Date: Wed, 24 Nov 1999 12:10:40 -0500
Message-Id: <991124121040.2021f192@CCSU.CTSTATEU.EDU>

On Essentialism and ‘Western Civilization’

By Haines Brown, 24 November 1999


The explanation of your problem was a big help. You are wondering about the cultural influences that constituted Western Civilization, and that is a substantive question, not one of the philosophy of history. Nevertheless it engages philosophical issues, and I will address one of them in the hope it might assist you in your paper.

When one speaks of the nature of Western Civilization, there is a very real danger of “essentialism.” If you don't mind, I'd like to explore why this is so, for I suspect my doing so will help sharpen your critical tools as you begin to approach your task.

Let me begin by mentioning in very general terms the cultural context of essentialism, by which I mean the reduction of empirical data to abstract ideas. Until the end of 19th-century Europe, I don't believe people were aware of essentialism, and it seems to me that it pervaded any historiography that was not short range.

Essentialism, the pursuit of the essence that lies hidden behind surface appearances, was perhaps unavoidable at the time. Allow me to explain why.

If, for the moment, we presume there was such a thing as Western Civilization, that would imply a certain scope in terms of its time and place. Now, let's suppose we had a time machine that could take us back to that time and place so that we might closely observe this “Western Civilization” first hand.

What do we see? First, we would see social complexity, not only in terms of class structure, but also a spectrum of social arrangements that respond to various local traditions, a multitude of social needs, and some influence of personal choice. The society we perceive would to some extent appear differently wherever we happen to look. Even if we consider only social facts that persist, which is to say, institutions, we would find that society represents an overwhelming array of such institutions that affect family, work, religion, diversions, customs, public life, etc.

Institutions are part of culture, and cultural anthropologists insist that each individual resynthesizes an inherited culture into something that to varying degrees is unique and new. Culture is an evolving process that differs not only from place to place and from class to class, but from one individual to another and from one year to the next.

Then there is the state, but until modern times, the state had limited impact on most people's lives. This reminds us that we can't presume the relative importance of various factors based on our modern common sense. In fact, any significant correlation between political institutions, cultural units, economy, technology, and social structures cannot be presumed at all and is usually difficult to prove in fact. On one hand, cultural horizons might embrace quite different civilizations, and yet, on the other, the differences between court, aristocratic, and local cultures within one small region of just one civilization might be profound.

In short, the empirical evidence we gathered on our little trip to the past would seem very diverse, and correlations at best only rough. We would have no empirically based reason to privilege political history or the history of technology, or the situation as it existed in one decade from that in others. The whole would be far too complex for the human mind to grasp, usually representing empirical continua that lack sharp boundaries. Everything would be in a process of constant change, sometimes rapid, sometimes slow, with some dimensions of life changing at different times than others. In short, the mind cannot grasp the full complexity and fluidity of historical facts without some means of simplification.

We don't have a time machine, of course, and we only see a minuscule part of all this past reality, the part that just happens to have left a trace that just happens to have survived into the present. What we see of the past depends on on accidents of survival, on what our mental and technical equipment is capable of seeing, and what we wish or need to see to answer our questions. In short, our mental representation of the facts of the past has a very tenuous connection with the original reality. Consequently, any explanations based on those facts will probably be even more problematic.

This must seem very pessimistic, and so let me assure you that I believe there are tactics and presumptions that can help us out of the morass, but I hope you see that any object of historical study that goes beyond the trivial or very short range in time or place, will escape our mind's grasp unless we employ special techniques. This issue becomes ever more pressing because with the advance of investigative techniques, we must continually address an ever wider variety of questions and become ever more aware of empirical diversity. Also, as the world becomes more integrated, we are ever more aware of the limits of crude generalization.

Essentialism was a technique to cope with this overwhelming challenge. If the essence of Western Civilization represents an ideal type or abstraction, then it becomes independent of empirical diversity in time and space. The greater one's ignorance or the narrower the scope of one's concern, the less problematic this diversity will seem, but by the 19th century, the escape route offered by essentialism had become too narrow for comfort. The rise of archeology and philology from the 16th century, the Age of Exploration that culminated in Europe's conquest of and thus awareness of our complex world, meant that intellectuals could no longer plead ignorance. The refinement of documentary study and interpretation of artifacts conspired to create such empirical diversity in the evidence as to make historiography almost impossible. As a result, there was a bifurcation of long range historiography into idealist history on one hand, which posited invisible essences as being more real than empiria (or at least, a priori), and on the other multi-volume encyclopedias of knowledge that desperately tried to encompass all facts, while hiding their inevitable interpretation under the table. The former assumed the priority of essence; the latter the priority of atomistic empirical existence.

