Creating Europe: The Discourse of Civilisation

By Benjamin Walton
Interstate - Journal of International Affairs
2014, Vol. 2013/2014 No. 1 | pg. 1/1

They made us leave history - our history, to follow tbem, right at the back; to follow tbe progress of their history.  - Amilcar Cabral, Return to the Source (1973)1

Today political philosophy is generally conducted in the light of the perceived triumph of liberalism. That is, it typically proceeds from the assumption that it is unreasonable, if not irrational or pathological, to resist liberalism whether as a mode of thought or as a social order. Despite critics' repeated attempts to demonstrate the incoherence of liberal values, they appear to have stood the test of time - so much so, that the solutions to the world's pressing social problems are largely being conceived of within the parameters of a liberal world order .2 However , E. P. Thompson asks rhetorically: 'How did ideas of equality, liberty and community lead to relationships of power , domination and fratricide? '3 The argument that Hobson poses is that while liberalism stands for progress, human rights, and emancipation based on the belief that these are universal norms and principles. It turns out, nevertheless, that for Eurocentric liberalism these apply only to particular societies where individuals allegedly attain full rationality, in "civilized Europe".4 Arguably, these principles cannot apply to non-European polities given that they are comprised of "irrational" individual-. and institutions.

It was this view that provided the basis for the "civilizing mission" of the colonial system; ultimately providing a variety of doctrines of justification and imperial visions.5 The concept of colonialism is best captured by Parker, who notes that it is 'most useful not when used synonymously with a post-independence historical period in once colonised nations, but one that begins in the moment that colonial power inscribes itself onto the body and space of its Others and which continues as an often occulted tradition into the modern theatre of world politics'.6 When undertaking a positive inquiry into the contemporary world - with its prevailing economic, social and political structures - no other epoch will provide one with a more comprehensive understanding of the hegemonic structures at work than that of European colonial rule - that is, those European states that participated in colonialism to a certain extent during the age of imperialism. It is a fundamental period in regards to the implications - it had, and continues to have, on political discourse.

The purpose of this essay, therefore, is not to provide a plan for the radical transformation of liberal societies, denying absolutely their moral and political superiority as compared with their historical and contemporary social alternatives .7 Rather, the piece aims to critically reflect on how the liberal virtues of rationalism, progress and emancipation that were developed during a time when Europe itself was struggling with its own identity, shaped the contemporary in such a manner as to maintain relationships of power and domination. I intend to draw my conclusion by separating this article into two coherent sections. The first will address the transition from the medieval period, through the nominalist revolution to the enlightenment; focusing on the notions of modernity, rationality and the concept of universals. In a similar way, I will demonstrate to what degree the secularisation of philosophy and the fractured sense of unity within Europe determined its interaction with the world thereafter. I will then examine the notion of irreconcilable difference used by Europe to construct and maintain its hegemony.

The Consecration of Europe

While the modern world became conscious of itself in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it would be as much as a mistake to believe that modernity began at this time, as it would be to believe that human life begins when one first becomes self-conscious.8 The transition to modernity did not appear, fully grown, but rather developed over a long period of time and amongst a variety of social-historical contexts. For that reason, to begin to understand the nature and structure of the modern world, one must cast a wider net of inquiry by examining its early "preconscious development". It was during the late medieval period, for instance, that contestations arose regarding the doctrine of nominalism, initiating a crisis in Christian thought relating to the nature of God and, as such, the nature of being itself.9 Although deeply rooted in Church politics and the relationship between temporal and Church power in medieval Europe, the debate took the form of a theological dispute regarding the metaphysic al status of universals. The dominant theology within the Church was Thomism, which contended that the social and political world could be understood as a divinely ordered series of laws governed by the existence of universal law.10 Time was an unfolding of God's will; the world had a specific beginning , course of development and end , a course allegorically described in the scripture.11

Accordingly, any doctrine that was considered "new" or secular was invariably equated with decline and degeneration. Through the controversial writing of William of Ockham, among other nominalists, a position emerged which challenged the existence of universals as the manifestation of divine reason.12 God was no longer bound up within the innate reason of the universe, but as having an arbitrary relationship with the world. This makes possible the fundamental re-appropriation of time as linear, infinite and progressive rather than degenerative.13 The nominalist God, a universal ideal, is therefore not a being in the same sense as all beings, but an inferior operative force, a realisable principle within man alone. This ensured that reason replaced syllogism as the basis of inquiry, paving the way for a rational sense of judgement to shape modernity as God was no longer considered the pinnacle of a rational order.

