Is Western civilization collapsing?

A perennial topic for me (and many of us) is the notion that there is a deep malaise in Western civilization. There are, it seems to me, three main camps on the question, “Is Western civilization collapsing?”

1. The conservative position. “Yes. And it’s a horrible thing. For one thing, elites have basically stopped reproducing. They’re inviting people from foreign cultures into their countries, and they’re reproducing faster than their elites. The result will be an inevitable cultural replacement after a few generations, although probably not before we go through a period of bloody civil wars. And Western traditions are not being passed down. We are becoming less Christian every year. Our universities are teaching less and less of the classics of Western civilization. Though they spend longer in school, our graduates are more ignorant of their cultural roots. We have no desire to create beauty any longer. We have nothing, really, to live for. Our heart is simply not in it any longer; we’re in the death throes of this civilization.”

2. The postmodern position. “Are you really even asking this question? So you think Western civilization is ‘collapsing’? Well, maybe it is. If so, good! But if we’re going to be honest with ourselves, we should recognize that there is much about Western civilization that deserves to die, and the sooner the better. What will replace it? Who knows? Who cares? But you must be a racist Islamophobe if you think it will be Islamic. But probably, you’re just an idiot because there is no reason to think Western civilization is ‘collapsing.’ It might be, however, transforming, and into something better, something more tolerant, open, and multi-cultural.”

3. The optimistic position. “Oh, not this again. Haven’t you read Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now? Look, almost all the metrics look better than they’ve ever been. People always think we’re on the brink of disaster even when things are awesome. The world is better educated than it’s ever been. People in third world countries are moving into the modern world. Look at the Internet! Look at technology! Look at all the entrepreneurship and discovery that is happening every day! How on earth can you fail to recognize that, far from being in our death throes, we are ramping up a new global civilization with, perhaps, some new values, but which enjoys radically transformative changes for the better every year.”

Here are a few notes to put these into perspective. The conservative position is a position about the health of traditional Western values and culture. It takes the view that these values and culture should be preserved, that they aren’t being preserved, and that Westerners therefore are living increasingly meaningless lives.

The postmodern position is a primarily a reaction to the conservative position. It denies that there is a problem worth solving because Western values and culture are better off dead and buried.

The optimistic position certainly appears to be about another topic altogether, i.e., not about the health of traditional Western values and culture, although it pretends to be responding to conservative worry. It equates “civilization” not so much with Western traditions and values, precisely, as with the sort of globalist system of capitalist economies and the largely Western-derived education and culture that has sprouted and flowered in the 20th and especially the 21st centuries. You can see it in most of the big cities of the world. The success of this civilization is not to be evaluated (on this view) by some subjective measures of morality, or religion of course, or using sociological metrics that go proxy for these, but instead by more objective measures of well-being such as GDP, literacy rates, and longevity rates.

These positions interact in interesting ways.

  • A very strong case can be made that it is precisely certain Western traditions (democracy, industrialism, free enterprise, science, etc.) that have enabled the global success celebrated by the optimistic position.
  • The postmodern position is, too, absolutely rooted in some Western values (such as cultural tolerance and Christian charity).
  • And the optimistic position is widely (and in my opinion rightly) regarded as too optimistic; almost all of us detect some manner of deep moral malaise in Western civilization (such as dangerous populist racism, on the one hand, or the dangerous weakening of Christian values, on the other), even if we don’t necessarily think of it as threatening civilization itself, and the happy talk does not do this justice.
  • And the postmodern position is surely right to suggest that Western civilization has undergone and is likely to continue to undergo radical transformations that have made the Western roots of American and European societies look positively foreign. But does that mean the collapse of civilization, or its transformation?
  • And if it is transforming and not collapsing, is that unequivocally a good thing?
  • Are important values, that conservatives perhaps talk about more than progressives, being lost? Put aside your political differences and ask yourself: might that be important? And what consequences might that have for the new global order?
  • Is it true that there must be some transcendent purpose and deep values that undergird our lives, or else (as conservatives suggest) civilization, that will cause not merely its transformation but its wholesale replacement with some other civilization that does celebrate some transcendent purpose? And if that’s true, what values would replace Western ones?
  • Could something like progressivism itself constitute a global value system?
  • We already know that any such progressive value system largely conflict with traditional Christianity and some other Western values, but doesn’t it also conflict with Islam?

