The West within the rest

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

In the previous post I discussed why academic philosophers have usually focused on the West, and pointed out reasons why some amount of Western focus remains valuable. Above all, I noted: “we are always already formed by some sort of philosophical tradition, whether we like it or not and whether we know it or not. And a great deal of what forms us is Western.” So exploring Western philosophy is important to understand our own thought better, where we are coming from.

There are at least two important objections to be made to that claim as I have phrased it. First, one might well ask, could this Western background not be an argument to study non-Western traditions more, in order to enrich ourselves with different perspectives we don’t already share? Well, yes, to a point. Part of philosophical reflection is breaking down our established certainties. But this only goes so far. The further a given philosophy is from our existing given starting point, the more likely we are to view it as a bizarre curiosity – something that might be of exotic interest in the way that animals in a zoo are of exotic interest, but not a live option, not something that can inform or make sense of our lives. To study the politics of the Indian Mīmāṃsā school often tends to feel this way: their assertions that human beings should follow the traditional ritual order of the Vedas seems wacky at best, oppressive at worst. A political philosophy course that taught Mīmāṃsā but not utilitarianism or Marxism would no longer be doing philosophy; it would be ethics studies and not ethics. To make non-Western traditions live options, there should be Western philosophy in the mix. (This was a key reason that my dissertation on Śāntideva paid so much attention to his contrast with Martha Nussbaum.)

In a different vein, one might object to the “we” I have been throwing around here. Sure, perhaps, “we” Canadians and Americans and Italians have our ideas primarily formed by Western tradition. But that does a disservice to the Indians and Koreans and Malagasy formed in a very different context – many of whom, in this age of global migration, are now enrolled in American universities. Surely a focus on Kant and Plato will be as alienating to them as a focus on Mīmāṃsā would be to a Frenchwoman?

Here is where I say: not so fast. Like it or not, the Western tradition has shaped pretty much the whole contemporary world, certainly the world of anyone able to get on a plane to the United States or study in a modern university. True, this dominance of Western ideas comes out of unfair and harmful colonial relations of military conquest, relations that are still with us and that we may well want to fight against. But that very project of fighting for subordinate groups against a dominant order is itself one with a specific Western history, one going back especially to Karl Marx, but before him to Jesus of Nazareth and earlier Jewish prophets. Nowadays, critics of Western domination in philosophy and other cultural spheres are often especially informed by Edward Said’s Orientalism. This book not only explicitly takes its subject to be the West and representations within the West, bracketing out the question of what “the Orient” was actually like, it also (just as explicitly) derives its method from the very Western thinker Michel Foucault. The attempt to find justice for the oppressed East takes us right back, intellectually, to the West.

By contrast, as I’ve argued a number of times, this project of liberating oppressed groups would have been quite alien to Indian Buddhists like Śāntideva, let alone to the Mīmāṃsakas with their views of a right and proper social hierarchy. That doesn’t mean it’s bad – far from it! But a key part of the point of studying philosophy is to know where the ideas we already think with come from – so that we know how they have already been argued for and argued against. So we could say that a Western focus is important even when we emphasize social justice – but we might do even better to say a Western focus is especially important when we emphasize social justice.

Much of the Western tradition is now deeply implicated in the way the non-Western world thinks and even acts. Consider the case of Jawaharlal Nehru, revered across modern India as the country’s founding father. Nehru and his colleagues were faced with the task of building a new constitution from the ground up. This is the sort of task that demands reflection on political philosophy: if one is building a state that will shape the lives of billions of people, one should be thinking about what exactly a good state is. In this process, Nehru paid little attention to indigenous models; he derived his ideas from Western thinkers like Harold Laski, his teacher at the London School of Economics. Nehru studied in the UK but was Indian born and bred; he was not unfamiliar with the traditions developed in his subcontinent. But he thought Western models were worth following. His predecessor Rammohun Roy, despite being an advocate for Indian philosophy and “religion” in general, similarly built his political thought entirely out of Western materials.

Roy’s and Nehru’s choices matter. These men had access to local traditions and to Western traditions, and they chose the latter. We don’t have much respect for the ideas of these Asians if we dismiss their carefully considered ideas (on the grounds of Western-derived conceptions of social justice and diversity!) by saying that they should have been learning from “their own” tradition instead. That is not only an Indian phenomenon, of course: Mao Zedong may have urged “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, but it was still self-consciously socialism, shaped more by Marx than by Confucius – and this in a country that did not have India’s experience of an education system forcibly reshaped by the British. For these Asians, Western philosophy was central to the philosophy that made sense to them. Bentham and Laski and Marx were as much “theirs” as anything from Confucius or the Upaniṣads.

