East and West: From Invidious Dichotomy to Incomplete Deconstruction

Johann P Arnason. Handbook of Social Theory. Editor: George Ritzer & Barry Smart. 2001. Sage Publication.

Historical Patterns and Polarizing Visions

Critical reflection on the concepts of East and West must begin with the historical background to their imputed meta-historical meanings (the latter term seems more suitable than the vastly overstretched and abused notion of ‘essentialism’). When a vaguely defined geographical division is transfigured into an invariant contrast of socio-cultural identities, the underlying criteria must be derived from experiences and interpretations of a particularly formative nature. The visions (primarily Western ones) of East and West as enduring opposites, encompassing a variety of cultures and a series of epochs on each side, draw on successive patterns of polarization and on the accompanying self-images. The Greek encounter with the Near East—a combination of borrowing and demarcation through distinctive inventions, followed by conflict and counter-offensive—has commonly figured as the inaugural episode of a much longer story and as the original source of dichotomizing views. Both classical Greek affirmations of a political contrast to the East and Hellenistic speculations about an Eastern ancestry of philosophy could be seen as prototypes of later trends. Subsequent landmarks include the Near Eastern entanglements of the Roman Empire, whose expansion into that region collided with a particularly refractory religious tradition (Judaism) as well as an unbeatable imperial adversary (the Iranian realm under Parthian and Sassanian rule); an offshoot of the former, combined with less clear-cut inputs from the latter, was to play a key role in the last attempt to recon-solidate the imperial order. After the fragmentation of the Roman world, a long and complex process of interaction between the Western Christian and the Islamic successor civilizations left a legacy of polarizing perceptions which could serve to underpin further developments in a broader context, although the importance of this prehistory to modern visions of East and West remains a matter of debate.

European expansion gave a new and decisive twist to the division of the old world ecumene (and ultimately the global arena) into Eastern and Western parts. But it would be misleading to draw a straight line from early modern beginnings to present after-effects of Eurocentrism. The global network built during the first stage of overseas conquest and empire-building gave the European powers a new kind of strategic advantage, but did not bring about a conclusive shift in the balance between them and the major Asian civilizational complexes. Closer contacts during the eighteenth century led to growing interest in the diversity of non-European cultures, reconsideration of European self-images from a more comparative perspective, and an incipient grasp of the plurality of civilizations. It was the visibly increasing global strength of the West around and after 1800 that changed the terms of debate and reinforced Eurocentric attitudes at the expense of more critical insights. In this context, the main dividing line was drawn between the ascendant Western European region (together with its transatlantic extension) and the major Near Eastern and Asian civilizational complexes. A meta-historical contrast was, in other words, used to set a triumphant periphery apart from the rest of the Eurasian continent. Since North African developments and connections were subsumed under the notion of the East (and the rest of the African continent largely disregarded), the question of a broader Afro-Eurasian region did not arise. Another source of ambiguity was, however, more important for later elaborations of the distinction between East and West. Alongside the Western European turn to overseas empire-building, the Russian empire emerged as another major spearhead of expansion and a contender for power within the European state system. From the viewpoint of more self-assuredly Western observers, this new arrival from Europe’s periphery was an unsettled mixture of Eastern and Western elements; variations on that theme, ranging from the projects of Westernizing reformers or revolutionaries to the counter-arguments of ‘Eurasianists’ who stressed Eastern sources and prospects, became an enduring concern of Russian self-interpretations. The ambiguous identity of Russia lent support to similar views of its Byzantine background, more easily ‘easternized’ in retrospect than at a time when Byzantium coexisted and interacted with Western Christendom. More conspicuously, the image of Russia as at least partly Eastern could be transferred—with much more overtly strategic aims—to the Soviet incarnation of the empire: the ultimate version of the dichotomy discussed above was an ideological model of the bipolar world that took shape after the Second World War. In that context, the utopian vision transmitted from the West to its most dangerous adversary could be seen as a case of genuine cultural borrowing for alien purposes, or as a way to exploit the internal divisions of a superior but vulnerable civilization.

