Civilization: Definitions and Recommendations
Some Definitions of Civilizations
Civilizations have distinctly different settlement patterns from ordinary societies. The word civilization is sometimes defined as "a word that simply means 'living in cities'" (Standage 2005:25). Non-farmers gather in cities to work and to trade. Compared with other societies, civilizations have a more complex political structure, namely the state. State societies are more stratified than other societies; there is a greater difference among social classes. The ruling class, normally concentrated in cities, has control over much of the surplus that constitutes wealth and exercises its will through the actions of a government, bureaucracy, technocracy, plutocracy, meritocracy, ad-hoc-cracy, and military.
The term civilization has been defined and understood in a number of ways in a situation when there is no widely accepted standard definition. Sometimes it is used synonymously with a term culture. Civilization can also refer to society as a whole. To nineteenth-century English anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor, for example, civilization was "the total social heredity of mankind;” in other words, civilization was the totality of human knowledge and culture as represented by the most "advanced" society at a given time.
Some most popular definitions of civilizations will be reviewed and compared to find the most important components, which should be a part of a standard/composite definition.
Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975):
Carroll Quigley ( 1910-1977):
Some Contemporary Definitions of Civilizations
Nikolai Danilevsky, 1871:
Christopher Dawson, 1955:
And Felipe Fernandez-Armesto:
Andre Gunder Frank:
John K. Hord: 1992:
Samuel P. Huntington:
Shuntaro Ito quotes the definition by Edward Tyler:
Feliks Koneckzny 1952 (1935):
A. L. Kroeber:
One recognizes that each medium of communication, whether utilizing written languages or images captured in electronic form, creates a certain kind of public space in which certain thoughts or intelligible messages can be expressed. This is the cultural aspect of civilizations. There is also, however, an aspect having to do with the structure of society. In my view, all human societies go through a process of development extending from primitive, tribal society to more complex societies that have a pluralistic structure of institutions. The various institutions become fully developed at certain times in world history (e-mail to Andrew Targowski, Jan. or Feb. 2008).
Mattews Melko, the president of the ISCSC (1983-1986):
For now let's say a civilization is a large society possessing a degree of autonomy and internal integration, an agricultural economy, religion, stratification, warfare, usually cities and writing, or some other method of keeping long term records, as well as central government at least at a regional or urban level (2002: 69).
Melko says also that “civilizations are reifications in the sense that Europe and the Indian Ocean are reifications. There is a plurality of civilizations, some having existed for several thousand years. They vary in size, but many are large, and they have a varying degree of economic and cultural integration. Their boundaries are vague and vary over time, and they often overlap one another. They are remarkably persistent and once established, rarely terminate.”
Malko attributes his above statement to Gunder Frank:
“A civilization is a large society possessing a degree of autonomy and internal integration, an agricultural economy, religion, stratification, warfare, and usually cities and writing, or some other method of keeping long term records, as well as central government at least at a regional or urban level” (Melko, Unpublished, 2007).
W. M. Flinders Petrie:
Lee Daniel Snyder, the president of the ISCSC (2004-2007):
Pitirim A. Sorokin (first president of the ISCSC):
Andrew Targowski attempted to extract “a composite definition” from these definitions (a few more being added after this attempt) as follows:
Some Classifications of Civilizations
Blaha, St. (2002). The Life Cycle of Civilizations. Auburn, NH: Pingree-Hill Publishing.
Recommended readings on civilization
A census of the membership of the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations would likely show that almost everyone involved with the organization either is, has been, or will be a faculty member. And for most of the members, this means at the university level.
It is also a fact that the members have never been able to agree, except within broad parameters, what constitutes a “civilization.”
To find out, I decided to begin by surveying the editors of this journal. Mostly this is because we are in constant communication and, as a result, I figured that they would be quickest to answer my query. The question was: What literature do you use or recommend in teaching the comparative study of civilizations?
I. Dr. Walter Benesch
A prolific author and longtime member of the faculty at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, Dr. Walter Benesch, Manuscript Editor, responded to the request in a decidedly philosophical vein. He wrote:
The problem with the request from my point of view is the decision on 'fields to be covered' as in comparative technologies, literatures, social problems-classes-structures, philosophies, religions and theological systems, political structures, etc. ad infinitum."
Thus - rather than a list, I would suggest an extensive 'History of the World' basic text: one of my favorites would be an updated J.M. Roberts "History of the World" (Knopf) or a similar universal history. This provides a good reference text for events, movements, and periods.
