Readers: An Invitation to a Continuing Debate

By Drew, Joseph | Comparative Civilizations Review, Fall 2019 | Go to article overview

Readers: An Invitation to a Continuing Debate


Drew, Joseph, Comparative Civilizations Review


For many years, the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations has debated a central conundrum: Can we even define "civilization?"

Background

The organization was created in 1961, with a conference held at Salzburg, Austria. Scholars gathered there under the auspices of UNESCO for six days in October. Among those present were Pitirim Sorokin and Arnold Toynbee. The topics included the definition of the word "civilization," problems in the analysis of complex cultures, civilizational encounters in the past, the Orient vs. the Occident, problems of universal history, theories of historiography, and the role of the social sciences and the humanities in globalization.

But civilization was not a new word in 1961 nor was it a new topic.

Arnold Toynbee begins his magisterial work, A Study of History with a first chapter, at least in the Somervell abridgement, entitled "The Unit of Historical Study." He says that British national history never has been, and almost certainly never will be, an "intelligible field of historical study" in isolation; and "if that is true of Great Britain it surely must be true of any other national state a fortiori'" He then goes on to argue that one cannot study the city states of ancient Greece from 725 to 325 B.C. but rather the whole of Hellenic Society as the field in order to understand the significance of the various local histories. It is the same, he says, with the various small republics and cities of Northern Italy during the Middle Ages and with the differentiation between the national states of Europe in the Middle Ages and today.

So, he concludes: we must focus our attention upon the whole, because this whole is the field of study that is intelligible by itself. Then, he asks: what are these "wholes" in history? He finds most of Europe to be Western Christendom. And of the same species today he finds the Orthodox Christian society of Southeastern Europe and Russia; an Islamic Society, a Hindu Society, and a Far-Eastern Society. He then lists two sets of fossilized relics of similar societies, ones which are now extinct. One of these is that of the early Christians, Jews and Parsees; the second is Mahayana Buddhists of various countries and the Jains of India. His conclusion, he writes, is that the intelligible unit of historical study in neither a nation state nor mankind as a whole, but "a certain grouping of humanity which we have called a society."

His next chapter is entitled "The Comparative Study of Civilizations." He identifies 21 societies that he writes are in process of civilization. He cites G. Elliot Smith's book The Ancient Egyptians and the Origins of Civilization and W. H. Perry's work The Children of the Sun: A Study in the Early History of Civilization. To Toynbee, the comparable units of history are civilizations.

Probably the most popular work of the modern period on the subject of civilizations is Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. His book is divided into five sections:

1. A World of Civilizations

2. The Shifting Balance of Civilizations

3. The Emerging Order of Civilizations

4. Clashes of Civilizations

5. The Future of Civilizations

One interesting aspect to me is that in his theory development section he alludes to Thomas Kuhn's great work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn shows that science has advanced with the displacement of one explanatory paradigm by another paradigm. The old one is not capable of explaining new facts, but the new paradigm can account for those facts in a more satisfactory fashion.

Huntington sets forth how various paradigms-incompatible with each other and full of deficiencies and limitations-have explained the modern world, the Cold War paradigm in particular. With the end of the Cold War came many competing maps or paradigms of world politics: the end of history thesis of Francis Fukuyama; Two Worlds: Us and Them; 184 States, More or Less; and Sheer Chaos. …

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