Does “the West” exist?

I do not think so, just like I do not believe in other generic categories. Their use seems to me banalising more complex historical issues (à la “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus”).

The following one is an excerpt from a post by Dominik Wujastyk on the Indology mailing list (22.7.15):

I personally do not believe there is an east-west divide in intellectual ability or viewpoint. I do not believe in “The West” as a category of thought that has anything useful to offer, and certainly not as a method of categorization that has any intellectual reality or merit. It has been my observation through many decades of engagement in academic life that there is good and bad scholarship to be found in all parts of the world and at all times in history. Wouldn’t it be lovely if it scholarly excellence were so easy to establish! If scholars could be judged as good or bad because of being “western,” or “Jewish,” or “Hindu” or “Black,” “White,” “female,” or any other regional, racial or gender category. But it is not so. Whatever colour we are, whatever part of the world we live in, we all have to work very hard to understand difficult ideas, and to make judgements that demonstrate integrity and knowledge.

And this hard work involves much careful study, much discussion with friends and colleagues, the exposure of one’s ideas to teachers, peer reviewers, and at conferences. Intellectual work consists of composition, exposition, and debate, said Sa-Skya Pandita in the thirteenth century. This is what it means to be a worthwhile academic. It is not a matter of winning or losing, of being more insulting than the next person. It is not a political contest. It is a matter of developing more subtlety, deeper insight, and a finer sensibility towards truth. Even someone whose ideas are shown to be wrong is a “winner,” since we all strive for truth. Most important of all, intellectual life is not a matter of defending oneself. Good academics are very interested in ideas and knowledge; they are not much interested in personality and personal conflict, or in prestige or public perception.

Comments and discussions are welcome. Be sure you are making a point and contributing to the discussion.

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3 thoughts on “Does “the West” exist?

  1. Personally I come from 175 degrees East, 37.5 degrees South. That’s well to the east of Japan!

    That said, we have to be able to use generalisations. Just because some one, some time, in the past took a generalisation literally does not mean I am an idiot or that my readers are. Of course, as with any distinctions there are cross-overs. Views which rely heavily on the Upaniṣads are quite distinct from those which rely on Plato and Aristotle because they have different goals and different methods, and, in their own time very, little crossover. But by the end of the 19th century the influence of the Upaniṣads was being felt in Europe.

    All distinctions are arbitrary (to some extent). Any distinction could be make at a finer level and reveal more structure (down to the Planck scale); or at a higher level and reveal more systems (up to the level of the age and scale of the universe). So what?

    I find Dominik’s confusion of the use of generalisations with value judgement bewildering. And he seems quite angry about it, too. I have no idea why.

    If generalisations are automatically associated with the banal, then labels like Mīmāṃsā or Upaniṣad are suddenly out too. They are just more banal generalisations. After all the Bṛhadāranyaka and Chāndogya have very little in common – why are they even classed together at all? And then the various sections of BU are all quite different, and even contradictory, so to call them all “Bṛhadāranyaka” is a bit too banal as well. Surely they all need their own classification? No longer could we speak of “grammar” as a subject because this overlooks the importance of morphology, syntax, and semantics. “Philosophy” is a terrible generalisation. Now we must only study and discuss epistemology, ontology and morality. But what kind of morality? Because surely consequentialist morality is not the same as value morality. the very word “morality” seems to obscure and important difference. And whose version of consequentialist morality are we referring to? And so on.

    A discussion without generalisation quickly becomes ridiculous. A discipline without them is non-existent. Sometimes we need to use broad brush strokes. If I’m trying to get across the millennia long tradition of the Heart Sutra in a paragraph or two then I have to use generalisation. It’s just a fact of life. I’m quite capable of taking 10,000 words to argue for replacing a missing anusvāra in the Heart Sutra, but that level of detail is not always appropriate or possible.

    As scholars we are supposed to have, or be cultivating, the sense to understand both our subject and our audience. We teach or write as we think appropriate, under the critical gaze of our peers and students. If we say something stupid, someone is bound to let us know one way or another. And this idea that generalisations are always bad or the sign of poor scholarship is… well, shall we say “unrealistic”.

  2. Current conceptions of “the West” are strange when examined. It doesn’t make sense geographically (Why is Africa not Western, but Australia is?) or culturally (Is Islam a Western religion?). In philosophy, if it’s a matter of influence, then Islamic philosophy, which is heavily influenced by Plato and Aristotle, should count as Western philosophy, but then there are cultural interactions between Europe, Africa, and Asia going back to ancient times, so none of these areas are purely “Western” or “non-Western” either (some scholars, for example, think that Pyrrhonism is the result of Greek interactions with Buddhists in India and Central Asia).

    Plato wouldn’t have thought of himself as “Western,” and certainly wouldn’t have thought of himself as part of the same culture as far off places like England. Augustine would have thought of himself as Roman or African. I’m not sure when “Western” started to take on the meanings it has today, but I imagine that it’s a relatively recent construction.

  3. I would question the opening statements. All categories wind up being inexact, but that does not stop them from naming real things. One can apply this exact same critique to any possible category one could establish: “Mīmāṃsā”, “Viśiṣṭādvaita”, whatever.