Why the West is a real thing

When one studies Indian philosophy, or Asian philosophy in general, one is always faced with its other: a philosophical tradition with origins to the west of India, which, after the history of colonialism and modernity, is in the background of everyone now. What should we call this tradition?

The term in by far the most widespread use is Western. It’s not a very good term, but it is the one we have, and I think there is good reason to keep it. I’ll be arguing that point in a series of three posts. I’ve seen two camps of people who discourage the use of “Western”. One (found within philosophy) merely discourages the term, in favour of the term “Euro-American”, which I find far worse; I will deal with that in the final post. The other thinks that “the West” doesn’t even name a meaningful referent at all, such that there should not even be a term to replace it. As I think that that’s a deeper criticism, I will start with it, in both this post and the next.

Natalie Wynn of ContraPoints argues that the “Western” tradition isn’t a real thing. Wynn rightly points out how places like Latin America and the Middle East have been traditionally excluded from “the West”, even though their cultures are part of the same Greek and Semitic historical complex. Wynn is right to note that that exclusion is a problem. But as far as I’m concerned, that isn’t actually an argument against getting rid of “the West”, but for including those places in it, to some extent at least.

I suspect Wynn argues for dropping the concept because she imagines that a “West” including Latin America and the Middle East would then look so broad as to be meaningless. But it does not look that way at all to those of us who study South and East Asia. More than half of the world’s population lives east of the Khyber Pass (and south of the Altai Mountains and north of the Timor Sea). People in those places inherit traditions with origins in northern India and China, independent from and other to a West that includes the Arab world and Latin America – and Eastern Europe. A concept of “the West” that includes all three of those regions is meaningful and significant to those concerned with the more than half of the world that is none of them.

More people live in South and East Asia than in the rest of the world combined.

That’s not to say that the whole Islamic world is of the West. “The West” is too big if it stretches from Nigeria to Indonesia. But there’s a difference between the Islamic heartland – the Arabic-speaking countries of North Africa and the Middle East (plus Turkey) where Islam began, which both deeply influenced and were influenced by Greek and Roman culture – and the many other places that Islam eventually spread to. Bangladesh is not a Western country despite being majority Muslim, just as the Philippines are not a Western country despite being majority Christian.

And yes, it is absolutely ironic that two of the three regions I’m arguing are of the West – Eastern Europe and the Middle East – have “East” in their names! Indeed it was these “Easts” that the concept of the “West” was originally defined against: coming out first of the East-West Schism between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. That usage persisted through the days when Eastern Europe was a Communist Other: “Ukraine girls really knock me out, they leave the West behind.” But, with the “Eastern Bloc” decades behind us, relatively few use the concept of the “West” in that way anymore. More often now we wrongly assimilate “the West” to a racialized “whiteness” – and Eastern Europe is of course “whiter” than Spain or Italy. But its “whiteness” is not the reason to include Eastern Europe in the West. Rather, what Eastern Europe does share with Western Europe is a set of historical roots, roots which they both share with Latin America and the Middle East (and North America and Oceania) – and not with sub-Saharan Africa or South or East Asia.

It is those historical roots, I would argue, that make “Western” tradition or civilization a thing. The contemporary cultures of North and South and Central America, Western and Eastern Europe, the southern and eastern Mediterranean and the Arabian Peninsula, all derive from the innovations of two original places: the classical Greek world of the northeastern Mediterranean, and the Semitic world rooted in that small stretch of land on the shores of the southeastern Mediterranean, the Nile, and the Red Sea. (Each of these worlds, note, first arose in lands further east than Warsaw or Sarajevo.) The pan-Mediterranean Roman Empire brought the two together, and eventually came to be dominated by a tradition whose sacred scriptures are half in Hebrew and half in Greek. As that empire declined, a new Semitic tradition arose which promptly turned back to the Greeks for its intellectual life – and whose learning would later prove essential to Northern Europe once it eventually came to be civilized for the first time. I don’t think it’s too hard to see the continuities among the cultures whose main roots go back to these Greek and Semitic worlds.

