Chapter 9 – Two Incommensurable Realities

The East-West Dichotomy was re-published in 2013 by China’s Foreign Language Press and available in bookshops, academic libraries, and from intl. online retailers, including Amazon.


Discussing the East-West dichotomy in cultural terms became popular again in social science in the 80’s and 90’s, with the revival of the ideas of Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), Auguste Comte (1798-1857), Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) and Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975). The goal of international scholarship was nothing less spectacular than to categorize all the world’s cultures, to evaluate them, to dissect them, to discover and reveal patterns, and to make predictions about when they peak, when the struggle, and when they inevitably fall (Kennedy, 1987; CCTV, 2006).

The father of sociology, Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406 AD), wrote this:

This should be understood. It shows that the goal of civilization is sedentary culture and luxury. When civilization reaches that goal, it turns toward corruption and starts being senile, as happens in the natural life of living beings. (Ibn Khaldun, 1377)

Treating cultures as living beings has been the scientific trend ever since Khaldun. Reading Western sociology today, we now have plenty of exciting – if not incredible – choices (read: interpretations) of a culture’s ‘rise and fall’:

  • “youth, growth, maturation and decline”
    (Spengler, 1917) ;
  • civilizations “taking turns or going in circles”
    (Ji, 2006);
  • a “masculine West vs. a feminine East”
    (Garrison, 2000);
  • nations “marrying and divorcing” each other
    (Griffiths, 1982);
  • countries “collecting and redistributing credits for scientific discoveries” among them in a “Grand Titration” (Needham, 2004);
  • an insurmountable “Great Divide” (Horton and Finnegan, 1973);
  • either a “psychic unity”, or a “secularization”
    (Berger, 1966, 1974);
  • a “de-secularization” (Berger, 1999);
  • a “synthesis”;
  • a “hybrid world”;
  • a “flat word” (Friedmann, 1962, 1990, 2006);
  • “globalization”, “many globalizations”
    (Berger and Huntington, 1974);
  • brutal and straightforward “neo-Darwinism”
    (Heinsohn, 2003);
  • plenty of “Empire” (Hardt and Negri, 2001) , produced by one ‘kind’ of corporate man – preferably one of Aryan descendant (Gellner, 1979).

This 20th century “Cultural Heat” (Ji, 2006) that is reaping its social theories by the bushels is well documented, and it is impossible to discuss them all.

What all theories have in common, however, and what has not changed this 21st century, as it has never been seriously challenged for the last two millenniums, is a universe of facts from philosophy, politics and now evolutionary biology, social and linguistic anthropology that seem to suggest that the history of civilization – and thus all human identity – is build on and around the fundamental differences and interaction among and between groups, populations and cultures, and that the one difference and the one interaction that matter the most are those of the two great cultural systems: the West and its Other.

Perhaps the most striking phenomenon in Cultural Studies today is the revival of Max Weber’s ‘ideal types of cultures’ that do facilitate progress and those that do not. Toynbee loved those cultural league tables, too. A new blame-game set in to find the latest ‘sick-men-of-Europe’, the next ‘youth bulge’ (Goldstone, 1991; Fuller, 1995; Heinsohn, 2003), ‘another failed (Arab) state’, a ‘left behind’, an ‘axis’s of evil’, an ‘empire in decline’, the Chinese Century (Shenkar, 2004), the New Asian Hemisphere (Mahbubani, 2008), the ‘yellow peril’, or just another victim for the ‘War on Terror’.

Sensationalist literature about it is abundant: In the West we read Samuel P. Huntington (1993, 2000, 2004), Francis Fukuyama (1992), Jared Diamond (2003, 2006), Milton Friedman (1962, 1990, 2006), and Juergen Habermas (1996, 2003, 2006). In the East we have Ji Xianlin [季嫌林] (2006), Gu Zhengkun [辜正坤] (2003), Tu Weiming [杜维明] (2000, 2003), and Kishore Mahbubani (2008), to name but a few important contributors.