So too, nowadays, a student born and raised in India or China who comes to North America for university will have imbibed local political debates which will have been fought on Nehru’s and Mao’s terms, as much as American debates are fought on Thomas Jefferson’s. And one cannot understand these Nehruist and Maoist ideas without understanding the ideas of the Western Enlightenment that shaped them almost as much as it shaped Jefferson.

The history of the West is in Asia now, not to mention the rest of the world. (European thought is as important to Latin America as it is to North America!) We can’t wish that history away. Our very reasons for wishing it were not there are themselves informed by it. Is that a bad thing? Maybe, but so is death – and Plato and the Buddha would agree that death is something the lover of wisdom must learn to deal with, and at some level accept. A Westernized world has made us who we are, and that fact is not a thing that can change. By all means let us now rediscover the oft-forgotten non-Western ideas that would enrich modern thought within the West and outside it. But to do this truthfully and productively, we – we around the world – do need to acknowledge our Western background.

About Amod Lele

Amod Lele is Lecturer in Philosophy, Educational Technologist in Information Services & Technology, and Visiting Researcher in the Study of Asia at Boston University. He administers the technical side of the Indian Philosophy Blog, as well as running his own cross-cultural philosophy blog, Love of All Wisdom. He holds a PhD with a South Asia focus from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. You can find out more about him than you ever wanted to know at his ePortfolio.

13 thoughts on “The West within the rest

  1. All well said, but I don’t see how this post is related to the other one. Basically, if I understand your point (which is not a given fact, I might have misunderstood), you are saying that it is worth studying the Western philosophical tradition. I believe that nobody denied it, the point is to boraden the spectrum and study non-Western traditons as well. As to the superiority of Western political thought, your argument seems to be circular. Maybe Nehru chose a Western political system because he was informed by it and thought it was better, but for whom? Certainly not for everybody and I don’t know whether all Indians are better off now than before. The very fact that he went for a parliamentary democracy instead of a monarchy or yet another political system is not a demonstation per se that he made the right choice. But alas, this is the take of a disillusioned Westerner on democracy and parliamentarism.

    • More than just “it is worth studying the Western philosophical tradition” – that is to make the West one tradition among many, without pride of place. But the West has a role in shaping contemporary Indian and Chinese and Islamic and African philosophy that these traditions do not have in shaping each other. I’ve long been an advocate for non-Western philosophy and continue to be one, but that is not to advocate that all traditions be given equal time.

      As for whether Nehru made the right choice: well, on what standards are we going to evaluate whether he made the right choice or not? That is not a rhetorical question.

      • ”More than just “it is worth studying the Western philosophical tradition” – that is to make the West one tradition among many, without pride of place. But the West has a role in shaping contemporary Indian and Chinese and Islamic and African philosophy that these traditions do not have in shaping each other.”

        This is a very bold statement. Are you absolutely sure? Are you an expert in the history, philosophy, literature of alle these countries and cultures? I personally wouldn’t go so far as to make such an assertion. All kinds of examples come to my mind, as for instance the influence of the Persian idea of kingship on Alexander the Great, or the influence of Egyptian culture on classical Greek culture–to which I might add the huge influence of Near Eastern cultures in shaping early Greek and Etruscan culture and thus indirectly Roman culture. I suppose that the introduction of the alphabet in Greece from the Phoenician controlled world, or the influence of the Persian culture on all matter relating to writing in South Asia, not to speak of the diffusion of Buddhism from South Asia to South East, Central and East Asia, only to come back to the West in a different form nowadays, well as I was saying, I suppose that all this does not count as reciprocal influence. Above all Central Asia was the cradle of such different cultures that influenced each other that I wouldn’t start mentioning them.

        ”As for whether Nehru made the right choice: well, on what standards are we going to evaluate whether he made the right choice or not? That is not a rhetorical question.”

        This is exactly my point, we first have to set the standards, then we could attempt to evaluate. It is true that Nehru and others were sons of two cultures.

        • Regarding the last question: it is significant that neither of us has yet tried to answer it. My guess – it is a guess – is that any standards you’re likely to name will be ones derived from the West.

          As for the “very bold statement”: okay, can you name me a philosophical tradition that has pervaded all of modern African, Chinese, Indian and Islamic philosophy to the same extent (or more) that Western philosophical tradition has? In the sense of substantive ideas, not merely tools like alphabets or computers?

