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Written out of history |
Many of civilisation's crowning glories originated in the east. Yet you'd be unlikely to learn this from reading western historians.
What constitutes a "great idea"? How do we measure the impact of an idea on history? Or, to adopt the blurb from Penguin's Great Ideas series, how can we say which ideas have "changed the world" and "transformed the way we see ourselves - and each other"? Even the language presents problems. Who are "we", and what "world" is this? People inhabit different worlds and have different histories. What is regarded as a great idea in one world may matter little in another.
For example, when Copernicus published On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres in 1543, the idea that the earth was at the centre of the universe was a religious dogma in Europe. Not surprisingly, Copernicus transformed the European world-view. However, in the Muslim world, where no one believed that the universe revolved around the earth, his ideas, far from being seen as revolutionary, were simply appreciated as an advance in mathematical analysis.
Similarly, Friedrich Nietzsche's idea of the "super ego", or Sigmund Freud's technique of psychoanalysis, were hardly news for the Muslim world. For centuries earlier, Sufi thought had grappled with the notion of the ego, while the scrutiny of dreams was also well established. Moreover, thinkers in different cultures sometimes draw very different conclusions from the same premise. Descartes declared: "Cogito ergo sum" (I think, therefore I am), but long before him, Buddha had proved the opposite just as convincingly: "I think, therefore I am not."
In an age of globalisation in particular, it is important to distinguish truly transformative ideas from mundane, provincial ones. Many of the "great ideas" featured in Penguin's exceptionally well-designed series are in fact decidedly commonplace. There is nothing great about Jonathan Swift's A Tale of a Tub or William Hazlitt's On the Pleasure of Hating. Who wants to read the confused Meditations of the fatalist Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius when one can turn to The Book of Mencius, with its profound insights into righteousness, love, justice, fairness and the importance of ordinary people? Is the impact of Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince greater than one of the most influential political texts of Chinese civilisation, The Analects of Confucius, which insists that good influence is of greater value in politics than force or Machiavellian machinations? Why bother with Virginia Woolf's suppressed middle-class angst when, in Sei Shonagon's The Pillow Book, you can explore the complex aesthetic sensibilities of Japanese culture?
Tariq Ali describes the Penguin list as "parochial and philistine". He is being generous. It is, in fact, a disingenuous attempt to maintain the hegemony of western mediocrity. Starting with Seneca and Aurelius, it moves in a straight line to Freud and George Orwell, suggesting a universality that is both pretentious and deceptive. Great ideas, this list screams, are the sole preserve of western - mostly English - thought; and it offers its linear genealogy as the proof of western superiority.
Very few people now believe, as Thomas Macaulay once wrote, that "a single shelf of a good European library is worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia". Certainly, Charles Murray is not one of them. His huge book Human Accomplishment places a great deal of emphasis on plurality. For Murray, "we" refers not just to the west, but also to the civilisations of China, India, Japan and Islam. And he has a much more objective way of measuring great ideas and their impact on history.
Murray's basic tool is statistics. He painstakingly examines 163 historical surveys and encyclopaedias of the arts and sciences and compiles from them a list of the thinkers who have contributed most to achievement in these fields. Only if thinkers are mentioned in at least half of his sources does he regard them as important. A savvy statistician, he employs a number of tricks to avoid bias. For example, he ignores any entry on a thinker from the editor's own country. What we end up with is a list of 4,002 significant figures in science, philosophy, literature, music and technology; these individuals are then subjected to more statistical analysis and rated for their achievement across cultures and time. To counter the accusation of Eurocentrism, Murray provides two types of list. The first concentrates on science and technology and features major figures in astronomy, biology, mathematics and medicine. The second separately covers Chinese, Japanese and western art; Arabic, Chinese, Indian, Japanese and western literature; and Chinese, Indian and western philosophy.
