NL XXXIV: What Civilization Means Generically

Index to this series

Turning now to Part III of Collingwood’s New Leviathan (1942), we take up civilization, a topic of utmost importance, featuring as it does, for example, in the controversial hypothesis of the “Clash of Civilizations,” and generally being something that reactionaries say they want to defend.

Civilization is something that happens to a community (34. 4). We studied communities as such in Part II, and their members individually in Part I.

Civilization is a “process of approximation to an ideal state” (34. 5). That is the gist of Chapter XXXIV, “What ‘Civilization’ Means: Generically.” There will be a lot to spell out.

We have returned to Istanbul. Below are
sunset photos from our last night on the Aegean coast

In 1957, a US Supreme Court decision guaranteed a jury trial “to defendants in a criminal contempt action.” This sounds like a blow for civilization; but it was a blow for White civilization. If a Southern election official was charged with discarding the votes of Black people, a White Southern jury could now refuse to convict them. This power was celebrated by the National Review, in words said to be from the pen of the magazine’s founder, William F. Buckley:

The question, as far as the White community is concerned, is whether the claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage. The British believe they do, and acted accordingly, in Kenya, where the choice was dramatically one between civilization and barbarism, and elsewhere; the South, where the conflict is by no means dramatic, as in Kenya, nevertheless perceives important qualitative differences between its culture and the Negroes’, and intends to assert its own.

National Review believes that the South’s premises are correct. If the majority wills what is socially atavistic, then to thwart the majority may be, though undemocratic, enlightened. It is more important for any community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow to the demands of the numerical majority.

I have taken the text of the editorial from a WordPress website; the text was also shared in a forum somewhere. I learned of the existence of the editorial in an article spotted recently on Twitter: Kevin M. Schultz, “William F. Buckley and National Review’s vile race stance: Everything you need to know about conservatives and civil rights” (Salon, June 7, 2015). The article is gripping, but perhaps mistitled, since it follows Buckley only up to 1965, when he debated James Baldwin at Cambridge University on the proposition, “The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro.” An article written since Trump’s election explains what its own title says: “How Buckley changed his mind,” by Alvin Felzenberg (Politico, May 13, 2017).

The chapter of the New Leviathan under review provides a framework for debating assertions about the superiority of one “civilization” over another. Ideally the debate would be dialectical, and not eristic; but in either case it would clarify our own opinions.

According to the numbering of the paragraphs, as well as their meaning, the chapter has nine sections, summarized below and sometimes elaborated on, especially in case of the first section, with an excursus into linguistics and the origin of the term symbol, as seen in a story by Herodotus about keeping your word.

The main point, as was said, is that civilization is a process. We may also consider civilization as a stage that the process has reached. The process also has a goal, never finally reached; we shall call the goal civility, following the recommendation of Johnson, although Boswell still wanted to use “civilization” here too.


Civilization is a thing of the mind (34. 14): we observed this back in Chapter I (1. 21). Thus we are creating, or contributing to, a science of the mind, as opposed to a science of nature. In Chapter XXXI we looked at the analogy between physics and politics in their “classical” forms; now we distinguish such sciences from one another.

34. 16. All science is based on facts. The sciences of nature are based on natural facts ascertained by observation and experiment; the sciences of mind are based on mental facts ascertained by reflection.

We need to know the facts of how we actually use the word “civilization.”

What is a word? If it is a symbol, then there must have been no words in our earliest language; for

A symbol (as the Greek word indicates) is something arrived at by agreement and accepted by the parties to the agreement as valid for a certain purpose.

That is Collingwood in The Principles of Art (1938), page 225. To have an agreement, you need to have a language already. The Greek feminine noun ἡ συμβολή denotes a meeting, while the neuter noun τὸ σύμβολον denotes originally either of two pieces of a broken object, such as a knucklebone, used to confirm an agreement. Since, again, this agreement will have been arrived at with language, our original language must have been non-symbolic.

That seems clear enough, though it must not really be so. Some years ago, I tried to incorporate the idea of non-symbolic language into the Wikipedia article on language; my efforts were all reverted by a pseudonymous editor who said he taught philosophy at Oxford (which is what Collingwood did). The editor did suggest that I might incorporate my ideas into the article on Collingwood.

