Academic journal article Comparative Civilizations Review

Civilization as Self-Determination: Interpreting R. G. Collingwood for the Twenty-First Century - Part I

Academic journal article Comparative Civilizations Review

Civilization as Self-Determination: Interpreting R. G. Collingwood for the Twenty-First Century - Part I

Article excerpt

Civilization and Its Contents

It is perhaps not surprising that how academics invoke "civilization" is often different from how it is invoked in other arenas of discourse. Scholars have, over time, pluralized the idea, so one hears of Western civilization and Egyptian civilization and modern civilization and ancient civilization, and without any overt presumption that one is, or some are, superior to others, or that one is obviously appealing and acceptable and the other(s) repugnant and to be rejected.

Interestingly, Samuel Huntington's famous "clash of civilizations" and its putative counterpoint, Francis Fukuyama's "end of history," both suggest, each in its own way, that civilizations can be evaluated as better or worse. But neither constructs his arguments in explicit relation to a term that scholars once proudly propagated, and which is part of the reservoir of popular, political and public discourse: barbarism.1

In contemporary times scholars have, on the whole, eschewed an understanding of civilization that puts it in relation to the contrary term, barbarism. The relation between civilization and barbarism has varied in academia. One species sees the relation as a dichotomy: all societies can be understood as either entirely civilized or entirely barbaric. According to this view, a society could not and cannot be "almost entirely civilized, but a bit barbaric" or vice versa, any more than a person can be, in how we use our language, a little bit pregnant; one either is, or is not. Moreover, each is the opposite of the other.

Another species puts barbarism at one end of a continuum with civilization at the other end, with all societies placed somewhere along the scale. In nineteenth century Western thought, this idea was accompanied by evolutionism. Where a society was placed on the continuum was an indication of how much it had evolved. How evolution was defined and measured varied. For some it was gauged by mastery over nature in the form of science and technology (Morgan, Raglan); for others, spiritual maturity (Tylor, Toynbee), rationality (Kant), aesthetics (Schiller), manners (Elias, Spalding), fitness (Spencer) or complexity (Toynbee). For some (Spengler, Targowski) this evolution was and is more appropriately understood as a decline, though Oswald Spengler's thinking later emerged in debates about the growth as well at the decline of civilizations.2

Yet ultimately popular and public discourse reminds us of what scholars taught - and what I suspect scholars may still maintain, albeit in muted form - namely, that civilization is often understood in relation to its putatively contrary term, barbarism. Particularly in the wake of shocking actions by humans in relation to other humans, such as terrorist attacks or torture, the discourse of barbarism seems to come out of the civilization's shadow and into public light.3 The distinction proliferates in both its Manichean and evolutionist modes - sending scholars scattering: protesting, endorsing, or willfully ignoring the idea of barbarism. Among those particularly discomfited are my fellow socio-cultural anthropologists, who developed the notion of culture in significant measure to displace the idea of civilization, as well as those of barbarism, savagery and the primitive.4

In the new millennium, in the West, the comparison of civilization with barbarism re-emerged forcefully after the attacks on the U.S. in September 2001 (9/11). In this context President George W. Bush declared to the United Nations that the attack had not been against the United States, but against civilization itself and a civilization shared by, presumably, those in the audience. The comparison emerged even more forcefully in 2015 with the attacks in Paris, first on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January and then at a number of sites in November. The attacks in Paris, the City of Light and the Enlightenment, colored the distinction between civilization and barbarism with a particular hue, the light of freedom and progress versus that of darkness and destruction. …

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