          • “As for the “very bold statement”: okay, can you name me a philosophical tradition that has pervaded all of modern African, Chinese, Indian and Islamic philosophy to the same extent (or more) that Western philosophical tradition has? In the sense of substantive ideas, not merely tools like alphabets or computers?”

            In my modest opinion, the invention and diffusion of writing had a much more transformative and pervasive impact on the mind and mindset of mankind than any philosophical idea. It’s just our skewed vision that sometimes doesn’t allow us to grasp the huge implications of what you call “merely tools.” If you think of the diffusion of paper, which in its turn enabled the diffusion of print etc.

            A note about what I have just written, but from a detached perspective: I find it funny that you, as a philosopher, consider the spread of philosophical ideas as the litmus test, while I, as a historian of the book, consider the spread of writing technology the litmus test. This tells us something about the importance of dialogue.

            As to your question, no I can’t find any substantive idea that pervaded all the cultures you mention at once, but on the other hand I do not believe that you can claim the same for Western thought. You might claim it, on the other hand, for the technological advancements, which almost invariably are the first to pervade a culture, only to be followed by philosophical ideas. Interestingly enough, very often the contact with Westerners meant the annihilation of a culture, if not even the material annihilation of a population. In such cases, they didn’t even have the opportunity of adopting ideas from Western philosophy, i.e. Western philosophy is historically not omnipervasive.

            P.S. I have actually already answered, at least indirectly, to the question whether Nehru made the right choice or not, implying that he didn’t—but again, I am biased by my own opinions and ideas.

          • Regarding the PS first: you may have implicitly answered the question “Did Nehru make the right choice?” But that wasn’t the question I asked. The question was: “on what standards are we going to evaluate whether he made the right choice or not?” That’s a very, very different question, and one you definitely have not answered. (I hope you can see that “biased by my own opinions and ideas” is not an answer).

            Can’t I claim the same for Western thought? Of course I can. Whichever modern thinker we’re talking about – Kwasi Wiredu, Nehru, Mao, Mou Zongsan, Nishitani Keiji, Qutb, Gandhi, the Dalai Lama XIV – we’re talking about people who are deeply pervaded by Western ideas and thoughts and think about them at every turn, whereas Chinese ideas, say, similarly matter only for Nishitani, Mou and Mao. Of course Western thought was not omnipervasive historically, in the sense of before the 19th or 20th centuries, but it is now, and we don’t live before the 19th or 20th centuries, we live now. That’s “we” who think about philosophical ideas, or for that matter historical ideas, on all continents. Some of our students might be Chinese philosophers in the making, and that’s great. But none of them are 18th-century Chinese philosophers in the making.

            As for philosophy vs. history: this post, and the previous post, are explicitly about philosophical ideas, not history-in-general; the latter would be a different conversation, on which I would have some different opinions. I’m well aware of the potential of tools in making possible different ways of thinking, as this is an area I work in for a living (see my post on digital philosophy for an example). And the point I have been trying to make is that our standards for evaluating ideas derive from the history of those ideas, in a way they are not shaped by tools. I could switch from computer to handwritten notes tomorrow and the content of the ideas I expressed would remain basically the same (though slower); my abandonment of the tool wouldn’t change it. But my abandonment of the concepts I derive from my formation in Western philosophy – rights, happiness, truth, and more, each of which has their own histories – that abandonment would change everything.

  2. Dear Amod,

    You write

    their assertions that human beings should follow the traditional ritual order of the Vedas seems … oppressive at worst.

    This perception of being “oppressive a worst” has pervaded the Hindu intellectual discourse for at least 50 years. It provided the basis for creating the Hindu reservation system or affirmative action program. So far, so good.

    What does the reservation system do? First, it identifies certain jatis as being lower than others. Second, it provides lower jatis opportunities in government jobs, in admission to medical colleges and so on. What it does not do is to provide an opportunity to become vaidikas.

    Better put: the question of providing an opportunity to become vaidikas has been discussed in the literature. But the lower jatis have not evinced interest in such an opportunity, so the matter got put on a back-burner.

    That is to say, there is a disconnect between the articulation of a grievance and the resolution of a grievance. At the moment of articulating a grievance, people complain that the traditional ritual order of the Vedas seems oppressive. But at the moment of resolving the grievance, people want an opportunity in government jobs, admission to medical colleges, but not to become vaidikas.

    What does this disconnect mean? The lower jatis do not see the traditional ritual order of the Vedas as oppressive. Once lower jatis get opportunities in government jobs and medical colleges, they are happy to call brahmin vaidikas home to carry out namakaranams, homams, griha-praveshams, weddings, funerals, …Above all, they are not advising their children to become vaidikas.

