Fjordman: Edward Said and the Myth of Eurocentrism

22 June 2011


In his book Orientalism from 1978, Edward Said slammed what he considered to be the “racist ethnocentrism” of Europeans. Said argued that Western stereotypes of the “Orient” and Asia date back to ancient Greece. The only problem with Said’s claim is that it is utterly false, as is the entire basic premise of his book.

Probably all nations in the world are “ethnocentric” to some degree. This is not a specifically “European” quality; it is a human one. If anything, Europeans have not infrequently proved to be less ethnocentric than many other cultures.

As far as we know, it was Herodotus who first used the term historia (inquiry) for what we call “history.” John Burrow traces this concept in his excellent work A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century:

History – the elaborated, secular, prose narrative (all these qualifications are necessary) of public events, based on inquiry – was born, we can claim with confidence, in Greece between roughly 450 and 430 BC. If we want to add Thucydides’ very different kind of history to that of Herodotus, who is sometimes spoken of as ‘the father of history’, then we must speak instead of the second half of the fifth century BC.

Even with this extension, and with the qualifications built into the description of the genre, it is extraordinary that we can speak of so short a period for its abrupt genesis, yet it appears to be justified. It is equally astonishing that we can plausibly claim that neither historian was to be excelled for over two thousand years subsequently – until, in fact, changes in methods and types of history begin to make comparison unrealistic.He distinguishes between certain Greek writers versus the “proto-history” we may find in other ancient civilizations, for instance those of Mesopotamia or Egypt. The latter could produce good record-keepers, a practice closely tied to bureaucracy and commerce, but one of the key differences between them and the Greeks lies in the emphasis on critical inquiry, for instance in Herodotus on the Greco-Persian wars. Burrow again, in A History of Histories:

We are still reading his account of his great theme, the invasion of Greece two and a half thousand years ago, and a mere half century before he wrote it, by the Persian Great King and the immense polyglot army drawn from all parts of his empire. Herodotus also promises a little later (Histories, I.95) to tell us how the Persians under their ruler Cyrus (the Great) won their predominant position in Asia, and this promise too he fulfils before going on to his account of the invasion of Greece.

One point in his initial statement which is worth pausing on is the reference to recording the great deeds of barbarians (i.e. non-Greeks) as well as Greeks. We should look in vain in the Egyptian and Babylonian records for such even-handedness. What we are reminded of is Homer, who, as Herodotus soon reminds us, had written of an earlier conflict between Greeks and an Asiatic people. Homer allows his readers/hearers to sympathize with Trojans as well as Greeks, and as much or more with Priam and Hector as with Achilles and Agamemnon. Herodotus does not comment on this feature in Homer, but seems to take it for granted.This is an authentic and distinctly European character trait, which as we can see was already evident in pre-Christian times. In the Middle Eastern environment described in the Hebrew Bible this mentality is nowhere to be found. Nobody is interested in the motivations of the opponents of Joshua and his Israelite troops when they took Jericho during their conquest of Canaan, and “utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, both young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.” (Joshua 6:21) Likewise, nobody cares much about how Goliath’s family reacted to the news of his death at the hands of David.

The Parthenon in Athens, completed in the 430s BC, is the most famous surviving building of Classical Greece. Yet it was not the first large structure on the Athenian Acropolis, where other constructions had existed at least since Mycenaean times. An older building on the same spot was destroyed by the Persians when they invaded and sacked the city in 480 BC. The structure we see today was built under the enlightened rule of the statesman Pericles. You can detect hostility to Persians in the writings of some Greek authors, yes, but it is normal that people are unhappy when somebody within living memory invaded their land and destroyed their monuments. It is far more unusual that they give them a balanced historical treatment.

Thucydides identified himself as an Athenian, but acknowledged that Athens was unpopular. A champion of political liberty at home, the city could sometimes bully its smaller neighbors. Thucydides had seen warfare for himself as a general and was acutely aware of military techniques. For this reason, his descriptions of siege engines, earthworks and sea battles are quite precise. He was a realist who left less room for divine intervention than did Herodotus:

Thucydides seems to embody all the qualities that Nietzsche admired and did not always manage to embody himself. It is easy to understand the admiration. Almost all historians except the very dullest have some characteristic weakness: some complicity, idealization, identification; some impulse to indignation, to right wrongs, to deliver a message. It is often the source of their most interesting writing. But Thucydides seems immune. Surely no more lucid, unillusioned intelligence has ever applied itself to the writing of history.
In the modern age, the English scholar William Jones (1746-94) is said to have known thirteen languages well, and twenty-eight fairly well, at the time of his death, among them Greek, Latin, Persian, Arabic, Hebrew and Sanskrit. In 1783 he was appointed to a judgeship at Calcutta. Jones was to stay there until his death. He transformed the intellectual life of India when he founded the Asiatic Society of Bengal and the associated journal, Asiatick Researches, dedicated to the scientific study of Indian literature, history and philosophy.

In 1786, the linguist William Jones elaborated a theory of the common origins of most European languages and those found in many parts of India, an intuition that marks the beginning of Indo-European comparative grammar and comparative-historical linguistics, a great scholarly breakthrough which the ancient Greeks at their best had never quite achieved:

The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists: there is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothic [Germanic] and the Celtic, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanskrit; and the Old Persian might be added to the same family, if this were the place for discussing any question concerning the antiquities of Persia.
If you believe Nicholas Ostler in Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World, “This was the origin of historical comparative linguistics. Applying it to languages all over the world was one of the great intellectual adventures of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; and as a direct result we now know much of the flow of human languages, and so of human history, well before the start of the written documents.

