What Is Civilization

There are a few pages buzzing around this question, and no agreed distinction yet. Let's try on a few definitions for size:

  1. Non-violence. Especially, not killing people.
  2. Living in cities, as opposed to towns or tribes.
  3. An etiquette that permits the construction of large social systems like cities and WikiDom.
  4. Avoiding the use of force unless in defense of yourself, your family, and your property.
  5. Avoiding the use of force unless in defense of the innocent.
  6. The PrimeDirective of non-interference.
  7. The BillOfRights.
  8. The FourFreedoms.
  9. Copulism (see WhatIsCopulism).
  10. A cultural abstraction with no moral, ethical, or logical force.
  11. OpenPolitics - a RepresentativeDemocracy of competing OpenParty structures
  12. USA.
  13. Canada.
  14. Western Europe.
  15. Northern Europe.
  16. The steady progress of large numbers of humans from birth to death through a large mall lined with pizza restaurants, hamburger chains, TV sets, and all-you-can-eat salad bars. Not to mention StarBucks?
  17. Groups of people engaged in exchange and division of labor among themselves and among the groups to common and mutual benefit.
  18. Ritualized agriculture, followed by locking up the food.
  19. MutualHospitality?. Hence, the Clampetts were civilized. And the Drysdales weren't. C2 is civilized. And, at least at present, GreenCheese ain't. OpenSource is civilized. MicroSoft ain't. Etc.
  20. The realization that there is inherent value in helping other people
  21. A fine game by SidMeier? and BruceShelly?

Others? Actually I really like that "mutual hospitality" one. Is there anyone who doesn't think that's really it?

You can derive 1, 2, 5, 7 (mostly), 8 (mostly), 14, 16 and 18 from 3. I think #3 is the most general, most abstract, most rigorous, and most accurate. Who came up with it? It's a very nice definition.

I did all of 'em except 13, 14, 16 & 17. #3 was my favourite coming in, but there's something more in #18. #3 admits hypnotic cultures, where #18 speaks more to chivalry - which is etymologically necessary. But don't get too attached to 'em, cause we're not done yet I expect.

Yeah, but who are you? :)

That would be telling.

#18 is more narrow, and #3 rightly admits hypnotic cultures as lesser forms of civilization (less complex and adaptable social systems).


Seems most of the comments below fail to make a distinction between CivilizationAsCivility?, which is to say that behavior we regard as being courteous, CivilizationAsDevelopment?, an abstraction championed by folks like SirKennethClark?, and AcivilizationAsaCulture?, which is to say a bunch of people sharing one or more languages and one or more technologies.

If we don't make this distinction explicit, we're going to spend a lot of time arguing at cross-purposes.

There is no such distinction. By civilization we mean something between civility, development and culture. We certainly do not mean civility as politeness, development as technology, nor culture as art.


#3 is equivalent to: "a way of behaving that allows civilization" or more simply "civilized behavior", which although true, isn't particularly informative as a definition.

Are you saying that a definition of civilized behaviour shouldn't be equivalent to 'civilized behaviour'? Or that a definition of civilized behaviour isn't close enough to 'civilization' to be useful? Except that #3 is not using either civilized or civilization in the definition. The definition says that civilization is the construction of large social systems, and the codes of conduct that enable such construction. That's an important (non-trivial and non-obvious) insight into the nature of civilization.

Important in what way? Maybe if you could spell out some of those codes of conduct you'd have something less tautologous.

As far as I know, there is no underlying set of rules applicable to all civilizations. Every possible crime, including theft, rape, murder, mass murder, child abuse, infanticide and cannibalism, has been permitted by one or another civilization at some point in time. A definition is by definition a tautology so if you have a complaint against definition #3, make it meaningful.

No, this is wrong. From Merriam-Webster:
'definition'
a statement expressing the essential nature of something
'tautology'
A needless repetition of an idea, statement, or word
The complaint against #3 is that it is a tautology rather than a definition. Look up what 'tautology' means in an encyclopedia of mathematics or symbolic logic textbook. Because that's the only sense of tautology which applies to "civilization is an etiquette".

But to see exactly how meaningful and insightful definition #3 is, contrast with the usual conception of civilization as culture. Culture is usually understood as 'art' but since art qua art is not a meaningful part of social systems, it is ruled out. The only way that art can be part of civilization (except as an incidental by-product of it) is if it is a means of social control, like religious art in ancient times.

