When one studies Indian philosophy, or Asian philosophy in general, one is always faced with its other: a philosophical tradition with origins to the west of India, which, after the history of colonialism and modernity, is in the background of everyone now. What should we call this tradition?
The term in by far the most widespread use is Western. It’s not a very good term, but it is the one we have, and I think there is good reason to keep it. I’ll be arguing that point in a series of three posts. I’ve seen two camps of people who discourage the use of “Western”. One (found within philosophy) merely discourages the term, in favour of the term “Euro-American”, which I find far worse; I will deal with that in the final post. The other thinks that “the West” doesn’t even name a meaningful referent at all, such that there should not even be a term to replace it. As I think that that’s a deeper criticism, I will start with it, in both this post and the next.
Natalie Wynn of ContraPoints argues that the “Western” tradition isn’t a real thing. Wynn rightly points out how places like Latin America and the Middle East have been traditionally excluded from “the West”, even though their cultures are part of the same Greek and Semitic historical complex. Wynn is right to note that that exclusion is a problem. But as far as I’m concerned, that isn’t actually an argument against getting rid of “the West”, but for including those places in it, to some extent at least.
I suspect Wynn argues for dropping the concept because she imagines that a “West” including Latin America and the Middle East would then look so broad as to be meaningless. But it does not look that way at all to those of us who study South and East Asia. More than half of the world’s population lives east of the Khyber Pass (and south of the Altai Mountains and north of the Timor Sea). People in those places inherit traditions with origins in northern India and China, independent from and other to a West that includes the Arab world and Latin America – and Eastern Europe. A concept of “the West” that includes all three of those regions is meaningful and significant to those concerned with the more than half of the world that is none of them.
That’s not to say that the whole Islamic world is of the West. “The West” is too big if it stretches from Nigeria to Indonesia. But there’s a difference between the Islamic heartland – the Arabic-speaking countries of North Africa and the Middle East (plus Turkey) where Islam began, which both deeply influenced and were influenced by Greek and Roman culture – and the many other places that Islam eventually spread to. Bangladesh is not a Western country despite being majority Muslim, just as the Philippines are not a Western country despite being majority Christian.
And yes, it is absolutely ironic that two of the three regions I’m arguing are of the West – Eastern Europe and the Middle East – have “East” in their names! Indeed it was these “Easts” that the concept of the “West” was originally defined against: coming out first of the East-West Schism between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. That usage persisted through the days when Eastern Europe was a Communist Other: “Ukraine girls really knock me out, they leave the West behind.” But, with the “Eastern Bloc” decades behind us, relatively few use the concept of the “West” in that way anymore. More often now we wrongly assimilate “the West” to a racialized “whiteness” – and Eastern Europe is of course “whiter” than Spain or Italy. But its “whiteness” is not the reason to include Eastern Europe in the West. Rather, what Eastern Europe does share with Western Europe is a set of historical roots, roots which they both share with Latin America and the Middle East (and North America and Oceania) – and not with sub-Saharan Africa or South or East Asia.
It is those historical roots, I would argue, that make “Western” tradition or civilization a thing. The contemporary cultures of North and South and Central America, Western and Eastern Europe, the southern and eastern Mediterranean and the Arabian Peninsula, all derive from the innovations of two original places: the classical Greek world of the northeastern Mediterranean, and the Semitic world rooted in that small stretch of land on the shores of the southeastern Mediterranean, the Nile, and the Red Sea. (Each of these worlds, note, first arose in lands further east than Warsaw or Sarajevo.) The pan-Mediterranean Roman Empire brought the two together, and eventually came to be dominated by a tradition whose sacred scriptures are half in Hebrew and half in Greek. As that empire declined, a new Semitic tradition arose which promptly turned back to the Greeks for its intellectual life – and whose learning would later prove essential to Northern Europe once it eventually came to be civilized for the first time. I don’t think it’s too hard to see the continuities among the cultures whose main roots go back to these Greek and Semitic worlds.