I would couple this with a large format (oversize) "Atlas of World History" which provides maps and dates. There are several of these around - Harper Collins did a good one several years ago - but something more recent would be better.
Once one has two or three such general reference texts then one can add additional materials according to the direction in which one wants to go with the course. Here, again, the challenge is tricky - for example a basic overview of technologies, sciences, literatures, philosophies---but then an emphasis on reading as much original source material as possible - novels, poems in case of literature, scientific treatises (even if simplified) in case of science, particular philosophers in case of philosophy.
For example - and it just happens to be mine - I started out writing a comparative logic book which had students mastering logical systems from a number of traditions. When one US university publisher sent the manuscript back with the comment "Americans don't think like that" - I changed the title to a 'comparative introduction to philosophy' but kept the logics and, as a result, it is a useful approach to civilizations via the logical systems that different traditions have developed. It also offers insight into contemporary physical theory where logical boundaries are being crossed with considerable success in both physics and biology. Macmillan London liked it and printed it.
I don't really care for the term ‘civilization’. I prefer ‘traditions’ - and prefer the idea of a comparative approach to ‘traditions,’ which leaves the areas open so one can then discuss/compare the ways in which different aspects of different traditions around the world influence the development of everything from physical science to religion to literature.
II. Prof. David Wilkinson
From the somewhat sunnier clime of Southern California, Prof. David Wilkinson, Book Review Editor, took an approach shorn of excess verbiage but relatively thorough in scope.
His suggested list is as follows:
Spengler, Decline of the West
Quigley, Evolution of Civilizations
Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations
Melko & Scott, Boundaries of Civilizations
Ford, Richard and Talbott, Palmer Sorokin and Civilization
Sanderson, Civilizations and World Systems
Frank and Gills, eds., The World System
Gills and Thompson, eds., Globalization and Global History
Denemark et al, eds., World System History
III. Professor Matt Melko
Professor Matt Melko of Ohio, Peer Review Editor, launched a full and thorough attack on the subject. He wrote as follows:
I taught the course to undergraduates in 15 and 10 week segments, as well as to graduate students over 20 weeks.
At the time I used my Nature of Civilizations which may still be available from Porter Sargent at its original $4.50 price, and is readable, covers the basics. Quigley's The Evolution of Civilizations was reprinted in 1979 by Liberty Press and may still be available; it is salty, opinionated, interesting, and includes enough case chapters for this purpose.
You can then assign library reading from the Atkinson Spengler, the original Toynbee (not the abridgement), and Kroeber's Configurations or Style and Civilizations, which is also short enough to use as a supplementary.
Among current authors you might give them a taste of Snyder, including a diagram and a challenge to replicate (who would try?). Also, among our members, Blaha has some wonderful charts for students that apply Toynbee, and projects into the past and future, but you need to warn the students that this is an example of extreme durationism and is what happens when a physicist is allowed to study civilizations. Under your new Senator's guidance, there should soon be a law against this.
(Editor’s Note: this particular editor resides in Washington, D.C., where we have taxation without representation. However, if he is referring to the campus on which I work, then he means the new United States senator from Virginia, Mr. Webb; perhaps the organization’s leadership may wish to pose such a challenge to him.)
You can only present the general ideas and give some cases as examples.
One student said to me that she didn't like the course because what can you do about civilizations?
Oh, I like Felipe Fernandez-Arnesto's book Civilizations. Despite the title he is rather anti-civilizationist, and the first chapter makes a good case against, dismissing the time between Toynbee and Huntington -- oh yes, you will want to mention him -- as kind of empty.
The course was always fun to teach.
In addition, my suggested list of key civilizational references would be as follows:
M. F. Ashley Montagu, editor, 1956, Toynbee and History, Boston, Porter Sargent. Sample of Toynbee's critics.
*Philip Bagby, 1963 (1958), Culture and History, University of California Press. Set up the civilizational theory he would develop, but then he died suddenly.
George Basala, 1988, The Evolution of Technology, Cambridge University Press.
*Stephen Blaha, 2002, The Life Cycles of Civilizations, Pingree-Hill. Our physicist successor to Iberall, working from Toynbee, extreme durationist, but the diagrams are fun, may be interesting to students.
2004, "Lee Daniel Snyder: Macro-History," Comparative Civilizations Review, 51: 125-127. What Blaha thinks of Snyder.
