Classics, Culture, Civilization, Oh My!

Very pleased to be hosting this guest blog post from Maximus Planudes on a history of the terms 'culture' and 'civilization' (in English, French, and German). It will serve as important background for understanding the concept of 'western civ', the history of which I am slowly working through my post(s) on. This is a discussion that bears directly on the history of classics and is well worth the deep dive. This is the first in a possible multi-part discussion. Here also is a collection of examples from the writings of those discussed below (and more!) on culture and civilization.

“It is never a waste of time to study the history of a word” — Lucien Febvre

If you happen to be old enough to remember the late 80s and early 90s, you might be feeling a sense of déjà vu. Didn’t we already fight a culture war where multiculturalism vanquished western civilization? Well, sort of. Just recently a conservative online magazine published a four-part(!) defense of Western Civilization and a scholar in the audience of a panel on the Future of the Classics asserted the importance of Western Civilization, before devolving predictably into racist insinuations. Against this view, Kwame Anthony Appiah, a few years back, devoted his final Reith lecture to the problems of the narrative of Western Civilization and there is at least one scholar who is tracing out the history of the term and its racist background. There is no real need, then, for me to weigh in on that debate, which is in fact not simply a repeat or continuation of the previous culture war. Previously we argued over what books should be taught; now we ask, “Is the concept of Western Civilization useful?” (Spoiler alert, the answer is ‘no’).

I want, instead, to explore the maddeningly elusive words ‘civilization’ and ‘culture’, and the related words in German and French: (Kultur, Zivilisation, Bildung, civilisations, culture). Here is a semantic field of some contemporary importance, but one with a more than usually complicated history (see the 4!! volumes on Civilization edited by Bowden). Moreover, in current usage, these words often occur in highly polemical political debates and with specialized senses in scientific discourse (particularly Anthropology and Sociology). The history is rather well documented, but the diversity of applications and contexts make a simple exposition impossible and, despite its length, this story is only partial.

I was into stashes before they were cool.
The first question is, I think, Why bother? Obviously (to me at least), Febvre is right: studying the history of words is never a waste of time. These words, moreover, not only play a foundational role in our own conceptualization of the field (Harvard teaches a course, Classical Studies 97b, titled “Roman Culture and Civilization”) but they also inform how others understand us. Neville Morley, for all his anti-badger rhetoric, rightly calls our attention to the persistence of concepts within the humanities. There is symmetry in Marc Bloch’s point that “history receives its vocabulary … already worn out and deformed by long usage; frequently, moreover, ambiguous from the very beginning” (The Historian’s Craft, p157).

It seems a worthwhile exercise, then, to explore the history and usage of important words, especially when they are often used as if they had some sort of clear and stable meaning. I will not offer fixed definitions and then explore how others misuse the words; instead, I will trace the ways the words are used. I’m following Nietzsche here, who asserted “only that which has no history can be defined.”

My goal is to make you as confused as I am. Let’s go.

Part 1: Two Ideas of Civilization

“It would be pleasant to be able to define to word ‘civilization’ simply and precisely” — F. Braudel.

Civilization (1.0) is singular, hierarchical and normative. Its significance arises from its use as an oppositional category to barbarism, savagery, primitive. JS Mill is the clearest exemplum of this idea, although it is baked into the word from the beginning (see Blouin): 
Whatever be the characteristics of what we call savage life, the contrary of these, or the qualities which society puts on as it throws off these, constitute civilization. (Civilization, 1836)
Mill’s discussion leans heavily on the idea of social cooperation and, in general, civilization (1.0) refers to complex social relations and their products.  As a universal quality, a society possesses a degree of Civilization (1.0) that places it in a hierarchy. For example, Europeans have a higher degree of Civilization (1.0), which is a good thing to have and better to share, especially at gunpoint. 

Civilization (2.0) seeks, not altogether successfully, to slough off its normative baggage to serve as a purely descriptive purpose. Civilization (2.0) “simply (sic!) refers to all the features that can be observed in the collective life of one human group, embracing their material, intellectual, moral and political life and, there is, unfortunately, no other word for it, their social life…It does not imply any value judgment on the detail or the overall pattern of the facts examined” (Febvre, Civilization). In Civilization (1.0), a group possess some degree of it; in the second, the group and its civilization are coterminous. Civilization (2.0) becomes much more common when people begin talking about civilizations in the plural (dated to 1819 by Braudel).

