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The Cultural Values of Europe$

Hans Joas and Klaus Wiegandt

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9781846311383

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: June 2013

DOI: 10.5949/UPO9781846315800

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Does Europe Have a Cultural Identity?

Does Europe Have a Cultural Identity?

(p.357) 15 Does Europe Have a Cultural Identity?
The Cultural Values of Europe

Peter Wagner

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This concluding chapter discusses the possibility of Europe having a cultural identity. It begins by examining the concept of identity, assumptions of European identity and the concept of culture. It then outlines the elements of Europe's cultural identity at present. The chapter shows that there is little question of there having been a European identity and argues that European history was a history of political and cultural challenges dealt with through new borders, divisions and schisms.

Keywords:   cultural identity, identity, European identity, culture, borders, divisions, schisms

In 1870, once the process of Italian unification had been completed with the creation of a nation-state after several years of conflict (including armed conflict), in much the same way as in Germany, one of the protagonists stated: ‘Now that we've created Italy, we have to create the Italians’ (this remark is attributed, perhaps wrongly, to Massimo d'Azeglio). Despite his efforts to fuse the territories of the peninsula together into a single political order, d'Azeglio did not believe that Italy already had a cultural identity. But he did think that the future Italians ought to become more aware of what they had in common, and he also thought that politics should help them to do so. This idea is also to be found in contemporary Europe. More than twenty-five years ago, to mention a small but not insignificant example, the European University Institute in Florence was founded. In a sense, one of its tasks is to create Europeans, who are such, not on the basis of their shared origins, but as a result of the experience of working together.

1. Does Europe Have a Cultural Identity?

This is the question I have been asked to answer. Its form recalls the questions posed in the Enlightenment contests of ideas common in the eighteenth century. Some of the most famous texts in the history of European thought were written in response to such questions, such as Immanuel Kant's ‘What is Enlightenment?’ or Jean-Jacques Rousseau's ‘Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality among Men’. In a very real way, Europe exists in these ideas. Now, I cannot compare myself with these authors and have no wish to do so. But I wish to adhere to their methodology by first elaborating the question posed more precisely.

Does Europe have a cultural identity?

Let us begin with the concept of identity. What does it mean to have an identity? The literal meaning of the term is ‘sameness’. Ludwig Wittgenstein, perhaps the (p.358) most important European philosopher of the twentieth century, once warned: ‘Roughly speaking: to say of two things that they are identical is nonsense, and to say of one thing that it is identical with itself is to say nothing’ (Tractatus logico-philosophicus 5.503). If identity means sameness, or at least similarity, then the assumption of a European identity is both dubious and problematic.

This assumption would mean, first of all, that Europeans are the same or similar. But very few people would want to claim this. Over the course of Europe's history, and I shall be returning to this subject later on, it is diversity that has generally been emphasized. Even now, debates on European unification are dominated by the motto ‘united in diversity’. In contrast to the processes of national unification that characterized the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century, no-one now thinks of levelling out the diversity of Europe – and the European Commission's often over-the-top efforts to achieve standardization are probably the most common subject of criticism about the manner in which integration is being pursued. There is no lack of unity about that.

Second, identity would also mean that Europe remains the same over the course of time. But again, this is an idea generally associated with the nations rather than Europe itself. It was for long assumed that the various European nations would each contribute something specific to European history or to the history of humankind – and that this contribution marked out the German, French, or Italian identity. But Europe itself was not associated with such constancy. Quite the opposite: change and dynamism were often seen as part of Europe's unique path. The scientific revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the economic and industrial revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the democratic revolutions from the late eighteenth century on, made Europe one of the world's epicentres of change. Nothing stayed the same or remained stable.

What then can we mean by identity, if not sameness within Europe and constancy over time? Why do we ask about European identity in the first place?

