What Does Western Civilization Mean?

I’m not a language expert, but I know that one basic principle of language in practice is that you cannot open a dictionary and expect that to be the true meaning of a word. To know how and why people use a word, you have to look at how those people use it. This goes doubly for politically tinged words.

“Western civilization” is such a thing, and it’s gotten some renewed attention today thanks to this speech by Donald Trump.

Steve King is only one person, but if you watch this clip in its entirety, it is very obvious that he means white people who are Christian. There is no other honest interpretation of his words.

Steve King Asks: What Have Minorities Contributed To Civilization?

But that isn’t the only possible meaning. When I wrote I want to be part of Western civilization too, I didn’t mean I want to be white and Christian. I meant that I want to be a full and welcomed participant in the institutions that characterize the United States and Europe. Yes, these are countries containing many white people, but my interpretation of Western civilization is that their goodness does not derive from their whiteness but from economic, political, and social opportunities. And those things have very little to do with being white or Christian. That white Christians have lived in countries that have allowed them to benefit from these things is their privilege, but Christ did not write the US Constitution, and even if he did, he is not white.

I see on Twitter this morning that there is an inclination among liberals to ask “what does Western civilization even mean” and nitpick about geography. This is not going to be a winning strategy in the coming elections. Rather, reclaim the mantel of Western civilization from the racists. It has components that are worth defending. My family did not come here for the weather.

wild west photoArticulate a vision for what the future of Western civilization should be that is not a monochromatic theocracy led by a Donald Trump or Steve King. Don’t feign ignorance. Don’t give up on the idea of Western civilization that can include people like me. We need you.


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Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1. ...more →

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90 thoughts on “What Does Western Civilization Mean?

    • That makes no sense. Islam is an essential part of “Western Civilization” – having basically created modern science and preserving and expanding upon Greek Philosophy in the early Middle Ages.Good lord, just look at MATH.

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      • Islam rejected Western civilization, even if some ideas refined by Muslims (and later rejected by them) got taken up by it. There were some very innovative thinkers in early Islam, such as ibn Kuldun or al-Khwarizmi, who invented al-jabr. But many of the thinkers in Islam’s golden age were not the product of Islamic culture, they were part of cultures recently conquered by Islam and were taking pre-existing ideas (Persian, etc) and spreading them via the newly imposed common language, or were reacting to ideas that spread because of newly imposed common language.

        When Islam conquered the heart of classical Western civilization (Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, the Eastern Roman Empire), it gained a huge influx of ideas that were not inherently Muslim. But being Islam, it preserved those ideas as examples of the state of knowledge prior to the revelation of the Koran, but rejected the truth of those ideas as being either contrary to the Koran, in which case they were false, or confirming the truth of the Koran, in which case they were redundant.

        .

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        • Why yes there were separate and different cultures that shared a common religion. That might be a really good insight to keep in mind. Nevertheless science advanced and was preserved when the cultures of …umm..other parts of the world didn’t have use for it. That seems to be something we should celebrate.

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        • More clearly Islam rejected enlightenment and later western civilization. I have read comments that Islamic worship resembles the worship of the eastern church in the 7th century. So a large part of the issue is western civilization at what time, pre or post the 18th century for example?

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          • Indeed. That’s because during the Gulf War and after 9/11, all the liberals said we should try to understand Muslims. So conservatives read racks of books about Muslims, Islam, Islamic history, Islamic theology, Islamic philosophy, etc. We read pretty much anything Muslims would print. I used to be an avid daily reader of Saudi and Iraqi newspapers.

            Know your enemy, and all that. So that done, we have a lot of Westerners who know a whole lot about Islam. Heck, my daily chat buddy was an airborne Arab linguist who was often deployed to the Gulf and Med. He is still pretty fluent in what he calls Sandmonkeynese.

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        • Well, I’ll just quote Slate Star Codex and leave it there.

          I am pretty sure there was, at one point, such a thing as western civilization. I think it involved things like dancing around maypoles and copying Latin manuscripts. At some point Thor might have been involved. That civilization is dead. It summoned an alien entity from beyond the void which devoured its summoner and is proceeding to eat the rest of the world.