Latin America may be a question mark here because they have non-Western historical roots from their indigenous peoples – but that is also true of North America! I suppose that on these grounds one could make a reasonable case that the mostly indigenous Guatemala, say, should not be counted as a Western country – but if Canadians and Americans (let alone Australians) are Westerners, then Argentinians and Uruguayans definitely are too. Note that that distinction should be on cultural grounds, not racial ones; the issue is not that Guatemalan indigenous peoples aren’t white, but that their indigenous cultural heritage arose independently of Europe and the Mediterranean – as that of the Muslim Middle East did not. More on the supposed “whiteness” of the West next time.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

12 Replies to “Why the West is a real thing”

  1. Thank you Amod Lele for the clarification. I thought the Hellenistic and Semitic rooted philosophy could substitute the term ‘western tradition’. This post throws more light on the issue. However, I am still looking for the substitute. I wish I could find in the following posts. Thank you once again!

    • Glad you enjoyed them. The following posts aren’t out yet – I’ll post them on January 16 and 30. Stay tuned!

  2. Hey Amod, interesting stuff, especially the bit about Eastern Europe. I’m not entirely sure how common is to divide Europe in the West and the post-soviet East today. To me, there are clear differences in culture, capital, and the place in the global labour market. Think about the Brexit rhetoric focusing on migrants from the new EU states (Poles, Romanians, Bulgarians). I think the difference is still there.

    Even though the shared Greek-Semitic roots of both East and West of Europe are unquestionable, I think that the extend to which the more recent history of Europe can too easily slip under the radar, and the historically remote Greek-Semitic roots may overshadow some more recent and relevant differences, including differences in philosophical thinking. Surely, the mixture of shared roots and relevant differences is not unique to Eastern and Western Europe and can be found in, say, Kashmir and Bengal. I guess how fine-grained our categories picking up places like the West/East should be depends on our goals. I wonder what you think about it: what these categories are for?

    Also, I wonder what is this fragment about ‘Ukraine girls’? What does it mean?

    • Oh, sorry, that’s a lyric from the Beatles’ “Back In The USSR” – guess I assumed everyone would know it!

      And yeah, I generally agree with you: Eastern Europe, like Latin America and the Middle East, is only Western some of the time and for some purposes. And you are absolutely right to ask: which purposes are we making the distinction for? Within philosophy, though, I think it’s pretty clear that these places are of the West. Georg Lukács and Fyodor Dostoevsky are Western philosophers and I don’t think any caveats need to be attached to that claim.

  3. Thanks, Amod! I agree with you that the main point is one’s purpose. What is one using one’s terms for? What is one trying to demarcate?

    I, for one, tend to dislike generalisations and to treat them as only preliminarily useful and in need to be ultimately overturned. For instance, I don’t think that “Abrahamic traditions” is a theologically monolithic whole (as the name suggests) and see more differences than desirable in “Western philosophy”. I also dislike the fact that it encourages the use of “Eastern philosophy” as its counterpart, a term which seem to me to have no historical legitimacy (but I look forward to reading your reflections on it!).

    • I generally don’t like the term “Eastern philosophy” either, and pretty much never use it. In my view “the West” constitutes a historical complex in a way “the East” does not. (As I noted this week, I don’t think “the West” is a good term for that historical complex, just less bad than any alternatives I’ve heard.) I will sometimes use the term “Asian philosophy”, though most often for political reasons.

      I recognize that generalizations usually obscure important details (including the generalization that this sentence just made)! Still, I think generalizations are needed in order to simplify – especially when we are introducing new topics to our students! (I am entirely against Jonathan Z. Smith’s claim that the historian’s task is to complicate and not to clarify; that leads one to attempt to draw a 1:1 scale map, which is a completely useless endeavour.) Even if we’re not going to generalize about Western or even Indian philosophy, at least in an introductory presentation we’re still going to need to generalize about Mīmāṃsā or about Buddhism in a way that leaves out important details, or risk our students being so overwhelmed by the details that they learn nothing at all.