As a result, in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Europe entered into its own secularised version of Christendom which began to decline as a unifying narrative.14 Europe thereafter, choose not to derive its identity from within - as constructing a homogenous political and cultural identity was unattainable - but rather to formulate a system of global contrasts backed by the universal belief in reason and particulars gained from the nominalist revolution.15 Rather than signifying a radical break from the ChrL'>tian world-view, Europe simply became less subservient to the old nexus of Christendom and its "alter ego" Islam. The new polarity was one of "civilisation" versus "nature", or Europe versus the non-European world, which itself could be conceived as barbarous and "uncivilised".16 Europe became increasingly focused on the utopian ideals of progress - which became synonymous with the idea of modernity. Backed by Christian humanism on one hand, and reason and logic on the oth er, Europe had successfully managed to consign the sphere of the particular to the realm of the universals, providing a sense of modernisation and superiority throughout.

With the final collapse of Christendom as a political system following the great crisis of the Ancient Regime after 1789, new cultural-political spaces were created in which ideology came to have an increased importance.17 It was in the eighteenth century that the idea of Europe as a cultural model became closely linked with the emergence of a Western European polity of nation-states.18 The Enlightenment philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau, envisioned an age when 'there is no longer a France, a Germany, a Spain, not even England, there are only Europeans. All have the same tastes, the same passion, and the same way of life'.19 This statement captures the inquiring sprit of a century that sought to inaugurate the ascendancy of a new secular philosophy of history erected upon the foundation of reason. Consequently, Europe 's ideas were judged to be universally valid for all peoples while non-Europeans' ideas were seen to be deviations from the norms established by Western rationalism. Europe, therefore, was able to construct an impassioned imperialism of reason: for the West wishes not only to convince others that it is right, but its goal is to persuade others that there is a universal and unconditional value of rationalism.20 According to Max Weber, 'rationalism cannot be solely identified with the forces which have resulted in modernity in the west' .21A t best, one can speak of a genealogy of rationality, together with the particular necessity of rationalisation, rather than an overriding unitary teleology of reason.22

Though the terms civilize and civilised already existed by the eighteenth century, it was the French philosophers of the 1760s that assigned to it the notions of progress, reason and modernity.23 The enlightenment, therefore, laid the basis for a new framework of world civilisation by freeing human imagination and science from the traditional constraints of the Christian world-view. Europe established a hierarchy of civilisations that was determined according to a linear progression, meaning the nonEuropean world was seen as what Europe had once been; it was immature, stagnant and inherently incapable of progress.24 According to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, it was 'the subaltern, the fisher and the grass-roots peasant, who produces a constant interruption for the full telos of reason and rationality.25 However, these developments should not let us lose sight of the fact that the secularised remn ants of the Christian world-view, having survived the transition to modernity, continued to provide substance for new forms of European identity based as much on Christian humanism and notions of civilisation as on rationalism. It was by the means of the myth of the "fall of man " and the promise of salvation, that fallen humanity could be redeemed. This Christian ethic was captured in the emerge nce of a "civilising mission " in the nineteenth century, in which Europe came to represent the normative hallmark s of civilisation and believed it bore the responsibility for rejuvenating the "lost" civilisations .26

One of the most profound legacies left by the enlightenment period was the interest in other cultures; the "Other" became an object of curiosity, providing a means of establishing and maintaining an identity in the uncertain world of modernity. In sustaining the dichotomy of "Self' and "Other", the identity of Europe as a universalising and unifying worldview was secured.27 There were no longer problems of the universal versus the particular, rather a European expression of a "universalist project" of nationalism, aimed at civilising the world and spreading its culture. It was precisely the notion that Europeans differ utterly and essentially from nonEuropeans that legitimised colonial expansion. The supposed inferior mental and physical abilities attributed to non-Europeans rendered them incapable of the large-scale cultural accomplishments that only modern Europe could achieve.

