Thought & World

The World Beyond the West & The Problem of Eurocentrism

Eurocentrism is the tradition of focusing on the ancient Greeks and Western Europeans to understand ourselves and our history.  Eurocentrism is based on the assumption that there is a separate and distinct culture known as “the West”, superior to other cultures in knowledge, wisdom and freedom, and this explains the impressive achievements of Western science, philosophy and politics.

Many authors, teachers and professors accept this assumption without question, but it is rarely demonstrated with direct comparisons, by comparing the ancient Greeks to the ancient Egyptians and Persians or by comparing the European Enlightenment to the earlier golden ages of China and Islam.  Though the Greeks got much from the Egyptians and Persians, as the Europeans did from the Chinese and Muslims, this is often ignored.  When comparisons are made, they often use a small number of examples to support the traditional Eurocentric view that the West is superior to all other cultures.

Eurocentrism cannot be found amongst the ancient Greeks or Romans, who did not identify with each other or with the tribes of Western Europe.  Romans thought Germanic and Celtic tribespeople were barbaric and inferior, owning them as slaves in Rome and depicting them as savages in art.  Julius Caesar wrote that the Gauls were primitive, warlike, and immoral, justifying their conquest and enslavement.  These are the very things Europeans would use to justify the domination of Africa and the Americas thousands of years later.  Rome enriched itself and financed the construction of impressive buildings with the wealth and slave labor reaped from the conquered.  Western European culture was almost entirely destroyed and replaced with Roman culture.  This is why witches, the shamans of their tribes, were burned at the stake and are still portrayed as evil today.

After the fall of Rome, in one of the most remarkable cases of Stockholm syndrome in history, the conquered identified themselves with their conquerors and adopted Roman history and identity as their own to make claims to power and lineage.  Then, after the Protestant Reformation, many Western Europeans ceased to identify with Rome and chose instead to identify exclusively with the ancient Greeks.  As Christianity had passed from Greece through Rome to Europe, Protestants turned from Latin sources back to Greek to retranslate the Bible, discovering the wisdom and knowledge of the Greeks in the process.

Over the last five hundred years, as Western Europe rose in power, wealth and dominance, the Europeans explained their successes in terms of Greek and Roman history and identity.  What was in medieval times called Christendom, and then during the Enlightenment called the European race, is in modern times called “The West”, still portrayed as distinct and superior.

This is why the Nazis invented the Olympic torch run which passed a flame from Athens to Berlin in 1936, a symbol of the superiority of the Western mind and reason.  Hitler saw the Nazis as a rebirth of Western Civilization, and argued that the Germans should look to the Greeks and Romans to be inspired by their fellow superior Aryans, even though the Greeks and Romans thought that Germans were subhuman and incapable of reason or government.  Perhaps the Nazis were trying to prove the Romans were right.

Between the fall of Rome and the rise of Western Europe, the Tang and Song dynasties of China and the golden age of Islam developed much of the technology, scholarship and science that was crucial for the Renaissance and European Enlightenment.  In 1620, Sir Francis Bacon wrote that gunpowder, the magnetic compass and printing were the most significant advancements of humankind, separating ancient from modern times, unaware that all three were Chinese.  Karl Marx argued that these same three inventions brought about capitalism and the middle class.  Along with these, paper, books, cast iron, gears, the belt drive, the chain drive, the spring, the waterwheel and the windmill all passed from China into Islamic lands and then into Europe.

The Muslims added algebra, possibly the most useful invention in history, based on Egyptian, Indian and Greek mathematics.  The Chinese and Muslims, like the Greeks and Romans, passed many things on to Western Europe, which was and is neither Greece nor Rome nor China.

The history of human thought and culture is our common heritage, which includes everything brilliant, and everything stupid, that our species has ever done.  All cultures have sought knowledge and wisdom, even though ignorance and arrogance is also all too human.  We can learn about ourselves from the achievements and problems of all cultures, and we inherit traditions and innovations from many cultures.  Why be Eurocentric when a wider perspective shows us much more?  Why pay attention to one set of cross-cultural influences, when the whole is our history?

Thinking Beyond Racism

Many people believe that there are exclusive and separate human races and that some races are naturally smart and kind while others are unintelligent and mean.  This is all mistaken, modern day mythology.  There is more genetic variation between individuals than between ethnic groups.  There is no genetic evidence that some ethnic groups are smarter or kinder, and individuals can increase their intelligence and compassion throughout their lives regardless of their genes.