The interpretative sediments of successive historical experiences cannot serve to define the tasks of critical inquiry; in that sense, the inherited notions of East and West should be ranked with the problems rather than the premises of historical sociology. For several reasons, however, it seems appropriate to set the following discussion of theoretical issues against the background of traditional views. To begin with the most obvious point, attempts to theorize the dichotomy of East and West in uncompromisingly general terms are still being debated, and as we shall see, their ideological connections are not unequivocal. A more critical approach, grounded in classical insights and exemplified by contemporary trends, problematizes the distinction between East and West in multiple ways: work in this vein reflects a growing interest in differentiations on each side, as well as in changing patterns of interaction across the presumed divide. Such ideas can only be articulated and tested with critical reference to the pre-existing notions of polar contrasts. In a loose sense, the ongoing differentiation of regional, historical and civilizational perspectives may be described as an effort to deconstruct the duality of East and West. This task is far from completed, and there are good reasons to assume that deconstruction must remain more incomplete in some regards than others; as the following discussion will show, a critical review can allow for a suitably redefined and downsized concept of the West which has no equivalent on the other side. Even the most dedicated destroyers of Eurocentric myths have to admit that we can speak of the ‘rise of the West’ as a historical process, however derivative, destructive and transitory they consider it to be.

The demarcation of a historical (and by the same token context-dependent) West from the aggrandizing and idealizing meta-historical constructs is as controversial as it is important; notwithstanding the basic defects of dichotomizing theories, they can therefore serve to illustrate a deep-rooted and recurrent challenge to an alternative model that is still in the making.

Theorizing the Grand Divide

Early nineteenth-century interpretations exemplified by Hegel’s philosophy of history pictured the West as a privileged domain of reason and freedom in progress towards universal rule. By contrast, permanent stagnation, failure to develop beyond early beginnings or at least a loss of civilizing capacity was the apparent hallmark of the East. This view was shared by otherwise divergent theories of history and society; to mention only the most striking example, it had a strong influence on Marx’s work. The well-known formulations of the Communist Manifesto, where the triumph of the bourgeoisie over feudal adversaries is equated with the victory of civilization over barbarism and the West over the East, reflect an uncompromisingly Eurocentric position which was never revised in any fundamental way. But Marx’s attempts—after 1850—to explain Eastern backwardness on more specific grounds gave rise to ideas which proved adaptable to other perspectives in twentieth-century contexts. The concept of the ‘Asiatic mode of production,’ based on self-contained village communities controlled and exploited by a despotic state, was a badly flawed guide to the historical dynamics of Asian civilizations; but it was at least a step towards institutional analysis of obstacles to change, as distinct from the references to a quasi-natural state of stagnation, and the subsequent rejection of this approach by mainstream Marxism had more to do with a perceived political threat than with any theoretical issues. It was the very notion of basic historical divergences between East and West, rather than a particular emphasis on structural backwardness, that seemed incompatible with a unilinear model of past and future progress.

The most interesting reinterpretations of Marx’s ideas on the East were developed outside the orbit of Marxist orthodoxy, and the most provocative one took a militantly anti-Marxist turn. Karl Wittfogel’s new analysis of Oriental despotism (1957) was a uniquely ambitious attempt to reaffirm and theorize a permanent contrast between East and West, stretching from classical antiquity to the Cold War. The common denominator of Eastern social formations (as well as those of the western hemisphere before European conquest) was to be found in a ‘hydraulic’ power structure that had—at least in the heartlands of the civilizations in question—grown out of the technical imperatives of irrigation farming, but expanded far beyond its formative context and had often been adopted as a ready-made power device by states bordering on the hydraulic world. Most importantly, this monocentric pattern of social power had been re-established on a new technical basis by the post revolutionary regimes in China and Russia. A dynamic of ‘despotic power—total and not benevolent’ (Wittfogel, 1957: 101) was invariably central to societies organized in this way. By contrast, the liberal West was heir to a tradition of multi-centred society that began with the Greek rejection of Oriental despotism. Although this vision of history differs sharply from Marxian views in its emphasis on power as a driving force and differentiating factor, Wittfogel’s argument draws on distinctively Marxist assumptions: the original constitution of hydraulic society reflects the primacy of productive forces, and the adaptability of the hydraulic model to varying environments and changing infrastructures is reminiscent of capitalist expansion as described by Marx. The result is a curious mixture of simplifying models from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, untenable as a framework for comparative history (the core concept of a hydraulic managerial regime, essential to the whole argument, has been demolished by critics), but interesting as an extreme case of theory grafted onto meta-historical images of East and West.

