The longer I live the more annoying I find the maintenance of the fairly rigorous distinction between two traditions of philosophy – Eastern and Western. This can be defended as a necessary specialisation – as though ‘world philosophy’ would be just too much for any one brain to comprehend. But the more I think about it the more it seems like an ideology, a deliberate dualism to go with those rightly exposed and criticised by some feminists and some readers of Foucault. The West is active, the East passive, the West emotional, the East inscrutible, the West masculine, the East feminine and so on. Do we really need this distinction between East and West? What is it for? Who does it benefit?
Edward Said noted the political construction of the East/West and called it ‘orientalism’. He saw it as a key strategy of colonial ambition.
Disapproving of it is one thing, but escaping it is quite another. Work after work of English-language philosophy perpetuates a distinction between Eastern and Western ‘thought’ , only to ignore the Eastern version with determination. Meanwhile, philosophical writing influenced by Indian thought is filed under ‘religion’ and routinely includes a glossary of Sanskrit (and sometimes Pali), as though only philologists are likely to be at all interested. This could perhaps be excused if it was merely a technical matter. Perhaps we can make ourselves believe that philosophers and historians should only have to learn one ancient language and so, poor things, they must choose between Sanskrit and Greek.
Richard Rorty laments that ‘there is no skyhook which will lift us out of this parochialism’ (1989b: 334, quoted in King 1999: 234 ). But I am not so despairing.
Thomas McEvilley’s book, The Shape of Ancient Thought makes a brave attempt to slice the cake differently. Instead of Eastern and Western, he opts for a time-based distinction. ‘Ancient thought’, is his focus, which makes more sense than the spurious concepts of East and West (not least because the limits of ‘ancient’ are obviously and transparently arbitrary). He charts how, historically, there was no firm boundary between East and West, and notes the pervasive influence of the Indo-Greek culture (would that be Western or Eastern?) and the importance of Graeco-Buddhism for the subsequent spread of Mahayana . He notes a similarity of concepts in both the Greek (Western) and Sanskrit (Eastern) languages:
“Indeed the terminology of the two languages included the same concepts, combined and recombined into very similar sentences, for many centuries”
The Greek lexicon, he points out, includes:
- Adiaphora – non-different from one another
- Astathmeta – unstable or withoout fixed essence
- Anepikrita – unable to be grasped by concepts
- Adoxastoi – without opinions
- Aklineis/Akradantoi – without agitation
- Aphasia – nonspeech
- Ataraxia – imperturbability
Perhaps we already have the makings of a vocabulary for a philosophical discourse that overcomes the East/West split. Even if we don’t we could start, belatedly, reorganising philosophy on the basis of its subject matter or its age (pace McEvilley), or any way other than merely assigning points on a compass. Perhaps Eastern thought is less exotic, and more a part of Classical European heritage than the East/West divide would have us think.
Here’s a video of McEvilley discussing his work.