In think this question is primarily a political one. It is a question about those things we share that might guide our action, and, above all, a question about that which we have in common and what makes us different from others. We see the way that identity works to guide action, for instance, in the commitment to human rights and democracy which informed the debate on the eastwards expansion of the EU. And we see the differentiating effect of identity in the commitment to social solidarity which sets Europe apart, for example, from the USA. After more than two decades of criticism of the welfare state and emphasis on the need for reform, there is still no rejection of the principle of mutual support – a principle affirmed in the Charter of Fundamental Rights adopted in Nice in 2000.

(p.359) Does Europe have a cultural identity?

It might be objected that the question at issue here relates to Europe's cultural rather than political identity. To tackle the question of the relation between those two terms, we must first agree on a concept of culture. The term ‘culture’ is used discursively in at least three very different ways.

First, there is a normative concept, which understands culture in contrast to a lack of culture. It is linked with cultural criticism and cultural pessimism, found on both the right and left of the spectrum of political ideas within European history. We might think, for example, of Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West or Theodor Adorno's condemnation of the culture industry. It is extremely difficult to emphasize normative matters without simply placing one's own culture above that of others (or the old above the new) – simply because it is one's own culture. Leading philosophers of our time have succumbed to this temptation. It is therefore unusual these days for anyone to openly use a normative concept of culture. But the question arises of whether we can do entirely without one.

Second, there is a neutral concept of culture that underlines shared values and norms. In my remarks on identity, I already raised doubts about whether it is possible nowadays to straightforwardly divide the world up into groups – whether we refer to them as cultures, civilizations, nations, religious communities – in such a way as to establish borders within which values are shared and beyond which they are in conflict. But as Samuel Huntington's successful book on civilizational conflict shows, such thinking is highly popular, and we will have to come back to it later on.

But what really advances our understanding is a third concept of culture which assumes that we human beings, rather than living like atoms in a world of animate and inanimate objects, ascribe values to our action and experience our world and fellow human beings in interpretive fashion. The human being is a self-interpreting being, and the resources which he deploys for purposes of interpretation define his culture. This understanding of culture generates three conclusions:

  • First, our thinking must not be based on closed cultural communities. Cultural interaction occurs first and foremost between individuals rather than between groups.

  • Second (of which more in a moment), we must not understand cultural commonalities and differences as resulting from a characteristic, which either is or is not part of an individual. No-one is simply or unchangeably Christian or Muslim, French or American, straightforwardly applying his or her pre-given set of values.

  • Third, this throws up the question of whether it is possible to have (p.360) a cultural identity – as implied by the question I have been asked to address.

Does Europe have a cultural identity?

This is certainly the official assumption within the EU, which refers to the acquis communautaire, that which has been acquired by the whole community, something which we now possess. But, though the following quotation may have been flogged half to death, our classical authors already knew better: ‘All that you have, bequeathed you by your father, earn it in order to possess it’, as Goethe put it in Faust I.

In what sense does Europe have or not have a cultural identity? Since 1973, this is a subject which has exercised the European Commission as well. This date is worthy of note: it is the moment when the post-war momentum of European integration began to flag. The common market had been established, but attempts to go beyond it met with reluctance and resistance. The impetus of the world economy, which had lasted for the three ‘glorious decades’ of the post-war period, also slackened. The international monetary system shattered, the first oil crisis made Keynesian growth policies problematic, and Europe was about to experience the first real recession since the end of the war.

If the term ‘identity’ crops up in European documents from this point forward, the suspicion arises that Europe does not have an identity, but would like to have one. It is looking for sources of guidance to lead it out of the crisis, the impasse of integration, but as yet has none to hand.

In light of this, we must ask: what does this wanting-to-have mean? If the history of this entity in search of identity is marked by changes and diversity, what might be the source of identity, in the sense of value orientations capable of guiding a common course of action? The general answer to this can only be: experiences and their interpretation.

Europe can achieve an identity to the extent that it has undergone shared experiences and shows itself capable of producing a collective interpretation of these experiences – which are not simply ‘there’ but must be kept alive in people's minds.

