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Is Western Civilization a Thing?

This is part two of a four-part series on the classics. Part three will be published tomorrow. 

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?

All three of these arguments aim to show that the very idea of the West is incoherent. But they all rely on a few closely-related fallacies. The first fallacy is that a concept is incoherent if it describes something whose boundaries are ill-defined. The second is that something which interacts with other things can’t have any existence or identity of its own. And the third is that a phenomenon that’s complex and multi-faceted thereby ceases to be any sort of recognizable or coherent phenomenon at all.

If any of these assumptions were true, then a lot of the concepts we use on a day to day basis would be just as incoherent as the idea of the West. Is art an incoherent concept because people disagree on what belongs in that category? Is France a non-starter because France has always interacted with other countries? The world undoubtedly contains more complexity and variety than the West, and yet there don’t seem to be many articles telling us that it’s a bankrupt concept.

 As the example of France suggests, the arguments used to disqualify the concept of Western Civilisation would disqualify many terms that are geographical or cultural in nature. Take “the Islamic world,” for example. It’s boundaries seem just as fuzzy as the West’s. Is Russia part of the Islamic world, and, if so, how much of it? What about India? The Islamic world has constantly interacted with other cultures throughout its history. It also refers to an enormously complex and diverse area of the globe. And yet it is still useful as a term, and we don’t seem to have too much trouble when thinking about the Islamic world as a concept.

Ordinarily, of course, we don’t have too much trouble using terms like “the West” either. And that’s the case even though people might disagree about whether a particular country counts as Western or not. It’s even the case when we are well aware that the West didn’t go through history sealed off from the outside world. And it’s even the case when we realize that the West is a big, messy phenomenon that contains a lot of different things inside of it.

Now, the objections to the idea of the West that we’ve looked at so far might seem pretty silly. Maybe they are, and if so we might wonder whether the whole argument about “the West” being an incoherent concept has more to do with an animus against the West and its role in history than with anything else. In any case, let’s look now at a slightly stronger argument that Appiah offers in support of his thesis that Western Civilization isn’t a thing.

In its fullest form, Appiah’s objection to a concept that encompasses “Aquinas and Kant” as well as “Beyoncé and Burger King” isn’t just that it brings together things that probably aren’t related. It’s that bringing those things together under the heading “Western Civilization” is a form of what he calls “organicism,” that is, “a vision of culture not as a loose assemblage of disparate fragments but as an organic unity, each component, like the organs in a body, carefully adapted to occupy a particular place, each part essential to the functioning of the whole.”

Much of what Appiah says about organicism is salutary. For Appiah, for example, organicism restricts choice, since it might lead people to believe they can only move within their own cultural tradition—the West, say, or Islam. In fact, as Appiah rightly says, “no western essence is there to stop a New Yorker of any ancestry taking up Islam” if that’s what he wants to do.

But it’s not clear that anyone who talks about the West is an organicist, or that if we dislike organicism (which maybe we should) we have to conclude that Western Civilization doesn’t really exist. If we go back to Appiah’s definition of organicism, we’ll see that it actually goes well beyond beliefs of the sort that “Western Civilization is a thing.” It involves thinking that the different elements of Western Civilization somehow function together as an organic whole, the way different parts of the body do.

But it’s surely possible to think that the West and Western Civilization are useful concepts without believing that Bach relates to Shakespeare anything like the way my heart does to my circulatory system. In fact, I do think that concepts like Western Civilization are useful, mainly because they point to an important reality about the way global culture developed; and at the same time I agree with Appiah that seeing it as some sort of unified system that everyone western has to serve would be bizarre and pernicious. How so?

Let’s begin with a simple point about natural languages. Words tend to gain and remain in currency because people find them useful, and one of the main ways in which people find words useful is in reflecting what they think is some aspect of reality. If terms like “the West” and “Western Civilization” are still around, that suggests that people find that they can still come in handy. But, of course, it may be that these are the kind of terms that point towards things that we now think never really existed, like “ghost.” Is “the West” just a term for something that was never really there?

Obviously, the West was never really there in the straightforward sense that the Colossus of Rhodes was really there. But it still denotes an area (with fuzzy boundaries, to be sure) in which Western Civilization developed and flourished. That brings us to the question of what Western Civilization is, and my best answer to that is that it’s the name for a distinct cluster of cultural traditions. Cultural traditions can be imagined here, somewhat deflatingly, as a series of threads on Twitter. One thinker or artist replies to another, and then they get further replies from others, all more or less following, or at least developing, the same theme.

‘The School of Athens’ (Raphael 1509-1511). Many of the great thinkers of Greek antiquity are shown (sometimes anachronistically) in conversation, with Plato and Aristotle in the centre

To continue the analogy, if you looked at global cultural history as a kind of Twittersphere, what you would see is that there were only a few main clusters of threads for most of recorded history. It’s simply the way things turned out that Aquinas replies to Aristotle much more than he replies to Confucius, and that Linji replies to Buddha much more than he replies to Jesus. The critics of Western Civilization sometimes write as though if you selected a work of Western literature at random you’d be just as likely to find a reference to Lao-Tze as to Homer, and that’s simply not the case.

Why? It’s not the case because of the natural and physical constraints our species grew up with. It’s conceivable that, had we evolved on a much smaller planet (or if we were much larger), or if we’d evolved telepathy, then human culture wouldn’t have clustered into distinct civilizations. Instead, for most of human history most people were severely constrained in who they could talk to and whose books they could read simply because of the slow rate at which technology developed and because of the distances that separated them. The result was the emergence of different cultural spheres with a distinctive cluster of conversations.

The fact that the world developed in this way isn’t simply a matter of historical interest. It also has to have an impact on the way we approach world culture when we try to understand it ourselves, or teach it to others. Now, it may be interesting to compare disparate threads of human culture. But if you’re trying to help someone read and understand Paradise Lost, it’ll obviously be more helpful to have them read the Aeneid first than to have them read the I Ching. That’s not to say anything against the I Ching; it’s simply part of a different conversation.

Appiah is right that it makes no sense today to limit ourselves to individual traditions just for the sake of it. But he’s wrong that that somehow means that we need to pretend that distinct civilizations were never a thing. Whether we like it or not, they were; and if we want to understand them we have to continue to recognize that fact. That means working through the cluster of conversations that made up Confucianism or Chinese legalism; and it also means continuing to guide students through the many different threads that together made up Western Civilization. Because Western Civilization, in that sense, is undoubtedly a thing.


James Kierstead is Senior Lecturer in Classics at Victoria University of Wellington and the current co-ordinator of Heterodox Classics, endorsed by Heterodox Academy. Follow him on Twitter @Kleisthenes2.


  1. Dan Vesty says

    It’s interesting, but once you start tugging at the existential thread of most ‘abstractions’ you can usually very quickly prove that such and such a cherished idea doesn’t actually exist. And yet some ideas stubbornly keep coming back round…maybe there should be a big list somewhere of the abstractions that most people of good faith can agree to believe in for the sake of getting things done…

    • yandoodan says

      Completely correct.

      The problem, however, comes from our refusal to deal with the arbitrary nature of “Western Civilization”, or “The Patriarchy”, or whatever. Let’s face it, you can set rules for moving people around in groups, but there aren’t any logically necessary reasons behind your rules. You set your groups up, and change them, as guided by your goals rather than logic. It’s arbitrary.

      So you group individuals to create a Western Civilization in which people like Jefferson establish freedom. I group people into a Patriarchy in which people like Jefferson enslave people of color. Neither is wrong. They just address different goals. I group Aleutians, Bantu, and Brahmins together as “people of color”, and you group people in Chicago projects, French Chalets, and Estonian Soviet-era high rises together as “Western Civilization”.

      It’s not a matter of wrong, it’s a matter of useful. I want to give people of color a break by doing something nasty to the people I’ve decided make up the patriarchy, and you want to protect people’s essential freedoms by passing laws and whatnot. Break it down to useful and you free yourself from useless arguments about definitions. Instead you can argue about which way helps more individuals and hurts fewer, and about how much some individuals are going to get hurt. When I decide that people in single-wides are part of the Patriarchy, I am going to hurt some mighty poor people. And when you pass laws defending freedom, some people will go to jail for violating those laws, and others will exploit them to the detriment of others.

      • I agree Dan – and I think it’s because intellectuals are trained to try to get to the ultimate truth about things that they have a tendency to try to find some thread that runs through all examples of something (like Socrates wanted to), fail to find one, and then declare that something ‘doesn’t really exist’ (usually something that most non-intellectuals are pretty sure does exist). But this may not really be the way that language works. It may help to be more pragmatic, and just accept that the use of a word may just be a kind of habit (as Wittgenstein might have said).

        So I like yandoodan’s approach very much, except that I do think that the usefulness of a term must stand in some relations to what’s really the case in the world. And I do think this is the case with ‘Western civilization’ – that is, I think it does reflect an actual state of affairs, which is that there are all these texts and thinkers that are much more tightly linked to each other than to texts and thinkers from China or India.

  2. Morgan Foster says

    I find “European Civilization” to be a more useful phrase – at least, to my ear.

    The western portion – the formerly Francophone part – of Russia then fits neatly into it.

    North and South America – to the extent they have not yet been transformed by Asian and Middle Eastern immigration – is covered.

    Eventually, though, and within our lifetimes, Europe will cease to exist, and even “European Civilization” will be nothing more than an historical curiosity. Like Roman Civilization.

    • Yes – I wonder whether the reason ‘European Civilization’ isn’t more used is simply that people might think you mean the continent, and so feel weird applying it to Canada, Bolivia, or New Zealand.

      I think Western and European ‘civilizations’ probably will cease to exist, in the sense of a distinctive cultural tradition, just because our geographical and technological constraints have loosened – we can exchange ideas and travel much more easily than we once did. So maybe different from the way the Roman Empire fell apart (which is a complicated, but I think a different story: there’s a good recentish book by Peter Heater on that).

  3. Erica from Eckenridge says

    It’s called Civilization; after those who’ve been enslaved want their slave masters and the rest of the world to be more civilized.

    Nothing more complicated than that. If “Western” connotes RifleMan and Wyatt Earp..drop the Western and just go with regular old Civilization.

    • Even if you want to make civilization something which requires a certain amount of cultural sophistication, what about all the science and civilization produced in Muslim and Chinese cultures (for example) down the ages?

