There are a few problems with the East-West dichotomy as a global theory that need to be addressed in order to allow further discussion and research. Of all criticisms, these are the urgent ones I shall comment on:
The biggest accusation by scholars is that of ‘generalizations’: ‘East’ and ‘West,’ these two categories, so we are told, are oversimplifying the current world order and all other cultural, geographical, historical, political, and social affairs (Hendry, 2006).
We oppose the argument by saying that ‘East and West’ indeed contain all those subcategories, and many more. However, every one of them is true only in the abstract, widest, most universal sense of the word, and any definition is subject to change. For example, we have explicitly concluded that the West is more deductive, while the East is more inductive. In that way, generalizations pose no harm to scholarship, which distinguishes between Western philosophy and Eastern philosophy departments. Besides, ‘East and West’ as an interdisciplinary concept has been the rough guide for universal historians such as Hannah Arendt (1993), Arnold Toynbee (1958), Tu Weiming (2003), Joseph Needham (1964), Kitaro Nishida (1989), Okakura Kakuzo (1904), and Ji Xianlin (2006), as well as for universal theoreticians such as Francis Bacon (1620), Thomas Hobbes (1671), Friedrich Nietzsche (1909), Karl Marx (1848), Samuel Huntington (1993), and hundreds more. They all did research on the conceptual contrast between Eastern and Western societies and, either directly or indirectly, came (often independently from each other) to the conclusion that there are two cultural modes of humankind: the more rational, deduction-driven West, and the more intuitive, induction-driven East. This is simply how things are.
Still, the East-West dichotomy is occasionally misunderstood by prominent individuals or special interest groups who do not like to be categorized, which is understandable. Yet, again, its aim is not to label individuals, but to describe entire civilizations and their cultural evolution, an evolution that is very real (Mace, 2005; Reynolds, 1983; Cavalli-Sforza et al., 1994).
Moreover, the branch of social science that effectively uses empirical investigation and critical analysis to understand the structure of Eastern and Western societies, ‘Sociology’ or ‘Sociology of Cultures,’ usually observes developments on the macro level of societies, for example: group behavior, social networking, and so on, and never attempts to explain individual activity and behavior. The East-West dichotomy is a global theory, not a local one; and caution is advised when following the recent hype about and around the application of the word glocal, meaning global ideas implemented on a local level.
Individuals occasionally feel victimized by scientific studies, and sometimes wronged by anthropological or social scientific findings. Yet we need to remind ourselves that categorization, and therefore a degree of oversimplification and generalization, are inherent in our everyday lives. Individuals as well as small groups are categorized by school grades, credit systems, occupation, profession, social status, ethnicity, even by the clothes we wear, the quarters we live in, the car we drive, and the books we read. In the case of East and West we are talking about the cultural evolution, specification, and stratification of ideas of civilizations over the last 2,500 years and earlier, with billions of very diverse individuals and their various actions filling up empty time with living history.
If zooming into separate households, naturally we would find each individual of that household having many identities. They identify themselves, for example, by their faith, profession, social status, ethnicity, hobbies, friends etc.
Looking at humankind from the moon, however, those identities can be ascribed to a certain region, cultural group, and civilization, East or West. Therefore, no individual today, no group of individuals should be offended, or – depending on their point of view – disappointed if they cannot see themselves fitting neatly into the universal categories of East or West. It is a universal theory, not the story of any individual.
A cold-blooded scientist would – in the words of Oscar Wilde – “know the price of everything but the value of nothing.” It is a stereotype, and a bit cynical perhaps, to pitch a trained scientist against the notion of God, faith, human feelings, value statements, and spiritual or charitable affairs. A scientist who describes God, poetry, music, or our love for children using statistical models is – you will forgive me for saying so – not an affable companion. But the scientist armed with his methods and measuring tools is also limted by them, and can often only speak about his branch of knowledge and the scientific community. There are other important seekers of truth: the artist, the poet, the philosopher, the musician, the sage, the father and the mother. They all have slightly different approaches to knowledge and wisdom and see things differently from the scientist because they have gleaned their knowledge from personal experiences, learning, practice, or through poetry, music, exercise, or the love of children. We could say then that any activity leads to categorization, and any categorization may result in stereotyping.
