"Do you know who . . . I am?'' Tyson asked in disbelief when Ayer urged him to desist: ''I'm the heavyweight champion of the world.'' ''And I am the former Wykeham professor of logic,'' Ayer answered politely. ''We are both pre-eminent in our field. I suggest that we talk about this..."--Quoted in The New York Times.
We, however “we" are constituted, must draw on ourselves through an inward look, of picturing something that we cannot see, of making a composite and being satisfied with a rough outline that allows us to cope and carry on.--M.A. Khan.
Civilization is no more than the art of keeping conversation going. If this much is right, then it should not necessarily be identified with prowess in technology or the sciences or particular social organizations emanating from Europe. Rather it is a skill that promotes mutual accommodation and modest forms of receptivity. It may also involve a species of courage, as when Freddy Ayer confronted Mike Tyson, but in well-ordered societies this courage would be rarely required.
One might think that in the previous paragraph I have just projected my preference for useless talk and transformed it into a fundamental good. If you have a sense of humor, and are familiar with my fondness for quoting Hume, you may quote Hume against me:
The Bramins [sic] assert, that the world arose from an infinite spider, who spun this whole complicated mass from his bowels, and annihilates afterwards the whole or any part of it, by absorbing it again, and resolving it into his own essence. Here is a species of cosmogony, which appears to us ridiculous; because a spider is a little contemptible animal, whose operations we are never likely to take for a model of the whole universe...And were there a planet, wholly inhabited by spiders, (which is very possible) this inference would there appear as natural and irrefragable.--David Hume.*
There is some truth to the charge that like a spider's fondness for spiders, I am merely equating civilization with philosophical activity. Even so, my ilk, professional philosophers, are not really committed to civilization; here I don't have merely those, who seem to care mostly about winning debates, in mind. Rather, I am primarily thinking about the more kindly ones that are committed to the idea that conversation can be halted by truth, knowledge, agreement, or consensus, and, further, that, in fact, our inquiries and activities aim at these. So, while civilization can be philosophical (I return to this below) not all philosophy is, despite the presence of other virtues, civilized.
To be civilized has a bad reputation: first, it stands accused of hypocrisy by those familiar with the conjunction of 'European' (or 'American,' 'Judeo-Christian,' etc.) and 'Civilization,' while noting that the track-record of such societies includes genocide, slavery, colonialism, pillage, and an infinite variety of other forms of oppression, etc. Second, from another side it is presented as accommodationist and naive for its refusal to draw steadfast lines in the sand between them and us. By contrast, even if when forced to recognize the existence of enemies, the civilized insist -- to paraphrase Dayan**-- that if one wants to make peace, one doesn't talk to one's friends. One talks to enemies even if they hold a gun in their hand. That is to say, by understanding civilization as a political and social skill, we recognize that it aims at ending and preventing the state of war; from the vantage point developed here, 'the clash of civilizations' is a contradiction in terms.
The first charge is based on equivocation. From the vantage point of true civilization, there is no excuse for domination. So, while civilization does not require equality or mutual respect, it requires mutual accommodation. One might worry that this just entrenches unfairness or, worse, status quo biases and so civilization is just an expression of self-interest of the powerful. There is an element of truth to this (third) charge, but it is generally even more in the interest of the weak to be part of the conversation. Either way, a defense of civilization should not be confused with a theory of justice (which may also be in the interest of the powerful).
The previous paragraph reminds us that civility is not an intrinsic part of civilization. To be civil is to conform to norms that govern a community of equals (originally citizens). It is intrinsic to civility that there are insiders and outcasts. This is why even though civility may be a means toward keeping a conversation going, the demand for civility can be so easily abused as a tool of oppression.+
Above I suggested that philosophy and civilization are not necessarily mutually antagonistic. I can now state philosophy's role in civilization: it is to teach the skills and develop the concepts that allow conversations to be continued++ or, alternatively, the state of war to be held at bay.
* Hume is clearly making fun of culturally alien Brahmans (although in context his real target is Christianity). It's not exactly clear when Hume wrote these lines (the Dialogues were deliberately published posthumously in 1776), but even if it was after the (1557) Battle of Plassey, British rule over Indian subcontinent was not a foregone conclusion yet.
** I chose Dayan here precisely because he was no saint.
++ Cf. Abe Stone on Plato's Meno.