Two Concepts of "Civilization"

By Wei, Ruan | Comparative Civilizations Review, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview
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Two Concepts of "Civilization"


Wei, Ruan, Comparative Civilizations Review


Civilization Has Two Definitions.

The word "civilization" has two basic meanings rather than one. There has been much discussion recently about civilizational conflicts and fusion. But to talk about such fusions, we must keep in mind that the word "civilization" has two basic meanings: first, civilization cultural type or a way of life, and second, civilization as a historicocultural entity or a congeries of peoples sharing and practicing that particular set of values or way of life.

The differences between the two concepts are not self-evident. Yet this is so because they are often enmeshed. Their relationship is not "either/or" because there is no clear demarcation line between them. If we talk about different cultural types or ways of life, civilization in this sense means the basic values and related cultural practices, historical memories, and the geographic configurations people share with one another. Yet this kind of unity doesn't necessarily mean political unity or a shared political stance and commitment. For instance, although historically Muslims and Westerners had certain aspects of their religions and cultures in common, politically the Islamic world and the West have always been divided and generally hostile. And both civilizations have suffered from internal warfare, as well.

Today, the European countries that comprise the European Union are trying to constitute a unified entity, striving toward a super-sovereign state, a United States of Europe, very much like America or China. But this is a massive job and predictably will take generations to accomplish. In 2007 and 2008, the draft of a European constitution was vetoed in referenda in Holland and France, referenda attempting to affirm a common constitution. Even though the European Union is expected to emerge eventually as something like a super-sovereign state, there is still a long way to go before the European states can finally attain the goal of political unification and become a sort of "United States of Europe."

Civilization in the sense of cultural type is defined by a common mode of thinking or system of beliefs. Usually it includes not only a particular set of beliefs but also various cultural practices, despite populations speaking various languages or dialects. In most cases, civilization in this sense also shares a common geographic space, with Islam, perhaps, as an exception (as it is scattered over huge expanses of land on two continents). This lack of geographic continuity may be one factor in Islam's failure to modernize, along with the other cultural factors discussed in "Modernization or Westernization: the Muslim World vs. the Rest," authored by Laina Farhat-Holzman in this issue.

There are many East and West African countries that have adopted Islam in one way or another. There are North African countries that are mainly Islamic. There are some Islamic countries in Southeast Asia, too. There are many ethnic groups who believe in Islam in China. So it seems that Islam is a very much a scattered religious, social, and political phenomenon that does not have very clear boundaries.

It has to be noted, too, that civilization in the sense of cultural type is a long-term dynamic structure. It is a particular spatio-temporal continuum that has existed for thousands of years.

Diffusion of Cultures

Almost without exception, civilization in the sense of cultural type or way of life can be separated from that of a particular historico-cultural entity or aggregate of peoples who share a common way of life and a common geographic locus. Because these two aspects of it can be discussed separately, the values of a particular congeries of peoples called "a civilization" can diffuse among other peoples in the world. Chinese civilization, for example, was centered on "Zhong yuan" or Northern China. Soon it spread to other parts of China. After the Qin unified China, it even expanded to Vietnam, Korea, and Japan.

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