To give just three examples, this is how we know that the Hungarians came from northern Siberia, that Madagascar was colonised from Borneo, and that the European Gypsies originated as far away as India. For all the self-generated excellence of Sanskrit’s own tradition in linguistics, it could never have gone off in this new direction on its own: what was needed was confrontation with other languages, far beyond the Indian ken, but also the ability to view these languages as somehow on a par with Sanskrit, something else that the tradition would have found simply inconceivable.”

Sanskrit managed to achieve a status within Indian civilization as a quasi-universal language. Pali, its younger sister language, has occasionally enjoyed something of the same status, though only among Buddhists, and mostly outside India itself. “We have noted the characteristic distrust of writing in Indian culture. This in fact applies not just to these Aryan languages, but more generally: in fact, the first sacred written text anywhere in India is the Sikhs’ Guru Granth Sahib, produced in the seventeenth century. (And Sikhism explicitly takes Islam, with its adoration of the written text of the Koran, as a major inspiration.)”

India could produce some fine grammarians, for example Panini in the fifth century BC who contributed to a comprehensive theory of phonetics, phonology and morphology, but he studied Sanskrit, specifically, and did not put it on the same level as other, foreign languages.

The book Indo-Aryan Controversy, edited by Edwin Bryant, is dedicated to the controversy, which exists mainly in India, of whether or not there was an invasion of India from the northwest of peoples speaking a language from the Indo-Iranian or Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European tree. Some Indian nationalists will passionately argue that Sanskrit, and perhaps the entire Indo-European language family, was native to India. The problem with their position is that they have, objectively speaking, very few arguments in their favor.

The only argument I am willing to seriously consider is a negative one: The written language of the Indus Valley Civilization, which existed well before 2000 BC, has not yet been fully deciphered. This is correct. Theoretically speaking, this could be an Indo-European language, but most scholars today find this unlikely. Virtually everything that we do know indicates that the Indo-European language family, and probably also the Indo-Iranian or Indo-Aryan branch of that family, originated in the cooler regions of northern Eurasia, probably in northeastern Europe. Those supporting this position in the debate include Asko Parpola and Christian Carpelan from the University of Helsinki, Finland. Asko Parpola is a Finnish professor emeritus of Indology and widely recognized as the world’s leading expert on the Indus script.

Personally, what struck me the most when reading the various positions is that many Indian nationalists are not really interested in an honest debate of these issues; they merely want to preserve the “purity” of their beautiful Sanskrit and present “Mother India” as the cradle of civilization. Apart from claiming that Sanskrit is native to India they simply don’t care very much about the origins and evolution of Tocharian in Central Asia, certainly not the Slavic or Celtic tongues in Europe. This is largely left to Western scholars. In this exchange of opinion it was the Indian writers, not the European ones, who came off as being most “ethnocentric.”

Regarding the history of linguistics, the Encyclopædia Britannica online states that

To the extent that Mesopotamian, Chinese, and Arabic learning dealt with grammar, their treatments were so enmeshed in the particularities of those languages and so little known to the European world until recently that they have had virtually no impact on Western linguistic tradition.
Chinese philological scholarship stretches back for more than two millennia, but the interest of those thinkers was concentrated largely on the phonetics, writing and lexicography of Chinese. A partial exception can be seen when a few scholars went to India to obtain Buddhist texts. This triggered some analyses of the peculiarities of spoken Chinese vs. Pali or Sanskrit, but it didn’t lead to the development of anything resembling comparative linguistics in China.

The same case can be made even more forcefully when it comes to the Islamic world. Some Muslims did of course speak other languages such as Persian or Turkish, but Arabic always carried a special prestige within that cultural sphere as the language of the Koran and the vehicle which Allah himself had chosen to reveal His message to mankind. Muslim students studied grammar, but only for use in religious studies of Arabic texts. It would have been inconceivable, not to mention downright insulting and probably outright blasphemous, to suggest that the language of Allah and his Prophet should be treated on the same level as the Hebrew of the Jewish scriptures or the Coptic of the Egyptian Christians, not to mention the many tongues of the worthless infidels elsewhere in Asia or Europe. Before the European colonial period, most Muslims found it beneath their dignity to study non-Muslim languages.

The conclusion we can draw from these examples is this: Most Asian nations, and probably most nations elsewhere in the world, too, were simply too subjective and too ethnocentric to invent comparative linguistics. Treating their own language on the same level as those of alien peoples was mentally impossible and just wasn’t done. Contrast this with the genuine curiosity, openness and much more objective attitude displayed by linguists such as William Jones and we realize that Europeans invented comparative linguistics because they were the least ethnocentric of the major civilizations. It is likely that this heritage of greater scholarly objectivity was a major contributing factor to the emergence of modern science in Europe.

Needless to say, this insight completely blows away the main arguments presented in Edward Said’s Orientalism. The entire basic premise of his book is wrong and can easily be shown to be so. It is unfortunate that he and his disciples have been allowed to spread demonization and falsehoods against European and Western scholars for so many years relatively unchallenged.