What is the West? Part II
By • 2/8/08
The Greek philosophers epitomize the
Western orientation towards the truth.
The last article on The Inverted World dealt with the characteristics that define the Western political tradition, such as the rule of law, individualism, pluralism, and tolerance. But what about the mind that underpins Western culture? What is unique about the Western intellect?
Whites are distinguished from many races by their intelligence and providence, but these traits do not fully explain white uniqueness. Asians beat us on all the measures of intelligence and providence—such as IQ scores, high school and college graduation rates, and crime rates—that I discussed in The Improvident Races. However, whites are superior to Asians in another respect: we have always been much more innovative. In Human Accomplishment, Charles Murray found 97 percent of major figures in science between 800 BC and 1950 AD were white. Murray also lists the 170 most important technological breakthroughs during the same period; all but nine occurred in the West.1
Whites continue to be more creative than Asians. Since 2000, Americans have won 53 Nobel Prizes, and all the winners were white. The United Kingdom won 12 Nobel Prizes in the same period. By contrast, Japan, a country with a population more than double the UK’s, won four Nobel Prizes. The largest country in the world, China, produced one prize winner, as did South Korea. This means that the white populations of the US and the UK were more than seven times more likely to produce Nobel Prize winners than Japan, 10 times more likely than South Korea, and about 300 times more likely than China.
In The Geography of Thought, a study of the Western and Asian mindsets, the cognitive scientist Richard E. Nisbett addresses the reasons for these differences in innovation. Nisbett believes whites are motivated by a desire to discover the truth, whereas Asians desire harmony above all things. Consequently, the West is a culture of debate, and Asia, one of consensus. This fundamental difference can be seen at the origins of Western and Chinese culture, as represented by the philosophy of the ancient Greeks and that of Confucianism and Taoism.
Greeks were independent and engaged in verbal contention and debate in an effort to discover what people took to be the truth… . Chinese social life was interdependent and it was not liberty but harmony that was the watchword… . Similarly, the Way [or the Tao, the establishment of a life in harmony with nature and society], and not the discovery of the truth, was the goal of philosophy.2
The Greek philosophers investigated not only the truth about the natural and the human worlds, but also the moral truth. They debated whether the best state was a democracy, a republic, an oligarchy, or a dictatorship, and whether morality had a transcendental basis or was merely a means for man to dominate man.
Nisbett finds that modern-day Asians are just as unfriendly to debate as the ancient Chinese philosophers were. “The concept of a ‘lively discussion’ does not exist in Japan—because of the risk to group harmony.”3 The Japanese proverb says it all: “The nail that sticks out gets pounded down.” Meanwhile, it seems that debate in white societies only grows more intense and acrimonious as time passes.
Debate in white societies is not a casual affair. For many of us, convincing others of the truth as we see it is our priority in life. Whites’ orientation towards the truth is so powerful that we make heroes out of men who died for their convictions, like Socrates, Jesus, and Galileo. Our Western heroes are very different from heroes of other world regions, who affirm the power and superiority of the culture that produced them. Rather, our hero myths contrast the integrity of the individual vision of the truth with the complacence and conformity of the culture that persecutes the prophet or philosopher. So far from validating and protecting the social order, the Western hero is heroic because he challenges order. The individual can be right, and the whole rest of the world can be wrong: this idea is the essence of the West and distinguishes it from all other cultures.
The essay by Karl W. Deutsch on Western uniqueness that we relied on in the first part of this article lists four basic traits of the Western intellectual tradition that distinguish it from other cultures: critical thought, natural science, the frequency of inventions, and the ability to learn from other cultures. All of these are rooted in the Western orientation towards the truth.
For most of their history, white cultures have been highly authoritarian; however, there was always greater room in the West for criticism of authority than in non-Western cultures. Even during the most dogmatic period in our history, the Middle Ages, whites were relatively free to express their own versions of the truth, even if they tended to undermine authority. In part, this freedom was a result of another Western tradition: the separation of church and state. The substantially autonomous church had great freedom to criticize the temporal authorities.
