Revolution Definition

The term “revolution” is derived from the Latin revolvere, which means to “turn, roll back,”1 which is unusual, given that typically one views revolution as progress, or an action that propels one into the future, not a regression, or rolling back into old ways. When celestial bodies revolve, they center themselves around the sun, constantly and predictably orbiting. Similarly, to revolve can also mean to treat something as “the most important point or element”; just as the earth revolves around the sun, a mother’s life can revolve around her children. The suffix “-tion” is a suffix derived from Latin that is used to form abstract nouns from verbs. Thus, revolution can literally be defined as choosing what is most important. There are many different types of revolution- political, scientific, social, ideological etc.- but a common denominator between revolutionary movements in all of these fields is a collective shift in what a group values. Revolution is a widely accepted and drastic change that alters the way a group functions, and whose impact is distinctive enough to distinguish a “before” and “after”, with the revolutionary action or idea serving as the impetus that propels the change from Point A to Point B. Revolution is determined by what people pay attention to. For this reason, revolution is largely circumstantial, as societies vary greatly both globally and throughout history. Who determines what is valuable? What occurs when a society’s values shift? Revolution.

Value and Identity are also closely tied, and a collective shift in identity can also be viewed as revolution. One of the most revolutionary aspects of identity is determining who is human, and what it means to be human. Throughout history, people have grappled with this question, but the answer of who is valued as human has immense implications on the structure and function of a society. Additionally, philosophical theories, like Locke’s State of Nature, that seek to answer this question, can have revolutionary implications, as the concepts established by these theories have inspired the structure of governments and legislative systems. 

Revolution occurred during the Enlightenment when people decided that they valued observations drawn from empirical evidence over traditional Christian explanations of natural phenomena. This replacement illustrates what Kuhn would describe as a paradigm shift, as the new scientific concepts established during the scientific revolution like the law of gravity and Copernicus’s heliocentric model, are the lens through which we view our world today. The Scientific revolution is considered revolutionary because of the profound impact these ideas had on the way the world  is perceived; once cannot view antiquated justifications with the same conviction after learning of these revolutionary new ideas. 

Revolution can also arise when one widely accepted interpretation of a text or principle is accepted over another. One example of this is how the Bible was interpreted to both defend and reject slavery and segregation in the American South. Depending on what passages people valued, they could defend their opinions. Revolution occurred when Civil Rights activists used nonviolent tactics to convince their opponents that all people have equal value, regardless of race. Although the movement was not successful in convincing everyone of this message, it was effective enough to be considered revolutionary because it resulted in legislation that furthered the equal rights of all people under the law, proving that the interpretation that promoted equality is most widely accepted in the United States. 

When a group determines that another group has lesser value than themselves, this hierarchy can also lead to a violent movement, like the Rawandan genocide, that result in unbelievable destruction and death, in effect a basckwards revolution. However, value, particularly the power of attention and gaze, can be used to prevent this violence, and can determine the success of a revolutionary movement. Photography and the media in particular play a large role in what the public cares about. Lapham’s Quarterly, a compilation of revolutionary images and texts, captures the influence of the media. These stirring images, like that of the chaos during the Romanian Revolution, capture the intensity of the moment and allow the viewer to more fully comprehend the significance of these movements.  Without the tool of photography, crises and revolutions could remain largely unrecognized by the rest of the world, and the support or outrage garnered by the public largely influences the success or completion of a movement. 

Revolution is not always positive change, nor is revolution synonymous to progress. Commonly, failed revolutionary acts are described as nefarious because of their lack of staying power, but just because a revolutionary idea has gravity does not mean it is morally aligned. Most importantly, revolution is not permanent. Values are largely determined by the rapidly changing global climate and humanity’s needs in the current moment. However, evolution is the most important aspect of revolution. Revolution is constantly adapting to fit humanity’s needs in the moment, and as the world changes, so does our definition of what is revolutionary. 

  1. Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary (10th ed.). (1999). Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Incorporated.
Pictures of reading notes from reading Lapham’s Quarterly over fall break

Lapham, Lewis. Lapham’s Quarterly, Volume VIII, Number 2 (Spring 2014). Revolutions. New York: America Agora Foundation, 2014.