  4. The solution against someone’s self aggrandizing argument that something ‘never existed’, is to ignore them and carry on in strong belief that it did. This type of existential quaffling is why I seek out old editions, old translations, and long dead authors. My fuddy duddy Oxford-bred latin professor at uni wasn’t wasting time considering whether classics as we knew it was legitimate, he was grilling us on Ovid.

    • Good for you – there are a lot of good old editions and translations out there. One problem about ignoring people you disagree with, I suppose, is that you pass over an opportunity to change their minds.

  5. One of the main reasons you reject organicism is because it restricts individual choice?

    That’s quite revealing. In this as in many things today, the question is no longer: is X true or not, but: is it politically correct? (Because there is no truth, anyway.)

    For God’s sake, we don’t want to limit individual choice! Only the individual exists!

    But the fact that we believe only the individual exists – and find the idea of “organicism”, as you do, “bizarre and pernicious”, is perhaps one of the greatest signs that the old, “organic” civilization of the West has disintegrated into just that “loose assemblage of disparate fragments” it is now supposed to forever have been.

    • Ray Andrews (the dolphin) says


      No! Only Identities exist. Victim Identities and Oppressor Identities.

    • I’m not in favour of individual choice because it’s PC – I’m very strongly against PC culture (and, as it happens, I think restrictions on individual choice in certain areas of life – e.g. hunting, smoking, making a certain type of joke – is actually a strong feature of PC culture at the moment).

      Breathnumber, it looks like you’re not anywhere on the broad liberal spectrum, but are instead some type of communitarian. That’s a respectable position, and it’s an interesting conversation to have, but it’ll take us pretty far away from the topic of this article, so maybe we should discuss it some other time.

  6. Mechan says

    For such a deep and debatable topic, the article was clear and precise. I had no double read once!!

  7. Pointing to the fuzziness of the concept of “The West” can be convenient for its critics, but it can also be useful for its defenders. If The West is a culture or group of cultures that have productively influenced and been influenced by others, if it draws from influences in common with others, then there’s no reason why people of many different backgrounds can’t benefit from studying it. If the Greek philosophers influenced Islamic and Christian civilizations alike then one can consider the study of Greek philosophy to be “white supremacy” or a rejection of other societies. If the development of science in Western Europe owes a debt to Islamic civilization then one can hardly argue that said science is uniquely–let alone dangerously–a product of a narrow cultural vision.

    The fuzziness of the concept of “The West” undercuts many of the criticisms. People from many places, with many ideas and many skin tones, have participated in this cultural evolution, and there’s no particular reason why a multiracial society like the modern US can’t appreciate and learn from the West.

    • Tome708 says

      Sebastian, Arabian culture, not Islamic culture. It stopped contributing once enslaved forcefully into Islamic culture. Shame on you.

    • Thank you – I’ve enjoyed your pieces in Quillette and this is a very thoughtful comment. I suppose I do think that European thinkers have drawn on other European thinkers significantly more than Middle Eastern or Chinese ones – that, after all, is why I think it makes sense to speak of it as a distinct tradition. But I definitely agree that the way the university left looks at cultures when the condemn ‘the West’ embraces pretty wholeheartedly a unitary idea of the West that they usually reject. (Just as they suddenly embrace strong forms of ethnic nationalism when the antiquities trade is discussed.) I also think that there’s been a tendency to argue both 1) ‘the West’ doesn’t exist, and 2) the West has been uniquely bad. Obviously, you can’t consistently hold both these views at once.

  8. large living louie says

    It’s a pre-emptive strike to annul the possibility of a group of minds rallying around a shared identity / focus / set of positive ideals.

    • Ray Andrews (the dolphin) says

      @large living louie

      Exactly. Divide and conquer. But in this case it’s the more subtle ‘dissolve and conquer’.

  9. Farris says

    Is Western Civilization mislabeled?
    Who cares?
    The World Series only has 2 participating countries. I guess we could debate the adequacy of that moniker as well.

    • Personally, the World Series example makes me think more of using ‘Civilization’ to mean ‘Western Civilizations,’ even though other civilizations have existed.

  10. Ray Andrews (the dolphin) says

    That Mr. Appiah is lying is obvious. The author above engages in an exercise in logic and should get an ‘A’, but it’s like proving the world is a sphere for the enlightenment of a flat-earther — there really is no point except as an exercise for one’s own satisfaction. No, what Mr. Appiah is doing is trying to destroy the West, and it can be a useful tactic to confuse the enemy by trying to baffle him into thinking he does not exist. Consider Orwell: ‘Syme did not exist. He had never existed.’ — it’s easier if the disappeared never existed, no?

    I am reminded of an article in ‘The Converstation’ in which the author deplored the fact that certain noises were being made that seemed to come from certain hominids in a non-place called (if a non-place can be called anything) England to the effect that they didn’t want to lose their culture and identity to hordes of Africans and Muslims. The author explained that, not only were such sentiments execrable and phobic, but they were also absurd because there is no such place as England, no such people as the English, and there is no such thing as English culture (how could there be since there are no such people as the English?). Wanting to protect English identity is like wanting a nature reserve to protect unicorns.

    It’s the same with the West not existing. Nothing to defend! And within this century its non-existence will indeed be realized. And it will never have existed, either.

    • This comment is the problem with the internet and today’s intellectual culture. You can say that Appiah is wrong or incoherent – that is perfectly legitimate and that is what the author of the article has done, and done extremely well. However, notice that the article engages with Appiah in good faith – it doesn’t make claims about his mental state and intentions. What evidence do you have for calling him a ‘liar’? In this comment, you are doing exactly what I’m sure you decry your ‘opponents’ for – attacking people and not engaging with ideas.

      • Ray Andrews (the dolphin) says


        You have a point. Civil discourse demands presumption of good faith. Yet the civility of the sane is what has permitted the SJWs to take over our civilization — with the intent of smashing it, as they happily explain. We keep politely backing up and we’re now against the wall. I hate to say this myself, but I think the time for civility is over. If this was 1937 I would not be civil with Hitler’s claim that every problem in Germany was the fault of the Jews because he would be lying.

        No coherent mind can honestly believe that there is no such thing as the West anymore than they can believe that there is no such thing as a nice day or a good movie or a pretty girl or a good meal. Is there any such thing as Mt. Everest? Draw an exact border around it or confess that there is no such thing? Really? I will not insult Mr. Appiah’s intelligence by presuming he can believe such things. I prefer to call it for what it so obviously is, and yes, that’s rude. I am declaring war on these people. I will fight for my civilization and my sanity.

        • Doug Deeper says

          Ray Andrews, I couldn’t agree more with you. After watching the 50 year takeover of Western universities by the likes of Mr. Appiah, I am dumbstruck by the author and mk who do not see how they have been played by such “intellectuals.”
          It appears that the author is just now coming to grips with common sense! Perhaps, someday, he will learn that to give the Appiah’s of the world such a lengthy rebuttal is only to buy into their narrative by impling a rebuttal is even required. And Appiah’s narrative has nothing to do with whether Western Civilization is a thing or not, but rather to ensure it is destroyed. My God, if it is not a thing why are the SJWs so bent on destroying it!

          • Coherent and civil rebuttal is required because there are third parties “listening” to the discussion who need to be persuaded that Western civilization exists and is worth preserving, since its salient characteristic is openness to (non-technical, non-instrumental) ideas from other civilizations and its willingness to adopt them on their merits, without simultaneously resenting them as “foreign” influences (as other civilizations that adopt Western ideas tend to do). In other words, Western civilization gives pride of place to reason, even in its religiious thought. It’s no accident that the postmodern critique of the West (which is simply the latest version of the original European anti-Enlightenment) is focused on the deconstruction and devaluation of reason.

        • Farris says

          @Ray A.

          “If this was 1937 I would not be civil with Hitler’s claim that every problem in Germany was the fault of the Jews because he would be lying.”

          This type of reasoning justifies all types of incivility. I can vehemently chastise my waitress for brining the wrong order because I am resisting Hitler. The world may be often uncivil but the bigger problem is hyperbole.

          • Ray Andrews (the dolphin) says


            Right about the hyperbole. But I only intended to use the strongest example I could think of to make the point that there is a time when we stop talking to our enemies. I wasn’t intending to compare Appiah to Hitler. Civility should never fail between honest and well intentioned people tho.

        • “Yet the civility of the sane is what has permitted the SJWs to take over our civilization — with the intent of smashing it, as they happily explain. We keep politely backing up and we’re now against the wall. I hate to say this myself, but I think the time for civility is over. If this was 1937 I would not be civil with Hitler’s claim that every problem in Germany was the fault of the Jews because he would be lying.”

          Thank you! I am weary of the moral equivalency arguments where a “civil” side is held to a higher standard so the tyrannical side can run over you.

        • Just Me says

          Maybe the concept of “gaslighting” would actually be more appropriate in this context…

          People like Mr. Appiah are trying to gaslight us.

          “Gaslighting is a tactic in which a person or entity, in order to gain more power, makes a victim question their reality. It works much better than you may think. Anyone is susceptible to gaslighting, and it is a common technique of abusers, dictators, narcissists, and cult leaders. It is done slowly, so the victim doesn’t realize how much they’ve been brainwashed.”

          One can denounce gaslighting in a civil way, as the author of this article has done.

      • We disagree, mk. There is a difference between arguing in ‘good faith’ and offering yourself, with a half-delighted whimper, to the barbarians at the gate, which is what I accuse Mr. Kierstead of doing.

        According to Mr. Appiah, the idea of western civilization 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.”

        In other words, Mr. Appiah wants to get rid of the idea of western civilization because it’s confusing and politically incorrect.

        People like Mr. Appiah think that the belief that Western civilization is / was a real thing is likely to prove an impediment as we move closer to world government and a single world state. That’s what he means about “the great political challenges of our time”. Already we’re being asked to forget about that whole “Western civilization” thing and embrace world fusion. But this is what I’m getting at – we Westerners are going to get a very bad deal in the coming world state if we don’t insist that western civilization was, actually, a real thing, and actually, quite an extraordinary thing at that. In fact, if it wasn’t for Western civilization, there would be no world state just over the horizon at all.

        Fortunately, we don’t have to make our arguments for merely political reasons (as people like Mr. Appiah must). We can make them simply because they are true. And they are.