Unfortunately, this bifurcation to some extent still survives in western historiography, although it was entirely discredited from the end of the nineteenth century. The attack on it came from a new scientific spirit which fed on ever more empirical evidence, measured with the utmost precision, which became the principal criterion of truth (Ranke). The old idealist assumptions suffered mortal blows from the success of positivism and its associated laboratory model, but also from the spiritual cataclysm of the First World War and then to some extent the association of idealism with the social horrors of the following decades in Europe.

Let me emphasize, though, that I'm not saying that historiography has lost legitimacy in the 20th century, but only that old approaches obviously no longer work and new ones are needed. Besides, there is a lot of useful short range history being written: thematic or topical approaches, thick description, local history, biography, etc. The problem is more with long range history that seeks a broader understanding of historical processes and to harness historical consciousness to the struggle for social progress.

Definitions of “Western Civilization” often reduce history to culture and culture to ideas; it tends to have a ruling class or even courtly perspective; it often ignores society or economy, and inevitably fails to incorporate them into a representation of the whole. Finally, it tends to encompass a time frame that extends on the order of several millennia B.C. to two millennia A.D, conventionally a time span of five millennia, as if there were no radical transformations during its course.

Now, many historians will defend this absurdity by insisting that they don't really mean anything in particular by “Western Civilization,” and it is just a convenience, a way of organizing their material. Of course, there are many situations in which we accept arbitrary units for the sake of convenience. The problem is, however, that if historical consciousness is indeed a cornerstone of human liberty, we can't be cavalier about our units. It is not merely a convenience, but in fact represents an ideology that has an implicit political function. In any long range historiography, to insist that our units, categories or divisions are merely pragmatic conveniences, is at best naive, more likely disingenuous, and possibly socially exploitive.

While there undoubtedly were cultural influences from the region we call Egypt that affected neighboring peoples living in an area conventionally called western, we need to be aware that “Egyptian culture” is a gross simplification and reduces an evanescent complexity to a set of abstractions. The impact of that influence is also going to be highly variable, and so are we to reduce Western Civilization to ancient Mediterranean culture? In conventional terms, one can't talk about influences between two things without a solid empirically-based definition of just what are the units that interact. It is clear that “Western Civilization” is a modern European ideological construct, as is Egypt to some extent, and therefore discussion of the influences of one on the other is largely imaginary.

I won't try to elaborate my point further, for I'd like to conclude that the problem of essentialism has long been the subject of critical discussion. Therefore, one can not pretend it does not exist or is unproblematic. A good example in recent times is that of Eduard Said's Orientalism. In spite of all this criticism of essentialism, it has been my sad experience that people who embrace such metaphysical historiography are impervious to appeals to fact. It is simply politically incorrect to doubt that Western Civilization exists and represents the synthesis of cultural traditions from the ancient Mediterranean, Near East, and Egypt.

I can't end without saying that I'm not as pessimistic as my discussion might suggest. It does seem very clear to me that western historiography in certain respects is dying, that does not mean there are no alternatives. Popular history is doing well (antiques, genealogy, museums, local history, etc.), but academic history is not. In the absence of a clear notion of its character and purpose, it is being colonized by culture studies and fails to command the resources it once did. This I regret, but I also take heart, for the social class associated with academic history is in crisis and will eventually disappear, and that will undoubtedly open the way to alternatives for the future that are more satisfactory.

I tend to look to the natural sciences as suggestive, for the problem I've been discussing in terms of historiography exists in the natural sciences as well. There's a bifurcation of scientific explanation into one based on general laws and the so-called evolutionary sciences concerned with unique particulars. In the study of our solar system, the laws of mechanics are clearly manifest, but we are more interested in the unique qualities of the individual planets.

In the natural sciences, much depends on the kind of question you are trying to answer, but I believe there are strategies to resolve the contradiction between generalization and particularity. One way is through representing everything as processes subject to a probabilistic determinism. This involves both generalization and sensitivity to particulars. Historians, however, so far are unable to represent history as a process, as odd that that may sound, but I have little doubt it is entirely possible to do so and will eventually be done.

Haines Brown