Make a Donation to the NBN

The NBN is run by volunteers, but the network has expenses. If you like what we do, consider making a contribution

Ricardo DuchesneThe Uniqueness of Western Civilization

Brill, 2011

by marshall poe on May 13, 2011

Ricardo Duchesne

One of the standard assumptions of modern Western social science (history included) is that material conditions drive historical development. All of the “Great Transitions” in world history–the origins of agriculture, the birth of cities, the rise of high culture, the industrial revolution–can, so most Western social scientists claim, be associated with some condition that compelled otherwise conservative humans to act in new ways. This premise is of course most closely linked to Marx, but it is found throughout post-Marxist big picture scholarship (including my own humble contribution to that literature).

Ricardo Duchesne argues in his new The Uniqueness of Western Civilization (Brill, 2011) that we have it all wrong. History, he claims, is driven by creative people and their ideas, not by the conditions they find themselves in. If you see a bit of Hegel and Nietzsche here, you are not wrong: Duchesne embraces them both (and throws in a considerable amount of Weber to boot). But he goes much further. He trys to demonstrate using the best literature available on a wide variety of topics that the Hegelian-Nietzschian view of historical development is correct. This is not a book of theory alone; it’s an attempt to empirically demonstrate a theory. Even more radically, Duchesne uses the Hegelian-Nietzschian view to argue that since the invasion of the Indo-Europeans, a pastoral people who were imbued with unique aristocratic-warrior ethos, the West has been more creative than other world historical civilizations, and that this creativity explains in large measure the “Great Divergence” that we have seen in modern time.

This is a challenging book, and one that requires study. It is not light reading. But anyone who is brave enough to try to understand what it says will be greatly rewarded. I know I was.

PS: Brill, could you please put out an affordable paperback edition of this book, or perhaps release it in electronic version once it’s been sold to all the libraries that will buy it?

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Jon May 13, 2011 at 12:59 pm

Really good interview. Thanks. I bought the last copy on Amazon.

A Van Meeter May 13, 2011 at 9:32 pm

Great interview. Appears to be a good book and a good antidote to the “multiculty” history that is still dominant in academia. The text should be rewritten in a user-friendly format, printed as a paperback, priced at no more than $12 and made available to students.

Quaestor June 17, 2011 at 5:04 pm

Strange, apparently Dr Duchesne doesn’t think the genius of Zhuangzi, Tang poetry or such literary masterpieces such as the “Story of the Stone” are not signs of creativity? A serious, if only partial rebuttal would require scholars well-versed in ancient Greek, Latin, medieval European languages, Arabic, Persian Sanskrit, Classical Chinese and many others!

A Van Meeter August 7, 2011 at 3:02 pm

Strange, apparrently Dr. Duchesne is not aware of the genius of Mansa-Munsa, Ibn-Fadla, the great university in the glorious city of Timbuktu, and he does not apparently know anything about great stone cities of Zimbabwe. A serious rebuttal from a serious Africanist is needed.

Let the facts speak August 8, 2011 at 9:28 am

In all fairness, but the so-called “university” of Timbuktu was actually a madrasa, a mosque school, a very different institution. Universities as we know them today are a creation of Christian medieval Europe and there were hundreds of them teaching all over the West before the university was finally adopted in Africa after 1945. And the “great stone cities of Zimbabwe” rather consisted of simple dry-stone walls, a far cry from the high-rising Gothic cathedral which put the structural limits of stone masonry to a limit. Not to mention the Roman engineering genius evident in their aqueducts, domes, roads, bridges, harbors etc. And I think that is also what the book is about: once we drop the habit of cultural relativism, the unique contribution of the West to world culture comes again strongly to the fore.