Forming agreements, thus entering into societies, is our grand theme. I want then to include an old story of what can happen if you break an agreement. As far as I can tell, this is the oldest example for σύμβολον in the Greek-English Lexicon of Liddell and Scott (1996). A man suffers divine punishment for even considering not handing over some money to the persons who come bearing the proper σύμβολα. Here is how Herodotus (VI.86) has Leotychidas tell the story to the Athenians:

We Spartans say that three generations ago there was at Lacedaemon one Glaucus, the son of Epicydes. We say that this man added to his other excellences a reputation for justice above all men who at that time dwelt in Lacedaemon. [3] But we say that at the fitting time this befell him: There came to Sparta a certain man of Miletus, who desired to have a talk with Glaucus and made him this offer: ‘I am a Milesian, and I have come to have the benefit of your justice, Glaucus. [4] Since there is much talk about your justice throughout all the rest of Hellas, and even in Ionia, I considered the fact that Ionia is always in danger while the Peloponnese is securely established, and nowhere in Ionia are the same men seen continuing in possession of wealth. [5] Considering and taking counsel concerning these matters, I resolved to turn half of my property into silver and deposit it with you, being well assured that it will lie safe for me in your keeping. Accept the money for me, and take and keep these tokens (τὰ σύμβολα); restore the money to whoever comes with the same tokens and demands it back.’

86B. Thus spoke the stranger who had come from Miletus, and Glaucus received the trust according to the agreement. After a long time had passed, the sons of the man who had deposited the money came to Sparta; they spoke with Glaucus, showing him the tokens (τὰ σύμβολα) and demanding the money back. [2] But Glaucus put them off and answered in turn: ‘I do not remember the matter, and nothing of what you say carries my mind back. Let me think; I wish to do all that is just. If I took the money, I will duly restore it; if I never took it at all, I will deal with you according to the customs of the Greeks. I will put off making my decision for you until the fourth month from this day.’

86C. So the Milesians went away in sorrow, as men robbed of their possessions; but Glaucus journeyed to Delphi to question the oracle. When he asked the oracle whether he should seize the money under oath, the Pythian priestess threatened him in these verses: [2]

Glaucus son of Epicydes, it is more profitable now
To prevail by your oath and seize the money.
Swear, for death awaits even the man who swears true.
But Oath has a son, nameless; he is without hands
Or feet, but he pursues swiftly, until he catches
And destroys all the family and the entire house.
The line of a man who swears true is better later on.

When Glaucus heard this, he entreated the god to pardon him for what he had said. The priestess answered that to tempt the god and to do the deed had the same effect.

86D. So Glaucus summoned the Milesian strangers and gave them back their money. But hear now, Athenians, why I began to tell you this story: there is today no descendant of Glaucus, nor any household that bears Glaucus’ name; he has been utterly rooted out of Sparta. So good is it not even to think anything concerning a trust except giving it back on demand!

Thus the Spartan Leotychidas, by report of Herodotus. We should recall what Socrates points out, at the beginning of the Republic: we may indeed decline to return a trust, if it consists of weapons, and the person demanding it has gone mad.

We have to recognize our original language as non-symbolic, in order to make sense of what Collingwood asserts later in The Principles of Art, when he is discussing how we cut up language into pieces (page 256):

Every word, as it actually occurs in discourse, occurs once and once only. But if the dissection is skilfully carried out, there will be words here and there which are so like one another that they can be treated as recurrences of the same word. Thus we get a new fiction: the recurring word, the entity which forms the lexicographer’s unit. That this is a fiction is, I think, not difficult to grasp. In the sentence I have just written, the word ‘is’ occurs twice. But the relation between these two is not one of identity. Both phonetically and logically the two are alike, but not more than alike.

As we have seen in Chapter XIX of the New Leviathan, things that are alike form a class (19. 23). The assessment that they are alike must be made by somebody (19. 25). Despite what some professional philosophers seem to think, things do not classify themselves; they are classified according to their features, but somebody has to decide which features are salient. (I argued this in “Effectiveness” and “Re-enactment.”) In the case of the class called “the lexicographer’s unit,” the decision on its members is made by many persons. By their agreement to recognize a word, these persons constitute a society or at least a “society” (19. 36); in any case, a community (20. 12). That is what Collingwood says now:

34. 12. A word is a linguistic habit (6. 12) of the community using it; the habit of conveying a special meaning by using any member of a certain class of auditory and visual vehicles (6. 17), the class (namely) of which any member is an example of that word.