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          • I suppose I can’t leave it there. It strikes me as doing something monumentally unsustainable that will lead to relative unfitness that will result in its being overtaken and eventual obvious obsolescence and abandonment.

            But maybe that’s what it looked like when the spark of the Greeks went through Rome, Britain, North America, etc. This is just the next stage of evolution.

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          • Well, now, that there’s a decent demarcation for a discussion.

            It summoned an alien entity from beyond the void which devoured its summoner and is proceeding to eat the rest of the world.

            Even so, I’m still not interested in talking about Steve King.

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          • Yes, exactly. That article.

            Guys, we’re not in Western Civilization. We’re in the civilization has has devoured Western civilization. Call it the Enlightenment civilization, or the science civilization, or the live-and-let-live civilization.

            We just didn’t notice because we were first and it happened comparatively slowly for us.

            Western Civilization was that whole Medieval thing. And before that, Rome, and Greece, etc.

            Western Civilization had serfs, and slaves, and feudalism. It had divine right, and royalty with power, and the church entangled in people’s business.

            And then the enlightenment infected everything.

            The US barely got founded by Western Civilization. It was sorta on the cusp of the old and the new, during the transition.

            And then Western Civilization invented industrialization, and, as the article said, ended up getting devoured by a demon that walks around wearing its skin.

            If you really squint your eyes, the Civil War was probably a war between Western Civilization in the Confederacy, and this ‘Enlightenment culture’ in the Union. That is a really simplistic view, but not entirely wrong: Farms operated by people with no rights controlled by a few rich and powerful people is perhaps the most ‘Western Civilization-ish’, aka, Medieval, thing I’ve ever heard.

            Most people basically recognize this, but mistakenly think of what is around now as Western Culture, that a culture had a war with itself. But I don’t think that’s right.

            Of course, there are a Western aspects still left. (Hell, we still have things left over from Greece.)

            But people in other cultures are not becoming ‘Westernized’. The best example of this is probably Japan, which everyone thinks is Westernized, but it turns out they just just overlaid the universal culture on top of their existing one, just like the US did.

            We can tell because the stuff that truly is still ‘Western’, the last vestigial parts, didn’t get adopted at all by the Japanese. They didn’t become, for example, culturally (But often non-practicing.) Christians. (In fact, that isn’t even consistent across places that generally are considered Western.)

            They didn’t get our hang-ups about sex, which also is again something that different ‘Western’ countries have entirely different systems about. (They instead got other, entirely different hang-ups about sex.)

            In fact, while there are vestigial parts of Western culture in America, and probably the same in other countries that used to be part of Western culture, I’m not sure any of us have the same remaining parts, if that makes sense.

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            • That’s an interesting idea, and I think there’s some truth to it, but given that the Enlightenment is a thing that happened in Western Europe and spread from there, it’s not really wrong to describe Enlightenment culture as Western culture. It would be one thing if the Enlightenment had happened first in Western Europe, and then happened again independently in North America, Australia, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Chile, Eastern Europe, etc., but that’s not what happened. Every single country that has adopted Enlightenment culture did so via direct or indirect contact with Western Europeans.

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              • Brandon,
                I don’t think you’re right about this. I think that Enlightenment culture has been derived in multiple places and times, and that in Western Europe is the only place it stuck.

                Spain, it blew away like sand. Persia, the great Islamic Empires, even China, to some extent.

                Trade is true culture’s lifeblood — where you have it, you have people who are ingenious.

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              • That’s an interesting idea, and I think there’s some truth to it, but given that the Enlightenment is a thing that happened in Western Europe and spread from there, it’s not really wrong to describe Enlightenment culture as Western culture.

                But that’s confusing, because what we, as Americans, think of as ‘Western Culture’ is not what is spreading. Only a specific part of it is spreading.

                Sometimes it’s even overpowering parts of other cultures when it didn’t do that in America. For example, as I mentioned, the Japanese, people who have been entirely Enlightenmented, but not really ‘Westernized’. Considering their ‘capsule’ hotels, where you can rent, basically, a bunk bed with a door.

                Those…are not from America, or any ‘Western’ place.

                But they are not from Japan, either. They aren’t some weird aspect of Japanese culture that just showed up. They are what happens when Enlightenment culture doesn’t face some sort of native-cultural resistance to being crammed together, like we have in America. It says ‘Hey, you know, we build really really efficient hotel rooms if they were just beds, and charge really low prices for them.’