    Here is a way to understand this.

    Today’s curricula give space to the Protestant Reformation and to the Age of Enlightenment. But not to the Papal Revolution (also known as the Gregorian Revolution). This fact has a bearing on what sort of hypothesis intellectuals are able to generate.

    The Papal Revolution was what transformed the Catholic denomination from being a decentralized religion to an organized religion. Till then, each church depended on nearby chieftans in order to pay its bills. Those chieftans had the ability to interfere in the affairs of their churches. Churches had no ability to ability to issue instructions to the police directly and they had no control over the legal / court system of that era. (All that was to come later, after the Papal Revolution.)

    All this is not common knowledge among Western-trained intellectuals. Better put: it is not the knowledge base that Western-trained intellectuals use in order to generate hypothesis about Hinduism. Consider the line

    their assertions that human beings should follow the traditional ritual order of the Vedas seems … oppressive at worst.

    How was such a hypothesis generated? And how receptive are you to the observation about the disconnect I alluded to above? If you reflect on these matters, you will see the following.

    When Western-trained intellectuals say “religion”, they mean “organized religion”. And when they say “organized religion” they mean the state of the Catholic denomination between the Papal Revolution and the Protestant Reformation. This is the knowledge base they use to generate hypotheses about Hinduism.

    • Hi Ananth – I didn’t use the term “religion” at all; that’s you. Nor do I think that any part of contemporary Indian society follows the kinds of Mīmāṃsā Vedic prescriptions I am talking about. To the extent they were ever practised, they died out under Muslim or colonial rule and were never brought back. Nobody – not Narendra Modi, not the RSS, not the VHP, not the Bajrang Dal, not the Shiv Sena – is talking about doing so.

      That traditional ritual order is gone. What there is in contemporary India, is a situation of strong social inequality between jātis, comparable to the inequality between races that exists in the United States. The question is merely whether there should be government programs (such as reservations) that give benefits to the historically oppressed groups. An Indian society without caste-based reservations would be still one based on the presuppositions of individualist Western liberal capitalism.

  3. > Regarding the PS first: you may have implicitly answered the question
    > “Did Nehru make the right choice?” But that wasn’t the question I asked. > The question was: “on what standards are we going to evaluate whether > he made the right choice or not?” That’s a very, very different question,
    > and one you definitely have not answered. (I hope you can see that
    > “biased by my own opinions and ideas” is not an answer).

    You’re right, if that’s the question, I didn’t answer,

    > Can’t I claim the same for Western thought? Of course I can.
    > Whichever modern thinker we’re talking about – Kwasi Wiredu, Nehru,
    > Mao, Mou Zongsan, Nishitani Keiji, Qutb, Gandhi, the Dalai Lama XIV –
    > we’re talking about people who are deeply pervaded by Western ideas
    > and thoughts and think about them at every turn, whereas Chinese
    > ideas, say, similarly matter only for Nishitani, Mou and Mao. Of course
    > Western thought was not omnipervasive historically, in the sense of
    > before the 19th or 20th centuries, but it is now, and we don’t live before
    > the 19th or 20th centuries, we live now. That’s “we” who think about
    > philosophical ideas, or for that matter historical ideas, on all continents. > Some of our students might be Chinese philosophers in the making, and > that’s great. But none of them are 18th-century Chinese philosophers in > the making.

    In this case, I agree with you. The point is that you were not talking only about modern and contemporary Western ideas and philosophy, but about Western philosophy in general. These are not born ex-nihilo, but belong to historical processes in themselves. In other words, Western thought and philosophies might have been influenced in the past by other cultures, then they evolved etc. Thus, if you go back in history, you cannot claim the same for Western thought.

    > As for philosophy vs. history: this post, and the previous post, are
    > explicitly about philosophical ideas, not history-in-general; the latter
    > would be a different conversation, on which I would have some different > opinions. I’m well aware of the potential of tools in making possible
    > different ways of thinking, as this is an area I work in for a living (see my > post on digital philosophy for an example).

    So, let’s say you are talking about philosophical ideas. Are these Platonic ahistorical ideas?

    > And the point I have been trying to make is that our standards for
    > evaluating ideas derive from the history of those ideas, in a way they are > not shaped by tools.

