Civilization Defined

Article excerpt


A civilization is a dynamical system that supports endogenous cultural development through economic activity aggregated across elements of its data.

This paper proposes the aforementioned as an inclusive scientific definition that can bring about a convergence in the widely differing historical views on civilization. As this definition complies with the mathematical requirements of a definition, it will empower rigorous analytical approaches to study civilizations. The paper argues that all extant intensional historical definitions of civilization are partial implementations of the above definition.

I am a mathematician. In this paper I will describe what I see as a major and fundamental weakness in the historical approaches to study civilization - the absence of a scientifically credible, consensus definition of the term civilization. I will offer a mathematical solution to this historical problem.

Over recent decades, the term civilization has played an increasingly important role in structuring historical, political and economic thought. More recently it has even been suggested that our emerging world order is being morphed through a 'clash of civilizations.' Despite its academic significance, and its perceived importance as a determinant in global politics, the term civilization remains without a consensus definition. In a symposium organised by UNESCO, the historian Felipe FernandezArmesto provided a scholarly survey of the historical efforts to characterize civilization where he concluded that civilization "is a problematic concept because of its abuse, its ambiguities, its partisan connotations, and the arbitrary nature of the ways in which it is commonly characterized."1

For a person like me trained entirely in the sciences, this neglect of a consensus definition is difficult to comprehend. In any scientific exercise, definitions have a primacy which cannot be sidestepped. Yet historians, who have traditionally been the custodians of the term civilization, have for decades pursued a vibrant and prolific industry in the study of civilizations without being stymied by the absence of a consensus definition. One of my earliest forays into history was reading A History of Civilizations by Fernand Braudel. I realized after reaching the end of the book that Braudel had, in fact, not offered any precise definition of the term which was the subject of his book.

This definitional crisis in Civilization Studies is a consequence not of the absence of plausible candidates, but rather arises from a surfeit of them. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of definitions of civilization around. I am told by the members of the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations that they have made numerous previous attempts at their annual meetings to generate a consensus definition of civilization - without success2. The problem of generating a consensus definition of civilization appears to be intractable from within the scope of historical methods.

The absence of a consensus definition is not simply a matter of academic vexation, but one that has had consequences for the study of history. The ambiguity caused by the absence of a scientifically credible consensus definition of civilization has precluded the interdisciplinary development of the study of civilizations. While internal clarity is lacking within history on the definition of a civilization, it becomes impossible to develop external interactions with other disciplines to foster the interdisciplinary development of civilization studies.

This paper will use the mathematical paradigm of a definition to derive a definition of civilization by marrying the common elements in the historical perceptions of civilization with the theory of dynamical systems. This definition is based on the characterization of civilization as a "dynamical system" - an evolving entity driven by underlying processes within specified spatial and temporal boundaries. …