The Philosophy of Social Development: Of Civilisation and Its Discontents

Ziggurat of Ur
1. Social Development; What Is It?
1.1 Social Development in this context is part of social theory. It is not referring to the individual's ability to interact with others, which can also be described as "social development". The philosophy of social development is about testing a component of social theory, specifically the notion that are developmental, qualitative differences in different societies which have an internal logical consistency and are backed by evidence. The term 'development' is used to differentiate with 'evolution'; both mean change but the former is the result of human-directed change.
1.2 Of a major concern is the concept of civilization, Whilst a dictionary definition (using all those in common use) will give competing and contradictory definitions, there is a more definitions that has a consensus among anthropologists and sociologists, which includes (i) the establishment of the state, political classes, and centralised authority; (ii) urbanisation and agriculture, (iii) currency, writing systems, and religious institutions; (iv) metallurgy, the end of the neolithic stone age, and the rise of violent conflicts between states. The word civilization notably comes from the French root civilis, for "relating to a citizen". Major contributors in the origins of civilization include the archeologist Gordon Childe (urban revolution, three-age system), the philosopher Karl Jaspers (axial age civilisations), the foundational sociologists Émile Durkheim (collective consciousness, distinction between the sacred and profane, religious and legal institutionalisation) and Max Weber (world-views of different traditional religions), and the anthrologist Bronislaw Malinowski (freedom and civilisation, economic anthropology).

2. Theories of Social Development
2.1 Some notable early theories of social development claimed that the long trajectory of society to become increasingly worse. This was typically combined with moral warnings and a loss of piety. Among the Hellenes this was notable in the works of Hesiod and Ovid, who spoke of a sequence from the Golden Age, the Silver Age, the Bronze Age (a heroic age included), and then the present Iron Age. Hindu social development speaks of the Yuga; the first being the Sat Yuga, then the Krta, the Krita, and finally the age of Kali, of strife and discord. Stripped of the religious speculations, the empirical question here is whether the dawn of humanity, "the state of nature", was one of morality, piety, and abundance.
2.2 Another theory of social development is based on a cyclical rise and fall of civilizations, a theme of 'eternal recurrence'. This was original explored by the 15th century polymath, Ibn Khaldun who noted urbanisation to led to sedentary luxury and then collapse, Malthus's enquiries on catastrophic population growth, Spengler's development of culture to civilisation (hochkulturen) and demise. The notion of a societal lifespan, like an organic being, is particularly prevalent in the latter work.
2.3 The rise of the Enlightenment also witnessed with the rise of a progressive notion of history, also known as conjectural or stadial history, and the notion of history moving through progressive stages typically, according to productive activity e.g., hunting; pasturage; agriculture; and commerce. Dugald Stewart was an early contributor, other major contributions include the historical materialism of Marx and Engels through the mode of production, a combination of the productive means (effectively the tools and technology) and relations of production (effectively the political-economy). Four stages are identified with two hypothetical stages - primitive communism, slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and, hypothetically, socialism and communism. Note the recurrence and conflict themes.
2.3.1 Progressive stage theory was popularly adopted as "social Darwinism" and as as a justification for race theory, imperialism, and colonialism, where technological superiority was conflated with biological, moral, and cultural superiority (e.g., Crawfurd and James Hunts defense of British imperialism based on "scientific racism", 1860).
2.4 The current position in social theory is results from both an admixture of the previous theories, nuanced perspective, especially in including the role of communication and moral development (Habermas), critical reflections on ethnocentric evaluations (Chandra Roy, Fei Xiaotong; albiet with ongoing and further commitment to universal human rights), and increasingly the role of information technology (Castells). Broad social formations (primitive, traditional, modern) are tied with both the means of production (gathering, agriculture, industrial) and communication (spoken, writing, print) with ambiguous results, along with a nascent postmodern possibility.
2.4.1 The following schema provides an overview:
Social formation | Principle of Organisation | System Institution | Crisis Tendency | Means of Communication | Mode of Consciousness
Primitive | Foraging | Kinship (Sex/Age) | Tribal | External Nature | Speech | Mythic
Traditional | Agricultural | Political Rank | Church and State | Social Identity | Written | Religious
Modern | Industrial | Economic Class | Political and Economic Autonomous Subsystems | System Generated | Printed | Secular

3. Discontent to Social Development
3.1 The individual rejection of civilisation was explored by Sigmund Freud, the original 1930 German "Das Unbehagen in der Kultur" (The Uneasiness in Culture). Freud argues that there is a tension between the conformity of civilization (whether through legal norms or cultural expectations) and the individual's desire for instinctual freedom. In many cases these are obviously necessary for social cohesion and development. Thus civilization both provides the material sources for happiness yet also induces neuroses. A very important further contribution to this theme was Herbert Marcuse's "Eros and Civilization" (1955). Marcuse provides an psychological allegory to the economics of Marx's surplus value with the idea of 'surplus repression'. In Marcuse some repression is necessary for societal ordering and development, but too much leads to sociopathologies and political oppression.
3.2 With a distant connection to 'golden age' or 'sat yuga' ideals modernity saw the introduction of the idea that human beings are inherently good but are corrupted by civilisation (e.g., 'money is the root of all evil') hence the "noble savage", a position identified with Anthony Ashley-Cooper (1699), Jean-Jaques Rousseau (1754), Benjamin Franklin (1784).

"The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said "This is mine," and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody."
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, 1754

This concept finds a contemporary expression in anarcho-primitivism, a political perspective which is explicitly against civilization, claiming that agricultural civilization onwards is inherently oppressive, and advocates a return to a hunter-gatherers society. On noted advocate, Zerzan has also argued against the concept of time, abstract symbolic thought (e.g., mathematics, art) and even language itself.

Presentation to The Philosophy Forum, February 1st, 2015

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