The Myth of the West VI

November 10, 2021

Part 6 of a series on Whether There Was a West.

In this post I continue my discussion of Myth of the Month 8: “The West” (2019), a special episode of the excellent Historiansplaining podcast. Though I highly recommend the podcast, you don’t need to have listened to it before reading these posts.

The topic is the problems with the concept of some coherent thing called “The West.”

Please read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5 if you haven’t already.

Science and “Rationalism”

Another way one might try to define East and West would be to point to science and rationality. Maybe the West is “scientific” and “rationalist,” with the assumption (whether spoken or unspoken) that the East is “mystical” and “irrational.”

The profound problems with this view, now called “orientalism,” have been discussed in academia for decades, beginning famously with Edward Said’s 1978 book by that title. However it remains a fairly common assumption.

Biagetti argues that “rationality” just refers to the belief that you are right and others are wrong. To say science is rational and Buddhism is irrational is really just saying that you believe science is right and Buddhism is wrong. He also points out that “Westerners” have believed in alchemy, phrenology, race science, eugenics, and so on, as well as the spiritualism of people like Madame Blavatsky and the aforementioned Spengler. He compares Spengler’s thinking to Blavatsky’s Theosophy and to the Golden Dawn, each believing that there is a deep spirit in each civilization, but that each civilization is nevertheless doomed to destruction. He also notes the astrological beliefs of Galileo and Copernicus, and the “mystical overtone” of Spengler’s thinking.

On the one hand, I think it’s possible to provide definitions of rationalism that are a bit more specific than the one Biagetti provides. Some combination of symbolic logic, use of mathematics/a quantitative approach, etc. But of course many of these things are not really “Western” either. Indian logic and Chinese utilitarianism, for example, pre-date “Europe,” and therefore long pre-date the European Enlightenment.

On the other hand, I think there are persuasive arguments against the notion that it’s easy (or even possible) to draw a hard line between science and other modes of inquiry. As Thomas Kuhn points out, the scientific revolution (beginning in astronomy with Copernicus in 1543 and ending with Newton’s 1687 Principia) simply cannot be cleanly separated from the “non-scientific” thinking which went before it, and on which it depends. Of representatives from the Epicurean, Aristotelian, and Platonic schools of physics (which do not now look particularly scientific), Kuhn writes: “Those men were scientists.”

Biagetti points out that the majority of the West was not discernibly rationalist. Most were religious for most of the West’s history, and atheists sometimes feared for their lives. Only a recent and small core of scientists can really be put in this category. Having a small group of atheist rationalists cannot be the defining feature of Western civilization, since that description also applies to Brazil of Japan, and presumably most other nations. If you resort to founding principles, then Brazil’s flag says “Order and Progress,” from arch-rationalist August Comte (1798–1857), whose maxim for positivism was “Love as a principle and order as the basis; progress as the goal.”

Not uniquely individualist

What about “the West” as individualistic? Could one argue that “the East” differs in that it is more collectivist?

Biagetti argues against the idea that the West as a whole is uniquely individualist. Parts of it are now, but this is very different from much of European history, for most of which the Great Chain of Being and the Body Politic were unquestioningly accepted as defining a hierarchical collective. In those times, individuals who sought their own profit were banished or exiled — merchants, for example, are utterly reviled in the Late Medieval period.

Some, says Biagetti, have pointed to Martin Luther (1483–1546) as an early defender of “individualism” because of his belief in individual salvation. He believed that people should be able to read scripture in the vernacular. But he absolutely did not believe in freedom of thought, freedom of speech, or even freedom of religion. He assumed that by reading scripture, people would come to the same conclusion that he had, i.e., salvation by grace.

Not uniquely rapacious

Though the West has engaged in atrocities and oppression by imperialism, capitalism, and racism, Biagetti does not find this uniquely “Western” when compared to, for example, the Mexica Empire, with its enormous proportion of human sacrifice, or the vast ethnic cleansing of the Inca Empire. There may be technological differences, but there’s no reason to think that the Mongols would not have used atom bombs, had they had them to hand, rather than the hand weapons used to massacre civilians in the Siege of Baghdad (1258). In that siege, in about a week, Western sources report that Mongols killed 200–800,000 civilians, with Arab sources reporting up to two million (Hiroshima killed an upper estimate of 166,000 including aftermath effects).

Biagetti also points out that many “Western” atrocities have been directed at other Western nations. This is not to minimize the enormous colonial atrocities — this article estimates 56 million, or 90% of the indigenous population, died in the European “discovery” of the New World. It’s just to note that most of the ~70 million dead in World War II were Westerners killing Westerners — though don’t forget that China lost at least 15 million, or about the horrific Japanese policy. Once again, this shows that there is no particularly unified West, nor is the West particularly unique.

I continue with the connection between Declensionism and conspiracy theories.

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.