        So people like Mr. Appiah, as far as I can see, deserve very little of our “good faith”. The arguments he makes in that Guardian article are very, very weak. Anyone with half an ounce of intelligence can demolish them.

      • Doctor Locketopus says

        > What evidence do you have for calling him a ‘liar’?

        1) Claims that Western Civilization doesn’t exist.
        2) Occupies professorships at a succession of universities (which are an exclusive product of Western Civilization, and no, the madrassahs or the Confucian Chinese schools were not the same).

        If I encountered a physicist who argued that physics “didn’t exist”, while making a living performing calculations for designing x-ray machines, I would assume that he was either dishonest or deluded.

        • beyondyesandno says

          I’m in agreement with Ray that the presumption of good faith is naive. It doesn’t matter if we call the likes of Appiah liars or not – engagement is not forthcoming.

        • I think one reason so engage with arguments of this sort is that, even if Appiah or whoever else makes these arguments is the worst sort of person imaginable (and I have no reason to believe that Appiah is anything else but the very interesting and productive intellectual he seems to be) – even if he is the worst sort of person imaginable, the arguments he and others put forward would still be around, with the ability, perhaps, to convince people. The only thing that will really stop that, in my view, is an effective counterargument. Calling one person who makes those arguments a liar won’t knock them down; calling for him to be sacked (even if the calls are successful) won’t knock them down; the only thing that will really knock them down is a better argument.

          • I mean, not that I think we need to knock down these ideas at all costs, that they’re ‘dangerous’ or anything. If they did abolish Western Civ classes, I think that would be sad and unnecessary, but I’m not sure I would call it ‘disastrous’ or anything like that. That brings me to another reason for focusing on arguments rather than on the people presenting them. I often find I’m unsure about complicated topics like this, and, in retrospect, I’ve also been wrong about things in the past (just one or two things, obviously). So I find that working through the arguments in detail actually helps me make sure I really know what it is I’m saying, and why I’m saying it, rather than just reacting in an emotional way to arguments that go against my priors. I even find sometimes that, when I do get into the actual arguments, there’s more common ground between my view and my “opponent’s” than I’d thought.

  11. D.B. Cooper says

    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.

    James, you seem like a reasonable actor, so don’t assume I’m speaking of you here, but the credibility of the Intelligentsia is not exactly at an all-time high, to put it charitably. If you think, I’m being glib, I would ask that you take a moment and reflect on Peter Boghossian & Co.’s “Grievance Studies Project,” which was detailed quite nicely on this very forum. If you require something a little closer to home, simply consider the indefatigable witch hunt of Professor Rachel Fulton Brown. Moral of the story? No one ever went broke underestimating the stupidity of today’s Intelligentsia.

    One problem for such thinkers is that the West has no clear boundaries.

    You’re right, such thinkers do have a problem, it’s just the problem is with their logic. To put it bluntly, simply because there are no non-arbitrary borders (lack of discrete boundaries) at which a precise line can be drawn between it (the West) and say, Russia, for example, it does not follow from that, therefore, the West does not exist.

    To understand why this is a fallacious argument, consider that if one were to look across a suburban landscape, one may not always be sure precisely where the city begins and the countryside ends, but that doesn’t then mean one should infer that the city doesn’t exist. The argument being advanced by “such thinkers” is, ultimately, grounded on the faulty reasoning of a fallacy known as ‘The Argument of the Beard’ or ‘The Fallacy of the Continuum’.

    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.

    This taxonomic argument is simply an alternative form of the one advanced above. The (faulty) reasoning is essentially the same though. To see why, consider that regardless of how large or even numerous the total variation(s) may be, if these variations correlate strongly or more strongly with the historical record of Western civ, as opposed to China or even Islam; then these variations, however enormous or complicated, are necessarily informative, and therefore, of a piece with what one would traditionally think of as the West.

    Maybe a simpler way to think about this is that one could make the same argument for the “enormously complicated” differences (state, regional, sociocultural, religious, etc.) we find throughout America’s, relatively brief, 240 some odd year history. We still consider this motley crue a single conglomerate called America and that’s a fairly simple label, is it not? And we (America) certainly can’t claim to have discrete borders, and no one would argue – at least, I hope to God no one would argue – that they aren’t “porous.” Our Southern border is about as porous as a border gets. But I digress.

    • This is an excellent comment, and makes the points I was trying to make at the beginning of this piece extremely clearly – possibly more clearly than I did!

  12. To me it’s like a judge once said of pornography “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”

    For me growing up during the Cold War the West was anything siding with the U.S./Western Europe against the Soviet block. Done. Obviously it’s different today. Regardless, yes the West exists, it’s a mentality and a set commonalities of lifestyles and expectations.

    That said, Russia – no , Turkey – no, Islamic territories -no, Africa – no, India no, China – hell no.

    • Yes, there are polities that nobody would call ‘Western’ (at least in a historical context) – the Khmer Empire, or the Kingdom of Zimbabwe; and others that everyone would call Western – the Kingdom of Wessex, say. That seems to be enough to make the term useful, even if there are also cases that people would disagree on (Turkey after Kemal, for example).

      I actually spent three years as a kid on a Canadian army base in West Germany (as it was then) during the Cold War – and I’m still not sure I would say the USSR wasn’t ‘Western,’ even though back then ‘the West’ had a big overlap with the Nato alliance. It’s just the way Russia in particular was such a big part of the Western cultural conversation in the 19th and 20th centuries, and how Soviet communism was clearly an outgrowth of Marxism (which obviously had a Western founder). But anyway, as I say, that the USSR is a case people disagree about doesn’t much matter to the basic point I’m making in the piece.

      Quips like the one you mention from the UK judge – I think of Louis Armstrong saying something like ‘If you need to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know’ – I used to think of as unsatisfying and unphilosophical. Now I think that approach may actually be better than the one many intellectuals take, of saying ‘If I can’t define it cleanly, it’s not a thing!’ I’m grateful for having had some exposure to the later philosophy of Wittgenstein, which approaches language and definitions in a more pragmatic way. Language is built by its users, and meaning is constructed by language-users. Most ordinary language-users just pick up terms and use them, without worrying too much about marginal cases or an 100% perfect fit. And by doing so they actually forge tools that help illuminate some of the most important, if messy, aspects of their reality.

  13. The West is Christendom, the traditional lands where Pre-Reformation Catholicism reigned.

    The West is also the traditional cannon in the possession of Christendom at that time (many of which derived from Classical Antiquity).

    The West is those nation-states which emerged from Christendom.

    Russia is not the West. Greece is not the West. Turkey is not the West. Morocco is not the West, but Augustine is, because he was part of the traditional Cannon of Christendom. The Middle East is not the West, but Jesus is, because he was part of the traditional Cannon of Christendom.

    The study of Western Civilization is the study of the West, and the study of those other civilizations and cultures which influenced the development of Christendom.

    Its actually pretty easy to understand if you don’t insist on seeing the world through “problematic” glasses–or your not just another mendacious journalist selling typical multiculturalism and open borders swill.

    • That being said, in the 20th Century Cold War, the West and the East were used to refer to America and allies within its sphere of influence (even though Japan was in the East) and to the USSR and its allies within its sphere of influence (even though Cuba was in the West). This is probably antiquated now, but it remains in the memory of some of us fossils.

    • D.B. Cooper says


      Greece is not the West.

      With all due respect, I’m that’s correct for a whole host of reasons, such as Greece (Athens more specifically) being widely considered as the birthplace of democracy. But even leaving aside the more traditional objections one might raise (e.g. appeal to consensus), I don’t think your statement holds even by your own parameters as stated.

      First, you claim the traditional canon of the West is Christendom; which was largely derived from Classical Antiquity. The problem with this is, Classical Antiquity is, by definition, Greco-Roman cultural history, circa 800 BC to 500 AD, or thereabout.

      The second problem with this statement (Greece is not the West) is that even if you define the West as the traditional lands of Christendom, you would be hard-pressed to explain why Greece is not, or rather, should not be considered part of the traditional lands of Christendom; since it’s generally accepted that Andrew (martyred in Greece) and possibly Simon Peter as well traveled to Greece after the death & resurrection of Jesus. If true, it’s hard to see why Greece shouldn’t be included as part of what you describe as the tradtional lands of Christendom.

      • Christendom actually is derived from a bit further east than that, specifically from the Judeans.

        The Romans, found this new sect to be perplexing and alien, and there were violent clashes when the new sect reached enough power to assert itself. The culture of Moses and Abraham was just wholly incompatible with the culture of Jupiter and Zeus.

        • Doctor Locketopus says

          > The culture of Moses and Abraham was just wholly incompatible with the culture of Jupiter and Zeus.

          On the contrary. There was conflict (at times severe) but a workable compromise eventually ensued. Many of our customs, laws, philosophical viewpoints and cultural tropes descend from the Jews and early Christians, the Greeks and Romans, the Anglo-Saxons, and the Normans/Norse practice, but almost none from ancient Egypt, China, or Polynesia (yes, each of those has contributed, but their contribution is very small compared to the others).

          That is why Judaism, Christianity, Greece, Rome, the Anglo-Saxons, and the Normans are historically considered part of Western Civilization and Egypt, China, and Polynesia are not.

          That doesn’t make Egypt, China, and Polynesia bad, or unworthy of scholarly attention. It just makes them not part of Western Civilization.

          • The “compromise” you speak of is what Protestants and others call a corruption of “true Christianity”, where as the missionaries rolled across Europe, they co-opted and absorbed various pagan cultural practices.

            Which is Kierstaad’s point, that far from being a unitary and organic entity, Western Culture contains many different parts, some of which are conflicting.

          • Tome708 says

            But according to Barrack Hussein Obama, Islam has contributed to the west as much as anyone else. And if you don’t believe him, they will blow you up.

        • Christendom, Chip, is equality of slaves and slave-owner, so, logically that the Roman emperors so long didn’t like it, it would have been the end of their empire, based as it was on slavery. But quite possible that this holy rule of equality, hierarchy as the enemy of mankind, (read just only the UDHR bill) also means the end of that new western empire, just listen only to Jordan Peterson’s clips

          • Just Me says

            dirk –

            Christendom is the moral equality of slaves and slave-owners, not necessarily their social equality. That only happened later as the idea evolved.

