Western Philosophy’s Greatest Hits (and Misses)

Looking into what is for me a new social networking site on philosophy this month, I’ve stumbled into some very deep mutual antagonisms. In some ways that is nothing new for me. If anything it encourages me that those groups I’ve had a hand in supervising have actually run quite smoothly by comparison. Open global social networking always seems to provide reactionary people with all sorts of opportunities to spout their resentments, and I’ve often seen such groups become verbal “fight clubs” where people come to beat up on each other just for the rush it gives them.

For those of us who believe in open dialog as an educational tool and a means of promoting peace, however, this presents something of a challenge. On the one hand I strongly agree with the words of the graphic I picked up this week: “Don’t try to win over the haters. You are not the jerk whisperer.” On the other hand I feel that dismissing opposing viewpoints just because the process of establishing communication with them is rather difficult sets its own dangerous personal precedent, so I keep slipping into this “jerk whisperer” role regardless. I don’t actually think the jerks in question will reform, but perhaps a few of those around them will see how silly their arguments are and stop multiplying them. This in turn can reduce the infectious power of the hatred in question. And who knows, maybe a jerk or two can actually be tamed.

So on that note I’ve decided to address my musings for this weekend to a question posed by one particularly rabid sounding hate-monger: “What has ‘Western Philosophy’ achieved?”

On the surface of it this is a rather absurd question. There have been thousands of history books published detailing the positive influences of what we in the West refer to as (capital P) “Philosophy.” Summarizing all of these in a relatively brief on-line essay would seem to be a fool’s errand, especially when addressing it to someone whose point is to polemically blame Western societies for all of the world’s problems. But even so there are those who have been brought up to hate what the “others” stand for, but who –– given clear enough information and progressive safe exposure to these others –– can still learn to relate to their perspectives and accept them as rational and valuable human beings regardless. I’ve actually seen it happen in high school and adult education classrooms time and time again, so once in a while it’s worth a try on line as well.

Many people, presumably including the fellow posing this question, have been brought up with a hatred against colonial abuses perpetrated by Europeans, leftover European colonists and white Americans in particular; and against the various religious and philosophical justifications those groups have used in perpetrating their abuses. So my starting point for effective communication with such folks is to say, I get what you’re upset about and I also get that I don’t get it. I’m sure there are aspects of your suffering that I’ll never be able to relate to, but my point isn’t to justify all of the nastiness that has been committed against “your people,” however you define them. My point is to build a bit of mutual respect as grounds for all of us to move forward from here.

Main street of my old home town

Sometimes it’s also necessary to point out that I personally was not raised in a state of great luxury gained through the abuse of others. I am the descendant of a long like of peasant farmers, most of whom, up until the twentieth century, lived a very rough life, struggling to keep their families fed, often unsuccessfully. My grandparents all struggled through the great depression with little to show for their labors other than being able to send some of their kids to college. My parents eventually fought their way up into the upper middle class, but along the way I saw my mother put in a lot of hard hours as an unskilled manual laborer. I’ve also done my own time in some pretty degrading jobs, so yes, I know something of struggles to get by. But those facts are only relevant in addressing any ad hominem arguments that would be launched against me as a white man attempting to say anything about the sufferings of others.

From there the next step is to consider what stereotypically Western ideas post-colonial people might find particularly offensive. Off the top of my head, based on discussions I’ve had with people “of color” over the years, the list offending ideas would probably have to include individualism, a concept of divine favoritism, runaway capitalism/materialism and a fixation on technologies of violence. I will thus try to address those grievances before going on to explain why I still find the Western intellectual tradition worthy of respect, in particular for its moderate traditionalism, its growing emphasis on human equality, its capacity for eclecticism and its interest in freedom. From there it will be up to the individual reader to decide whether or not Western Philosophy in general has done enough to make the world a better place.


In African philosophy in particular there is a central concept referred to as Ubuntu, roughly

A suggestion for surfers based on African indigenous ethics

translated from the Xhosa language as “I am what I am because we are what we are.” This is the polar opposite of Western individualism: The individual is seen in every way as subservient to and dependent on the surrounding society. Many see this as a more virtuous way of envisioning social organization than the Western approach. Selfish individualism is considered by many to be the essence of what is wrong with Westerners. Africans who are somewhat versed in Western philosophy have gone as far as to say that Descartes’ doubt and skepticism was based on his having spent vast amounts of time alone, and consequently basing his entire perspective on individualized thought. From there it can be argued that all of Western Philosophy in the modern era has been based on Cartesian individualism, in turn causing all sorts of moral abuses. It is also fair to say that Indian (Hindu and Buddhist), Oriental (Confucian, Taoist and Maoist) and indigenous American wisdom traditions would be far more inclined to agree with the African perspective than with the Western one on this issue.

