What has happened to civilization? Other ideas with which it was commonly discussed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—race, empire, gender, religion, culture—remain major categories of analysis, but civilization, arguably the most common way of understanding historical development in the nineteenth century, resists being disentangled from the circumstances in which it arose. In the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, transnational movements, international treaties, and national reform agendas depended on the term. Around the globe, major books proposing new political, historical, and cultural theories included it (or its translations) in their titles. But if circa 1900 it was central to understandings of history and world order, today it is a much-diminished concept.
No doubt the idea of civilization has suffered because of its implied telos: a purportedly universal standard of progress, an achieved state of culture best embodied in European models. The concept bolstered Europe’s sense of pride, superiority, and privilege in the global context, perhaps nowhere more so than in Europe’s perceived “civilizing mission” in the world. However much it may have served to provide moral direction, a great many crimes were carried out in its name. Thus, the reluctance of many academics to teach courses in “Western civilization.” The term survives more happily when used to designated non-Western social formations (e.g., Mesopotamian civilization, Chinese civilization, Far-Eastern civilization, or Islamic civilization), but even here it suggests some normative standard of achievement and promotes a sense of deep and enduring social divisions. In recent years the concept of civilizations in the plural has especially served polemicists on the right interested in pitting the West against its others. Yet, in our increasingly globalizing world, many argue that a collective process of social improvement in which all of humanity is engaged is more than ever a possibility. Can today’s transnational movements bring people of different backgrounds together, generating a new, more universal (or hybrid) society working for the betterment of humanity? Is this what has become of civilization?
The word “civilization” was coined in the mid-eighteenth century, almost simultaneously in French and English and slightly later in German, to denote an achieved state of culture, shared broadly in a society, and the result of progress out of an inferior condition.[i] It is surely true that a concept can predate a word, but the invention of a word nonetheless suggests something about the need for a concept. In the case of civilization, its rapid progress from neologism to everyday usage suggests a very great need indeed. What was it about this moment that made civilization such a central idea, and how were its early formulations shaped by historical circumstances? From the start, theories of civilization posited a European superiority arising from its particularities: eighteenth-century thinkers pointed most frequently to climate, geography, and religion, while race and the “discoveries” of orientalism and the nascent social sciences became increasingly important to the nineteenth century. Was the idea indissolubly linked to a sense of competition between social groups and notions of European supremacy?
Most early theories of civilization were universalist insofar as they proposed criteria that any society could ostensibly achieve and stages through which all societies progressed. Of course they were inevitably marked by their European origins, but the idea that they might apply to all of humanity should not be ignored. It helps explain, for example, their great traction outside of Europe. In a recent comparative historical study, Cemil Aydin notes that between the 1830s and 1880s reformers in societies as distant as those of the Ottoman Empire and Japan relied heavily on the European concept. Intellectuals usually translated the term or invented a new one (medeniyet in Istanbul, bunmei in Edo) and borrowed from existing ideals (e.g., Islamic, Confucian), but they built on existing European formulations even as they negotiated with their racist, orientalist, and Christian aspects. Anti-Western nationalist, pan-Islamic, and pan-Asian ideologies arose primarily after this initial enthusiasm and only after decades of experience with Europe (and the United States) violating its own civilizational ideals.[ii]
We propose to examine the idea of civilization both in its European formulations and as it became an issue around the world. All societies have had some concept that provided the us/them opposition implied by civilization (i.e., civilization v. barbarism), but what other aspects of the idea proved critical to its success (progressive, universal, the result of human agency, etc.)? In what circumstances did self-conscious theorizing about civilization become necessary, and what led to its demise? What were the alternatives to civilization? In what instances did societies find indigenous conceptions of historical development more adequate to their needs, and when did they react with indifference or hostility to European ideals of civilization? How was the idea of civilization adapted to its various contexts?
Civilization once encompassed the ideas of modernity and human rights. Today, however, modernity and postmodernity have displaced civilization in discussions of the spread of Western modes of social and cultural organization, and cross-cultural moral arguments are now made primarily in the name of human rights. Why did the idea of a universal civilization drop out? Civilization also encompassed other social debates that today enjoy considerable autonomy. For example, in the nineteenth century, arguments for gender equality and the rights of women were normally defended in terms of the benefits of civilization. No comparable all-encompassing social vision governs arguments about gender today, yet the rights of women remain a pivotal issue in cross-cultural relations. Why did this disassociation occur, and how has the decoupling of issues of gender (or race, sexuality, etc.) from a larger vision of society, such as that offered by civilization, changed the terms of debate?
