February 17, 2019

Does Western Civilization Exist?

“Is Western Civilization even a thing? That may seem like an odd question, but it’s one that anyone who talks about Western Civilization these days will eventually have to face because a lot of intellectuals claim that it isn’t. “The West,” to them, is nothing more than a mirage, or (to put it in classical terms) a chimera. As anarchist activist and anthropologist David Graeber puts it, “There never was a West.” Cultural theorist Kwame Anthony Appiah is equally forthright, declaring in a Guardian essay that “There is no such thing as Western Civilization.”

One problem for such thinkers is that the West has no clear boundaries. Is Russia part of the West, and, if so, how much of it? Is Turkey? What about modern Japan—or, for that matter, ancient Persia? Even historians who find the idea of the West useful seem to have trouble pinning it down. Ian Morris, for example, in his bestseller Why the West Rules…For Now, talks about a “Western core” that starts in Mesopotamia, but then moves on to Greece, Rome, and Western Europe, before leapfrogging across the Atlantic and landing in America.

Another problem is that whatever boundary we do draw around the West quickly turns out to be porous. The West was never completely cut out from the outside world, economically or culturally. Europe was rarely completely disconnected from trade networks that stretched southward over the Sahara or eastwards along the Silk Road. Even in the Middle Ages, the Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas engaged with the arguments of Muslim thinkers like Averroes.

A final issue that is said to affect the idea of Western Civilization is that it puts a single, simple label on something that’s enormously complicated and full of variation. As Appiah puts it, the concept of Western Civilization would have us believe that “the Eurovision song contest, the cutouts of Matisse, the dialogues of Plato are all parts of a larger whole.” But is there really a single phenomenon that Aristotle and Eminem, McDonald’s and second-wave feminism, Darwinism and rococo, are all part of?”

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