Chapter 9 – Two Incommensurable Realities

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 ambitious 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 they struggle, and when they inevitably fall (Kennedy, 1987; CCTV, 2006).

The father of sociology, Ibn Khaldun, wrote:

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)

Comparing cultures to living beings has been the scientific trend ever since Khaldun. In today’s Western sociology, 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 & Finnegan, 1973);
  • either a “psychic unity” or a “secularization”
    (Berger, 1966; 1974);
  • a “de-secularization” (Berger, 1999);
  • a “flat world” (Friedman, 1962; 1990; 2006);
  • “globalization” or “many globalizations”
    (Berger & Huntington, 1974);
  • brutal and straightforward “neo-Darwinism”
    (Heinsohn, 2003);
  • plenty of “Empire” (Hardt & Negri, 2001), produced by one ‘kind’ of corporate man – preferably one of Aryan descent (Gellner, 1979).

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

What all theories have in common, however, and what has not changed in this new twenty-first century, as it has never been seriously challenged for the last two millennia, is a universe of facts from philosophy, politics, and now evolutionary biology, social and linguistic anthropology that seems to suggest that the history of civilization – and thus all human identity – is built 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. Arnold Joseph Toynbee loved those cultural league tables, too. A new blame game was launched 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 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 cultural comparison is abundant: In the West we have Samuel Huntington (1993; 2000; 2004), Francis Fukuyama (1992), Jared Diamond (2003; 2006), Milton Friedman (1962; 1990; 2006), Daniel A. Bell (2000; 2012), and Jürgen Habermas (1996; 2003; 2006). In the East we have Ji Xianlin [季羡林] (2006), Gu Zhengkun [辜正坤] (2003), Tu Weiming [杜维明] (2000; 2003), Kishore Mahbubani (2008), and Rajiv Malhotra (2011), to name but a few important contributors.

According to Max 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 historical piece of scientific and economical evidence has been used against 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 an Indian, Arab, or Chinese person to get some personal integrity in this world was to become Westernized, study at a Western university, or work for a Western international cooperation. The East, it seemed, was never in the position to ask for anything except for trouble.

Unfortunately, Max Weber could not read Japanese, Chinese, Hindi, Urdu, Arabic, Korean, Thai, or any other Eastern language. In fact, he who was arguably the world’s greatest Orientalist had never been to the Orient. We could say then that he was a German rationalist at the time when Germany was an Imperial power (1871-1918). In those old days leading up to two devastating world wars, it was entirely sufficient for a German rationalist and “sociologist” (for that’s what they call Max Weber) of his affluence to explain the mechanics of world history not by empirical investigation or observation, but – just like the other occasionally sinophobic Germans Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829), Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (1775-1854), Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) before him – by miraculous, rational inquiry from the comfort of his study.

Few people realize that the Bible discourages people from studying foreign languages. The story of the Tower of Babel teaches us that there is one humanity (God’s), but that “our languages are confused.” From a historical European perspective, that has always meant that, say, any German philosopher could know exactly what the Chinese people were thinking, only that he couldn’t understand them. So instead of learning the foreign language, he demanded a translation.

Coincidentally, or maybe not quite so, History with a capital ‘H’ followed the Bible. The first German philosopher, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), encouraged his fellow Germans to do research on China, yet at the same time he warned against the use of foreign or ‘un-Teutsch’ [un-Germanic] words and concepts (Leibniz, 1677). This business of trying to understand China without taking the pains to study the Chinese language is well documented. When the German logician and first German ‘China expert’ Christian Wolff (1679-1754) got his hands on Latin translations by François Noël (1711) and Philippe Couplet (1687) of the Confucian Classics (Wolff was a Latin speaker), his reaction, I imagine, may have been something like this: He reads the Lun Yu in Latin and exclaims something like “Great, that looks very familiar; I have the feeling that I totally understand this Confucius!” (Wolff, 1721). Disturbing, isn’t it?