Another revision of Marx’s underdeveloped theory leads to very different conclusions. It hinges on the concept of a ‘tributary mode of production,’ characterized by state appropriation of the surplus product but otherwise compatible with widely varying forms of organization as well as property, and independent of any original economic rationale for state control. Here the central role of coercive power and its political framework becomes more important than it had been for Marx, but not in the same sense as for Wittfogel. Although the idea of a tributary mode can be traced back to Japanese discussions about the Asiatic mode of production in the 1930s, attempts to develop it into an alternative to both older Marxist and anti-Marxist views are of more recent origin. Samir Amin (1976, 1989) seems to have pioneered this line of argument in the context of Western debates. His definition of the tributary mode, designed to avoid all connotations of backwardness or stagnation, stresses the direct involvement of political power in the relations of production and the compatibility of this invariant trait with varying degrees of commercial growth. In Amin’s writings, the tributary mode is presented as the main pattern of pre-capitalist development, whereas the atypical social formations of the European periphery—before its colonizing and capitalist turn—do not add up to more than a deviant episode. This reinterpretation of the Asiatic mode of production is no less radical than Wittfogel’s, but its result is the exact opposite: a model originally meant to highlight the distinctive dynamism of the West has been adapted to a critique of Eurocentrism.

The concept of the tributary mode also lends itself to less ideological uses. When the social regime in question is seen as ‘an unusually developed economic and political system’ (Wickham, 1988: 88, original emphasis), capable of maintaining and even rebuilding itself despite the permanent threat from disintegrative trends, comparative history is by the same token set on a more balanced course. The historicity of tributary societies is evident in the complex interplay of centrifugal and centripetal dynamics, and the ability to reinvent mechanisms of control in new contexts can no longer be mistaken for mere inertia. On the other hand, the distinctive features of Asian societies have now—in order to avoid the stereotype of the ‘unchanging East’—been redefined so broadly that regional boundaries tend to vanish. If feudal structures are—as Wickham argues—a recurrent outcome of decomposing processes within the tributary ones, it is difficult to insist on a dividing line between the two types: since the feudal patterns always involve some fragmentation of political power, it seems more appropriate to treat them as variously attenuated or self-limiting versions of the tributary nexus between economic and political structures. The most comprehensive analysis of the tributary mode (Haldon, 1993) draws this conclusion and includes the pre-capitalist phases of Western history in the range of tributary formations. From this point of view, the tributary mode appears as a universal framework of social development from the beginnings of civilization to the breakthrough of industrial capitalism; the ‘East in the West’ (Goody, [1996] uses that expression in another context) becomes more important than any clear-cut distinction between East and West; and a radical Western deviation from the common pattern only became possible when the Industrial Revolution changed the whole character of economic life. In regard to the last point, the theory of the tributary mode thus converges with unorthodox readings of Marx’s theory of capitalist development, that is, those which interpret modern capitalism as a revolutionary break with previously dominant world-historical patterns, rather than a culmination of evolutionary trends. On the other hand, the problematic of pre-capitalist change and diversity is now very tenuously linked to Marxist categories. If the deep structures of Eastern and Western societies before the great transformation are marked by a permanent intertwining of economic and political power, it is not clear why they should be conceptualized as modes of production (it would make more sense to see capitalism as the first formation that makes a mode of production central to social life); moreover, the shared core is open to variations which cannot be analysed in conventional Marxist terms. In view of all this, the idea of the tributary mode is perhaps better described as an exit from Marxism than as an innovation within the Marxist framework.

Another exit leads to more openly multidimensional conceptions of social development in East and West. All attempts to generalize across the spectrum of Asian societies are rejected as Orientalist stereotypes in disguise; in this field, the foremost task of further historical inquiry is to categorize different types and trajectories without any prior definition of limits to their variety. On the Western side, a more integrated model of historical change can be defended, but only if it gives due weight to changing configurations of multiple factors, instead of focusing on economic structures and their supposedly self-contained dynamics. The most representative example of this approach calls for unprejudiced exploration of the ‘historical field outside feudal Europe’ and a ‘concrete and accurate typology of social formations and State systems in their own right’ (Anderson, 1974: 549). An outline of structural and developmental contrasts between Islamic and Chinese institutions serves to illustrate the diversity of the formations in question. Anderson (1974) insists on the unique dynamism and universal significance of Western transformations, but also on the complexity of their driving forces. As he argues, the European passage to capitalism—with all its implications and ramifications—was only possible because of inputs from extra-economic sources at successive critical junctures. The Church as a bridge from antiquity to the Middle Ages, the emergence of self-governing urban communities, the reactivation of Roman law and the Renaissance, are all mentioned as crucial components of the process. At this point, the nominally intact notion of the mode of production has ceased to be an operative concept on either side of the divide. It implies no assumptions about the level of autonomy of economic structures, sets no limits to the involvement of political and cultural forces in the making of economic institutions, and posits no privileged terms of reference for explanations of long-term patterns or sequences.

