Academic journal article Geopolitics, History and International Relations

Eurocentrism and the Critique of "Universal World History": The Eastern Origins of Western Civilization

Academic journal article Geopolitics, History and International Relations

Eurocentrism and the Critique of "Universal World History": The Eastern Origins of Western Civilization

Article excerpt

1. 'Universal Human History' and The Critique of Historical Reason

Dipesh Chakrabatty (2000), the Bengali historian, in Provincializing Europe begins his account by maintaining "Historians have long acknowledged that the so-called 'European age' in modem history began to yield place to other regional and global configurations toward the middle of the twentieth century. European history is no longer seen as embodying anything like "universal human history"' (p. 3). He suggests however that "political modernity" is impossible to think anywhere without the rule by modem institutions of the state, bureaucracy and capitalist enterprise that together invoke a deeper set of concepts such as "citizenship, the state, civil society, public sphere, human rights, equality before the law, the individual, distinctions between public and private, the idea of the subject, democracy, popular sovereignty, social justice, scientific rationality" (p. 4) which all together bear the imprint of European thought and history. He argues that these concepts entail "an una voidable... universal and secular vision of the human" (p. 4) even if the Enlightenment humanism they articulated was contradicted in practice and experience of European colonization. The vision has now become global although there are no guarantees that this European humanist legacy, basically the infrastructure of liberal modernity, with the increasing global dominance of China, India and Brazil, will carry through intact into the late twenty-first century.

Chakrabatty (2000) claims that the European intellectual tradition is "the only one alive in the social science departments of ... modem universities" (p. 4) and softens this claim by acknowledging that such a tradition has been justifiably criticized by the likes of Martin Bemal and Samir Amin as in some sense a fabrication of a pure, unbroken and even exclusively European tradition. Imperfect though it may be and open to criticism on various counts, it is the tradition that social scientists today find themselves inserted within and the machinery - the concepts, methods and theories of modem social science - are indissoluably linked to liberal political modernity. It is as though we social scientists could not think or proceed otherwise even if the framework itself is still inadequate in coming to terms with concepts and categories that still bear the metaphysical traces of a confident European universalism that purports to speak for the world.

Chakrabatty (2003) expresses the point:

The normative pictures of a modem society that I carry inside my head are, typically and necessarily, European or Western in origin. I think through an intellectual tradition in which one is able to spell out, at least in principle, the broad constitution of a just social order on an a priori basis (Marx on the Gotha program and Rawls on justice would be examples of this). I use this blueprint to critique existing inequities. Yet I recognize that there are political imaginations shaping popular politics all over the world today that escape or exceed our normative understanding of the political. These imaginations belong neither to the Left nor to the Right. But they have global implications for governance all over the world.

In this context he mentions critiques of historicism of both poststructuralist (Foucault) and postcolonial in orientation. It was a certain kind of Hegelian historicism was instrumental in forming a world history based on a notion of developmentalism, picturing Europe (and then America) on the basis of an ideology of progress as the yardstick of "late capitalism."

The critique of historicism is for Foucault simultaneously the critique of historical reason. In a broad sense this critique involves first an historicizing move - an historicizing of Kant's universal categories and an emphasis on a kind of radical contingency alerting us to the idea that things could have happened differently. Foucault's critique was also in tune with the poststructuralist tendency to reject the Enlightenment project of modernity and the universalizing grand narratives springing from nineteenth German historiography that projected a Eurocentric vision and teleology on an emerging world history. …

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