Work in Progress: Problems in the Theory of Civilization

Returning to my perennial interest in the theory of civilization, I’ve come to realize that the two weakest points in my model are 1) schematizing the developmental stage of a civilization, and 2) distinguishing between what I have called “orders of civilization.”

The developmental stage of civilization may be too complex for there to be any schematization of it, certainly it is too complex for an exhaustive schematization of development. I could just set this aside, note it as a problem, and come back to it later, but the developmental stage of a civilization cannot be separated from the other stages in the history of a civilization, except in abstraction. How one goes about defining the developmental stage and differentiating it from stages prior to (origins) and following (maturity) development will bear upon how the other stages are identified.

Here is one way I have been thinking about it: suppose one makes a distinction between the essential permutations of a central project and merely contingent permutations of a central project. One could then define the origins stage of a civilization as the formation of the central project, the developmental stage as working through the essential permutations of the central project, and then mature stage as working through contingent permutations, but introducing nothing essentially new. Then in the declining stage a civilization can work through only repetitions of the central project, without even contingently novel permutations. Lacking any internal novelty, the civilization stagnates, then deteriorates, and eventually goes extinct.

That would be one way to schematize the development of a central project, but I can also imagine other ways. I have pages of notes on this, and many long, rambling recorded notes in which I explore the various ways in which a central project might come to maturity and then decline. All of these ways have weaknesses — the obvious weakness of the schematism above is the distinction that has to be made between essential and contingent permutations, but every other schematization has equally grave weaknesses — and I am sure that my imagination has not yet exhausted the possible ways in which a civilization might exhaust the material of its central project.

One way to deal with a problem like this is to seek a higher level of conceptual abstraction, positing new concepts that cover a variety of expressions of development, without attempting to exhaustively schematize the developmental process. This approach points to the other problem noted above, i.e., item 2 in the first paragraph, “orders of civilization,” this was one of the ideas I have entertained the longest, but which I haven’t been able to bring to a level of clarity that I would like. Distinctions among orders of civilization postulate central projects at different levels of abstraction, which also suggests the levels of conceptual abstraction that can (if only in part) address the needs of schematizing the development of a central project. Central projects at different levels of abstraction would be expected to develop differently, perhaps at different rates, and perhaps also undergoing qualitatively distinct forms of development.

I previously discussed orders of civilization in newsletters 73, 89, and 122. My most recent reformulation of this distinction (from newsletter 73) went like this:

  • Civilization of the Zeroth Order is the order of prehistory and of all human life and activity and comes before civilization in the strict sense.
  • Civilization of the First Order are those socioeconomic systems of large-scale organization that supply the matter upon which history works; in other words, the synchronic milieu of a given civilization, a snapshot in time.
  • Civilization of the Second Order is an entire cycle of civilization, from birth through growth to maturity and senescence unto death, taken as a whole extrapolated diachronically. Iterated, civilization of the second order is a series; over a period of time and within a given region, civilizations of the second order overlap and intersect as a cluster.
  • Civilization of the Third Order is the whole structure of developmental stages of civilization such that any particular civilization passes through, but taken comprehensively and embracing all civilizations within this structure and their interactions with each other as the result of these structures. Clusters and series are part of the overall structure of civilization of the third order; civilization of the third order is a cluster of clusters, the summum genus of clusters.

The idea is important because it is (potentially) helpful not only to be able to identify the central project of a given individual civilization, but also the central projects of several civilizations, whether geographically contiguous (which I call a cluster) or in a series in time (which I call a series or a sequence). My favorite examples of these two are Mesoamerican civilizations as a cluster, since these civilizations share significant properties, and Western civilization as a series, since it has been composed of several civilizations that have risen and fallen in their turn, over time, but there is an identifiable continuity and development across this series. Identifying central projects of clusters and series allows us to consider continually more abstract central projects that are disengaged from the ordinary day-to-day business of most civilizations, and this gets at the deepest thematic motives of civilization, and indeed of several civilizations that have shared these thematic motives.

For example, the civilizations of the Mesoamerican cluster shared the Mesoamerican ball game and ritual bloodletting. Both of these were related to sacrifice, since the Mesoamerican ball game in its most formal and ritualized enactment involved the sacrifice of members of ball teams. Thus we can see that the central project of the Mesoamerican cluster was strongly related to sacrifice. More than that I cannot say, but I would like to study the question more closely to better understand the role of sacrifice in Mesoamerican culture, and how it came to be such a central motivator for past civilizations in the region. (An interesting related question would be whether sacrifice plays an important role in the submerged indigenous civilization of Mesoamerica; my newsletter 51 partly considered this question.)

