In Germanic speaking Europe it was to a certain extent the word Bildung that filled this semantic space – and for Hegel too Bildung meant the cultivating of one’s own personality through exposure to the best written and spoken elements in the world. A change of emphasises however came about in the mid 18th Century. The concept of culture started to assume a new meaning, that of a “universal heritage of knowledge and values formed in the course of humankind’s history”. Simultaneously the concept of civility or civilisation began to emerge. Being “civilised”, unlike being “learned”, meant having experienced a process of “cultural refinement of customs” – the object of study in the work of Norbert Elias – to the extent that the main counter position then becomes that between “civilised human beings” and the “uncivilised” or “savages”.
This opposition was to bring about important developments with regards to the concept of culture. During the 18th Century literature appeared developing a comparison between the customs deeply-rooted in European western culture and those outside Europe. The 18th Century’s ethnographic memoir writing however immediately experienced the effect of undermining at its foundations the idea of a universal human nature, contributing instead to strengthening the idea that education and local forms of life within which interactions between human beings take place, has a constitutive value for culture. Many aspects considered “natural” in human beings were now ascribed to educational processes of a cultural kind – Rousseau is the most example of this. But other names instantly come to mind such as Vico, a later on at the end of the 19th Century also Dilthey. This historical change of the concept of culture was to contribute to a reformulation of relations between the concept of culture and that of civilisation, in turn leading to unfortunate consequences.
“Culture” (Kultur) and “civilisation” (Zivilisation) were to become sort of ideal-types on the basis of which modernising historical processes were interpreted. In the German debate, at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th Century the dual concept of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft coined by Toennies would become the key for understanding the resonance that emanate from the words Kultur and Zivilisation. While the community is to be considered a “living organism”, society should according to Tönnies be seen as an “aggregate and mechanical product” (Tönnies 1963: 47). Hence the idea that community and communitarian relations presuppose cultural homogeneity, and therefore that the expression “pluralist community” is a contradiction. This is what was now added to the idea of Kultur in addition to the main meaning of “high culture”.
The word Zivilisation instead refers to an intrinsically open and pluralist culture. It becomes possible to state that the triumph of “civilization” marks the simultaneous “decline of culture”. In Spengler, the author of The Decline of the West, Kultur (understood here as a the overall cultural of an entire civilisation) is identified with the moment of the ascent and flourishing of a form of life, while Zivilisation is, once again in a negative sense, typical of the declining stages of a given form of life or a historical era. Something of this interpretation of cultural modernisation still survives: if the contraposition between “apocalyptic” and “integrated” means something to you, that something is very similar to the contraposition of once upon a time, with the apocalyptics defending Kultur and the integrated as the defenders of that surrogate “civilisation that is the oxymoronic “mass” or “popular culture”.