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  • A Small Change in Terminology or a Great Leap Forward? Culture and Civilization in Revolution 1
  • J. Swenson (bio)

I periodically teach an undergraduate course that is part of my department’s newly-created major option in “French Cultural Studies.” My title for the course, which reflects my sense of what I’m actually trying to teach, is “Cultures françaises de l’Ancien Régime.” The first class session is largely devoted to explaining the choices underlying the title: the relative advantages and disadvantages of “ancien régime” and “Early Modern France”; the insistence on the plural during a period when a standardized national culture was first coming into being; finally and most importantly, “culture” rather than “civilization.” The students, however, often continue to refer to the course as “French Civilization.” That more traditional designation is, after all, how the course continues to be listed in the University course catalogue and on their transcripts.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that this sort of terminological change is by no means isolated, and may even be in the process of becoming a new norm. 2 Doubtless this trend is merely a local reflection of the general inflation of the concept of culture in the humanities, and in [End Page 322] particular of its function as the unifying term by which most current versions of interdisciplinary study seek to legitimate new conjunctions of disciplinary objects and methods. But it would be a mistake to dismiss such trends, either in local or global forms, as merely an effect of fashion. “Culture” is able to perform this role at the moment for real and serious intellectual reasons. Conversely, the tendential disappearance of “civilization” from “French Cultural Studies” poses a specific problem which has a slightly paradoxical form: the universalist concept of civilization is an important element of the specificity of French culture.

One of the locations where this paradox is at its most pointed is in studies of the late Enlightenment and revolutionary period in France. A striking number of the most interesting studies of this period to appear since the Bicentennial announce themselves as cultural history: titles and subtitles refer to the Cultural History of the French Revolution, French Political Culture in the Eighteenth Century, the Cultural Origins of the French Revolution, Publishing and Cultural Politics, and the Cultural History of the Enlightenment. 3 All of these studies deal with the [End Page 323] period when the word “civilization” was created and elaborated; even more, they deal with the aspects of that period that the word was, at the time, thought to explain. First used in the 1750’s by Mirabeau père, the word is characteristic of the systematization of the Enlightenment and its establishment as the regulative ideal of sociability among a broad elite in the decades preceding the Revolution. Absent from the writings of Montesquieu, Voltaire or Rousseau (although they do all use civil and civilisé regularly, in alternation with poli or policé), the word appears regularly in later writings by Diderot, d’Holbach, Condorcet and others. 4

Eighteenth-century “universal history” (also frequently called “conjectural history” after Dugald Stewart 5 ) placed the civilizing process within two distinct narratives. While in principle they are the same story—the story, precisely, of the development of human society, that is, of civilization—their actual articulation within any single text is often problematic. Each story presents its own starting point, and thus brings a particular conceptual content to the narrative. The first of these is geo-historical, relying on an opposition between European and non-European peoples. The four-stages theory, as this narrative is generally known, describes the path along which all peoples are bound to progress (some sooner than others, to be sure), leading from an initial state of savagery, based on a hunting and gathering economy, to one of barbarism, characterized by a pastoral economy, to civilization (agricultural and eventually commercial societies). A wide variety of social institutions, from forms of property-rights and government to languages, can be described as having forms proper to [End Page 324] each of these stages (a well-known example, following Derrida’s discussion of it in the Grammatology, is Rousseau’s division of forms of...

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