I don’t suggest any conclusion now. I just thought that contextualizing the debate would be interesting.




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13 responses to “Is Western civilization collapsing?”

  1. Larry,

    the interacting positions give considerable scope to the question posed, “Is western civilization collapsing”, but they’re not critical enough. I think, in other words, a postmodernist might substitute “intersectionality” for “interactions” and note the conflicts that arise when the big traditional categories of thought (like religion, morality, the state) cross paths with the more interesting issues of gender, race and political class. Algerian revolution, ‘Gilet jaunes’ protests and Brexit debates and demonstrations are good contemporary examples of this.

    I’ve tended always to side with postmodernism (with a dash of cultural criticism) but not for any overtly political reasons: it’s always seemed to me to be a powerful–perhaps the most powerful–critical tool at our disposal. I can honestly say that reading Derrida’s Of Grammatology has changed my thinking on just about everything. Thinkers like Derrida, Lyotard and Bauman have offered critical “readings” of the big narratives, exhorting us to look very suspiciously at things like Western civilization and values.It’s why influential contemporary thinkers (like Dawkins, Scruton, Petersen, Deutsch, et al.) go to great lengths to discredit and denigrate it. There’s a lot at stake for them.

    Is Western civilization collapsing? In my view, it’s always been collapsing…

    1. Hi Conrad, I’ve been idly considering how to respond to this. My first experience with postmodernism was in 1987 when I took a class on Continental philosophy and had to read a volume of Derrida (“for my sins,” as they say). I could barely make sense of it. There certainly was no explicit political subtext in any of it (so I’m not surprised when you say “not for any overtly political reasons”); you couldn’t detect anything remotely like identity politics in it, for sure. After all, if you started constructing “narratives” about white privilege (for example), wouldn’t the most postmodern thing be to, well, criticize the glaringly obvious problems with that? But of course, being contemporary French philosophy, it always comes back to some variety of leftism, so I wasn’t too terribly surprised when eventually the movement morphed in that direction.

      Maybe you can explain in plain language what deconstruction is supposed to be. I know what critical analysis is; but if deconstruction has some valid “tools” beyond the tools of logic and analysis (both of which it seems to repudiate), I don’t know what they are.

      “Always been collapsing?” Even in, say, Periclean Athens or the Renaissance? Surely not…

  2. Hi, Larry,

    thanks for the reply. I apologize for not making myself clear.

    Let’s begin with a clear statement of what I mean by a deconstructive reading. I’ll quote from Jonathan Culler’s “On Deconstruction”:

    “To deconstruct an opposition is to undo and displace it to situate it differently. Schematically, this involves several distinguishable moves: (A) one demonstrates that the opposition is a metaphysical and ideological imposition by (1) bringing out its presuppositions and its role in the system of metaphysical values–a task which may require extensive analysis of a number of texts–and (2) showing how it is undone in the texts that enunciate and rely on it. But (B) one simultaneously maintains the opposition by (1) employing it in one’s argument… and (2) reinstating it with a reversal that gives it a different status and impact” (150)

    As a tool of analysis its primary goal is to unearth the suspicious binaries or opposing ideas (paradigms of thought) that clamor for attention and, through a careful reading of the ways binaries diffuse a text, to disclose any suspicious privileging of ideas that normally arise. Derrida rightly cautions in “Of Grammatology” that ” reading must not be content with doubling the text” since any conceptual privileging will presume to lead “toward a referent” that lies outside the text, and no such referent exists. “There is nothing outside of the text” (Il n’y a pas de hors-texte)

    Let’s take your example of Periclean Athens as a “text”–since many historical documents have been devoted to this period– in which alternative views of government, citizenship and military supremacy vie for the reader’s attention. If Athenian ideas of order or democracy or knowledge stand opposed to, say, a Spartan military ethos or its favored oligarchical form of government, and the former is offered as a more enlightened model, the deconstructive reader will most certainly uncover–through a careful survey of Athenian-Spartan relations–such things as the infiltration of Spartan militarism and tribal loyalties into Athenian political and military practices. Perhaps the treatment of slaves, women and wildly unequal applications of voting rights to Athenian citizens will be signs for this deconstructive “reversal”.

