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Is “Western Civilization” a Worthwhile Conceptual Framework?

“This exposes a basic problem of the conservative idealization of the Western tradition; it relies on an artificial, if not arbitrary construction that only makes sense in retrospect.”

The idea of Western Civilization is a hot topic these days. It is seemingly a central idea for conservatives and traditionalists, mainly operating under the assumption that it is under threat and needs to be defended. After all, the ideas and values associated with it are at the very foundation of what has made life good in Europe and North America. People on the Left are generally less keen about it. There are several, in my opinion, quite valid, reasons for this. An obvious one is that the term “Western Civilization” is often nothing more than a dog whistle for whiteness and, consequently, a racist trope. There is truth to this claim, and even conservatives who do not use the term in this way would be remiss to ignore this fact. Many conservatives, I believe, use the concept in good faith. But this is certainly not the only criticism. There are also the issues of colonialism and imperialism. It is not just that the West did those things, but the ideas that are often presented as proof of the value of Western Civilization were, in the past, used to justify these troubling practices. This is evident, for example, in the words of British liberal thinkers of the 19th century. Finally, there is the idea that it is all just really a made-up concept. There is no single coherent Western tradition but a series of often conflicting ideas, out of which some won out due to historical contingencies.

Much like nuclear energy can be used to destroy a city or to power it, concepts like reason, liberty, and democracy can be used to justify oppression or to enable emancipation.

My anthropologist friends would certainly take issue with even the idea of using the concept of “civilization,” let alone “western civilization.” I will, however, assume that there is something that may be called Western Civilization, for the purpose of the argument. I will also not address the potentially racist implications of the term. Instead, I will assume that good faith actors on both sides of the political spectrum can agree that, while it is sometimes used in this way (and it should be obviously condemned when it is), there are more benevolent uses of the term. Instead, I want to argue that while critiques of the concept coming from the Left are generally correct, this is no reason to dismiss many of the ideas that are associated with the West. Much like nuclear energy can be used to destroy a city or to power it, concepts like reason, liberty, and democracy can be used to justify oppression or to enable emancipation. This does not mean that the conservative position is correct. On the contrary, my claim is that, while some of the conclusions of the left-wing position are too far-reaching, one of the conservative premises is fundamentally flawed. The central mistake lies in the assumption that we need to defend the cultural ideal in order to save the political and intellectual principles. In fact, it is this attachment that keeps many of these ideas from being fully realized, as exemplified by many of their historical applications beyond their originally limited scopes.

Liberty, democracy, equality, reason, scientific progress: all of these are the ideas that conservatives identify as part of the Western tradition, and what make this conception of society worth defending. On a very surface level, it would appear that all of these are, on balance, mostly positive ideas. Conservatives certainly believe this. One of Ben Shapiro’s chief assertions is that the West is defined by two parallel axes that he proverbially identifies with Jerusalem and Athens: The reason of the Greeks and the morals of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Similarly, Jonah Goldberg lists several key tenets of Western culture that give it its worth. Among these are freedom of conscience, commitment to human rights and democracy, tolerance, and admiration for the scientific method. All of these have certainly had defenders and proponents among the most prominent thinkers of Europe and North America. The Enlightenment is a prime example of these values; German philosopher Immanuel Kant, for example, is a central figure in contemporary human rights theory. Denis Diderot’s Encyclopedia is nothing if not a monument to the admiration of science and reason. John Locke could rightly be considered the father of modern freedom of conscience. John Stuart Mill was one of the most articulate defenders of freedom of speech. So, in the end, there is a certain sense in which all of these ideas can be associated with the Western tradition.

So, what is the problem? Here, I want to introduce one of the left-wing critiques that I mentioned in the beginning, namely, that these ideas can be used to justify oppression and atrocities. Two of the philosophers I just mentioned are certainly guilty of this. John Stuart Mill, now considered one of the greatest proponents of liberty was also a staunch supporter of British overseas imperialism. He even worked for a good portion of his life for the East India Company. Yet, Mill’s position on imperialism was not founded on notions of racial supremacy or right of conquest. In his view, all the peoples of the earth were capable of governing themselves in accordance with principles of representation, liberty, and so on. It is simply that many were not yet ready. British rule over India was, therefore, a positive force because it would help spread those values in addition to reason, science and technical progress. In that sense, he was unlike another one of the philosophers just mentioned, Immanuel Kant. The German thinker had a much more essentialist view of race and believed that some peoples were inherently not capable of higher reasoning and were better off performing manual labor, for example. These other peoples included pretty much everyone except for white Europeans. In the same vein, Kant did not hold women in high regard, and he explicitly excludes them from all of his otherwise progressive ideas about politics. The same might be said for certain people with cognitive disabilities. American philosopher Charles Mills makes this argument in his book The Racial Contract. His main claim is that social contract theories, exemplified by Locke, Rousseau, and Kant, were fundamentally white ideas, and that the contract was, in fact, only a contract among whites. He points to Kant’s and Locke’s views on race to justify this.

