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Dialogue and Universalism

Volume 31, Issue 2, 2021

Do We Need a New Enlightenment for the 21st Century?

Luke O’Sullivan
Pages 307-321

On the Very Idea of Civilisation

The concept of civilisation is a controversial one because it is unavoidably normative in its implications. Its historical associations with the effort of Western imperialism to impose substantive conditions of life have made it difficult for contemporary liberalism to find a definition of “civilization” that can be reconciled with progressive discourse that seeks to avoid exclusions of various kinds. But because we lack a way of identifying what is peculiar to the relationship of civilisation that avoids the problem of domination, it has tended to be conflated with other ideas. Taking Samuel Huntington's idea of a “Clash of Civilisations” as a starting point, this article argues that we suffer from a widespread confusion of civilisation with “culture,” and that we also confuse it with other ideas including modernity and technological development. Drawing on Thomas Hobbes, the essay proposes an alternative definition of civilisation as the existence of limits on how we may treat others.

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