What Is the Difference between Culture and Civilization? Two Hundred Fifty Years of Confusion

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Abstract: The distinction between culture and civilization is not well embedded in the English language but has remained relatively meaningful in both other European and non-European languages. Edward B. Tylor designed an idea of civilization that covers both culture and civilization. Similar attempts had been made in late 18th Century Germany. Though it is sometimes stated that Tylor's relativist concept of culture harks back to Herder, the latter's cultural relativism differs from Tylor's civilizational relativism. Tylor's holistic definition of civilization-culture has created an amount of confusion that can still be felt today.

European totalitarianism is often called "civilization" because many people would work in the service of an expansionist tendency of colonizing groups. On the other hand, European racism, such as that which occurred in 20th Century Germany, profited from the creation of a totally mystical culture that included a pseudo-biological notion in the concept of culture (Master Race). This component had not been present in the Enlightenment or in Herder's Counter-Enlightenment discourses.

Civilization-based racism thrived not only in the colonies but also in the United States, where Beard's purist and radically culture-less idea of civilization could create a suitable background. In Nazi Germany, anti-Jewish racism was based on a naturalized idea of culture; in European colonies and in the United States, anti-black racism was based on the idea that Black people are unable to attain civilization by nature.


The distinction between culture and civilization is not well embedded in the English language, but has remained relatively meaningful in other European and in nonEuropean languages which adopted these concepts from French and German scholars. In the English-speaking world, a century-old confusing play of name switching and revisions has made the distinction between culture and civilization difficult. The fogginess of the distinction has been reinforced when powerful streams of Englishspeaking anthropologists suggested that both concepts are identical.

"Culture" (from Latin cultura) is the older term and corresponds to the Latin form also in its content; the term civilization (from Latin civis) was coined later, in 18th Century France and later also in England. However, German scholars preferred culture, with its complex of meanings. One can draw a more or less distinctive line between civilization and culture by stating that the former refers more to material, technical, economic, and social facts while the latter refers to spiritual, intellectual and artistic phenomena. The German usage of Zivilisation has always alluded to a utilitarian, outer aspect of human existence subordinated to Kultur, which was perceived as the "real" essence of humans, society, and their achievements.

Unfortunately, things are not always that simple because there are cases where the two notions are not clearly distinguished. For example, both culture and civilization can be applied for analyses of religions. Another example is one of the most famous critiques of civilization, Freud's Unbehagen in der Kultur, which uses the word culture, although Freud clearly means civilization. Consequently, the book has been translated into English and into French as Civilization and its Discontents.

E. B. Tylor

In the English speaking world, the idea of civilization has developed autonomously, without reference to the term culture. This is because of the particularity of British anthropological approaches (strongly influenced by "Victorian evolutionists" and Edward B. Tylor), which would find no useful applications for the German-French distinction. Tylor's notion of civilization covers both culture and civilization. It adds to the confusion that Tylor, although defining civilization as more than culture, nonetheless used both terms interchangeably.

Tylor abandoned the distinction between culture and civilization because the angle from which he was looking at culture made this distinction unnecessary. …


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