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There is No “Western Paradigm”

October 4, 2015

The argument that there is an inherently exploitive “Western” way of perceiving the world, reflects justifiable concerns about neo-colonialist oppression and bigotry. But while it is perfectly valid to criticize lazy or demeaning assumptions about other cultures, the term “Western paradigm” can also be used in a similarly lazy manner, to discredit a particular line of inquiry.

There are other problems with the use of such terminology, too. Often, characteristics that are labeled “Western” are in fact universal. Racism, greed, and colonialism are not exclusively Western; nor, on the positive side, are curiosity and reason. 

It’s neither Western, nor inherently oppressive, to ask straight forward questions about matters of fact. Yet, as we shall see below, such questioning is often dismissed as part of the Western paradigm that tries to subjugate everything to the standard of reason.

The historian Tom Holland made a documentary film a few years ago. in which he asked whether or not the early accounts of the Prophet Mohammed’s life and the development of Islam are really true.

Holland, of course, was aware that the questions he was asking (as well as the evidence he found) were likely to upset some people. He was not merely concerned for his own safety, but also aware that he occupied a privileged position of some academic power, far removed from the people whose history and traditions he was studying. Of course he also comes from a culture that has often exploited and oppressed many predominantly Muslim countries.  

At one point in the film, Holland asked a professor of Islamic Studies if he thought that this line of inquiry was “complicit with the brute fact of Western imperialism”. The professor, Seyyed Hossein Nasr responded:

No, not necessarily, as long as you remain aware of what you are doing. If you come as a western scholar or historian and in all honesty present what your world view is, and say, “When I look at the Islamic world from this paradigm, this is what I see”, and bring out why this is different from how Muslims see themselves, then I think it’s a very honest effort…

This is an intelligent and reasonable answer — an invitation for Holland to do his research and present his results. It is a stark contrast to those who screamed abuse and Holland and made death threats. But Nasr also makes some highly questionable assumptions.

He continues:

Gradually in the West, for the intellectual elite, the sense of the sacred was lost. A tribal person in Africa or in the Amazon has a natural sense of the sacred, whereas a graduate student at Oxford probably doesn’t….. It is from the West that this kind of history came up: that reason is the ultimate decider and judge of the truth…

But “this kind of history” — checking stated facts against available evidence — did not arise “in the West”. It arises pretty much all by itself from human nature. To ascribe it purely to “the West” does a disservice to everyone who has ever asked the simple question, “Is that really true?”

In the 9th Century in Persia, the celebrated physician Al-Razi considered the scriptures of his own culture and started a discussion for which he clearly was not celebrated. He noted that the various prophets contradicted each other and therefore cannot possibly all be right; nor can revelation — varying so wildly between the divine authorities — be trusted as reliable.

Al-Razi:

Prophets are impostors, at best misled by demonic shades of restless and envious spirits. But ordinary folk are fully capable of thinking for themselves and in no need of guidance from another….

How can anyone think philosophically while committed to these old fairy tales founded on contradictions, obdurate ignorance and dogmatism?

Reason, he argued, unlike revelation, is available to all.

Persian_Scholar_pavilion_in_Viena_UN_(Rhazes)Muhammad Zakariyā Rāzī (Al-Razi/Rhazes)

Al-Razi’s genius and importance as a physician no doubt protected him from serious persecution. (His heretical writings, however, were destroyed and are known only from quotations by those who argued against him.) Obviously, anyone daring to speak like that in Iran today would be in grave danger. 

Moreover, if someone speaks like that today in the West, they will probably be accused of letting their imperialist Western paradigm get the better of them. Or, that label’s big brother would be applied and they’d be called an Islamophobe. And, of course, the accusers would remain baffled by the issues raised, and meekly capitulate before their own ignorance for a few centuries more.

Naturally, bigots find it easy enough to doubt the religions of others too — but never their own. (One You-tube user who uploaded a copy of Holland’s documentary used the name martyr4Jesus!)

If there is a peculiarly “Western paradigm”, it would involve the use of the term paradigm.

This idea of a paradigm is quintessentially Western. Of course, the complete package includes the notion of a paradigm shift — which for some reason is only ever predicted to be awaiting those who supposedly hold a “Western” or “materialistic” paradigm. I can’t imagine Professor Nasr predicting that the Amazonian natives will have a revelation and drop their supposed “sense of the sacred” in favor of a materialistic paradigm.

