Nov 16, 2007

What is Western Civilization?

"Western Civilization" is a term used often in Objectivist writings as well as elsewhere, both by professional historians and laymen. What is Western Civilization? What idea does the term symbolize; and to what facts of reality does the idea refer?

TERMS AND IDEAS. Anyone is free to employ any term for a given idea, and anyone is free to form and then define an idea in any way he wants. For efficiency and effectiveness in thinking and communicating, the policy I follow is to try to use conventional terms to name ideas as they are already used if those ideas have been logically formed. Sometimes one needs to reconstruct an idea to make it valid--while keeping the term, rather than creating a neologism.

MY USAGE. As I use the term, Western Civilization does not refer to a culture defined by geography, ethnicity, language, or other non-essential characteristics. Instead, "Western Civilization" refers to a set of principles, values, and their products. The elements of the set are related cognitively and historically. In hierarchical order, the elements are:
- A view of the world as operating by natural law (in metaphysics).
- A method of reason (in epistemology).
- A morality of long-term rational self-interest (in ethics).
- A system of rights (in politics).
- An art of inspiration for life on earth (in esthetics).

These ideas and values are all elements of rational culture, but Western Civilization is not synonymous with an ideal Rational Culture independent of time and place. Instead, Western Civilization is a particular stream of culture, sometimes advancing rapidly and sometimes regressing, but only existing at particular times, in particular places, and in particular degrees of achievement. Likewise, other cultures--in other times and places--have had rational elements too. But no other culture has had so many rational elements, in such an influential degree, over such a long time. Likewise, none have had a philosophy of reason at its base. That philosophy was implicit before Aristotle, and explicit with and after him.

BENEFITS. Two examples of con games I have heard are: (1) "The Bible is the most important book in the history of Western Civilization," says the religionist; and (2) "Racism, poverty, and oppression are the products of Western Civilization," says the multiculturalist. The authors of these statements implicitly define Western Civilization by non-essentials and ignore its essential distinguishing characteristic, an underlying, though often implicit, philosophy of reason. Having an essentialized idea of Western Civilization simplifies the study of history and exposes intellectual con games.

SUMMARY. Western Civilization is a complex of cultural elements based on a philosophy of reason, a cultural complex that has flowed brightly or dimly through time and space from the era of the Greeks to West Europeans to America and now, diffusely, throughout the world.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

Notes: [1] For the hierarchical list of elements of W. Civilization: Thomas A. Bowden, The Enemies of Christopher Columbus: Answers to Critical Questions About the European Discovery of America, Second Renaissance Books (now The Ayn Rand Bookstore), 1995, pp. 7-8. [2] For the meaning of "essential" and the method of essentializing: Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 2nd ed., pp. 45-46. [3] The term "Western Civilization" is not the name of a concept, but the proper name of an entity. (I have also heard it called an "abstract particular.") It is a secondary entity, which is a set of primary entities (in this case, individual men and women) who interact, produce things (such as books and buildings), and are interrelated in various ways. This interconnected set of real things is properly considered an entity for the purpose of study. See Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 2nd ed., pp. 264-276 (especially pp. 270-271) for discussion of secondary entities and for a society as an example. I am grateful to Stuart Johns for explaining this to me when I asked about The Roman Empire Problem--that is, what kind of thing is the Roman Empire? [4] In "Philosophical Detection," Ayn Rand analyzes five catch phrases, and then she describes the first step of her method: "You must attach clear, specific meanings to words, i. e., be able to identify their referents in reality. This is a precondition, without which neither critical judgment nor thinking of any kind is possible. All philosophical con games count on your using words as vague approximations." ("Philosophical Detection," Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 18.) This approach has been my guide in trying to understand and explain key terms/ideas used vaguely by professionals in my field of interest, history.


ThomTG said...

By your reckoning, "Western Civilization" is not a concept; and if so, it is not definable. One doesn't define a concrete particular; one designates and describes it. In describing a particular, everything may be significant, including "non-essential" characteristics.

