Broadening the Categories of Civilization

Responding to: The Clash of Civilizations and Catholic Social Thought

By: Soichiro Yamashita

April 17, 2015

In his famous book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Huntington broadly discussed then-contemporary global political conflicts and postulated that in the post-Cold War world, such conflicts would be cultural ones. There are many controversial aspects to his book, but I would like to express my own thoughts regarding Huntington's basic idea and  “West versus non-West” theory. 


Ever since humanity began dwelling on Earth, multiple affinity spaces were created among them, and each of these crystallized to become what we call today “culture(s),” and in some cases “civilization(s).” Huntington argued that one of the reasons why conflicts occur is because they are rooted in these ancient cultures, which, in his words, are too basic to even be re-discussed, provided that cultures are products of centuries-long histories that we cannot change.

Although I agree that cultures are products of a very long human history, we should be very careful in determining which cultures form specific civilization groups, which Huntington categorized in the basic form of West and non-West, and we should avoid the overly simplistic discussion that often results from such basic categorization.

For example, Huntington categorized Cambodia as a Buddhist area, but Cambodia is full of diverse images reflecting its own national identity, for example the Bayon temple at Angkor, from the era of Hindu supremacy. He also does not go into great detail about how we can communicate with “imaginary” cultures or cultures that are only formed from one’s biased images, which certainly do not belong to any of Huntington’s civilization categories. Rather, Edward Said analyzed such “cultures” as a result of cross-border interactions and gave this process the famous general name, Orientalism. Therefore, Huntington overlooks much our complex human history. 

With that said, his core theory of conflicts being simply the clash of “Western civilization” and “non-Western civilization", which he actually divides into sub-regions in his book, needs to be examined quite carefully, especially because at first it seems very persuasive due to his eloquence. 

If Catholic institutions are willing to use Huntington when discussing how to harmonize the world, I suggest we view this source as one of many experiments of humankind to understand its endless complexity, and that we look into one particular region from multiple perspectives, which is very possible considering there are many Catholic institutions across the world. 

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Broadening the Categories of Civilization