Social Imaginaries

Volume 4, Issue 2, Autumn 2018

Wolfgang Knöbl
Pages 21-41

‘Civilizing’ the Americas! A concept goes West!

As is well known, the concept of civilization and all the imaginaries around this term played an important role in imperial contexts insofar as mostly Western states legitimated their oftentimes ruthless behaviour in other parts of the world by referring to their ‘civilizing missions’. What is not so well-known, however, at least not in the so-called West, is that the concept of ‘civilization’ also played an enormous role in conflicts within (‘Western’) societies, conflicts that were not necessarily shaped by racial categories. The article shows how the concept of ‘civilization’ came into being in France in the middle of the 18th century before it spread into other European languages and—by doing so—slightly changed its meanings depending on peculiar socio-political contexts. Such a change of meaning also happened, of course, when the concept was adopted in the Americas. Contrasting the cases of the United States of America on the one hand and ‘Argentina’ on the other, it will be demonstrated how and why intellectuals in the first half of the 19th century made use of this concept and changed it according to the conflicts they perceived as vital in their interpretation of their own society. Tracing the intercontinental history of the concept makes it again clear how tricky it might be to use ‘civilization’ and ‘civilizations’ as analytical tools in order to theorize historical paths and patterns in different parts of the world.