The East and the West

Jindrich Štyrsky, Untitled, 1934.


Legitimate condemnation of the illegal invasion of Ukraine is legitimizing the orientalization of Russia

As with the north and south cardinal directions, east and west are much more than geopositional orientations; they are cultural devices, concepts, metaphors, which express positive or negative images, which can only be understood in the mirror of one another. Positive images involve ideas of superiority, originality, fascination, harmony, civilization, beauty, grandeur; whereas negative images invoke the reverse of these qualifiers.

The images are based on binaries, but sometimes combine contradictory ideas, such as, for example, fascination and horror. The construction of images always depends on the starting point, eastern or western, of who makes it. The longevity of the West-East opposition in culture and international relations is such that it has become an archetype, a kind of Jungian collective unconscious that surfaces in consciousness in multiple forms, whenever circumstances allow. Perhaps we are entering the period when this archetype will be provoked to surface; for this reason, the west-east relationship deserves to be revisited.

Relations between East and West go back more than 4000 years. They are very present in Greek antiquity, in the Bible, in the Crusades. Flows of goods and people characterized these relationships for many centuries in the space-time that most interests us, Eurasia, that immense land mass between Cabo da Roca and the extreme southeast of the Malaysian Peninsula. 92 countries, with Russia and Turkey divided between a European and an Asian part. The Portuguese voyages by sea to India and then to China and Japan, while changing trade circuits, allowed for an enormous expansion of knowledge. Garcia de Orta's Colloquium of Simples and Drugs and Medicinal Things from India, published in Goa in 1563, is a notable example of this expansion.

In the following centuries, mutual knowledge deepened and, especially in the 1830th and 1884th centuries, curiosity and, at times, reciprocal admiration dominated. During all this time, the best fabrics, china and other utensils came from China and India. Until the beginning of the 85th century, China was the great commercial power. In the XNUMXth century, everything began to change on the European side. From the industrial revolution (XNUMXs) to the Berlin Conference (XNUMX-XNUMX) which proceeded to the partition of Africa by the European powers, Europe (then equivalent to the West) globally confirmed its political, economic and military power.

In his history classes, Hegel is the first to theorize this superiority as an expression of the progression of the spirit of history, from east to west. It would be in the West that this progression would culminate, symbolized in the Prussian State. Hegel says: “World history travels from east to west; therefore, Europe is the absolute end of history, just as Asia is the beginning”. It is in this same period that Greek culture separates itself from its African and Asian roots (Alexandria, Persia) to serve as the pure and exclusive foundation of European exceptionalism. This reading is still dominant today, but has been increasingly contested.

In this text, I refer only to two influential reviews, both made from the western side. Many others have been made on the eastern side and are, moreover, available in accessible languages. The first review is by Edward Said in his work orientalism, published in 1978. Said analyzes the way in which Westerners have come to characterize the East, highlighting the differences, conceiving it as an Other that is as different as it is negatively evaluated. Said does not set out to characterize the East, but the way it is characterized or imagined by Western culture and politics. He fundamentally analyzes the Arab world and shows how characterization has always been at the service of European colonialism. Orientals are conceived as barbaric, primitive, violent, despotic, fanatical, culturally stagnant. Their only path to redemption or civilization is to adopt the progressive ideas of the West. Said shows how this narrative says more about Westerners than Easterners. For example, the obsession with how women are treated in the East is indicative of Western obsessions in this regard.

In recent times, some of Said's readers have tried to reconstruct the image of the West that emerges from the concern to highlight everything it opposes. From my point of view, Said's merit is to show us that throughout history stereotypes have been created about the other, in this case the "Oriental" or the "Arab", and that these stereotypes were used to justify the invasion, colonization and political domination. Influenced by Michel Foucault's conception of power-knowledge, Said shows that culture often functioned as a justification of imperialism. For example, the narrative of the homogenization and demonization of the Islamic other is deconstructed by Said, by showing the enormous internal diversity of Islam.

The second review of East-West relations has been made by various historians. After the monumental work of Joseph Needham (Science and Civilization in China), the most important review is that of Jack Goody in the books The Oriental, the Ancient and the Primitive, The East in the West and Renaissance. Jack Goody shows us how the Hegelian idea of ​​history has come to dominate the narratives and conceptions of the West and its relations with the East. Goody tries to combat stereotypes that continue to prevail, such as the idea of ​​Western exceptionalism and originality, by enumerating the eastern contributions to much of what we assume to be specifically western (from the scientific revolution to the industrial revolution). While Edward Said makes a culturalist analysis, Goody focuses on productive processes and commercial exchanges.

At this level, it was common in Europe, from the XNUMXth century onwards, the idea that the economic and social development of the West contrasted strongly with that of the East and that there were good reasons for this to happen. Both Max Weber and Karl Marx, authors with different ideas in so many areas, converged in considering that the West had unique, original and exceptional characteristics, in which lay the enormous economic and political development of the West when compared to that of the East. It is important to bear in mind that the causes of the superiority and originality of the West (and conversely, of the inferiority of the East) were conceived as concerning the constitutive essence of the respective societies, not being possible to change them.

Among the causes that justified the backwardness of the East, deficient rationality (which impeded the development of accounting), religion (which, in its Buddhist and Confucian versions, privileged contemplation and not the transformation of reality) and family (which , as it was extensive and had multiple ties, prevented the mobility of its members for productive activity). In both authors, the idea of ​​oriental despotism is present, particularly oppressive forms of government that would characterize both the Ottoman empire and the Chinese empire.

These analyses, which functioned as an inverted mirror of the West and were very selective, had only a few European countries as a positive reference and focused on the period of colonial expansion and the industrial revolution. They omitted that for centuries Europe had imported essential goods from India (cotton, silk) and China (porcelain). They omitted that in the century. IX Baghdad was one of the great cultural centers of the world, where in the House of Wisdom, created by the dynasty of the Abbasids, scholars from all over the world gathered, and it was also there that the conditions were generated for Europeans to have access to philosophy centuries later. Greek translated into Latin from Arabic and Hebrew (at the Toledo school of translators in the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries).

In the dominant readings of East-West relations, the reasons that explain the success of the West (and the failure of the East) are essentialist and, therefore, suggest that the history that happened could not have happened any other way. There is no place for contingency. As can be imagined, in more recent times these readings have been discredited. The development of Japan and later China and Southeast Asia contradicted all the assumptions of conventional explanations. And the same happened with the issue of the extended family, when Europeans began to see the thriving small businesses in their cities dominated by Asian families, sometimes the same family with businesses on several continents. What was once a hindrance to development became a development enabler.

In light of this, two notes are necessary. The first is that history is contingent. In the long historical period, the direction of relations between the West and the East is less one-way than a pendulum: for centuries it dominated the East, for two centuries it has dominated the West. There are signs that this dominance may be coming to an end, as at the beginning of the next decade China will be the most developed country in the world (if no war, meanwhile, destroys it).

The second note is that, against the facts, the traditional explanation of the inferiority of the East continues to dominate the Western popular imagination. It becomes, therefore, easily instrumental politically. Whenever Europeans feel the need to westernize their image, they orientalize that of the countries they have problems with, especially if they have dual belonging to Europe and Asia, as is the case of Turkey and Russia. When Europe wanted to reject Turkey's entry into the European Union, it orientalized it. Now, legitimate condemnation of the illegal invasion of Ukraine is legitimizing Russia's orientalization.

*Boaventura de Sousa Santos is full professor at the Faculty of Economics at the University of Coimbra. Author, among other books, of The end of the cognitive empire (authentic).


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