The art of stereotyping in cultural studies, like all taxonomies, helps us to make sense of the world around us and to attribute to various groups of people certain characteristics that sum up our experiences and our knowledge about them. That also makes stereotypes very flexible, since they change after our experiences and our knowledge about them has been modified. Therefore, no stereotype can exist that does not have at least some reference point to the factual world, to gathered information, or to personal experiences with a foreign culture. Stereotypes are inevitable. The only danger, as some observers have pointed out, is when they are negative, unfair, politically incorrect (we come to that in a minute) or too inflexible. This is because stereotypes, like all beliefs, have the tendency to become stronger over time, and, when constantly repeated by propaganda, can be used to manipulate uninformed public opinion to connect people or events that were originally unrelated:
The self-fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a false definition of a situation evoking new behavior, which makes the original false conception come ‘true.’ This specious validity of the self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuates a reign of error. For the prophet will cite the actual course of events as proof that he was right from the very beginning.
(Robert K. Merton, 1968)
In other words, there is the theoretical possibility that the East-West stereotypes, as natural as they appear today, have become true only because so many people have acted upon and believed in them for thousands of years.
3) Small Nations and Peripheral Nations
Both cultural hemispheres, East and West, are divided into many more distinct societies. And those societies are subdivided into distinct regions. As said elsewhere here, looking at the trees or leaves will divert one’s attention from seeing the whole forest. For that reason, it seems unnecessary to discuss each and every society or region and their peculiarities. It is their cultural, economical, and political affiliation, shared history and values, and general relationship that give them a distinct culture, without discussing the charms of each independent member community.
Having said that, I don’t need to elaborate on the role of the peripheral regions: The Middle East, Africa, Australia, and Latin America all have close cultural, economical, and political affiliations, shared history and values, and a general relationship with either Europe or Asia, or both on equal terms, in which case the relationship may be balanced for a while or else eventually turn in favor of one side or the other.
As for the relationships between large states and small states within the cultural hemispheres, they may at times perceive themselves as independent, even smaller states which are obviously less powerful and more dependent but nevertheless feel they are special and unique. In addition, all nations by definition insist on their sovereignty or exclusivity. But all the same, together, those large countries and small countries are interdependent and form civilizations.
Returning to the world of politics, one could say there is no such thing as absolute independence and liberty, not for any state, not for any group of people. The French moralist Joseph Joubert (1754-1824), who experienced the French Revolution, called any noble cry for liberty a farce:
Let your cry be for free souls rather even than for free men. […] Subordination is in itself a better thing than independence. The one implies order and arrangement; the other implies only self-sufficiency with isolation. The one means harmony, the other a single tone; the one is the whole, the other is but the part. (Jospeh Joubert, 1962)
We could ask: What if one part of the whole fails to participate in or commit or contribute to its social environment? I would argue that in that case, if a small, solitary state tries to single-mindedly change the pattern of the whole empire, it can only do so within the limits set by all other neighboring states. Within the global community of nations, each of its smaller members will be ruthlessly assessed, persistently judged for its performance, and punished if it misbehaves or fails to perform:
Now, the small states imitate the large, and yet are ashamed to receive their commands: This is like a scholar’s being ashamed to receive the commands of his master. If the small states know their place, they will benefit from the greatness of their masters. (Mencius, 7A, 3)
4) Political Correctness
Some great negotiators, like former United Nations Secretary Kofi Annan, or now his successor, the South Korean Ban Ki-moon, would not approve of dividing the world into two cultural hemispheres, or at least they would shy away from this for the reasons given above. Generalizations, stereotypes, and categorizations lead to separatism and isolation, to nationalism, prejudice, and even racism. In short, all these would be bad for the United Nations’ good governance and true scholarship.
The fear of new totalities in itself is not so new. But if Eastern and Western values, mutual respect, balance, harmony, and the difficulties that we face if the West continues down its aggressive path are not addressed, I would argue that even without mentioning the concept of the East-West dichotomy, there are still going to be the dangers of separatism and isolation, nationalism, and other factors that are detrimental to good governance and true scholarship.
Since everyone in world politics seems so concerned about the price we have to pay for the different civilization modes of humankind, we should find a peaceful place to discuss the value of it all. The United Nations, and by inclusion its member states, are committed and have been informed countless times by the universal historians and philosophers, great thinkers, and Nobel laureates in East and West, that there is cultural diversity that not only needs to be addressed again and again (because people sadly tend to forget), but far better understood, appreciated, and valued. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, The Dialogue among Civilizations (Khatami, 2001), The Declaration of Human Responsibilities (Küng, 1997), and so on are cases in point. It is important that all nations recognize and cherish the two great cultural modes in general and the myriads of cultural varieties in particular: the value created for the future of mankind by being different, not the price paid in the past for forcing us to conform.