And criticize them the clerics did. In the fifth century, St. Augustine declared that there was no difference in essence between a king and a robber:
What are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms?… Indeed, it was the apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when the king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it in a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet are called an emperor.”4
Not only did the church criticize the state, but it permitted internal self-critique. Deutsch gives the example of Peter Abelard and other scholastic philosophers, who, in the 13th century, demonstrated that the opinions of the church fathers frequently contradicted each other. By undermining authority, these thinkers won limited freedom to argue for their own views.5
In subsequent centuries, whites gained greater and greater freedom to challenge authority. As Deutsch says:
[The] successors [of Abelard] went further. They attacked authority directly, and eventually demanded reforms in the church itself. William of Ockham, John Wyclif, Martin Luther, John Calvin all used critical thought to make a free way for their beliefs. Attacking existing authority, they then most often proclaimed their own and insisted others conform to it. But these new authorities were then in turn attacked by new thinkers who came after them, preserving some elements but radically changing others, in a succession that is still continuing.6
Such a continuous and robust tradition of critical thought has never existed outside of the West. Try criticizing Islam in Saudi Arabia and Iran, or communism in China and see what happens to you. Japan is more receptive to critical thought, but even there, if you start a lively discussion, you may well get pounded down.
The second major intellectual trait of the West, natural science, is the quintessential expression of our orientation towards the truth. Indeed, the term “science” means a method for establishing the truth. The basic rule of science is that only hypotheses that survive empirical testing count as true. This rule was a long time in the making, but emerged in mature form during the scientific revolution in 17th century Europe.
To be testable, hypotheses need to be stated precisely, and the most precise form statements can take is mathematical. Thus, science does not come into its own until scientists move beyond verbal descriptions of phenomena and begin expressing them as equations. There is some dispute as to who did this first, but it was certainly a Westerner. By the time of Newton’s laws of motion, the mathematical nature of science was fully established.
Western science has had the massive effrontery to hold up all of our traditional beliefs to empirical testing, and virtually none of them has survived. Thus, natural science is a product of the Western capacity for critical thinking. In the 17th century, when natural science began in earnest, there was such a revulsion against traditional ways of thinking about nature that the major intellectuals of the day decided all prior work had to be scrapped. Francis Bacon, one of the originators of the scientific method, said:
There [is] but one course left … to try the whole thing anew upon a better plan, and to commence a total reconstruction of sciences, arts, and all human knowledge, raised upon the proper foundations.7
This attitude is completely Western. In no other contemporary culture would this bald assertion of the preeminence of individual reason over tradition and authority have been possible.
As the Western predominance in science indicates, no other world culture autonomously invented the experimental method. Although the Indians, East Asians, and Muslims studied mathematics, none of them grasped that nature had a mathematical structure that could be expressed through equations.
It is no coincidence that Westerners have been just as dominant in technological innovation as in science. Technological innovation is rooted in an understanding of the natural world. Besides that, the same orientation towards the truth that undermined dogmatism in the study of nature also led Westerners to be receptive to new ways of doing things. In Humility and the West, I contrasted the dogmatic traditionalism of China with the Western openness to novelty.
The same anti-dogmatic spirit led the West to be more receptive to foreign inventions as well. In Humility and the West, I argued that, while the Chinese regarded Western inventions as an unbearable affront to their sense of their superiority, Westerners had the humility to admit that Chinese culture was superior to their own in some respects and eagerly adopted Chinese inventions like gunpowder and paper.
The orientation towards truth underlies the characteristics of the Western political tradition outlined in the last article. People who hold to their own vision of the truth will naturally be individualists and insist on a tolerant attitude towards divergence from social norms. A ubiquitous drive towards the expression of individual perspectives will inevitably push a society towards pluralism and tolerance.
The combined effect of all these traits led to another distinguishing characteristic of Western culture: a tradition of major social revolutions. Our orientation towards the truth, along with the relatively pluralistic and tolerant societies that it creates, has made white cultures more dynamic and mutable than those of other races. As Deutsch says:
Since the tenth century AD, the Western world has transformed itself, actively and dramatically, not in a single revolution, but in a succession of major social revolutions that changed in their effects not only politics but also more profoundly the fabric of social relations, of daily living, and of thoughts and values.8
Deutsch gives as examples European cities’ struggle for autonomy from the tenth to the 13th centuries, the Reformation of the 16th century, the scientific revolution of the 17th century, the French and American Revolutions of the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, and the information revolution and the formation of the welfare state in the 20th century. No other culture shows such a long and profound tradition of dynamic change. The social revolutions in non-Western societies that took place 19th and 20th centuries were caused by the introduction of Western ideas and practices, like communism, capitalism, and liberal democracy.
These traits, then, make up the soul of the white race: the orientation towards the truth, individualism, pluralism, the rule of law, and tolerance. An understanding of Western uniqueness can be a powerful tool in the hands of white activists. One of the many reasons why white activism has failed up until this point is that we have never been able to explain to whites what they stood to lose if they non-whites gained control over white homelands. Now we can make whites understand that the values they hold most dear are racially specific and will probably not be respected by the non-white groups whose power over us is growing every day.