In any case, supposing it is a particular, it is not an entity--neither primary nor secondary. Western Civilization is a kind of civilization. And according to Ayn Rand's Roark speech, civilization is "the process of setting man free from men. (FTNI "The Soul of an Individualist" 84a) "Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy." (Ibid.) We raise children by civilizing them. We remove some people from society into prison because they are uncivilized. So, civilization is a process, an action, of a (secondary) entity, of some societies. Some societies are civilized; some aren't. The particular society whose culture embodies a rational philosophy is civilized.

Western civilization, as a particular, is a moving, roaming process in history, according to George Reisman. During the European Middle Age, Western civilization was in the Middle East. Now, it is mostly in America and Pacific-Asia.

Burgess Laughlin said...

I have revised the Etiquette section to henceforth specifically exclude commenters who sanction, either here or elsewhere, attacks on individuals and institutions I value. In the future, I will reject without further explanation any posts from individuals who sanction such attacks, in any form and in any place.

Burgess Laughlin said...

1. To "define," in the broad sense, means to me (and my unabridged dictionary), to state the meaning of a term/idea. To define is to identify the referents of an idea, as distinct from other entities. This is what even the crudest of definitions, an ostensive definition, does.

All (objective) ideas are definable. Even a proper name, such as John Smith, is definable in this sense. A proper name points at a concrete particular -- such as a person or a monument -- or at an abstract particular, that is, an entity of the secondary kind, as I said in the original post. An example of the latter is Western Civilization -- which is therefore definable.

See ITOE, Index, p. 310, for many references to "Definitions," mostly discussing definitions in a certain context -- Ayn Rand's theory of concepts.

To treat "definition" as if it means only definition of concepts by genus and differentia is to commit the fallacy of the frozen abstraction. For the latter: The Ayn Rand Lexicon, p. 184; or "Collectivized Ethics," Virtue of Selfishness, p. 104 (hb) or p. 81 (pb).

2. An essential characteristic is one which causes all or most or many of the other characteristics of an entity. What is essential depends, in part, on the thinker's context of knowledge and his purpose. A physician defining "man" might formulate a definition different from that of a philosopher. See ITOE, Index, p. 310 for many references to "essential."

3. Non-essential characteristics of a thing may, in fact, be very important to a particular thinker engaged in a particular project. But they remain non-essential, in the epistemological sense, even if they are crucial in a personal way.

4. Western Civilization is an entity of the secondary kind, as Ayn Rand describes a particular society. It is a mental entity created for the purpose of study. See ITOE, pp. 270-272, for discussion of this sort of "entity."

5. Civilization as the process of setting man, the individual, free from dictates of the group is a philosophical--specifically, ethical and political-- definition suitable for all men everywhere and at all times. Philosophy deals with universals that apply to all men everywhere, at all times, and in all places.

History deals with particular events that happened through the actions of particular men at particular places and times. The idea of setting man free from men is a product of a philosophy of reason, which is the base of a particular complex of ideas that have moved from place to place through more than 2000 years of history .

There is no conflict between the universal, philosophical definition of "civilization" and the identification of a particular manifestation as Western, that is, as having arisen in one place and migrated through time and space to other places.

6. The idea of W. C. as "roaming" is intriguing. It is true in the sense that the main "home" of this complex of ideas has moved from place to place (generally in a westward movement), as I indicated in the original post.

The proper term here, I would suggest is "movement," an idea which names the fact that many--often otherwise disparate--individuals are moving in the same direction, that is, toward the same goal. I need to think more about incorporating this in the definition.

Cedar Bristol said...

Given your definition of Western Civilization, could we say that the Muslim side during the crusades was more Western than the Christian? Or would "less barbarous" be a better description?

I have been arguing for a while that Japan and South Korea are not "westernizing" they are more western than Spain or many other parts of Europe by any rational definition of the concept. And yours is the first such definition I've come across.

Burgess Laughlin said...

Clay ( comments:

[I have recently heard the term] "Anglosphere." I was wondering if that is a legitimate idea, and what relationship it bears to "Western Civilization?" A subset perhaps?

Burgess Laughlin said...

The following valuable comment comes from a writer who has a common first name; provided no last name or even an initial; and offered no contact information (except an opaque blogger profile):

"Is self-interest really an essential component of Western civilization? It seems that even during times of relative enlightenment and respect for rights in what we would designate as the West, selfishness was considered immoral. [...]

Then again, one can make the case that any time there is an increase in the use of reason, self-interest necessarily increases in that period because rationality is the primary virtue of a self-interested morality. [...]"

Clay said...

The question about self-interest and western civilization is a gone one.

It is certainly true on an implicit level that self-interest has had an enormous impact.

It is equally true that explicit doctrines of selflessness have dominated moral thinking in the same culture.

I would say that this contradiction is clearly a huge part of what has characterized Western Civilization.

Burgess Laughlin said...


PROBLEM: Was Muslim culture more Western than Christian culture during the 1100s, that is, during the period of the Latin-Christian Crusades against the Muslims in the Holy Land?

ANSWER: I don't know.

The question above is a question of ordinal measurement, that is, which is bigger in a certain way than the other? (See Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 2nd ed., p. 33, for measurements.) However, I also see the question as ambiguous.

(1) Which culture had the greatest number of cultural elements standing on a philosophy of reason? Answering this would be a matter of enumeration, assuming one can decide what to count. For example, in modern terms, a country that has more cell phones, all other factors being equal, could be considered more "Western" (in effects) than a country with fewer cell phones.

(2) Which culture had the most fundamental (causal) elements--e.g., an explicitly pro-reason epistemology, even if crude; or an explicit respect for technology; or a legal system that protected property rights?

Consider a hypothetical illustration to show the contrast. If a large number of explicitly pro-reason, but not rich, people were to migrate to Belize, forming a majority of its voters, then the educational "system," the political system, and the law code there might improve long before those pro-reason immigrants had accumulated enough capital to either buy the advanced technology of other countries or develop their own--but the new Hondurans would at that moment be fundamentally more Western than the perhaps wealthier, more technologically advanced people in the countries they had left behind.

Answering this second question might be more difficult than answering the first question because the researcher would have to perform historical-philosophical detection--that is, trace easily-observed effects in the society and culture back to their principled causes.

(For discussion of philosophical detection of a book or a speech, see: Ayn Rand, Ch. 2, Philosophy: Who Needs It. For an application of philosophical detection to the study of history, see: Leonard Peikoff, Ominous Parallels, pp. 143-144, hb, at the beginning of Ch. 7.)

Burgess Laughlin

Burgess Laughlin said...


UNRESOLVED PROBLEM, PARTIAL KNOWLEDGE. Questions of measurement are my favorite unresolved problem in studying history. The same problem arises today for anyone trying to develop strategies for spreading the philosophy of Objectivism into contemporary culture. E.g., who is more of a threat to the future course of Objectivism in our culture today in the USA: rightwing Christian fundamentalists, secular leftists, Islamic fundamentalists, or the fanatics of Environmentalism?

I don't have a general theory of how to make social measurements. However, with some confidence, I do know some elements that might appear in a final theory.

(a) I must specify exactly what it is that I want to measure. E.g., do I want to measure the enthusiasm of the named movements and thus their persistence in trying to change the culture? Or do I want to identify the fundamentality of their stated positions and thus the cultural breadth of their effects? Or do I want to gauge their ability to articulate their worldview and thus their potential for influencing other intellectuals? And so on.

(b) I also know that I can make partial or indirect measurements. E.g., I might--as Dr. Peikoff did in his 2004 walkthroughs for the early stage of developing his DIM hypothesis--examine polls of university students (presumably the harbingers of the future course of the culture) to determine their religiosity. However, all such polls must be examined critically to make sure they were conducted properly, can be interpreted unambiguously, and are confirmed by other evidence.

From these specialized measurements in (a) and (b), I might carefully infer which movement, as a whole, is the greater threat to liberty.

THE SUBCONSCIOUS AS AN ORACLE? Without a general theory of social measurement, I have no systematic way to approach such a problem as measuring threats. I could rely on my "impressions" here just as I do when I am deciding where to go for dinner. But would I want to plan a strategy for saving Western Civilization based only on an idea that happens to pop out of my subconscious? I don't think so. Of course, one function of the subconscious is to perform an integration and then present it to the conscious mind for scrutiny.

I want "public" evidence, that is, evidence that would withstand my own scrutiny and would convince any reasonable person who has the same basic context of knowledge. "Impressions" are not good enough. The subconscious is an indispensable "calculator," but I want to use its results in a rigorous, critically examined, reproducible, conscious manner.

Burgess Laughlin
The Aristotle Adventure

Burgess Laughlin said...


A SUGGESTION ABOUT THE CRUSADE PERIOD. Perhaps an examination of the Christian and Muslim cultures c. 1100 might find about an equal number of cultural elements based on a philosophy of reason. If that were true, the next question would be: In which direction was each culture going?

The answer here is clearer: At this time, Latin-Christian culture was moving toward a more rational culture, and Arabic-Islamic culture was moving away from it. Peter Abelard and al-Ghazzali represent each trend c. 1100. As a teacher, Peter Abelard (who, in Sic et Non, wrote a list of apparent contradictions in the Church Father's views) was asking philosophical questions; at the same time, al-Ghazzali (sometimes called "the Augustine of Islam") was stifling philosophical questions with skepticism and faith-based intimidation.

So, if I had had a choice of where to live c. 1100-1150, I might have chosen somewhere in Latin-Christian Europe -- perhaps Toledo, Toulouse, Paris, or Venice, but not Cairo, Jerusalem, or Baghdad. However, only a thorough, detailed study could answer the question definitively.

Burgess Laughlin
The Aristotle Adventure

Burgess Laughlin said...

PROBLEM: What is the meaning of the term "Anglosphere"? Is it a subset of Western Civilization?

I have heard the term "Anglosphere," but I do not know for sure what idea it names or to what facts of reality the idea refers. My unabridged dictionary does not list it. I assume it is a neologism. That always makes me suspicious.

I haven't made the kind of special study that would be required to determine the meaning of the term/idea as others use it. I would need to find a range of actual uses of the term and then either ask the authors what they mean or try to determine meaning from context.

Provisionally, and welcoming correction, I would suggest it is another term/idea defined by nonessentials--in this case, defined by either language (English, the language of the descendents of the ancient Angles) or a racial term (white people). Thus it would then apply to nation-states such as Canada, the U. S., and Australia mainly, I suppose. If the term/idea means either of those referents, then I would see it as a particular stream of European culture, another idea defined by geography and similar elements, rather than by philosophy.

Western Civilization, as I use the term/idea, is an abstract particular defined by its fundamental philosophy, a philosophy of reason, not by race or language. I would avoid terms like "Anglosphere" in every context that I can imagine.

Burgess Laughlin
The Aristotle Adventure

Clay said...

My impression of the term "anglosphere" is that it is intended as a subset of Western Civilization.

It would include some, but perhaps not all, British colonies and former British colonies. Specifically those places which benefited in some way from the better parts of British culture. Especially in terms of ideas of rights and about how government institutions should be laid out(constitutional and representative as opposed to tyrannical and authoritative).

Some countries that might fit under this rubric would include England, the U.S.A., Australia, India, Canada, HongKong(maybe not anymore) and even Japan(strong American influence after WWII) etc...

Such countries tend to have the added, but peripheral, benefit of a common language which is largely the result of having once been under British rule.

Burgess Laughlin said...

PROBLEM: Has the egoism/altruism contradiction -- the contradiction between (1) the usually implicit idea of self-interest as good, and (2) the often explicit and very common idea of altruism as good -- characterized European culture?

Yes, without having made a special study of this, I would say there is evidence of that contradiction throughout European cultural history, from the time of the ancient Greeks to modern times. An example is the stunning progress made by self-interested entrepreneurs in England in the 1800s and 1900s--entrepreneurs who seemed plagued by guilt and gave away much of what they had earned in order to support altruistic institutions.

However, there is no such contradiction in Western Civilization, as I define the term. Why? Because Western Civilization, by definition, is an abstract particular whose fundamental (causal) characteristics stand on a philosophy of reason and include self-interest as an element. (See my original article.)

European culture is not synonymous with Western Civilization. Rather, European culture has been the main historical vehicle for carrying Western Civilization as well as a flood of other elements. For example, European culture, defined geographically, includes anti-reason worldviews such as Christianity, paganism, Judaism, and Islam, and all the cultural elements they have spawned. Those worldviews and their cultural offspring are antithetical to, not part of, Western Civilization as I have defined it. At the same times and in the same places, European culture has also included elements of a philosophy of reason. Aristotle's philosophy (at its best), reverence for rule by law, support for technology, and fascination with science are examples.

Geographically defined cultures, such as European culture today and Arabic-Islamic culture in Baghdad c. 900 AD, have been a hodge-podge of rational and irrational elements. By contrast, Western Civilization is a logically connected, coherent "entity" whose components are abstracted from that hodge-podge.

Burgess Laughlin
The Aristotle Adventure

Burgess Laughlin said...

James C. Bennett has written "An Anglosphere Primer," here: James C. Bennett

I read part of it and skimmed the rest. Indirectly it is indeed helpful as a foil in thinking about the meaning of Western Civilization.

Bennett himself says the term "Anglosphere" is a neologism. Generally, I avoid neologisms. (Ayn Rand, ITOE, p. 158, stated her opposition to [philosophical] neologisms, but without elaboration.)

Neologisms, a favorite gimmick of Kant, usually create confusion and unnecessarily so. "Anglosphere" is an example. This term, as described by Bennett, names some elements of Western Civilization, particularly in politics, but also partly in ethics (but only as it relates to individuals living in society). However, I can see that some historians might properly use the term as short-hand for "some social and political elements of Western Civilization as they have arisen and now exist in mostly English-speaking countries in our time." But that is an extremely specialized use.

What is missing from the primer, for broader purposes, is what is usually missing from libertarian and "classical economics" prescriptions for making the world better: All we see here is the top of the philosophical iceberg: a thin layer of ethics (e.g., the primer names "individualism") underlying a thicker layer of purportedly pro-freedom politics.

There is no discussion of egoism. There is no discussion of devotion to reason alone. (In fact, the article seems to accept religion as neutral.) There is no discussion of devotion to the idea of one world, a world intelligible by reason. Nor is there any discussion of individual rights to do things religionists do not want us to do. There is a near-absence of -- perhaps even an avoidance of -- discussion of the corrupting influence of religion. This is a standard libertarian approach: What matters, I have heard them say, is agreeing to the "axiom" of nonaggression, never mind how we got there.

To his credit, Bennett himself seems to recognize that the term "Anglosphere" is unfortunate because of its many racial, linguistic, and inessentially cultural connotations.

For those who fight for Western Civilization -- which means fighting for the implementation of a philosophy of reason -- I see nothing to gain from the term/idea of "Anglosphere" that can't be gained from talking about (1) Western Civilization as a historically placed abstract-particular and about (2) the whole philosophical iceberg at all levels -- metaphysical, epistemological, ethical, political, and esthetic.

Of course, in single-issue political campaigns, such as abolishing a local sales tax, one could always form ad hoc alliances with "Anglospherists," just as one can with libertarians, "liberals," Christian conservatives, and others regardless of their underlying philosophy.

This has been a helpful secondary issue, but now I need to get on to other things. Thanks for the questions and comments about "Anglosphere."

Burgess Laughlin
The Aristotle Adventure

P. S. -- Keith Windschuttle (whom I admire) has written a 2005 review of Bennett's book, in the conservative magazine, National Review, the same magazine that has attacked Ayn Rand in the past. Bennett himself, however, seems to be a fascinating individual: articulate; an accomplished student of history; and a businessman.

Clay said...

I had a quick insight the other night. It helped me a lot when instead of saying "Western Civilization" I said something like "The Civilization of the West," or just shortened it to Civilization-Western."

Suddenly seeing Civilization as the genus and the West as a particular transmission belt of certain elements of Civilization.

I know I'm going quick here and probably skipping five steps, but it strikes me that culture might be the wider category to which civilization belongs as culture doesn't differentiate bad ideas, etc.. whereas civilization is just the good stuff.