This would not be a stable identity as suggested, for example, by references to ‘western values’ over the last year or ‘Asian values’ in previous years, not something which we can identify as a timeless aspect of history or which is capable of ceaseless perpetuation. Quite the reverse, such an identity would be the result of manifold experiences which may stretch across long periods of history and which may be recorded in interpretations. These experiences and their interpretations may overlap like archaeological layers – layers of time, to use the expression coined so felicitously by Reinhart Koselleck – and they change in the light of new experiences and new interpretations.

(p.361) As I continue, allow me to outline, in line with this understanding, the elements of Europe's cultural identity at present. I therefore ask: Does Europe have a cultural identity? What is this Europe into which we are enquiring?

2. Europe

Well-springs of unity

As a geographical term, the name of ‘Europe’ gained currency, following the division of the Roman Empire, to refer to the western half of the empire. This also meant that Europe was associated with Western Christianity. The borders with Orthodox Christianity and (shortly afterwards) Islam were thus constitutive for Europe. The way in which these boundaries were originally set is still reflected in the debates on the eastwards expansion of the EU (with the exception of Greece, which was granted a special status as the cradle of Europe – and, we should not forget, as a member of NATO) and now on the possibility of Turkish accession.

Thus, during the Middle Ages, Europe was a religious-political-territorial unity, also known as the ‘West’ or the Occident.

But this unity did not necessarily mean ‘identity’ in a strict sense. The region was held together only very loosely. Studies of everyday life in the Middle Ages show that religious and feudal values were not widely disseminated among the general population. Meanwhile, the specific history of Europe's foundation hardly gave rise to an identity that might be traced back to unambiguous roots or a central idea. Some years ago, the French philosopher Rémi Brague brought out how Europe's self-image has always pointed to something else that existed before it. From a religious point of view, Christianity grew out of Judaism, and politically the Roman-republican tradition was inspired by the Greek democracy of the city states. Brague therefore calls European identity ‘excentric’ in a literal sense: lacking a core or a unique origin. And he believes we can understand the dynamism and restlessness characteristic of Europe as a result not least of this lack of sturdy roots of its own.

A history of schisms

Be that as it may, the fact is that European history was to be characterized by tensions. As a first step in our review of European historical experiences, I would like to show that there is little question of there having been a European identity and that, on the contrary, European history was for many centuries a history of political and cultural challenges dealt with through new borders, divisions, and schisms. I shall briefly mention four major stages in this history.

(p.362) Reformation and wars of religion.

This era of schisms began at the latest with the Reformation and the wars of religion, by which Europe was ravaged for decades. The way out of this predicament, we can state with hindsight, was the idea of state sovereignty, implemented with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Violent, religiously motivated conflicts subsequently became a rare occurrence in western Europe; they found their last echo in Northern Ireland. (This observation should not, however, cause us to forget anti-Semitism. One of its preconditions was the fact that the Jewry, lacking any territorial embodiment, was not included in the peace treaty.)

However, the price of this solution was the division of Europe into a system of sovereign states, which were largely pacified internally while their external relations, in contrast, remained unregulated and anarchic. Contemporary demands for an international legal system keep pointing to a problem created in the seventeenth century.

Revolution and nation.

The second phase of splits within Europe was ushered in by the democratic revolutions – the French Revolution being the decisive event. Today – quite rightly – we celebrate the shift from state sovereignty to popular sovereignty that marked the political beginning of the modern world. But we often forget that this move also incontrovertibly posed the question ‘Who is the people?’ and that the answers to this question were often far from unproblematic. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the people, which was supposed to exercise self-determination in democratic fashion, increasingly became the nation, which not only developed its cultural values in a unique way but which also saw itself as struggling against the values of other nations.

In this sense, the First World War marks one of the low points, if not the low point of European history. It was staged as a cultural conflict in which the nations involved made the fate of humankind dependent on their victory. It was also the first war featuring mass mobilization in the sense that entire populations engaged in cultural conflict. Although democracy emerged in many countries only at the end of the war, it was also the first war of the democratic era.

The public and private sphere.

