Friday, May 24, 2013

Q. Edward Wang on Duchesne's Uniqueness of Western Civilization

Institute of History
Humboldt University of Berlin

A little over one year ago, Q. Edward Wang, of Rowan University, wrote a "Rezension zu: Duchesne, Ricardo: The Uniqueness of Western Civilization. Leiden 2011" -- which means Professor Wang reviewed Duchesne's book -- for H-Soz-u-Kult (April 27, 2012), and he asked, "[W]hat was the uniqueness of Western/European civilization?":
Duchesne devotes five chapters to discussing it in the . . . book. These chapters, as one now can well expect, cover such topics as the "creativity" among the Europeans, the advances of "reason and freedom" in Europe, the "restlessness" of the Western spirit, the entrenched tradition of "egalitarianism" and the strong notion of "self" in European culture. In discussing these subjects, he relies on and rehearses the points made by major European thinkers in the past, ranging from Malthus and Hegel to Max Weber and, more recently, J├╝rgen Habermas and Francis Fukuyama. He then draws on his own conclusion, often in a sweeping manner and a highly subjective language. In extolling Europeans' "creativity," for instance, Duchesne hypothesizes that "The West, I believe, has always embodied a reflective sense of self-doubt about what it knows and what remains to be known, a kind of restlessness that has been both destructive and productive of new literary style, musical trends, visual motifs, and novel ideas. By contrast, the intellectual and artistic order of China has remained relatively stable throughout its history" (p. 194). In other words, though he agrees that China and India had achieved economic successes in their past, the Chinese and Indians remained no match for the Europeans in terms of cultural and intellectual creativity. To his credit, he does cite some of the works by scholars of Asia in making comparison. With regard to artistic creativity in China, for instance, Duchesne quotes Jacques Gernet, a renowned French China scholar, that Chinese cultural life between 1650 and 1800 was not characterized by "conformism" but by "an openness of mind and intellectual curiosity." He then quickly dismisses Gernet's observation and states that the Chinese cultural accomplishment in the period was eclipsed by what the Europeans did, for the latter's achievement showed, citing Thomas Kuhn, "fundamental novelties" (pp. 194-195). Needless to say, this kind of remarks piqued one's interest, wanting to see more elaboration from him. But Duchesne simply stops here. Perhaps to him, this has been a foregone conclusion, rather a point of departure for further research.
I think that Wang intended to say "rather than a point of departure for further research." He clearly thinks that Duchesne fails to follow through on the main point, never providing a demonstration that Europeans were more fundamentally creative than Chinese.

Wang does not comment on the Indo-European hypothesis, but the review is a short one, and he is understandably more interested in Duchesne's remarks on China.

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At 11:24 AM, Blogger Yule said...

I understand that the Chinese think of their eras when the feudal social order was most stable as civilizational high-points.

Contrast: Europe popularly calls its period of feudalism the "Dark Ages", and when it emerged from feudalism it was now a "Renaissance", a rebirth!

At 11:56 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Yule, for the detail on China.

Jeffery Hodges

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