While some early European theories suggested that religion played a role in the civilizing process, most thinkers portrayed civilization as a distinctly non-theological development, the work of people, not gods. This was key to its purportedly universal applicability. Yet the relationship of religion to civilization is not so simple, even in overtly secular theories. As Jean Starobinski notes, while the idea was proposed as “a secularized substitute for religion, an apotheosis or reason,” it quickly took on “a sacred authority.” As such, it stirred up conflict “between political groups or rival schools of thought claiming to be its champions and defenders and as such insisting on the exclusive right to propagate the new idea.”[iii] Much of the history of the idea is an effort to define it in terms that promote a particular ideological agenda.
The sacred aspect of the concept informs its relationship to colonialism as well. Prior to the invention of the word, European foreign conquest and colonization took place primarily under the banner of religion; after its invention they were almost always justified in terms of civilization. Did civilization allow for a secular substitute for religion? The precise relationship between empire and civilization has never been fully theorized: to what extent did the idea of civilization (in Europe especially but elsewhere as well) inspire and justify endeavors like empire? How did its theories of progress shape colonialism? Must it be seen as part and parcel of a larger discourse—inseparable from empire or race—or did it have a degree of autonomy?
It is also paradoxical that civilization was almost always formulated in transnational terms, yet it grew up in the heyday of the nation-state. What was the relationship of civilization to nation? Did it provide for a form of affiliation that allowed the difference of certain nations to coexist even as it ranged them against others? How does the transnationalism of the idea conflict with the priorities of the nation state?
As an idea, civilization has peculiar properties. It defines itself against its opposites or even brings its opposite into being. This game of opposites can have surprising effects: for example, critiques of civilization tend to rehabilitate its others (the primitive, savage, or the state of nature) because as the adornments of civilization become seen as artificial, dissembling, duplicitous, or decadent, its others appear as an antidote. The sacral language of civilization can be turned against almost anything, including itself. Thus, modernity was often criticized by its discontents as embodying the opposite of civilization. (Baudelaire: modernity is a “great barbarity illuminated by gas.”) Civilization also proclaims its own superiority, but almost immediately gives rise to a degree of relativism, as its achievements must be compared to other societies, past and present. There would appear to be certain rhetorical strategies that accompany the concept, and these merit study as well.
Finally, civilization commonly referred to both broad social developments and great individual achievements in the arts, letters, and sciences, but the relationship between the two remained occult. Many saw great works of art as the highest achievements of civilization, yet these were manifestly particular to the time and place that produced them. What was the place of intellectual endeavors in civilization, and to what extent could these partake of its universal aspect?
[i] On the origins and history of the word, see Jean Starobinski, Blessings in Disguise ; or, the Morality of Evil, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA : Harvard UP, 1993) ; Lucien Febvre et al., Civilisation. Le mot et l’idée (Paris: Centre International de Synthèse, 1930); Joachim Moras, Ursprung und Entwicklung des Begriffs der Zivilisation in Frankreich (1756-1830) (Hamburg: 1830); R.A. Lochore, History of the Idea of Civilization in France (1830-1870) (Bonn: 1935); Émile Benveniste, Problèmes de linguistique générale (Paris: Gallimard, 1966), 336-345; Philippe Béneton, Histoire de mots: culture et civilisation (Paris: Presses de la Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques, 1975); E. de Dampierre, “Note sur ‘culture’ et ‘civilisation,’” Comparative Studies in Society and History 3 (1961): 328-340; Brett Bowden, The Empire of Civilization: The Evolution of an Imperial Idea (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 23-46; Bruce Mazlish, “Civilization in a Historical and Global Perspective,” International Sociology 16:3 (September 2001): 293-300; Anthony Pagden, “The ‘Defence of Civilization’ in Eighteenth-Century Social Theory,” History of the Human Sciences 1:1 (1988): 33-45.
[ii] Cemil Aydin, The Politics of Anti-Westernism in Asia: Visions of World Order in Pan-Islamic and Pan Asian Thought (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).
[iii] Starobinski, 17.