    It’s for this reason that I said Western civilization is always collapsing. It’s always why I said that your “interactions” didn’t go far enough (as good as they are).

    1. Being an analytically-trained philosopher of common sense (a la Reid and Moore and to a certain extent the natural language philosophers), explanations of jargon in terms of further jargon, which continental philosophers engage in, strikes me as unhelpful. But if I push back on that, continental philosophers will start complaining about that; so it’s impervious to reason, ultimately, except within its own closed system, with its own rules.

      To deconstruct an opposition? Like, an opposing point of view? Isn’t one supposed to be able to deconstruct anything whatsoever? “Displace and situate it differently”? What the hell is that supposed to mean? I’ll tell you what I think it means, in practice: constructing straw men or “narratives” that, based on provably false assumptions, make some position, which for possibly abstruse reasons you’re politically opposed to, look very bad. Poisoning the well, for example.

      But let’s go on: “metaphysical and ideological imposition.” One of the reasons I never studied continental philosophy (beyond that one class) is the following sort of bullshit. Sorry, but there is no better word for it. Why on earth would the author here insist on using the word “imposition”? Why not “supposition” or “premise,” if that is what is meant? OK, so in the sort of criticism we’re discussing, we take issue with metaphysical or ideological assumptions. Since logical critique typically involves calling into question assumptions, the thing that (A) adds is: deconstruction involves criticizing the metaphysical or ideological assumptions. So far, anybody who engages in metaphysics or political philosophy is doing deconstruction, which, well, would count as another instance of bullshit if you’re going to assent to that. But why metaphysics or ideology? I suspect that by “metaphysics” we don’t actually mean metaphysics but value theory (see next paragraph).

      “The system of metaphysical values.” Once upon a time, value theory was considered a branch of metaphysics, and I suppose the continentals who talk this way are still beholden to that idea. But all (1)(A) adds, as far as I can make out, is that when we engage in this examination of ideological assumptions, we are further examining the value theory underpinnings. So not only will we call into questions things like Mill’s stance on free speech, we might criticize it on the basis of his utilitarianism (a theory of value).

      So far, as far as I can tell, deconstruction means criticizing the value theory basis of a claim. Why not just say that?

      Next, we have something that sounds Deep: “showing how it is undone in the texts that enunciate and rely on it.” Undone how? And if “undone” means “disproven” (what else might it mean?), then, if this means something other than finding independent reasons to reject some value theory, which I assume is the case since we’re supposed to find ways to “undo” the opposed claim “in the texts” themselves, it looks like the preferred way to disprove some claim to “undo” is to find a contradiction in the text. That sort of makes sense, but the problem of course is that good philosophers and other writers present consistent positions which don’t contain self-contradictions. As Socrates showed, with a willing participant, you can bring someone to admit a self-contradiction; but it’s literally impossible to do that with a text, and precious few texts actually contain clear contradictions. If you find one, you’re almost always being an asshole who reads a contradiction into the text and failing to be charitable to the author. That, again, is very much in keeping with the behavior of deconstructionists: they are typically uncharitable and expect you to find them to be brilliantly witty when they construct some straw position in which a sophisticated philosopher does contradict himself in some simple-minded way.

      Ah, but this might require consulting an extensive number of texts. No doubt. Sure, when you look at enough of what some thinker has written, you can find contradictions all over the place, but then, an intellectually honest critic actually knows what’s going on there and takes it into account instead of making cheap shots.

      As for (B), we’re supposed to maintain the opposite also. I.e., contradict ourselves. Which is, presumably, what we were so, so cleverly criticizing our target for doing.

      I suppose I get points for noticing the contradiction in the very definition you offer, and applying the very method (except that my criticisms aren’t of deconstructionism’s value theoretical assumptions) described to attack it?!

      The value of this procedure (i.e., finding ways in which an author’s axiological assumptions are self-contradictory, and then supporting them too?) is to shed light on “suspicious binaries or opposing ideas.” Well, what’s that mean? If it doesn’t hide some other idea, I suppose it means: contradictory ideas, i.e., two incompatible propositions. So, you point out (or invent) contradictions, because we should be “suspicious” of contradictions (well spotted, there). It’s almost like we’re being asked to, I don’t know, philosophize. Since most philosophizing involves examining assumptions, finding contradictions, and figuring out where the truth lies.