Theologically, difference was explained as the depravity of heathens, and from a technological perspective, difference was evident to Europeans in the allegedly inferior ability of non-Europeans to control nature.28 This was the idea of what Joseph Rudyard Kipling, the poet laureate of high imperialism, celebrated in his famous poem 'The White Man's Burden'. In Kipling's rendering of the myth, the AngloSaxon race was the most fit to bear the burd en of civilisation.29 However, it could be maintained that this binary method of division - which was dominant in the age of imperialism - perpetuated difference, ignored similarities and was too simplistic.

The main area in which the normative ethic of "Otherness " shaped the world was in fostering negative connotations and beliefs regarding race and superiorit y. The very idea of "Otherness" was imposed by colonial powers in order to conquer and exploit colonised areas. Jurgen Osterhammel, author of Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview, argued that 'the most important difference with regards to maintaining colonial rule and the subsequent impact it would come to have on the 'Third World', takes a biological form. To Europeans, race was the ultimate ver sion of the difference axiom'.30 Similarly, "Otherness" also worked to establish and legitimise dominant and unequal relationships of gender. The opposition of the female oriental slave and the male western traveller was the perfect foil for the invention of a specifically Western identity based on patriarchal notions of superiority and intellectual mastery.31

As Helmut Kuzmics notes, it is 'from Algeria to the Antipodes, that the female black body, when viewed through the colonial lens, represents all that is dangerous and unknown in an alien land'.32 This notion of gender made available a discourse of power and authority based on a particular conception of hierarchy, dependency and control It is evident, therefore, that the discourse of both racial and gendered inequalities established in Europe drove colonial expansion, established unequal relationships of domination and power on all fronts, and ultimately shaped and continues to shape the modern world.

The idea of Europe as being the repository of civilisation, liberation and progress provided legitimacy to imperialism and the ex.termination of other cultures. With the backing of normative Christian values and the moral responsibility of civilising other cultures, Europe armed itself with an arsenal suitable for the justification and legitimisation of a "hegemony of ideas". Hegemony in this sense was evident through its ability to control the means of communication, to impose "Otherness" on non-Europeans and to ensure they perceived themselves in the language of the dominant33 Similarly, Europe established institutions that reproduced both the machinery and the discourse of domination. Namely, through Western academia and "Third World" education systems, colonisers reproduced the dominant knowledge for the purpose of maintaining its own existence.34 The "hegemony of idea s", therefore, ultimately shaped the Third World through its cultural influence: it influenced ideas , institutions and society within colonised countries through domination rather than consent. Jacques Derrida argues against the use of universals as being rational, as he believes that 'we can do little more than reveal, over and over again, the subjective and arbitrary nature of our categories (otherness) and the uncertainty of knowledge derived from them'.35

Much of European fascination with the "Other" was an expression of power relations: authority versus powerlessness was the basic structure that underlined the interaction of the two world views. In representing the "Other" as weak, the West was expressing an attitude of dominance. This type of discourse describes the particular kind of language which specialised knowledge has to conform to in order to be regarded as true. According to Foucault, 'discourse always involves a form of violence in the way it imposes its linguistic order on the world; knowledge has to conform to its paradigms in order to be recognised as legitimate' .36 In this sense, the dis-course of civilisation and "Otherness" was less a body of objective scholarly knowledge, than a discursive construction, whose conceptual structure determined the way in which Europe understood the nonEuropean world. This instituted a relationship of power, of cultural domination, and of exploitation; thereby constituting a system of apparent knowledge about the "Other" in which they are not allowed or invited to speak.37

What gave power its hold was quite simply the fact that it did not take the form of force, which says no, but was perpetuated by producing knowledge and discourse. For that reason, it must be considered as a productive network which flows through the entire social body much more than as a negative instance whose function is repression.38 However, dis-course in this sense stresses the restrictive and homogenising qualities, and does not take into account its own effects-of destabilisation. Therefore, when considering discourse as a whole, one must make allowances for the complex and unstable process- whereby discourse can be both an instrument and an effect of power, but also a hindrance, a stumbling block, and a point of resistance.39