  4. For what it’s worth, as we say, and in the spirit of Elisa’s comment, I tend to think about these kinds of questions within a framework constructed with materials from (i) rhetoric, (ii) thinking about concepts qua concepts, and (iii) definitions. With regard to (i), and among other things, the question of one’s audience or readers or public arises, so there will be varying degrees of technical sophistication represented in one’s categories or concepts and this raises all sorts of quandaries, particularly if one’s readers come from widely varied backgrounds, levels of education, kinds of experience, and so forth. Does one resort to terms best known or commonplace, even if one is all too aware of their somewhat arbitrary conceptual boundaries or biases, their imprecision, ambiguity or vagueness. Or does one want to spend time on introducing new concepts and categories, possibly at the risk of losing the listener’s or reader’s attention or at the price of incomprehension or misunderstanding. An audience of one’s peers and a more or less indiscriminate public audience seem to demand, at least on occasion, that we choose different terms with which to communicate our intentions, reasons, or purposes, a choice that, for the academic, specialist, or expert will be difficult and perhaps even unacceptable. More could of course be said about our rhetorical situations and strategies, but I want merely to introduce this component of the aforementioned framework.

    Second, and not unrelated to questions of rhetoric, we need to bear in mind that some concepts are fairly straightforward, conventional, and suitable for most purposes, while others are contested, open-ended, and/or perhaps defined or understood differently by those in different intellectual fields of inquiry, from the philosophical to the anthropological, from the sociological to the psychological. Of course we can try to be as clear as possible on this score, but there are bound to be readers or listeners who more or less fail to understand what we mean, who are not cognizant of the presuppositions, assumptions, or presumptions and implications of our terms. Our conceptual schemes reflect ways of seeing the world, as it were, and these ways of seeing are not always shared, be it widely or deeply. These issues become even more complicated in light of what Hilary Putnam, after Amartya Sen and others, described as fact/value entanglement, an illustration of which Putnam provides with his brilliant analysis of “the cat on the mat:”

    “[F]act, (or truth) and rationality are interdependent notions. A fact is something that it is rational to believe, or, more precisely, the notion of a fact (or a true statement) is an idealization of the notion of a statement that it is rational to believe. [….] [B]eing rational involves having criteria of relevance as well as criteria of rational acceptability, and…all of our values are involved in our criteria of relevance. The decision that a picture of the world is true (or true by our present lights, or “as true as anything is”) and answers the relevant questions (as well as we are able to answer them) rests on and reveals our total system of value commitments. A being with no values would have no facts either. The way in which criteria of relevance involves values, at least indirectly, may be seen by examining the simplest statement. Take the sentence ‘The cat is on the mat.’ If someone actually makes this judgment in a particular context, then he employs conceptual resources—the notions ‘cat,’ ‘on,’ and ‘mat’—which are provided by a particular culture, and whose presence and ubiquity reveal something about the interests and values of that culture, and of almost every culture. We have the category ‘cat’ because we regard the division of the world into animals and non-animals as significant, and we are further interested in what species a given animal belongs to. It is relevant that there is a cat on the mat and not just a thing. We have the category ‘mat’ because we regard the division of inanimate things into artifacts and non-artifacts as significant, and we are further interested in the purpose and nature a particular artifact has. It is relevant that it is a mat that the cat is on and just something. We have the category ‘on’ because we are interested in spatial relations. Notice what we have: we took the most banal statement imaginable, ‘the cat is on the mat,’ and we found that the presuppositions which make this statement a relevant one in certain contexts include the significance of the categories animate/inanimate, purpose, and space. To a mind with no disposition to regard these as relevant categories, ‘the cat is on the mat’ would be as irrational as ‘the number of hexagonal objects in this room is 76’ would be, uttered in the middle of a tête-à-tête between young lovers. Not only do very general facts about our value system show themselves in our categories (artifacts, species name, term for a spatial relation) but, our more specific values (for example, sensitivity and compassion), also show up in the use we make of specific classificatory words (‘considerate,’ ‘selfish’). To repeat, our criteria of relevance rest on and reveal our whole system of values.”

    If this be true of this simple proposition, how much more so with the concepts and categories we employ in academic and philosophical discourse under the conditions of pluralism!

