There is no such thing as ‘western civilization’

Worth reading article by Kwame Anthony Appiah questioning the notion that the values of liberty, tolerance and rational inquiry are the birthright of a single culture. In fact, the very notion of something called ‘western culture’ is a modern invention.

Like many Englishmen who suffered from tuberculosis in the 19th century, Sir Edward Burnett Tylor went abroad on medical advice, seeking the drier air of warmer regions. Tylor came from a prosperous Quaker business family, so he had the resources for a long trip. In 1855, in his early 20s, he left for the New World, and, after befriending a Quaker archeologist he met on his travels, he ended up riding on horseback through the Mexican countryside, visiting Aztec ruins and dusty pueblos. Tylor was impressed by what he called “the evidence of an immense ancient population”. And his Mexican sojourn fired in him an enthusiasm for the study of faraway societies, ancient and modern, that lasted for the rest of his life. In 1871, he published his masterwork, Primitive Culture, which can lay claim to being the first work of modern anthropology.

Primitive Culture was, in some respects, a quarrel with another book that had “culture” in the title: Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, a collection that had appeared just two years earlier. For Arnold, culture was the “pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world”. Arnold wasn’t interested in anything as narrow as class-bound connoisseurship: he had in mind a moral and aesthetic ideal, which found expression in art and literature and music and philosophy.

But Tylor thought that the word could mean something quite different, and in part for institutional reasons, he was able to see that it did. For Tylor was eventually appointed to direct the University Museum at Oxford, and then, in 1896, he was appointed to the first chair of anthropology there. It is to Tylor more than anyone else that we owe the idea that anthropology is the study of something called “culture”, which he defined as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, arts, morals, law, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society”. Civilisation, as Arnold understood it, was merely one of culture’s many modes.

Nowadays, when people speak about culture, it is usually either Tylor’s or Arnold’s notion that they have in mind. The two concepts of culture are, in some respects, antagonistic. Arnold’s ideal was “the man of culture” and he would have considered “primitive culture” an oxymoron. Tylor thought it absurd to propose that a person could lack culture. Yet these contrasting notions of culture are locked together in our concept of western culture, which many people think defines the identity of modern western people. So let me try to untangle some of our confusions about the culture, both Tylorian and Arnoldian, of what we have come to call the west.

Someone asked Mahatma Gandhi what he thought of western civilisation, and he replied: “I think it would be a very good idea.” Like many of the best stories, alas, this one is probably apocryphal; but also like many of the best stories, it has survived because it has the flavour of truth. But my own response would have been very different: I think you should give up the very idea of western civilisation. It is at best the source of a great deal of confusion, at worst an obstacle to facing some of the great political challenges of our time. I hesitate to disagree with even the Gandhi of legend, but I believe western civilisation is not at all a good idea, and western culture is no improvement.

One reason for the confusions “western culture” spawns comes from confusions about the west. We have used the expression “the west” to do very different jobs. Rudyard Kipling, England’s poet of empire, wrote, “Oh, east is east and west is west, and never the twain shall meet”, contrasting Europe and Asia, but ignoring everywhere else. During the cold war, “the west” was one side of the iron curtain; “the east” its opposite and enemy. This usage, too, effectively disregarded most of the world. Often, in recent years, “the west” means the north Atlantic: Europe and her former colonies in North America. The opposite here is a non-western world in Africa, Asia and Latin America – now dubbed “the global south” – though many people in Latin America will claim a western inheritance, too. This way of talking notices the whole world, but lumps a whole lot of extremely different societies together, while delicately carving around Australians and New Zealanders and white South Africans, so that “western” here can look simply like a euphemism for white.

Of course, we often also talk today of the western world to contrast it not with the south but with the Muslim world. And Muslim thinkers sometimes speak in a parallel way, distinguishing between Dar al-Islam, the home of Islam, and Dar al-Kufr, the home of unbelief. I would like to explore this opposition further. Because European and American debates today about whether western culture is fundamentally Christian inherit a genealogy in which Christendom is replaced by Europe and then by the idea of the west.

This civilisational identity has roots going back nearly 1,300 years, then. But to tell the full story, we need to begin even earlier.


For the Greek historian Herodotus, writing in the fifth century BC, the world was divided into three parts. To the east was Asia, to the south was a continent he called Libya, and the rest was Europe. He knew that people and goods and ideas could travel easily between the continents: he himself travelled up the Nile as far as Aswan, and on both sides of the Hellespont, the traditional boundary between Europe and Asia. Herodotus admitted to being puzzled, in fact, as to “why the earth, which is one, has three names, all women’s”. Still, despite his puzzlement, these continents were for the Greeks and their Roman heirs the largest significant geographical divisions of the world.

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posted by f.sheikh

2 thoughts on “There is no such thing as ‘western civilization’

  1. When Gandhi was asked about Western Civilization, he said ,”It would be a good idea,”.

  2. First of all we have to figure out what is a civilization. Generally, a civilization is an area of cultural space in which a vast collection of cultural characteristics, phenomena, and creativity makes up the work of a particular people. For the sociopolitical scientists, it is a kind of moral milieu encompassing a certain number of nations, each national culture being only a particular form of the whole that appears as a civilization after getting organized through the passage of time. Samuel Huntington, in his work The Clash of Civilization, argues, “we identify a civilization as a highest cultural grouping of people defined both by common objective elements, such as language, history, religion, custom, and institutions; and by subjective self-identification of people.” Overall, rather than “independent speculation” culture is the common theme in virtually every definition of civilization, but to a very large degree, the major civilizations in human history have been closely identified with the world’s great religions.

    Modern concept of civilization founded on “independent speculation” was developed for the first time in Europe in eighteenth century by the French thinkers to provide a standard representing the opposite of barbarism. But Islamic civilization, emerging in the seventh century, had established a civilized society during its glorious period from the eighth to the thirteenth century. Thus, almost a millennium after the Islamic civilization, the Europeans in the seventeenth century, spreading to nearly every corner of the world, laid the foundation of a Western civilization promoting humanism and “independent speculation.” It provided a standard by which societies were to be judged during their colonial rule. Today, whatever the Western world interprets and implements its cultural values, norms, faiths, institutions, and modern scientific modes, means Western civilization.

    But regarding Islam, first it was Bernard Lewis who said, “Islamic Civilization is neither a revival nor an imitation of previous cultures, but a new creation.” Bertrand Russell in his History of Western Philosophy argues that the “Mohammedans developed an important civilization of their own. Mohammedan civilization in its great days was admirable in the arts and many technical ways, but it showed no capacity for independent speculation in theoretical matters.” However, today, in spite of its lack of the kind of “independent speculation,” that is the characteristic of a modern civilization, all major scholars in sociopolitical sciences recognize the existence of a distinct Islamic civilization comprised of a unity within a vast diversity of traditions, cultures, and races.

    MIRZA ASHRAF

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