Not surprisingly, the leading names are western - Newton, Shakespeare and Michelangelo - yet the book does give a strong impression that non-western cultures have played some part in human accomplishment. In astronomy, for example, names such as Ibn Yunus and Ulugh-Beg sit alongside Galileo. In physics, you find Alhazen as well as Albert Einstein. In philosophy and literature, names such as Shenhui, al-Mutanabbi and Kalidasa are seen as being on a par with Aristotle, Ovid and Goethe.
What Murray has done is extend the standard tool of citation analysis, commonly used in the natural and social sciences, into the arts and literature. There are two problems with such an endeavour. First, you need a decent spread of biographical literature on and from all civilisations and cultures to ensure that everyone is represented fairly. A quick look at Murray's sources reveals most of them to be western encyclopaedias and historical surveys. On Arabic literature, for example, he relies exclusively on orientalist sources. Thus, right from the start, his assessment is filtered through a western lens.
Second, there is the problem of constructed ignorance. Western scholarship ignores non-western achievements that do not fit with its assumption of superiority. In the history of science, for example, the monumental achievement of the 13th-century Muslim astronomer Nasir al-Din al-Tusi has been suppressed. Al-Tusi, who came very close to developing a theory of a heliocentric world, invented a mathematical device without which Copernicus could not have produced his "revolutions". Because western historians have knowingly ignored al-Tusi - he throws a spanner in the works that create the accepted picture of a pure western science - he does not figure in Murray's list.
So citation analysis provides an excellent example of the dictum "garbage in, garbage out". Despite Murray's mammoth effort, Human Accomplishment is intrinsically biased in favour of western thinkers. By his own admission, his list is dominated by dead white men. It also contains some bizarre anomalies. If the author is to be believed, Islam has produced neither philosophy nor art. India, China and Islam have no medicine worthy of the name. Only western civilisation is capable of producing music. And citation analysis leads Murray to certain strange conclusions. Picasso, for example, is rated much higher than Raphael, Leonardo, Titian and Rembrandt. Arnold Schoenberg stands above Johannes Brahms, Frederic Chopin and Giuseppe Verdi.
Murray aims to do much more than simply produce a list of geniuses. He wants to provide a general overview of the historical conditions necessary for the arts and sciences to flourish. And he reaches two general conclusions: human accomplishment is fostered by "a culture in which the most talented people believe that life has a purpose and that the function of life is to fulfil that purpose", and which "encourages the belief that individuals can act efficaciously as individuals". So religion and individualism are two essential criteria for producing geniuses. But not any old religion. Murray examines Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam and early Christianity and finds them flawed. Only late Christianity, welded to Protestant ethics, will do. This is hardly news. Macro-historians from Herbert Spencer to Arnold Toynbee have beaten this drum. Nor is it surprising to learn that right-wing American Christians are using Murray's work to argue for the superiority of their world-view.
So it all comes down to the purity of western thought. As John Hobson points out in his ground-breaking work The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation, the west believes it has an "autonomous genealogy": "a pristine west made it of its own accord as a result of its innate or superior virtues". History is simply a tale of western virtue triumphing over the bad guys of the east. Yet the truth is otherwise. Far from being responsible for its own development, the west is a product of eastern accomplishment. As Hobson shows, the east was largely responsible for creating and sustaining a global economy from the year 500 onwards. It also contributed to the rise of the west by pioneering many advanced "resource portfolios" of ideas, institutions and technologies.
Each major turning point in Europe's development, he argues, was driven by assimilating eastern ideas and innovations. Printing was invented by Pi Sheng, who first set up a printing press in China in roughly 1040; the first movable metal-type press was invented in Korea in 1403, 50 years before Gutenberg made his. Liberal humanism and institutions of higher learning were imported from the Muslim world. The industrial revolution began not in Britain, but in China. And so it continues.
The west shaped its identity, Hobson demonstrates convincingly, by appropriating eastern achievements and then writing them out of history. History looks quite different when seen from China, Japan, India or Islam. In relative historical terms, Hobson concludes, the west is not all that significant.
[ Last edited by changabula at 2007-2-17 09:00 AM ]