University of Jyväskylä

Dissertation: 7.2. Material, Mental, and Moral Progress: American conceptions of civilization in late 19th century studies on ‘things Chinese and Japanese (Pennanen)

Start date: Feb 07, 2015 12:00 PM

End date: Feb 07, 2015 03:00 PM

Location: Seminaarinmäki, Seminaarinmäki, Historica Building, H320

M.A. Henna-Riikka Pennanen defends her doctoral dissertation in General History Material, Mental, and Moral Progress: American conceptions of civilization in late 19th century studies on "things Chinese and Japanese". Opponent Adjunct Professor Seija Jalagin (University of Oulu) and custos Professor Pasi Ihalainen (University of Jyväskylä).


The thesis is about 19th century American conceptions – and the concept – of civilization. By the late 19th century, the concept had become indispensable in American discussions about politics, society, religion, and culture. However, the meanings various discussants gave to the concept were manifold, ambiguous, and even antithetical. Therefore, the concept resembled closely what Reinhart Koselleck has called a Grundbegriffe, or a key concept.

The thesis is a study on how six American experts on China and Japan used this key concept in their studies on “things Chinese and Japanese,” what changing meanings they gave to it, and how the authors viewed and explained the world around them through this concept, and the ideas it embodied. In attempting to understand, interpret, and represent the foreign civilizations and cultures they encountered in China and Japan, these six experts found the concept of civilization eminently useful. They devised material, mental, and moral gauges with which they measured the level of Civilization a given nation had attained. At the same time, they became quite reflective about their own civilization, about the idea in general, and about the related contemporary concepts of progress, evolution, and race.

The methodological approach of the thesis draws partly from cultural history, or theoretical and methodological discussions about images, representations, cultural encounters, and power relations. On the other hand, the thesis draws from intellectual and conceptual history, or discussions about language, concepts, and the role of different contexts in the interpretation of texts. With the help of these methodological insights, the thesis aims to show the practical importance and complexity of the concept of civilization in popular scientific writing, and the extent to which the concept had become democratized and established in the 19th century American society. 

Keywords: civilization, history, 19th century, Japan, China, the United States

The dissertation is published in the series Jyväskylä Studies in Humanities, 420 pp.Jyväskylä 2015. ISSN 1459-4323; ISSN 1459-4331 (PDF); ISBN 978-951-39-6031-5; ISBN 978-951-39-6032-2 (PDF). It is available at the University Library’s Publications Unit, +358 (0)40 805 3825,

  • Further information:

Henna-Riikka Pennanen,
Comminications officer Anitta Kananen,, puh. 040 805 4142

More information

Henna-Riikka Pennanen