The Weberian Turn and its Ambiguities

The two interpretative strategies summarized above have at least one thing in common: they reflect a shift from Marxian to Weberian perspectives. This is most obvious in the second case, where the specific aspects singled out to explain Western breakthroughs are unmistakably in line with Weber’s analyses of the same problematic. But the first alternative is at least implicitly Weberian in its emphasis on political components of economic structures, and open to further realignment inasmuch as subtypes of the very broadly defined tributary mode would have to be related to non-economic contexts. The next section of our survey should therefore deal with Weber’s views on East and West and the significance of his unfinished project for continuing debates. Despite recent progress towards a balanced understanding of Weber’s work, he is more frequently cited as a classic example of Eurocentrism than as a guide to critical reflection on its sources and consequences. But as I will try to show, his position is ambiguous in fundamental respects, and his formulations often more tentative than later commentators have wanted to admit; there is considerable scope for arguing ‘with Weber against Weber,’ and some of the latent or underdeveloped themes relevant to that purpose run counter to Eurocentric assumptions. The points to be noted in the present context range from revisions of the distinction between East and West to new angles on their respective dynamics and interactions. In each specific case, Weber’s potentially path-breaking insights are obscured by over-simplifications or restrictive premises which tend to perpetuate the traditional dichotomy in a more refined form. The latter aspect has, on the whole, figured more prominently in later interpretations.

(1) In his most seminal studies, Weber redraws the boundaries between East and West (or Orient and Occident, as he often calls them), divides the Eastern world into two radically different regions, and suggests divisions of another kind within the long-term trajectory of the West. For the comparative analysis of civilizations, the Near East is in crucial ways closer to its European neighbours than to the ‘Asiatic cultural world’ (Weber, 1958: 329) further east. The importance of this redefined demarcation line is evident in Weber’s sociology of ancient civilizations, which moves from Mesopotamia to the Roman Empire, and most strikingly at the end of his study of India, where ‘the Near East’ (Vorderasien) is explicitly described as a part of the Occident and singled out as the homeland of ‘missionary prophecy’ (Weber, 1958: 343); the latter is a component of the monotheistic traditions which set the enlarged West apart from the outer East. On the Eastern side, the Chinese and Indian civilizational complexes are based on mutually alien cultural premises, characterized by different institutional frameworks, and distinguished by specific patterns of contrasts with the West. Notwithstanding these basic distinctions, the Near Eastern world may in certain respects or at certain moments seem more external than internal to the West. For example, Weber speaks of ‘Oriental feudalism’ when he compares the socio-political structures of the Islamic world with the Western ones. As for the location and identity of the West, Weber’s analyses focus—in unequal measure—on a series of centres with shifting regional contours and changing socio-cultural characteristics. Near Eastern beginnings are followed by Greek and Roman phases of Mediterranean development; medieval Western Christendom, uniquely enriched and energized by the culture of self-governing cities, then mutates into the modern world of capitalist, bureaucratic and scientific rationality. It is easy to extrapolate from this sequence and distinguish segments of the ascendant modern West. The divergent dynamics of Reformation and Counter-Reformation were reflected in even sharper contrasts between new societies across the Atlantic, and within the European heartland, Central European patterns deviated from those of the Atlantic seaboard.

This revised model was, however, never formulated in systematic terms. On the level of concrete analyses, Weber was sensitive to regional differentiations, but he tended to fall back on dichotomizing constructs when it came to general statements. The concluding section of his work on Hinduism and Buddhism, quoted above, begins with comparative reflections on the Chinese and Indian worlds, but relies on loose analogies with the West, rather than direct descriptions: the comparison of India’s role in Asia with that of Greece in Europe is of limited value, and the parallel between China and France seems more than far-fetched. The following argument tends to amalgamate Chinese and Indian features in an ideal-type opposed to the West, and in the end (as in various other contexts), the bipolar view of Occidental and Asiatic patterns serves only to contrast Western Europe with cultures east of Islam.

