Western culture

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For this article's equivalent regarding the East, see Eastern culture
For the Henry Cow album of the same name, see Western Culture (album)
Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man, for many a symbol of the changes of the Western culture during the Renaissance

Western culture or Western civilisation is a term used to refer to the cultures of the people of European origin and their descendants. It comprises the broad heritage of social norms, ethical values, traditional customs (such as religious beliefs) and specific artifacts and technologies as shared within the Western sphere of influence. The term "Western" is often used in contrast to Asian, African, or Arab nations.

The East-West contrast is sometimes criticised as relativistic. In some ways it has grown out of use, or has been transformed or clarified to fit more precise uses. Though it is directly descendent from academic Orientalism and Occidentalism, the changing usage of the distinction "East-West" has come to be useful as a means to identify important cultural similarities and differences — both within an increasingly larger concept of local region, as well as with regard to increasingly familiar "alien" cultures.

During the Cold War, the East-West contrast became synonymous with the competing governments of the United States and the Soviet Union and their allies.


[edit] Description

Image:Westerncultures map.png
Classical definition of the Western world: All of the depicted countries in blue were predominately influenced by Graeco-Roman culture and Christian and Enlightenment ideals and/or shaped by strong Western European immigration and settlement
Several definitions of the Western world
William Shakespeare, a major influence on modern Western literature.

The concept of Western culture is generally linked to the classical definition of Western world. In this definition, Western culture is the set of literary, scientific, musical, and philosophical principles which set it apart from other great civilisations. It applies to countries whose history is strongly marked by Western European immigration or settlement, and is not restricted to Western Europe. Much of this set of traditions is collected in the Western canon.

Various uses of the concept of Western culture have included, rightly or wrongly, critiques of American culture, materialism, industrialism, capitalism, commercialism, hedonism, imperialism, modernism, or the teaching of Western civilisation.

[edit] Foundations

The origins of Western culture are often cited as ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, and Catholic and Protestant Christianity. Broadly, these foundations are referred to as Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian roots. Germanic, Slavic and Celtic popular cultures also took part in the formation of the culture of medieval Europe, and the influence of secular humanism has been profound since the European Renaissance. When focusing on the United States as a flagship of modern "Western culture", African-American and Native American influences must be taken into consideration, but these are usually identified as outside modifiers on, rather than inside developments of, the basic Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian roots of "Western culture".

Western culture has developed a plethora of literary, musical, philosophical, religious, and other traditions. Important traditions are:

[edit] History

Western culture is not homogeneous, nor unchanging. As with all other great cultures it evolved and gradually changed with time. All generalities about it have their exceptions at some time and place. The organisation and tactics of the Greek Hoplites differed in many ways from the Roman Legions. The City State of the Greeks is not the same as the American superpower of the 21st century. The gladiatorial games of the Roman Empire are not identical to present-day soccer. The art of Pompeii is not the art of Hollywood. Nevertheless, it is possible to follow the evolution and history of the West, and appreciate its similarities and differences, its borrowings from and contributions to, the other cultures of humanity.

The ancient Greek conception of science, philosophy, democracy, architecture, literature, and art provided a foundation embraced and built upon by the Roman Empire as it swept up Greece in its conquests in the 1st century BC. For five hundred years, the Roman Empire spread the Greek and Latin languages and Roman law across Europe, although it rejected the democratic concepts pioneered in ancient Athens. Roman culture mixed with the pre-existing Germanic, Slavic, and Celtic cultures.

After the fall of Rome much of Greco-Roman art, literature, science and even technology were lost. Europe fell into political anarchy, with many warring kingdoms and principalities, and evolved into feudalism. The Greek and Roman paganism was essentially completely replaced by Christianity. Roman Catholic Christianity served as a unifying force in Western Europe, and in some respects replaced or competed with the secular authorities. Art and literature, law, education, and politics all fell into its sway. The Church founded many cathedrals, monasteries and seminaries, some of which evolved into today's universities and colleges. In the Medieval period, the route to power for many men was in the Church.

It actively encouraged the spreading of Christianity, which also helped to spread early Western culture. Owing to the influence of Arab culture—a culture that had preserved the knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome — in Moorish Spain and in the Levant during the Crusades, Western Europe rediscovered its Greek heritage in the 1300s, and the Renaissance was born. From the early 15th century to the early 17th century Western culture began to be spread throughout the world by intrepid explorers and missionaries in the Age of Discovery.

