October 07, 2005

Exits and Trappings

Herewith a few additional observations on the Exit and the West. The exit to a modern industrial society occurred first in the West for a whole host of reasons that historians are still exploring. As I've discussed before, I think one of the keys was identified by Carroll Quigley in his description of the distinctively Western outlook (Weapons Systems and Political Stability, p. 1129):

The method of the West, even in religion, has been this: The truth unfolds in time by a cooperative process of discussion that creates a temporary consensus which we hope will form successive approximations growing closer and closer to the final truth, to be reached only in some final state of eternity.

Furthermore, the Exit occurred first in a specific region of Western civlization: England. Why? Here again the historians have been busy, led by Alan Macfarlane. It seems that England was in important ways more open, flexible, polycentric, pluralistic, trustful, individualistic, market-oriented (etc.) than the rest of the West around the time of the Exit (and indeed for centuries before). Observing these facts leads to the recognition of Anglosphere exceptionalism within the context of Western civilization.

As Western civilization has become ever more successful in solving the problems of existence, other cultures have attempted to emulate that success. The pattern is well described by Quigley (ibid., p. 166):

When a society finds a fruitful organization and outlook, other societies may copy its organization (although not its outlook), either in emulation or in self-defence against such a superior organization of human efforts represented by that superior system. When this occurs, numerous distinct societies over a wide area and over an extended period of time may seem to be moving, almost simultaneously, in meaningful and purposeful directions.

Naturally, few people in those cultures want to say that they are turning their backs on ages-old cultural traditions, so they claim to be advocates of (acceptable) "modernization" rather than (unacceptable) "Westernization". In Quigley's terms, they attempt to copy successful organizational features -- representative democracy, stock markets, research universities, and the like -- without copying the distinctive outlook of Western and Anglosophere societies. Yet a civilization is more than an outlook or a philosophy, it is a whole matrix of practices, attitudes, structures, and (in the broadest sense) technologies. As I've written before about modernization:

More than abstract philosophy or ideology, the West became such a powerful force in human history because of things like economic freedom, legal competition, choice in marriage, efficiency in timekeeping, eminently practical and often downright fun technologies (eyeglasses, guns, printing presses, washing machines, phonographs, telephones, computers, and who knows what next), forms of entertainment such as sports and theatre and movies and popular music, fast means of travel (including the invention of tourism), freedom first for slaves and then for women, and in general a culture that makes personal fulfillment not just a distant possibility but a lived reality for the vast majority of the people in Western countries (and a growing number elsewhere, whether you call it "modernization" or "Westernization").

The process of modernization is helped along by the many diasporas to Western nations, and especially to the Anglosphere, which for historical and cultural reasons is more open to immigration and assimilation than other parts of the West. Those who come from outside the Anglosphere to study or work for a while (or permanently to live) act as bridges to their home cultures, seeding them with aspects of the tacit knowledge built up over centuries within the Anglosphere -- knowledge about markets, society, volunteerism, trust, law, governance, consensus, cooperation, innovation, entrepreneurship, individualism, responsibility, and freedom. These all sound like big ideas, but they are just as much practices, behaviors, customs, and implicit attitudes that must be lived to be absorbed. Simply reading about them in a philosophy book or copying their outward forms is not enough, and results in a society that has the trappings of modernity but not its substance. Yet it is not the trappings that caused the Exit, but the underlying habits and practices and attitudes -- precisely what is hardest to impart. The implications for how the Anglosphere understands itself and interacts with other cultures are far-reaching.

(Cross-posted at one small voice.)

Posted by Peter Saint-Andre at October 7, 2005 12:00 PM

Here's where the Japanese experience is so important. They were entirely non-European, but had developed a unique society with many of the underlying preconditions of strong civil society. Their rapid development into a modern society, almost as rapid and not much less successful than France's or Germany's, suggests that European exceptionalism is rather thin, and that most of the characteristics that led to the Exit were specific to the Anglosphere. What seems to matter most is radius of trust, as that can permit rapid elaboration of civil-society institutions when other conditions become right.

Japan's backwards stumble in the 1930s with the collapse of the Taisho democracy shows that their version of the Exit accomplished during the Meiji period had been partial and incomplete -- but it's also possible to argue that the collapse of Weimar democracy in Germany, and for that matter the collapse of the Third Republic in France demonstrated the incompleteness of the Exit in those countries.

And of course Alan Macfarlane's chapters on Fukuzawa in Making of the Modern World are very useful in the matter of how Japan approached the Exit in the 19th Century.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at October 7, 2005 02:00 PM

Macfarlane's co-authored book "Glass: A World History" ... also highlights some distinctions between West and East, China and Japan, that drove the direction of art, science and society before and after England's Exit.

Posted by: james mccormick at October 7, 2005 02:22 PM

"The method of the West, even in religion, has een this: The truth unfolds in time by a cooperative process of discussion that creates a temporary consensus which we hope will form successive approximations growing closer and closer to the final truth, to be reached only in some final state of eternity."

This is a brilliant summary. John Courtney Murray, in "The Problem of God" and Cardinal Newman in "The Development of Doctrine" address this point. Revealed truth in Catholicism is a starting point not an ending point, and this was the fundamental intellectual stance throughout the rise of the West. This is unique to the West in the strict sense. I remember my Russian Civ teacher at U of C saying "there is no theology in Eastern Orthodoxy, other than what has been done in American University theology departments in the 20th Century." The Orthodox,like the Muslims have orthopraxy, not orthodoxy. Doctrine did not develop, if there even was any. This Western distinction is fundamental to all that came later.

Posted by: Lex at October 9, 2005 12:47 AM