(2) Weber takes some significant steps in the direction of intercultural hermeneutics, that is, the grounding of comparative studies in a mutual fusion of horizons. The problem of cross-cultural understanding looms larger when a plurality of civilizations and regions is involved, whereas the simple distinction between East and West is more compatible with the use of binary constructs biased towards the side which sets the agenda of inquiry. Weber’s understanding of cultures as distinctive ways of lending meaning and significance to the world, adumbrated in an early text (1949: 80-1) but never theorized beyond basic outlines, was a promising starting point, and it is to some extent echoed in his later interpretations of non-Western religious traditions. His insistence on the limitations due to use of secondary sources, and therefore on the ‘definitely provisional character’ (1968a: 28) of all his analyses of Asian civilizations, shows how aware he was of the need for more interpretative work (more so than most of his critics have noted). On the other hand, his comparative studies contain no explicit reference to the earlier reflections on culture; there is no analysis of cultural frameworks as comprehensive ways of interpreting the world, or of specific cultural images of power (which could have added a whole new dimension to his sociology of domination); and the efforts to understand other traditions do not lead to questions about the translatability of basic meanings, implicit or articulated. When Weber thematizes central cultural orientations of Indian or Chinese civilizations, he tends to rely on ideal-types constructed from within the Western tradition and in systematic contrast to its dominant trends. His critics have noted misconstructions due to this approach: Indian visions of liberation are subsumed under the Western idea of salvation, and the Chinese notion of sociocosmic order is interpreted in such a restrictive way that its potential for tensions between culture and politics, as well as between individual and society, is vastly underestimated. In short, a retreat from intercultural hermeneutics leaves seminal ideas undeveloped.

(3) When Weber compares developments in East and West, with a view to explaining the decisive lead gained by the West, he places a particular emphasis on rationalizing processes. That term is not used in all relevant contexts, but it recurs often enough to make it clear that this was Weber’s preferred way of theorizing contrasts and parallels. Rationalizing trends are, on this view, at work in economic and political life, as well as within the frameworks of different world-views—including those which the modern Western consensus dismisses as essentially irrational. But no clear account is given of the relationship between unity and diversity; Weber’s reflections on this issue point in two starkly divergent directions, and both of them came to the fore at an advanced stage of his work. On the one hand, a late addition to the Protestant Ethic (1968a: 77-8) warns against over-generalized notions of rationality and stresses the contextual meanings and dynamics of all rationalizing processes. If we link these considerations to the main substantive themes of Weber’s sociology, it seems clear that rationalizing processes should be analysed in relation to interconnected cultural, political and economic settings. In light of the above remarks on culture and its constitutive role, cultural interpretations of the political and economic fields can be seen as integral parts of the overall context. Although Weber does not define the basic concept of rationality that would fit this perspective, his line of reasoning suggests a view akin to Charles Taylor’s conception: rationality and rationalization have to do with the articulation of implicit, underlying or inchoate patterns. This definition can be extended to cover modes of articulation across contextual boundaries (culminating in Weber’s ‘formal rationality’) as well as the capacity to ‘stand back and look beyond’ (Schwartz, 1975: 3), that is, to question existing forms of articulation in the name of new standards.

On the other hand, Weber’s most condensed summary of contrasts between Eastern and Western rationality—the introduction to his collected essays on the sociology of religion reflects a strong tendency to credit the West with the discovery or invention of definitive models (1968a: 13-31). Although Weber underlines the significant achievements of Eastern civilizations, the Western breakthroughs and the paradigms resulting from them seem to be in a class apart: this applies to rational proof and experiment as well as to systematic political theory and the capitalist organization of labour. Weber takes a further step towards the canonization of Western models when he sums up their combined impact in the notion of Entzauberung as a long-term process which links the internal mutations of the monotheistic tradition to the post-religious belief that we can master all things by calculation. This shift to a one-sided summing-up, on the basis of incomplete and admittedly provisional evidence, did more than anything else to put a Eurocentric stamp on Weber’s work.