A Van Meeter August 11, 2011 at 6:06 pm

To “Let the facts speak”: My friend, wake up. We are in the same boat. I guess you did not catch the irony of my remark about Quaestor’s comment with his “Zhuzhu-Tang-story-of-stone poetry.” Mansa-Munsa and Timbuktu are just the most catchy metaphors (taken from mainstream world history textbooks) for that multiculty mambo-jambo that has infested college and school textbooks. Of course, Timbuktu was a mosque school. Of course, “glorious stone cities” of Zimbabwe were nothing but dry-stone walls. The more frequently we laugh about such nonsense that mainstream schools/academia peddle in the name of cultural realtivism, the sooner we will get rid of it. I and my son always laugh when we open a new world history textbook, guessing if they included there “glorious” Mansa-Munsa and his “greatest “accomplishment – a pilgrimage to Mecca and always find it there along with a routine reference to the “great stone cities” of Zimbabwe. The pages of such textbooks simply beg for irony and comedy.
Good luck in fighting the multiculty agenda

Let the facts speak August 12, 2011 at 1:30 pm

To A Van Meeter: Sorry, I missed your irony completely, I really thought Quaestor had somehow succeeded in posting under your identity! I think Quaestor’s relativism takes one only so far. While it may be indeed difficult to compare poetry and other ancient literature because of language and cultural barriers, the fact still remains that modern literary key genres like the novel or the short story are typical Western creations, now globally adopted. What weakens the case for the supposed incommensurability of artistic production and corrobates Duchesne’s thesis of the exceptional creativity of Western thought.

A Van Meeter August 14, 2011 at 5:50 am

To “Let the facts speak”: thanks for your reply. Your point about Western novel/short story genres being now universally accepted by all cultures is well taken. Pondering on various issues raised by Duchesne, I somehow did not think about this small but obvious example of Western creativity that we take for granted. I guess the best example of such creativity is the ways of modern science now globally shared by various cultures. Of course, proponents of cultural pluralism will immediately begin to argue that it was the Arabs who saved Greek/Roman science and transmitted it to Europeans in the early Middle Ages. Yet the fact remains that science as a modern enterprise (explaining nature from nature itself along with university/research infrustructure) had been pioneered in Europe/the West.

P. Sharikov October 7, 2011 at 1:53 am

Marshall: You really let Duchesne off easy here. The timeline of his argument varies from one segment to the next; cause and effect is not demonstrated (instead, evidence is cherry-picked across centuries of development); there is no serious comparative work done vs. other non-European civilizational forms, outside of that described in mainstream European and US literature. Under such conditions, Duchesne’s “proof” becomes little more than a self-fulfilling ethnocentric prophesy.

Henty Barth October 28, 2011 at 3:07 am

Does anyone remember “The Might of the West” by Lawrence R. Brown? Early 60s. Same theme. Highly recommended. You can find copies on http://www.abe.com

Jeremy Greene November 23, 2011 at 2:05 pm

I guess I am missing the irony of A Van Meeter and in more in line with thinking of Qaestor.
For Qaestor’s perusing a big book by Ian Morris, one of the top scholars of Ancient Greece, disputes Duchesne’s main assertions. It is _Why the West Rules — for Now: the Patterns of History and What they Reveal About the Future_. Duchesne reviewed the book here: http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/1091 and then imho was academically bitch slapped by Morris in his reply here: http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/1091/response

Something similar happened imo when he reviewed Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s textbook _The World_ for H-World, see here: http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl?trx=vx&list=h-world&month=0803&week=d&msg=Dg4VBOYn9513GMrl/vISZQ&user=&pw= There is one or two other comments that follow. H-World is searchable.

He also independently reviewed the textbook here: http://www.springerlink.com/content/73171j87522w5878/

I look forward to reading the book when the cost is reasonably priced – under $10 – used, but do not trust him as a reviewer. This will be a chance to see him as a scholar apart from his shoddy reviewing.

JL November 25, 2011 at 5:53 am

Good interview. I read the book, and liked it, but not all of Duchesne’s arguments convinced me. I think the first half of the book was more effective than the second half. Duchesne is at his best when he fact-checks the works of people like Kenneth Pomeranz, and when he stresses that it’s myopic to look only at economic productivity estimates without considering the wider cultural evolution.

