The term west (and its derivatives such as western and westernize, as well as cognates such as the cluster of words around occidental) has operated as a crucial and contested term of value in relation to large geopolitical and cultural issues since at least 18c. Its current complex uses carry cross-emphases arising from a history of what has been called by Edward Said a process of “imaginative geography”.
Within the cultures of Europe, the explorations and conquests of the century following Columbus established a new sense of the globe. In a sermon published in 1631, John Donne spoke of “The Western Hemispheare, the land of Gold, and Treasure, and the Eastern Hemispheare, the land of Spices and Perfumes,” implying London’s centrality as recipient but not source of either gold or spice. Between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans lay 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 earlier 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.
Wikipedia states 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 IE languages as Hindi (India), Urdu (Pakistan), and Farsi (Persia), which long patterns of usage do not simply exclude but rather construe as the ‘other’ of the West.
Since the terror attacks (q.v) 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, while for much of the first half of 20c, 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.” (cf. 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 20c uses mentioned above, the fundamental definitions seem to participate in Orientalist structures as well as making them analytically visible, as for instance with sense A.4.a: ‘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 derives from similar Germanic forms with similar meaning. But an important dimension of value is cued by a wider IE resonance: west is related to Gr hesperos and L vesper, terms that refer both to the direction ‘west’ and to a time of day: evening or sunset. West arises from the solar-mythological value-structure deeply ingrained in IE, and elaborated by 19c scholar Max Müller. That value-structure has more recently been critically explored by Jacques Derrida, as “White Mythology”. The influential early 20c work of the German O. 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, Lusiad: “But now he fears that Glorie’s neer it’s 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 light side.
The phrase western ideals, along with cognates such as western values and western culture, is not specifically registered in the OED. But this combinationdoes appear in a telling OED citation provoked by the Russian revolution, from a 1918 edition of the Times: “The greatest question in the world to-day 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.”
In Cold War discourse, especially opposed to Western religious morality was “godless Communism”. But religion has not always been part of what is understood 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 been understood by others as well as James as characterizing 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 values broadly like those of James. Western culture, in this representation, is marked by “rationalism” (claimed as a classical Greek heritage) and (sometimes “Judaeo-) Christian” norms and practices. Yet another aspect of the West that is not captured in this version is the identification of the West with the modern, as contrasted with the East as traditional or antiquated. This pairing shows strikingly in the 1870 Phi Beta Kappa address by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Mechanismin 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 use of westernize. It is striking that the OED does not register the existence of a counterpart *easternize; and orientalize seems mainly limited to 19c. 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.”