According to Weber (1864-1920), Western standards, institutions of law, science, education and economics reflect Western analysis-based rationalism and this may explain why the West got rich and technologically advanced before the East did (Weber, 2001). That underlying promise proved to be believable. Today, virtually every piece of scientific and economical history has been tried on the Eastern people to demonstrate the – seemingly irrefutable – fact that the West was and (still) is the single most important and the only leading creative force of humankind. In fact, the only way for a person of Hindu, Arab or Chinese background to get some personal integrity in this world was to become westernized, study in Western universities, or work for a Western international cooperation. The East it seemed was never in the position to ask for anything except for trouble.

Unfortunately, Mr. Weber could not read Japanese, Chinese, Hindi, Urdu, Arabic, Korean, Thai nor any other Eastern language. In fact, arguably the world greatest orientalist – he had never been to the orient. We could say then, that he was a German rationalist, in the time whenGermanyused to be a great power (c. 1871-1918). In those old days leading up to two devastating world-wars, it was entirely sufficient for a German rationalist (and sociologist, that’s what they call Mr. Weber) of his affluence, to explain the mechanics of world history not by empirical investigation or observation, but – just like the other part-time sinophobic Germans Kant (1724-1804), Schlegel (1772-1829), Schelling (1775-1854) and Herder (1744-1803) before him – by miraculous, rational enquiry from within his closet.

For the same reason, if you had given Mr. Weber a fictional race, lets say the ‘smurfs’, undoubtedly he would have produced a very elegant argument, why the ‘smurfs’ never built a financial empire and got rich, as the protestants in Europe so splendidly did, based on the sole, simple and irrefutable fact that ‘smurfs’ are no protestants. This, of course, is a tautology of epic proportions (e. g. smurfs are smurfs are no protestants), and, consequently, as a proposition true under any possible circumstance while at the same time utterly useless for achieving true knowledge about the empirical world. For that reason, Weber’s theory in sociology, like Freud in psychology or Marx in economics, has come out of favor; this not necessary solely on grounds that his work is inherently non-scientific, but more so because his dialogue with other cultures is really a self-serving, tedious monologue. He, like so many other orientalists of his time, tells stories and plays with the imaginations of his European audiences, yet has never seen nor experienced anyone unlike them.

Another, maybe more elegant, explanation of Western historical dominance over world affairs was given by the late Edward Said (1935-2003), founder of ‘post-colonial theory’ in his masterpiece Orientalism (1978) and – independently – by Linda Hutcheon in The Politics of Post-Modernism (1989). Post-colonial theory essentially says that Orientalism, the study of Eastern cultures, religions and languages, is the creation (‘brain-child’ is the term of fashion, I believe) of Western scholars. Western scholars had written Asia’s history from a perspective of European-centered norms, just like the Greeks fashioned the Persians in their way, thereby only intensifying the exotic ‘otherness’ of the Eastern hemisphere. Said and Hutcheon both argue, that first ‘post-colonial’ and then ‘post-modernist’ theories both are Western concepts. Second, that they are syntheses of bourgeois rationalism of the European Enlightenment as thesis on the one hand, and modernism as the anti-thesis on the other.

Bourgeois rationalism, modernism and post-modernism to be sure could be categorized as age of reasoning (17th -18th century), age of totalities (19th – beginning 20th century), and age of uncertainty (mid 20th century). As the two above mentioned authors would agree then, the East did not experience any of these categorizations, just as the West did not experience a Bolsheviks Revolution (1918), Communism (1918-1989), the Chinese Revolution (1926-1949), the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), nor the Opening-up-era under Deng Xiaoping (1979-1997).

As a consequence, it seems persuasive to me that neither hemisphere necessarily has to experience the other hemisphere’s history in order to proceed with its own. There is a philosophical misconception in the writings of many Western scholars that seems to suggest thatChina (orIndia) will never catch up, because they only recently reached an early industrial age and missed out the (Western) Enlightenment.