However, I agree with Sharikov’s comment above that Duchesne should have done a lot more comparative legwork to back up his claims. Marshall was right to question if the Indo-Europeans really were that different from other groups, and if the Indo-Europeans cultural particularities could really have survived through millenia.

Strange, apparently Dr Duchesne doesn’t think the genius of Zhuangzi, Tang poetry or such literary masterpieces such as the “Story of the Stone” are not signs of creativity?

Duchesne’s point is not that non-Western civilizations cannot be creative, but that the West is much more creative. For example, the Western literary canon is much more varied and extensive than that of China.

Ricardo Duchesne December 2, 2011 at 9:28 am

I agree with JL that a lot more comparative research is required to support my claims about the uniquely aristocratic culture of Indo-Europeans. But let it be noted here, in response to Sharikov, that this thesis is detailed in Chapter 7 and most of Chapter 8, covering about 150 pages and backed by hundreds of sources. Most of this research, it is true, is dedicated to the Indo-Europeans, but I do bring up some comparative insights in two sections, “The Distinctive Indo-Europeanization of the West,” and “Impact of Indo-Europeans on the Civilizations of the East.” I mentioned non-Indo-European groups from the steppes but indicated this would be a matter of future research. Recently I read Christopher Beckwith’s book, _Empires of the Silk Road, A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present_, which came out in 2009 as I was writing the book. It brings up some pertinent issues, including an emphasis on the crucial institution called comitatus, a war band of aristocratic warriors driven by heroic ideals. Beckwith sees these war bands throughout the steppes, rather than exclusively among Indo-European speakers. Yet, all in all, what he says solidifies my thesis. He agrees that the comitatus “goes all the way back to the Proto-Indo-European times”, and shows that the Ural-Altaic steppe peoples evolved in a direction heavily influenced by the more advanced Asian civilizations of China and Iran. This has been further corroborated — though in a very general way — by my readings of Carter Findley’s The Turks (2005), and David Morgan’s The Mongols (1984). To be clear, my argument on the uniquely aristocratic character of Indo-Europeans does not demand the absence of these traits in other non-IE cultures of the steppes; I acknowledged the warlike pastoral character of the Mongols and Turks. Keep in mind as well that the Proto-Indo-Europeans were the ones who originated and developed the steppe tool-kit, horse-riding, wheel-vehicles, chariots, and the “secondary-products revolution”. My book avoids a teleological reading of the aristocratic culture of Indo-Europeans by showing that their contributions were only “the beginning” of multiple cultural developments in varying geographical and cultural settings.

Ricardo Duchesne January 14, 2012 at 7:37 am

For some reason Jeremy Greene’s comment (Nov 23) was not here when I commented on Dec 2. Greene tries to give the impression that I did not reply to F-F-Armesto’s reply. This exchange with Armesto in H-World went on for about two weeks until he walked away. Here is my reply to Armesto:
http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl?trx=vx&list=h-world&month=0803&week=d&msg=%2bTI8iAtiaAcl%2b2j/A9giLw&user=&pw=

Read my review of Ian Morris’s book and decide whether he “bitch slapped” me or merely summarized his book’s arguments without addressing directly most of my arguments. I sent a reply (posted in H-World, June 15, 2011) to Morris and invited him to reply back, but he refused. This is what I said:

Morris has some reason to question my claim that he draws on Menzies’s
discredited book. He does say that he is “on the side of skeptics”, and he
does say, as he repeats in the reply that “to my mind Menzies’s 1421 is on a
par with von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods”.

However, Morris does not state, as he claims in the reply, “categorically
that Zheng He’s fleets did not sail to the Americas (let alone to the North
Pole, Antarctica, and Italy)”. He seriously speculates (considers,
conjectures) on the probability that Menzies’s account may be worth paying
serious consideration, offering a one page map of the voyages to the
Americas, and dedicating a section, “Zheng in Tenochtitlan”, based on the
supposition of ‘what if’ Menzies was right.