Although it might seem like civilization (1.0) and (2.0) do not really play well together, Toynbee was happy to have both, which he distinguished typographically: “civilizations have come and gone, but Civilization (with a big ‘C’) has succeeded”. This statement gives the impression that the two usages remain distinct; the two concepts, however, blend into each other in complex ways.  If Civilization (1.0) has pretensions to universalism, (2.0) tends towards essentialism. This multivalent civilization is associated by Bowden with Quentin Skinner’s discussion of ‘evaluative-descriptive’ terms.

Braudel: What would be
 the most French title?

Finally, it is a real curiosity, Braudel points out, that Voltaire did not use the word civilization since if anyone should have invented and used the term, it was Voltaire. Instead, he titled his book Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations. This title clarifies the idea that civilization (2.0) would translate ‘customs and spirit (in the French sense)’ of peoples. Civilization is tied to customs, traditions, ideas, to esprit, to Geist, to what we today call ‘culture’. This is a place where culture and civilization overlap.  This observation leads me to the next problem: culture.

Part 2: Culture, Kultur, and Zivilisation

“Culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English Language” — Raymond Williams.

(Jane Fairfax's) heart and understanding had received every advantage
of discipline and culture.

Like Civilization (1.0), Culture (1.0) is singular, denotes a process and is used hierarchically. The established etymology derives culture from Latin cultura and especially from Cicero’s metaphor, cultura animi, which applied the idea of agricultural cultivation to individual self-improvement, using the expression “philosophy is the cultivation of the soul” (cultura enim animi philosophia est Cic. Tusc. II.17.3). This usage and idea returns in the humanist period and informs Francis Bacon and Montaigne at the beginning of the 17 century, where cultura becomes a way of talking about education. Cultura animi is something the individual pursues; it is not a characteristic of groups.

Important changes occurred in German, which borrowed Kultur from French. In part, Kultur retains its sense of cultura animi: it describes individual self-cultivation, serving as a synonym for Bildung. But it also is used, like Civilization (1.0), to talk hierarchically about groups, who possess a certain degree of culture. In the 18th century, Johann Gottfried Herder claimed that each Volk had its own Kultur. He was reacting to the universalizing history of the previous generation, for whom world history was a progression up the ladder of civilization (1.0). And yet, Herder did not use Kultur in the plural. Kultur was still one thing.

Elias: Culture is a cup of tea
and a good book/
Zivilisation, also deriving from French, enters the picture, and the words reshuffle. As Norbert Elias points out, Kultur and Zivilisation were often oppositional categories in Germany. Bildung retains its connection to individual self-actualization. Zivilisation takes on the sense of civilization (1.0) but with often a generally negative connotation, describing superficial manners, stifling bureaucracy, pretty much anything negative and homogenizing in the contemporary world. Indeed, it functions often like “globalization” today.

Spengler: Please tell me again how things
are improving?
Kultur was thus free for a new concept, already hinted at in Herder. As Nietzsche later puts it, “Kultur is, above all, the unity of artistic (künstlerischen) style in the life of a people (Volk). Kultur is the essential character of a people, a character that is expressed in the (typically intellectual, artistic) products of its society. For Christoph Meiners, a classical philologist of the late 18th century, Plato was less important as a philosopher than as an expression of the Athenian achievement. This tendency, to see Kultur as the expression of the unique, authentic spirit of a people, perhaps explains why Kultur can be opposed to the universalizing of Zivilisation

In a civilization (1.0) narrative, Plato status as a philosopher, his unique contribution to world progress, would be highlighted. According to Nietzsche: “Zivilisation has one aim, Kultur another, perhaps the opposite”. Spengler famously treated decline as the inevitable slide from Kultur to Zivilisation. Gyorgy Markus states that “the First World War was fought under the slogans of defense of Western civilization, on the one side, and defense of (German) culture against the deadening, materialist civilization of the West, on the other side.”

Of course, it’s not so simple. Other German writers (Hegel, for example) use the words interchangeably. Here is Freud, in the Future of an Illusion (1927): “Human Kultur — by which I mean all those respects in which human life has raised itself above its animal status and differs from the life of beasts (and I scorn to distinguish between Kultur and Zivilisation).” As if things weren’t bad enough, translators from German tend to use ‘civilization’ to translate ‘Kultur’. 

We have seen that Freud scorned the distinction, so the translation of his famous Das Unbehagen in der Kultur as Civilization and its discontents is perhaps no real problem. I’m less sure about the translation of Wilamowitz’ Geschichte der Philologie. Is the translation that “Greco-Roman Civilization … is a unity” the same as Die griechisch-römische Kultur…ist eine Einheit? And let’s not forget that we’ve been Kultur-waring at least since the late 19th century. All the confusion aside, the German use of Kultur in its oppositional sense to Zivilisation is important in the development of culture (2.0).