If human evolution were, like most Western scholars would have it, essentially a one-way causal process (like climbing a ladder), why did the Romans or Greeks on their way to become a proper civilization never produced Confucius, Mencius, the Tang Dynasty, the Rgveda, the Brahmanas or the Mahabharata? Surely, if we take the simple metaphor of history as a life-tree, similar to Haeckel’s ‘Tree of Life’ (1897) in biology, in its earliest stage it could well have branched into two separate directions, with no subsequent coalescence possible (Haeckel, 2004). One branch could have developed into the Western hemisphere and holds the history of a more deduction-based manner, causality and rationality. The other branch could have developed into to Eastern hemisphere and holds the history of a more induction-based manner, inter-connectedness and universality. But it would still be ‘one’ history-tree, or maybe two different trees albeit not too far apart. So, what makes so many Western sensationalists think that these trees or branches could possibly ‘crash’ – as in Crash of Civilizations (Huntington, 1993)? Isn’t it more reasonable to think that branches or sub-branches of history may die off, wither, break, become lost or forgotten rather than ‘to clash’? Surely, if the militant West wishes a clash (of civilization), a clash it will be, albeit an uninspiring, unimaginative, and utterly useless one. This so, because the Western hemisphere still does not wholly appreciate the grand alternative and worthy goal of engaging the East based on mutual respect and towards an “inclusive approach”. Instead, the West focuses on the particular leaves and twigs of history, forges false unions of this and that by combining superficial Eastern similarities with common Western terminologies, calling the entire tree of history itself a product of Western scholarship and no other:

Whether the telos which was inborn in European humanity at the birth of Greek philosophy […] is merely one among many other civilizations and histories, or whether Greek humanity was not rather the first breakthrough to what is essential to humanity as such. (Edmund Husserl, 1970)

The receptive, integration-based East has learned to appreciate the Western branch of knowledge for its very different views on many things. Yet, in turn it has been exploited, colonized, and humiliated by the West:

The crux of the whole question affecting the Powers of the Western nations in theFar Eastlies in the appreciation of the true inwardness of the Oriental mind.

(Alexis Krausse, 1900)

Isn’t it important – in any relationship -, that both sides learn from each other, respect each other? If not, Goethe had this warning – for those who cared to listen (Morgan, 1958):

The Philistine not only ignores all conditions of life which are not his own but he also demands that the rest of mankind should fashion its mode of existence after his own. (Johann W. Goethe)

Regrettably, it is persistently this philistine element of her soul that dominates Europe’s actions. As a result, it is not unusual to meet a Western expert in the streets of Shanghai or Beijing who has never heard of Si Maqian (司马迁), Xu Guangqi (徐光启), Lu Xun(鲁迅), Hushi (胡适), Ji Xianlin (季嫌林) or Guo Morou (郭末若). Yet, if asked for an opinion on Chinese language and culture, his chest will swell and – without ever having made the slightest progress in learning but 10 Chinese characters – he will air his expert opinion that his own bitter experience of the impossibility of mastering those 65,000 Chinese ideographs begs the question whether the ultimate cause of China’s backwardness in the sciences is her very ‘Chinese-ness’ itself. China, Japan, and Indiaand their peripheries are all seen at the receiving end of history; they receive more and (inherently) give less (Krausse, 1900; Husserl, 1970; Pyle, 2007).

Western nations seek a global civilization, which they believe is an extension of their own; while the Eastern nations, still cherishing their traditional cultures, will feel the ‘rage of the Western destabilizers’, if they do not comply with Western aggression:

“Chinese society bears a function of ‘interior self-stability’, while the European society possesses an ‘interiorly-installed unstable factor'” (Needham, 1964).

Accordingly, Western nations act as if they ‘own’ the globe, history, and all material objects. As soon as Asian nationals lay hands on any matters material or any theories about matters material, that very action is deemed a service to ‘westernization, as if there was a Western patent on matter and modernity. There are Western tourists inSingapore,Shanghai,Yokohama, who genuinely believe that every house, bank, pair of high-heels, traffic lights, newspapers, computers, trains or automobiles are a genuine extension of Western civilization.

Young Anglo-Saxon visitors are especially quick to remind the Asians that every English-language billboard marks Anglo-Saxon cultural territory. The fact that their own language is a 500+ AD branch of the Germanic language family; with those German tribes, the Angles and the Saxons, being the immediate ancestors – few of them learn in school anymore.

