Civilization and Culture: Examples and Discussions

Maximus Planudes
7 min readMar 19, 2019


This post is a sort of appendix with interesting documents. You will find quotations and discussions of some of the material I came across in my reading on the topic. It would have overwhelmed the essay to include them in the short essay, however, so I have collected a few more interesting ones here. Feel free to send me notes if you come across an interesting example. I will continue to add to these when I find more, but for now, this is way more than enough.

CULTURE for the person; CIVILIZATION for the world

Chaque fois que l’homme porte son effort sur lui-même, on parle de culture, chaque fois qu’il modifie le monde, on parle de civilisation (p. 18–19)

We speak of “culture” when a person directs his efforts at (improving?) himself; we speak of ‘civilization’ when he modifies the world.

This attempt to differentiate comes from a 1955 book by Jean Laloup et Jean Nélis entitled Culture et civilisation. Initiation à l’humanisme historique. The definition of culture recalls the cultura animi tradition where the focus was on individual self-improvement. It also reflects the tendency to link civilization with the ability to modify the environment to human needs.

Along these lines are the comments of Robert Merton (1936)

Civilization is simply a body of practical and intellectual knowledge and a collection of technical means for controlling nature. Culture comprises configurations of values, of normative principles and ideals, which are historically unique

Merton is following Weber (younger brother Alfred, not Max) 1920.

Culture scales down; civilization scales up

Current English allows us to address the culture of Microsoft, for example, but not the civilization of Microsoft. Microsoft civilization, however, would be possible, if the whole world came under the influence of one company.

This observation, from Schäfer (Global Civilization and Local Cultures), points to a fact of usage that is not easy to explain. We can speak in English of increasing small cultures, but large cultures (i.e. “western culture”) can sound off. Civilization, on the other hand, does not serve well for small groups and often imports ideas of civility. Compare the expressions “Twitter culture” and “twitter civilization”. Do these sound synonymous to your ear?

Civilizations, multinational entities

Similarly, Durkheim and Mauss illustrate the tendency of civilization (2.0) to define larger scale groups. They want to use Civilization (2.0) to describe societies whose chronological and geographical extent exceed the nation. They speak of the term describing shared elements that transcend national boundaries such as certain technologies, language families, social institutions. Here are some civilizations (2.0) that they mention.

The idea is that there are certain common elements that unify these groups and that unity is a civilization (2.0). The construction of these units is a necessary precursor to asking certain kinds of sociological questions, Durkheim and Mauss insist, but they (not so helpfully) pass off the problem of constituting civilizations to historians and ethnographers. I’m glad that I’m philologist because I’m not sure what makes the people who have lived (from prehistory to today?) around the Mediterranean a common civilization. And what are the common elements that define Christian civilization? Explaining that is your job, historians!

Clashing Civilizations; Cultures in Conflict

Civilization and culture both refer to the overall way of life of a people, and a civilization is a culture writ large. They both involve the “values, norms, institutions, and modes of thinking to which successive generations in a given society have attached primary importance”

The most well-known deployment of large-scale civilizations in recent times is Huntington’s clash of civilization model. For him, however, civilization is the biggest culture: “civilization is the broadest cultural entity.” The quotation within the quotation comes from Adda Bozeman, “Civilization Under Stress” (Virginia Quarterly Review, 1975), a work I did not find. It is clear from his common use of civilization in the plural that Huntington is using a concept of civilizations (2.0). He divides the world into civilizations based primarily on supposed cultural differences, with religion especially important. It seems to me, though, that like Durkheim and Mauss, the civilizational categories are created a priori and ad hoc, the sort of categories that seem superficially reasonable without holding up to scrutiny. His thesis is open to criticism on a variety of fronts: its simplistic cultural essentialism, the static and unreal nature of the civilizational categories, its use as justification for US interventionism.

Civilization, Progress, and Clash

A sort of forerunner to Huntington is Darwin in Descent of Man.