The interactions we have with others create categories and frames in our heads that mislead us into thinking that certain types of people are smart or unkind and mislead us into treating them as separate types of people.  Neuroscientists have shown that within milliseconds we identify others by ethnicity, gender and age, before we have a chance to think or speak.  This can negatively frame our thinking, communication, and interactions.  We naturally show frustration and negative emotions when we consider someone a threat, and this reinforces these reactions in ourselves and in others, including children, whether or not we’re aware of it.  Psychologists have shown that we are all somewhat racist, the privileged and disadvantaged, some of us more so, and some less so.  We are all imprinted with negative attitudes towards ethnicities who share our common culture, even if we actively ignore it in ourselves or live where racism is far more covert than overt, more thought to oneself than spoken out loud.

As Europe rose in wealth and power over the last five hundred years, Europeans dominated Africa and the Americas and labeled Africans, Latinos, and Native Americans as savage and inferior.  We’re still dealing with this today.

In our diverse society, it is mentally and physically healthier to talk about our problems rather than ignore them and to discourage the idea that we are on opposing teams.  When we focus on not making mistakes, this has a negative impact on our thinking and the perceptions of others, but when we focus on having a positive and open interaction, this is good for thinking and communication.  Positivity helps us see each other as individuals and not as categories.  Understanding that our thinking and personalities are not fixed, but can be enriched and developed, helps us to identify with each other and thrive.

Confucius said that if you put yourself with any two people at random, you can take their strengths as a model to follow and their faults as a warning.  This is wise advice, as we all share similar strengths and faults.  Intelligence and compassion are human virtues.  Ignorance and brutality are human problems.  We can see these are valued and useful yet difficult to develop in all human cultures, ancient and modern.  Just as genetics shows we are actually one race with a variety of interrelated ethnicities, we share one culture with many cross-pollinating branches of subculture.  We can draw on excellent and terrible examples from all of humanity to become better people.  While this may seem obvious, it is easily forgotten.

Avicenna’s Floating Man & Descartes’ Deceiving Demon

While many Intro Philosophy classes cover Descartes’ Deceiving Demon thought experiment, few cover Avicenna’s Floating Man thought experiment, which is remarkably similar 600 years earlier.

Avicenna was one of the greatest and most famous philosophers and doctors of his day.  His name, Ibn Sina in Arabic, was Latinized as his works were read by many in Europe before and during the Renaissance and European Enlightenment.

His Canon of Medicine was used as a textbook in Europe until the 1700s, based on experimentation and clinical trials, fusing Persian, Greek, Indian and other traditions of medicine together.  He was also a pioneer of equations and propositional algebra, which would be developed later by Descartes into his Cartesian coordinates and by Newton and Leibniz into Calculus.

In his floating man thought experiment, Avicenna, who worked with anesthetics like opium in public hospitals, asks us to imagine that we are slowly unable to feel our feet, then body, then sight and sensation, then memory and imagination.  What is the last thing left that is ourselves?  Avicenna argues that consciousness, our awareness, is the last thing and the most essential part of ourselves.  If we are conscious, we can be said to exist, even if we forget who we are or cannot distinguish ourselves from anything else.

In his Discourse on Method, Descartes lays out his remarkably similar Deceiving Demon thought experiment.  Descartes says that it seems certain that he is sitting by the fire writing, but he can doubt this and believe that he is simply dreaming.  This is similar to Zhuangzi, the ancient Chinese Daoist, who after dreaming he was a butterfly supposed that he might now be a butterfly dreaming that he is a man named Zhuangzi.

Descartes says that he can imagine a deceiving demon is creating a false world, like a dream, such that Descartes is not actually Descartes or sitting by a fire.  However, there is one thing that the demon cannot be deceiving Descartes about, if that is his real name, and that is his consciousness.  Thus, Descartes famously concludes, “I think therefore I am”.

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Where does the deceiving demon of Descartes come from?  The Cathars, Gnostic Manichaean Christians persecuted in France in the 1400s, believed that this world is a lie ruled by Satan, much like the shadows on the wall of Plato’s Cave.  The Catholic Church denounced this as heresy, arguing that God ruled the world and spoke through the Church.  Descartes, the first modern European philosopher, argues that we can trust the dogmas of the Church and the discoveries of science, as our world is not simply a lie as Gnostics claim.  He argues this based on the same conclusion that Avicenna reached, though Avicenna uses anesthetics rather than a demon.  There is a good possibility that Descartes was influenced by Avicenna, though few consider the incredible impact of the Islamic golden age on the European Enlightenment.