Asian nations are now a majority in number, opinion, and theory; their reviving cultures are now of the greatest political concern to the Western hegemony that still holds sway over the world. Therefore, in the near future it will be inevitable in global affairs to separate political rhetoric from socio-cultural realities, and we should expect more policymakers and historians to talk about ‘cultural politics’ or ‘political culture,’ because there isn’t just one political or one cultural model – there are many, and what works for one does not necessarily work for another. As mentioned previously, Asia is now a greater phenomenon than the USA or Europe. Unabashed resistance to – or worse, outright denial of – Asian values, Eastern philosophies, cultural achievements, and Asia’s greater participation in world affairs and its reformation could lead to a clash of civilizations, just like Samuel Huntington had prophesized. The concept of ‘political correctness’ exists, but so far, there isn’t such a thing as cultural correctness.
There is a well-informed block of political analysts and economists who try to convince us that the relationship between Europe’s ‘Big Three’ (Germany, France, Great Britain) plus the USA, and Asia’s ‘Big Three’ (China, India, Japan) plus maybe Russia, is only superficial, toxic, and full of congenital defects (Rosan, 1962; Hendry, 2006). I suggest the alternative to this division between a Western league and an Eastern one would be inevitable chaos: All nation-states would act as separate entities that form alliances at any time with whoever is able or willing, thus arbitrarily leading the world into unipolarity (one center of power), bipolarity (two centers of power), or multipolarity (three or more centers of power), with no such thing as a cultural East-West divide.
Such a theory looks like a deliberately broken glass window to me. Valuable time and energy would be wasted on the analysis of shards. The basic unit of human relationships is ‘two.’ One cannot have a relationship with nobody. But some people neglect this human aspect of relationships, and collect data and produce statistics about each country’s human and non-human capital, resources, and natural endowments instead, which is nothing less than adopting the strictly economic or materialist approach. The social materialists see humans as being more guided by the sciences and natural laws, and less by the humanities, for example Jared Diamond in his Guns, Germs and Steel (2003) and Gunnar Heinsohn in his Söhne und Weltmacht (2005).
The social materialistic approach is an extension of Marxist materialism, or maybe just another fancy name for bean-counting. This very (Western) analytical, deduction-based approach to make sense of the world and all relationships does not allow for any value, metaphysical discussion, ideologies, and spiritual meaning. It does not acknowledge ‘oneness,’ ‘balance,’ or ‘harmoniousness,’ nor does it allow for human morals or factors like ‘tolerance,’ ‘respect,’ ‘love,’ and ‘forgiveness.’ It does not let man assume a greater role than being a mere statistic. It demonstrates once again that particular Western lack of ideas and confusion I was talking about earlier: the limits of the Western cultural mode and deductive-based science, which in essence were almost begging for the re-emergence of the spiritual East, its former glories, wisdoms, and its power to heal the global imbalance.
So, the West still thinks it’s all about who’s got the oil, who’s got the money, who’s got the guns, or, better, who’s got the biggest guns. That’s how our children now think and are trained to reason. If your numbers add up, you are at the top of the league. This is a conclusion reached via the deductive way. Let us recall: In deductive reasoning we reach a conclusion from previously known facts, a conclusion that is sound and valid. That is the tragedy of our cause, and the cause for our decline. We are totally deluded and lost in an artificial world of infinite particulars, of which we do not know how to let go and get out. Religious people, no matter of which faith, who usually strive to become good, lovable, modest, humble, and kind people (in their respective communities) now look like total idiots, when some hedge funds managers, bankers, or lawyers got wealthy and powerful by ruthlessly destroying their competitors, and exploiting their employees and positions in society. Families, communities, and religions are corrupted this way and fall apart. And this is precisely how some world historians and political analysts see the community of nations falling apart into self-interested economic zones, political spheres of influence, highly specialized manufacturing power bases, and so on: a fragmented, multipolar world with nothing more in common than a materialist drive for fighting over resources, market shares, and political influence. In such a model, the Western model, states may fail like business models fail, like many companies fail. But is this really how we should look at humanity? How can a culture fail, if left in peace? How can a civilization fail, if not be annihilated?
All the while, the East with its inductive ways simply allocates new relations to recurring phenomenal patterns; it shamelessly makes unscientific yet highly humanistic predictions and acts upon them, like Zhang Zai (1020-1077), who said: “All humans are my brothers and sisters; all things are my companions,” and Tu Weiming: “We need to establish a harmonious yet diverse new order of world ethics” (Tu, 2012). Now that the East is rising again, few Westerners are ready to deal with true cultural diversity upon being confronted with thousands of “new” terms, holistic world views, and Eastern thought. It may take some time for most Western scholars to adjust and fully appreciate, let alone pay tribute to and benefit from the South Asian and East Asian traditions: The sole reign of the Western hemisphere is coming to an end.
