Appiah (2016). There is no such thing as western civilisation.

Appiah, K. A. (2016, November 9). There is no such thing as western civilisation. The Guardian. Retrieved from

[Burnett Tylor …]

“In 1871, he published his masterwork, _Primitive Culture_, which can lay claim to being the first work of modern anthropology.” (¶1)

[Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy …]

“For Arnold, culture was the ‘pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world’. … he had in mind a moral and aesthetic ideal, which found expression in art and literature and music and philosophy.” (¶2)

“It is to Tylor more than anyone else that we owe the idea that anthropology is the study of something called ‘culture’, which he defined as ‘that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, arts, morals, law, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society’.” (¶3)

“Nowadays, when people speak about culture, it is usually either Tylor’s or Arnold’s notion that they have in mind. The two concepts of culture are, in some respects, antagonistic. Arnold’s ideal was ‘the man of culture’ and he would have considered ‘primitive culture’ an oxymoron. Tylor thought it absurd to propose that a person could lack culture. Yet these contrasting notions of culture are locked together in our concept of western culture, which many people think defines the identity of modern western people.” (¶4)

“I think you should give up the very idea of western civilisation. It is at best the source of a great deal of confusion, at worst an obstacle to facing some of the great political challenges of our time.” (¶5)

“Often, in recent years, ‘the west’ means the north Atlantic: Europe and her former colonies in North America. … This way of talking notices the whole world, but lumps a whole lot of extremely different societies together, while delicately carving around Australians and New Zealanders and white South Africans, so that ‘western’ here can look simply like a euphemism for white.” (¶6)

“… near Tours, in 732CE, Charles Martel, Charlemagne’s grandfather, defeated the forces of al-Andalus, and this decisive battle effectively ended the Arab attempts at the conquest of Frankish Europe.” (¶13)

“In a Latin chronicle, written in 754 in Spain, the author refers to the victors of the Battle of Tours as ‘_Europenses_’, Europeans. So, simply put, the very idea of a ‘European’ was first used to contrast Christians and Muslims. (Even this, however, is a bit of a simplification. In the middle of the eighth century much of Europe was not yet Christian.)” (¶14)

“The natural contrast was not between Islam and the west, but between Christendom and _Dar
al-Islam_, each of which regarded the other as infidels, defined by their unbelief.” (¶15)

“Starting in the late 14th century, the Turks who created the Ottoman empire gradually extended their rule …” (¶16)

“… Christendom — defining itself through opposition.” (¶17)

“… the educated classes of Christian Europe took many of their ideas from the pagan societies that preceded them. At the end of the 12th century, Chrétien de Troyes, born a couple of hundred kilometres south-west of Paris, celebrated these earlier roots: ‘Greece once had the greatest reputation for chivalry and learning,’ he wrote. ‘Then chivalry went to Rome, and so did all of learning, which now has come to France.'” (¶18)

“So from the late middle ages until now, people have thought of the best in the culture of Greece and Rome as a civilisational inheritance, passed on like a precious golden nugget, dug out of the earth by the Greeks, transferred, when the Roman empire conquered them, to Rome.” (¶20)

“… the classical inheritance it identifies was shared with Muslim learning. In Baghdad of the ninth century Abbasid caliphate, the palace library featured the works of Plato and Aristotle, Pythagoras and Euclid, translated into Arabic. … Much of our modern understanding of classical philosophy among the ancient Greeks we have only because those texts were recovered by European scholars in the Renaissance from the Arabs.” (¶21)

“… western culture as the expression of an essence — a something — which has been passed from hand to hand on its historic journey. The pitfalls of this sort of essentialism are evident in a wide range of cases. Whether you are discussing religion, nationality, race or culture, people have supposed that an identity that survives through time and space must be propelled by some potent common essence. But that is simply a mistake. … as time rolls on, each generation inherits the label from an earlier one; and, in each generation, the label comes with a legacy. But as the legacies are lost or exchanged for other treasures, the label keeps moving on.” (¶24)

“… the term ‘western culture’ is surprisingly modern — more recent certainly than the phonograph.” (¶26)

“… the very idea of the ‘west,’ to name a heritage and object of study, doesn’t really emerge until the 1890s, during a heated era of imperialism, and gains broader currency only in the 20th century.” (¶27)

“If the notion of Christendom was an artefact of a prolonged military struggle against Muslim forces, our modern concept of western culture largely took its present shape during the cold war. … Western culture was, at its core, individualistic and democratic and liberty-minded and tolerant and progressive and rational and scientific. Never mind that premodern Europe was none of these things, and that until the past century democracy was the exception in Europe — something that few stalwarts of western thought had anything good to say about.” (¶28)

“Of course, once western culture could be a term of praise, it was bound to become a term of dispraise, too. Critics of western culture, producing a photo-negative emphasising slavery, subjugation, racism, militarism, and genocide, were committed to the very same essentialism …” (¶29)

“What holds us together, surely, is Tylor’s broad sense of culture: our customs of dress and greeting, the habits of behaviour that shape relations between men and women, parents and children, cops and civilians, shop assistants and consumers.” (¶30)

[Tylor …]

“Remember his famous definition: it began with culture as ‘that complex whole’. What you’re hearing is something we can call organicism. 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.” (¶31)

“But there isn’t one great big whole called culture that organically unites all these parts.” (¶32)

“Once we abandon organicism, we can take up the more cosmopolitan picture in which every element of culture, from philosophy or cuisine to the style of bodily movement, is separable in principle from all the others …” (¶33)

“Values aren’t a birthright: you need to keep caring about them. Living in the west, however you define it, being western, provides no guarantee that you will care about western civilisation. The values European humanists like to espouse belong just as easily to an African or an Asian who takes them up with enthusiasm as to a European. By that very logic, of course, they do not belong to a European who has not taken the trouble to understand and absorb them. … The story of the golden nugget suggests that we cannot help caring about the traditions of ‘the west’ because they are ours: in fact, the opposite is true. They are only ours if we care about them. A culture of liberty, tolerance, and rational inquiry: that would be a good idea. But these values represent choices to make, not tracks laid down by a western destiny.” (¶35)

“… culture isn’t a box to check on the questionnaire of humanity; it is a process you join, a life lived with others.” (¶36)

“Culture … provides a source of identity for contemporary human beings. And, like all three, it can become a form of confinement, conceptual mistakes underwriting moral ones.” (¶37)


Selected References

  • Arnold, M. (1869). Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism. London: Smith, Elder & Company.
  • Tylor, E. B. (1871). Primitive Culture: Researches Into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom. London: John Murray.
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