the history of the phrase “the West”

Nowadays, the word “West” has political and racialized meanings. It can, for example, refer to the wealthy (and predominantly white) countries that are confronting Russia over Ukraine. It is used to condemn or to praise–sometimes with the same target. For instance, Paolo Freire is variously described as a critic of Western pedagogy, as an anti-colonial thinker who had been appropriated and mischaracterized by Western scholars, and as someone who would impose Western pedagogical ideas (such as child-centered learning) on the Global South. I think the term itself is meaningless, although imperialism names an evil.

The distinction between Christianity and other religions is old but was not associated with a compass direction until the Renaissance. After all, Jesus lived in the eastern Mediterranean; a great medieval Muslim nation had an Atlantic coastline. By the time that white racism developed (but not before then), most of the world’s Christians were white and most whites were Christian. Europe was by then the Christian heartland. There were people of color and non-Christians to the south, west, and east, but Europeans came to dominate and heavily settle the New World. This is presumably the seed of the idea that “The West” is a distinctive part of the globe, lying roughly between Vienna and San Francisco.

In medieval English, the word “west” referred to a direction. The medieval and Renaissance examples in the Oxford English Dictionary that imply a portion of the globe are concerned with the distinctions between the Eastern and Western Roman Empires (as political units) or with Catholic versus Orthodox Christianity. The first fairly clear reference to “The West” as white-dominant is in Tennyson: “He never yet had set his daughter forth / Here in the woman-markets of the west, / Where our Caucasians let themselves be sold” (Aylmer’s Field, 1864). Even in this case, it’s not obvious to me that “the west” means a part of the earth as opposed to a region of England (that “land of hops and poppy-mingled corn”). According to the OED, it’s not until Kipling (1892) that East and West are clearly distinguished on cultural or racial grounds.

Likewise, the phrase “Western world” is first attested in the 16th century, but it generally refers to the Americas in contrast to Europe, e.g., in 1787: “Sir Walter Raleigh, so remarkable for his penetration in foreseeing the consequences of the Western World to Europe.” The OED’s first use of the phrase to refer to Europe and regions heavily settled by Europeans comes in 1894 (from The Princeton College Bulletin): “There has grown up by a process of evolution a type of culture in the Western world which we call classical education.”

“Westerner” meant someone from the West of England–or from the western region of another country, such as the United States–until ca. 1857, when W. C. Milne wrote, “There is no fear … of any Westerner starving at Shanghai.”

As I’ve explored before, the word “culture” becomes a count noun around the same time. Previously, culture had been a virtue or quality of any individual who was cultured. By 1900, one could describe “a culture” as having characteristics that distinguished it from others. Then it became possible to use the phrase “European culture” and to associate it with “the West.”

This happened just as European imperialism reached its apogee, and the power of white Christians seemed unchallengeable. But then Europe descended into the madness of World War I and experienced revolutions. It became common to bemoan–or to celebrate–the “decline of the West.”

As a few examples of that discussion: Spengler claimed that democracy and money were corrupting what he called “the West.” Ludwig von Mises thought that markets were definitive of the West but endangered by socialism. (“The idea of liberty is and has always been peculiar to the West. What separates East and West is first of all the fact that the peoples of the East never conceived the idea of liberty.”) Gandhi may not have said, when he was asked what he thought of Western civilization, that “it would be a very good idea” (or if he did say it, he may have been joking). But he wrote in Hind Swaraj that “one effort is required, and that is to drive out Western civilization.”

Nearly a century later, it would be helpful if we stopped using the phrase “the West” at all.

See also don’t name things Western but call out imperialism;  to whom do the ancient Greeks belong?Jesus was a person of coloravoiding the labels of East and Westwhen East and West were oneon modernity and the distinction between East and Westtwo cheers for the West; a mistaken view of culture; individuals in cultures: the concept of an idiodictuon etc..

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.