Franz Borkenau, 1981, End and Beginning: On the Generations of Cultures and the Origins of the West, Columbia University Press.
*T. Downing Bowler, 1981, General Systems Thinking: Its Scope and Applicability, North Holland. Best book on general systems, underlies both civilizational and world systems.
*Fernand Braudel, 1972, 1976 (1966), The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, 2d rev. ed. 1966 trans. Sian Reynolds, v. 1 Harper & Row, v. 2, Harper Torchbooks. Contains much interesting material on civilizations derived from a time and space specific situation.
E. H. Carr, 1962, What is History? Knopf. Clear and controversial basic book.
Christopher Chase-Dunn and Thomas D. Hall, 1997. Rise and Demise: Comparing World-Systems. Westview Press. Unreadable, but best world systems overview.
K. N. Chaudhuri, 1990, Asia Before Europe: Economy and Civilization of the Indian Ocean From the Rise of Islam to 1750, Cambridge University Press. Good example of macrohistorical writing.
*Mark N. Cohen, 1989, Health and the Rise of Civilization, Yale University Press. With McNeill's plagues, a view we may not sufficiently take into consideration.
*Paul Costello, 1993, World Historians and Their Goals, DeKalb, Northern Illinois University Press. Readable, perceptive. Alas, McNeill says Costello has taken other directions in his career.
*Rushton Coulborn, 1956, Feudalism in History, Princeton University Press. In the second half of the book, summarizing contributions by other scholars, Coulborn takes off on his own.
*1958, The Origin of Civilized Societies, Princeton University Press. Justifies Coulborn's self perception as the first normal science civilizationist.
*1966, "Structure and Process in the Rise and Fall of Civilized Societies," 1966, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 8: 404- 451. Coulborn puts his civilizational theory together in 50 pages.
1969, "A Paradigm for Comparative History?" Current Anthropology, 10: 175-178. Coulborn sees what most of us in the ISCSC do as normal science.
Alfred W. Crosby, The Columbian Exchange. Sorry, haven't got date or publisher at hand, but it is his basic work on intercivilizational ecological transactions.
Christopher Dawson, 1948, Religion and Culture, Sheed and Ward. Toynbee's classmate, an early contributor to civilizational theory.
*1968 (1933) (1922), Enquiries Into Religion and Culture, Liberty Press. Contains the 1922 article in which he first articulated a cycle theory, before he had read Spengler or Toynbee.
1956, The Dynamics of World History, Sheed and Ward.
*Jared Diamond, 1997, Guns, Germs and Steel, Norton. imaginative theories of civilizational origin and exchange, bane of Sted Noble.
Joseph Drew, 2001, 2002 "Editor's Note," Comparative Civilizations Review, 44: 1-6; 47: 1-4. These two made my current manuscript.
*Greg Easterbrook, 2003, The Progress Paradox, Random House. How things are getting better, grist for the idea of progress and the globalists.
*William Eckert, 1992, Civilizations, Empires and Wars: a Quantitative History of War, McFarland. In which Bill puts his ideas together.
*Brian Fagan, 2004, The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization, Basic Books. The ecological setting for all of our studies.
*Laina Farhat-Holzman, 2000, Strange Birds From Zoroaster's Nest, Oneonta NY, Oneonta Philosophy Studies. A Creationists view, Zoroaster being the creator.
*John Farrenkopf, 2001, Prophet of Decline: Spengler on World History and Politics. Louisiana State University Press. Follows Spengler beyond the Decline.
Yale H. Ferguson and Richard W. Mansbach, 1996, Polities: Authority, Identities, and Change, University of South Carolina Press. Comparative world historical study of political systems.
*Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, 2001, Civilizations: Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature, Free Press. In many respects an anti-civilizationist but a great writer with challenging hypotheses.
*Andre Gunder Frank, 1998, ReOrient, University of California Press. The title, I hear, is Wilkinson's. My colleague and adversary makes a singular reorientation concerning China and the West.
Frank and Barry K. Gills, 1992, "The Five Thousand Year World System," Humboldt Journal of Social Relations, 18: 1-79. An overview of civilizational interaction.
Frank and Gills, editors, 1993, The World System: Five Hundred Years or Five Thousand? London, Routledge. View of the field from many perspectives as it was then developing.
Thomas L. Friedman, 1999, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Better book on globalization than his current Flat Earth, which is Talmud to this Torah.
