Benjamin L. Landis
In the Spring 2013 issue of the Comparative Civilizations Review Dr. Abbey Perumpanani proposed a definition of the term and concept of civilization “…as an inclusive scientific definition that can bring about a convergence in the widely differing historical views on civilization”. He proposed the following definition: “A civilization is a dynamical system that supports endogenous cultural development through economic activity aggregated across elements of its data.”
Dr. Perumpanani’s definition contains, unfortunately, four fatal flaws.
The first to consider is his use of the term “dynamical”. It is apparent that he uses this term to differentiate civilizations from pre-civilizations. How does Dr. Perumpanani define “dynamic”? He does not give us his definition. The truth is that pre-civilized societies were often dynamic. We need only consider the evolution of the human species. It exudes dynamism. The domestication of cattle, goats, pigs, and sheep about 10,000-13,000 B.C. The creation and development of agriculture as the way of life for the majority of humankind about 11,000-9,000 B.C. These acts of human ingenuity enabled humankind to continue to progress. The horse was domesticated around 4,000 B.C. The spear was invented. As well as the bow and arrow. The plow. The hoe. Crop irrigation. The development of new societal organizations as a result of the sedentary life imposed by agriculture. The development of new structures for living space, for storage space, for controlling and guarding livestock. The wheel was invented about 6500-4500 B.C. and the wheeled vehicle about 4500-3300 B.C.
Dynamism may be in the eye of the beholder. It is difficult to measure with regard to human activity, although it is relatively simple to quantify and measure in the physical sciences. Dr. Perumpanani cannot reasonably use it to separate pre-civilization humankind from civilization humankind unless he can devise means to define, categorize, and measure levels of human dynamism.
Dr. Perumpanani’s use of the term “dynamical” to describe an essential element of civilization fails another test also. As demonstrated by Oswald Spengler and Arnold J. Toynbee, civilizations have a life-cycle from genesis through growth or development to disintegration and termination. When a civilization ceases to develop, it passes into a static condition. In other words, its dynamism descends to zero. The most striking example of this phenomenon is the history of Egyptian Civilization. It ceased growing at about the end of the Old Kingdom circa 2300 B.C., but continued as a living fossil until it was conquered by Islamic armies representing the Syriac Civilization in 642 A.D. For almost 3,000 years the Egyptian Civilization was dynamically nil, preserving and repeating what its creators had developed up until about 2300 B.C. Unless one considers war, territorial conquest, and social rift as a sign of dynamism. If not, what does one call a non-dynamic civilization? Per Dr. Perumpanani, without dynamism it can no longer be called a civilization. He needs to clarify this issue, if he expects his definition to be taken seriously. The Egyptian Civilization is only the most striking example. The same phenomenon occurred in all extinct civilizations, with the exceptions of the Andean (Inca) Civilization and the Mexic (Aztec) Civilization which were prematurely ended by Spanish conquistadores. (It is regrettable that Dr. Perumpanani apparently has not read the work of Dr. Arnold J. Toynbee, which he describes as having a “somewhat indecent corpulence.” Just because Toynbee’s “A Study of History” takes up eleven volumes (plus a gazetteer and glossary) does not mean that it is indecently overweight. A gigantic subject, i.e., human history, cannot be adequately portrayed, studied, and analyzed in a couple of volumes. I feel that Dr. Perumpanani was simply not up to the task of reading “A Study Of History”. If he had, he certainly would have a far greater understanding of the phenomenon of civilization than what he may have gleaned from his mathematics and medical texts.)
The second fatal flaw is the use of the adjective “endogenous” to qualify “cultural development” in his definition. “Endogenous” means “proceeding from within; derived internally”. This is an inaccurate description of the cultural development of civilizations. Except probably, but not definitively, for the primary civilizations, i.e., those deriving directly from primitive societies (Egyptiac, Andean, Mayan, Sumeric, Indus Culture, Minoan, Shang Culture) (I use A.J. Toynbee’s terminology), all subsequent civilizations developed culturally with imports from preceding civilizations, from primitive societies, or from contemporaneous civilizations. As an example, let us look at our Western Civilization. Our culture is primarily derived from Greek, Roman, and Christian inputs. Our culture was not created in a vacuum. It was not created in isolation. To state that our culture was endogenously developed is so inaccurate as to border on a falsehood. Once again, it demonstrates Dr. Perumpanani’s deep misunderstanding of the phenomenon of civilization.
