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Reviewed by:
  • Civilization and Its Contents
  • Cemil Aydin
Civilization and Its Contents. By Bruce Mazlish. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2004. 188 pp. $48.00 (cloth); $16.95 (paper).

Written by a prominent public intellectual and historian of globalization, Civilization and Its Contents offers thought-provoking insights in a collection of seven well-integrated essays on the politics and historical trajectory of the concept of civilization. Today, scholars all agree that the notion of civilization, like its associated concepts, such as nation, culture, and cosmopolitanism, is a social construct. Bruce Mazlish invites us to rethink how the political and ideological nature of this construct changed over time in order to underline a bold suggestion that the notion of civilization should itself retire from scholarly inquiry, not to disappear entirely from the literature perhaps, but to be replaced by better conceptual tools to help us understand the reality of global humanity and its local variations.

Mazlish approaches the topic with a historicizing agenda, taking us on a tour of the origin and later evolution of the concept of civilization, starting from the reification of the civilized (city life)—barbarian (nomadic) distinction. This binary opposition was transformed by eighteenth-century European Enlightenment thinkers to universalize Eurocentric values during the early modern era of globalization. In the second chapter, Mazlish underlines how the early eighteenth-century comparative and relativist observations of proud Europeans about the virtues of their own civilization in relation to those of other civilizations were replaced in the nineteenth century by more rigid and arrogant discourses on European superiority, paralleling the transition from a benign colonial ideology to the era of more savage colonialism. Chapter 3 offers one of the best intellectual history accounts about the tensions during the nineteenth century between an inclusive definition [End Page 451] of European civilization and more exclusive, race-based definitions, with important arguments about the triumph of the latter. Examining the writings of François Guizot, Arthur de Gobineau, Charles Darwin, and Henry Thomas Buckle, European writers who had global intellectual impact, Mazlish outlines the lineage and politics behind the key themes of European civilization, such as religion, morality, race, climate, and evolution, presenting a clear picture of the sharpening of European/white/Western supremacism even though the universalist inclinations of the idea of civilization initially included the possibility of others becoming a member of, or adopting, European civilization. It is important to add, from the research of the present reviewer on Ottoman and Japanese intellectual history, that the works of the European intellectuals that Mazlish analyzed were very closely read by non-European intellectuals. It was the irony of nineteenth-century globalization that European intellectuals were defining a noninclusive notion of European civilization precisely when Asian intellectuals were interested in the universal aspects of this civilization and claimed that religion, race, or climate should not and would not be an obstacle for the appropriation of the universal aspects of European civilization.

In the fourth chapter, "Civilizing Process," Mazlish discusses, again with great erudition, European intellectuals, such as Freud and Norbert Elias, who formulated ideas about the dark sides of European civilization and stayed away from the triumphal tone of the earlier celebratory accounts. From a global history perspective, this chapter should have covered another group of critics of European civilization, romantics, especially those Stephan Hay described as Asiaphile romantics (which includes not only Theosophists but also advocates of Oriental renaissance), who left a great impact on the changing notions of civilization in Asia. Hence, the fifth chapter, which is about the Egyptian, Chinese, and Thai perspectives on the concept of civilization, could have been enriched by including the extraordinary transformation of the discourse of civilization from an ideology of savage colonialism into an intellectual instrument of anticolonial nationalism, especially through the discourse of spiritual, moral East versus materialist, decadent West.

The last two chapters of the book include timely scholarly observations on the recent attempts at dialogue among civilizations, intensified in recent years, with United Nations and United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) backing. Demonstrating his wisdom as a global historian, Bruce Mazlish illustrates why current clashes are within civilizations, but never between different civilizations. Even though the well-intentioned...


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