                Americans resist that part of Enlightenment culture due to remnants of Western Culture. Places that still have some part of western culture wants their own bathroom and a place to easily change clothes in private, at minimum.

                And trying to call what we have now as ‘Western culture’ also ignores the fact that, to at least some extent, ‘Western Culture’ vs. ‘Enlightenment Culture’ is the basis for the culture war in America.

                Oh, both of them have added signifiers and all sorts of things to that, but, at the end, when people talk about ‘traditional values’, what they really mean are pre-enlightenment or at least pre-industry western ones. (And have failed to notice what they are harkening back to was just a facade on an already infected culture, and they’re not even remembering the facade correctly.)

                And it’s complicated by the fact that neither side purely wants one or the other, and, being ‘cultures’, they are somewhat vague around the edges anyway, plus they’ve been cohabiting America from the start so are rather overlaid.

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  1. For me, Western Civilization means the ideas that trace their way back to the Greek philosophers during the Athenian Golden Age.

    from here, we see the development of different and competing ideas about the definition of moral goodness, the understanding of man’s relationship to the universe, and the best way for humans living together to govern themselves. There is an enduring tension between the notion that elites with access to the best education know best, and the notion that there is wisdom and legitimacy to be had in accepting common, popular ideas. In both cases, it is humans who come up with the definition of the good, and humans who decide how they govern themselves.

    The gods are relegated to the background, or openly questioned with vague Notions of monotheism bubbling about even in the writings of Plato and Aristotle, or even more shockingly for the late Bronze Age, their existence questioned outright and openly. the formal charge against Socrates, after all, was atheism.

    Democracy is one of many competing models of government in western civilization. Inherent in the notion of Western Civilization is a struggle to decide when to use democracy and when to use other ways of creating rules. The presence of a dominant religion appears to be a constant thread, whether that be the worship of the old gods or the worship of the Christian God. However, it is also a constant element in western civilization that the dominant religion is subject to question and dissent. As the shift from paganism to Christianity demonstrates, Christianity is not inherently the dominant religion of Western Civilization, but there does appear to be a need for one religion to be dominant.

    individual actors are celebrated. These may be clerics, politicians, Warriors, scientists, or poets. Western Civilization is very much about the achievements of individual people. Therefore, of necessity, individuals must to a large extent be free to behave as they see fit, and in some instances they may disobey the prevailing cultural, political, or religious regimes. And just as there are individual Heroes, there are also individual villains. In order to Rally westerners against something, it appears to be necessary to personify the enemy and distill the traits to be condemned into a single person. The Greeks did this with Xerxes, the Romans did this with Cleopatra, and the tradition continues into the 21st century as we villainize, say, Kim Jong Un or Whatshisname al-Baghdadi.

    So I see Western civilization as one in which a dominant regime seeks voluntary acceptance from meaningfully free individuals within its power, and tolerates a meaningful degree of dissent from within that corpus of free individuals as a necessary price to achieve that buy in. Its form of government is never wholly democratic nor ever wholly autocratic, nor is there often universal agreement on much of anything. From within its internal conflicts and competitions come its greatest achievements. Big point is, it’s all about the individual within society. Not what the individual contributea to it.

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      • Well, I like liberalism too. And there’s some humanism mixed in there too.

        I’m not suggesting the notion of inhe rent natural rights, though. Nor the concept of “consent of the governed,” Although “buy in” may seem a bit like that.”Buy in” might also be, “I don’t like him but he is the king.”

        Nor do I suggest that western civilization is necessarily secular. Medieval Europe was certaonly not so — but theological differences persisted from before Constantine to well after the Thirty Years’ War. (There was no secular side to the Thirty Years War, though partisans frequently if incorrectly accused one another of atheism).

        But I do think the spirit of individuality is distinctly western. The cultural emphasis on what an individual might do rather than on what one’s caste obligates one to contribute is a big reason liberalism grew with such fecundity in the west.

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  2. Regarding the clip, I would have to go back and watch it again to be sure, and I certainly don’t want to do that, but it seemed like he started with talking about “civilization” and then the discussion quickly moved to “Western civilization.”