      • Ray Andrews (the dolphin) says

        @D.B. Cooper

        Agree. Greece is the cradle, even if the modern day Greeks seem ‘marginal’.

        • D.B. Cooper says


          Modern Greeks seem marginal? By what standard? Granted, the cradle did go from producing the founding fathers (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle) of Western philosophy and democracy as we know it, to a society that is today best known for treating government debt obligations like a sarcastic suggest not to mention the Aegean Islands like there the personal launching board for half of North Africa to enter Europe. So yeah, it’s probably safe to say the Greek culture’s value to humanity has gone somewhat downhill since Aristotle and the boys.

          • Ray Andrews (the dolphin) says

            @D.B. Cooper

            One could have some fun with this, and Quillette might be one of the only places where one could without being banned. It’s the sort of thing that can’t be ‘proven’, one admits to it or one does not. Or perhaps one honestly does not feel it, in which case persuasion will be very difficult.

            The Greeks are poor, broke, disorganized and hot. They don’t know how to build anything. Their cities resemble Middle Eastern cities. You have to see their plumbing to believe it (really). They aren’t even very pale, they resemble Turks. Yes, we’d feel obliged to admit them to the country club, but we’d rather they didn’t apply. Know what I mean? They have been grandfathered in, basically.

        • “The Greeks are poor, broke, disorganized and hot. They don’t know how to build anything. Their cities resemble Middle Eastern cities. You have to see their plumbing to believe it (really). They aren’t even very pale, they resemble Turks.”

          Ray you could just as easily be describing Spaniards.

        • Even though I have said Greece is not part of “Western Civilization”, I have nothing against saying Western Civilization is the spiritual heir of Greece, or that Western Civilization would not have existed but for Greece and but for the preservation of the Greek Classics after Constantine/Christianity and after the collapse of the Western Empire.

          But Greeks had no self-consciousness that they were part of “Western Civilization”, if anything, they were aware of “Hellenization”, e.g. making the Med Greek. “Western Civilization” is self-aware of itself, and the spread of Western Civilization (e.g. colonization) was not regarded as Hellenization, it is called Westernization. Hence the slogan “Modernization without Westernization”–we’ll take your technology but not your stinkin’ Anglo culture and values.

      • Christendom preserved the works of ancient Greece, so Greece had an influence on Christendom, but Greece is only significant because it influenced Christendom from the standpoint of the West. The idea that Western Civilization was some kind of mystical torch that passed around the Med until going out in 500 CE only to re-lit in Italy and Northern Europe in the Renaissance is a nice myth. Second, huge population changes in Anatolia and Greece and cultural divergence (the whole Byzantium/Rome split) means Greece today has little in common with the West, any more than Russia (despite all the cultural influence of France on the Russian aristocracy) does.

        Why do Anglos study Greece? Because Anglos were once part of Christendom, and studied the historical works and traditions of Christendom (“the Classics”). Were Anglos ever Greek? No. Did they get some Roman in there? A little, but the existing populations Germanized, only to subsequently Christianize and receive the Classics, and a nice story about Greece and Britain.

        Why is America part of Western Civilization by the way? Because it was colonized by the English, who were formerly part of Western Christendom, and transferred their culture and heritage.

        I suppose if you want to go back far enough, the West began with the Yamnaya peoples in the Bronze Age and spread from India to Iberia to Ireland. But that is silly as you are lumping too many people, too many languages, too many cultures, and too many religions, and you are basically equating Western civilizations basically with Caucasians, which is problematic for other reasons (race does not equal culture or ethnicity).

        • “Around 5,000 years ago, perhaps triggered by a cold spell that made it difficult to feed their herds, Yamnaya men spilled east across Siberia and down into Central Asia. To the west, they pushed down into the Balkans and to central Europe, where they sought new pastures for their herds and metal deposits to support burgeoning Bronze Age commerce. Over time, their descendants spread from central Europe to the Atlantic coast, establishing new trade routes and an unprecedented level of cultural contact and exchange in western Europe.

          The men from the steppes also outcompeted the local men as they went; their success is demonstrated in the overwhelming dominance of the R-M269 lineage in Europe. Over 80% of men in Ireland and Wales carry the haplogroup, as do over 60% of men along the Atlantic Coast from Spain to France. The frequency of R-M269 gradually decreases to the east, falling to about 30% in Germany, 20% in Poland, and 10-15% in Greece and Turkey. The haplogroup connects all these men to still others in the Iranian Plateau and Central Asia, where between 5 and 10% of men also bear the lineage.”

          • D.B. Cooper says


            First, I think we would do well to acknowledge the irony of this dispute. While I don’t believe any of us (within this thread) agrees with the position taken by Graeber and Appiah (“no such thing as Western Civilization”), the truth is, the mere fact that we are having a debate/disagreement over what constitutes the totality of Western Civ lends credence to their position, i.e., the West is porous and without clear boundaries.

            I actually realized this before posting my first response, which is why I attempted (but obviously failed) to persuade you on the grounds of your own reasoning (Christendom), rather than something like an appeal to consensus; which as I said, gives credence to the argument that there is no West. But as it happened, this thread has already jumped the shark, so I figured I would at least acknowledge.

            In any case, this is largely beside the point, because there is a West (#truth-by-assertion). Now, let us proceed…

            You said in your previous post above this one that:

            you are basically equating Western civilizations basically with Caucasians, which is problematic for other reasons (race does not equal culture or ethnicity).

            While I thought this passage was a rather strange, if not random thing to say; I originally had no intentions of responding to it. That is, until I read your next post and saw this:

            ’The men from the steppes also outcompeted the local men as they went; their success is demonstrated in the overwhelming dominance of the R-M269 lineage in Europe… The haplogroup connects all these men to still others in the Iranian Plateau and Central Asia, where between 5 and 10% of men also bear the lineage.’

            Now, if it’s not obvious where I’m going with this, let me just ask you straight-out: How exactly are you not, yourself, equating Western civ with the Caucasian race, when you claim (btw, I have no doubt accurately) that the haplogroup R-M269 is the overwhelming dominant male lineage in Europe? FYI, apparently, I’m in the minority. My paternal haplogroup is R-L48, per

            Anyway, would you like to take a guess what race the Neolithic European population was? If you’re not sure, let me give you a hint. You’re going to have an exceptionally hard time locating R-M269 in modern day Libya (0.0% of population), Egypt (2.9%), India (0.5%), or even China (0.8%), and don’t bother with Japan (0.0%). While R-M269 may not have a perfect correlation (an absolute value of 1) to the Caucasian race, one can have fairly high confidence that the race of the dominant lineage in Europe (R-M269) was, in fact, Caucasian. Obviously not every person in Europe at the dawn of Western Civilization was Caucasian, but complete homogeneity is not a necessary condition for classification – and, frankly, that’s an absurd proposition (and a strawman).

            So, just to be clear, how are you not equating race with Western civ?

        • Doctor Locketopus says

          > I suppose if you want to go back far enough, the West began with the Yamnaya peoples in the Bronze Age

          No. The West as we know it began with Plato. Also Euclid, Sophocles, Phidias, and others.

          The ancient Greeks came up with a genuinely New Thing, and we’re still running off the fumes of that New Thing today.

          • Doctor Locketopus says

            That is to say, there’s no evidence that they much n common with what we know as “Western Civilization”, as opposed to being just one of many barbarian tribes who have invaded out of extreme Eastern Europe or Western/Central Asia. Our languages may be (distantly) descended from them, but that’s about it. I can’t imagine them spending much time ruminating on philosopher-kings, or inventing the precursors of calculus (as compared to time spent on the more traditional invading barbarian activities like looting, burning, and raping).

          • Ashutosh Ranjan says

            Anyone who say that Greeks came up with a genuinely New Thing obviously has not studied what the Greeks learnt from ancient seat of knowledge in Indian subcontinent.

          • Doctor Locketopus says

            > Anyone who say that Greeks came up with a genuinely New Thing obviously has not studied what the Greeks learnt from ancient seat of knowledge in Indian subcontinent.

            Pure nonsense.

      • To make it simpler: Greece was a distinct ancient culture, and the culture of Ancient Greece ended as it got absorbed into the Roman Empire and Christianized. The Classical works of this ancient culture had a major influence on another, subsequent, culture, Western Christendom. But we are talking two different languages, two different political structures, two different religious systems, two different geopolitical configurations, etc. etc. Two not one, one influencing the other.

        You can take Persia, modern Persia is not ancient Persia. They got Islam and Arabic, and while the memory of ancient times and Farsi did not die out, its a different cultural unit than pre-Islamic Persia, otherwise, the Shah would probably still be the ruler.

        • Farris says

          “and the culture of Ancient Greece ended as it got absorbed into the Roman Empire and Christianized.”

          Kione Greek is regarded as the original language of the New Testament.

      • When I say Christendom, I mean the portion of Europe that was Roman Catholic and in which the educated classes knew and spoke Roman in the 14th Century. Not Orthodox Countries, not Muslim Countries. That is/was Western Civilization. But it did not emerge ex nihilo, it received significant cultural influences which gradual converged into the modern West. Obviously, they preserved the Classics, and they followed a Messiah from ancient Judea, but they weren’t Greeks and they were not ancient Israelites.

      • Saw file says

        Nonsense, unless you are advocating change of definition?

      • Greece was part of the Ottoman empire ,not even very long ago, and a lot of dishes, bread types and songs are still the same as in Turkey. They are now part of the EU, but scarcely had a role in the industrialisation, socialisation and democratisation. Their harbour recently was bought up by the Chinese. But I still love to go there on vacation, lovely, the blue seas, the sun, the beach, Paradise!

      • D.B. Cooper: I will attempt to put this in a simple way.

        All taxonomies are arbitrary, but not all taxonomies are useful.

        Western Civ. vs. Non-Western Civ. is a taxonomy. It is arbitrary but useful (hence, the disciplines associated with it).

        “Western Civilization” is an interesting category because it transcends ethnicity and language (like the Holy Roman Empire) but is narrower than a continental racial grouping.

        I take Western Civilization to be those regions that had a self-consciousness of being “Western” or “the West”, and of being distinct from other, “Non-Western” regions. That gives you the Northwestern Med (Western Roman Empire) + Germanic peoples. Then you go back in time to their cultural predecessors (Greece, Rome, Christianity)–these can be said to be part of “Western Civ” (as they are necessary conditions) but also not “Western” because they lack the self-consciousness. “Greeks” were Greeks, not Westerners, a “Roman” was a Roman citizen, not a Westerner. Excluding these antecedents makes sense because stuff like Byzantium is left out (arbitrarily) unless understood as a path on a historical and cultural tree. . . and its what you want to say.

