A Manifesto for the Study of Civilization

By: J. N. Nielsen

When the first starship departs from our solar system with human beings bound for another star, we will begin the process of the expansion of terrestrial civilization to other planetary systems. An interstellar civilization will come into being at this time. Before this happens, civilization will have expanded beyond Earth, making the entirety of the solar system its home, using the plentiful energy and material resources nearby Earth, though still clustered closely around the sun like moths fluttering around a candle flame.  

Here, then, are two sequential visions of future human civilization: an interplanetary civilization within our solar system, having expanded beyond Earth, and an interstellar civilization comprising multiple planetary systems, having expanded beyond our local planetary system. What does civilization mean in these contexts? What can civilization mean in these contexts? How are we to study future civilizations in which the geographical varieties that have determined civilization to date become demographically marginal, like agricultural workers in an industrialized civilization? How can we make the study of civilization serve the purpose of building a better civilization in the future?   

The study of civilization has not been well served by existing institutions. Civilization has been studied as history, but civilization is not a museum piece, or, at least, not exclusively a museum piece. As much as I value history and historical modes of thought (which latter have been defended by historiography traditionalists who have decried each new development in their field in turn—social history, scientific history, and now big history), we must transcend history simpliciter in the study of civilization.

Given that we must pass beyond the paradigm of studying civilization by way of history, how then ought we to study civilization? A complete answer to this question would require laying out an entire scientific research program for the study of civilization. As the barest sketch of an outline, following are ten imperatives for the future study of civilization as a sui generis discipline:

  1. The study of civilization needs to be interdisciplinary. Like astrobiology and big history, each of which must draw upon a dozen or more special sciences in order to assemble the knowledge of these sciences into a larger synthesis of the big picture—an overview—the study of civilization must also draw from the many special sciences that have studied human beings and human activities in their cosmological context. Most especially, the cross-disciplinary relationships that most need to be cultivated are those that are the most difficult to cross, as that between the “hard” physical sciences employing quantitative data and the “soft” social sciences employing qualitative taxonomies. Scientific historiography has already faced this disciplinary fissure between, for example, the physics of nuclear dating techniques, and traditional orientation of history toward the humanities. The study of civilization, then, may have something to learn from scientific historiography, which is itself a relatively young discipline in which the interdisciplinary tensions are not yet fully resolved.   

  2. Civilization needs to be studied in its past, present, and future dimensions. A study of civilization in terms of the past alone is inadequate; this would be history masquerading as the study of civilization. Civilizations of the past provide a valuable record of civilizations that ran through their course of development and then ended, exhibiting a complete cycle from inception through maturity to extinction. But our planetary civilization is a living institution in which we make our lives, being ourselves shaped by civilization and shaping civilization in turn. The present of civilization is no less important than its past. And civilization has a future—or indeed many potential futures—independent of its value as tradition. One form that the transcendence of an exclusively historical study of civilization can take is that of extrapolating historical modes of thought so that these modes of thought apply to the future as well as to the past (and this could be called history in an extended sense). To recognize the role of the future in the concept of civilization is not intended to call into question the value of history and tradition, but to supplement it, and to supplement the concept of civilization with the idea of its future is to pass beyond history sensu stricto.

  3. We need to formulate concepts specific to the study of civilization in order to study civilization on its own terms (in its own terms). Another form that the transcendence of an exclusively historical study of civilization can take is that of formulating novel modes of thought specific to understanding the institutions of civilization (which modes of thought can, in turn, supplement history in an extended sense). Novel modes of thought require new concepts, and this is not easy to do well. There is an element of epistemic risk in formulating new concepts, much like coining new terms. You may get it wrong. You may waste your time, investing your career in a dead end, because you formulate an infelicitous concept that no one else adopts (been there, done that). You may formulate concepts that remain perpetually peripheral. You may offend traditionalists who prefer only established concepts. In a less personal sense, epistemic risk is the risk of interpreting the world incorrectly and misunderstanding events. But the risk must be run in order to arrive at a conceptual infrastructure adequate to the study of civilization; without this, we lack the conceptual tools to make sense of civilization without reducing it to something else that it is not.  

  4. The concept of civilization itself needs to be articulated with greater subtlety. There are many definitions of civilization—perhaps too many. None of them are entirely satisfying. This state of affairs alone points to the inadequacy of the existing conceptual infrastructure exapted for the exposition of civilization. Each of these many definitions of civilization seem to be defining different institutions from those identified by other definitions, and perhaps they are. Perhaps there are many different kinds of civilization, and not merely many different instances of past civilizations, all tokens of a single type. The different kinds of civilizations may overlap and intersect (to employ a Wittgensteinian turn of phrase), so that the class of all civilization exhibits a family resemblance rather than a shared trait or traits.  

  5. The study of civilization needs to be scientific. Too much discussion of civilization is conducted in terms of honorifics intended to confer a valuation—to praise one set of social arrangements as desirable (“civilization”) while condemning another set of social arrangements as undesirable (“barbarism”). Civilization studied as an adjunct to history, especially where history is conceived as a moral lesson for the present, has indulged this tendency beyond any possible utility. If moral approval is employed as the essential criterion for the judgment of civilization, we will surely misunderstand more than we understand. A science of civilization must be as objective as human bias permits, and as free of moral and aesthetic judgment as is possible (even to the point of an objective analysis of the repulsive). The possibility of a dispassionate and disinterested science of civilization is not to be taken to imply that science is free of presuppositions and contributes nothing substantive of its own. Science incorporates both ontic and epistemic commitments, such as are intrinsic to methodological naturalism. It is the task of a science of civilization to bring methodological naturalism to bear upon civilization, first of all in the form of a basic or “pure” science of civilization, comprised of basic research that aims at formulating a body of scientific knowledge about civilization, after which it may be possible to pursue an applied science, i.e., technologies that could be applied to civilization.  