(4) The ambiguous connotations of rationality and rationalization are closely linked to another issue. At the very beginning of the introduction quoted above, Weber ascribes the triumphs of rationality in the West to a ‘combination of circumstances.’ Some salient examples of such a combination are mentioned elsewhere in his work. The mutually transformative interaction of Judaic and Hellenic traditions is an obvious case in point, and so is—by implication—the broader cultural synthesis brought about by the Roman Empire. Many factors combined to sustain the specific dynamism of the medieval West; as noted above, the innovative culture of self-governing cities had a decisive impact on their broader social environment and on the subsequent course of history. But Weber’s analysis of the city also raises a further question: to what extent can the ‘combination of circumstances’ involve a configuration of multiple rationalities? Urban self-rule exemplifies the practical rationality of autonomy. This common characteristic of ancient and medieval cities is overshadowed by Weber’s detailed analysis of the socio-economic contrasts between them, but the theme was later taken up and explored from other angles, most notably in the work of Cornelius Castoriadis (1997). The medieval and Renaissance cities were also—as Weber most succinctly noted in passing when discussing Chinese institutions seedbeds of early capitalist rationalization and development, prior to the emergence of modern capitalism in the strict sense (Weber, 1968a: 85). From this point of view, the Western trajectory might be analysed as a changing constellation of different and sometimes rival rationalities. Weber did not pursue this line beyond brief hints; he was more inclined to emphasize a main current which unfolds through transformations of Western religious traditions. Whether his interpretation of this process can be reconstructed as a theory of religious evolution is a matter of debate, but the stress on a dominant developmental trend is unmistakable. In that context, the role of historical constellations can only be a retarding or accelerating one; the direction is in principle independent of the circumstances.

(5) The emphasis on enduring trends might seem conducive to better understanding of a field which lends itself particularly well to comparative studies: the problematic of long-term processes. In very general terms, Weber’s frequent references to rationalization (taking implicit precedence over rationality) may be read as acknowledgements of the need to re-centre social and historical inquiry on transformative processes, their internal dynamics and their interactions. The most emphatic mention of the Western path to radical rationalization (Weber, 1968a: 105) highlights a long-term process of religious development, from Greek and Jewish origins to Puritan conclusions. A more circumscribed but still multi-secular sequence of structural changes is summed up in the brief genealogy of the modern Western state at the beginning of ‘Politics as a Vocation’ (Weber, 1991: 77-128). There is, however, no attempt to move towards a more systematic application of this idea. Weber’s concrete analyses do not focus on the emergent patterns of long-term processes, and could not have done so without a major reworking of basic concepts. When it comes to non-Western cases, some key features are seen as results of long-drawn-out developments (for example, Weber notes several historical stages—including Muslim domination—on the road to uncontested Brahmin domination within the Indian caste order); but although such insights show that his approach to the Oriental world was not as ahistorical as critics have often claimed, processual points of view are even less developed than on the Western side. More importantly, Weber’s framework for comparing Eastern and Western civilizations thus fails to account for crucial aspects. Neither the question of different macro-historical dynamics in the economic, political and cultural domains nor that of contrasting patterns of interconnection between these three spheres can be put in adequate perspective. The lack of conceptual keys to long-term processes led Weber to exaggerate the impact of abrupt breakthroughs. This is not to deny that he often had good reasons for singling out historical turning points (such as the early Christian break with the particularistic rituals of Judaism, or the Protestant secession from Western Christendom), but their links to trajectories of more gradual change are left unclear. On the most general level of analysis, Weber’s emphasis on charisma as the revolutionary force par excellence would seem to reflect a dismissive view of other forms of social creativity, such as transformative processes; and since charismatic breakthroughs are—in his vision of history—particularly prominent in the Western context, this translates into heightened asymmetry between East and West. A brief but suggestive passage in Weber’s study of China, obviously written in anticipation of further work, contrasts the Western record of revolutions with the absence of any comparable upheavals in Chinese history (Weber, 1968b: 62). No mention is made of underlying long-term processes which might suggest a more balanced comparison.