        The lines around “Western Civilization” are fuzzy, and debatable, but this does not make the concept useless because it is indefinite, nor does it mean that there is no “Western Civilization”. “Fat” is pretty indefinite, but the concept of a person being fat is perfectly useful.

        • D.B. Cooper says


          All taxonomies are arbitrary, but not all taxonomies are useful.

          Uh, no shit.

          While I appreciate you putting it in simple terms for me, might I suggest next time reading all of my comments on the topic – such as my original comment on this article (posted Jan. 11th) – before wasting either of our time explaining something that I, not only agree with, but have already said.

          You’re certainly entitled to your own classification (taxonomy) of Western civ as well as your justification(s) for doing so – assuming your reasons are coherent – but adhering to the advice (above) may, in the future, prevent talking past one another; which I assume has been much of the case with regards to this particular thread.

          In any event, going forward I hope we can manage to have more fruitful discussions on various topics as they present themselves.

    • I think that the “West” is congruent with the Indo-European language group. So, Greece, Russia, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and most of India are included.

      Maybe it would be a good idea to link civilization studies to the associated language group.

      • I don’t think that’s a good idea, EK, and wonder what others (especially the linguists, anthropologists, historians among them) think about that. The Hungarians, Basques, even the Fins would, in that case, not belong to Western culture, and the Gypsies, Persians, Indians yes. Not a good idea, thus.

        • I should have added that obviously Hebrew culture along with the culture of linguistic inclusions like Hungary, Finland and the Basque region are also part of Western Civilization.

          Indian, Pakistani and even Afghani culture would be included because we ended up west of the Urals do share a common language structure and origin myths.

          Have you read “The Horse, the Wheel and Language” by David W. Anthony (2007)? Western civilization is Indo-European civilization.

    • Jay Salhi says

      @KD I agree with most of that but is Russia not part of Christendom?

      • Jay:

        Christendom was Roman Catholic, Russia was Orthodox.

        This is part of the nonsense of the “torch story”. The Western Roman Empire fell. The Eastern Roman Empire was alive and well for another 1000 years or so, until their fellow Christians kicked their teeth in during the 4th Crusade, and the Ottomans finished the job.

        Traditional Western Civ gives no time to the Byzantines and ignore Orthodox Countries. In fact, part of the Greek revival was Byzantine scholars fleeing to Italy when Constantinople fell. Then the Italians “discovered” their Greek heritage and the Renaissance happened.

        “Western Civ” was basically your Germanic Peoples + foot print of the Western Roman Empire which went on to become explorers, conquerors, inventors, and devised modern political systems (e.g. the Nation-State). But they didn’t fall out of the sky, they had books from (some) other cultures like the Romans and the Greeks. . . and they invented the “torch story”. But Byzantium was never traditionally included in Western Civ (even though they were quite Greek in influence and very Christian), nor were the Orthodox regions (ditto).

        Further a culture like India, even though there was clear influence between Rome and India (Plotinus planned a trip to India to study Buddhism but got sick or something), had marginal to zero influence on “Western Civilization” until the East Indian Tea Company came on the scene. Not part of “Western Civilization”, even though we can find genetic similarities and linguistic and cultural parallels (importance of horse sacrifice in Norse rites versus Vedic rites).

    • IsiahBerlinWall says

      Greece? For real? The foundation of our entire, indubitably Western culture is Greece. Forget the minor theological quibble about Orthodoxy .vs. Catholicism. Whatever Greece is today (and if you go there you’ll find it’s as ‘Western’ as plenty of other places one could mention) that cultural legacy alone justifies its inclusion.

      The Caucasus is a different matter, though; and with Russia the 18th-century veneer of Francophilia among the middle and upper classes never really aligned Russians to the mainstream traditions of Western thought.

      • (Re-writing this comment because the first hasn’t shown up). Sorry guys this thread is too long (and raises too many different issues) for me to reply to all of them. But though I think trying to define the West can be a fun game, and analytically interesting, I was trying to get us away from the search for the perfect definition. I think a more pragmatic approach is better – different Western Civ courses can have different texts in them at the margin (and may even include some e.g. Muslim thinkers who interacted with Aquinas or Aristotle), but there’ll be a core of texts that virtually all Western Civ courses include. Moreover, some texts will be more linked to each other than to e.g. Confucius’ Analects, or even to the Koran (which obviously many Westerners knew about). And once we are talking about degrees of connectedness, we are back at one our key points – that ‘Westernness’ isn’t a discrete variable but a continuous one (but that doesn’t make it less real).

  14. It is curious that Oswald Spengler, even when he was completely wrong, displayed a deeper understanding of culture and history than these either of these academic morons and the rags that publish them.

    You couldn’t drown a flea in the intellectual depth of Graeber and Appiah.

    • I don’t know, I think that Appiah seems an interesting thinker (though I haven’t read much of his work), and I think Graeber is certainly an interesting and often valuable thinker in the anarchist tradition (one I’ve always found particularly interesting, as it overlaps to some extent with the world of direct democratic theory, something I’m interested in as a student of ancient democracy). Anyway, whatever you think of them overall as intellectuals, I think Appiah’s ideas here are interesting, and versions of them have been influential; so I thought it might be worthwhile engaging with them.

  15. You can visualize Western Civilization through this cultural map based on the World Survey:

    Western Civilization encompasses the three areas to the top right corner: Catholic Europe, Protestant Europe, and the Anglosphere. Unsurprisingly, their cultural values are quite similar to each other, and quite different from say Tunisia, even though Tunisia is closer to France geographically than France is to Australia.

    Likewise, we should not be surprised that the Confucian countries, although culturally, historically and geographically distinct from Christendom, have very similar values to the European outlook, and these countries have been the most successful non-Western Countries in the post-colonial era.

    • Thank you, that’s very interesting. And I think the approach they have taken here – looking at what values are espoused by most people in certain regions – is an excellent way of getting empirical about this issue. (I first came across this style of analysis in Michael Adams’ ‘Fire and Ice,’ which shows how different the US and Canada are by polling people on things like ‘Do you think the father should be the master of the household?’ – agreed with by many Americans, esp. in the South, but very few Canadians, even in Alberta).

      What I like about this approach is also that it’s actually less cut and dried than some might think looking at that graph. The point isn’t that everyone in Tunisia thinks the same, and so does everyone in France, but that if you take a random Tunisian they’re more likely to espouse certain views than a random French person. This can incorporate some Tunisians being more ‘Western’ and some French being more ‘Muslim’ or whatever.

      Now, how the present picture is related to the historical differences I talk about in my piece is an interesting question. The WVS might suggest that the influence of a cultural inheritance is still quite strong, though it’s worth bearing in mind the influence of economic growth. Even people in Sweden had much more traditional views 100 years ago than they do now; and people in Muslim and African countries seem to have become more liberal in their outlook as their GDP has changed.

  16. “We acted as though we had tried to find the real artichoke by stripping it of its leaves” — L. Wittgenstein.

    Just like Western Civilization, artichokes don’t exist, because no leaf on an artichoke is a necessary and sufficient condition of it being an artichoke. Why doesn’t the Guardian publish an article on the non-existence of the artichoke while its at it?

    • Yes, I’ve definitely been influence in my view of definitions more by Wittgenstein than by Plato. (An interesting example in itself, actually, of a particularly long thread in Western philosophy.)

      To be fair, you can see why Western civilization might attract more discussion than artichokes (which I’m very fond of). But I do think that the use of this argument against Western Civ when it could equally be used again so many other concepts (the world, Islamic Civ, art, poetry, vegetables) does suggest that there’s a particular animus in some quarters against the West.

      I understand why that is – because it’s thought by some that the West has a particularly nefarious legacy. Is that true? Well, you’ll have to read Part 3…

  17. The “fuzzy logic” fallacy runs something like this:-

    1. There is no clear boundary between tall people and short people (in the sense that there is no hard and fast rule on what is considered tall or short)

    2. Therefore it is impossible to say who is tall and who is short

    3. Therefore there is no such thing as tall people

    • C Young says

      Yes the argument is laughably flawed. Yes it asserts standards that we don’t apply, and couldn’t apply, in practice. But personally, I would point to Wittgenstein on games/family resemblances rather than this fallacy.

      • I would still say it belongs to the category of arguments whereby one asserts that “the boundaries of A are not unambiguously clear, therefore thing A cannot exist”

        • Bab

          Excellent point about the ambiguity of bounderies. I think much of this way of thinking could be characterized as nothing less than a Cult of Ambiguity – “who’ s-to-say?” is their “Praise the Lord” or “Allah Akbar”.

          Thanks for the Orwell reference below


        • C Young says

          @Bab Well, its good to see someone critiquing the logic of this argument. Your point is surely approximately correct and far closer than Appiah.

          I wonder if you have read Michael Dummett’s paper “Wang’s Paradox” in Truth and Other Enigmas. He credibly asserts that there is no such thing as colour per the usual standards of logic.

    • @Bab

      You have not quite got this down. This is a weak fallacy [not formal logic] which can be argued either way. P1 and P2 do the damage. There is no need to assert the 3rd. Let your opponent draw the necessary conclusions. If you assert the 3rd you lose the ground for deniability – as you end up making a positive claim.

      But notice to get out of the above argument one would absolutely have to give some sort of differentiating criteria between tall and short. So one can say – take the average – anyone below is short and anyone above is tall. Or anyone who is above the 3rd quartile is tall and below the 1st are short. [mean, mode, median]

      If you cannot produce any criteria to differentiate between tall and short then it perfectly reasonable to outright dismiss short and tall.

      This is why I said it better not to assert the 3rd. For if someone does as asked and gives a decent definition then you are the one who will have to provide evidence for the positive claim.

          • Thanks everyone. This obviously touches on some issues in the philosophy of language that go quite deep, so I’m grateful for the paper recommendations from people who obviously know more about language and logic than I do. (I did actually do elementary logic as part of my ‘Literae Humaniores’ course, but did so badly I decided not to take the course on Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein that had originally attracted my interest.) I’ve downloaded Dummett’s paper and will have a read.