Pieter Geyl, 1955, Debates With Historians, Groningen, Wolters, Meridian Paperback. 1974, Rev. ed., London. One of the sharper critics of Toynbee.
Arthur De Gobineau, 1966 (1854), The Inequality of Human Races, tr. by Adrian Collins, Los Angeles, Noontide. Nineteenth Century precursor of the field.
Eiji Hattori, 2000, Letters From the Silk Roads, tr. Wallace Gray, University Press of America. On civilizational interactions across Asia.
*Samuel P. Huntington, 1996, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Simon and Schuster. Challenging book, a punching bag for the rest of us.
Ibn Khaldun, 1958, (c. 1377) The Muquaddimah, translated by Franz Rosenthal, Pantheon. Comparative in method, but concerns only one civilization.
Jane Jacobs, 1985, Cities and the Wealth of Nations, Vintage Books. Jacobs applies her original theories to the world.
*Vytautas Kavolis, 1972, History on Art's Side, Cornell University Press. Includes his cyclical theory combining stress, event and culture over periods of a century or two.
Feliks Koneczny, 1962 (1935), On the Plurality of Civilisations, tr. by Anton Hilckman, London, Polonica, 246-326. Another contemporary of Toynbee's independently working similar territory
*A.L. Kroeber, 1944, Configurations of Culture Growth, University of California Press. A masterful book on how art, science and philosophical movements arise, fulfill and decline. Has many macrocultural applications.
1957, Style and Civilizations, Cornell University Press. In which Kroeber summarizes his ideas in a series of lectures, and then goes on to introduce and criticize others, including contemporary
Thomas Kuhn, 1962, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press. Provides basis for Coulborn's view of a civilizational paradigm and is itself an example of a Kroeberian pattern.
*William H, McNeill, 1963, The Rise of the West, University of Chicago Press. The original, more Western, more civilizational view of world history.
*1976, Plagues and People, Doubleday. The historical relation between plagues and civilizational development.
*1989, Arnold J. Toynbee: A Life, Oxford University Press. Satisfying biography.
*J. R. and W. H. McNeill, 2003, The Human Web, Norton. Presents more of a systems view of history.
*Matthew Melko, 1969b, The Nature of Civilizations, Boston, Porter Sargent. Readable introduction. Contains an annotated bibliography indicating books thought most relevant at the end of the Sixties.
1990a, "The Jews as Bearers of Mesopotamian Civilization," ISCSC Meeting, Urbana, IL, ISCSC Archives. Of interest to you, Joe, though you may have been at the meeting.
*2001a, General War Among Great Powers in World History, Mellen. Study of great power wars in ten civilizations. Wilkinson preface.
*Melko and Leighton R. Scott, editors, 1987, The Boundaries of Civilizations in Space and Time, University Press of America. ISCSC sessions on this broad subject from 1978-1985. Participants wrote short papers, commented on each other’s. The discussions were taped, transcribed and edited.
George Modelski, 1987, Long Cycles in World Politics, University of Washington Press. A durationist looking at cycles of power.
1996, Two Lectures on World History, Lisbon, Fundacao Luso- Americana.
*W. M. Flinders Petrie, 1911, The Revolutions of Civilisation, London, Harper. Christopher Dawson insists that he, Spengler and Toynbee were all influenced by this little book.
Karl R. Popper, 1964 (1961) The Poverty of Historicism, 3rd ed., Harper Torchbooks. The staunch opponent of all views of historical cycles.
*Carroll Quigley, 1979 (1961) The Evolution of Civilizations, Liberty Press. Beautifully written book on civilizational cycles, developing the idea that civilizations could reconstitute themselves. Quigley was a member of the ISCSC until his death in 1976.
*J. M. Roberts, 1993, History of the World, Third Edition, Oxford University Press. Very useful on the origin and diffusion of civilizations
*Lee Daniel Snyder, 1999, Macro-History--A Theoretical Approach to Comparative World History, Mellen, Magesterial, flexible durationist, Not for beginners. Melko preface.
Pitirim A.Sorokin, 1937-1941, Social and Cultural Dynamics, American Book Company. Too long; his abridgement is better.
*1957, Social and Cultural Dynamics, abridged edition, Porter Sargent. Presents the theory of worldwide long term fluctuations of sensate and ideational culture. “Let anyone who can do better do
*1963, Modern Historical and Social Philosophies, paperback edition of 1950 Social Philosophies. Sorokin’s view of Historical philosophers, including the civilizationists of his time, whose views
*Oswald Spengler, 1980 (1932) (1917-1921), The Decline of the West, Charles Atkinson Translation, Knopf. Der founder. The translation is readable, the ideas are still exciting.