Another striking and contemporary example of the porosity of civilizational cultural development is what is occurring in the world today and since about the end of the Second World War. Our Western Civilization is westernizing the other still living civilizations (Russian Orthodox, Islamic, Hindu, Far Eastern). They are slowly adopting, more or less willingly, the features of our civilization: Democracy, Capitalism, Communism, Socialism, our Music, our Literature, our Sports, etc. Eventually, but not in this century, as Dr. Targowski predicts, the world will be westernized, but at the same time, aspects of these other civilizations will seep into Western culture. Since the first civilizations there has not been endogenous cultural development in any civilization.
The third fatal flaw in Dr. Perumpanani’s definition occurs by correlating cultural development with economic activity, i.e., …”cultural development through economic activity…” History has demonstrated that there is not a necessary correlation between “economic activity” and “cultural development”. One striking example is the Seventeenth Century. Economic activity was generally at a lower level than in the preceding century, yet scientific, educational, and artistic development flourished. For example, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Milton, Monteverdi, van Dyck, Racine, Corneille, Stradivarius all lived and worked in the Seventeenth Century. And they represent a very small sample of the intellectual ferment that characterized this economically disastrous century. I encourage Dr. Perumpanani to read Geoffrey Parker’s “Global Crisis: War, Climate Change & Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century”. It’s only one volume, but lengthy. I also cite the Hellenic Civilization (Again I use Toynbee’s terminology.) during the early years of Rome’s mastery of the Mediterranean world when economic activity flourished, but cultural development was virtually nil, the Romans merely repeating what the Greeks had achieved. It is up to Dr. Perumpanani to substantiate his claim that cultural development and economic activity are correlated.
The fourth fatal flaw in his definition is the phrase “…cultural development through economic activity aggregated across elements of its data.” As a previous commentator, Wallace Gray wrote in the Fall 2013 issue of Comparative Civilizations Review “…If he’ll try to explain to me in non-mathematical language what he means by the phrase… ‘economic activity aggregated across elements of its data.’ ” I do not know whether Dr. Perumpanani has responded to Mr. Wallace’s request. But I go one step farther than Mr. Wallace and ask, “What data?” Dr. Perumpanani’s entire definition, his entire concept of linking mathematics and history, is inevitably based on the data selected to determine whether a culture is a civilization or not. Even more, his data must also be capable of determining at what point a civilization is in its life cycle: genesis, growth, culmination, stagnation, decline, and death. Yet he gives us no hint as to, not only what the data should be, but also how many elements of data are needed.
The flaws I have described above render Dr. Perumpanani’s definition totally useless, stillborn. There are many errors of knowledge and judgment in his exposition attempting to clarify and explain his definition, but since the definition itself is fatally flawed, there is no need to treat in detail the eleven pages of exposition that follow the proclamation of the definition..
I do not agree with him when he writes that there is an “absence of a…consensus definition of the term civilization.” If one were to ask a high school student for a definition of the term, what would that student do? He or she would go to a dictionary. Every dictionary contains a definition of “civilization”. “A condition of human society marked by an advanced stage of development in the arts and sciences and by corresponding social, political, and cultural complexity”. “An advanced state of human society in which a high level of culture, science, industry, and government has been reached” “État de développement politique, social, économique atteint par certaines sociétés et considéré comme une idéale à atteindre”. [State of political, social, economic development attained by certain societies and considered an ideal to be reached] (Translation by the author) Finally, I cite the definition found in The Oxford Universal Dictionary on Historical Principles: “2. The action or process of being civilized 3. (More usually) Civilized condition or state”. I further cite this dictionary’s definition of the verb “civilize”: “To make CIVIL; to bring out of a state of barbarism; to instruct in the arts of life; to enlighten and refine”. I find the Oxford Universal Dictionary’s definition to be quite inadequate and reeking of the Eighteenth Century.