We may forgive those clueless, young Asia-bashers. But for the sake of dignity and cultural diversity, they should be properly educated that the chief end of Asian man is not to glorify the Anglo-Saxon way of life, or any other Western model. A global language, exchange and economy is a good thing, but ‘globalization’ as the mediator between East & West will not make East into West, nor West into East. Buddhism has not madeChinaanIndia, and capitalism has not madeJapananAmerica. To annihilate ‘cultural diversification’, accumulated in thousands of years or more, might not be as easy after all, not even in an American corporate dream. Isn’t a ‘common sensibility’ preferable to all this American talk about global culture and values (Zhao, 2005)? How about ‘All under heaven’ (天下, tianxia) or ‘harmoniousness society’ (和谐社会, hexie shehui) – are those not more honest guarantors for mutual respect and dignity among civilizations?

As an example of East and West talking cross purpose, the memorable dialogue between Albert Einstein and Rabindranath Tagore on July 14, 1930 shows, quite nicely I think, Einstein’s limits to fully appreciate what Tagore wants to communicate, namely that the Western notion of causality has its limits. Consequently, Einstein, quite diplomatically, dismisses Eastern mysticism as un-scientific and, this it is implied, rather unhelpful:

Tagore: “I was discussing with Dr. Mendel today the new mathematical discoveries which tell us that in the realm of infinitesimal atoms chance has its play; the drama of existence is not absolutely predestined in character.”

Einstein: “The facts that make science tend toward this view do not say good-bye to causality.”

Tagore: “Maybe not, yet it appears that the idea of causality is not in the elements, but that some other force builds up with them an organized universe.” […]

Einstein: “I believe that whatever we do or live for has its causality; it is good however, that we cannot see through it.” (Tagore, 1931)

One can see from this “whatever” Einstein “cannot see through”, nevertheless in his Western view it must be linear, causally related. Einstein a priori rules out – as it seems fit for any proper scientist – any alternative to Western-style causality. It also seems out of the question for Einstein and the culture he represents to think that there is any concept – letting alone that of an ‘ancient Oriental wizard’ (Kawabata, 1969) – other than a scientific, rational Western one. Kipling’s “East is East, and West is West, and never the two shall meet” comes to mind (Kipling, 1999).

What would have happened if Tagore had brought up the ‘continuum cycle of ‘samsara’, ‘non-violence’, ‘free will’, ‘karma’, the function of impermanent, unsatisfactory, empty and lacking-a-self ‘dharmas’, or just ‘good poetry’? Surely, there must be more wisdom than Western science in this world:

Perhaps in return for conquest, arrogance and spoliation, India will teach us the tolerance and gentleness of the mature mind, the quiet content of the unacquisitive soul, the calm of the understanding spirit, and a unifying, a pacifying love for all living things. (Will Durant, 1930)

Land of religions, cradle of human race, birthplace of human speech, grandmother of legend, great grandmother of tradition. The land that all men desire to see and having seen once even by a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for the shows of the rest of the globe combined.
(Mark Twain, 1897)

In my understanding, the two global hemispheres experienced a different history, and this made them who they are today. What did the existentialists teach us about identity? Isn’t it the case that the beginning of human history determined what we are, but our historical experience determines who we are? Shouldn’t we all agree that what we are a – more or less identical – human people. However, thousands of years of unique history made us who we are: Chinese, Indians, Japanese, Germans, French, British etc., and, eventually, we shaped the East and the West.

I will not ditch on each and every leave or twig and say that any particular culture should be preserved, nor will I give myself into the illusion that everything can be preserved. Having said this, however, the smallest leaves and twigs will bend and break when the weather becomes harsh, and wither when the tree is not well nurtured. If our criteria were ‘longlivity’, however, we would be safest to bet on the two great branches of world history: the East and the West.

To conclude, the argument that East and West look at the same history albeit from different angles is to be refuted: History is not localized, nor is it something hung out to be looked at. Quite the contrary, we have every reason to believe that the two hemispheres not only interpret each other’s history differently, but irreversible experience their very own history, and that the only way to experience one’s own history differently from the others or misinterpret the others’ differently, is an exclusive set of cognitive ability – the East is more inductive while the West is more deductive.

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