This article is a transnational comparative study of the history of the concept of civilization. It starts with a brief review of the meaning of concepts that historically preceded it, such as civilitas and civilité. Next, it focuses on the appearance of the concept in eighteenth-century England and France and the ways it was used by different political theorists and polemists, mostly in the sense of politeness. During the nineteenth century in the colonies outside Europe, in Africa, in Asia, and in America, the concept of civilization played a key role in the discourse of colonization. First it was used from above, by the colonists, but later on it was appropriated by the colonized. At the end of the nineteenth century, civilization acquired one more layer of meaning as it was incorporated into nationalistic discourse. Eventually, the concept also became so internalized that the majority of people in a country could identify their own nation as the supreme form of civilization.
Comparing Concepts and Identities
Pim den Boer
From Progress to Identify
Javier Fernández Sebastián
The aim of this article is to give an account of the main uses of the concept of Civilization in Spain, in political and intellectual debates, from its origins in the mid-eighteenth century to the present. In the Spanish case, the evolution of this notion is initially marked by the special circumstances of a country relatively backward in comparison with some of the principal "enlightened" European countries, but at the same time an Imperial monarchy, possessing very extensive territories inhabited by people considered as yet "uncivilized". Furthermore, the long struggles in the medieval Iberian peninsula between Christians and Muslims also had a strong influence on certain characteristics of the political uses of the concept of civilization in modern Spain. Recently, the impact of the supposed "Clash of Civilizations" has added a new twist to the range of meanings of the word, employed more and more frequently in a cultural-religious sense. So, between the Enlightenment and post-modernity, the notion of civilization would have moved away from the sphere of Progress to a very different conceptual space: that of Identity.
David N. Coury
Since its founding in 2014, Pegida has positioned itself as a populist movement striving to limit immigration and to preserve Germany’s cultural heritage. It has also aligned itself with other right-wing European political groups whose exclusionary views are rooted in theories of a civilizational clash between the West and the Islamic world. Pegida’s pushback against immigration also includes appeals to resist globalization and the growth of multiculturalism by embracing what Verena Stolcke has termed “cultural fundamentalism.” This ideology assumes cultural hierarchies and segregates religious and ethnic groups spatially and geographical as a means to maintain cultural uniformity. In doing so, Pegida posits that it is not racist or xenophobic, rather that it seeks solidarity in maintaining Western cultural values. The danger in Pegida’s ideology is that it rejects not only constitutional principles and notions of cultural pluralism, but that it furthers a cultural divide that need not exist and, in fact, embraces an exclusionary nationalism that is not unlike the values that they purport to reject.
Pim den Boer
A series of panels focusing on the concept of civilization were organized in each one of the annual meetings held by the History of Political and Social Concepts Group (HPSCG) in New York (2005), Uppsala (2006) and Istanbul (2007). The guiding idea of such an effort was to stimulate research on what became one of the most successful eighteenth-century neologisms in modern socio-political vocabulary. There has been extensive historical and conceptual research on civilization in German, French and English, but little has been produced on its introduction, translation and usage in other European and non-European languages.
The concept of civilization has not prospered in socio-cultural anthropology. Its origins lie in Enlightenment France, where it was used in both singular and plural forms, the universalist singular eventually prevailing in the decades leading up to the Revolution. Our discipline came to prefer pluralizing counter-currents of this universalism such as that associated with Johann Gottfried Herder. The key term in German was Kultur, though it was not widely used in the plural until the twentieth century, while Zivilisation referred to technological progress. For Edward Burnett Tylor in England, culture and civilization were synonymous. But even before the demise of the European colonial empires, most socio-cultural anthropologists were uncomfortable with the normative connotations of the latter. They preferred to carry out ethnographic studies within paradigms that represented the world as composed of more or less bounded societies with their more or less incommensurable cultures. With the abandonment of evolutionist paradigms, analyses of the emergence of civilization from primitive cultures were rendered redundant and repugnant.
Translations in Modern Italian and Conceptual Change
By focusing on the Italian translations of civilization, the author explores ways in which conceptual change has reflected historical developments in Italy. Unlike the widespread literal translation of civilization from English or French to other languages, civilizzazione has been a marginal term in Italian. On the other hand, terms such as civiltà, more akin to the Latin civitas, are more frequently employed. e article maps out the complex semantics of civitas and how its trajectory in the philosophy of history was uniquely translated into Italian. Whereas in other European nations civilization and the notion of historical progress it conveyed became a central concept, in Italy, due to the elaboration of an identity heavily influenced by Christian heritage, the more static concept of civiltà proved to be more significant.
Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature defends Norbert Elias’s “civilization thesis”: the idea that violence has declined gradually in human societies over the millennia. As history, however, Pinker’s defense is flawed. First, the data gathered by historians do not show long-term declines in individual or collective violence. Second, the historical forces that Pinker believes have suppressed violence can also increase violence, depending on historical conditions. And third, neurology, endocrinology, and primatology may contribute more in the long run than evolutionary psychology to the understanding of the history of human aggression.
This article puts Dumont’s ‘hierarchy’ into the context of Marcel Mauss’s conception of civilization as a correction to Dumont’s ahistorical and structuralist approach. First, it introduces and elaborates Mauss’s ‘civilization’ into a descriptive and analytic concept. It then proposes a loosened conception of different hierarchies of encompassment and ideology. What follows as extended examples is a selection of long processes of transformation of the hierarchical structure of civilization in China. The article concludes by broaching the big historical questions that anthropology should be asking about hierarchies, that is, how they are formed and transformed.
An Ambiguous Transfer
This article focuses on the evolution of the concept of civilisation in the French language through the analysis of socio-political discourse from Enlightenment to the Revolution and of the Anglo-French transfers and translations of different English historians and philosophers who first started using the concept in the second half of the eighteenth century. In the interaction between the French and English Lumières, civilization came forward as a meta-concept pitted against that of the contract theory advanced by authors such as Adam Ferguson, with a distinct perspective of an overarching natural history of mankind. Drawing upon the results produced by Frantext and a history of the use of concept in different theoretical frameworks, the author demonstrates the construction of civilisation in its relationship to various antonyms (barbare, sauvage, barbarie), rhetorical uses and conceptions of history.
This article analyzes how the fundamental challenge of decolonization has resonated in history textbooks published in France since the 1960s. It therefore contextualizes textbook knowledge within different areas of society and focuses on predominant discourses that influenced history textbooks' (post)colonial representations in the period examined. These discourses encompass the crisis of Western civilization, modernization, republican integration, and the postcolonial politics of memory. The author argues that history textbooks have thus become media, as well as objects of an emerging postcolonial politics of memory that involves intense conflicts over immigration and national identity and challenges France's (post)colonial legacy in general.