    Apparently, they are not, since our standards for evaluating those ideas derive from the history of ideas. So, it is not philosophy vs history, but philosophy of history and history of philosophy. Either way, you have to reckon with history. And I wouldn’t be so sure that ideas are not shaped by tools. Your statement practically dismisses a whole branch of philosophical thought–and as a Canadian, you wouldn’t be a good patriot 😉

    > I could switch from computer to handwritten notes
    > tomorrow and the content of the ideas I expressed would remain
    > basically the same (though slower); my abandonment of the tool
    > wouldn’t change it.

    I completely agree with you, but I was talking about switching back to orality. Give up writing completely, that’s different and you would notice it. I totally agree with you that the media change we are experiencing is still laregly based on writing technology.

    > But my abandonment of the concepts I derive from my formation in
    > Western philosophy – rights, happiness, truth, and more, each of which > has their own histories – that abandonment would change everything.

    (Again, the word history creeps in).
    That is true, you are right. The same would apply, however, if you don’t learn how to write and l live in an oral culture. At least, I think this would also make e a major difference.

    Anyway, I have to thank you a lot for the post and the discussion. I have to say that they both made me think sharper about a lot of issues that didn’t seem so important to me before. I am glad that you are active in this blog, your posts are always stimulating.

  4. Likewise, thank you. I appreciate your comments as well.

    I think I am going to need to write another post(s) on the relevance of history to philosophy. (Not immediately, as I have other posts in the backlog – including ones addressing the importance of medieval Islamic ideas to the contemporary West.) If you think that I’ve been saying philosophical ideas are ahistorical, or arguing against the importance of history to philosophy, then I feel like you have been reading entirely different comments and posts than the ones that I have been intending to write. My point has always been to say the exact opposite: our ideas as philosophers are what they are because of the history of those ideas, and we cannot understand those ideas without understanding that history. (And a great deal of that history, for all of us, is Western.)

    More briefly for now: The points about history here are that the history of philosophy is not the *same* as the concrete history of tools and military conquests. The latter is relevant to and informs the former, sure, but they are and should be different stories. If you read previousposts on my blog I think you’ll find I’m very sympathetic to Marx, but to reduce intellectual history to concrete history is what is commonly and rightly known as “vulgar” Marxism – a position I do not think even Marx would accept. The ecology and physical geography are relevant to the history of the Gupta and Sātavāhana kings, but they are not the same thing – and just so, the history of those kings is relevant to the history of Indian Buddhism, but is not the same. It is the latter history that provides Buddhists with *reasons* and with standards for evaluating those reasons; the former does not.

    Re “you were not talking only about modern and contemporary Western ideas and philosophy, but about Western philosophy in general”… The “very bold statement” that I was defending, and that this exchange was in response to, was: “the West has a role in shaping contemporary Indian and Chinese and Islamic and African philosophy that these traditions do not have in shaping each other.” (Emphasis added, but the word’s there in the original.) That was and continues to be why I argue for the West getting pride of place in the study of philosophy, that was the whole point of this post: even when a “we today” does include “us” contemporary Indians or Africans (as it should!), that “we” is shaped by the West more than by others. It wouldn’t have been so a thousand years ago, but that doesn’t matter to the point, because we’re not living and thinking a thousand years ago, and we never will be.

    • I see what you mean and I had understood it from the very beginning. It’s just that I disagree about the opportunity of dividing contemporary and past philosophy, since I believe they are interconnected.

      Interestingly enough, I also got the impression that you have read completely different comments than the ones I have written. It means that we are probably reading each other’s comments too quickly. I also believe that I haven’t expressed my thoughts in full and clearly enough, due to the character of interaction in a blog, which calls for short and concise comments. In fact, I know that we agree on many points, but disagree only on a fundamental one. Unfortunately, this point of disagreement got lost in the trail of comments and none of us picked it up again. I think that a discussion off blog would be better, if you have time (which I know I haven’t, and probably you haven’t either).

  5. OP,

    Provicative post. Reminds me of Seth’s Diwali poem but without the bittersweet flavor of that poem. Two questions: Should Indian philosophers, i.e., folks earning their keep ‘doing’ philosophy in the secular, socialist republic of India, also give pride of place to Western philosophy in their curricula? Should traditional pandits also do likewise ?

    Regards,
    Kumar

    • Thank you, Kumar. I’ve indicated how important Western philosophy is to shaping that secular socialist republic (all terms in the Western vocabulary, whose Hindi etc. equivalents are back-translations from English), so yes, I think for them, Western philosophy still does need the centre stage in some respect. Traditional pandits are another story – though it may depend just how traditional they are. (The Ramakrishna Order, for example, has some pretty strong Western influences.)

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