Image:Whitehouse north.jpg
The architecture of the White House deliberately recalls ancient Greek temples.

Renaissance Western culture was spread to the New World and beyond in the 1500s by explorers, traders, missionaries and colonists. The Enlightenment of the 1700s, in turn, culminated politically in the American Revolution and the French Revolution. The industrial revolution, which began in the last half of the eighteenth century in Great Britain, changed Western culture to one that emphasised the notion of progress, development and change, material well-being and, eventually, consumerism, and transformed the world. The ideas of civil rights, equality before the law, procedural justice, and democracy as the ideal form of society, and were principles which formed the basis of modern Western culture.

In the 1800s, the United States began to develop its own especially pragmatic strain of Western culture and, by the middle of the twentieth century, had become a major influence, spreading American fashion, entertainment, and technology throughout the world.

Image:Shibuya tokyo.jpg
Japan has adopted some aspects of Western culture, whilst maintaining strong Japanese traditions.

[edit] Influence of Western Culture

Elements of Western culture have had a very influential role on other cultures worldwide. People of many cultures, both Western and non-Western, equate "modernisation" with "westernisation," but many non-Westerners object to the implication that all societies should also adopt Western ideas and values. Some members of the non-Western world have suggested that this the link between technological progress and certain harmful Western values provides a reason why much of "modernity" should be rejected as being incompatible with their vision and the values of their societies.

What is generally uncontested, is that much of the technology and social patterns which make up what is defined as "modernisation" were developed in the Western world. Whether these technological and social patterns be intrinsically part of Western culture, is more difficult to answer. Many would argue that the question cannot be answered by a response from positivistic science and instead is a "value" question which must be answered from a value system (e.g. philosophy, religion, political doctrine). Nonetheless, much of anthropology today has shown the close links between the physical environment and daily activities and the formation of a culture (the findings of cultural ecology, among others). Therefore, the impact of "modernisation" and "modern" technology may not merely be "scientific" (that is, physical) but may possibly be closely linked with a certain culture, that of the West, such that without such technology, Western culture today would have been dramatically different from how it is known in actual historical and contemporary times.

[edit] Multiculturalism

Because of its nature as the foundation of the culture, the art, literature, and history of Western countries have dominated school curriculums in the Americas and Europe almost exclusively. Beginning in the 1970s and accelerating in the 1990s, a new cultural awareness, called multiculturalism, began to encourage across the West the study of African and Eastern culture, history, and art.

[edit] Music, art, story-telling and architecture

Some cultural and artistic modalities are also characteristically Western in origin and form. While dance, music, story-telling, and architecture are human universals, they are expressed in the West in certain characteristic ways.

The symphony has its origins in Italy. Many important musical instruments used by cultures all over the world were also developed in the West; among them are the violin, piano, pipe organ, saxophone, trombone, clarinet, and the theramin. The solo piano, symphony orchestra and the string quartet are also important performing musical forms.

The ballet is a distinctively Western form of performance dance. The ballroom dance is an important Western variety of dance for the elite. The polka, the square dance, and the Irish step dance are very well-known Western forms of folk dance.

While epic literary works in verse such as the Mahabarata and Homer's Iliad are ancient and occurred worldwide, the novel as a distinct form of story telling only arose in the West in the period 1200 to 1750. Photography and the motion picture as a technology and as the basis for entirely new art forms were also developed first in the West. The soap opera, a popular culture dramatic form originated in the United States first on radio in the 1930's, then a couple of decades later on television. The music video was also developed in the West in the middle of the twentieth century.

The arch, the dome and the flying buttress as architectural motifs were first used by the Romans. Important western architectural motifs include the doric, corinthian and the ionic column, and the Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque and Victorian styles are still widely recognised, and used even today, in the West. Much of Western architecture emphasises repetition of simple motifs, straight lines and expansive, undecorated planes. A modern ubiquitous architectural form emphasising this characteristic, first developed in New York and Chicago, is the skyscraper.

Oil painting is said to have originated by Jan van Eyck, and perspective drawings and paintings had their earliest practitioners in Florence. In art, the Celtic knot is a very distinctive Western repeated motif. Depictions of the nude human male and female in photography, painting and sculpture are frequently considered to have special artistic merit. Realistic portraiture is especially valued. In Western dance, music, plays and other arts, the performers are only very infrequently masked. There are essentially no taboos against depicting God, or other religious figures, in a representational fashion.