    As for defining what it is, as a matter of pure taxonomy I generally go with Arnold Toynbee. Simplifying things a big, Western civilization is the culture of Western Christianity, i.e. Rome and the churches that split from Rome. This isn’t a religious distinction. Whether or not one professes Christianity today is largely irrelevant. It is a cultural distinction. Continuing on with Toynbee, Eastern Christianity is a distinct culture, closely related to Western culture. Both are the direct descendants of the Classical Greco-Roman civilization.

    Once we hit the Renaissance things start getting muddled. There had always been interaction between civilizations where they met, but with advances in nautical technology people could really mix it up. The result is you get people like, say, Frederick Douglass. It would be just plain silly to not count him as a member of Western civilization. Yes, there are other elements, but that is true of Western civilization generally. Once the muddling began, influences went both ways.

    Steve King’s implied exclusion of Hispanics from Western civilization is mere bigotry.

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  3. To me, Western Civilization is the path to representative democracy, open inquiry and unlimited free speech. It is also the conflict of freedom of movement vs. freedom from trespass, including the never ending discussion of which of the two is right, at that moment. A willingness to see that other opinions are equally valid, for they are just opinions.

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  4. Rather, reclaim the mantel of Western civilization from the racists. It has components that are worth defending. My family did not come here for the weather.

    I loved this.

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  5. The term Western Civilization is mostly a Rorschach test for what the individual feels is important. There are to many things that could be thought of as part of WC that are also contradicted by plenty of very western people. Individualism is often cited as part of WC, and something i’m fond of, but lots of WC loving types have pushed back against it. I’d love to say the Steve King racists are WC but they have been part of it forever and are some of it’s loudest proponents. It’s not like they are new.

    If WC is anything maybe it’s just that it can be whatever you want it to be. That is very modern American for sure. We can define it for ourselves, be the American or Western that we wish taking what we want from our various heritages. Of course that enrages the Steve King types who want to tell us exactly what we should think our civilization is. And those types have always been part of WC.

    I don’t’ know whether its part of a couple thousand year old civilizational history, but one the aspects of the America that i love is that people of all types can come here to make their own life as they see fit. We aren’t defined by a particular ethnicity but by living here and trying to make a good life for ourselves.

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  6. I find this issue perplexing.

    Like you and others here, I love many aspects of Western Civilization. Western civilization is the broad thing to me and I don’t see how it doesn’t start with the Sumerians on the Tigris and the Euphrates. But it includes everything from Ancient Greece and Rome to the Renaissance to Modernism to Jazz to Rock n’ROll and the Blues, the Beats, etc. I see it as anything that originated in the West. It is a geographic determination for me. So A David Henry Hwang play about the Asian-American experience is Western Civilization.

    Yet too many on the right-wing use it to mean White Christianity (and often enough Protestant White Christianity with some acknowledgment of the Classics) and too many on the left are willing to go along with it because they want to denounce Imperialism, Colonialism, etc. These are good things to denounce but I am against the kind of knee-jerk thing that rejects what your opponents claim just so.

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  7. I think the clearest distillation I’ve ever seen of what I think “Western” civilization is comes from Scott Alexander:

    I am pretty sure there was, at one point, such a thing as western civilization. I think it involved things like dancing around maypoles and copying Latin manuscripts. At some point Thor might have been involved. That civilization is dead. It summoned an alien entity from beyond the void which devoured its summoner and is proceeding to eat the rest of the world.

    An analogy: naturopaths like to use the term “western medicine” to refer to the evidence-based medicine of drugs and surgeries you would get at your local hospital. They contrast this with traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine, which it has somewhat replaced, apparently a symptom of the “westernization” of Chinese and Indian societies.

    But “western medicine” is just medicine that works. It happens to be western because the West had a technological head start, and so discovered most of the medicine that works first. But there’s nothing culturally western about it; there’s nothing Christian or Greco-Roman about using penicillin to deal with a bacterial infection. Indeed, “western medicine” replaced the traditional medicine of Europe – Hippocrates’ four humors – before it started threatening the traditional medicines of China or India. So-called “western medicine” is an inhuman perfect construct from beyond the void, summoned by Westerners, which ate traditional Western medicine first and is now proceeding to eat the rest of the world.