The East-West dichotomy predicts that if the world were to be reshuffled and recreated, under any circumstances it would happen all over again: the division of humankind into many various cultures that together form two great cultural hemispheres. One would be more rational, analytical, and deductive; the other more intuitive, spiritual, and inductive. It is an evolutionary program that runs in all of us. It is not arbitrary. It is either-or, in the same way cerebral determinism, cognitive dualism, and shared labor are part of our human nature. The dichotomy doesn’t respond to economic or political theories; on the contrary, economic and political theories respond to the dichotomy. That’s because first there’s humanity, and then come the theories.
According to the East-West dichotomy, there is only equilibrium. This equilibrium may never be perfect and, at times, may tilt more to one side than the other. Yet according to this, the world can never be unipolar or multipolar.
If asked about a single, unified humanity, no reasonable person would openly disagree with this possibility. It seems rational: One China plus one Germany makes one…what? The two have different traditions; they are not similar. Humanity should never be subjected to Gleichschaltung, a German term which means ‘synchronization’ or enforced ‘conformity,’ be it cultural or political co-optation. Humanity really means all of us, the entire range of human beings and their diverse cultural and political idiosyncrasies, core values, inventions, and contributions. If we look at it this way, the idea of humanity is a very beautiful and decent thing. It is unbiased and entirely positive. We simply feel we have to be part of that humanity; in fact, our humanity is something we can’t escape. Sure, we can always improve ourselves and actively promote the education of better human beings.
So what do people in the international arena say when they talk about humanity? They talk about East and West. Be they presidents, political or business leaders, journalists, or just exchange students or tourists, they all talk about cultural differences, nationalities, countries and their histories, about supposed similarities. Those who deny there are differences are usually those that never studied another culture. At some point, the Westerners in Asia are going to proudly side with the West: “We in the West…” or “they in the East.” How many books have already been written about East and West? Why is it that every Westerner knows about ‘East and West,’ talks about ‘East and West,’ belongs to either ‘East or West,’ and almost anxiously wants to discuss ‘East and West’?
Here is a possible explanation: Despite the outrageous disunity of the European nation states and the dysfunctional bureaucracy of the European Union, those 400 million or so citizens do not only embrace a common ‘Magna Carta of Liberty’ or ‘Magna Carta of Democracy and Human Rights,’ but also a ‘Magna Carta of Loyalty.’ What do I mean by ‘Magna Carta of Loyalty’? The European powers, after so many centuries of ‘jointly conquering and dividing the world,’ in the end had nothing else to do than to ditch their territories or else declare war on each other. They were after power, and how to get it. After the two Great Wars that shattered Europe, all of their remaining former colonies became independent. It seems but a rational choice to me that the Europeans should unite once more to jointly face the New World Order, or else get the imperialist payback they truly deserve, especially in the face of the rising powers of the Muslim/Arabic, Indian, and Chinese civilizations.
In fact, if I was non-European, and I wanted to manipulate Europe, I would do my utmost to distract the Europeans from their ‘Magna Carta of Loyalty.’ I would try to undermine their ‘loyalty,’ to play them and their interests against each other. Granted, by saying “Magna Carta of Loyalty of the European nations” I mean the European nations’ faithfulness to the European cause: the forceful continuation and domination of their civilization by means of their rational, analytically-based ways and deductive cultural mode over all worldly affairs, standards, institutions, politics, economics, and social issues. The European thinkers will desperately try to cling to their Deutungshoheit, a German term meaning ‘sovereignty over the definition of thought.’ It basically means that whatever new knowledge the Europeans believe to have ‘discovered’ in foreign cultures – indigenous concepts, names, ideas – they almost always translated those unique and non-European concepts into familiar, convenient European terms.
Naturally, we are loyal to our common ancestors, heredity, language, and community. It is an evolutionary tactic to ensure the survival and procreation of our kind. That is why Americans, Europeans, and the Commonwealth realm, despite all their internal struggles and disputes, nevertheless refer to themselves as the ‘West.’ The same applies to the various nation states in Asia that, despite all their internal struggles and disputes, nevertheless refer to themselves as the ‘East.’
That is why East and West are incommensurable concepts: Nothing can belong simultaneously to both parts; nor can both parts simultaneously occupy the same space.
Problems with the Dichotomy
Pattberg, Thorsten (2013), The East-West Dichotomy, Foreign Language Press, Beijing