Significantly, when the Spanish arrived in the Americas the dominant civilization in Mesoamerica was the Aztecs, who had developed human sacrifice almost to industrial proportions, so that we can see the development of the central project of the Mesoamerican cluster from relatively low key ritual bloodletting among the Olmecs and a ball game without human sacrifice to the spectacular ritual bloodletting of the Mayans and the Aztecs, with the Aztecs integrating ritual bloodletting with the ball game by sacrificing losing ball teams played by captives in a rigged game. We find a similar brutal playfulness in the flower battle, in which the outcome was pre-determined (also rigged, in a sense, but one should say ritually rigged), but the game was played out regardless, resulting in a kind of sacrifice.

The problem with my orders of civilization is that I had thrown together a bunch of concepts that should have been a kind of taxonomy into a scale, but I couldn’t extrapolate the scale in a systematic way because the earlier steps in the scale weren’t really steps, not greater or lesser, rather, they were different kinds. You can see in the above that civilization of the first order is a synchronic conception — civilization at an instant, as it were — while civilization of the second order is a diachronic conception. The extrapolation of synchrony and diachrony do not converge, but rather point in different directions. They are sort of combined in civilization of the third order, but I’m not sure that this is at all successful.

What I wanted to capture in the concept of civilization of the third order was how “civilization” is approximately used in SETI contexts, in which civilization is loosely associated with a whole planet. We can think of terrestrial civilization in this way if we think of the overlapping sequence of civilizations over the whole of known history from the earliest cities up to the present day. Throughout that ten thousand or so years, civilization of some form or another has been present on Earth, so there is a sense in which we can view this development collectively as the achievement of the planet, and see the whole of the history of terrestrial civilization as the development of a planetary civilization. If alien SETI astronomers were looking at us, they would probably think of terrestrial civilization as a single whole, rather than in terms of the many threads of tradition that are woven together in this whole. And when we look outward into the cosmos, seeking signs of intelligence and social organization, there is a tendency to think of civilization on a planetary scale.

So this is a useful idea, which can connect the SETI conception of civilization with other conceptions of civilization that we find in psychology, anthropology, sociology, and history, inter alia, but it is an idea that still requires clarification as to exactly what it is about.

It is obvious that in regard to clusters and series that there can be greater or lesser clusters or series, as a cluster could be the civilizations of Mesoamerica or the civilizations of Europe, etc., and a series might be relatively short in time and relatively long in time. But can these two — cluster and series — be meaningfully combined? Certainly they can be combined — concepts can always be stuck together — but is it helpful and put them together, or does this only result in conflation?

I could replace my orders of civilization scale with a straight-forward spatial scale, and this needs to be part of the solution. A spatial scale can be readily extrapolated, and this is or will be important in considering civilizations that have expanded or might expand beyond their homeworlds. However, I was trying to do something more than a simple spatial scale when I proposed the idea of orders of civilization, and it would be better if I could tease out the essence of what elusive idea and extrapolate that rather than simply extrapolate civilization in space, though the extrapolation of civilization in space still needs to be part of an overall model of civilization.

Extrapolating the orders of civilization as a matter of spatial scale I would have something like this:

  1. No civilization
  2. Civilization at an instant (a snapshot of a single civilization)
  3. Complete history of one civilization
  4. Planetary scale civilization
  5. Plantary system scale civilization
  6. Interstellar scale civilization
  7. Galactic scale civilization

And so on, extrapolated according to whatever view one has of the large scale structure of the universe or the multiverse. But this, as I noted above, throws together spatial and temporal conceptions. A more consistent approach would be like this:

  1. The null case
  2. Local civilization (a network of cities)
  3. Regional civilization (reaching from local to continental scale)
  4. Planetary civilization

And so on. What is lost in this purely spatial account of civilization is the way in which civilizational development changes as a civilization grows in scale (touching on the SETI conception of civilization, as discussed above). A civilization can only grow in scale if its institutions are sufficiently robust that they can be adapted to different times and places. If terrestrial civilization grows beyond its current planetary scale, it will probably involve novel institutional structures. I have speculated elsewhere (I can’t recall if this is just in notes, or if I have posted any of this) that a civilization distributed on a system-wide scale might have a composite central project, with several imperatives, perhaps loosely related to each other,

Perhaps I need to formulate a spatial scale, a temporal scale, and some other kind of scale, perhaps based upon the complexity of the central project, and show these three scales in some kind of systematic relationship to each other. Doing justice to this would be no small undertaking.




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Nick Nielsen

Nick Nielsen

One Man Think Tank

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