The grade of civilisation seems a most important element in the success of nations which come in competition. A few centuries ago Europe feared the inroads of Eastern barbarians; now, any such fear would be ridiculous. It is a more curious fact, that savages did not formerly waste away, as Mr. Bagehot has remarked, before the classical nations, as they now do before modern civilised nations. (p.239)

Indeed, soooo curious. Darwin uses civilization 1.0, which is always good for ranking peoples on an axis from barbarian to civilized. But with Darwin, it seems that Civilization (1.0)’s progress narrative has become entangled with ‘evolution’. Also, he seems to be working with a standard idea of the “west” where Europe and Classical Greece and Rome possessed a higher level of Civilization (1.0), which imparts a competitive advantage when nations clash.

Colonialism and Civilizations in International Law

In the mid 19th century, the British (and the Americans) were smuggling opium into China and making boatloads of money. Diplomatic pleas from China went unanswered and the emperor ordered the opium destroyed. The British government used the navy to force China to come to terms. How could that be legal in international law? I’ll let John Quincy Adams, former president, explain (from an 1841 speech to the Massachusetts Historical Society). There is…

a Law of Nations between Christian communities, which prevails between the Europeans and their descendants throughout the globe. This is the Law recognized by the Constitution and Laws of the United States, as obligatory upon them in their intercourse with the European States and Colonies. But we have a separate and dif­ferent Law of Nations for the regulation of our intercourse with the Indian tribes of our own Continent; another Law of Nations between us, and the woolly-headed natives of Africa…

Adams goes on in the vein for a while. What Adams calls “the European States and (their settler) Colonies” is the nascent idea of the “West.” And is based on a view of civilization (1.0). The story of how we get there is interesting (see Potts 2018; also Mantena 2010). Schematically, in the mid 18th century, discussions of international law shift from the idea in a respublica christiana (forbidding contracts with non-believers) to a natural law basis. Although the law of nature approach seeks to ground the law of nations on universal normative principles, these universals tend to be parochial (i.e. European).

Even this parochial universalism, which required European states to treat with non-European states on equal terms, could be embarrassing enough for those engaged on the colonial project. The legal positivists, who rejected natural law as a basis and preferred positive European law, limited the scope of international law to “civilized and Christian people of Europe and to those of European origin.” Note the slippage between civilization and Christendom. And it allows for societies, such as India and China, which might seem to rank high in a civilization (1.0) hierarchy, to be treated as belonging outside the “civilized” community. The exclusion from the international law community thus allowed Europeans to treat others as they pleased.

Culture and Civilization of WW1

In 1914, Wilamowitz, Dörpfeld, Wiegant, Eduard Meyer (among others) signed an open letter titled “appeal to the world of culture” (Aufruf an die Kulturwelt), which aimed to counter the way the Germans were represented as barbaric and militarist by their enemies. In fact, it was the enemies who were uncivilized because of the alliance with Russians and Serbs.

Those who ally themselves with Russians and Serbs and who offer the world the ‘tasteful’ spectacle of Mongols and Negroes incited against the white race have the least right to pose as the defenders of European civilization.

By the 20th century, the essentialist idea of Kultur informed a large number of projects, many of them racist to the core.

What does Culture Mean?

Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn (1952: 149) registered 164 different definitions of culture. They could have distinguished up to 300 definitions but decided to count conservatively. They were lucky to do their definition hunting in the 1950s, long before the advent of cultural studies.

This quotation comes from Schäfer, but it is repeated in other sources. I decided I had more than enough with the various meanings of culture already and did not explore this 1952 book, Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions.

Civilization and Globalization

This essential constituent defines the civilization of our time as a deterritorialized ensemble of networked technoscientific practices with global reach.

This passage is from Shäfer’s “Global Civilization and Local Cultures”. This essay contains some useful history of the term civilization. He moves towards a sense of civilization (1.0), although without the normative element of its earlier use.


  1. Merton, Robert K. (1936) ‘Civilization and Culture’, Sociology and Social Research 21: 103–13.
  2. Schäfer, W., (2001) “Global civilization and local cultures: International Sociology, 16(3), pp.301–319.
  3. Weber, Alfred (1920) ‘Prinzipielles Zur Kultursoziologie: Gesellschaftsprozess, Zivilisationsprozess und Kulturbewegung’, Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik 47: 1–49.



Maximus Planudes

The online pseudonym of the other online pseudonym Leopold “Poldy” Bloom. Really, tho, who I am doesn’t matter.