    Think too of the problems that arise with terms like “brain” or “mind” in the hands, say, of the behavioral psychologist, the neuroscientist, and the philosopher. One may read a paper in which, it turns out, the notions of brain and mind are conflated or assumed to be identical. Depending on one’s worldview or philosophy, that may or may not be troubling. As Michael P. Lynch, after Wittgenstein, reminds us, our concepts “do not admit of fixed, determinate uses,” and thus no matter how determined we are to avoid ambiguity, vagueness, or simply confusion, there is no guarantee our choices on this score will be read or heard as we intended them or believe they should be understood. And thus, back to Elisa: our “concepts are often tied to a particular purpose,” and yet, if circumstances, conditions, or situations change in dramatic or radical ways, our concepts may need alteration or qualifications or repeated ceteris paribus refrains. We may need even to jettison them altogether and come up with a new term, a fresh rendering of a concept. Again, so much more can be said about the nature of our concepts in light of pluralism, relativity, objectivity, perceptions, and so on.
    We arrive at (iii), definitions, and this is perhaps the easiest topic to introduce even if the types of definition are sometimes forgotten or confused. There are, from what I have learned, essentially six principal types of definition: lexical (or dictionary), stipulative, persuasive, précising, theoretical, and operational. I will assume our readers are most familiar with the first two and perhaps the fourth as well, so I will confine myself to the remaining three: (a) précising, (b) persuasive, and (c) operational. A “précising” definition is intended to reduce or even eliminate the vagueness or ambiguity of words, so the difference between “mind” and “brain,” or between “principle” or “rule,” or “law” and “norm,” may need clarification, even if, on occasion, the possible differences are safely ignored for some purposes. (We need not here enter into metaphorical usage of these words.) The most troubling of our set is the “persuasive” definition, although it may have some justification, for example, in certain political contexts or fora. Such a definition is, intentionally or not, used to “influence the way in which a phenomenon is perceived,” thus creating favorable or unfavorable dispositions toward some subject, state of affairs, event, what have you. These may be unavoidable or indispensable in motivating people to take the requisite type of action in an emergency or dire situation, etc. Finally, there are, after Charles Sanders Peirce, “operational” definitions, wherein the meaning of terms is in reference to particular physical or mechanical actions or description. Thus we can say what it means for the top of the table to be “hard,” a meaning which may make no sense, for example, to a description provided by the physicist of that very same surface.

    I hope this brief and simple sketch of a framework I have come to rely on is helpful, although it makes no claims to completeness (e.g., other materials may be necessary or desirable), nor do I claim to have exemplified fidelity to it in my own work.

    • Thank you, Patrick. I think I agree with you in general terms – but could you say a bit more about how you think it applies to the question of “the West” or other particular concepts under discussion here?

  5. Amod, I deliberately avoided addressing that, in part because I agreed with much of what you said and did not want to think any more about this as it would distract me from what I am working on at present, some evidence of which is available on my latest post at Religious Left Law and a forthcoming post on zoos (endorsing the arguments of Dale Jamieson). I have my fingers in too many pies, and I’ve never learned to appreciate doing otherwise! Perhaps I will return to this at a later date.

  6. Hi Amod, I am coming back to this post after the beginning of the Russian war in Ukraine. One of the things that surprised me was the reaction of some of my Indian acquaintances, while defending Modi’s position on Russia. A relevant move several of them made was telling me that “Russia is not West, Russia is East”, which made me think again about how “West” (and “East”) could be a dangerously plastic category, stretchable to “whatever we dislike”. Thoughts?

    • Yeah, I’ll admit the reactions around the war do seem to have contradicted my claim above that “with the ‘Eastern Bloc’ decades behind us, relatively few use the concept of the ‘West’ in that way anymore.” Lots of people lately are using “the West” to refer to the alliance opposing Russia – but that is a pretty weird usage when it includes not just Australia but Japan. At that point i don’t think “the West” is a helpful term – better to say “Ukraine’s allies” or “NATO’s allies”.

      More generally I would say that Eastern Europe (including Russia), like the Middle East and Latin America, is ambiguously of the West: whether to include it depends on the context at issue. Russia’s cultural foundations, it seems to me, remain very much in the West. Moscow is closer to Athens than London is.

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