            In the meantime, I have to say that Bab’s argument strikes me as a sound one. Amin’s objections strike me as over-intellectual, in the sense that they seem to require people to define people to define words definitively, using bright lines, whereas we use language in more continuous ways all the time, without anything disappearing or our concepts ceasing to make coherent sense.

            I think the meaning of ‘tall’ and ‘short’ when we’re talking about people is set by our sense of how tall people are on average. We can mostly agree on what a tall person is (for example, nobody has ever called me short, whereas people ask me what the weather is up here approximately 1 in every 11 introductions). We can mostly agree on which people are short. Then there are people in the middle – but when we see them, nobody says, ‘Damn! There go those words I used to find useful! “Tall” and “short” have been inherently flawed all this time!’

            I think you could say something similar about the terms ‘Western’ and ‘non-Western’.

  18. Charlie says

    The West starts with the early Bronze Age and moves onto the Minoans (Lived on Crete ) and the Mycenaen Civilisation on mainland Greece and Linear A and languages. The Mycenean ends in the 12th century BC and Greece enters The Dark Age , towns destroyed and writing forgotten. Greece comes out of Dark Ages around 850 BC and Olympics founded in 776 BC. Greece develops as a series of city states Athens, Thebes Sparta , Corinth , etc and unite to fight the Persians Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis. The Greeks consider themselves different to Asiatics- competitive, individualism, literate, analytical, discuss everything, start drama, public discourse and an absence of a love of luxury and prostrating themselves before rulers. Rulers are not semi-divine. Greeks develop discussion and writing to dominant aspects of their culture and design parts of towns so that people can come together and discuss affairs’ also symposia. The Greeks scientific and technological discoveries are incredible. The idea of the Atom was developed Greek philosophers Leucippus and Democritus in the 5th century BC. Hero discovered steam power in 100AD.

    The Greeks develop the ideas that self control, proportion, balance, training of the mind ( Academia) and body ( Gymnasia ) are essential for civilisation.

    Greece conquered by Macedonia and Hellenic culture taken to Afghanistan, hence Buddha statutes wearing Greek robes. Greece conquered by Rome who adopt Greek culture and knowledge.

    Rome is based upon discipline and service to the State.

    Collapse of Western Rome 410 AD. By this time Bishoprics founded and these continue administration. Barbarians – Goths, Franks, semi- Christianised use Bishops and church for administration. Kings adopt concept of Emperor being divine of late Roman Empire and Latin educated Church provides administration.

    Orthodox church send St Basil and Cyril to convert Slavs who adapt Greek script- Cyrillic.

    Prior to conquest of Islam, Syrian Christian Church at Basra.

    Post 410 AD, Western thought controlled by Church. Language for communication was Latin. From AD 1400, The Renaissance adoption of Greek thought in N Italy and linear perspective produces realistic painting. No other culture develops linear perspective and realistic painting.

    In England, Anglo- S do not adopt the concept of Divine Right of Kings but combine tribal Law with laws of The Bible to create English Law, starting with Aethelbert of Kent in 650 AD; Magna Carta of 1215 and Parliament of 1295 AD are AS traditions.

    Music becomes important in the Church – Benedictine Chant from about 600 AD.

    Christianity and respect for Roman and Greek civilisation unites Europe. Under F Bacon, England develops empirical science. By undertaking experiments and measuring and recording it speeds up technological development compared to just experience.

    The Industrial and Agricultural Revolutions come about in Britain for several reasons
    1. Mid 16th Protestants believed that of people were honest, hard working and God fearing that people would be rewarded in this life.
    2. Protestants encourage that every person should read the Bible so very high levels of literacy and many are involved in the crafts.
    3. Private property.
    4. People are free to think, speak and experiment.- no centralised control.
    5. Society is fluid and newly rich can enter ruling classes e.g Wedgewood, Guinness families.
    Conditions are very similar to N Italy where modern day banking and commerce start which provides money for the Renaissance.

    The Enlightenment and post Baroque Architecture looks back to Greece- Palladio, Plato and democracy. 18th century Enlightenment is the light of knowledge whose flame was lit by the Greeks.

    Western Society- Christian Charity, curiosity and competition which produced:-
    The Sistine Chapel and paintings by Michelangelo, Shakespeare, canals, coke produced from coal without which there is no mass production of iron and steel, steam engines, railways, symphonies, telegraphs, radios, television, landing on the moon, penicillin, computers, parliaments, freedom of the individual enshrined in law.

  19. Stephanie says

    This was a good piece, clear, concise and apparently necessary, although I wish it weren’t. I do wonder why it wasn’t the first of the series, though, since whether the concept of the West even exists is more fundamental than how it should be taught in university.

    Perhaps a later instalment will address this question, but as to defining the West, I think the cultural legacy of the Judeo-Christian tradition is key. Forgive my ignorance if this is inaccurate, but here’s my take: what makes the West unique is grounded in the Torah. Our deepest cultural remembrances are of becoming sentient (eating the apple), at which point we began a quest to become powerful beyond our imagining. Our oldest stories trace our historic and ethical evolution; what is praised as good behaviour in one chapter is outlawed a few chapters later. This incolcates the concept that change is ethical, but must be built incrementally from our historical foundations towards a goal that transcends time. With Jesus, we transcended Hebrew tribalism and set a high standard for individual conduct. We built on these religious roots by incorporating the best of every society we supplanted or interacted with, and the centre of cultural power shifted as new philosophical innovations occured, and societies (like Russia) splintered off and lost track of the mission.

    The understanding we slowly developed of the world as knowable, that it (God) follows a logic we can infer but maybe not yet understand meshed with the Classical concepts of reason, leading directly to the Lutheran revolution that emphasizes the individual’s capacity to commune with God. This individualistic empowerment to interpret the universe lead to the creation of science, then to the capitalistic system that is a manifestation of our agency as individuals. These ideals were formalized in the British system of government, and culminated in the United States, with it’s emphasis on individual freedom and the primacy of ideals over ethnic heritage.

    I think the West is less a collection of geographic regions, or even a shared culture or set of ideals, than it is an unbroken line of cultural evolution designed to achieve the promise of Genesis: from the moment we became self-aware, we were destined to become like God.

    • Just Me says

      My take is very similar, but I would emphasize the importance of the notion of a God that judges individuals on their moral behavior towards others rather than their adherence to ritual details, the equal moral worth of every individual soul before God, and social justice as an ideal, i.e. charity, humility as virtues and the duty to care for the weak, sick, widow and orphan, the poor, etc.

      Ironically that provided the seed that evolved into today’s notions of human rights and our extreme SJWs.

      • Thanks, Stephanie, that’s an interesting reading of Western cultural history, and an interesting definition you’ve offered (and far from ignorant), but part of the idea of my piece was simply to say, ‘Just because finding a watertight definition is hard doesn’t mean Western civilization isn’t a thing.’

        As for why this was came second in the series: there would obviously have been several different ways of doing this. I think I started with the piece on teaching Western and other civs side-by-side because I wanted to acknowledge and incorporate what I did agree with in the contemporary criticisms of ‘Western Civ’ before going on to offer counter-arguments to those criticisms.

  20. Doctor Locketopus says

    It is long past time that the academy stops taking people like Appiah seriously. As the old saw has it, one should not be so open-minded that one’s brain falls out.

    Appiah demonstrably does not believe his own bullshit (the various university chairs which he has occupied would not even exist without the Western Civilization whose existence he denies), so why should his theories be granted any more respect than, say, the discarded phlogiston theory in chemistry, the discarded caloric theory in physics, or the discarded “baby rats are spontaneously generated from piles of old rags” theory in biology?

    While the proponents of such beliefs may have the right to hold them (nor would I prevent them from doing so even if I could), there is no requirement that their bizarre counterfactual theories should be supported at public expense.

    We see no need for endowed chairs in “Flat Earth Studies” or (even more on point) academic Naziism, “academic freedom” or not. The various Marxist heresies and cultural relativism should be given the same treatment.

  21. Appiah is trying to find a place for people of colour in the West. If he can advance the argument that there is no such thing as Western civilisation, that makes it all the more easier for him, but it strips us of our identity and history. No thanks.

    • Just Me says

      I get that that is the underlying motivation, but that itself is a fallacy, and never really explained, it just seems to be taken for granted and implied. I would like to see the argument spelled out.

  22. The likes of Kwame Anthony Appiah are intellectual jackals who feast upon the weakened carcas of a civilization which has lost faith in itself. People who know who they are and are guided by some kind of sense of destiny do not particularly concern themselves with such parasitism. That James Kierstead or any of us feel the need to logically make the case for the historic unity of Western Civilization is itself a sign of fragmentation.

    • Charlie says

      Good points. Western Civilisation from the time of Homer ,celebrates, the heroic, especially the individual self sacrifice or acts of achievement, from the Spartan 300 to Suffragette . Those who attack Western Civilisation are those who tend to be left wing middle class who are impractical and effete and lack the vitality, courage and capacity for creative action. Orwell said HG Wells was a boiled rabbit who hated the swashbuckling qualities.

      Compared to other societies, in the West there is the absence of prostrating oneself and automatic deferring oneself before Kings or elders. In Asian and African Societies , the young automatically defer to the elders, which is why technological innovation is slow as they lack the freedom to think and act for themselves. Islam means slave of Allah. In China the individual is unimportant, only the state matters. Modern day presidents are Red Emperors and the Communist Party acts as former Mandarins. When Wellington said the Battle of Waterloo was one on the playing fields of Eton he meant the capacity for young officers to think and act for themselves, initiative, was in calculated as boys.

      Drake, Newcomen , J Tull and those who created the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions thought and acted for themselves, they used their initiative

      If there is no freedom for individual heroic thought and action then , then those who lack these qualities will not be shown to be inadequate. Time spent at university studying the arts does not mean a person is courageous, capable of initiative , resolute, resilient, robust , adaptable ; they are just clerks.

      • Charlie, I love the term “clerks” for this ascendant class of clever, resentful rodents who live in the world of pieces. In fact, the only other time I’ve heard this term is from a very well educated but down to earth friend.

        I think it’s absolutely true that clerks don’t really create, but they are good with the pieces – counting, organizing, manipulating etc. They’re not so good with the whole. And much of the modern world, for better or worse, is the result of the plodding industriousness of clerks. The problem today, as I see it, is that the clerks want to rule and would remake the world in their image. This can only end badly (as it always has when clerk thinking rules)

        So, I say: All praise to the bean counters . . . insofar as they count beans.

