Philosophy and Civil Society
During the last 300 years, Enlightenment conceptions of reason and knowledge spoke with the same authority as Western bombs and machines.
The West must learn to embrace its own inevitably particularistic native cultural traditions in a positive way.
The task: to arrive at a conception of the Western culture of citizenship capable of affirming both its moral validity and its culturally particularistic status.
Economic modernization no longer entails cultural Westernization
During the period in which Europe and America enjoyed global hegemony, the cultural vehicle of their economic and political power was the universalist and secularist world view of the Enlightenment. During this period, Enlightenment conceptions of reason and knowledge spoke with the same authority as Western bombs and machines. Where Western technological and military superiority made itself felt, there spread also the influence of the Enlightenment conceptions of nature, freedom and truth that defined cultural modernity.
During this period, economic and technological modernization often seemed, at least to Americans and Europeans, inseparable from cultural modernization. It seemed that mastery of the vocabulary of modernist Western rationalism and naturalism was one of the necessary conditions for economic and technological progress. It seemed, in short, that Western conceptions of cultural modernity defined advanced human civilization as such.
This period in which economic development seemed inextricably linked to cultural modernization (i.e., to Westernization) is now over. Japan, China and other Asian nations have proven that thoroughly modern strategies of economic and technological progress can be adapted to and supported by ancient non-Western cultural traditions. For the time being, the West still enjoys technological, military, and economic superiority over most non-Western nations. In the future, this superiority is bound to diminish.
But however this balance
of power may change in the years ahead, it seems evident that the modernist cultural world
view that Europeans and Americans once viewed as the necessary cultural condition for
economic development and technological progress has now become irrelevant in much of the
non-Western world. Most of the world has learned that it is no longer necessary, if it
ever was, to speak the cultural language of the European Enlightenment in order to prosper
in a global market economy.
How the universalism of Enlightenment culture hurts the West today
It is time now for the West to make this very same discovery also. In Europe and America, the worldview of the Enlightenment was never as alien to native European cultural traditions as it was (and is) to the native traditions of non-Western nations. It had its roots in traditional European religious and political vocabularies. Yet, in many ways, Enlightenment conceptions of reason and knowledge were no less hostile to those native European cultural traditions from which they sprung than they were to the native religious and political traditions of the non-Western world.
The cultural vocabulary of the Enlightenment was hostile to cultural particularism of all kinds. Its claim was to provide a purely universal language for a universal humanity, a language purged of all perspectives grounded in particularistic religious belief and the accidents of local history. Whatever may have been the advantages to the West that the use of this universalist cultural language once gained, today its continued use in Europe and America increasingly places them at a disadvantage in global economic and political competition.
Non-Western nations are now beginning to tap the vast motivational resources of native cultural traditions to support strategies of economic development and technological progress. With this new assertion of cultural particularism -- movements of "Asianization," "Hinduization," "Islamization" and so on -- a world is emerging whose primary divisions (as Samuel Huntington has pointed out*) are increasingly cultural and civilizational.
To understand, let alone compete, in such a world, Western nations must also begin to recover and to cultivate the particularistic cultural perspectives that make them uniquely Western as opposed to Hindu, Islamic, Japanese or Confucian. The particularistic cultural posture of Enlightenment universalism gave all cultural particularism a bad name. Enlightenment conceptions of reason and knowledge led many Europeans and Americans to believe that they could and should adopt a universalistic, culture-neutral, value-free standpoint in all cognitive, moral, and political matters.
This standpoint dictated a
neutral, if not an actually hostile, posture toward native Western cultural traditions as
well. Ironically, with the growing worldwide assertion of cultural particularism, it has
become clear that this universalist cultural posture is itself a form of Western cultural
particularism. Even worse, it is a form of Western cultural particularism that produces an
alienation from its own sources in specifically Western religious and political
Rethinking the Western culture of citizenship in culturally particularistic terms
In an emerging global order in which cultural and civilizational particularism is viewed more and more as a positive good and embraced with a good conscience, the West must learn to embrace its own inevitably particularistic native cultural traditions in a positive way. The difficulty of such a project must not be underestimated.
As a distinct cultural or civilizational division within an emerging global community of civilizations, the West is currently defined above all by its commitment to liberal democracy as a form of political association and as a way of life. Liberal democracy arose in the West in the early modern period as a modification of classical republican forms of political association. In its conception and basic values, liberal democracy was profoundly influenced by Christian moral ideals. Yet, from their first establishment, North Atlantic liberal democracies were wedded to the vocabulary and the world view of the Enlightenment.
Liberal democracies were established in England, America, and France in the name of universal and natural human rights. These rights were claimed for all human beings, regardless of their religious beliefs, ethnicity, social class, or nationality. Such claims were justified by modernist liberal political theories that produced demonstrations showing how liberal moral and political ideals are deducible from universally valid metaphysical conceptions of nature or reason.
This dependence of liberal democracy, in its very self-conception, on the vocabulary and world view of the Enlightenment is what accounts for the peculiar difficulty involved in the project of recovering the particularistic cultural identity of the West. What gives the West its contemporary identity as a distinct civilization is its commitment to the political institutions and moral ideals of liberal democracy. Western culture is today above all a culture of liberal democratic citizenship. Yet, from its modern beginnings, this culture of citizenship has defined itself exclusively in terms of a universalist world view that rejects the cognitive and moral validity of culturally particularistic beliefs and moral ideals.
Thus, the task involved in the project of recovering the particularistic cultural identity of the West will be to find some way to break this link between liberal democracy and the world view of the Enlightenment -- to arrive at a conception of the Western culture of citizenship capable of affirming both its moral validity and its culturally particularistic status.
The question facing us in the emerging post-Enlightenment period, then, is this: How can the Western culture of citizenship, after being interpreted for three hundred years in terms of the universalist metaphysical world view of the Enlightenment, be reinterpreted today as defining merely one particularistic cultural way of life among others, a way of life whose norms are valid only for citizens of contemporary North Atlantic liberal democracies?
|* See Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996)|
Page last edited: 01/20/02
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Thomas Bridges. All rights reserved.
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