Category Archives: “Western” a Keyword

“Western” (a Keyword, Raymond Williams)


There are now some interesting uses of Western and the West, in international
political description. In some cases the term has so far lost its geographical reference as to allow description of, for example, Japan as a Western or Western-type society. Moreover the West (to be defended) is notoriously subject to variable geographical and social specifications. Meanwhile I have seen a reference to a German Marxist as having an Eastern ideology.

The West–East contrast, geographical into social, is very old. Its earliest European form comes from the West–East division of the Roman Empire, from mC3. There is a very strong and persistent cultural contrast in the division of the Christian church into Western and Eastern, from C1l.

These internal divisions, within relatively limited known worlds, were succeeded by definitions of the West as Christian or Graeco-Roman (not always the same things) by contrast with an East defined as Islam or, more generally, as the lands stretching from the Mediterranean to India and China. Western and Eastern (or Oriental) worlds were thus defined from C16 and C17. The development of systematic geography, in Europe, then defined a Near (Mediterranean to Mesopotamia), Middle (Persia to Ceylon) and Far (India to China) East, evidently in a European perspective.

A British military command designation before World War II overrode this old
designation, making the Near into the Middle East, as now commonly. Yet meanwhile in Europe there were attempted West–East divisions, with the Slav peoples as Eastern. There was a different but connecting usage in World War I, when Britain and France were the Western powers against Germany, with Russia on the Eastern front. In World War II the Western Allies, now including USA, were
of course related to their Eastern ally, the USSR. It was then really not until the postwar division of Europe, and the subsequent cold war between these former allies, that West and East took on their contemporary political configurations, of course building on some obvious geography and on some (but different) earlier cultural configurations. The nature of this definition then permitted the extension of Western or the West to free-enterprise or capitalist societies, and especially to their political and military alliances (which then sometimes complicated the geography), and of Eastern, though less commonly, to socialist or communist societies. (Hence the curious description of Marxism, which began in what is by any definition Western Europe, as an Eastern ideology.) The more obvious geographical difficulties which result from these increasingly political definitions are sometimes recognized by such phrases as Western-style or Western-type.

After this complex history, the problem of defining Western civilization,
a key concept from C18 and especially C19, is considerably more difficult than
it is often made to appear. It is interesting that the appropriation of its cultural usage (Graeco-Roman or Christian) to a contemporary political usage (the West) has been complicated by the substitution of North–South (rich–poor, industrial–nonindustrial, developed–underdeveloped societies and economies)
for West–East as, in some views, a more significant division of the world. But
of course North–South, developed from the political and economic form of the
West–East contrast, has its own geographical complications.