(6) Weber’s comparative studies were not based on any strong assumptions about civilizational closure, and his particular interest in a global divergence between East and West did not prevent him from acknowledging important contacts. He noted the importance of ‘Near Eastern cultural elements’ for the rise of the Greek polis (1976: 154); he cited the most familiar examples of Chinese inventions spreading to the West (1968b: 287, n. 9); and he was at least willing to allow for the possibility that the world-rejecting mode of religious life might be an exclusively Indian invention, transmitted to the West in the wake of growing cultural exchanges with the Greco-Roman world (1991: 323). But these observations did not lead to any significant interpretative efforts. No theory or typology of inter-civilizational encounters can be extracted from Weber’s work. Examples of such encounters are not absent from his analyses of the major non-Western traditions, but the tendency to minimize their meaning is unmistakable. The discussion of Buddhism in China is disproportionately brief and more concerned with the impact of an alien environment on Buddhist thought and practice than with Buddhist contributions to Chinese civilization; the Muslim conquest of India is very marginal to Weber’s argument; in the Japanese case, the decisive impact of cultural imports from China could not be doubted, but Weber saw the whole process in question as a unilateral transmission of civilizing models, rather than an encounter. Within the framework of his comparative analyses, he paid no attention to the early modern phase of European interaction with non-European civilizations; but developments during this period included cultural encounters of major importance for the self-understanding of the West, as well as the creation of new networks of interaction (such as the silver trade which linked Asia to European possessions in America), and it should therefore be central to any systematic study of inter-civilizational contacts. As for the final triumph of capitalism on global scale, Weber admits that civilizations may not be equally receptive to capitalist institutions. He notes the exceptional success of Westernizing elites in Japan after 1868, and speculates that Chinese culture might—given favourable conditions prove even more adaptive. But his conception of capitalism is too uniform and unilinear to permit anything that could be described as a reinvention of principles or institutions. The inter-civilizational aspect of the modern economic order is thus reduced to a minimum.

(7) Finally, there is some reason to believe that Weber was less than absolutely convinced of Western superiority over the East. This was not merely a matter of sensitivity to the dark sides of distinctively Western achievements; the vision of the iron cage was a lasting reminder of the dangers inherent in unbridled rationalization. More importantly, the possibility that the rational paradigms attributed to the West might be questioned at a more basic level was not wholly alien to Weber’s views. At the beginning of his most synoptic programmatic statement, he qualifies the Western claims to universal validity ‘as we at least like to think’ (1968a: 13, translation amended). It is impossible to dismiss this remark—made in the context of reflections on the very core of Weber’s work—as a rhetorical gesture. The only plausible interpretation is that Weber was in principle willing to admit ultimate uncertainty on this issue, and the only way to articulate that attitude beyond cryptic hints would have been a move towards ‘lateral universality,’ as Merleau-Ponty was later to call it: a redefinition of universal meanings as claims to be tested through inter-cultural elucidation. If the comparative study of civilizations is an essential corrective to the self-understanding and self-affirmation of the West, the argument returns to the above-mentioned question of intercultural hermeneutics. Indirect but suggestive signs of a shift in that direction can be found in some of Weber’s last writings, where the breakdown of unifying cultural frameworks and the rivalry of divergent rationalities appear as increasingly dominant features of advanced modernity. A radical cultural pluralization of modernity could open up new perspectives on the plurality of civilizations. But the main civilizational analyses fail to deliver on this implicit promise; the comments on Eastern and Western world-views at the end of Weber’s work on India did more to block further discussion than to clarify the problem.

Post-Weberian Perspectives

As I have tried to show, Weber’s work can—in retrospect—be interpreted on two levels: his concrete analyses and theoretical arguments broke new ground in the comparative history of East and West, but he also adumbrated a set of ideas and approaches which found no adequate expression in the completed part of his project. Attempts to develop the latter part of the Weberian legacy might thus be described as post-Weberian. There has, however, been no systematic effort to combine the perspectives outlined above within an upgraded framework for civilizational analysis. Selective pursuit of post-Weberian themes has resulted in significant contributions to the ongoing reinterpretation of East and West, but the main trends are markedly heterogeneous. Some noteworthy studies have thrown new light on the more structural aspects of the problematic (long-term processes, historical constellations and inter-civilizational dynamics); others have gone beyond Weber in stressing the plurality of traditions and the formative role of their cultural premises, but mostly done so in ways unresponsive to the questions of intercultural hermeneutics and without any sustained reflection on multiple rationalities. The latter fields have to some extent been tackled by comparative philosophy; here I can only suggest in passing that historical sociology might benefit from closer contact with work in that vein (for an impressive example, see Scharfstein, 1998).

