Getting to Definitions and Getting beyond Them

I can understand the frustration that some feel about those of us who focus on definitions. I have been there myself. In some domains of inquiry I have little or no interest in definitions, but when it comes to the study of civilization, I am intensely interested in converging upon an adequate definition of civilization. I don’t look at a definition of civilization as an end in itself, but I do see the importance of clarifying our conception of civilization to the point that we can clearly and ambiguously formulate exactly what it is we are talking about when we talk about civilization; I want to make what we know about civilization explicit.

To date, I have formulated eight definitions of civilization — one of them, my pragmatic definition of civilization, I just used in Civilization and Urbanization — all of which eight definitions hang together in some kind of conceptual framework that could serve as the basis for the analysis of civilization, and each of which definitions highlight a particular aspect of that which we informally think of as exemplifying civilization.

It has been said that, while science begins with definitions, philosophy culminates in definitions. This is an oversimplification, but it points to features of scientific and philosophical thought that are, at least, not wrong. Science and philosophy can both benefit from this conceptual division of labor, following which division philosophy produces definitions that are used as the point of departure in the special sciences, and then the work of the special sciences becomes the point of departure for philosophical speculation, culminating in further definitions that are used in turn as the point of departure for further science.

A philosophy of civilization might produce a definition of civilization, which then could be employed in a science of civilization as a point of departure. An elaborated science of civilization would, in turn, produce a great deal of material for philosophical reflection, and philosophically reflecting on a science of civilization might bring us to further definitions, to be used in further science. I am not suggesting that this is the only or the optimal way that science and philosophy can work cooperatively to expand human knowledge, but it is at least one schematic way of understanding possible cooperation between disparate disciplines that usually, where they intersect, came into conflict.

So even though I am intensely interested in definitions of civilization, and I can see the possibility of a philosophy of civilization that would culminate in a definition of civilization, I would not see our scientific knowledge and understanding of civilization to be finished and completed after having arrived at a definition of civilization that seems to be prima facie adequate. One might think of a definition as a paradigmatic formulation of knowledge, but no paradigm lasts forever. The process of both expanding and refining knowledge goes on, whether under the umbrella of science or philosophy is indifferent to me, and the definitions at which we arrive, or from which we depart, are only conventional markers in the progress of our knowledge. Definitions, then, might be regarded as boundary stones in the demarcation of science and philosophy, but they are demarcations within the single and continuous territory of human knowledge, and this epistemic territory expands as we set up a new boundary marker only to immediately trespass the limit that it represents.

To speak of definitions as limits reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Einstein:

“There could be no fairer destiny for any physical theory than that it should point the way to a more comprehensive theory in which it lives on as a limiting case.” (“Es ist das schönste Los einer physikalischen Theorie, wenn sie selbst zur Aufstellung einer umfassenden Theorie den Weg weist, in welcher sie als Grenzfall weiterlebt.”) from Relativity: The Special and the General Theory, chapter 22

Formulating this idea in terms of physical theory implies that it applies only to the natural sciences, but I would paraphrase Einstein in order to apply the same principle to the formal sciences: there could be no fairer destiny for any formal theory than that it should point the way to a more comprehensive formal theory in which it lives on as a limiting case. One constituent of formal theories is definition, and there could be no fairer destiny for a rigorous definition that that it should point the way to a more comprehensive definition in which it lives on as a limiting case.

It is the nature of the intellectual enterprise that we should relentlessly and remorselessly test the limits of the conceptual framework that we have formulated for ourselves. If we arrive at a definition of civilization, the first thing that we would want to do is to throw every possible empirical example in front of the definition and see if it holds up when so confronted. And if we find a chink in the armor of our rigorous definition, then we know that we have more work to do. We improve the definition, and then we test in again, and the process continues.

A definition that has gone too long unchallenged is a field of knowledge that has lain fallow too long, and we do our conceptual framework a favor by calling it into question, and so attempting to expand the boundaries of knowledge. The process of expanding that boundary consists of setting up boundary stones and then stepping beyond them: the boundary stones are the definitions, and stepping beyond the definitions means either finding novel empirical data or formulating thought experiments that point to alternatives to a concept embodied in a definition.

In the formal sciences, we cannot confront a definition with a multitude of empirical cases, but we can still confront a definition with counter-examples. We find this method employed in Lakatos’ Proofs and Refutations: The Logic of Mathematical Discovery, in which the confrontation of a proof with a counter-example is explicitly presented as a way to advance our thought. This is fundamentally a dialectical conception of knowledge. In so far as science and philosophy interact as outlined above, the interaction is a dialectic of science and philosophy, whereas internally neither science nor philosophy would necessarily need to pursue a dialectical method (although this is not ruled out).

As intensely interested as I am in converging upon an adequate definition of civilization, I am equally interested in challenging any definition with counter-examples from terrestrial history, or with thought experiments as to how civilization might have developed elsewhere in the universe. There is no better way to advance our knowledge than to have an at least partially formalized exposition of an idea (i.e., an exposition of the idea that makes its properties explicit) challenged by a case that cannot be readily categorized by the conceptual framework within which the partially formalized idea appears. This is because the non-conforming instance makes it possible for us to reflect critically on an already partially formalized concept, which allows us to explicitly identify the property ascribed to the concept that presents a problem for the non-conforming instance. We can then reflect on the problematic property, analyzing it in light of the non-conforming instance, to determine whether we ought to alter or eliminate this property in the explicitly defined concept.

What I have written above is very abstract. Let me try to give a concrete example of the kind of process I am discussing. Let us take the example of textiles. In order to identify the earliest appearance of textiles in human history, we have to be able to identify what is a textile and what is not a textile. To do this, an explicit definition of textiles is helpful. Intuitively, we know that a textile is cloth or fabric. But what is cloth? It is easy to fall back on particular examples, and to say that, for example, linen and silk are textiles, but is felt a textile? Felt, instead of being woven like linen, is compressed. So if felt is a textile, then being woven is not an essential property of textiles.

Some of the earliest textiles preserved are those found with Peruvian mummies, preserved by the extremely dry desert conditions (as with the example pictured above, from Paracas). Textiles have a deep history in Peru. At Guitarrero Cave (found in the Callejón de Huaylas valley in Yungay Province), artifacts have been preserved made of woven plant fibers that date from between 10,000 to 12,000 years before present (see the picture below). These weavings look more like nets used to carry bundles than they look like fabric, so are these textiles or something else? Should we think of them as netting or webbing rather than as early textiles? Do we need to revise our conception of what a textile is (and where textiles came from) in light of these very early examples of weavings? Did textiles evolve from basket weaving of plant fibers, or from sewing together progressively smaller bits of leather when our ancestors were wearing skins, or by weavings like those found in Guitarrero Cave, incrementally refined over time with smaller fibers and tighter weaving?

The instance of textiles is interesting and instructive, but it will be clear to the reader that my interest is in civilization, definitions of civilization, and challenging definitions of civilization. The earliest settled human societies of which we have an archaeological record — e.g., Göbekli Tepe — are clearly something distinct from nomadic hunter-gatherers, but are they civilizations? And thought experiments in exocivilizations can provide us with endless permutations on the idea of civilization. We can use these thought experiments to deepen and to refine our conception of civilization, and then turn this deepened and refined conception of civilization back on ourselves and our civilization today in order to better understand what it is we are doing by living in a civilized condition.



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