  6. A methodological effort needs to be invested in thought experiments, which are often the only instruments available to investigate counterfactuals. We can think of thought experiments as thinking under controlled conditions, or as disciplined thinking with an explicit aim.  Roy Sorensen has defined a thought experiment as, “…an experiment that purports to achieve its aim without benefit of execution,” which can be the only mode of thought possible where execution is impossible or impermissible. Investigating the future possibilities of civilization, for example, requires thought experiments. We need to learn how to more tightly constrain our thought experiments by rigorously defined controlled conditions in order to obtain better results from our thought experiments. Better thought experiments would mean a better science of civilizations.

  7. A robust theoretical model is no less important than empirical evidence. Like history, from which the study of civilization derives, this latter study has been weighted toward empiricism, but the sui generis study of civilization will advance only with a distinctive and adequate conceptual infrastructure. This distinctive theoretical model will be constructed from concepts specific to the study of civilization (cf. 3 above). Theory and evidence are equal partners in scientific understanding. To invoke Kant, concepts without percepts are empty; percepts without concepts are blind. Both are necessary, and providing an adequate theoretical model for civilization is one aspect of the study of civilization being made fully scientific (cf. 5 above).

  8. The search for regulative principles must be part of the study of civilization. Apart from a formal theoretical model, and the concepts specific to that model, the study of civilization needs overarching regulative principles that can serve as a guide to theoretical efforts, to shape research programs into civilization, and to inform an overview of civilization. Cosmology has regulative principles such as the cosmological principle, the Copernican principle, and the principle of mediocrity. Physics has conservation laws and the laws of thermodynamics, inter alia. Regulative principles constitute what Lakatos called the “hard core” of a scientific research program; without them, there is no program. Regulative principles are the animating spirit of scientific inquiry; the closer we are to formulating regulative principles of civilization, the more any body of scientific knowledge about civilization will naturally exhibit consilience. Convergence of evidence is not a happy accident, but a function of a research program guided by regulative principles; the more comprehensive the regulative principles, the more diverse the converging evidence.

  9. A theoretical model of civilization will be a formal theory. The formulation of a formal theoretical model and regulative principles must be applicable to any civilization anywhere. Thus while there may be no other civilizations in the universe, if there are any other civilizations, then a purely formal theory of civilization, even though formulated on the basis of empirical evidence exclusively from terrestrial examples of civilization, would be applicable to these civilizations. These concerns may sound distant from contemporary concerns, and they are, but they are not unrelated to the human condition. Given a successful interplanetary civilization, and then interstellar civilization, originating from Earth, at some time in the future there will be many civilizations on many worlds, and a formal theory of civilization will be applicable to these many civilizations, however far they have diverged from their terrestrial ancestor by descent with modification. Thus though there may not be many civilizations scattered through the universe today, it is entirely consistent with what we know about the universe that there could be many civilizations in the future, albeit all ultimately derived from terrestrial civilization. A formal theoretical model of civilization will be applicable to any and all of these.  

  10. The study of civilization needs its own institutions. There should be conferences, journals, educational departments, and perhaps even specialized institutions focused on the study of civilization as a sui generis institution, with its own unique methods and principles.

Founding a new discipline is not easy. The task must be measured in generations, and not in months or years. The study of civilization is not merely another discipline, but a discipline that seeks to understand scientifically the most comprehensive social whole in which human beings are involved.

“The philosophy which wants to illuminate with the light of strict scientific knowledge the highest problems—which remain the most remote for natural experience and thought—needs a longer route and lengthier epochs of strained labor of thought in order to climb up to the level of definitively grounded science.”

Edmund Husserl, “Fichte’s Ideal of Humanity,” Husserl Studies 12, 1995, p. 113.

Whether the systematic study of civilization on its own merits takes a primarily philosophical or a primarily scientific form, Husserl’s observation is likely to prove true in either case. Civilization is, for us, not only a description of a state of affairs, it is also an ideal, a symbol of what human beings can accomplish, an aspiration, and as such constitutes one of the “highest problems” that Husserl mentions, and, being a higher problem, means a longer route and lengthier epochs of work to transform this ideal into a definitively grounded science.

And what can we hope to learn from the study of civilization as a definitively grounded science? I think, at minimum, we can better understand ourselves by understanding the origins, development, and destiny of an institution that has coevolved with human beings, since the institution of civilization was brought into being by human beings. If we can, in addition, study civilization in terms of the future as well as the past, we can illuminate where we are going and what we are becoming. Our study of civilization can be a searchlight with which we probe the unknown that perpetually lies before us, and into which we must go, whether willingly or unwillingly. Armed with the knowledge of what civilization can be, we can enter into that future with greater confidence, and with the reliable methods of science to guide us.

Follow Nick Nielsen's Civilization Studies on his blog here.