Lyotard, Postmodernism & the Metanarative of the Ancestors

In The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard (“leo-TAR”) argues that all cultures, ancient and modern, legitimate themselves through the telling and retelling of narratives, stories that give cultures purpose and meaning.  The story of the European Enlightenment and the Age of Reason separating the West from the rest of humanity remains the metanarrative of today, central to the creation of meaning in our culture, the big story on which countless smaller stories are stacked.  The heroic West, it is said, brings freedom to the world through democracy and reason to the world through science.  Lyotard compares this story of “salvation for all” to the similar metanarratives of Christianity and Marxism.

Without faith and trust in the metanarrative, retelling and rebinding ourselves and others to it, many would have little idea what their lives or our culture mean.  Because so many have stacked their own story and the meaning of their lives on top of the dominant story and meaning, if you question the way of the ancestors and poke the bear spirit, if you doubt that our practices of democracy and science are bringing freedom and wellbeing to everyone, to many you are an outsider, a dangerous deviant who threatens the safety of the tribe.

Unfortunately for the metanarrative, the horrors of WWII and the manufactured genocide at Auschwitz spawned the countercultural attacks of the fifties, sixties and seventies.  Counterculturals began asking out loud if the story of Western progress is also a mask for brutality and if the West is much like the rest, ignorant and authoritarian.

Jack Kerouac wrote of the “beat generation”, the beatnik youth of the fifties who turned from American conformity, tired and doubtful of consumerism and the Korean War.  The Civil Rights Movement of the sixties called for revolutionary changes to American democracy, which openly excluded many due to race and gender, at the same time protesting the Vietnam War.

Lyotard argues that Postmodernism is a playful engagement with many conflicting micronarratives, alternatives that have emerged in the space created by the questioning of the grand metanarrative.  While critics argued that Postmodernism and the end of the metanarrative is itself a new metanarrative, Lyotard countered that the metanarrative of the progress of the West is far from dead, merely resisted here and there by a variety of countercultures.  For many, the dominance of wealthy nations, the environmental impact of technology on the world’s poor and the supremacist nature of the Western metanarrative is unquestioned, either out of ignorance or with regret that has no faith in an alternative.

Critics of Lyotard and Postmodernism continue to ask whether this is a cure for the condition or merely another symptom.  Is Postmodernism, like the narrative of modernity, genuine liberation, or is it merely a safety valve to accommodate counterculturals, scholars and gallery goers who are disenchanted but still require entertainment?

Existentialism, Postcolonialism & the Other

Others and otherness is a major theme of Existentialism and Postcolonialism, two popular philosophical movements in modern thought.

Sartre, who borrowed the term ‘existential’ from Heidegger, coined the term ‘Existentialism’ as the name for his own skeptical and individual-centered school of thought, including Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Heidegger as forerunners.  Sartre, like these others before him, argued that we must have the courage to question what we believe and recreate our beliefs for ourselves, giving our own meaning to our lives rather than letting it be supplied by others.  While it is easy to accept the authority of politics, religion and science without question, we are each responsible for our beliefs and doubts, and we can choose to be revolutionary individuals and inspire others.

Fanon, friend of Sartre and fellow Existentialist, was born on the Caribbean island and French colony of Martinique, and he became a central inspiration of Postcolonialism, the study of the aftereffects of European domination and colonization of the world.  Fanon experienced racism in Martinique, France, and North Africa, and as a psychiatrist he argued that racism has a destructive impact on the mental and physical health of the oppressed.  Modern studies have shown that it has a similar impact on the oppressor as well.

The gaze of the other is important in the thinking of both Sartre and Fanon.  In Sartre’s play No Exit, the frustrated main character famously declares, “Hell is other people!”.  We find the gaze of others frightening, because we are afraid of the impact they can have on our own opinion of ourselves.

Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, said that it is strange that everyone loves themselves more than anyone else, but values the opinions of others about themselves more than they value their own.  Because we are insecure, we are terrorized by the other and the impact that their judgements can have on the meaning of our lives.  If we face the other with good faith in the possibility of positive change, interaction with others can be powerfully transformative, but we are afraid that it could take all meaning away and leave us with nothing.

