Friday, October 14, 2011

Shall we speak of "Oriental" philosophy?

Does it make any sense to speak of "Oriental philosophies" or even of "Oriental philosophy"?

I tend to hate the label "Oriental", since this seems to convey little information and since this little information also happens to be wrong. It conveys little information because if one hears the word "Oriental", one will only know that the topic one is dealing with occurred outside (America, Sub-Saharian Africa and) Western Europe (with the boundaries of Western Europe being themselves uncertain). It might have happened in Turkey, Egypt or Indonesia.
It conveys wrong information, because it implicitly presupposes a uniformity between cultures which have little to do with each other (e.g., Mongolian "shamans" and Arabian classical poetry). Furthermore, it implicitly presuppose that whatever culture belongs to the "Orient" is more distant to the "Occident" than to any other "Oriental" culture. But this is not the case, and Arabic philosophy has been influenced by Aristotle and not by Lao Tse.
To sum up, "Orient" only works as the alter ego of the "Occident". As shown by Said, its use only informs us about what "Occidentals" think (and often it tells us a lot about what they like and dislike). In this sense, the "Orientals" are akin to the "Extraterrestrials" of science fiction. The latter are our projction (for instance, they are often technologically advanced, like we would like to be; but look ugly, because we are too vain to accept not to be the best looking living beings).

This being said, is there any residual use of the word "Orient"? Perhaps, insofar as it forces us to reconsider what is different than us. The word "Ancient" may work in a similar way. What is "Ancient" and what is "Oriental" is "not-us". If one does not stop at the stereotype and accepts taking a trip into the little-known, one might find out a lot about oneself and even happen to learn something about Sanskrit, Buddhism, Shinto, etc.

Do you ever speak of "Orient"?
On labels, see here (on my dissatisfaction with areal studies) and here (on "Indology").

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