We recall that a society proper is a community formed by an act of will. The community of persons who speak a particular language like English is not so formed. I may have joined the community of Turkish-speakers by force of will; but my membership is still provisional. We normally learn to speak a language while we are still in the “nursery,” namely the non-social part of a family (22. 1). Learning to speak might be described as the process that lets us move from the nursery to the family-society.

We mentioned classical physics and classical politics. Each is an application of the principle of the limited objective (31. 61):

  • physics seeks to explain what can be explained mathematically (31. 7);
  • politics, what can be explained “by reference to the idea of society” (31. 81).

Linguistics then is not a part of politics, but studies what makes politics possible.

Linguists may not see their subject that way. Whatever the origin of the study of language, the study readily becomes interesting for its own sake. Still, the way we think of the world beyond ourselves will reflect the way we think of ourselves: this is a theme of Chapter XVIII, “Theoretical Reason” (the last chapter of Part I of the New Leviathan). The theme is recalled in Chapter XXVIII, “The Forms of Political Action.” In the post called “Writing Rules,” I looked at and exemplified the ire that different opinions about language can raise, because those opinions reflect our own social status and our feelings about this.

In short, theory retains traces of its origins in practice. But then any practice will have its origins in something done for its own sake. Ultimately, we cannot perform an action for some purpose, before we know that the action is even possible. The infant cannot draw a picture, before knowing that drawing a crayon along a surface will leave a trace. Art has to exist before it can be put to use. Collingwood addresses this too, along with our current broad theme of civilization, in The Principles of Art (pages 33–4):

Here lies the peculiar tragedy of the artist’s position in the modern world. He [sic] is heir to a tradition from which he has learnt what art should be; or at least, what it cannot be. He has heard its call and devoted himself to its service. And then, when the time comes for him to demand of society that it should support him in return for his devotion to a purpose which, after all, is not his private purpose but one among the purposes of modern civilization, he finds that his living is guaranteed only on condition that he renounces [sic] his calling and uses [sic] the art which he has acquired in a way which negates its fundamental nature, by turning journalist or advertisement artist or the like.

I have tagged two of Collingwood’s verbs because I think they ought to be subjunctive (“renounce” and “use”). Collingwood did not end his last sentence where I have stopped it, but he continued, annoyingly: “a degradation far more frightful than the prostitution or enslavement of the mere body.” In “Happiness” (Chapter XII of the New Leviathan), Collingwood rejected, on Aristotle’s behalf, the Stoic notion that “a good man could be happy even upon the rack” (12. 46). I think we can also reject the notion that a good woman is happier, or even less unhappy, being physically abused than being a commercial artist.


Our concern now is with civilization as a word. The study of a word’s meaning is historical (34. 19), but not “abstractly etymological” (34. 2). Etymology would seem to tell us that civilization is a process of making or becoming civil (34. 22), while being civil is being like a townsman (34. 23). This is not much information, and it is not even trustworthy (34. 31):

  1. Etymology does not tell us what kind of resemblances to townsmen are implied by civilization (34. 24).

  2. Analogous reasoning with circularization fails, since this is not a process of making or becoming circular; it is rather the distribution of the advertisements called circulars (34. 25).

Collingwood is effectively warning us against the so-called etymological fallacy.

34. 26. Etymology, in fact, is a good servant to the historical study of language; but a bad master.

34. 27. It is a good servant when it helps to explain why words mean what in fact they do mean.

34. 28. Here it is valuable because it solves a problem arising from the facts of usage.

Collingwood would seem now to allude to such errors as the Fallacy of Misplaced Argument (4. 73), namely arguing about such things as whether you have a headache or can hear bats (4. 72).

34. 29. Unless the facts of usage are known, such problems cannot arise; and there is no worse kind of pseudo-science than that which offers solutions for non-existent problems.

We might also refer to the “pseudo-problems of free will” (13. 17), such as the question of whether we are free at all.


We don’t even care about all of the historical meanings of civilization (34. 31). For example, we are not concerned with the oldest meaning (34. 35), which is the process of conversion of a criminal case at law to a civil case (34. 34). We need not know anything about that process to know that it does not concern us (34. 37), since what undergoes the process (34. 38) is not a community as such (34. 39).

Collingwood appears to be correct in his history here, at least according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which seems to be his source. The OED has three numbered meanings for civilization, the first labelled with a dagger as obsolete:

†1.  Law. ‘A law, act of justice, or judgement, which renders a criminal process civil; which is performed by turning an information into an inquest, or the contrary’ (Harris, quoted by J.)  The assimilation of Common Law to the Civil Law.