Can we agree that "large social systems" are "civilization" and that "etiquette" is behaviour? Then #3 says that the definition of civilization is the behaviour that makes civilization possible. While this refutes the StrawMan definition of civilization as production of culture, it doesn't seem particularly enlightening. If you define etiquette as a code of conduct then it's not necessarily a civilizing influence. If you define it as a code of conduct that civilizes people then saying that etiquette civilizes people is tautological.

Also how does a civilization differ from a society?


"Civilization" is a general term denoting some (as yet undefined) set of attributes common to all entities that can be said to be "civilized". Note that this is not a tautology, it is a "meta-definition"--a definition about a definition.

"Society" is a specific term, denoting the forms of social organization peculiar to an identifiable group; for example, "American society" or "Melanesian society".

For much of its history, the term "civilization" has been used in an unscientific and self-serving manner by entities seeking to assert and promote their own superiority to other entities. Thus the notion, common in the 18th. and 19th. centuries, that "Englishmen are civilized; [American] Indians are savages." Vestiges of this older way of using the term "civilization" seem to inform one of its most common modern usages, and can be clearly seen on this page, especially in definition # 3, with its implication that a hallmark of a "civilization" is some kind of "large social system". The antidote to this line of thought would be definition 18: mutual hospitality.

My view, though, is that Definition 10 is closest to the truth. In social science terms, "civilization" is a nonsequitur. The terms "culture", "society" and "state" provide all of the classification and rigor needed for the study and analysis of large-scale human organization. In ethical terms, "civilization" connotes a value judgment that a certain level of size or complexity in human organization is somehow "superior" or "advanced" in relation to organizations of smaller size or lesser complexity. There is, of course, no objective methodology to measure such concepts of superiority or advancement that everyone can agree on. In popular use, there are two common and competing meanings of the term. These are the ones set forth by Definitions 3 and 18. The fact that people can, and frequently do, talk past each other because they hold only one of these definitions in mind tends to make the term useless for meaningful communication.

As suggested elsewhere, it is possible to consistently classify certain human behaviors as "crimes" regardless of whether a particular society or political entity sanctions them, prohibits them, or looks the other way. It is also possible to identify patterns of human organization that tend toward social disintegration and/or greater human suffering over time. However, such self-destructive patterns have existed in various societies or states that exhibited varying degrees of size and complexity, at various times over their lifespans--including situations in which the decline was reversed, at least for a while. This makes the notion of reliably linking size or complexity to quality-of-life measures or even to the simple concept of stability over time, fairly problematic.

Definition 20, by the way, is indisputable.

-- KenDibble
numbers 11-14 are rather missing the point ... or at least they're missing a point.


Can a civilization that cannot protect itself against invaders be considered a civilization?

Make "can protect itself" a value attribute. Ancient Greece was once a civilization and did, for a time, protect itself. Eventually another "civilization" came along and annexed it. I suppose the "can protect itself" attribute belongs somewhere on a scale. In fact, it would seem that civilizations succeed as a matter of degree, some do it better for longer than others.

So what isn't a value attribute?

''What does "value attribute" mean in this context anyways. And the answer to "can a society be a civilization if it cannot protect itself against invaders" is yes.

I think the question may be confusing civilizations with states. China has been overrun several times while remaining distinctly Chinese. Greek culture and society flourished in Ionia even while it was a Persian satrapy, and hardly died out with the coming of Macedonia and Rome. And then there are many peoples who have maintained themselves through times where they had no states at all.


The comments on this page annoy me. Civilization has nothing to do with non-violence, etiquette, avoiding the use of force, hospitality or helping others. Read a few ethnographies of "primitive" peoples and you'll see strong evidence that civilization is contrary to these traits. Civilization is a by-product of sedentary agriculture and animal domestication. -- EricHodges

So, something along the lines of ... "An agreement to cooperate and divide labor toward a mutual benefit" ... a little more like it?"

No. Cooperation and working for mutual benefit are more common in nomadic tribes than civilizations. Civilization is just what happens when you live in the same place and increase your food supply. Population increases, trade increases and the dominance hierarchy deepens.


If anyone still cares about anthropology here, I've heard that civilization is when you have permanent lifelong specialists. Not just people who do stone masonry, but stone masons who don't do anything else in their entire lives.

I've heard that too (in fact, I did an anthro paper in high school on that topic! :) However I've also heard that there are some hunter-gatherer societies that have such specialists (e.g. for weapon making). One could either call such "civilized", or re-examine the definition again.


Uh, a computer game? :)

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