For both Sartre and Fanon, racism is a primary example of the frightening but potentially liberating gaze of the other.  Sartre wrote about Antisemitism in the years following the Nazi occupation of Paris and racism against Jews in both France and Germany.  Fanon wrote about racism against Africans in European colonies such as the Americas, and both wrote about racism against Africans and Arabs in North Africa.  Africans, Arabs and others are devalued to affirm the glory and achievements of Europeans, including colonial and financial control of the globe.  When we categorize ourselves and others as superior or inferior, we are avoiding the difficult but fruitful task of individual critical thinking.

It is easy to treat others as categories rather than as individuals, but if we treat others as genuine human individuals it allows us to change who we are as individuals, if we embrace the opportunity.  We each change throughout our lives, as we are changed by others, whether we embrace this or not.  If we accept ourselves and the impact that others can and will have on us, we have more choice in what we want our lives to mean.  If we accept that we are insecure and do not have total control, we can open up to ourselves and others, embracing change and interaction with others not as a threat, but as an adventure.

Sources for Multicultural Perspective

Europe and the People Without History, by Eric R. Wolf, University of California Press, 1982

Multiculturalism: A Critical Reader, ed. by David Theo Goldberg, Blackwell, 1994

Are We Born Racist?  New Insights from Neuroscience and Positive Psychology, ed. by Jason Marsh, Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton & Jeremy Adam Smith, Beacon Press, 2010

Race: The History of an Idea in the West, by Ivan Hannaford, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996

The Race Myth: Why We Pretend Race Exists In America, by Joseph L. Graves Jr., Plume, 2005

Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line, by Paul Gilroy, Harvard Press, 2001

Ethnomathematics: Challenging Eurocentrism in Mathematics Education, ed. by Arthur B. Powell & Marilyn Frankenstein, SUNY Press, 1997

History Begins at Sumer: Thirty-Nine Firsts in Recorded History, by Samuel Noah Kramer, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981

Aztec Thought and Culture: A Study of the Ancient Nahuatl Mind, University of Oklahoma Press, 1971

Ancient Egyptian Literature (3 Volumes), ed. by Miriam Lichtheim, University of California Press, 2006

The African Origin of Civilization, by Cheikh Anta Diop, Lawrence Hill Books, 1967

Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, by Martin Bernal, Rutgers, 1987

Gifts from the Pharaohs: How Egyptian Civilization Shaped the Modern World, by Christiane Desroches Noblecourt, Flammarion, 2007

Athens and Persia in the Fifth Century BC: A Study in Cultural Receptivity, by Margaret C. Miller, Cambridge, 2004

Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity, by Jonathan M. Hall, Cambridge Press, 2000

Athens on Trial: The Antidemocratic Tradition in Western Thought, by Jennifer Tolbert Roberts, Princeton Press, 1994

Bomb, Book & Compass: Joseph Needham and the Great Secrets of China, by Simon Winchester, Viking Press, 2008

Orientalism, by Edward Said, Vintage Press, 1994

The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge & Gave Us The Renaissance, by Jim Al-Khalili, Penguin Press, 2011

4 thoughts on “Thought & World

  1. Hello ,
    I have written an answer to a question on which is related to the subject matter of this page and to ancient science and culture.
    The question was: Is there a bias towards Ancient Greek intellectual achievement?
    Here is the link to my answer :

    Perhaps you will find that my arguments generally approach your arguments concerning this topic.

  2. Another great article. Thank you.

    I have two immediate thoughts on this: 1) I sense there is a political dimension why it might be in the interests of those in positions of power (in the ‘imagined’ West) to present the West as ‘best’ and be silent about the role of China and Islam and others. It is not (politically) fashionable. The metanarrative justifies the wars for resources and hegemony. Is this the position of the Pragmatic school of thought?

    2) I understand that the Postmodernism movement is dead in real terms. Though it has been brilliant in its critique, it has come into disrepute for its failure for Constructive ideas of what to do in life (without veering into underlying Nihilism).

    • I think that things are quite political, but for the purposes of philosophy we can simply say that learning about the philosophies of all cultures is better than learning about some, regardless of political affiliations and situations.

  3. Pingback: Thinking Past Eurocentrism | ModWestMuse

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