In the book, Morris says (410) that historians “remain unmoved” by Menzies’s
arguments, adding “Menzies, they concede, is quite right that Zheng’s
logbooks are lost; but why, the historians ask, does the enormous mass of
surviving Ming dynasty literature…never mention any of these
discoveries?…And why does the actual evidence Menzies musters for Chinese
globe-trotting hold up so poorly to scholarly scrutiny?” (410). In the
endnotes, he refers to Finley’s critical article on Menzies (672).

Finley’s article, published in 2004 in the Journal of World History (to the
credit of the editors) is not at all as accommodating to Menzies; Finley
writes about the “reckless manner of dealing with evidence” that led him
[Menzies] to propose hypotheses “without a shred of proof”.

He does not mince words:

“Unfortunately, this reckless manner of dealing with evidence is typical of
1421, vitiating all its extraordinary claims: the voyages it describes never
took place, Chinese information never reached Prince Henry and Columbus, and
there is no evidence of the Ming fleets in newly discovered lands. The
fundamental assumption of the book—that Zhu Di dispatched the Ming fleets
because he had a “grand plan”, a vision of charting the world and creating a
maritime empire spanning the oceans—is simply asserted by Menzies without a
shred of proof … The reasoning of 1421 is inexorably circular, its
evidence spurious, its research derisory, its borrowings unacknowledged, its
citations slipshod, and its assertions preposterous … Examination of the
book’s central claims reveals they are uniformly without substance.”

This stuff has made it to Wikipedia, which also includes the following:

“A group of scholars and navigators, Su Ming Yang of the United States, Jin
Guo-Ping of Portugal, Philip Rivers of Malaysia, Malhão Pereira and Geoff
Wade of Singapore questioned Menzies’ methods and findings in a joint
message: ‘His book 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, is a work of
sheer fiction presented as revisionist history. Not a single document or
artifact has been found to support his new claims on the supposed Ming naval
expeditions beyond Africa…Menzies’ numerous claims and the hundreds of
pieces of “evidence” he has assembled have been thoroughly and entirely
discredited by historians, maritime experts and oceanographers from China,
the U.S., Europe and elsewhere.’”

In my review I cited the following link:
http://www.maritimeasia.ws/topic/1421bunkum.html

This link does not equivocate or play around either. Menzies book is treated
as dishonest, a hoax, a deception.

There is another link, “The 1421 exposed” (http://www.1421exposed.com/),
which writes about the “diary of deception” conducted by Menzies,
http://www.1421exposed.com/html/diary.html

And much more; check these links and then ask yourself whether you would be
so reasonably disposed to Menzies’s argument. I need hardly say that history
is a very serious matter which should not allow for willful deception.

Morris wants to give the impression that he could offer additional examples
of how I misread his book. I am waiting, and will forward this post to him.
There are no others. He now says that “Chinese thinkers in the 17th and 18th
centuries *did not even begin* moving toward modern natural science”.

But in the book he said what I cited from his book, that China “‘paralleled
western Europe’s scientific revolution *in every way* – except one: it did
not develop a mechanical model of nature’ (p. 473)” There is a big
difference between “did not even begin” and “in every way”.

Readers may also be interested in my “Reply to Mark Elvin” in the Canadian Journal of Sociology, December 2011, https://ejournals.library.ualberta.ca/index.php/CJS/article/view/12411

Nicolaas Vergunst January 15, 2012 at 12:36 pm

In so far as the mythical gods of Olympus were a distant memory of the aristocracy of Atlantis, so the aristocracy of Europe traced themselves back as the heirs of Rome. Each in turn, willfully, saw themselves as advancing that creative genius we call ‘western civilization’. Since the genii behind Africa and Asia belong to another order, being neither better nor worse but simply different, this is not about any superior race or bloodline. The uniqueness of each is simply, for lack of a better term, one of historical karma.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: