In a comment on Jim Belshaw’s blog a couple of weeks ago Ramana, one of his regular readers, commented:
‘Surely, words like civilisation and progress themselves need acceptable definitions before we can arrive at a consensus?
These two words have gained a lot of notoriety because of the heavy slant towards the Western idea of them. That other parts of the world could have different ideas need to be recognised and accommodated.’
Jim drew attention to the comment in a later post in which he also referred to my post: ‘Is Enlightenment humanism a coherent world view?’ A spirited discussion ensued.
My response to Ramana, influenced by Steven Pinker’s ‘Better Angels …’ book (which I still haven’t finished reading) was that the civilizing process is about widespread adoption of an attitude that violence is unacceptable, accompanied by a reduction in violence within societies. I suggested that such a view of the civilizing process should have appeal all over the world. I noted that the societies in which rates of internal violence have fallen over the last couple of centuries are certainly not all in the West and the process doesn't have much, if anything, to do with the 'westernization' of culture. I was making a distinction between western culture and the social norms associated with classical liberalism and humanism.
Wolfgang Kasper’s monograph, ‘The Merits of Western Civilization’ (IPA, 2011) is directly relevant to the questions we have been discussing. Wolfgang discusses the evolution of western civilization in a particularly thoughtful manner.
In discussing the tendency of people to feel that their own civilization is superior to others, Wolfgang acknowledges that there could be a kernel of truth in such claims. They make sense because each individual ‘has to become habituated to his community’s given rule-set, and many institutions have to be internalized to the extent that they are obeyed unthinkingly’. Wolfgang makes the point, however, that ‘not all rule-sets … are objectively of equal value in terms of attaining such fundamental goals as freedom, justice, security and peace’.
Wolfgang also discusses the importance of rule-sets - particularly informal institutions or social norms - being able to evolve in response to changing circumstances, in harmony with accepted cultural values. He notes that civilizations tend to decline culturally and materially when they are based on rigid rule systems. On this basis, he argues that the most outstanding feature of western civilization is that it has remained adaptive and open to new challenges and opportunities as well as sufficiently open to allow other civilizations to borrow from it.
The openness of western civilization to influence from other cultures, along with strong historical influences from Western Asia, make the task of defining western civilization somewhat difficult. In his discussion of how to define ‘the West’, Wolfgang provides a fairly supportive critique of the views of Philippe Nemo, in his book ‘What is the West?’ Nemo argues that a common cultural heritage is shared by Western Europeans and North Americans, as well as outliers such as Australians. He asserts that the values on which western civilization are built stem from the invention of the city and rational science in ancient Greece, Roman invention of the law, the addition of compassion by Judaeo-Christian thinkers, a papal revolution between the 11th and 13th centuries (which apparently introduced the concept that individual initiative and good deeds can redeem humanity) and the Enlightenment from the 17th to the early 19th centuries.
Nemo ‘fails to completely convince’ Wolfgang that a medieval papal revolution acted as ‘a stepping stone to modernity’. He suggests that Nemo ‘almost forgets’ the role of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century, which gave religious endorsement to innovation and material progress ‘and distinguished European civilization from the many others that made a virtue of a fatalistic outlook on life’.
The intellectual, political and economic liberalism of the Enlightenment is viewed by Wolfgang as the ‘crowning achievement’ of western civilization. Since the Enlightenment happened in the West, it seems to me that it certainly makes sense to identify the emergence of modern western civilization with Enlightenment humanism and intellectual pluralism.
Does this mean that Enlightenment humanism and intellectual pluralism should be equated with western civilization? I don’t think so. I think it is an exaggeration to assert, as Wolfgang does, that ‘no civilization outside the West has turned intellectual pluralism into a value of its own’. It seems to me that recognition of the merits of intellectual pluralism has spread outside the West to such an extent that it is no longer appropriate to identify these values solely with western civilization. In my view Enlightenment humanism and intellectual pluralism should be seen as cosmopolitan values that tend to be reflected in social norms to the extent that a society is open to influence from other cultures.
Wolfgang Kasper ends his monograph with the assertion that the history of civilizations and the role of cultural evolution are among the most fascinating fields of study. In my view his monograph makes a useful contribution in demonstrating that to be so.