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.

4 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.

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