Jan Ifversen

Jan Ifversen

The Meaning of European Civilization - A Historical-Conceptual Approach*

My interest in the concept of civilization was triggered by Samuel Huntington\'s now famous article "The Clash of Civilizations" from 1993. I have been working on different discursive settings of European self-consciousness for some times . The idea of Europe as an entitity or even a quality has a rather long history in Europe. In the 15th century the concept of Europe (which, previously, mainly had been attached to geographical representations of a tripartite world composed of Europe, Asia and Africa/Libya) was formed within a religious discourse which equated Europe with (western) Christianity. Christianity became the core value of "Europe". Christianity contained a trans-national - to use an anachronistic term - reference and even a global pretension, while "Europe" marked a limit to a non-European world. Connecting "Europe" and "Christianity" served both to strengthen the idea of an intra-European coherence and a borderline to a non-European and, therefore, also non-Christian world. Historically, this connection took shape in an anti-Islamic crusader discourse in which the Ottoman Empire was made to represent the negative qualities of non-Europe.

The growing rationalisation of the European states influenced the meaning of "Europe". The 16th century witnessed a growing use of the concept of Europe in an international political context. A state discourse replaced the religious discourse. States began to "speak" to each other on a formalised scene which was referred to as "Europe". "Europe" was less a religious value and more a system of criss-crossing relations (military, economic ,diplomatic and even legal relations - hat were contained within ideas of international law). The Europe-as-a-system concept focused on state rationalism (raison d\'état). But this value was accompanied by an idea of Europe as a cultural value. Instead of Christianity the concept of "Europe" was combined with "civilization". This concept can be seen as a secularised parallel to Christianity. It took form in - what we might broadly call - an imperialist discourse used in the encounters with the New World. In their representations of the Indians (as they were named) the Europeans placed themselves and their continent in a superior, position which was related to civilization.


Let me briefly return to Huntington. I will try to show that he reintroduces this concept of civilization into the debate on world order. He does this, it seems, in order to criticise the dominating paradigm of globalization. Globalization stresses the growing interdependence and interpenetration of existing social orders (the national societies), the increasing homogenisation of different spheres of social life (economy, culture, politics), and the creation of a global discourse within which different actors in the world speak. In Roland Robertson\'s formulation[1]:

"...globalization involves something like a global culture (...) in the sense of a general mode of discourse about the world and its variety." (p.135).

"The discourse of globality is thus a vital component of contemporary global culture. It consists largely in the shifting and contested terms in which the world as a whole is \'defined\'.Images of world order (and disorder) (...) are at the center of global culture. (...) global culture itself is partly created in terms of specific interactions between national societies." (pp.113-114).

Global discourse is made up of these different images of the world. For Robertson globalization is not solely a question of interdependence and homogenisation. There is room for differences - different responses to interdependence and homogenisation. But his point is that these responses are framed within a global language and not in some traditional language. The responses are thus part of a global discourse.

Huntington acknowledges the growing interdependence. But he does not see any global discourse. In his view discourses (or rather, actions) are formed by and from cultural entities. He sees the world as divided in different cultural entities. The - apparently - new approach in his view is to divide the world into civilizations. A civilization is cultural entity on a higher level:

"A civilization is the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have short of that which distinguishes humans from other species".[2]


One might object that this a way of transferring the 19th century nationalist identity scheme (culture equals nation) onto a larger scale - a kind of model of concentric circles with civilization on the outer circle. In