West (including western and westernize, as well as related terms such as the cluster of words around occidental) has operated as a crucial and contested term of value connected to large geopolitical and cultural issues since at least C18. It remains live in our time, as witnessed by Donald Trump’s Warsaw speech (July 2017): “The fundamental question of our time is whether the west has the will to survive.” The current complex uses of west carry cross-emphases arising from a history of what Edward Said called “imaginative geography,” beginning from The Persae by Aeschylus. A different but no less definitive east-west split was produced by the division of the Roman Empire in C3 and then later of Christianity in C11.
Within the cultures of Europe, the explorations and conquests of the century following Columbus established a new sense of the globe. John Donne wrote of “The Western Hemispheare, the land of Gold, and Treasure, and the Eastern Hemispheare, the land of Spices and Perfumes” (1631), implying London’s centrality as recipient but not source of either gold or spice. Between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans lie the Americas; and a whole series of distinctive and important usages arose concerning the “West” of the United States, including one of the major genres of Hollywood, the Western. D. H. Lawrence found in the frontier romances of James Fenimore Cooper an image of the characteristic American-as-Westerner: “hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.” Yet Cooper’s frontier, set at the time of the French and Indian Wars/Seven Years’ War, was barely west of New York City. What counts as West is always relative.
As recently as June 2011, Wikipedia stated that “Western culture, sometimes equated with Western civilization or European civilization, refers to cultures of Indo-European origin.” Yet this equation would include, within the West, the cultures associated with such major Indo-European languages as Hindi (India), Urdu (Pakistan and India), and Farsi (Iran), which long patterns of usage do not simply exclude but rather construe as the “Other” of the West.
Since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, west has tended to operate as a contrast term to “Islamic” culture. During the 1990s, debates over globalization often circulated around what were referred to as “Asian values,” especially values associated with Singapore, China, Korea, and Japan, in contrast to those of the West. In the decades of the Cold War, the West had been opposed to an “East” of Communism in the USSR and its satellites, while for much of the first half of C20, the “West” contrasted primarily to Germany in relation to the great wars of 1914–18 and 1939–45. Over the “long nineteenth century” of British imperial dominance, the term West operated within a dynamic characterized by Said as that of “Orientalism.” (He cited Kipling, 1892: “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”) This in turn was the period in which the OED was produced. Even as that work registers all the C20 uses mentioned in the preceding, the fundamental definitions of its original entry for this word, published in 1926, seem to participate in Orientalist structures as well as making them analytically visible, as for instance with the OED sense “Of or pertaining to the Western or European countries or races as distinguished from the Eastern or Oriental.”
The etymology of west is not complex. The word is related to similar Germanic forms with similar meaning. But an important dimension of value may be cued by a wider Indo-European (IE) resonance: it has long been assumed that west is related (albeit problematically) to Gr hesperos and L vesper, terms that refer both to the direction west and to a time of day: evening or sunset. The C19 scholar Max Müller influentially connected west with a solar-mythological value-structure assumed to be deeply ingrained in IE; that value-structure was more recently critically explored by Jacques Derrida, as “White Mythology.” The influential eC20 work of the German Oswald Spengler is known in English as The Decline of the West, but its German title might also be translated as “Sunset of the Evening-land.” This temporal-mythological dimension colors important early citations such as one from R. Fanshawe’s (1655) translation of the Portuguese Renaissance epic of exploration and conquest, Lusiad: “But now he fears that Glorie’s neer it’s [sic] West, In the black Water of Oblivion”; and a citation from Dryden’s Indian Emperor (1667), “I in the Eastern parts and rising Sky, You in Heaven’s downfal, and the West must lye.” It represents quite a shift that the prestige of the European enlightenment has allowed western values to appear those of the bright side.
The phrase western ideals, along with close variants such as western values and western culture, is not specifically registered in the OED. But this collocation does appear in a telling OED citation provoked by the Russian Revolution, from a 1918 edition of the Times: “The greatest question in the world today is whether Russia is to be abandoned, or whether she is to be saved; whether Western ideals are to prevail in the country whose potential power will be the balance in history.”
Cold War discourse defined an opposition between Western religious morality and “godless Communism.” But religion has not always counted as western. In 1880, writing for the widely circulated Atlantic Monthly, William James claimed, “Not to fall back on the gods, where a proximate principle may be found, has with us Westerners long since become the sign of an efficient . . . intellect.” This pragmatic empiricist perspective has seemed to many others, as well as James, to characterize Western civilization. Yet it is not easy to find citations. Those nowadays who care to address western values or civilization or culture, to judge from Wikipedia, tend to do so in opposition to multiculturalism, which they associate with secular, relativist values broadly like those espoused by James. Western culture, in this representation, is marked by “rationalism” (claimed as a classical Greek heritage) and (sometimes “Judaeo-) Christian” norms and practices; unlike James, it seeks higher authority. Yet another aspect of the West that is not captured in this emphasis on heritage is the identification of the West with the modern, as contrasted with the East as traditional or antiquated. This dualism shows strikingly in the 1870 Phi Beta Kappa address by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Mechanism in Thought and Morals: “To occidentalise and modernise the Asiatic modes of Thought which have come down to us.”
The range of meanings discussed here shows especially in uses of westernize. The OED does not register the existence of a counterpart “easternize”; and orientalize seems mainly limited to C19. However, in OED citations the derived terms westernizer and westernizing show this process as active over more than a century in Russia, Turkey, China, Japan, and the Arab world. Especially piquant, in light of contemporary geopolitics, is a TLS citation from 1935 concerning Afghanistan: “French and English incursions . . . entered . . . from the East and . . . carried Dravidian ideas with them against that tide of Westernizers of whom Alexander was one of the earliest.”
For some decades, thinking politically about East and West has been challenged from the left by the substitution of North-South (rich-poor, industrial-nonindustrial, developed-underdeveloped societies and economies). The “global South” has been held to be a more significant division of the world. Yet it is equally shaped by the transfer of geography into a metaphor of value.