        • In France, clerks has another, more positive meaning, Julien Benda’s famous La Trahison des Clercs, has been translated in other languages with The Betrayal of the Intellect, clerks in France are the intellectuels that look beyond the national borders where it comes to morals and human values, and therefore, Benda has become a new guide for european intellectuals in search of truth and justice worldwide.

          • Charlie says

            That is laughable. Intellectuals supported Stalin and did no fighting in WW2. Heidegger supported Hitler and Sartre did nothing. In the UK Orwell described Isherwood and Auden as The Pansy Left who fled to the USA. The Frankfurt School fled to the USA and did no fighting. About the only intellectuals who fought were the historian G Elton who was infantry sergeant in Italy and MRD Foot in the SAS. The only people who can claim to have any intellectual pretensions were the various special forces types who wrote about their exploits- Spencer Chapman, P leigh Fermour, Willy Moss, E Newby and who were largely conservative in outlook.,.

        • Charlie says

          “Clever resentful rodents “- excellent phrase

          I suggest reading C Northcote Parkinson( Parkinson’s Law, In Law and Outlaw and Law of Profits , A Toynbee- A Study of History abridged by Somervell and Ibn Khaldun Philosophy of Arab History . The 3 writers have put forward reasons for collapses of civilisation which are very similar, Khaldun’s is the most succinct.

          Parkinson- Rome, Moghul and Chinese civilisations due to over taxation and over spending by bureaucrats .
          A Toynbee- Creative minority lose their ability to create, rest on oars, and hence attractiveness and become tyrannical to keep power. They from the Pied Piper who attracts to Xerxes who uses the whip.
          Khaldun- A dynasty last 3 generations , 120 years, due to loss of vitality and solidarity. He says once men lose their ability to defend themselves and rely on walls and garrisons, they lose their uprightness and manliness.

          Think of family businesses; after 3 generations more members want to spend dividends than earn them: more useless mouths than useful ones.
          Most left wing middle class arts graduates tend to be puny effete impractical types; they are not boxers, rugby, hockey, lacrosse players who read engineering at university and serve in combat roles or dangerous heavy industry.
          Orwell has the best description of left wing middle class types – boiled rabbits, despise swashbuckling, despise physical courage, patriotism British culture ( down to earth, hale and hearty, contact sports, beer, robust common sense, sense of humour, saucy seaside postcards), shallow self righteousness, only capable of carping criticism,

          Clever, resentful rodents who consume the food created and through self control, foresight and practical skills stored by others.

          Appiah and his ilk lack the practical skills, vitality ,drive, creativity and initiative to add to any civilisation. Those who build and maintain infrastructure are of more use. As one Roman said ” Our temples are our roads, aquaducts and sewers “.

          • Doctor Locketopus says

            > I suggest reading C Northcote Parkinson

            His The Evolution of Political Thought is well worth a read, as long as you adjust your filters slightly to account for his (natural, but not overwhelming) bias toward the British parliamentary system as the Best Government EVARR!!!

            It was out of print the last time I looked, but scanned copies are available on the Web.

          • Charlie, I look forward to your suggestions – Ibn Khuldun looks especially interesting. Thanks.

            Seems we are in paradoxical times: what we’ve been calling “education” turns out to be, in effect, a kind of sophisticated mass idiocy which insures a kind of righteous conformity. I believe it is grounded on the delusion that skepticism is knowledge. Being skeptical of ones own ways of thinking and being aware of other ways of thinking may be healthy or it may be a sign of cultural and psychological fragmentation and enervation. The latter seems more to be the case today.

            I do think it is a sign of health that more and more people are recognizing the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of much of what passes for thinking these days. This awareness, in itself, doesn’t do much though it may be a beginning. We need to be skeptical of the value of skepticism. Speaking for myself, I respect James Kierstead’s efforts but, I’m not convinced his kind of suggestions are more cure than symptom.

            So where does the vitality which forms civilization come from and why does it dissapate? And, as your comments suggest, what are the signs of dissapation? At the very least, we need to distinquish shit from shinola.

            Cultivating intellectual hypersensitivity reminds me of C.S. Lewis: “We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.

            Where did Orwell use the term “boiled rabbits”?

          • Orwell used the term “boiled rabbits” in an essay “My Country Right or Left”, but the main thrust of this argument was spelt out more fully in Road to Wigan Pier.

      • “Compared to other societies, in the West there is the absence of prostrating oneself and automatic deferring oneself before Kings or elders.”

        Charlie, this distinction is clearer still in the U.S.: we are the west of the west.

      • Just Me says


        Every tribe and empire made heroes of its individual warriors who sacrificed their life for the greater good, of brilliant generals, etc.

        And every king, emperor, etc., whether in China, Japan, India, etc. had to constantly guard against and put down upstarts and rebels.

        Nothing unique about western civilisation in that.

        What made us different was the evolution of the notion of rights against the divine right of kings.

        • Charlie says

          No civilisation has praised the individual act, from the Iliad and Odyssey onwards as the Western . The individual is not swamped by the hordes – compare Spartans at Thermopylae with Persians.

          CN Parkinson said the Greeks developed as large villages in small valleys who used the sea for transport. Consequently, people were multiskilled and had to learn to be flexible to master the sea. The Asians developed in large cities on massive fertile river plains and people were single skilled . Consequently individuality was lost- read Est -West.

  23. Samuel Isaac Andrews says

    James Kierstead,

    It is absurd to say a western civilization doesn’t exist. But, I do see a lot misconceptions about what it means. It is something that changed overtime. People forget this.

    For example, I have a problem with people wrongly referring to ancient Greece as western in the same sense as Europe/America are today. I see it as Greeks contributed to what would become the western world today but there is no direct father-son type of relationship.

    I see the west as something that gradually overtime, starting with the Roman empire, became a cultural sphere.

    Another problem, I have is people define western civilization really as western high culture that was not relevant to the masses of people who live in the western world. Shakespeare, Mozart, Plato most western people are ignorant of them and always have been.

    • Charlie says

      Vitality comes from hard physical work and a diet with plenty of protein, vitamins and minerals: think of the English and Welsh archers who could draw a 200 lb bow, 24 times in 2 minutes or the sailors who could fire a cannon every 80 seconds in Nelson’s ships.

      Europe is a Greek name. The Greeks defined themselves in opposition to Asia and Rome adopted Greek culture. Greece s the root of what it is to be Western.

      A Toynbee says civilisations occur where people rise to and overcome challenges. Where life is too easy civilisation does not develop because there is no need. Where life is too tough such as the Inuit, then all energy and time is spent on survival. Therefore there is the golden mean which produces Egypt, Sumer, Indus, China, Greece, etc, etc.

      Where civilisations expand, people aspire to become civilised. In 16th century English people read The Bible and attended the plays of Shakespeare and in the 17th ad 18th centuries all classes either attended or aspired to attend the opera.

      Orwell described H G wells as a boiled rabbit.

      Doctor Locketopus .Thank you for advice on C Northcote Parkinson: I shall read him.

      I consider there are several main problems facing the West
      1. Vast increase in wealth and quality of living conditions in the last 150 years combined with the decline of physically tough dangerous working conditions has led to the creation of massive numbers of effete impractical mediocre clerical middle class types who lack experience of industry, farming, fishing, combat. Khaldun is explicit that luxurious living and the removal of the need of men to defend themselves due to walls and garrisons rob them of vitality, manliness and uprightness – compare Bedu with town dwellers.

      2. the “Boiled Rabbits ” of the left so they wish to destroy the Western tradition of mythic heroic endeavour such as Odysseus, Arthur, Robin Hood or in reality, The Spartan 300, Horatio, Brindley, James Watt, The Stephensons, F Nightingale, TE Lawrence , etc because it shows up their inadequacy . The Left have pictures of Che Guevara on their walls at university yet despise physical courage and patriotism and faint at the sight of muddy rugby or hockey pitch or boxing ring. In general left wing university arts departments do not produce engineers, rugby players and future commando officers.

      Skepticism is no use in overcoming challenges; faith based upon experience combined with prudence enables obstacles to be overcome.

      • Or “faith based upon experience combined with prudence” can found a civilization.

        Nietzsche said that a culture or a civilization represents “the sublimation of cruelty”

        It seerms we live in a time when thinking has become radically disconnected from doing. As the Vedic philosophers understood, consciousness itself is the relationship of thinking and doing. Doing without thinking is called stupidity; thinking without doing these days gets you tenure or possibly a chance to write articles for the Guardian suggesting that reality is merely a mental construct.

      • Just Me says

        Mythic heroic endeavour is not unique to western civilisation, on the contrary, it is quite common.

        What made western civ different is its development of the concepts of rights and the equal moral worth of the poor and weak, coming from Christianity. No such concepts in Rome, Greece, India, China, Japan, the Vikings, the Barbarian hordes, the Aztecs, etc.

        Ironically the modern SJWs are as oblivious to this as the right wing.

    • Just Me says

      Kierstead’s use of the metaphor of a conversation, twitter feed, threads, etc. is most appropriate imo.

      What defines a civilisation, like a conversation, is not the precise wording, or that there is agreement between the parties, but on the contrary, it is about what is considered worth discussing, exchanging ideas about, the differences of opinion are as important as the points of agreement.

      Conversations evolve over time depending on previous conversations, i.e. the context is important to evaluate any specific utterance. So with elements of a civilisation, they are only to be fully understood in context.

  24. Fickle Fickle says

    It could be said that the USA is the leading edge expression of Western Civilization.New York city alone was the cauldron where much of that creative (and destructive) expression occurred.

    It is also now suffering or manifesting the most advanced forms of its inevitable disintegration.

    Isnt that what the Golden Golem of Greatness represents and what he is facilitating. He is in the process of demolishing all of the necessary cultural building blocks that create and hold together a positive and compassionate human world.
    The “culture” that he invokes and empowers does not in any sense appeal to the better angels of our individual and collective nature. Quite the opposite in fact. The “culture” that he represents, invokes and empowers is not at all friendly to living-breathing-feeling beings, human or otherwise

    He is obviously culturally illiterate and indeed makes a mockery of all the best aspects of the West.
    He also makes a mockery of Jordan Peterson’s 12 rules.