Even so I disagree with this premise on a number of different levels. To start with it is a basic misreading of Descartes: The fundamental proof of being in Cartesian thought is not individualism per se but self-conscious awareness, and there is nothing in Descartes thought which excludes the possibility of this as a collective process. Beyond that, individualism really is not –– in my admittedly westernized opinion –– the root of all evil. Yes, isolationism as an extreme form of individualism has its moral dangers, but so does radical collectivism. And as I see it human rights are fundamentally individual issues: No society has a right to torture to death any innocent victim for the good of the collective. Western societies don’t live up to their ideal in this regard, but that doesn’t make the ideal itself invalid. Love and empathy –– arguably the highest of emotional states and virtues –– paradoxically reach their height as individual experiences of transcending one’s own individual identity and interests.

Like most Westerners, I consider Socrates’ individualism to have been one of his greatest virtues. Following his example, each of us should dare to stand up and say when our societies are wrong. In my case, as an American citizen, I can say that for the US military to be playing police force to the rest of the world, serving the interests of multinational corporations rather than the interests of the people of the world, is morally wrong; especially when it is done at the expense of the dignity an respect for the human rights of the nation’s own citizens and residents. I think that my countrymen are foolish to accept such a policy on an on-going basis, even if I am in a small minority in saying so. But the point here is that Western individualism allows me to say such things, regardless of what the government and the majority of the population have to say about the matter. As I see it this makes individualism an essentially good thing.

Another major failing of many Western societies is that they have operated on an assumption that God is on their side. When a people believe that whatever they choose to do to increase their own sense of power, influence and security is something that is necessarily “the will of God,” we’re in dangerous territory. It could be argued that in this day and age that problem is seen most acutely in Muslim societies such as Saudi Arabia, Taliban ruled Afghanistan and post-revolutionary Iran. But during the Medieval and Colonial periods this was undeniably a prevalent European vice, and Western philosophy does have a well-documented history of helping various tyrants legitimize their claims to power, more often than not using Christian theological arguments in the process.

But as I pointed out in last week’s blog here, the devil in the Judeo-Christian tradition is strongly associated with powerful political empires, so in the purest form of this faith the whole concept of a political empire being on God’s side is almost a contradiction in terms. It certainly has nothing to do with the message of Jesus.

Nor is it unique to Western societies or the Abrahamic faiths for an empire to claim that their god(s) had made them great. There is a computer game called Age of Mythology based on the premise that this was a very common perspective in many primitive cultures. Moreover some would go as far as to argue that the whole point of Western philosophy has been to free people from this form of thinking and to reject nationalist myths and crude superstitions that justify people’s hatreds towards each other. While I have my reservations about the historical accuracy of that claim, I would say that there are many branches of Western philosophy which have done an immense amount of good in this sort of way.

Then beyond this there are the legends throughout the lands invaded and colonized by white men about the crazy things these pale creatures would do to get their hands on gold. Goldrush stories are the most archetypical examples of the many things Westerners have been known to do in their attempts to get rich, and of the other values they (we) have been willing to set aside in that process. The cultural value of ostentatious wealth for its own sake as part of the Western mindset is still considered by many to be the essence of evil within Western culture. If the Western world based its values less on this sort of materialism, and if there were more sensible limitations placed on capitalist business practices, it is argued, the world would be a far better place.

On this I am more inclined to agree with critics than on the previous accusations, but I would still point out that cut-throat competition for power within one’s society and over neighboring people –– which is ultimately what wealth comes down to –– is hardly a uniquely Western phenomenon; it’s just something that has reached a particularly extreme form in Western societies. Even at that it can be argued that among the poor and abused within Western societies –– even the United States, arguably the most socially backwards country in the post-industrialized world –– life-spans are still longer and infant mortality rates are lower than they have been among poor people at any previous time in human history. From the example of my own family, in the generations before they left the Netherlands for the US, my ancestors lost more siblings as children than made it to adulthood. This was more the rule than the exception among the poor in most parts of the world, prior to the last century or two within the Western world. Today that is no longer the case in developed nations, nor is it considered morally acceptable there, even among the ultra-rich to allow children to die of starvation and treatable disease. And through Western technical assistance by way of organizations like UNICEF, Westerners are making a sincere effort to prevent children’s suffering and death in developing nations as well.

This is not to say that 1) there is any justification for dignifying slavery as a benevolent institution, 2) “trickle down economics” is a viable solution to poverty, or 3) the Western world is not culpable for the ecological and economic damages its business practices have inflicted on developing countries and former colonies. What it is to say is that Western philosophy per se is not to blame here; these are general human competitive tendencies that have got out of control. The fact that other cultures have not been able to compete (in economic terms) as effectively on a global scale does not mean that their wisdom traditions are more advanced, or that they might have the answer to controlling runaway competition in the Western world. As the problem is a Western one, so the solutions will be Western ones. Meanwhile not everything is as bad as some would claim, and the finer and nobler of Western thinkers have managed to channel at least some of this runaway economic competition into doing some good along the way.

