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On May 15th to 17th of next year, I will be attending a conference titled “Declines and Falls: Perspectives in European History and Historiography” organized at the Central European University in Budapest.

My presentation – which draws upon my dissertation research – will address the complex interrelations between the concepts of progress and decadence in the long eighteenth century. Often, these two concepts are understood as mutually exclusive counter-concepts, epitomizing a forward-looking ‘Enlightenment theory of progress’ on the one hand and the backward and ultimately futile ‘complaints’ of conservatives and reactionaries on the other.

A closer look at the semantic structure of debates about the development of civilization in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries reveals, however, that to contemporaries, these concepts were not usually counter-concepts at all. Rather, they were regularly understood as linked, or even interdependent. To understand this paradox, my paper addresses the various ways in which ‘the culture/civilization as a whole’ was conceptualized in these discourses.

Joining the analysis of the semantic structure of contemporary narratives of cultural decline with their pragmatic interpretation as speech acts in public interaction, I identify three different types of interpretation of the ‘whole’ in which ostensibly monistic claims about civilization in toto were linked to a differentiated understanding of its plural nature. In this way, the common view of narratives of progress and decadence as mutually exclusive discourses – at worst resulting in a general narrative of modern intellectual history as an eternal struggle between Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment – may make way for a more detailed understanding of the complexities of the debates about the character and development of civilization that have been so very important to public discourses of self-reflection in the modern age.

Update: a conference report has been published on the CEU website.

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