    And yet some of the so called conservatives here in Australia pretend that the Golden Golem is going to make a positive difference to both the USA and the world altogether.

    A salient point – maybe. Marshall McLuhan told us that the “medium is the message”.
    What kind of dramatic in-your-face message does the medium in the form of “beautiful bombs” communicate?

    • Doctor Locketopus says

      > Marshall McLuhan told us that the “medium is the message”.

      Yeah, well, Marshall McLuhan said a lot of stupid shit.

  25. C Young says

    The attacks on the existence of Western culture are absolute rubbish.

    The UK Left has made similar attacks on the existence of British culture. Interestingly, they don’t deny the existence of, say, Brazilian culture. (This would amount to denying the existence of culture itself) Its only the imperialists who are not to be allowed a culture.

    This is absurdly provincial. My Brazilian wife finds the idea that Britain does not have a culture ridiculous. However hard Britons may find to define it, its as real to her as her hand in front of her face.

    The arguments used to deny culture are obviously flawed. Just because a concept has ragged edges, and its impossible to define necessary and sufficient conditions, doesn’t mean it is not a valid concept.

    See Wittgenstein on games.

    Are there no games?

    Can we please put an end the perpetual rehashing of low grade sceptical arguments in the support of the left ?

  26. defmn says

    Plato’s image of the cave is one of the most enduring in the intellectual history of ‘the west’. It is an extremely rich and textured image for purposes of this comment on this subject it essentially describes the human condition in relation to knowledge and what part culture plays upon that relationship.

    Hobbes and his mentor Bacon through their writings created the metaphysical and epistimological underpinnings of the cave we call the ‘modern liberal democracy’. Locke, Hume, John Stuart Mills, Rousseau etc. added tapestry, paintings, re-arranged the furniture a bit but Bacon and Hobbes are responsible for the architecture.

    It is this we call ‘the west’ these days and even as it is crumbling around the edges it very much exists as something real.

  27. “Is Western Civilization even a thing?”

    You know how people say that there’s no such thing as a stupid question?
    They’re wrong.

  28. Northern Observer says

    A childless gay cosmopilitain academice advances a theory denying the organic transmission of culture. How utterly predictable. Not that the particularism and discontinuities of western history arent interesting and worthy of study but to elevate these particualrieties to a denial of cultural significance is a stretch. The organic transmission of culture via the family over time is the basis of all culture. How has the west not a complished this many times over? despite being overrun and decimated by arabs, huns, avars, and ottomans? The survivors of these depredations came to make the nations that formed europe. Let us not deny their live history, their cultural struggle to be themselves, to be …. western.

  29. Nathan Ferguson says

    This piece is better than the first because it addresses more clearly the idea of a tradition. The later Greeks read the earlier Greeks; the Romans read the Greeks; the ancient Christians read the Jews and the Greeks; the neo-Platonists rewrote Plato and so did the Christian Platonists; Aquinas read and rewrote Aristotle, who traveled through Arabic on the way; the later Medieval Christians and the early moderns had a lot to digest and did something completely new with it all! The 18th century then made something completely new out of Greek and Roman thought once more. There is something continuous in this tradition because it is possible to go on reading Torah and the Psalmists and prophets and Plato and Aristotle and Greek Drama and the Christian New Testament and Plotinus and Augustine and on and on and re-inherit it, make it one’s own in the light of one’s time–partly because this historical conversation has been taking place for a fairly long time. It’s a tremendous inheritance and it makes for a different kind of life and self-understanding when one has it. It becomes a story, but only when we sees that it exists historically that way. It’s worth studying this way.

    Not to deny all the minor figures in this tradition or all the sideshoots and influences from other traditions and mixes and controversies (so important in this tradition to keep them alive!).

    Comparative studies are hugely important, but so are studies of specific traditions.

  30. Saw file says

    “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.”
    Only leftist ‘intellectual’ circle jerkist’s would debate that.
    Do they actually do such?
    Why are my tax dollars funding such idiocy!

  31. augustine says

    I found this second installment quite reassuring after the first. Thank you.

  32. Tom Elijah says

    The article doesn’t go deeper than the level of cultural practices but much of what differentiates cultures is at the level of values. A visit to the World Values Survey website provides some interesting insights.

  33. TheSnark says

    Such a debate as this can only come from a sterile academia. You have to spend years ensconced in an ivory tower to to even ask the question: “does Western Civilization exist?”

    Of course it does. Anyone with real-world experience outside their own civilization knows that. If you live (not visit, but live in, and work and eat and socialize with the locals) outside your own country, you will quickly realize that while Europeans, American, and Australians are different, they are all cut from the same cloth. If you try that in an Islamic country, or China, or India, you will quickly realize that the very fabric of society is different. How people interact with each other and with their society is very different, even the words they use to describe it do not translate well. In those countries people think differently than we do in the West.

    That is why I always laugh at the purveyors of multi-culturalism. While they “celebrate” (whatever that means) people who have different skin colors, wear different clothes, and eat different foods they are quite appalled when they encounter anyone who actually thinks differently. But how people think is the core of their, often very different, culture/civilization.

    • Steve says

      Yes, this is why I’m appalled by the the modern left, which is increasingly religious. Certain topics have become canon and for many of the anointed (thanks, Thomas Sowell) questioning them is not only wrong, but evil and sacrilegious.

      Multi-culturalism is at the top of this list. Never mind any evidence or data that shows that perhaps it’s not a great idea to import millions of people who don’t buy into our Western ideas. People who believe that free speech is nonsense, that their culture is superior and must and will replace ours, through violence if necessary.

      Merely uttering these doubts is heresy and must be silenced, either by these new arrivals or the left itself. An evil alliance.

  34. Song For the Deaf says

    “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?”

    Right, because it’s impossible for a civilization to encompass both high AND low cultures all at the same time, as proven by the fact that no other civilization in the history of the human race has managed this impossible feat.

    Somebody revoke this retard’s PhD and while they’re at it, take away Appiah’s too. These limp-wrists are good for nothing but weak attempts at being “provocative” by declaring that the basis of their own profession is incoherent. Anyone outside of academia will tell you that attacking the basis of your own profession is a retarded endeavor in the first place, but these guys can’t even come up with a good argument against it.

    Here’s one: Western Civ pays people like you to teach it.

    • Just Me says

      Song for the Deaf-

      “Somebody revoke this retard’s PhD and while they’re at it, take away Appiah’s too.”

      Do you mean Kierstead’s?? Did you actually read the article? Then you should know Kierstead is refuting Appiah, not defending him…

  35. Chris says

    ‘as Appiah rightly says, “no western essence is there to stop a New Yorker of any ancestry taking up Islam” ‘.

    Doh! Some people just don’t get it, but what do you expect from humanities professors. The western essence is extant and can be seen supporting that New Yorker’s right to take up Islam.

    Obviously a western essence of tolerance that still hasn’t taken root in many non-western parts of the world, and might have made ‘growing up gay in ghana’ very different to professorships in Cambridge and Princeton.

    And while we’re on humanities professors, is the David Graeber mentioned in the first paragraph of this post the person currently leading a mob trying to get a young Cambridge researcher fired?

    Perhaps running these posts was not the smartest editorial decision. Maybe an investigation into the continuing hounding of James Watson?

  36. Yesterday on our TV, a program about the Saudis. Driving in expensive cars, having electricity , elevators and the highest buildings of the world, I-phones and computerised systems, the best of western technology. But dressed unlike those westerners, talking about women and daughters unlike, about their Wahhab religion and freedom of speech unlike. In their periodicals, not even any mentioning of what happened in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul. So, a rather selective way of embracing that Western lifestyle.

  37. Steve says

    Not so long ago the average person rarely if ever traveled more than 10 miles from the place he was born. From this limitation came many distinct languages and cultures, 99% of which are gone.

    This is the time and space argument for distinct civilizations that the author makes very well. This is a difficult concept for the internet-connected, 24/7 socially networked individual to grasp, ironically because it’s not within THEIR experience.

    When we in the West use the word “civilized” we usually mean a civil discourse removed from violence or coercion. Much of this comes from the Greek Socratic tradition of asking pesky questions without being killed (though Socrates was). Much is rooted in Christian values. “That’s awfully Christian of you,” has become a joke but it really boils down to thanks for letting me have my say without killing or imprisoning me.

    Personally, I’m unsure why the question has even come up. I’ve been to upcountry Asia for extended periods of time and people there certainly didn’t seem to question that I was very different from them. And even Gandhi backhandedly admitted to the existence of Western civilization when he said he thought it would be a good idea.

    • Ghandi was heavily influenced by the West, of course, look at the early pictures of him, as a dandy, but, even more so, more influenced I mean, where he was sitting behind a local spinning wheel in wraps. That is the real West!!!!, not the technology, not the enlightenment, but feeling for the loosers, so, absolutely not the Hindu cast system. really, he was 100% western!

      • Ghandhi was clearly not 100% Western. And neither is sitting behind a spinning wheel in wraps being a true Westerner. Otherwise the general sentiment that he was heavily Western is certainly true. Even after his transformation he was very pro West. And it was in his love of West, that he was so anti-violence. One wonder might his attitude been so generous if he was dealing with African problems.

        • Idea: that youngsters in the west wear jeans with holes and rags (whereas they have all more than enough money to wear proper and expensive clots) is typical western, nowhere else this is seen, unless in western influenced circles (Moscu, but not in the small villages around there). Also in the hippie movement, I see western trends. And, thus also, in Gandhi behind a spinning wheel. He was a great man, that’s for sure. But , indeed, was he against apartheid? Maybe, India was more than enough to be occupied with, his revolution was not a global one, like the Trotsky type of communism.

  38. Just Me says

    So what happened to part which was supposed to be published “tomorrow”, i.e. January 12?

  39. Pingback: Is Western Civilization a Thing? | No. Betteridge’s Law

  40. Douglas Tate says

    Not an accident that the “west” and Islam are used as examples. What this is all about is the inherent animus towards our varied western civilization by academia, young people and the left. You’ll never hear them argue that there’s no such thing as Islam, or Asian culture, etc. They always focus their criticism on their own western culture or country and have nothing but praise or disinterest in any other. They often see other cultures as victims of the west. All this serves a psychological function….keeps the focus off yourself and virtue signalling allays any bad feelings that might lurk.

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