    “Western culture” is no more related to the geographical west than western medicine. People who complain about western culture taking over their country always manage to bring up Coca-Cola. But in what sense is Coca-Cola culturally western? It’s an Ethiopian bean mixed with a Colombian leaf mixed with carbonated water and lots and lots of sugar. An American was the first person to discover that this combination tasted really good – our technological/economic head start ensured that. But in a world where America never existed, eventually some Japanese or Arabian chemist would have found that sugar-filled fizzy drinks were really tasty. It was a discovery waiting to be plucked out of the void, like penicillin. America summoned it but did not create it. If western medicine is just medicine that works, soda pop is just refreshment that works.

    EDIT: Dammit, I see Jaybird has already beaten me to this upthread. C’est la vie, I suppose.

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  8. They don’t literally mean that they don’t know what “western civilization” means. They just want everyone to know that they’re really good people.

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  9. I’m fine with calling for a defense of modernity and a defense of, for lack of a better term (natch), ‘neo-liberalism’* over a defense of ‘western civilization’ per se. I do want to include at the least Japan & ROK in whatever ‘good’ category we want to put countries in. (And there’s many more countries that are real close to good, just missing some elements of good governance and/or a little more time for economic development)

    The only thing I object to about this topic was a statement from people on twitter that hang out around here and whom I respect. That statement put Russia outside of Western Civilization. Which is simply wrong, not because they are ‘white’, but because Peter Catherine, Lenin, and Stalin took every contemporary trend of Western Civilization in their day and amped it up to eleven.

    *maybe ‘classical liberalism with modern characteristics’

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  10. When I talk about western civilization for comparative examples, I am referring to wealthy democracies. I cut it off at nations that have a purchasing power at parity (PPP) of $28,500 and a democracy index (DI) of 7.5. I find this eminently fair and great for measuring comparative success.

    Country PPP DI
    Australia $48,800 9.01
    Austria $47,900 8.41
    Belgium $44,900 7.77
    Canada $46,200 9.15
    Cyprus $34,400 7.65
    Czech Republic $33,200 7.82
    Denmark $46,600 9.2
    Estonia $29,500 7.85
    Finland $40,600 9.03
    France $42,400 7.92
    Germany $48,200 8.63
    Iceland $48,100 9.5
    Ireland $69,400 9.15
    Israel $34,800 7.85
    Italy $36,300 7.98
    Japan $38,900 7.99
    Luxembourg $102,000 8.81
    Malta $37,900 8.39
    Netherlands $50,800 8.8
    New Zealand $37,100 9.26
    Norway $69,300 9.93
    Portugal $28,500 7.86
    Slovenia $33,100 7.51
    South Korea $37,900 7.92
    Spain $36,500 8.3
    Sweden $49,700 9.39
    Switzerland $59,400 9.09
    Taiwan $49,500 7.79
    United Kingdom $42,500 8.36
    United States $57,300 7.98

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    • That’s all fine and good, but it has absolutely no metrics in the two freedoms problem, or access to preferences in individual means of production, or quantum of rent seeking going on in an economy.

      That said, feel free to ignore those things.

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    • This seems to capture two of the three legs of liberal institutions — relatively open access government (aka democracy), and relatively open access markets (aka free markets). The third leg is of course science, but science is the easiest one to import and export (you can buy technology) without necessarily having the institutional structure or culture to support or create it.

      An interesting diversion on this topic is to look at the actual country of origin of the major technological, institutional and scientific advances which make up the Great Enrichment of the past two centuries. Encyclopedia Britannica and other online sources list out the major technological and institutional breakthroughs of all time along with their nation of origin and it is freakishly imbalanced. Just about every major invention for two hundred years has come out of a handful of nations in Western Europe and the US. Even more interesting is when you look at the output over quarter century intervals, with the U.K. And the US having outrageously disproportionate shares of world changing inventions during certain eras.

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      • Thanks for that note Swami. I agree that what defines western civilization broadly, appears to be Freedom, Capitalism and Innovation. I’ll be hitting up that website.

        To Joe Sal; this is my back of the napkin method of comparing apples to apples, so it isn’t meant to be too complicated.

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