From civilization to civilizations

As the brief reconstruction just offered clearly suggests, two opposite lines of investigation were brought together in the making of Enlightenment thought: on the one hand was a normative investigation that sought to evaluate social and political systems against the benchmark of a universal human nature; on the other was an empirical investigation that sought to analyse human nature such as it could be observed in its own reality. This opened up a new horizon for Western civilization, which in the very diversity that could empirically be observed among peoples found the basis on which to legitimize its interventions aimed at exercising control over the processes through which other peoples evolved. In a seminal study in the history of concepts, Lucien Febvre traces the history of the concept of civilization. The first appearance this concept makes is in French sources in the second half of the eighteenth century, when it was introduced to capture the idea of an ascent towards reason, as well as towards a standard of justice. During the French Revolution the term gained currency and came to form the kernel of a philosophy of progress. But in the first half of the nineteenth century, with the development of the natural and ethnographic sciences, and with the great voyages and accounts of famous travellers and explorers, the idea of civilization found itself being relativized, and in its place came the idea of civilizations in the plural. This new approach, writes Febvre, “represented, for natural scientists, the

Deconstructing the concepts 47 beginning of the long specialization process and the great relativist development of the iuniverselles' ideas of the eighteenth century, which was to take place, in parallel fashion, in the fields of history, ethnography and linguistics” (Febvre [1930] 1973, 237). Finally, the concept of civilization forked into two directions, one pursuing its empirical study, the other its scientific study: on the former approach, civilization was thought to belong to every each human group; on the latter, the assumption was that it only belonged to the white peoples of Europe and North America, conceived as superior to all others (ibid., 247).

 
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