Similarly, the “sense of the sacred” is a vague notion whose only clearly defined quality is a fence that divides it from the “materialistic West”.  The whole of Western scholarship is deemed to be an inherently exploitive paradigm that ethnocentrically distorts and demeans its subject matter, simply to avoid the uncomfortable truth that some stories are myths rather than factual history.

One non-Western academic who took issue with this over-simplification is Ibn Warraq. His book Defending the West identified three aspects of Western culture that are overlooked by those who see Western scholarship as inherently colonialist.

Here is Warraq’s list:

1. Universalism, i.e. recognition that the rights granted to oneself must be granted equally to others.
2. Curiosity and learning for learning’s
sake. (Edward Said had claimed that all knowledge of the Orient was acquired merely to enable colonialist exploitation. Warraq refuted this by pointing to the vast German scholarship of the 19th Century that was carried out in countries where Germany had no colonial interests.)
3. Self criticism.
(I would place the awareness of various paradigms in this category!)

To sum up, it is certainly easier to practice free inquiry in the West. But this should make us want to try to spread this freedom to non-Western countries, not do the opposite: to hinder and devalue it with pejorative labels and lazy judgments. It is ironic, and potentially disastrous, that the only truly Western idea that might ever spread to the Orient is that reason is not a universal quality, but part of an exploitive Western paradigm.

Posted by Yakaru

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4 comments

  1. Thanks for this, it’s a good reminder. We “in the West” carry guilt about our past and current oppressive acts in the world, but that lens shouldn’t obscure the view of our social virtues, or the recognition that our place in history, or geography, or in the global pecking order, is almost entirely incidental.

    Your post made me think of a couple of things: first, the somewhat unfortunate etymology of the words “empiricism” and “empirical”, which have their roots in “empire”, with all its oppressive associations, and secondly, that this actually indicates how political power – the ability to do things, good and bad – has always flowed from technological power, which itself depends on the power of accurate observation and reasoning. “Empirical” measurements are the drivers of empire-building, from megalithic calendars to Roman miles, from John Harrison’s marine chronometer to GPS-guided smart-bombs. They are also the scaffold of our modern magic, from healing genetic diseases to connecting and educating the world through the Internet. The magic that wins is the magic that works.


  2. Instead of Al-Razi I almost used Ibn al-Haytham as a counter example for “Western” rationality. He objected to the old Ptolemaic system because it didn’t fit with the empirical data.

    “Ptolemy assumed an arrangement (hay’a) that cannot exist, and the fact that this arrangement produces in his imagination the motions that belong to the planets does not free him from the error he committed in his assumed arrangement, for the existing motions of the planets cannot be the result of an arrangement that is impossible to exist… [F]or a man to imagine a circle in the heavens, and to imagine the planet moving in it does not bring about the planet’s motion.”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alhazen#Doubts_Concerning_Ptolemy

    No one (except for astrologers) are today arguing that Ptolemy’s system is an alternative paradigm that is just as legitimate, nor do they get upset with al-Haytham for his cold rationalist perspective.

    One thing I noticed while struggling with this post, is how tempting it is to see issues as split between right and wrong, rather than discriminating between numerous positions. First, trying to find a way of succinctly distancing myself from bigots, to make it clear I’m not on their side. And secondly, realizing that in fact Professor Nasr wasn’t surreptitiously trying to shut Holland up — something I hadn’t fully noticed until several drafts in. I hadn’t accused him of doing so, but I hadn’t excluded him clearly enough either, from the general criticism of calling someone a colonialist enabler.

    It also stuck me that it really is a way of gaining power over people if you debunk their deepest beliefs and cultural identity. I think it’s perfectly fair if it happens as a consequence of honest research, (Holland said it’s like entering a labyrinth; you never know where you’ll end up), but jeez, it would be so easy for assholes in power to use that stuff to dehumanize an enemy. Thank heavens that people like Dawkins et al have done such a thorough job of debunking Christianity as well. Ironically, and despite lots of griping, they in fact made it harder for Christians to jump on the doubts about early Islam.

    (I will also add that one of the questions I kept asking myself while writing this was “What would @Lettersquash say about that sentence?” — recalling past conversations and poorly worded sentences from me! I hacked out a lot of irrelevant babble.)


  3. It’s a fine piece of writing. If my comprehension difficulty last time helped in some way, I’m very glad! I’m so uncertain about everything these days I can’t write much at all. Your posts seem to inspire my best bits. :)


  4. Well we’ve had quite a few exchanges about this kind of stuff in the past, via email and on your blog as well…

    Sorry about your comments getting stuck in moderation! I’d inadvertently switched it on last time I was fooling about with it.



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