*Arnold J. Toynbee, 1934-1961 A Study of History, Oxford University Press. Full of wonderful ideas, but someone ought to write a book locating them.
*1946, A Study of History, abridged by D. C. Somervell, Oxford University Press. Necessary, but often misses or crunches crucial ideas.
*1961, Reconsiderations, vol. XII of A Study of History. Basically a book in itself.
*Immanuel Wallerstein, 1974, The Modern World System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century, Academic Press. Regarded as the founding book of World Civilizations.
*Robert G. Wesson, 1967, The Imperial Order, University of California Press. Civilizational empires.
*1978, State Systems, Rutgers University Press. Companion book on multistate systems.
*David Wilkinson, 2005, Fluctuations in the Political Consolidation of Civilizations/World Systems.” Comparative Civilizations Review, 52: 92-102. Wilkinson, a wonderful, droll and concise writer, has written only book, and that not relevant. This article summarizes a massive amount of previous work, and comes to a remarkable conclusion.
(Comment from the other editors: We thank Prof. Melko for this wonderful list. He promises an additional list, as well.)
IV. Dr. Laina Farhat-Holzman
Our ever-sparkling Editor, Dr. Laina Farhat-Holzman – who writes wonderful columns for the press on such subjects weekly – kindly sent her suggestions in for this note. She said:
I never taught a year-long Comparative Civilizations course, but I have had the special problem of teaching a 15-week course in World History. I had to really focus on what I thought the students ought to know.
I used the Rand McNally Atlas of World History. This provided an excellent basic text with maps (very useful for students who didn't know geography). By the time we went from prehistory to mid-20th century, they saw the world map often enough to become familiar with it. The texts were dense, but very good.
Because Rand McNally is British, they ignored the Indians of the Americas. I used an excellent text--Kingdoms of Gold, Kingdoms of Jade, by Brian M. Fagan, to fill in on Pre-Columbian America.
If I were doing a two-semester class, I would add Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel. I would also use Plagues and Peoples by James O'Neill.
This is a very pared down list. I provided my students with a much more extensive recommended readings list.
V. Dr. Midori Yamanouchi
This journal’s former Managing Editor, Dr. Midori Yamanouchi, was recently elected to be Vice President for Academic Affairs at Lackawanna College (congratulations on the new post, Dr. Yamanouchi!) in Pennsylvania. Nonetheless, she took the time to respond to the query. In her remarks she focused on books on Japan that might be of interest to students of comparative civilizations.
1. Sansom, George. A Short History of Japan. (This title has been re-published in the last few years by a publisher other than the original one.)
Although it was originally published nearly thirty years go, this is by far the best book on Japan’s history. Sir George Sansom worked closely with an outstanding Japanese scholar of history who was also a good friend of his.
2. Murasaki Shikibu (Lady Murasaki). Tale of Genji (translation of Genji Monogatari). I believe that there are a couple of excellent English translations.
By general repute, this is the supreme masterpiece of Japanese prose literature. The book was written in the very beginning of the 11th Century in Japan. Lady Murasaki, the author, portrays some aspects of the very fascinating life of the court.
Another outstanding female author of the period was Sei Shõnagon.
VI. Joseph Drew
For myself, I think that it is best to begin with broad introductions, having had that experience myself as a college student. I learned the most from Columbia’s two volume set, Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West and the comparable three-volume set entitled Introduction to Oriental Civilizations. Similar texts in the Oriental Humanities and (Western) Humanities courses – twenty or thirty in each—helped round out much of the fact-based portion, when added to general books dealing with world history.
If one overlays with these such important conceptual works as the basic writings of Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and, especially, Max Weber, plus a basic review of the modern great thinkers (I would propose From Hegel to Nietzsche by Lowith, Consciousness and Society by Hughes, and Raymond Aron’s two volume set, Main Currents in Sociological Thought and perhaps Talcott Parsons’ magisterial Theories of Society), one might then approach the subject with both some essential knowledge and a broad theoretical framework.
But these are only the picks of the editors. What do you suggest? Please write in and I’ll cheerfully publish a second round on the books we think students should read in order to be exposed intellectually to the comparative study of civilizations.
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