Is there such a thing as Western culture?

Sonia Sodha reflects on Kwame Anthony Appiah's fourth Reith Lecture, Culture.

Is there such a thing as Western culture? What do we mean when we talk about Western civilisation?

These are the questions the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah considers in the last of his four Reith lectures on identity.

First, he asks what do we even mean by "culture". High or low? An aesthetic ideal or the stuff of the everyday? In other words, Mozart or Justin Bieber? Thomas Aquinas or Kim Kardashian?

Appiah argues that both types are important to understanding what we mean by "western culture".

Second, when we refer to "Western culture", what do we even mean by the West?

Appiah points out that "the West" is a relatively modern term which wasn't used until the late 19th century: the way we use it has evolved over time.

Back in the time of the British Empire, Rudyard Kipling used it to refer to Europe in contrast to Asia (the East). During the Cold War it was used to contrast the two sides of the Iron Curtain.

Later it became a way of distinguishing between the developed North Atlantic (Europe and North America) with the poorer global South (Africa, Asia and Latin America). Today, we often use “the West” to contrast ourselves not with the Global South, but the Muslim world.

So the term "the West" has often been used to define who "we" are in opposition to something else, whether that's an enemy, a perceived threat, or something unfamiliar.

That's clearly an issue in trying to define what we mean by Western culture.

Culture isn’t a box to check on the questionnaire of humanity, it is a process you join, a life lived with others.
Kwame Anthony Appiah

Moreover, Appiah argues that over the last century we've invented a fable about Western culture – in his words, "from Plato to NATO". According to Appiah, we've forged a grand narrative stretching from Athenian democracy to the Magna Carta through to modern liberal democracy, which has sustained us through the Cold War to the modern day.

We think of Western culture and values as being characterised by democracy, liberalism, enlightenment, scientific progress and individualism. We see it as a birthright to be passed on from generation to generation through the ages.

Of course this narrative misses out a great deal: you can't trace a straight line from Athenian democracy to European liberal democracy; there are huge chunks of European history where these values were not in evidence.

In fact, until the 20th century, democracy was the exception not the norm in Europe: a country like Spain adopted democracy decades later than countries such as India and Japan. Liberal democracy in the United States was plagued by the barbarism of slavery: hardly an example of liberal values in practice.

And "Plato to NATO" misses out the fact that there has been a great deal of cross-cultural fertilisation between what we might think of as Western culture and what it has defined itself in opposition to. For example, much of our modern understanding of Greek philosophy – such as that of Plato – relied on these texts having been translated into Arabic and preserved by Muslim scholars during Europe's Dark Ages.

Appiah criticises the caricature of Western versus Eastern culture, as developed and enlightened versus undeveloped and crude. Using "Western" as shorthand for "good" harks of a cultural imperialism which doesn't recognise that the picture may be more mixed than at first appears.

We can't deny there is a stronger tradition of liberal democracy across much of Europe and North America than in some other parts of the world. Perhaps it's just a case of challenging simplistic caricatures of Western culture.

Appiah also argues against the idea of culture as an essence or a birthright. This is similar to the arguments he made about religion, nationalism and race in his earlier lectures: none of these provide the essence of a fixed identity.

Culture and cultural values are not inherited generation-to-generation. Western liberal democratic values can be shunned by those who live in the West – for example, those Europeans who have become radicalised and gone to fight for so-called Islamic State. And they can be enthusiastically embraced and practised by someone who lives in Asia or Africa.

Culture and values are choices to be made actively, not "tracks laid down by a Western destiny".

To some extent this is true. But is this too individualistic a way of looking at the world?

It might be very difficult for someone living in an illiberal society to choose to put liberal democratic values into practice even if they feel a strong affinity with them.

What about a woman living under Taliban rule in Afghanistan, unable to exercise the most basic of freedoms? Appiah's view of Western culture as a set of values that can be embraced by anyone might offer little comfort.

The 2016 BBC Reith Lectures