Subject: Philosophical problems of “modern civilization”

Philosophical problems of “modern civilization”

By Haines Brown, 17 September 2003

I was reading an interesting article this morning by Henry C. K. Liu, The Abduction of Modernity, Pt. 1 (Asia Times, 9 July 2003) <> that suggests that “modernity” is not peculiarly western, for there is as well an Asian form.

The author attributes to Bernard Lewis the identification of modernity with Western Civilization, from which arises the idea that Islam is hostile to the West primarily because it is hostile to modernity. Samuel Huntington, on the other hand, argues that the fault line is really between kinds of civilization, in which the backward world resents the West's modern advantages. The author takes issue in both cases with the assumption that Asia is not modern in its own way. The Asian form of modernity needs to be understood.

I won't belabor the article and leave for those having an interest to read it for themselves. A second part just appeared. The author suggests that while the Western form of modernity has been prevalent, the Asian form has much to offer that could correct the weaknesses of the West. Basic to the article is the old idea that China has tended to neutralize barbarian threats by acting as a civilizing influence upon them.

I was surprised to find this old sinocentric “conceit” still alive, and thought a little about its philosophical underpinnings. It occurred to me that author's criticism of Lewis and Huntington may not have been radical enough, for he still presumes the notion of “civilization.” I see three philosophical problems that emerge.

I don't want to get hung up again on the old fruitless debate over what defines this difficult word, but rather would like to ask why we should employ it at all.

1. While it is surely not the only way to define “civilization,” in practice people today nearly always define it statically as a bundle of characteristic cultural traits. Whatever empirical traits we might happen to choose, do we in fact see a sufficient uniformity to enable us reliably to distinguish one civilization from another? Or does culture instead represent an empirical spectrum without unambivalent borders and limits? This point is a philosophical one because it arises from the question of the suitability of short-range conceptual categories (based on empirical persistence) for long-range (complex and fluid) phenomena.

2. Even if there were cultural coherences that would justify the label “civilization,” that does not necessarily validate them as appropriate units of analysis. First, much of history seems to consist of fluid processes, with stasis being exceptional, local and temporary. So why should stasis be privileged over process? Second, “civilization” defined in this way is only a mental construct, a generalization of traits, and so it cannot possibly be a historical agent. Most historians probably view history as a process resulting from a clash of real forces, but these forces must surely be people and things, not mental abstractions.

3. I suppose that by definition any existing civilization must be “modern,” so behind Liu's point is apparently a additional assumption that transcending the historical process is some measure of linear progress. Only then can we say that Civilization A has developed to what we would expect today, while Civilization B remains caught at some earlier stage of development. However, most people today would reject a notion of linear progress out of hand. But if we were reject the idea of linear progress, can we then continue to speak of modernization or modernity except as merely a chronological term?

Anyone wish to address these conundrums? My own position would be 1) to reject the term “civilization” as not being scientifically useful, and 2) to not search for static units, but start from causal relations, and 3) to employ a more sophisticated notion of linear progress that avoids some of the criticisms directed at the old naive notions common in the past. But I'm sure others will have their own solutions; I'm curious as to what they are.