Meanwhile, third, in the shadow of religious reformation and political revolution, a further separation had occurred, which made itself felt in a less dramatic way but was no less significant for that. A ‘culture of individual autonomy’ (Charles Taylor) slowly developed which allowed individual persons, faced with the pressures of the community and society as a whole, to think their lives in terms of self-realization. Over the course of the eighteenth century, in the run-up to the democratic revolutions as we now know, a distinction took hold between the public and private sphere that was to remain central to our political thought.

(p.363) Immanuel Kant himself saw the work carried out by dependent workers (as we would say today) as private and thus subject to restrictions on freedom of expression. We now tend to see the private sphere as that in which the self develops, and the public sphere as the foundation of an informed politics which this self can then enter into. But the separation of the two spheres remains contentious – as apparent most recently, perhaps, in France and in Germany, in the so-called headscarf disputes.

Capitalism and classes.

Finally, fourth, we must not forget the economic-industrial revolution and the emergence of market societies (or: capitalism). These developments produced a division into classes in Europe, classes which were often irreconcilably opposed. Referring to nineteenth-century England, Benjamin Disraeli talked of ‘two nations’ between which there was neither social interaction nor sympathy. This diagnosis not only touched on the growing social inequality so widely in evidence. Also at issue here was the putative irreconcilability of ways of life, that is, a cultural difference.

If the idea of linguistic-cultural identity was associated with the formation of nations, the development of classes led to a socio-cultural identity which developed, more or less clearly, everywhere in industrialized Europe. And as we know, with the split between social democracy and communism and subsequently with Soviet socialism, this opposition would lead to a political division between the states of Europe.

Processes of problem creation

We have now completed our first sprint through European history. My intention in recalling these divisions is not to say that Europe has no cultural identity. Quite the reverse, in light of my introductory remarks on identity and culture, my assertion is that if Europe has a cultural identity, then it must be a result of its experiences with these divisions and boundaries, and their interpretations.

But equally, I do not mean by this that Europe has something like a negative identity, that it is based on the mistakes and misunderstandings of the past. If we look again at the four great historical processes revolving around religion, nation, class, and the relationship between public and private, what we are seeing here are permanent problems which people have to cope with as they interact with others. We may state that, over the course of its history, Europe gradually asked itself, in an explicit and radical way, all the questions which it then gradually tried to answer – with a great deal of difficulty.

The American political philosopher Michael Walzer once described liberalism as the ‘art of separation’. Liberal thought creates spheres of freedom by separating facts, and perhaps individuals as well, which would curtail such spheres if kept together. This is an important idea. But in historical reality, these separations (p.364) often occur in a violent way and they are by no means always inspired by liberal thought. In a second step, I shall now briefly outline the questions thrown up by these separations in order to discuss, in a third step, the extent to which Europe's cultural identity has been moulded by these experiences.

Plurality and diversity.

On the one hand, the Reformation and the wars of religion destroyed the unity of (western) Europe. On the other, though, they threw up the issue of the plurality or diversity of human life in a way that could not be ignored. From now on, it was no longer possible to condense the diversity of human endeavour into a single model of the good life. The political thought of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was certainly anxious to construct new models of order after the turmoil of the wars. But the great step forward that this entailed was to think in terms of the varied endeavours of individual human beings rather than other, imposed sources of order as in the past.

The possibility of a better life or progress.

With the eighteenth century – that era of Enlightenment that I touched on briefly at the start – hopes spread that such a new, self-determined, and peaceful order would in fact be possible. This is one of the elements expressed by the democratic revolutions, which were an attempt to lay the foundations for a better world through collective action. With the terms revolution and progress, which entered our political language during this period, these expectations found expression in an open horizon of the future (to borrow once again from Reinhart Koselleck).

Freedom and (collective) self-determination.

If the democratic revolution stood for collective self-determination and the creation of a better order, the separation of the public and private spheres was the prerequisite for establishing and maintaining a connection between the personal freedom enjoyed by the individual and the political freedom of collective self-determination. This connection subsequently remained problematic. Some authors draw a line from the French to the Russian Revolution and even to Nazism, and thus from the promise of collective self-determination to totalitarianism. This line does not run as straight as this, but the history of democracy shows the dangers to which this phenomenon exposes itself.