Wolff was so confident about his newly-won knowledge about China that he went on to lecture about the Chinese as if he was the expert on all things China. Among his unforgettable findings were “Motiva Sinarum” (“The Motives of the Chinese”), “Summum bonum Sinarum” (“The Highest Good of the Chinese”), or “Finis Sinarum ultimus” (“The Final Purpose of the Chinese”), and so on (Wolff, 1721). And, of course, when somebody occasionally asked Master Wolff why he didn’t visit China (to his defense, that was almost unthinkable in 1721), the greatest sinologist of all time dismissed the question with a wave of his hand by replying,“the wisdom of the Chinese was generally not so highly valued that it was necessary to travel there for its sake” (Albrecht, 1985).

Other historians followed in Wolff’s footsteps. After all, why learn Chinese to become a pundit on China if Wolff took a shortcut? In fact, Wolff sufficiently demonstrated that just about any European could become a “China expert” without learning a single Chinese character.

This attitude prevailed regarding just about any foreign language. Now we know why the German philosopher Immanuel Kant could reasonably announce the “End of All Things” and Georg Hegel could proclaim the “End of History.” Both learned men were very much aware that they had not mastered any non-European language in their lifetime, and they simply assumed that History was a bit like that, too.

This haughty attitude in the Western hemisphere has not changed; most Europeans still labor under the illusion that the Chinese “speak their languages,” only that they “talk” in Chinese. Take the case of ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights.’ Those are terms that originated in Europe and do not have 1:1 equivalents in Chinese. Imagine China turned the tables and demanded that Europe apply more wenming (文明, civilization) and tian ren he yi (天人合一, oneness of heaven and man).

The European attitude is reflected in its translations. Most Westerners simply translate every key Chinese concept into convenient biblical or philosophical terminology. As a result, the Western image of China is literally Chinese-free.

For the same reason, in comparative cultural studies, if you had given Max Weber a fictional race, let’s 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 simple and irrefutable fact that Smurfs are not Protestants. This, of course, is a tautology of epic proportions (e.g. Smurfs are Smurfs are no Protestants), and, consequently, 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, Max Weber’s theory in sociology – like Sigmund Freud’s in psychology or Karl Marx’s in economics – has fallen out of favor. This is not so much because his work is inherently non-scientific, but more because his dialogue with other cultures is really a self-serving, tedious monologue.

Another, perhaps 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 fashionable term, I believe) of Western scholarship. Western scholars had written Asia’s history through the lens of their Eurocentric world view, just like the Greeks did with the Persians, thereby only enhancing the exotic ‘otherness’ of the Eastern hemisphere. Said and Hutcheon argue that ‘post-colonial’ and then ‘post-modernist’ theories are both Western concepts. Moreover, they argue they are syntheses of the European Enlightenment’s bourgeois rationalism as thesis on the one hand, and modernism as the antithesis on the other.

Bourgeois rationalism, modernism, and post-modernism could be categorized as the Age of Reason (seventeenth-eighteenth centuries), the Age of Totalities (nineteenth -beginning of the twentieth centuries), and the Age of Uncertainty (mid-twentieth century). As Said and Hutcheon would agree then, the East did not experience any of these categorizations, just as the West did not experience a Bolshevik Revolution (1918), Communism (1918-1989), the Chinese Revolution (1926-1949), the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), or the opening-up era under Deng Xiaoping (1979-1997).

I thereby conclude 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 that China and India will never catch up, because they only recently reached an early industrial age and missed out on the (Western) Enlightenment.

If the development of culture 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 becoming a proper civilization never produce 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 Ernst 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 represented history in a manner based on deduction, causality, and rationality. The other branch could have developed into the Eastern hemisphere and represented history in a manner based more on induction, interconnectedness, 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 ‘clash,’ as in The Clash 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 civilizations, a clash it will be, albeit an uninspiring, unimaginative, and utterly senseless one. This because the Western hemisphere still does not wholly appreciate the grand alternative and worthy goal of engaging the East based on mutual respect and using an ‘inclusive approach.’ Instead, the West grafts Western branches on the Eastern tree by applying Western terminology to Eastern concepts. This way the entire tree of history shines as a product of Western scholarship. The question remains:

