, some definitions will admit of more than one answer because of the vagueness they incorporate, while some definitions will be more precise, and precisely because they are more precise they will exclude instances that are included under broader, less restrictive definitions. On a chess board there are, of course, the individually colored squares, and there are 64 of these. But the chess board taken on the whole is also a square. If we count both the individual squares and the whole, there are 65 squares. But there are also squares made up of 4, 9, 16, and so forth individual colored squares. There is no right or wrong answer here; it is only a matter of setting up a convention upon which we can agree. And once we have agreed upon a rigorously defined convention, we are prepared to treat the question of the number of squares on a chess board with precision.

This may seem like a silly exercise, but it is very much to the point. Without rigorous definitions, we will never be capable of thinking precisely about ideas. And given that few people ever make the time or take the effort to formulate rigorous definitions of ideas (except for mathematicians), it follows that ideas are usually not conceived with the requisite precision.

All ideas, and not just chess board squares, are to a greater or lesser extent subject to ambiguity, and therefore can only be treated with precision after we have made the appropriate effort to conceive them rigorously. Yesterday in Epistemological Warfare we remarked upon how all phases of the OODA loop (AKA the Boyd cycle) are theory-laden, therefore subject to interpretation, and therefore potentially ground for divergent observations, divergent orientations, divergent decisions, and divergent actions. This is partly a consequence of the ambiguity of the ideas employed in formulating the OODA loop. The more rigorously we can deal with each element of the cycle, the more we can minimize (though not eliminate) divergencies.

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Tuesday


Civilization, like the world itself, is always a work in progress, perpetually under construction.

When we use the word “civilization” we usually think of it as naming a thing. Moreover, it is usually the function of nouns in English to name things, and the Cambridge online dictionary defines the suffix “-ization” as “used to form nouns from some verbs.”

Interestingly, the same Cambridge online dictionary has two definitions of civilization. One is “civilization noun (DEVELOPED SOCIETY)” (the definition: “human society with its well developed social organizations, or the culture and way of life of a society or country at a particular period in time”) and the other is “civilization noun (PROCESS)” (the definition: “the process of educating a society so that its culture becomes more developed”). I will not take the time to criticize dictionary definitions, as these are soft targets, but I will point out that we would do well to think of civilization as much as a process as as a thing.

In the spirit of civilization as a thing, another online dictionary defines the suffix, “-ization” as “the act, process, or result of making or doing” giving “realization” as an example. In this sense, “civilization” may be defined as “the act, process, or result of making civil.” As far as dictionary definitions, this isn’t too bad. It has been said that philosophical inquiry ends with definitions rather than beginning with them, so we shall not take this as a point of departure, but as a signpost along the way of seeking an adequate philosophical definition of civilization.

It is a somewhat similar case with the word “industrialization,” though I am inclined to think (without any opinion research to back it up) that people are more likely to think of industrialization as a process than of civilization as a process. Perhaps part of this tendency (if there is, in fact, any such tendency) is that in the world today we can see the process of industrialization going forward and gradually transforming societies, whereas civilizations seem to be a given, almost a fact of nature.

Perhaps civilization suffers from from Sartre called the spirit of seriousness — the idea that values (in this case, the values that constitute civilization) are ready made, that is to say, already out there in the world for us to seize, but not something we make for ourselves. I would say that we do, in fact, make civilization for ourselves, and we should accustom ourselves to thinking in this mode. Many of Sartre’s most famous deliverances on the human condition could be reformulated, mutatis mutandis, to address civilization. To whit:

What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that civilization first of all exists, encounters itself, surges up in the world — and defines itself afterwards.

And…

The genius of civilization is the totality of the works of civilization, outside of which there is nothing. Why should we attribute to civilization the capacity to produce yet other works of genius when that is precisely what it did not produce? In history, a civilization commits itself, draws its own portrait, and there is nothing but that portrait.

Such Sartrean formulations of civilization could be multiplied with a minimum of effort. It would be both potentially enlightening and amusing to do so, but I will leave such extrapolation to the interested reader.

If you like you could call this an existentialist conception of civilization.

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