What at first sight appears to be a contradiction, whereby the nineteenth century witnessed the triumph of Western liberalism at the very same time that British imperialism expanded. turns out to be entirely consistent given that liberalism's Eurocentric evolution renders it inherently colonialist. Historically, it was from the diverse traditions established during the nominalist revolution that the identity of Europe was born as a self negating modernity. The renaissance and the enlightenment, and the ideas which they gave birth to - Christian humanism, progress and the nationstate - provided Europe with its internal solidarity thereafter. Accordingly, the unifying ideas of these universalistic movements served to reinforce ethno-culturalism, and diversity became tolerated only within the context of the particularism of European culture.

It was by means of its imperial face that Europe was able to display a unified identity to the rest of the world - one that was constructed on the foundations of reason, rationality and modernity. This illustrates quite forcibly the role played by the perpetual "Other" whose existence always had to be maintained in order for it to be denied - an existence, however, that is inevitably and sharply at odds with the self-understanding of the indigenous non-Western cultures it purports to represent. In the relationship between Europe and the "Other", a dualism was constructed in which the hegemonic identity of Europe could be sustained as one representing freedom, progress and civilisation.

To contrast this, and the condition of its existence, was the notion of the primitive and despotic man, the mysterious woman and backward and degenerate cultures. It is evident, therefore, that when casting an inquiry into the effects that colonialism has had, and continues to have, on the modern world, no other knowledge will provide a better understanding than the thought and mentalities that drove colonialism in the first place. It is only when dissecting the notions of "Otherness" and "civilisation" that one can fully appreciate the legacy that colonialism has left, the hierarchies it has established and the relationships it maintains today.


Brydon, D. Postcolonialism: Critical Concepts (New York, Routledge, 2001).

Cabral, A. Return to the Source: Selected Speeches by Amilcar Cabral (New York, Monthly Review Press with Africa Information Service, 1973). Childs, P. An Introduction to Post-Colonial Theory (New Jersey, Prentice Hall, 1997).

Foucault, M. Critical and Effective History: Foucault's Methods and Historical Sociology (London, Routledge, 1994).

Foucault, M. The History of Sexuality, Volume One: An Introduction (London, Allen Lane, 1978).

Foucault, M. Power, Truth, Strategy (Sydney, FederalPublications, 1979). Gillesp ie, M, A. The Theological Origins of Modernity (Chicago, Univers ity of Chicago Press, 2008).

Hampson, N. The Enlightement (London, Penguin, 1984).

Hall, M. and Hobson, J, M. 'Liberal International Theory: Eurocentric but not always-Imperialist', In International Theory, 2.2 (2010). pp. 2 10~245.

Kuzmics, H. Authority, State and National Gnaraeter (Hampshire, Ashgate Publishing Limited, 1988).

Lander, E 'Euroce ntrism , Modern Knowledge, and the 'Natural' Order of Global Capital', In Kult 6 Special Issue on Epistemologies of Transformation 6 (2009). pp. 39-64.

Nicolacopoulos, T. The Radical Critique of Liberalism: in Memory ofa VISion. (Australia, Re.Press, 2008).

Oberman , H. 'The Pursuit of Holiness in Later Medieval and Renaissance religion', Studies An Irish Quarterly Review75 (1979).

Olssen, M. 'Structura lism, Post-Structuralism, Neo-Liberalism: Assessing Foucault's Legacy', Journal of Education Policy 18.2 (2003). pp. 189-202.

Osterhammel , J. Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview (Princeton , Marku s Weiner Publi s-hers, 2005).

Rousseau, S. Exoticl.9m in the Enlightenment (Manchester, Manchester University Press, I 990).

Sartre, J. Anti-Semite and Jew (New York, Grove Press, 1960).

Spivak, G. C. 'Responsibility. In Boundary 2. (1999). pp. 19-64.

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Young, R, J, C. 'Foucault on Race and Colonialism', In New Formations 25 (1995). pp. 57-65.

Young, R, J, C. Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction (New York, Oxford University Press, 2003).


