Oriental enlightenment

February 10, 2013 § Leave a comment

JJ Clarke’s Oriental Enlightenment is a superb study of ‘The encounter between Asian and Western thought’, as the subtitle puts it [according to Kenan Malik]. It is primarily a historical study of  Western perceptions of  Chinese and Indian cultures and philosophies. Any exploration of the role of ‘Eastern’ thought in the Western intellectual tradition necessarily lies in the shadow of Edward Said’s 1978 work Orientalism, which has effectively set the terms of the debate. Western historians, philologists and philosophers, Said argued, have fabricated a complex set of representations about the Orient through which ‘European culture was able to manage – and even produce – the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period’.

As the title of Clarke’s book reveals, he is not only aware of Said’s importance in this debate, but takes Orientalism as the starting point for his own study. But if Clarke draws upon Said’s insights, he also rejects much of his argument. ‘Where Said painted orientalism in sombre hues, using it as the basis for a powerful ideological critique of Western liberalism’, Clarke writes, ‘I shall use it to uncover a wider range of attitudes, both dark and light, and to recover a richer and often more affirmative orientalism, seeking to show that the West has endeavoured to integrate Eastern thought into its own intellectual concerns in a manner which, on the face of it, cannot be fully understood in terms of “power” and “domination”.’ He adds that

While recognizing that orientalism can only be understood adequately within the framework of colonialism and the imperialist expansion of the West, I wish to avoid seeing it as simply a mask for racism or as a purely Western construct which serves as a rationalisation of colonial domination. European hegemony over Asia represents a necessary but not a sufficient condition for orientalism.

The result is a work more nuanced in its understanding the encounter between East and West. Clarke follows the shifts and turns in Western appropriation of Eastern ideas, from the Enlightenment celebration of China and of Confucianism to the Romantic obsession with India through to contemporary New Ageism and the striking dalliance of a certain store scientists and atheists with Buddhism.

While it is impossible to write a book such as this without using terms such as ‘East’ and ‘West’, Clarke is well aware that such terms have ‘become devices for reducing endless complexities and diversities into manageable and falsifying units’. Throughout the book he challenges the stereotypical perception of East and West, of what the Indian historian Raghavan Iyer has called the supposed ‘eternal schism’ between East and West, ‘the dubious notion of an eternal East-West conflict, the extravagant assumption of a basic dichotomy in modes and thoughts and ways of life’, of the self-serving distinction between, in the words of another Indian historian Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the West’s ‘rationalistic and ethical’ positivistic and practical mind’ and ‘the Eastern mind [which] is more inclined to inward life and intuitive thinking’. […]

Source (blog): Pandaemonium

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