[edit] Beyond art and politics

The neutrality of this section is disputed.
Please see the discussion on the talk page.
Image:Late model Ford Model T.jpg
Henry Ford popularized both mass production and his example of it: the Model T.

Apart from food, literature, art, music, religion, and politics, many aspects of Western culture differ from other cultures around the world. Western culture has evolved and changed throughout the past centuries, but at the same time certain themes and trends persist to varying degrees:

Occidental marriage customs which are occasionally different in other cultures today are:

  • A strict legal requirement for monogamous and consentual marriage;
  • An occasionally casual attitude toward sex between unmarried persons;
  • An expectation of marriage as a source of personal fulfilment through romance, rather than as a practical domestic arrangement;
  • Reduced or no legal enforcement of social bans on adultery;

[edit] Western scientific and technological achievements

A feature of Western culture is its focus on science and technology, and its ability to generate new processes, materials and material artifacts.

It was the West that first developed steam power and adapted its use into factories, and for the generation of electrical power. The Otto and the Diesel internal combustion engines are products whose genesis and early development were in the West. Nuclear power stations are derived from the first atomic pile in Chicago (1942). The electrical dynamo, transformer, electric motor, and electric light, and indeed most of the familiar electrical appliances, were inventions of the West. New communication devices and systems such as the telegraph, the telephone, fax, the transatlantic cable, radio and television, the communications and navigation satellites, mobile phones, the internet and the web can all be credited to the West.

Furthermore, ubiquitous materials such as concrete, aluminum, clear glass, synthetic rubber, synthetic diamond and the plastics polyethylene, polypropylene and polystyrene, among others, are all inventions of the West. Iron and steel ships, bridges and skyscrapers first appeared in the West. The transistor, integrated circuits, the memory chip, and computers were all first seen in the West. The pencil, ballpoint pen, CRT, LCD, LED, the photograph, photocopy, laser printer and plasma display screen were too. The ship's chronometer, the engine powered screw propeller, the locomotive, bicycle, automobile, and aeroplane were all invented in the West. Eyeglasses, the telescope, and the microscope and electron microscope, all the varieties of chromatography, protein and DNA sequencing, computerised tomography, NMR, x-rays, and light, ultraviolet and infrared spectroscopy, were all first developed and applied in Western laboratories, hospitals and factories.

In medicine, Vaccination, anesthesia, MRI, the birth control pill, and all the pure antibiotics were discovered in the West. The method of preventing Rh disease, the treatment of diabetes, and the germ theory of disease were discovered by Westerners. The eradication of that ancient scourge, smallpox, was led by a Westerner, Donald Henderson. Radiography, Computed tomography, Positron emission tomography and Medical ultrasonography are important diagnostic tools developed in the West. So were the stethoscope, electrocardiograph, and the endoscope. Vitamins, oral contraceptives, hormones, insulin, Beta blockers and ACE inhibitors, along with a host of other medically proven drugs were first utilised to treat disease in the West. The double-blind study and evidence-based medicine are critical scientific techniques widely used in the West for medical purposes.

In mathematics, calculus, statistics, logic, vector, tensor and complex analysis, group theory and topology were developed by Westerners. In biology, evolution, chromosomes, DNA, genetics and the methods of molecular biology are creatures of the West. In physics, the science of mechanics and quantum mechanics, relativity, thermodynamics, and statistical mechanics were all discovered by Westerners. The atom, nucleus, electron, neutron and proton were all unveiled by Westerners. Most of the elements, as well as the correct notion of elements themselves were discovered in the West. Nitrogen fixation and petrochemicals were achievements of Westerners. Chemistry itself became a science in the West.

Westerners are also known for their explorations of the globe and space. The first expedition to circumnavigate the Earth was by Westerners, as well as the first to set foot on the Poles, and the first to land on the moon. The landing of robots on Mars and on an asteroid, and the Voyager explorations of the outer planets were all achievements of Westerners.

[edit] Contemporary Western culture

The Western culture is not homogenous. There are strong differences between multiple western countries, based on the differences between the media and the politics in western countries. Yet western nations hold similar norm, mores. As the sharing of norms and values consistutes much of the basic premise that defines the term society, the United States and Western European nations may correctly be refered to as being members of Western Society, sharing a common, yet vaguely defined, culture.<ref name="Society in Focus">Thompson, William, Joseph Hickey (2005). Society in Focus. Boston, MA: Pearson. 0-205-41365-X.</ref>

[edit] Similarities

Western countries are more developed than other countries in the world. This means that, compaired to other cultures, a smaller percentage of society is poor. The richness of the majority of westerners result in freedom expressed in consumerism. Westerners have the ability to travel around the world, which they do en masse during holidays. Western countries tend to have low fertility rates relative to less developed countries, though this has not always been the case.