  1. Cited in Young, R, J, C. Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction (New York, Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 18.
  2. Nicolacopoulos, T. The Radical Critique of Liberalism: in Memory of a Vision . (Australia, Re.Press, 2008), p. 3.
  3. Meht a, U, S. Lib eralism and Empir e (Chicago, University of Chicago Press. 1999), p. 190.
  4. Hall, M. and Hobson , J, M. 'liberal Int ernational Theory; Euro centr ic but not always Imp erialist' Int ernatio nal Theory 2:2 (2010) p. 213.
  5. Lander , E 'Eurocentrism, Modern Knowledge, and the 'Natural' Order of Global Capital ' Epistemologies of Transformation. Department of Culture and Identity. Roskilde University, 6 (2009) p . 42.
  6. Child s, P. An Introdu ction to Post-Colonial Theory (New Jer sey, Prenti ce Hall, 1997), p. 3.
  7. Nicolacopoulo s, T. 'The Radical Critique', p. 4.
  8. Gillespie, M. A. The T1lt:ological Origins of Modernity ( Chicago, Un iversity of Chicago Press, 2008), p . 19.
  9. Gillespie, M, A. 'The Theological' , p. 20.
  10. Oberman, H. The Pursuit of Holiness in Later Medival and Renaissance religion, An Irish Quart erly Review , 75 (1979) pp. 349.
  11. Gillespie, M.A. 'The Th eological', p. 20.
  12. William of Ockham . Phil osophi cal writings (Indianapolis, Hackett Publishin g Comp any, 1990), p. 70.
  13. Gillespie, M.A. 'Th e Theological', p. 20.
  14. Delanty, G. Inventing Europe: Idea, Identity, Rea/ity(London , Macmillan Press LTD, 1995), p. 65.
  15. Osterh ammel, r. Colonialism : A Tlieoretical Overview (Princet on, Markus Weiner Publish ers, 2005), p. 111.
  16. Delanty , G. 'In venting Europe', p. 65.
  17. Delanty, G. 'In venting Europe ', p. 65.
  18. Delanty, G. 'Inventing Europ e', p. 70.
  19. Hampson, N. The Enlight enment(Landon, Penguin, 1984), p. 71.
  20. Sartre, T, Anti-Semit e and Jew(NewYork, Grove Press, 1960), p.115 .
  21. Foucault, M. Critical and Effective History: Foucault's Metb.ods aJid Historical Sociology (London , Routledge, 1994 ), p . 87.
  22. Olssen, M. Structuralism, Post-Structuralism, Neo-Liberalism: Assessing Foucault 's Legacy', Journal of Education Policy 18 (2003), p . 197.
  23. Delanty, G. 'In venting Europe ', p. 82.
  24. Rousseau, S. Exo ticism in the Enlight enm ent(M arrchester, Manchester Univer sity Press, 1990), P.43.
  25. Spivak, G, C. 'Respon sibili ty' Bound ary, 27 ( 1999) p. 42.
  26. Delanty, G. 'In venting Europ e', p. 85.
  27. Delanty, G. 'In venting Europe', p. 88.
  28. Osterhammel, T. Colonialism , p. 110.
  29. Delanty, G. 'Inventing Europe', p. 89.
  30. Osterhammel, T-Colonialism , p. 111.
  31. Delanty, G. Inventing Europe, p. 89.
  32. Kuzmics, H. Auth.ority, State and Nat ional C'haractcr (Hampshire, Ashgate Publishing Limited, 1988), p.121.
  33. Williams, P. Colonial Discourse and Fostcolonial Theory (Hertfordshire, Harvester v\Theatshea£, 1993) , p. 134.
  34. Sartre, J. 'Anti -Semi te', p. 114.
  35. Brydon, D. Postcolo11ialism: Critical Concepts (N ew York, Routled ge, 2001), p. 919.
  36. Y, Young, R, f, C. 'Foucault on Race and Colonialism ', New formations, 25 (1995), p. 58.
  37. Foucault , M. The History of Sexuality, Volume One: An Introduction . (London , Allen Lane, 1978), p. 100.
  38. Foucault, M. Power, Truth, Strategy. (Sydn ey, Federal Publication s, 1979), pp. 35-36.
  39. Youn g, R, f, C. 'Foucault on Race and Colonialism ', New formation s, 25 (1995), p. 59.

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