What is this "Western culture" you speak of?

By Razib Khan | December 11, 2010 7:25 pm

This is my comment of the month:

Pontifications about “Western culture” bother me. The people who use the term seem to assume that “we” are part of “Western culture” and know what it is. No explanation is necessary. But if you stop and think about it, in what sense are a Hungarian peasant farmer and a Morgan Stanley executive part of the same “culture”? How far does this culture extend? In space? In time?

When someone like Marshall Sahlins (famous cultural anthropologist) talks about Western culture, he quotes figures like Hobbes and Kant … as if Western “culture” were epitomized by philosophy and not by such pragmatic matters as kinship, economics, religion, cuisine. Probably because if you started talking about specifics, any semblance of uniformity would collapse.

I’ve also noticed that the post-modern school of anthropology is remarkably culture-bound, even in this limited philosophical sense. There are thinkers one must have read and are allowed to quote (Marx, Foucault, Derrida, Bourdieu) — who all happen to be European white males. It reminds me of Christians debating (volleys of scripture texts from each side), Muslims disputing (Quranic verses and hadith), and Chinese scholars quoting Confucius or famous poets.

No one is citing Ibn Khaldun.

The attitude that the commenter is pointing to is one reason I’ve been beating the drum about taking the end of the age of white supremacy seriously. Sloppy default positions predicated on a Western/non-Western model will be as useful as the heuristics of the Confucian bureaucrat in the wake of defeat by the British during the Opium Wars within the generation. A post-colonial mindset takes the Western/non-Western dichotomy for granted as the primary axis around which all power relations are organized. But in a world where whites are declining in relative power this is no longer so useful.

I would grant that there is something one can term “Western” culture. Or at least one can make an argument about what it is, and what unifies it. But, I think the commenter is spot on in pointing to the reality that the enthusiastic promoters of deconstruction, problematization, and “thick description,” take Western culture for granted as a useful and self-evident category or term. The standard rules don’t apply when it comes to what is invariably their culture. Which of course makes them very similar to Orientalists of old, if I may say so.

  • Roger Bigod

    In the mid-20th Cent. elite American colleges had an introductory course called “Western Civilization” or some such. The story went: Greeks -> Renaissance -> Enlightenment -> us in all our splendor. Christianity had to be shoehorned in, and there was a chapter of filler on the Middle Ages. And the Islamic guys were kind enough to preserve Greek manuscripts. But the general theme was that distinctive features of European culture derive from a few canonical sources.

    In my omnivorous teen reading I came across an old copy of a text for such a course, by a guy at Harvard named Brinton, iirc. I had no idea that it was a text for a college course, and just plowed through it. I didn’t realize what an impression it left until I read Diamond’s book on the reasons for the success of Europe in the last few centuries. I thought the stuff about diversity of species to domesticate was going to be preliminaries before he turned to the Greeks and the superiority of rationalism. But nooooooo.

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  • rick

    A lot of what we take for granted as “Western” isn’t all that Western anyway.

    I’d recommend reading this http://www.countercurrents.org/eco-sen041003.htm by Amartya Sen for one example.

    In this he tackles whether the imposition of democracy (particularly by the US in the mideast) is forcing some kind of Western practice onto an Occidental group that is completely unacquainted with it.

    Instead, he finds that while it may be the case that in recent history, large-scale democracy has been practiced predominantly by Western nations, both the appropriation of Grecian achievements as Western and the failure to account for the fact that many non-western groups have long traditions of public discourse and toleration of ideas add up to a shaky foundation for the argument that democracy is inherently western.

    A quote:

    “The apparent Western modesty that takes the form of a humble reluctance to promote ‘Western ideas of democracy’ in the non-Western world includes an imperious appropriate of a global heritage (the heritage of tolerance and public discussion) as exclusively the West’s own”

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    The old progression taught in classrooms is the subject of David Gress’ “From Plato to NATO: The Idea of the West and its Enemies”. I’m not a big fan of the book since it is too invested in the culture wars, Berman’s “Law and Revolution” does a better job with some similar issues.