[w]hether 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:

This is the character of the Chinese people […] to cherish the meanest opinion of themselves, and believe that they are born to drag the car of Imperial Power.
(Georg Hegel, 1821)

The crux of the whole question affecting the Powers of the Western nations in the Far East lies 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 and respect each other? If not, Johann W. von Goethe had this warning for those who cared to listen:

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. (Estelle Morgan, 1958)

Regrettably, it is persistently this Philistine element in 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), Hu Shi (胡适), Ji Xianlin (季羡林), or Guo Morou (郭末若). Yet, if asked for his opinion on the Chinese language and culture, his chest will swell and, having himself mastered not more than a dozen Chinese characters, he will reply that his own failure in mastering those 65,000 Chinese ideographs begs the question of whether the ultimate cause of China’s backwardness in the sciences is her very ‘Chinese-ness’ itself. China, Japan, India, and their neighbors are all seen as being 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 or 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 in Singapore, Shanghai, and Yokohama who genuinely believe that every house, bank, pair of high heels, traffic light, newspaper, computer, train, or automobile is a genuine extension of Western civilization.

Young Anglo-American visitors are especially quick to remind Asians that every English-language billboard marks Anglo-Saxon cultural territory. Few of them have learned in school that their own language is a relatively young branch of the Germanic language family, with those Germanic tribes, the Angles and the Saxons, being their immediate ancestors.

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-American way of life, or any other Western model. A global language, exchange, and economy are good things, but ‘globalization’ as the mediator between East and West will not make East into West, nor West into East. Buddhism has not made China an India, and Capitalism has not made Japan an America. 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), ‘humanity’ (仁, ren), or ‘harmonious society’ (和谐社会, hexie shehui) – are those not more honest guarantors for mutual respect and dignity among civilizations?

An example of East and West talking at cross purposes would be the memorable conversation between Albert Einstein and Rabindranath Tagore on July 14, 1930. It 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 unscientific and, implicitly, as 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.” (Rabindranath Tagore, 1931)

One can see from this “whatever” Einstein “cannot see through” that, in his Western view, it must be linear and 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 other than a scientific, rational Western one  –  let alone that of an ‘ancient Oriental wizard’ (Kawabata, 1969). Rudyard Kipling’s poem “East is East, and West is West, and never the two shall meet” easily comes to mind (Kipling, 1999).

What would have happened if Tagore had brought up the continuum 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 the 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 different, unique histories, and this made them what 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 we are a – more or less identical – human race? However, thousands of years of unique history have made us who we are: Chinese, Indians, Japanese, Germans, French, British etc., and, eventually, we shaped the East and the West.

I will not attach importance to every cultural leaf or twig and say that any particular culture should be preserved, nor will I harbor 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 criterion was ‘longevity,’ however, we would be safest to bet on the two great cultural systems: the East and the West.

To conclude, the argument that East and West look at history from different angles is to be refuted: History is local, and lends itself to different points of view. We have every reason to believe that the two hemispheres not only look at and interpret history differently, but irreversibly experience their very own local version of it. In addition to experience, the different cognitive preferences of the Easterner and Westerner inevitably let them, in a metaphysical sense, prefer their own version of history and misinterpret the other’s. This predicament, I believe, is impossible to overcome because Easterners and Westerners cannot experience each other’s histories nor see them through the same eyes. The East perceives history to be more holistic and interconnected, while the West regards history as more linear and fragmented.



Induction and Deduction

The Dichotomy with Asiacentrism




Cultural Effects of the Dichotomy

Two Successful Models

Two Incommensurable  Realities

The Theory of Power and to Whom It Belongs

The Problem of Standard

A Loveless Darwinian Desert

The Psychology of Communion

Cultural Evolution

A Copernican Revolution

The Problem with Nature

Truths and Values



The Dialectics of Dichotomy

Problems with the Dichotomy

The Future of the Dichotomy

The Author


Pattberg, Thorsten (2013), The East-West Dichotomy, Foreign Language Press, Beijing

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