Latin America may be a question mark here because they have non-Western historical roots from their indigenous peoples – but that is also true of North America! I suppose that on these grounds one could make a reasonable case that the mostly indigenous Guatemala, say, should not be counted as a Western country – but if Canadians and Americans (let alone Australians) are Westerners, then Argentinians and Uruguayans definitely are too. Note that that distinction should be on cultural grounds, not racial ones; the issue is not that Guatemalan indigenous peoples aren’t white, but that their indigenous cultural heritage arose independently of Europe and the Mediterranean – as that of the Muslim Middle East did not. More on the supposed “whiteness” of the West next time.
Pingback: Why the West is a real thing – The Indian Philosophy Blog
Pingback: The West is neither white nor European – The Indian Philosophy Blog
Pingback: The West is neither white nor European | Love of All Wisdom
Patrick S. O'Donnell said:
I left a comment (actually, two comments, the second being a correction) on this post at the Indian philosophy blog, but it seems to have disappeared.
I am leaving it here as well:
For what it’s worth, as we say, and in the spirit of Elisa’s comment, I tend to think about these kinds of questions within a framework constructed with materials from (i) rhetoric, (ii) thinking about concepts qua concepts, and (iii) definitions. With regard to (i), and among other things, the question of one’s audience or readers or public arises, so there will be varying degrees of technical sophistication represented in one’s categories or concepts and this raises all sorts of quandaries, particularly if one’s readers come from widely varied backgrounds, levels of education, kinds of experience, and so forth. Does one resort to terms best known or commonplace, even if one is all too aware of their somewhat arbitrary conceptual boundaries or biases, their imprecision, ambiguity or vagueness. Or does one want to spend time on introducing new concepts and categories, possibly at the risk of losing the listener’s or reader’s attention or at the price of incomprehension or misunderstanding. An audience of one’s peers and a more or less indiscriminate public audience seem to demand, at least on occasion, that we choose different terms with which to communicate our intentions, reasons, or purposes, a choice that, for the academic, specialist, or expert will be difficult and perhaps even unacceptable. More could of course be said about our rhetorical situations and strategies, but I want merely to introduce this component of the aforementioned framework.
Second, and not unrelated to questions of rhetoric, we need to bear in mind that some concepts are fairly straightforward, conventional, and suitable for most purposes, while others are contested, open-ended, and/or perhaps defined or understood differently by those in different intellectual fields of inquiry, from the philosophical to the anthropological, from the sociological to the psychological. Of course we can try to be as clear as possible on this score, but there are bound to be readers or listeners who more or less fail to understand what we mean, who are not cognizant of the presuppositions, assumptions, or presumptions and implications of our terms. Our conceptual schemes reflect ways of seeing the world, as it were, and these ways of seeing are not always shared, be it widely or deeply. These issues become even more complicated in light of what Hilary Putnam, after Amartya Sen and others, described as fact/value entanglement, an illustration of which Putnam provides with his brilliant analysis of “the cat on the mat:”
“[F]act, (or truth) and rationality are interdependent notions. A fact is something that it is rational to believe, or, more precisely, the notion of a fact (or a true statement) is an idealization of the notion of a statement that it is rational to believe. [….] [B]eing rational involves having criteria of relevance as well as criteria of rational acceptability, and…all of our values are involved in our criteria of relevance. The decision that a picture of the world is true (or true by our present lights, or “as true as anything is”) and answers the relevant questions (as well as we are able to answer them) rests on and reveals our total system of value commitments. A being with no values would have no facts either. The way in which criteria of relevance involves values, at least indirectly, may be seen by examining the simplest statement. Take the sentence ‘The cat is on the mat.’ If someone actually makes this judgment in a particular context, then he employs conceptual resources—the notions ‘cat,’ ‘on,’ and ‘mat’—which are provided by a particular culture, and whose presence and ubiquity reveal something about the interests and values of that culture, and of almost every culture. We have the category ‘cat’ because we regard the division of the world into animals and non-animals as significant, and we are further interested in what species a given animal belongs to. It is relevant that there is a cat on the mat and not just a thing. We have the category ‘mat’ because we regard the division of inanimate things into artifacts and non-artifacts as significant, and we are further interested in the purpose and nature a particular artifact has. It is relevant that it is a mat that the cat is on and just something. We have the category ‘on’ because we are interested in spatial relations. Notice what we have: we took the most banal statement imaginable, ‘the cat is on the mat,’ and we found that the presuppositions which make this statement a relevant one in certain contexts include the significance of the categories animate/inanimate, purpose, and space. To a mind with no disposition to regard these as relevant categories, ‘the cat is on the mat’ would be as irrational as ‘the number of hexagonal objects in this room is 76’ would be, uttered in the middle of a tête-à-tête between young lovers. Not only do very general facts about our value system show themselves in our categories (artifacts, species name, term for a spatial relation) but, our more specific values (for example, sensitivity and compassion), also show up in the use we make of specific classificatory words (‘considerate,’ ‘selfish’). To repeat, our criteria of relevance rest on and reveal our whole system of values.”
