Work in Progress: A Distinction between Loosely-Coupled and Tightly-Coupled Agglomerated Civilizations

Friday 27 May 2022

Nick Nielsen
10 min readMay 29, 2022


In my discussions of civilization I have made the concept of a central project the central idea. I have a couple of unfinished essays in which I delve into this idea more deeply, but the idea continues to develop and unfold, so that my formulations are always incrementally improving — which also means that my past formulations rapidly become outdated.

Recently a friend who is somewhat familiar with my work suggested to me that the complexity of a central project could be used as a proxy for measuring the complexity of a civilization. This is a wonderful idea, and I have been thinking about it now for a few weeks. The idea presents many opportunities, but also many difficulties.

Before I settled on the concept of a central project and the institutions through which it is expressed, I was more-or-less groping in the dark to find a concept that would express what I was trying to get at. For a time I used “master narrative” (I don’t recall if I found that in some source or came up with it myself), and before that I sometimes expressed myself in terms of the fundamental idea that is at the basis of each civilization. When I thought of civilizations as being based on a fundamental idea, I imagined that civilizations might take radically different forms, since different fundamental ideas would have different consequences in terms of being adopted as the basis of a society.

Much of what I once expressed in terms of “master narrative” or “fundamental idea” I now express in terms of a central project, but I imagined fundamental ideas as essentially simple and qualitatively different from each other, so that each qualitatively different idea gave rise to a qualitatively different civilization. I have abandoned the idea of civilizations being fundamentally different in structure in favor of a constant institutional structure, though there can be a significant variation in how the institutions are constructed. Thus civilizations that appear to be radically different in fact share a common institutional structure.

Godfrey Harold Hardy FRS (07 February 1877–01 December 1947)

Simple ideas tend to be the most fundamental, and fundamental ideas have the greatest number of connections to other ideas, so that a fundamental idea is rich in potential relationships to other ideas. My thinking on this has been deeply influenced by G. H. Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology, in which he attempts a non-technical explication of what makes (some) mathematics non-trivial. Hardy wrote: “The best mathematics is serious as well as beautiful — ‘important’ if you like, but the word is very ambiguous, and ‘serious’ expresses what I mean much better.” (section 11) Throughout the book he tries to explain what he means by a “serious” mathematical idea. What Hardy says of mathematical ideas I hold is true of ideas that are good candidates to be central projects. (I am working through Hardy’s conception of a serious mathematical idea for another project, but now I see it can also be applied to the serious ideas in central projects.)

However, I have more-or-less abandoned the idea that central projects are necessarily simple, though it is likely that a simple idea, or a cluster of simple ideas, usually defines a central project. Perhaps if civilization is able to continue to develop, passing through further iterations for tens of thousands of years, and perhaps hundreds of thousands of years, the first ten thousand years of civilization that we have experienced may come to look like a preparatory stage in which a few simple ideas dominated (mostly mythological ideas), being a time when civilization had not yet passed an inflection point beyond which central projects become routinely complex.

Medieval European civilization was anchored by the Catholic church, which supplied many of the presuppositions that reigned throughout the period, but feudalism was arguably as central to the social order, and the church itself was essentially feudal in character, with hierarchies within the church reflecting hierarchies beyond the church, and with the sons and daughters of noble families who could not make good in the wider world channeled into important offices within the church, so that social privilege was observed within the church as much as without. As an exercise in counterfactual history we can try (probably unsuccessfully) to imagine a social order no less dominated by the institutions of the Catholic church, but not joined to a feudal structure. The result, whatever that result might be, would be incomprehensibly different from the history of the period that we know.

I haven’t yet come to a satisfying formulation of the central project of classical antiquity. In an important sense, classical antiquity was a mash-up of a multiplicity of civilizations, all derived from the Mesopotamian-Anatolian root, but all having taken somewhat different paths. Ancient Persia, ancient Greece, and ancient Rome are all very different civilizations, with radically different histories and different political structures. To do justice to this question one would need to study each ancient civilization on its own merits, determine its central project on this distinctive — Should I say idiographic? — basis, examine the shared histories of these civilizations as they overlapped in relationships of cooperation, competition, and conflict, and only then attempt to characterize a central project for the agglomerated civilization (cf. newsletter no. 180) of classical antiquity. That is a tall order, and it would take most of a scholarly career to even approach this project.

Medieval European civilization was, frankly, more parochial than the cosmopolitan interaction of classical antiquity, and although each geographical region of Europe possessed a distinctive basal civilization (cf. newsletter no. 173), and the whole of Europe constituted an agglomerated European civilization, the essential elements of the central project were present in all basal civilizations of the European cluster.

One could say that both ancient and medieval central projects were complex insofar as neither were constituted by a single simple idea, but the development of medieval civilization, while perhaps less cosmopolitan than classical antiquity, eventually exceeded every metric that was originally established in classical antiquity, and, rather than collapsing in exhaustion, gave birth to modernity, which then began from a point of transcending the medieval world, which had already transcended the classical world. But without a more sophisticated way to measure the complexity of a central project, one can only go as far as one’s intuition will serve.

Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt (16 August 1832–31 August 1920)

Another correspondent made me aware of the concept of the “heterogony of ends,” which is given an exposition in Ethics, An Investigation of the Facts and Laws of the Moral Life by Wilhelm Wundt. I had previously heard of Wundt (mostly because Husserl mentioned him frequently), but hadn’t bothered to read him. His book on ethics turned out to be really interesting, and the concept of the heterogony of ends can be one tool in the explication of the complexity of a central project. Here is part of Wundt’s exposition of the heterogony of ends:

“The interconnection of a series of ends, then, depends not upon the fact that the end finally achieved was contained, as idea, in the original motives to the actions which have ultimately led to its achievement; nor even upon the fact that the motives which were operative at the first produce of their own power those that are operative at the last. Its essential warrant is this: that owing to the constant influence of accessory factors the result of every act of choice is as a whole not congruent with the end ideated in the motive. But those elements of the result that lie outside of the original motive are eminently fitted to become new motives or elements in new motives, from which new ends or variations of the original end arise. The changes of motive thus conditioned by the result of action may be effected gradually or at one blow, and the distance that separates the first motive and the end ultimately pursued is determined partly by the time that thus elapses between them and partly by the extent of the series of ends.” (p. 330)

Part of what defines a fruitful central project is that it possesses the heterogony of ends to a high degree, and so continues to unfold and to develop, which keeps a civilization vital by always discovering within itself new ends that organically flow from the original end.

A complex central project might be engineered into social institutions in many different ways, each of them realizing the aims of the central project in a particularistic way. The different ways in which the aims of the central project can be realized might also be considered a measure of complexity.

In terms of metrics for a central project, we might initially attempt to distinguish a primary end or any secondary ends immediately associated with the primary end, and then we would want to identify how many additional ends appear as a result of working through primary and secondary ends. However, the same internal complexity that could drive a multiplicity of secondary ends and novel ends derived from the attainment of initial ends would also be a force that could fragment a central project into ends that are increasingly unrelated to each other.

Here we could build a good explanation of how civilizations change and how they divide into multiple civilizations, but this also implies an upper bound of complexity, beyond which a civilization would fragment so quickly that it could not sustain itself in existence for a period of time sufficient to qualify as something more than an ersatz civilization (cf. newsletter no. 95). However, both social developments and technological developments (especially improved communication and trade networks) could increase the degree of complexity that a civilization could sustain. It is entirely possible that the earliest civilizations were much more limited in terms of the possible complexity of their central projects, i.e., that the upper bound of complexity would be reached more rapidly than would be the case with modern social institutions and modern communications and transportation technology.

An ersatz civilization is a Potemkin village writ large.

Yet another friend has suggested to me that grand strategy and central projects are related to each other as means to ends, and this is such a beautifully clarifying way to put the matter that I will be using this formulation at some point. In this context, it strikes me that the heterogony of means is accepted as a matter of course, while the heterogony of ends is less familiar. We routinely recognize that there may be many paths to one and the same goal, which is what I understand by the heterogony of means. However, in working through any particular pathway to some end, it is likely that different secondary goals will characterize the different pathways to a given goal, and that means there will be some relationship between the heterogony of means and the heterogony of ends.

We could think of the different pathways to the same end as the grand strategies of distinct basal civilizations within an agglomerated civilization that expresses the goal embodied in the central project. This is an attractive formulation for tightly-coupled agglomerated civilizations (like medieval European civilization), and it is subtly distinct from agglomerated civilizations in which each individual civilization has its own central project, and the agglomerated civilization has another central project that is the abstract and general expression of the sum of the several distinct central projects of the many agglomerated civilizations. Thus loosely-coupled agglomerated civilizations have at least two tiers of central projects, one at the basal level and another at the agglomerated level, while tightly-coupled agglomerated civilizations have only a single central project at the agglomerated level, but many secondary ends embodied in the distinctive pathway taken toward realizing the central project. (Intuitively, I would say that China constitutes a tightly-coupled agglomerated civilization, while India constitutes a loosely-coupled agglomerated civilization.)

It would be intuitive to posit that the central projects of more comprehensive agglomerations of civilizations would be more complex, while those of basal civilizations would be simpler, but I don’t think that’s quite right. What we can say is that the basal civilization central projects are more particularistic, whereas agglomerated civilization central projects are more universal, being more abstract and therefore possessing less content, having been purged of the particularistic character of parochial civilizations. If “less content” means less complexity, then it could be the case the higher up the hierarchy of civilizations that a central project is, the simpler it is. But that, too, isn’t quite right. It is to be expected that a certain “streamlining” will shape a central project into something simpler as it moves through history, but additions to the central project can accrete even while other accretions are being lost.

So here is a research question suggested by the above: can a central project move up or down the hierarchy of agglomerated civilizations, from the less comprehensive to the more comprehensive, or vice versa, or is the position of a central project within a hierarchy dictated by constraints of abstraction and generality that cannot meaningfully be displaced to another level? Might central projects mostly be confined to the level of their emergence, while allowing for certain, special cases of central project mobility? Could the attempt to reconstitute a civilization be one of the special cases in which a central project can be displaced from its level of emergence and yet remain viable?

Reconstituted civilizations might be an opportunity for a central project to shift its position in the hierarchy of civilizations from higher to lower or vice versa.



Nick Nielsen