Wednesday, 3 March 2021

"Western Civilisation" v "Enlightenment Civilisation"


I recently came across something I think is important in the way we think about our values -- or at least, in the way we frame our support for what we call "civilisation." In this vein, writer Robert Tracinski makes a strong case that we should come out against “Western Civilisation.” And I think he's dead right.

But hold hard there:

I am, obviously, not against Western Civilization as a phenomenon, as a set of ideas and values. But I’ve decided it’s time to move on from the term “Western Civilisation,” which is increasingly obsolete and was always a bit vague and misleading to begin with.

Vague and misleading? Well, yes. While it may have been accurate in the year 1900 to talk about civilisation being primarily western --- the great achievement of the Industrial Revolution having first happened in Western Europe, from where its wings of prosperity went out around the globe, their embrace paralleling the rise of that same or similar civilising values in many places elsewhere -- those days are long gone

So that now it's both too general, and too specific to talk about civilisation being "western."

It is too general in that calling civilisation "western" tells us nothing about the foundational ideas upon which the west's cultural achievements were built (many of whose sources were decidedly non-western), nothing about the framework of knowledge, art, science and law upon which that civilisation is based, nor anything directly about its values

Worse, it suggests to the ignorant that the idea of civilisation is somehow inherently western, rather than universal, lending fuel to today's fighters for the anti-civilisational values of identity politics, which judges everybody by the colour of their skin as if that alone dictates the content of their character.

Yet it is also too specific, in that those places in which the values of civilisation are now most embraced are no longer in Western Europe, but in the growing and thriving hotbeds of trade and industrialisation in places like India and South-East Asia, and in the political battles for freedom and liberty in places like Belarus and Hong Kong. 

You could argue that the people in these areas have become “Westernised,” but by the same token, you could also argue that the ideas and values they adopted have become de-Westernised by being spread over the rest of the globe. That raises the question of why they were called “Western” in the first place.

Worse, the idea of "the west" must geographically include its opponents. Fascism, socialism, totalitarianism, all these ideas that almost destroyed the twentieth-century came from the pens of dead white guys in Central Europe. It was a similar bunch who invented or launched the field of "critical theory," political correctness, and the roots of what we now call "cancel culture." And if we find too often these days that  thinkers who are geographically western are in the business of  actively trying to undermine the values of what we've called "the west," we shouldn't be surprised: today's thinkers in postmodernism and deconstructionism for instance who gnaw away at western roots, are building their attacks on earlier western thinkers like Kant and Rousseau whose assaults on reason, freedom, and individualism assail everything that civilisation stands for.

The “Western” tradition is not one set of ideas and values. It contains many opposing sets of ideas. For every good idea we want to preserve, the West has spawned a whole reactionary school of thought dedicated to arguing against that idea. So calling something “Western” is curiously nonspecific and misleading.
"I suspect, by the way," says a wry Tracinski, "that this kind of sleight of hand was part of the idea in the first place..."

So what term should we use then to simply describe what we support? Tracinski argues for Enlightenment Civilisation .... and I agree with him...

... Enlightenment Civilisation because it describes what values and ideal we are specifically for -- the ideals of the Enlightenment -- the Enlightenment itself being that era in which knowledge, reason, freedom, wealth, and human flourishing were the explicit touchstones: its ultimate vision being human progress and human happiness.

... Enlightenment Civilisation because, like the Enlightenment itself, it is a universal ideal, not restricted to anyone by their place of birth, class or colour, but open to anyone who chooses to embrace those ideals.

... and Enlightenment Civilisation because it is aspirational: instead of simply looking to the past, to preserve it, like the Enlightenment thinkers themselves it looks to the future, inviting us "not merely to preserve the work of the Enlightenment but to carry on its inquiries and raise them to a higher level of perfection."

I think Mr Tracinski has hit on something important here, and I urge you to consider his essay, and (when you have the time) to listen to his interview.

As a commenter said, Robert Tracinski has the great ability to make fresh connections so profound that, once seen, seem both important and blindingly obvious. This is one of them.


  1. I think this is right. A change in terminology would not only be useful in fighting the identity politics of the left, but also the nativism of the alt-right that associates Western Civilisation with a particular skin colour.

    1. Aye. It works well against both kinds of barbarian, doesn't it.

  2. I too agree, Enlightenment Civilisation is a far more accurate term to encapsulate the values traditionally denoted by the term "Western Civilisation," which is now sullied by post-modernism, a Western creation.

  3. I'm pretty sure changing the name will not make any difference in the end other than just to confuse peole.

    1. I think the current terminology confuses people, because it can more easily be conflated with identity politics/racism from both the left and certain factions of the right, that's now endemic to the West.


Comments are moderated to encourage honest conversation, and remove persistent trolls.