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The evidence presented in The Racial Contract and Mill’s views on British India certainly give credence to left-wing critiques of Western Enlightenment thought of as a fundamental force of good. But I believe it would be shortsighted to stop there. Sometimes ideas are not fully understood by those who originate them. This is certainly the case in the natural sciences. Max Planck, widely considered the originator of Quantum Mechanics, famously never fully abandoned the classical view of physics. Thomas Kuhn attributes this to the paradigms in which science is done. Perhaps it is  a kind of a priori structure that provides us with an understanding of the world, which we carry into the way we see natural phenomena. So, even though Planck’s ideas very directly led to Quantum Mechanics, he was never able to abandon his paradigm and never fully understood his own ideas. The same thing, or at least something analogous can happen in ethics. Now, given what has been said so far, it should not be surprising that many of the pushes for emancipation take the form of directly attacking these seemingly essential Western values. Charles Mills is just one example. Feminist theorist Susan Moller Okin similarly claims that the apparent gender-blindness of liberalism is responsible for the oppression of women because these overwhelmingly male liberal thinkers could not possibly rid themselves of their male biases. Does this mean, then, that these ideals are fundamentally flawed? I would decidedly answer in the negative. And here is where one can point at the originators of certain ideas not completely grasping, much like Planck, the implications of their own thought.

Many of these Enlightenment ideas had clear radical implications that were, nonetheless, never explored, or outright dismissed by their originators. This is made evident by the fact that they were applied contemporaneously in much more radical ways, simply by following their logical implications to their ultimate consequences. Kant is a good example. His ethics and politics are centered around the idea that men are rational and autonomous, and therefore capable of self-governance. Yet, he excludes women. But early advocates for women’s rights such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Condorcet and Olympe de Gouges are explicit in arguing that the mental faculties of women are not qualitatively different from those of men, so the arguments for liberty and rights derived from reason should apply equally to women. In the United States, during the time of the framing of the Constitution, the Founding Fathers were basing much of the content of their proposed document on the idea that all are created equal yet also excluding women and blacks. At the same time, the future First Lady and forgotten Founding Mother Abigail Adams, often wrote to her husband that they had an unprecedented opportunity to do something about the status of women and African slaves, based on the same principle of equality. She even argued, in line with American Revolutionary principles, that there would be no reason for women to comply with any laws made by a system in which they had no representation. Thomas Paine, another radical for his time, also argued against slavery from the same ideal of freedom that he used to call for the independence of the Thirteen Colonies. As he saw it, Africans “still have a natural, perfect right to [freedom].” More notably, perhaps, starting from a framework very similar to that of John Locke and other contract theories, he proposed s system of wealth redistribution that predated any such system in the world. Lastly, and relevant to the topic of colonialism, we should not forget that many anti-colonial movements, especially in Latin America in the early 19th century, were inspired by Enlightenment ideas. That is not to say that it was the only reason, but if one reads political documents by leaders such José María Morelos, the influence is obvious.

All of these examples make it abundantly clear that the intellectual tradition most often cited as the epitome of Western Civilization carries with it an undeniably radical and revolutionary potential. There even are contemporary examples. To name just one, Noam Chomsky has said that he sees his own anarcho-syndicalism as the proper intellectual successor to the project started by classical liberalism of the emancipation of the individual. So, does that mean that the Left should just embrace the idea of Western Civilization? I still do not think so, and this will get us to the reason why the conservative defense of such is fundamentally misguided. It should give us pause that, while undeniably influential, the kind of values and ideas that Goldberg and Shapiro present all follow a rather narrow subset of the Western canon. It may even be fair to say that is the dominant one, but this clearly excludes a multitude of Western thinkers, some of which have been highly influential—or even central. Some of these other thinkers, however, are often characterized as somehow threatening to the very notion of Western Civilization. This includes authors like Marx, the Frankfurt School, post-structuralists like Foucault and Derrida, or “postmodern” feminists like Judith Butler.

The second aspect is that even if we take only those ideas selected by conservatives, the logical implications are not necessarily conservative.