Western culutres tend to place a large amount of emphasis on the individual, making them individualistic, rather than collective societies. Democracy, which also favors the concept of individualsism, is the prefered form of government in western society. Additionally creativity and the expression of the individual is commonly encouraged in western societies so long it does not violate any sociological norms or laws. Some forms of personal expression, violating rahter minor folkways are most commonly accepted.<ref name="Society in Focus">Thompson, William, Joseph Hickey (2005). Society in Focus. Boston, MA: Pearson. 0-205-41365-X.</ref> Furthermore capitalism which is found in most every western nation supports an individualistic ideology. In western society consumer products are often meant to reflect upon their owner in addition to serving a utilitarian purpose. Everything from license plates, cell phone ring-tones, and kitchen sets can be custom tailored to meet the desires of each individual customer. Sciocal critics have often pointed to high divorce rates and low amounts of civil acitivism as the negative externalities of individualistic societies.

Media in Western countries have paid much attention to disasters that happen around the world. Many Westerners are active in helping people around the world through charities or state intervention. The enormous amount of information, products, and subcultures leads to reduced adherence to ideologies. Cynicism has increased which can be examplified by comedians and comedy shows like South Park and The Daily Show, and writers such as Michel Houellebecq.

Renewing is important in the Western culture. Trendwatchers are constantly looking for new trends. New subcultures emerge. Artists and inventors try to make new things. New products are made by companies resulting in shops stuffed with consumer products.

[edit] Differences

There are many differences between the most populous regions of the western culture, the United States and Western Europe. Religion has waned considerably in Western Europe. Many western Europeans are agnostic or atheist and nearly half of the populations of the United Kingdom (31-44%), Germany (41-49%), France (43-54%) and the Netherlands (39-44%) don't believe in God. The religiousness and the belief in God in the United States is still very strong, with 91-97% of the population believing in God.<ref>Zuckerman, P. 2005. "Atheism: Contemporary Rates and Patterns" Pitzer College. Retrieved: 2006-06-21.</ref>

Socialism never got a strong foothold in the United States, but it has been considerably more popular and influential in Europe. Socialism has been waning however in recent decades, mainly due to growing immigration problems which aren't addressed to the population's liking by the socialistic parties[citation needed]. Marxist socialism has however taken ahold in Europe and in the United States. Advocates of Marxist Socialism in the United states often do not use that term for fear of alienating a large number of people, and they have made vigorous roadways into mainstream society and continue to well into the 21st century. Examples include affirmative action, social security, welfare, public housing, medicaid, subsidies for various parts of the economy including farming, and overall more government programs. Various recent liberalising reform attempts have been met by strong resistance, particularly in the Netherlands[2], France and Germany.

[edit] Notes

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[edit] References

  • Jones, Prudence and Pennick, Nigel A History of Pagan Europe Barnes & Noble (1995) ISBN 760712107.
  • Barzun, Jacques From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life 1500 to the Present HarperCollins (2000) ISBN 060175869.
  • Merriman, John Modern Europe: From the Renaissance to the Present W. W. Norton (1996) ISBN 393968855.
  • Derry, T. K. and Williams, Trevor I. A Short History of Technology: From the Earliest Times to A.D. 1900 Dover (1960) ISBN 0-486-27472-1.
  • McClellan, James E. III and Dorn, Harold Science and Technology in World History Johns Hopkins University Press (1999) ISBN 801858690.
  • Stein, Ralph The Great Inventions Playboy Press (1976) ISBN 872234444.
  • Asimov, Isaac Asimov's Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology: The Lives & Achievements of 1510 Great Scientists from Ancient Times to the Present Revised second edition, Doubleday (1982) ISBN 0-385-17771-2.

[edit] See also

es:Occidental eo:Okcidenta civilizo fr:Civilisation occidentale he:העולם המערבי lt:Vakarų pasaulis nl:Westerse wereld ja:西洋 pt:Cultura ocidental ru:Запад (цивилизация) yi:וועסטליכע קולטור zh:西方文化

Western culture

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