4 Civilization: Past Usage and Definitions

The word “civilization” is fraught. In its origins, the word implied the superiority of Western elites both to non-Western peoples and to the internal underclasses the aristocrats exploited for their labor. Early uses of the word civilization coincided with the march of European global imperialism in the 18th century. In the context of this incipient Euro-centric globalization, Western elites became increasingly aware of cultures other than their own. This in turn gave rise to the notion of a distinctive Western civilization, generally regarded as superior to the others, and in some sense the apex of human evolution, just as the notion of evolution itself began to enter European thought. French and English understandings of civilization contained the idea of refined taste and artistic exquisiteness, as embodied in the adornments of palaces, cathedrals, and the galleries of the greatest museums. German usage of Zivilization was more prosaic. For the Germans, Zivilization implied technology, industry, and the practical matters of commercial expansion. In German usage, Kultur was reserved for the highest of arts, which were also held to express to deepest reflections of personal cultivation and national spirit. The words culture and civilization thus have an over two centuries history of confusion (Botz-Bornstein, 2012). Either term might smack of elitism, depending on who is doing the writing. But as Europe tore itself asunder in its continental wars of the twentieth century, and as the global decolonization movement gained momentum in the aftermath of those wars, culture and civilization became seen more as analytic categories to describe the lifeways of all human groupings from hunter-gather bands to vast urbanized historical empires. Postmodern authors wish to undermine any sense of European or Western superiority, so culture and civilization both become regarded as dimensions of universal human experience, with no system of symbolic meanings holding greater intrinsic value than any other. Historical and archeological evidence, however, implies a certain hierarchy of human accomplishment (not every culture built the greatest pyramids), and the very fact of decolonization testifies to the uniquely European prior accomplishment of global colonization. The vision of cultural equity and equivalence struggles in the face of unequal empirical facts. Moreover, despite their confusing origins and elitist connotations, the terms civilization and culture are both deeply embedded in the existing corpus of historical and social scientific literature. Our usage here aligns more with current discussions and sensibilities in social theory, aiming at abstract and non-judgmental treatments of all previous collective efforts at human sense making and social organization. Yet the idea of civilization has its shadow, and any constructive notion of civilization going forward must own that shadow to grow consciously beyond it.


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Civilization and Education Copyright © by Robert Bunge is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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