Sunday, May 19, 2013

Professor Mark Elvin's Critical Review of Ricardo Duchesne's Uniqueness of the West

Mark Elvin

Continuing my posting of block quotes from reviews of Ricardo Duchesne's Uniqueness of the West, I today quote from a review by Mark Elvin, Professor Emeritus of Chinese History at the Australian National University, "Confused Alarms: Duchesne on the Uniqueness of the West," Canadian Journal of Sociology, 36 (4), 2011:
Uniqueness is, to use old-fashioned examiner's terminology, an alpha-delta book -- with some very good and some unnervingly bad components. It is also all but impossible to review fairly, at least in a brief compass. I will therefore proceed mostly by responding to the five main points that he helpfully lays out in his preface. These are as follows: (1) a great deal of often shoddy recent historiography and social science have devalued the intrinsic quality of Western civilization; (2) recent "revisionist" historical writing has seriously underestimated Western achievements between approximately 1500 and the present day; (3) for at least during the two-and-a-half millennia since classical antiquity, and probably far longer, the culture of the "West" has always been "in a state of variance from the world"; (4) a virtually unique "liberal-democratic culture" was crucial to the rise of the modern West; (5) the West's restless creativity ultimately derives from the war-like "aristocratic egalitarianism" of the early Indo-Europeans. Space being limited, I will express myself in response to these ideas as bluntly as he summarizes them. Needless to say, both our full positions are more nuanced. (pages 363-364)
By "alpha-delta," I presume Elvin is grading Duchesne with an A for some parts and and a D for other parts and is thus more critical than previously cited reviews. The five points above are simply sketchy summaries, so readers interested in Elvin's deeper analysis will need to go to the review itself, but he here is a sample of his remarks on "aristocratic egalitarianism" of the early Indo-Europeans:
The fifth thesis is original and Nietzschean in flavour; and I suspect many readers will find it outrageous. But it can provoke one into thinking hard, which is no bad thing. It is that the West's "creativity and libertarian spirit" originated in "the aristocratic warlike culture of Indo-European speakers," who were "governed by a spirit of aristocratic egalitarianism." The "primordial basis for Western uniqueness," Duchesne tells us, "lay in the ethos of individualism and strife" (p. x). The highest ideal in life was "the attainment of honorable prestige through the performance of heroic deeds." One's first reaction to this is to ask why, if this was so, were the invigorating effects not equally in evidence in the northern part of the Indian subcontinent, where speakers of one of the oldest great Indo-European tongues, namely Sanskrit, arrived and settled? Arjuna's troubled heart and sense of duty as he faces battle in the Bhagavad-Gîtâ are hardly those of Beowulf! (371-372)
Elvin is therefore a critic worth Duchesne's attention, for not only is he skeptical of the most original of Duchesne's five theses, as well as of the other four -- and thus of the West's uniqueness in some respects -- he is also a critical thinker who is both highly intelligent and well educated in the fields where Duchesne has trod.

Again, interested readers should go to Elvin's review.

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