Civilisation: Evolution of a word and a group of ideas

Lucien Febvre
May 25, 1929
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It is never a waste of time to study the history of a word. Such journeys, whether short or long, monotonous or varied are always instructive. But in every major language there are a dozen or so terms, never more, often less, whose past is no food for the scholar. But it is for the historian if we give the word historian all its due force.

Such terms, whose meaning is more or less crudely defined in dictionaries, never cease to evolve under the influence of human experience and they reach us pregnant, one might say, with all the history through which they have passed. They alone can enable us to follow and measure, perhaps rather slowly but very precisely (language is not a very rapid recording instrument), the transformations which took place in a group of those governing ideas which man is pleased to think of as being immobile because their immobility seems to be a guarantee of his security.1 Constructing the history of the French word civilisation would in fact mean reconstituting the stages in the most profound of all the revolutions which the French spirit has achieved and undergone in the period starting with the second half of the eighteenth century and taking us up to the present day. And so it will mean embracing in its totality, but from one particular point of view, a history whose origins and influence have not been confined within the frontiers of a single state. The simple sketch which follows may make it possible to date the periods in the revolution to which we refer with more rigor than previously. And it will at least show once more that the rhythm of the waves which break upon our societies are, in the last instance, governed and determined by the progress not of a particular science and of thought that revolves within one and the same circle, but by progress in all the disciplines together and in all the branches of learning working in conjunction.

Let us clearly mark out the limits of the problem. Some months ago a thesis was defended in the Sorbonne dealing with the civilization of the Tupi-Guarani. The Tupi-Guarani are small tribes living in South America which in every respect fit the term “savage” as used by our ancestors. But for a long time now the concept of a civilization of non-civilized people has been current. If archaeology were able to supply the means, we should see an archaeologist coolly dealing with the civilization of the Huns; who we were once told were “the flail of civilization.”

But our newspapers and journals, and we ourselves, talk continually about the progress, conquests and benefits of civilization. Sometimes with conviction, sometimes with irony and sometimes even with bitterness. But what counts is that we talk about it. And what this implies is surely that one and the same word is used to designate two different concepts.

In the first case civilization simply refers to all the features that can be observed in the collective life of one human group, embracing their material, intellectual, moral and political life and, there is unfortunately no other word for it, their social life. It has been suggested that this should be called the “ethnographical” conception of civilization.2 It does not imply any value judgment on the detail or the overall pattern of the facts examined. Neither does it have any bearing on the individual in the group taken separately, or on their personal reactions or individual behavior. It is above all a conception which refers to a group. Continue reading