Equality, prosperity, and solidarity.

The development of markets and classes ultimately throws up the issues of prosperity and solidarity. Let's not forget that the promises to increase the ‘wealth of nations’ (Adam Smith) and – at an earlier stage – to pacify society were linked with the industrial division of labour and the selfregulation of free exchange. Those who create ties with others through trade, through doux commerce, will not want to fight them, having entered into a state (p.365) of mutual dependency to the advantage of both sides. Both prosperity for the masses and peace within society were a long time coming. But in the fight against poverty and growing inequality, the concept of solidarity arose, starting out as an expression of class struggle and eventually becoming a means of organizing society within a welfare state geared towards equalization.

A trend reversal

Our second historical survey shows that with a bit of effort it is possible to read the often violent divisions of Europe in a positive way. European history has succinctly posed key questions about human coexistence. Without the divisions, it may have been impossible to pose them in this way.

In dealing with these questions, the expectation has consistently arisen that it might be possible to answer them once and for all and in a positive way. This was, above all, the case in the Enlightenment era, which expressed hopes that reason would be fully realized. When Max Weber translated reason into rationality more than 100 years later, such hopes had already given way to a growing scepticism. If Weber may perhaps be read as viewing the history of Europe as the history of social rationalization, he was far from entirely happy about the prospect.

In the early twentieth century, scepticism sometimes held sway in such a way that Europe's developmental path as a whole was considered disastrous. I have already briefly mentioned left- and rightwing cultural pessimism. But this negative reaction is merely the flipside of the exaggerated expectations of the Enlightenment era. We would be better off accepting that it is impossible to give answers to the questions posed that are valid for all time, but that we can adapt the answers we have to new circumstances, developing them further in fruitful ways.

In line with this, my third step in reviewing European history will consist in asking how Europe has interpreted its historical experiences and which conclusions it has come to on the basis of this interpretation.

Europe's experience as a specific entity in the world.

At least since the time of Max Weber, people have wondered about the ‘special European path’ (Christian Meier), about Europe as a specific entity in the world. A European self-consciousness certainly existed during the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century and also subsequently in the history of nineteenth century progress. But here, Europe was seen as the spearhead of progress, the avant-garde of history, which other regions of the world would simply follow or have to follow – rather than a region with its own inimitable peculiarities. This form of self-consciousness arose first in the early twentieth century, grew stronger in the interwar period, and took on a new form in the second post-war period. Three mutually imbricated elements are characteristic of this self-consciousness.

(p.366) First, the insight arose that Europe, far from being the avant-garde of history, has reached the end of a developmental path. The development of national societies, which increasingly expanded in imperialist fashion and opposed one another with hostility, has proved a dead end. Friedrich Nietzsche had an inkling about this situation, but it really took shape only with the experience of the First World War. Observers such as Walter Benjamin and, somewhat later, Hannah Arendt, were to speak of a temporal rupture, of the destruction of tradition and thus the disappearance of the resources that can provide people with guidance as they go about their lives.

In parallel to this realization, Europeans followed with astonishment and increasing dismay the rise of another modernity, namely that of the United States of America. The problem was not only that Europe no longer had the right to exclusively represent modernity in the world. In addition, American modernity proved superior to that of Europe in several respects. This superiority was experienced, above all, in the realms of technology and economics on the one hand and politics and society on the other. American products increasingly competed with European ones while the car factories of Detroit and the slaughterhouses of Chicago came to epitomize a kind of rationalization still alien to Europeans. Politically, the Europeans, as foreseen by Alexis de Tocqueville, had to acknowledge that American democracy was further developed than its European counterpart, thus seemingly marking out the developmental path that would have to be followed. European observers were also impressed by the commitment to social equality; the public self-confidence of American women was particularly alien to them.

Europeans conceivably could have responded to their diagnosis of American superiority in line with the motto ‘catch up and overtake’. Yet this they could not do because they also regarded American society as inferior morally and culturally and did not wish to follow it in this regard. They observed the standardization of products and behaviours along with an individualization which led to isolation and loss of meaning. In this complex diagnosis, which I can only outline schematically here, lie the origins of the insight that modernity can find expression in a variety of forms – an insight which is, fortunately, more widespread today and which is also discussed in a more sophisticated way than in much of the twentieth century.