      Ah, but we mustn’t say the last, because there is no referent outside the text that we might use to judge the truth (or meaning) of a text. That is, of course, the ultimate bullshit. Without reference to something outside the text, you can’t even make enough sense of the text to identify any contradictions. Texts can be made sense of only in the context of a language, and language can be made sense of only in the context of how that language is learned and is squared up with the world.

      Periclean Athens ain’t a “text,” it’s a time period. If you speak so loosely that you can refer to everything written or thought in a broad time period as a single “text,” then of course you’ll be able to find contradictions, but so the hell what? Of course it’s possible to find contradictions and grounds on which to criticize anything so broad. But that does absolutely no damage to the basic claim that Western civilization underwent an upward vector, so to speak, in that age.

      Now I’m sorry to sound so curmudgeonly and unpleasant; I hope you’ll take it in the spirit of exasperation in which it was written.

      1. David Fischer

        Hi Larry,

        Clean air, clean water, clean food. Without them an organism limps its way through existence. Never fully appreciating full potential.

        Humans are seeing the prison of convenience and catharsis gives relief for a moment, however without more data the cycle repeats.

        Stewards of the earth is the only pathway to full potential. Everything else is just mental masturbation.

        Whether we call it Western civilization, Communism, Christianity, Islam, etc., they are all still prisons keeping us from amazing.


        1. Meh.

          The best of Western civilization is the best the world has ever gotten.

          Christianity is not a “prison.”

          Anyway, enough of boring bald assertions. Boring bald assertions is not what this blog is about.

  3. As a corollary to the above post, let me say that the IndieWeb concept is also a product of deconstructive thinking.

    I should have mentioned a very important paradigm shift in thinking about the nature of science and math that had occurred with Gödel and Claude Shannon, and the rise of “information theory” (from George Gilder’s “Life After Google”) If one were tempted, in other words, to hold up the mathematical (logical) theories of Hilbert, Carnap and von Neumann as offering mathematics as the final arbiter of truth, one could have recognized in Gödel that pesky outlier theorist whose famous equations threw any notion of a “determinist mathematical system” into a tizzy.

    And Gödel could have done that because the very nature of mathematical reasoning had made the claim of complete mathematical rigor and self-consistency impossible. There’d been an infiltration of messiness into the determinist claims made for mathematics and science long before Hilbert had arrived on the scene.

    It’s a perfect “reversal” move on the part of a new group of thinkers who replaced fixed conformity to immutable laws of the world (couched in mathematical language) with uncertainty, creativity and an “entropy index of surprisal”. Hence the birth of algorithmic information theory. Gregory Chaitin is quoted in Gilder’s book as saying, “But life…is plastic, creative! How can we build this out of static, eternal, perfect mathematics? We shall use postmodern math, the mathematics that comes after Gödel, 1931, and Turing, 1936, open not closed math, the math of creativity…” (18)

  4. Thank you for a very honest reply! I’ve locked horns with critics of deconstruction before (believe me!)

    I appreciate the opportunity to offer the theory in the clearest possible manner, keeping the Continental “jargon” (as you say) to a tolerable minimum though we do have to respect the terms, traditions and philosophical developments that have given rise to deconstruction as a theory. Some will argue that it all begins with Nietzsche…

    As I’ve said to my young debaters over the years, it’s necessary to know your opponent’s positions as well as your own. I, too, have a liking for the analytical “Ordinary Language” tradition of people like Quine, Rorty, Searle, et al. Like you, I place a premium on clear thinking.

    I think, however, that you ride roughshod over a few key terms of Culler’s formulation such as “metaphysical”, “undo”, and even Derrida’s “referent” or your general disdain for the theory itself (and perhaps some of its key proponents in America and Europe) prevents you from giving a fairer estimation of theory and its assumptions.

    I might, for example, dispute the claim that “text” is being purposely misappropriated by the deconstructive reader. By “text” I don’t mean only the traditional “codex” and all of its typescript, page layout and editorial restrictions. As a co-founder of ‘Wikipedia’ and a great advocate for ‘open-source’ documents you can surely agree with me here. A close reading of any text is not possible unless we broaden the notion to include things like somebody’s email, a Wikipedia article,a cultural artifact, a YouTube debate on climate change, Rousseau’s S̲e̲c̲o̲n̲d̲ ̲D̲i̲s̲c̲o̲u̲r̲s̲e̲, etc. A close reading is not possible until, that is, we can agree that a text is intertextual in nature and that meanings are nodal points in a vast network of interconnecting ideas, conventions and traditions.