Part 3: Cultures

The change from culture (1.0) to (2.0) is often linked to E.B. Tayler’s Primitive Culture (1871): “Culture or civilization, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society”.

Tayler: Culture is measured in
beard length.
Tayler makes no distinction here between civilization and culture, but he is credited with the anthropological use of culture, or culture (2.0). In anthropological cultures (note the plural), all people are equally cultured because everyone is a product of their social environment. In Anthropology, culture (2.0) is “the system of shared beliefs, values, customs, behaviors, and artifacts that the members of society use to cope with their world and with one another, and that are transmitted from generation to generation through learning.” Appiah contrasted Tayler’s culture (2.0) with Matthew Arnold’s culture (1.0, more or less cultura animi).

George Stocking, however, argued that despite the famous definition cited above, Tayler used culture primarily in the sense of civilization (1.0). What Tayler did was take civilization (1.0), expand the elements covered, and connect it to an evolutionary model: for Tayler, culture was singular and hierarchical. Tayler describes how over time different groups move up the scale of culture (towards, presumably, Tayler himself). For culture (2.0), Stocking points to the work of Franz Boas.

Boas: Dude, I was on the cover of
Time before it was cool.
Boas did not begin with a fully formed anthropological sense of culture. The following passage comes from his address to the anthropology section at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (Brooklyn, 1894)
Was the culture attained by the ancient civilized people of such character as to allow us to claim for them genius superior to that of any other race? First of all, we must bear in mind that none of these civilizations was the product of the genius of single people. Ideas and inventions were carried from one to the other; and, although intercommunication was slow, each people which participated in the ancient civilization added to the culture of the others.
Although civilizations appear in the plural, culture remains singular. The language here reflects multiple uses of the words civilization and culture, as well as Kultur (‘genius of a single people’), while also linking the concept of race. In the development of anthropological culture, the ideas of civilizations, German Kultur and race come together. It is from Boas that culture (2.0) develops. The plural “cultures,” according to Stocking, finally appears in his students’ works. Since the mid 20th century, then, the concept of culture (2.0) explodes, being the motivating concept of anthropology, cultural studies, and Kulturgeschichte, and centrally informing many other disciplines, among them history, archeology, and classics.

The words continue to be used in a variety of ways, reflecting this history, but not always reconcilable. Pierre Bourdieu talks about the role of “cultural” capital and Palm Springs has an Institute for Cultural Advancement. Civilization is a video game, a PBS series, and Boston University has an Institute for the Study of the Origins of Civilization (note the singular). Culture can be appropriated or shared. “Culture” and “civilization” can be ways of talking about race, without using the word, as Steve King does.

Culture is also a way of talking about race, but from the perspective of inclusion, in this graphic from the blog of the Winters Group, a consulting group for diversity and inclusion, titled: "What is Diversity? — Part 6: It’s All About Culture".

The culture umbrella covers a lot, e.g. age = culture. Ok, that’s fine for Millennials, but not for Gen-X, whose culture is defined by its absence.

The umbrella reveals the close connection, which we’ve brushed up against a few times already, between culture, civilization, and identity. That is where I will go next, but this is enough for now.

Sources and Further Reading
  • Appiah, Kwame A. 2018 The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.
  • Benveniste, Émile, “Civilization: A Contribution to the History of the Word,” in Problems in General Linguistics.
  • Blouin, Katherine. ‘Civilization: What’s up with that?’ Everyday Orientalism.
  • Bonnett, Alastair. 2004. The Idea of the West. Palgrave Macmillian.
  • Bowden, Brett, 2009. The empire of civilization: the evolution of an imperial idea Chicago.
  • -- -- -- (ed), 2009. Civilization (Critical Concepts in Political Science) 4 vol. 
  • Braudel, Fernand. 1987 (1963) History of Civilizations (Grammaire des Civilisations) tr. by Richard Mayne. Penguin.
  • Elias, Norbert. 1994 (1939) “Sociogenesis of the Antithesis Between Kultur and Zivilisation in German Usage” from The Civilizing Process (Über den Prozeß der Zivilisation). Tr. Edmund Jephcott. p.5ff.
  • Mantena, Karuna, 2010. Alibis of Empire. Princeton.
  • Pitts, Jennifer. 2018. Boundaries of the International: Law and Empire. Harvard.
  • Stocking, G. (1982), Race, Culture and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology.
  • Toynbee, Arnold. 1948. Civilization on Trial. New York.
  • Williams, R. 1976. “Culture” in Keywords