Third and finally, after the disaster of war had struck again, Europeans felt bound to change radically the course of their historical development. Gradually, after the Second World War, they developed an increasingly self-critical attitude towards their own collective memory (a memory moulded by national factors in most cases), to borrow from the French political scientist Jean-Marc Ferry. Certainly, and for obvious reasons, this was initially a German phenomenon, a way of dealing with guilt about the war and annihilation. But over the last two (p.367) decades, the history of Europe has in a sense been Europeanized, with emphasis being placed on the often collective embroilment in disastrously wrong answers to the great historical and political questions.

The post-war compromise.

In the first decades after the war, interpretations of the past were still national in character, and the conclusions ambiguous. The traditions of the nation-state were revived, but they were interpreted in a markedly more liberal way and in a manner that made it far easier to cooperate with others.

The political orders of post-war western Europe retained elements of their orientation towards linguistic and cultural identity, and they stabilized the beginnings of a socio-cultural identity around the commitment to social solidarity in the welfare state. They also added more developed understandings of personal freedom and political freedom as these had existed in the interwar period – though many battles, over equality for women for example, had yet to be fought out. With this commitment to multiple goals, the liberal-democratic and welfarist nation-state in the Europe of the late twentieth century was a political compromise which long proved viable, but which has now come up against its limits – to use the jargon of the day – in the face of economic and cultural globalization.

European integration.

European integration is the answer to this situation, an answer that was in principle already available from the end of the war (indeed, elements of this answer were already present in the interwar period) but which had not yet been fully formulated. Born out of the post-war situation, the European project was initially developed as an economic and regulatory project which was as yet very alien to the citizens of European societies.

Things have, however, accelerated in recent decades. The reappearance of signs of crisis in the 1970s revived the debate on European identity, as mentioned in the introduction. But it was, above all, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the political division of Europe which provoked the intensification of the political project of European unification. In this context, more efforts are being made to come up with a collective interpretation of historical experiences, as I have tried to outline them here.

A notable product of these efforts, whose significance is generally underestimated, is the European Union's Charter of Fundamental Rights, agreed in 2000, though remaining without legal force as the project of a treaty on a European constitution, and abandoned in 2007.

Far from being the dry product of legal and political negotiation, this charter is a constitutional document of a new kind. It goes beyond the Anglo-American inspired form of the Bill of Rights, which lists the individual's rights vis-à-vis a state. For this is a case of a polity endowing itself with its own self-understanding, (p.368) in the form of principles which guide its actions. Among them we find not only the principles of freedom and equality, generally firmly rooted in the western tradition, but also those of human dignity and solidarity, which reflect specific conclusions drawn on the basis of European experiences. As one telling example among many which I might mention, the charter shows how a specific self-understanding is being developed and turned into options for action in Europe in a positive way.

3. Ways of Creating the World

Does Europe now have a cultural identity? Despite all my sceptical remarks at the outset, the answer is a cautious yes.

Europe is not rooted in its history in such a way that it might deduce its destiny from its roots. Such an idea is based in part on an inadequate concept of identity and culture, in part on a biased reading of European history. But Europe has had profound historical experiences, and has always kept on trying – during the present era as well as in the past – to interpret these experiences collectively. This gives rise to an identity which can act as a guide to action and which lays bare the differences from other action orientations.

Here, we should not imagine Europe on the model of the nation-state, as a territorial, political, and cultural unity in the world, which distances itself from others and opposes them. This would be to repeat the disastrous intra-European trends of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries on a global scale – and to dramatically aid the realization of the much-evoked clash of civilizations. If, on the other hand, so-called globalization, in a cultural sense, is an argument about how the world of tomorrow may look, then we should see Europe as a place capable of producing proposals on how to create a new world, proposals that engage critically with, and build on, Europe's own experiences.