If this be true of this simple proposition, how much more so with the concepts and categories we employ in academic and philosophical discourse under the conditions of pluralism!
Think too of the problems that arise with terms like “brain” or “mind” in the hands, say, of the behavioral psychologist, the neuroscientist, and the philosopher. One may read a paper in which, it turns out, the notions of brain and mind are conflated or assumed to be identical. Depending on one’s worldview or philosophy, that may or may not be troubling. As Michael P. Lynch, after Wittgenstein, reminds us, our concepts “do not admit of fixed, determinate uses,” and thus no matter how determined we are to avoid ambiguity, vagueness, or simply confusion, there is no guarantee our choices on this score will be read or heard as we intended them or believe they should be understood. And thus, back to Elisa: our “concepts are often tied to a particular purpose,” and yet, if circumstances, conditions, or situations change in dramatic or radical ways, our concepts may need alteration or qualifications or repeated ceteris paribus refrains. We may need even to jettison them altogether and come up with a new term, a fresh rendering of a concept. Again, so much more can be said about the nature of our concepts in light of pluralism, relativity, objectivity, perceptions, and so on.
We arrive at (iii), definitions, and this is perhaps the easiest topic to introduce even if the types of definition are sometimes forgotten or confused. There are, from what I have learned, essentially six principal types of definition: lexical (or dictionary), stipulative, persuasive, précising, theoretical, and operational. I will assume our readers are most familiar with the first two and perhaps the fourth as well, so I will confine myself to the remaining three: (a) précising, (b) persuasive, and (c) operational. A “précising” definition is intended to reduce or even eliminate the vagueness or ambiguity of words, so the difference between “mind” and “brain,” or between “principle” or “rule,” or “law” and “norm,” may need clarification, even if, on occasion, the possible differences are safely ignored for some purposes. (We need not here enter into metaphorical usage of these words.) The most troubling of our set is the “persuasive” definition, although it may have some justification, for example, in certain political contexts or fora. Such a definition is, intentionally or not, used to “influence the way in which a phenomenon is perceived,” thus creating favorable or unfavorable dispositions toward some subject, state of affairs, event, what have you. These may be unavoidable or indispensable in motivating people to take the requisite type of action in an emergency or dire situation, etc. Finally, there are, after Charles Sanders Peirce, “operational” definitions, wherein the meaning of terms is in reference to particular physical or mechanical actions or description. Thus we can say what it means for the top of the table to be “hard,” a meaning which may make no sense, for example, to a description provided by the physicist of that very same surface.
I hope this brief and simple sketch of a framework I have come to rely on is helpful, although it makes no claims to completeness (e.g., other materials may be necessary or desirable), nor do I claim to have exemplified fidelity to it in my own work.
Amod Lele said:
Thanks, Patrick. The comment is up at the IPB and I replied to it there (I thought that was the more germane place since it refers to Elisa’s comment).
Usually the system requires a moderator to approve a comment before it goes up (you’ll usually see a response saying “Your comment is awaiting moderation”) and we might not get to it for a few hours.
Pingback: Against “Euro-American” | Love of All Wisdom
Pingback: Against “Euro-American” – The Indian Philosophy Blog