    If I say, for example that Periclean Athens is a text I’m referring not to anyone authoritative work such as that of Herodotus but to a body of historical, linguistic, literary and anthropological traditions in which certain defining attributes of the ‘Golden Age’ of Athens may compete with a myriad of others based on the findings of meteorological events, pottery shards, discarded documents on status of women and slaves or perhaps even less traditional methods of contemporary Ancient Greek scholarship. I was particularly thrilled to discover that at Oxford the sounds of Ancient Greek music have been lately recreated, for the first time, from the “melodic notation inscribed in stone”.

    A simple “melodic inscription” has the potential to reverse people’s assumptions about classical tragic drama and reorient readers to different assumptions about music of dactyls and styles of kithara and aulos use in Greek classical tragedy. I consider that a deconstructive finding.

    1. Conrad: made a quick edit to a typo you posted about. Not sure when I’ll be able to respond at greater length…soon I hope but not sure.

  5. No worries, Larry.

    Thanks for a great exchange of ideas!

  6. RS

    Hi Larry,

    Many aspects of Western society, from its movies to religion to education and psychology, seem to be undergoing a “dumbing down” effect. I think it is a reflection of the democratic trends of the last century and the increasing prominence of popular culture in society. I think this effect is evident in the rise of the evangelical movement in Christianity, in the low regard for knowledge acquisition and memorization in the field of education and in the increasing emphasis on sociability in the field of psychology. I even attribute the rising diagnoses of autism spectrum disorders to this effect.

    Rather than Western civilization collapsing, I like to think that it is the traditional value system that is collapsing. Around the world, the traditional values of learning, introspection, gentleness, temperance, prudence, etc. are being eclipsed by a pop culture value system, which is loud, herd-like, sensationalized, and consumerist in nature. Around the world, the best that has been thought and said is being replaced by what is mediocre.

    As Steven Pinker claims the world may indeed be getting better in a materialistic sense. But that is no guarantee that progress will continue forever. The German Weimar Republic was famously liberal and tolerant, but out of this apparent liberality and tolerance came the totalitarian Nazi regime. Today, humanity also faces substantial risks. Artificial intelligence and automation has made future uncertain. A greater risk the world faces today is that people are increasingly choosing to live a life that is unintrospective and full of distractions.

  7. Hopi

    Western society will collapse because is unnatural and spiritually dead – it is disease -moral and human decay. It is disconnected from Mother Earth and the Creator. It is driven by illusions of economy, profit, materialism, dominion, arrogance and ignorance….The Earth will purify everything that is not in harmony with its frequencies. You think you can polute air, water, plaster everything in concrete and asphalt, kill trees and billions of animals every day and dominate this beautiful green planet with your cars, technology, waste and toxic and sick minds walking like you created everything. The Earth will retaliate because it has to restore its balance….humans are just plaque. I am asking you one question: If you have 60% body covered with psoriasis, what will you do? To do anything in your power to get rid of it, right?

    1. Well, I’m not sure that makes sense. The metaphor is certainly stretched; the Earth isn’t a single organism and lacks a literal immune system. And if it’s just a metaphor, what are we to make of it? That global warming is moral retribution by Mother Earth for abuse of the planet?

      The problem, however, is that many the things you list (economy, profit, materialism) define the system you personally depend on, and have byproducts (pollution, landfills), and need roads and buildings (“concrete and asphalt”), etc. These are necessary elements of our modern life, like it or not. Hence you have a dilemma: be honest and admit that you are a misanthrope who places the vague interests of a vague anthropomorphized Earth over actual human interests, or produce a theory according to which human beings can live on the Earth. I.e., what will life for us be like if we make you world emperor and you call the shots?

      Environmentalism, over and above mere conservationism, would be a lot easier to take seriously if there weren’t so many environmentalists who sound like they simply don’t care about human beings and how they live.

      Also, don’t pretend that every single thing you list above isn’t also richly true of the East. It’s not a Western thing at all. You’re opposed to modernity or civilization, not the West.

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