Of course, the irony here is that none of these philosophical traditions sprung out of thin air. Their intellectual origins are a perfectly reasonable development of the Western canon—often those held by conservatives as archetypes of Western thought. Marx, for example, shares both his class-based analysis with Aristotle and Machiavelli. The former is considered the father of logic and one of the first theorists of democracy, and the latter is thought of as a deep influence on the Founding Fathers of the United States. Foucault was certainly indebted to Kant, and in his own kind of reply to Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?” he acknowledges that a break from the Enlightenment is not a fruitful enterprise. And lastly, it also excludes those very Western thinkers, such as Joseph de Maistre, who are very explicitly opposed to the Enlightenment project and ideas central to it such as the primacy of reason and the rights of man. This exposes two aspects of the basic problem of the conservative idealization of the Western tradition; it relies on an artificial, if not arbitrary construction that only makes sense in retrospect. Matt McManus has previously explained how what he calls post-modern conservatives often rely on this mode of thought. The second aspect is that even if we take only those ideas selected by conservatives, the logical implications are not necessarily conservative.

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This leads to the final piece of the problem in the conservative conception of Western Civilization. Ideas like equality, freedom of conscience, and confidence in science often arose in opposition to antithetical ideas. John Locke’s most important political work, the Second Treatise on Civil Government, can rightly be considered the foundational text of classical liberalism. Yet, Locke wrote it primarily as a refutation of Sir Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha. The latter, as the name would suggest is a justification of authoritarian and paternalistic regal power, something that would be considered distinctly “unwestern” today. But there is a reason for this. It is rather simplistic to think of ideas as tied to a specific region or set of peoples. This need not be interpreted as some kind of defense of Platonism. It is simply that, while ideas may be borne out of particular contingencies, there is no reason to think that such circumstances are so unique as to be impossible to repeat. And if the West produced these seemingly “unwestern” ideas, it is only logical to assume that the rest of the world would have produced distinctly “western” ideas.

Amartya Sen wrote “Human Rights and Asian Values” as a refutation of a prevailing mode of thinking among leaders of Asian countries in the second half of the 20th century. The idea, in line with modern American and European conservatives, was that democracy and human rights were a fundamentally Western individualistic concept incompatible with Asian idiosyncrasy, which they saw as much more collectivist, authoritarian, and paternalistic. Sen argues, with historical examples, that this appeal to “Asian values” is disingenuous, and that it is possible to construct a genealogy of Human Rights based on the Asian tradition as it is with its Western counterpart. He mentions, for example, the establishment of religious liberty by Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC on the Indian subcontinent. He gives several other examples, but it should suffice to say that, like the Western canon, the Asian tradition is much less monolithic than how it is usually presented. What this means is that, not only did Western Civilization produce a myriad of “unwestern” thoughts, but other civilizations also produced concepts which, in the conservative mindset, are essentially “Western.”

Given all these issues, the conservative assertion that Western Civilization is valuable because of these values is significantly weaker. Again, I am not trying to imply that these values did not influence the West, nor that they are wrong (in the latter case, I would argue the opposite). But what should be certain is that they are neither unique to the West, nor are they the only Western tradition. This makes the standard conservative argument much more of an ad hoc rationalization for a mere emotional or aesthetic preference. It should, at least, raise some suspicion that conservatives would so keenly defend ideals which were often popularized by revolutionaries seeking to demolish the established order. What better example than the Declaration of the “Rights of Man and the Citizen,” a clear influence on how we think about rights today—and championed by none others than the radical Jacobins. A conservative retort might argue that these may have been radical but are now established notions, and there is no need to go any further. But that, in the first place, would go against the very spirit of these ideas. Also, it would simply impose an arbitrary cut-off point. There’s no reason to assume that society is the best that it can be at this moment in history. Further, it is at best dubious that we have fully embraced many of these often revolutionary ideas. To bring back just one example, Thomas Paine’s wealth redistribution scheme in Agrarian Justice is, in many ways, more radical than any that we have today, as it fundamentally questions the legitimacy of inheritance and wealth inequality. And to reiterate, Paine was not reasoning from any form of “post-modern neomarxist” framework but from the same modes of thought that were used by John Locke and the Founding Fathers.

There should be no reason for the Left, then, to shy away from these seemingly Western ideals. They should, of course, always be properly contextualized, and the evils of colonialism, as well as its central role in the quality of life that Europe enjoys today, should always be recognized. But once the ideas are detached from their mostly artificial association with Western Civilization, there should be no reason to see them, in any way, as something to be cautiously preserved and venerated.

Néstor de Buen holds an M.A. in social sciences from The University of Chicago. He has previously written at Quillette. He can be followed on Twitter @nestor_d or reached by email at nestor.kyat@gmail.com.

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