The other definitions cited demonstrate that there exist quite usable definitions of the term “civilization” and that there is a striking similarity among them. In my mind, I tend to condense them into the following succinct definition: The most advanced and most complex social, political, economic, cultural, and military environment thus far achieved by humankind.
So, with a plethora of quite valid definitions of the term, why do academics and other scholars chase their tails to come up with another? I believe that the answer resides in these persons attempting confusedly to mix a definition with the characteristics of “civilization”. A definition categorizes. Describing the characteristics or features of some object or concept is an entirely different exercise. For example: in the Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language cited earlier, the definition of bronze is “any of various alloys consisting essentially of copper and tin, the tin content not exceeding eleven percent”. The definition does not address the characteristics of bronze, copper, or tin or of their various combinations. Doing so would be beyond the scope of definition, i.e., categorizing, and would probably require a whole page of text, if not more.
I have reread the thirty-one so-called definitions of civilization on the home page of the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations (ISCSC). Not a single one can be legitimately called a definition. They are ruminations on the characteristics of civilizations. The Society would be well advised to change the heading of these ruminations to something like “Thoughts on the Characteristics of Civilizations”. I was also very much surprised to note that none of these academics and scholars made any reference to the archaeologist, anthropologist, and pre-historian V. Gordon Childe (1892-1957). He is considered by some to have been the pre-eminent pre-historian and archaeologist of the Twentieth Century. Childe proposed ten criteria to distinguish civilized cultures from pre-civilized cultures. They are: (1) Large and thickly populated settlements (2) A variety of specialized occupations (3) The ability to produce and store food and other surplus goods (4) Large public buildings (5) A variety and ranking of social positions (6) Writing and a system of notation (7) The development of science (8) The development of a style of art (9) Trade over long distances (10) Social control based on a central government rather than kinship.
Childe’s criteria are far more reasonable, pertinent, and coherent than the ramblings of the persons cited by the ISCSC. What can we say about them? Are these criteria essential to distinguish a civilized culture from a pre-civilized culture? Are there certain criteria named that are not essential? Are there criteria that need to be added? I believe that these questions would be a fruitful discussion on the ISCSC blog, far more relevant to the purpose of the Society than “Laina at the Movies”. And could also lead to articles in the Comparative Civilizations Review (CCR) as well as in the newsletter.
Two points I wish to make before ending this “somewhat indecently lengthy” comment. Civilizations do not spring fully grown and armed as did Minerva from the head of Jupiter. The transition from the highest level of primitive culture to the state of a civilization takes place over an extended period of time, even centuries (Our own Western Civilization is an example.) and the various criteria cited by Childe do not develop at the same time, nor at the same rhythm. In my opinion one of the last, if not the last, of the criteria to develop is that of writing. The Andean (Inca) Civilization is an example. When it was destroyed by Spanish conquistadores its written language was embryonic, knotted ropes which have been thought to be mnemonic. However, recent studies are interpreting these knotted cords as an embryonic written language. So, the Andean Civilization was still evolving when its life was prematurely terminated.
Now, my final comment. I believe that it behooves the ISCSC to give up trying to create a definition of civilization that combines what is normally considered to be a definition and the fundamental characteristics of the concept of civilization. It cannot be done successfully. The Society needs to develop a consensus of those elements of a civilization that are essential to distinguishing it from the highest level of primitive culture. The Society needs to encourage a more precise use of the term “civilization.” At present, as well as in the past, academics and scholars in different disciplines have felt free to label almost any social group as a civilization. This is an insult to the efforts and achievements that humankind has made since the first real civilizations.
I also believe that the Society should develop a consensus list of all past and present civilizations, such as Dr. Toynbee did for his monumental “A Study of History”. As well as a list of those cultures that can logically be considered to be arrested and abortive civilizations (Again I use Toynbee’s terminology.) Doing these will not only further the study and understanding of civilizations, which is the purpose of the Society, but will also (One can hope) take the Society out of going to the movies with Laina.