The quotation of John Harris’s Lexicon Technicum, or an universal English dictionary of arts and sciences, is dated to 1704–10; and “J.” is evidently Samuel Johnson, whom Collingwood will refer to, as shall we. The remaining two definitions are as follows.

2.  The action or process of civilizing or being civilized.

3.  (More usually) Civilized condition or state; a developed or advanced state of human society; a particular stage or a particular type of this.

For sense 2, the earliest quotation is from 1775, from John Ash’s New and complete dictionary of the English language: “the state of being civilized, the act of civilizing.” This is also the second quotation illustrating sense 3; the first is from 1772, from Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson:

On Monday, March 23, I found him [Johnson] busy, preparing a fourth edition of his folio Dictionary … he would not admit civilization, but only civility. With great deference to him, I thought civilization, from to civilize, better in the sense opposed to barbarity, than civility.

Here we are present at deliberations around the creation of a word.


Civilization happens to a community (34. 4), but for now we know

  • neither what it is that happens (34. 44),
  • nor whether the community must be a society (34. 35).


We do know something: civilization is an approximation to an ideal state (34. 5).

  • The ideal state itself is civility, as Johnson proposed (34. 61);
  • its contradictory is barbarity (34. 51).

Neither of these ever actually exists; civilization is an asymptotic approximation (34. 56).

All mental processes, such as conversion of ignorance to knowledge, are asymptotic (34. 58): they are ἀ-σύμ-πτωτος, not-together-falling with their abstract goals. To think otherwise is to be “a victim of wish-fulfilment fantasies” (34. 59). We saw such victims in the previous part. They did not understand that the world was dialectical. They thought two-party systems were a waste of energy (27. 85), like talking about politics at all (28. 2); or they thought democracy could be achieved for good and all (27. 6). Such thought leads to tyranny, as Collingwood said then. He does not say this now; neither does he talk about dialectic as such; he only introduces the new term asymptotic.


Samuel Johnson used the word civility as we are using it, for the ideal of civilization. Boswell wanted him to use the word civilization also for the ideal (34. 61), as we have seen from the OED.

Boswell’s naming of the ideal for the process has triumphed (34. 64), even though it is “only with difficulty defensible” (34. 68).

To name the result (rather than the ideal) for the process is “easily defensible” (34. 69).


Civilization now has three meanings of interest to us:

  1. the process (34. 75),
  2. the condition it leads to in a particular case (34. 76),
  3. the ideal of the process, or civility (34. 77).

We have set aside the OED’s first meaning and split its third meaning into two. There are corresponding senses of barbarism.


Let us recall a warning from Chapter I. Suppose one person answers a question in the science of mind, and tells the answer to another person (1. 77).

1. 82. The only way in which the first can establish an ascendancy over the second is by talking so obscurely that the second does not know what he is talking about: This is the infallible mark of one who deals with the sciences of mind in the spirit of a charlatan.

To check the answer to the question, we need only reflect. Now we have a related warning against charlatanism.

34. 8. The only possible method of constructing a terminology suitable for use in a science of mind is by using words already current in the language you are adopting, and using them with scrupulous attention to the facts of usage as already established in that language.

34. 81. These are the facts upon which the science is based (34. 19); and the surest way of knowing whether a professed exponent of the science is a scientist or a charlatan is by finding out whether he treats them respectfully or contemptuously.

Collingwood goes on with a lot of rhetoric, but barely alludes to the core point. In computer lingo, the multiplicity of meanings of civilization is not a bug (34. 88), but a feature (34. 89). Civilization is a dialectical process, and so its associated ideal will differ from where the process has brought us now.


Actually we have not determined whether all civilization has the same goal (34. 93), though we do in fact refer to different civilizations, such as Bronze Age or Neolithic, Chinese or Indian (34. 92). If they do all have the same goal, which we are calling civility, then evidently this differs from any particular stage on the way (34. 96). Otherwise, we have no use for the term civility (34. 94), but all a civilization aims for is where it happens to be (34. 95).

That is what Collingwood says. One may object that in 1857 (setting aside 1957), American Southern White civilization had a goal that differed both from where the Southern civilization was and from where the Northern civilization wanted to be. On the other hand, if Southern Whites wanted a perpetual distinction between free citizen and enslaved, this was not a coherent goal, any more than the goal of the doctrinaire democrat (26. 1) or doctrinaire aristocrat (26. 11) is coherent.

Edited and slightly expanded, October 9, 2019

5 Trackbacks

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