Some boys in the West never outgrow their fascination with things that go "BOOM"

One final significant critique of Western culture and Western thought is how much it is based on militaristic thinking. The grand age of European dominance (the colonialist period) was based on their capacity to kill off those who dared challenge them. And since then it seems that everything grand which has come out of Western societies –– from medical innovations to transportation technology, to computers and the Internet, to GPS tracking systems –– has come as a by-product of the pursuit of military dominance. Why is it that so much Western development comes to fruition only by way of finding more effective ways of killing and violently intimidating people?

To this all I can say is that violence, like greed, is not an exclusively Western problem; and there are in fact strong traditions of non-violent resistance as a means of confronting the might of empires in the very heart of Western theology and philosophy as well. The most obvious example of the latter would be Francis of Assisi and the monastic order he founded. Nor, in the face of particularly abusive forms of violence from elsewhere, is a defensive capacity for violence always a bad thing, though that is a rather long and complicated discussion unto itself. But in this area I really do hope to see Western society grow in other ways to better keep pace with –– and perhaps someday overtake –– its military development.

That much in answer to the vocal critics of Western thought. But I can’t leave things here with a defense of the perceived evils; I need to close by saying what I consider Western thought to be particularly good for, and/or good at. First among these virtues is that Western thought has a certain respect for its own traditions, but it does not remain the prisoner of those traditions. We aspire to see further than previous generations by “standing on the shoulders of giants” but we do not to let those giants tell us where we are allowed to look or to go. This flexibility and open-mindedness has been the essence of Western liberalism. Yet for all our liberal tendencies we also try to keep in mind that there were many things about our ancient traditions that have a value worth staying in touch with. Conservatives aren’t entirely useless either. Thus the Western philosopher always struggles to find the best possible balance between traditional and innovative thought; he needs to be a moderate of some sort. And it is fair to say that within this tradition Western philosophers have found many uniquely fruitful avenues for innovation.

Among the innovative ideas Western thinkers have formulated there are many ideals that societies have come to progressively accept, but they have been slow in living up to. To me one of the most important of these is the general concept that humans are essentially equal in basic dignity and legal rights. This is based largely on extended contemplation of the implications of the Judeo-Christian belief that all mankind go back to a set of common ancestors “made in the image of God”. It is not a question of other people accepting the proper tribal identity and belief system: each individual is inherently valuable just because they are all part of an extended family with divine connections. This idea has in turn spread among those of all other types of belief systems. It has been a harder sell among those who believe in fundamental inequalities among people as part of the karmic justice of reincarnation, but there too this ideal has started to make inroads. Atheists have struggled to find their own way of consistently supporting the principle of shared human dignity and equality without basing it on an assumption of divine origins for our species, but a few Marxist extremists aside, they too accept the basic principle of respecting the dignity and rights of other people just because they happen to be people. Thus this Western idea, which obviously has a long ways to go before it is consistently respected in practice by Westerners, is perhaps the best hope we have for peace on earth and goodwill among mankind in general these days.

This in turn points to another feature of Western philosophy: just as atheists are able to accept the principle of human equality without accepting the Biblical basis for such a belief, Westerners in general tend to have a strong tendency to borrow useful ideas from diverse sources that they otherwise have little sympathy with. This is called eclecticism and I consider it to be one of the unique virtues of our way of thinking. It’s not that we are the first eclectics in history, but the degree to which this is practiced in postmodern Western society really leaves all the rest in the dust.

Some combinations can really only happen in Western cultures.

And the reason we are able to practice this free borrowing and blending ideas is because freedom itself is perhaps the highest goal of Western thought. There are extended debates regarding what we most need to be free from, what essential external preconditions are necessary in order for us to choose our own actions and how different from machines humans have to be in order to meaningfully decide anything; but in all these debates the desire for freedom remains key to Western thought. I rather like freedom, both as an ideal and an experience to thrive on. Making this freedom as authentic and as complete as possible without doing more harm than good in the process is one of the nobler goals I can think of, making me quite content to be a Westerner.

So yes, from there it’s up to each reader to decide for her- or himself whether or not the Western philosophical tradition deserves any particular credit for improving the world we live in overall. I happen to think it does, but you don’t have to. But if you chose to reject it, the irony is that your right to do so –– your right to discuss these things openly and internationally, and to be free to make up your own mind about them –– is more than anything else the fruit of the Western philosophical tradition.



Filed under Freedom, Human Rights, Individualism, Materialism, Philosophy, Tolerance

4 responses to “Western Philosophy’s Greatest Hits (and Misses)

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