How to Combine Eastern and Western Philosophy

It’s Christmas time and all around people are revisiting the cultic practices of an ancient oriental sect, as though they were at the very heart of Western culture.Three wise men?

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.

Shape of Ancient ThoughtThomas 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

(McEvilley 2006:453)

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.

3 thoughts on “How to Combine Eastern and Western Philosophy

  1. Hi,

    Just browsing through blogs, ran in to this post. I like the topic. Being from India, and living now in the US , I am always comparing and contrasting my experiences here.

    Just would like to mention one thing. Sanskrit usually hogs the limelight and gets associated with anything ancient in India. But, TAMIL is a classical language from South India that thrived along with if not before Sanskrit ever came ashore in India. There are plenty of superb literary texts in Tamil that get no attention here in the west.

    You might already be aware of it but PBS has been showing a documentary the past weeks on Story of India – Good luck.


  2. Thanks, C. I couldn’t agree more. Years ago when I followed a religious studies university course in the UK it was Greek, Hebrew and Sanskrit for undergraduates. Pali seemed to be looked down on, and Tamil wasn’t mentioned. But spare a thought for Arabic – you could only learn that in the Department of Oriental Studies!

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