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5.0 out of 5 stars A grandiose account on the uniqueness of the West, 26 Nov. 2011
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This review is from: The Uniqueness of Western Civilization (Studies in Critical Social Sciences (Brill Academic)) (Hardcover)
I have never heard the name of Ricardo Duchesne before, but this work establishes him as one of the best social scientists, at least in my view. (Disclaimer: I'm not a social scientist.) The book stretches several millenia and topics, of which I can only give some samples.

Duchesne views Western civilization (starting with the Greeks, and, as we'll see, actually much earlier) as largely unique among the large cultures of the world. He explains that many of the multiculturalists are actually relying on Western ideas of universal human equality, or of the equality of cultures across the globe (a uniquely Western idea, not a wonder that most multiculturalists are in fact Westerners), and similar ideas. So while many people argue that the West is a non-existent civilization, or that it's the worst or most aggressive civilization - well, the West is the only culture which produced people criticizing their own culture in these terms.

Duchesne's point of view is largely Hegelian and non-materialistic, which makes it possible for him to think not in terms of economic development only. He accepts that for example Western Europe was not more developed circa 1750 than China - but in the same time makes a very good case of why it was largely unlikely that China would ever have had an industrial revolution, whereas it was only a question of time in the West. One compelling case is the case of Western science: China had a lot of practical knowledge, but didn't have anything like modern science, for example no Chinese philosopher or scientist ever made fame (before the Europeans arrived, that is) by disproving the theories held at his time, whereas in the West it was and is the dream of any scientist - to disprove received wisdom.

He debunks many of the politically correct statements of "world-history". The statement that "China (or India, the Middle East, etc.) had similar science to the West" I just mentioned, another one is that "China was on the verge of industrial revolution in the 13th century". While it's true that the Chinese were very close to inventing the steam engine, but it would have been just that - highly developed medieval technology plus the steam engine. The industrial revolution meant a constant flow of inventions, which after the first half century increasingly needed modern science - which was present in Europe by the time of the Industrial Revolution, but was absent in China in both the 13th and the 18th centuries. This is not to deny the genius of the Chinese people, who invented many things way before the Europeans started to adapt them. However, the Europeans showed a quite pronounced readiness to adapt anything foreign. (Just as the contemporary Chinese and Japanese are ready to adapt foreign inventions.) Duchesne is convincing when he argues that actually adapting foreign technologies (which most of the time meant modifications and adjustments to local circumstances, and often involved several improvements) is just as much a sign of vitality and inventiveness as inventions themselves.

Finding new limits, overcoming obstacles for their own sake, questioning knowledge - this is what Duchesne calls an aristocratic spirit. Striving for the best, being the best by virtue - that is what the ancient Greeks equated aristocracy with. Although we nowadays tend to think of aristocracy only as an oppressive and exploitative class, Duchesne shows that it is an oversimplification. The aristocrats were obligated to be virtuous, for example almost all of the philosophers and political and military leaders we now remember of as "the Greeks" were in fact aristocrats by birth, even the leaders of democracy. Now Duchesne shows that this was a feature of many European warrior-aristocracies (and for a long time even after they were largely civilized), and that many of the general population were co-opted to that spirit.

Another unique feature of European was a relatively egalitarian (actually egalitarian-aristocratic) spirit. (Only aristocrats were members of the group of equals, serfs etc. had no equality, obviously.) A king in Europe was usually a first among equals, at least among the aristocrats, at the very least no member of the nobility or aristocracy had to kowtow or prostrate themselves before a king. This is in quite in contrast to the despotic cultures of the rest of the world, almost anywhere. While some other warrior aristocracies (most notably Japan) had similar "noblesse oblige" ethos, the egalitarianism was missing. (The notion that for example the king or overlord also had obligations to the vassals, not only the other way around, and when breaking the terms, the vassals had the right to resist.)

Duchesne shows quite compellingly that most of the unique features go back millenia, and he traces it back to the Indo-European bands that gradually conquered much of Europe sometime in the 5th-3rd millenia BC. These bands then became the warrior aristocracies, and slowly superimposed their languages and also to a large extent their spirits on the European populations at large.

I think the strength of the book is the only weakness: the lack of a materialistic perspective makes it such a compelling reading, and this is what makes him notice unique things (e.g. Greek democracy - in spite of its many flaws, which the Greeks themselves were the first to point out, it was an institution without parallel outside of Europe until modern times), which are not so readily noticeable to evolutionists (who tend to concentrate on economic development only). On the other hand, first, I think that striving for prestige (which in his view is evolutionarily disadvantageous) can actually have evolutionary benefits (depending on a number of parameters), and this could be an - admittedly lowly, materialistic - explanation for such high spirits. He also never mentions the possibility of genetic differences among European and non-European populations, even while he believes that these traits are very persistent, apparently even present in much of present-day populations. (On the other hand, since there's no evidence to date for such differences, and neither do I think it would be easy for anybody to get grants to investigate, it's probably better not to mention it.)
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