    Tolerance & public discussion are not the same thing as democracy. Socrates was purged, and some democratic theorists (Willmoore Kendall being one of the top of my head) have said that result was correct and unavoidable for the athenian system. If Sen wants to argue for the importance of unrestricted public discussion rather than merely free and open elections, he should give examples of one without the other so we can better establish causality. Since China has neither, it can’t inform us about the matter. There is a brief mention of Singapore (which allegedly has open elections one party always dominates, combined with restrictions on free speech) but not much is said about it. Sen’s own thinking strikes me as basically western (Razib has already discussed Sen’s hostility to identifying Bangladeshis with Islam) and like that of proponents of deliberative democracy. I know Patrick Deneen has also argued against equating democracy with open elections from the paleo right, but I have only gleaned what he thinks democracy isn’t rather than what it is.

  • http://www.charlesfrith.com Charles Frith

    A very good point. I shall be aware how I use this term in future.

  • gregorylent

    the concept of individual self-fulfillment is underlying what is called “western culture”. it is global, has nothing to do with color or culture. it is taking place because of the evolution of consciousness.

  • http://sacrilicio.us Matunos

    While I’m somewhat sympathetic to the quoted comment, the commenter somewhat contradicts himself. If Western culture is an illusion of uniformity (as is, really, any large social order, philosophy, religion, ideology, or concept of culture which extends beyond a single person), then what is wrong with there being a standard set of thinkers from which the student of said culture should be familiar?

    If all the thinkers of Western culture are defined as European white males (which is a terrible generalization, of course, but for the sake of argument, let’s accept that), then there is your definition of Western culture, or at least the academic portion of it. The questions left are (a) is that an accurate portrayal of Western culture in academia (answer: no); (b) how well does any such portrayal represent the constituencies of the West?

  • Epikur

    The term “western culture” ignores how mixed our cultural roots are. Just one example: Starting at about 711 oriental influences were strong in Europe for centuries. In the current area of Spain we found what is called Al-Andaluse. A culture which was much richer than the one in other European areas at that time with libraries almost 400 times as big as the biggest “western” ones.

    We still use today words like “algebra” or “algorithm” which were coming from arabic areas, our western medicine is based on the work of Avicenna. Without people like Al-Khwarismi or Al-Razi science would not be what it is today etc.. Given the current anti-arabism it is sometimes forgotten that this culture has seen better times and that western culture is partly build on it, not only on greek or roman influences.

    But there are more non-western roots of western-culture to be found, e.g. we used indian-arabic numbers, not the greek or roman ones. We measure time in 60 Minutes and 60 seconds and angles in 6×60=360 degrees: This is the sexagesimal of Babylon (in current Irak) which goes back to the Sumerians 3000 BC.

    Greetings from Germany, where I see windmills to produce electricity from my window. Vertical axis windmills have been invented in Persia, once a center of science, now (Afghanistan) the end of the world in almost all economic and cultural indicators.

  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    “Western culture” is a concept, and as such something that the observer fills in to suit. I’m not sure why I would care either way.

    Same goes for the problem of future prediction, the problem there being that we are talking to the future but it isn’t talking to us. Unlikely pathways may be taken, likely pathways may hog the stochastic mass of potential outcomes, and what of it?

    For example, if “western culture” is democracy and free markets, it can (have been) successful despite being non-dominant. Well, duh, that is the definition of establishment and success in the first place. I guess the point is that this is context dependent, and here “white” # “western” in all contexts.

    [That said, I bookmarked the article link for later perusal. Maybe I cared a little anyway. (O.o)]

  • ChH

    I always thought “Western Culture” meant culture heavily influenced by the Greeks, Romans, and Christianity. It’s just a quick label that doesn’t imply uniformity, or that other cultures are somehow inferior, irrational, un-enlightened, haven’t ever had a renaissance, or lack democracy or whatever.

  • DK

    Fuzzy sets. Why should they be bothersome to anyone?

  • Antonio

    Is the US mass culture Western? If so, what would be its roots?

  • Antonio

    “the concept of individual self-fulfillment is underlying what is called “western culture”” . Really? Since I studied this many years ago, I can be wrong now, by my impression is that a worldview that prioritize individual over communities ( and more recently nation-states) is something that happen in the “west” mostly during and after the Enlightenment. If so, it means that most of the western history doesn’t fit your description.

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  • http://drvitelli.typepad.com Romeo Vitelli

    I’m surprised nobody mentioned Mahatma Gandhi yet. According to one story, when Gandhi was asked what he thought of Western civilization, he answered that it would be a good idea.

  • Andrew Lancaster

    I think the cleanest description of Western civilization I know sees it as the civilization influenced by “Jerusalem and Athens” – i.e. influenced by two great types of written literature which are to some extent in conflict with each other and cover the big questions. The problem many people seem to have with this definition is that (a) it means Islamic civilization is in the core of Western civilization and (b) it means most of the world is now western to some extent.

    But I don’t see these points as logically problematic. It just means that Western Civilization is no longer a very good term for drawing contrasts between modern civilizations. We need to refer to more recent branchings of development in order to do that.

    I personally see the split between Rousseau’s approach and Hume’s approach to human nature as being a big factor in what makes people see the big questions of civilization different today. Rousseau emphasized (before Darwin) that early humans must have been irrational and developed reason. From this he argued (wrongly in my opinion) that human nature is malleable and from this in turn we get all kinds of radical projects such as Fascism and Communism and the idea that art is an alternative to reason and so on.

    In Britain and to some extent France and America there was always a hard core of philosophers ready to argue against this very attractive simplification of reality. In Germany, Rousseau’s ideas took off and caused enormous angst, and of course it is from this that we get the big theories leading to communism, fascism, etc. Unfortunately this branch of Western philosophy affected politics all around the world more than the other type.

    Notice how a better understanding of Darwin would show Rousseau wrong.

    Best Regards

  • Andrew Lancaster

    Concerning Ibn Khaldun, it is indeed a shame he is not better known. However it is not exactly true that no one is citing him. He was named as a major source for Toynbee for example. More editions in English would help though.

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  • http://washparkprophet.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    One of the virtues of the concept of “Western Culture” is that it recognizes that many findings that seem to hold true in that context are not necessarily universal.

  • RK

    Posts like Epicur’s above actually emphasize to me how limited Arab and Islamic influence on Western culture has been. If the most we can point to is stuff like “nadir, Aldebaran, and alchemy came from Arabic!” and a few other (mostly technological) borrowings, it’s immediately obvious how much these influences are dwarfed by (say) our Hellenistic inheritance, whether lexicographical, philosophical, or literary.

    That said, I think it’s worth considering Zora’s question above: “But if you stop and think about it, in what sense are a Hungarian peasant farmer and a Morgan Stanley executive part of the same ‘culture’?” (Taking “peasant” to mean “small-scale farmer,” since I think actual peasant agriculture is about as nonexistent in Hungary as it is in the U.S.) Is it that they’re both likely to have heard of Bela Bartok? That they’ve probably seen more rood screens than mehrabs or dhvaja-stambhas? The fact that their answers to trolley problems are more likely to be similar than those of non-Westerners? Or even if they don’t have a lot in common, could it be that their respective countries’ intellectual elites do? I’m sure there’s lots I haven’t thought of.

  • Roger Bigod

    “But if you stop and think about it, in what sense are a Hungarian peasant farmer and a Morgan Stanley executive part of the same ‘culture’?”

    Phonetic scripts that read left-to-right.

  • RK

    Phonetic scripts that read left-to-right.

    Strictly, the scripts aren’t phonetic, or even phonemic. And that doesn’t distinguish them from Koreans, most Indians, Vietnamese, Xhosa, etc.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    most people are not capable of making a laundry list of single items which are cleanly differentiated. they don’t know enough about most societies (like roger above; usually the tendency is to feel that some trait of a society you are familiar with is unique to that society, when it isn’t). i know more about most societies than most of you (i’d be willing to bet that my knowledge on these issues summed over all societies is greater than almost all of my commenters), and i’m loath to attempt it for want of making a fool of myself ;-) what you need to do is just create a table with a whole host of “traits,” check “yes” or “no” in each cell, and then look at the correlation structure. see if there are “natural breaks” in PCA or something. this is where cultural anthropological quant-phobia might be problematic. purely qual methods might be exceedingly easy to deconstruct.

    that being said, from the top-down we know intuitively that there are natural breaks. we know that europeans differ genetically from asians, even if there are intermediate groups like uyghurs, yakuts, and kazakhs. similarly, we know that western europeans who are catholic & protestant differ culturally from orthodox christians.

  • http://ironrailsironweights.wordpress.com/ Peter

    “Western” might just be a polite way of saying “white.”

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    “Western” might just be a polite way of saying “white.”

    yes. my person exp. as a self-identified colored westerners is that racialists explicitly reject my western bonafides, while some anti-racialists who are white do so, but implicitly. i think the common variable is whiteness as a necessary precondition for being white.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    oh, and of course this is an area where americans of all stripes are far more liberal in the literal sense in my exp. than europeans, in both comments on my blogs, and in person. many euros simply can’t grok that a colored person could be western, though this varies by european nation no doubt. americans are more comfortable with the concept. (many colored people resemble europeans here btw)

  • RK

    Well, the obvious problem is that we’re not likely to get good data on most of the relevant traits anytime soon. (Even the trolley problems, John Mikhail and his ilk aside.) In the meantime, it’s fun to speculate in blog comments.

    “Western” might just be a polite way of saying “white.”

    What about Russians and other historically Orthodox whites, then? It’s not like Huntington was the first to consider them non-Western.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan
  • RK

    Yeah, we have visualizations like Inglehart-Welzel and Shalom Schwartz’s stuff based on values survey data. But I’m more interested in traits that aren’t as expressive or based in self-identity. Things like how close someone can get to you before you feel uncomfortable, how many songs you know based on a symmetric pentatonic scale, or the stuff I was talking about earlier. Do those data exist already? If so, I haven’t heard of them.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    not assembled systematically. perhaps gnxp readers could ‘crowd source’ the data from disparate papers and some point, and i could generate the pca….

  • http://tibettalk.wordpress.com Otto Kerner

    I think of “the West” as being not so much “Athens and Jerusalem” as “Rome and the Germans”, with the caveat that we get an enormous amount of Greek culture and some amount of Levantine culture via the Romans. Under this model, we would expect the most definitive “Western” countries to be England and France, which I think about fits the way people use the term. Spain has somewhat less German influence and Germany has somewhat less Roman influence, but they are still close to the archetype of “the West”.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    my sympathies lay with otto’s interpretation. more geographically, the triangle between london, milan, and cologne, is the western core/prototype. novgorod, moscow, and constantinople/instanbul, would be a eastern european core.

  • Roger Bigod

    My flippant comment was intended to be shorthand for the extensive argument in a book by a British shrink (McGilchrist?) about how changes in culture are related to hemispheric dominance. He uses the left-to-right reading of Classical Greek as an index of some kind of mass neurological change toward left-hemisphere control, associated with changes in culture. (A controlled experiment is impossible, of course.) His general argument is that left-hemisphere dominance has gone too far and needs to be tempered by some context-dependence.

    Contemporary Vietnamese is written with Roman letters and read left-to-right. But my understanding is that this was a French imposition. Before that, they had pictographic writing like Chinese. Could some of the other exceptions like Xhosa be colonial impositions?

    This discussion tends to confuse two different realms of discourse. One is culture as an matter of academic distinctions, which is ideally value- and politics-free. The other is “Western Civ” as taught in some survey courses, which has been used to bolster feelings of superiority and in the political area, colonialism. No doubt there are people in Mississippi who see the words “Western Civilization” and think “White-man’s Civilization”.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    tx for elaborating roger.

  • Roger Bigod

    This discussion is woefully inadequate without a mention of the work of Oswald Spengler.

    I believe I had the ideal introduction to Spengler. I found the two dusty volumes of his Decline of the West in the stacks of a library and started reading without any idea of who the author was or the circumstances of publication. Among the things I learned were that there was a huge amount of history and culture I’d never heard of, that things I thought were pinnacles of achievement (Dante, Bach, Riemann) were foothills, at least in one view.

    The interested reader snould plunge in here.

    In passing, he doesn’t consider Classical Greece or early Christianity as part of Western Civilization. They each merit a separate column in the schema. He would agree with Razib’s geographic limit to Western Europe and put the begining around 900 CE.

  • Andrew Lancaster

    Otto: “I think of “the West” as being not so much “Athens and Jerusalem” as “Rome and the Germans”.”

    Yes, you are right. Normally people use that smaller version of “Western”.

    This is basically developed from the old split of the Roman empire into two, with the western part becoming the “Frankish” catholic part, and Greek and Aramaic speaking “Byzantine” part. The eastern part of the “greater west” I pointed to would then be the core lands of old Islam and orthodox Christianity.

    I think you can split things up various ways, and did not mean to imply otherwise. My main point was about a definition I think is particularly clear.

    The biggest problem with “Western Europe” West is that it sort of leaves the Orthodox and Middle Eastern and North African areas being DEFINED as almost something rather than on their own terms.

    Obviously these areas are not just “almost western” but siblings, so to speak. In any case any such categorizing is going to be messy and getting messier with all the cultural links which have come into existence in recent times.

    Best Regards

  • Zora

    Having started the question, I should perhaps add that I find the whole idea of a bounded “culture” indefensible. It’s a phantom of nationalism.

    The “grid of traits” approach to classifying human groups was tried with regard to Californian Indian “tribes,” who were evading easy classification. Early 20th century anthropologists then busied themselves with trying to find some unitary “culture” that would underlie the seeming random collections of traits.

    Myself, I think “semi-random collection of traits, most of which can be explained as a residue of history,” works very well to describe groups. Whether or not some people feel that they belong to the group, will sacrifice for the group, and can act in a coordinated way, is a separate question. (Ibn Khaldun’s asabiyyah?)

  • Luke Lea

    I agree with ChH, who says, “I always thought “Western Culture” meant culture heavily influenced by the Greeks, Romans, and Christianity. It’s just a quick label that doesn’t imply uniformity, or that other cultures are somehow inferior, irrational, un-enlightened, haven’t ever had a renaissance, or lack democracy or whatever.”

    Although centered in Europe historically, a lot of it started in Southwest Asia. Since then there has been a lot of influence (flowing both ways) between Europe and all parts of Asia and, to a lesser extent, Africa and the New World. It is a global phenomenon.

  • Luke Lea

    I agree with ChH, who says, “I always thought “Western Culture” meant culture heavily influenced by the Greeks, Romans, and Christianity. It’s just a quick label that doesn’t imply uniformity, or that other cultures are somehow inferior, irrational, un-enlightened, haven’t ever had a renaissance, or lack democracy or whatever.”

    Although centered in Europe historically, a lot of it started in Southwest Asia. Since then there has been a lot of influence (flowing both ways) between Europe and all parts of Asia and, to a lesser extent, Africa and the New World. It is a global phenomenon.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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