The two most important explicit revisions of Weber’s civilizational theory converge in a strong emphasis on the core meanings of cultural traditions, but differ sharply in regard to their conceptions of East and West. Benjamin Nelson (1976, 1981) reformulated the dichotomy—he preferred the terms ‘Orient’ and ‘Occident’—with a view to better understanding of Weber’s more specific contrasts. Developmental blockages in non-Western traditions were still central to his argument, but he questioned both Weber’s over-generalized concept of rationalization and the particular focus on capitalism. According to Nelson, the Chinese civilizational pattern—seen as a complex of cultural models and institutional structures obstructed radical universalization rather than rationalization in general, and this was most strikingly evident in the history of Chinese science: its early lead in the fields of empirical knowledge and technical application did not translate into a breakthrough to the mathematical and experimental mode of inquiry. As for India, the main problem had less to do with rationality than with ‘failed fraternization,’ that is, enduring particularistic barriers to interaction; this argument centres on the caste order and its long-term enfeebling impact on both state and society (through fragmentation of the former and segmentation of the latter), rather than on obstacles to capitalist development. On the Western side, Nelson shifted the main focus of comparative analysis from modernity to the High Middle Ages. In his view, the socio-cultural transformation of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was the most formative episode in the history of Western Christendom as a distinctive civilization. But the medieval turning point was important for another reason as well: it exemplified the decisive role of inter-civilizational encounters, in this case the interaction of the emerging West with the Byzantine, Jewish and Islamic worlds.

Nelson’s ideas never crystallized into a firm conceptual framework. S.N. Eisenstadt’s civilizational theory is based on much more structured premises and problematizes the distinction between East and West in a more radical way. For Eisenstadt (1986), the central theme of comparative studies is the cluster of Axiale civilizations, that is, the traditions which grew out of far-reaching cultural transformations in China, India, ancient Greece and ancient Israel during several centuries before and after the middle of the last millennium BC. On the one hand, affinities between these historical formations—owing to cultural ontologies which link the construction of social order to visions of ultimate reality—are more fundamental than any contrasts between Eastern and Western variants of the Axial type. In all cases, expanded cultural horizons give rise to transformative dynamics and interpretative as well as social conflicts. On the other hand, more detailed comparative analyses will highlight the patterns and trajectories of each particular Axial civilization, rather than any generic Eastern or Western configurations. In this context, however, there is still room for strong claims as to the originality of European civilization in comparison with the other Axial ones (Eisenstadt, 1987). The European historical experience—with particular emphasis on medieval Western Christendom—can be seen as an exceptionally pronounced case of cultural, social and political pluralism; multiple centres competed with each other and faced challenges from equally diverse peripheries; last but not least, the conflicts between orthodoxy and heterodoxy took a more revolutionary turn than elsewhere.

Civilizational themes are less important to the post-Weberian approaches of John A. Hall (1985) and Michael Mann (1986). Notwithstanding major differences between the two authors, their works can for present purposes be treated as variants of a common problematic: their analyses of the European (more precisely Western European) trajectory stress the dynamics of interrelated power structures and locate the question of capitalist development within that context. Clear signs of such a shift are evident in Weber’s account of the Occidental city. For Weber, the urban communities of the High Middle Ages were hothouses of cultural innovation, but also power structures of a new and unprecedentedly contested kind. But for Hall and Mann, the growth of cities—and of the commercial networks based on them—is only one aspect of a much longer and more complex process which set medieval Western Christendom on a path different from all other civilizations. The long-term outcome, increasingly central to the modern phase of the dynamic, was a mutually reinforcing relationship between states and societal networks of power. As Hall puts it with reference to the European state, ‘a limit to arbitrariness combined with, indeed in part caused, considerable and ever-increasing infrastructural penetration’ (1985: 137). In Mann’s terms, ‘capitalism and the national state formed a loose but coordinated and concentrated alliance, which was shortly to intensify and to conquer both heaven and earth’ (1986: 446). Comparison with states in other settings shows that what matters is not state strength or weakness in any general sense, but specific combinations of strengths and weaknesses. Hall argues that Chinese, Indian and Islamic patterns of state power were—in different but equally durable ways—adverse to the growth of civil society in general and market economy in particular. The imperial Chinese ‘capstone’ government achieved a stalemate between state and society, not to be mistaken for stagnation but conducive to long-term containment; the chronically unstable Indian states developed a predatory attitude to the economy; and in the Islamic world, an ultimate discord between religious and political power, together with frequent ethnic cleavages between states and societies, led to similar if somewhat less straightforward results.

Neither Hall nor Mann attempts any comparative analysis of processes of state formation in East and West. Both emphasize the crucial role of Christendom as a unifying network of ideological power and normative regulation in the early stages of the European dynamic; the distinctively European multi-state system grew out of this prior constellation. Mann goes on to point out that the genealogy of Christianity leads back to Mediterranean and Near Eastern sources. The very beginnings of the European path to global power thus exemplify the role of inter-civilizational encounters. Mann does not discuss the external background to European exceptionalism in such terms, but he concludes that ‘the origins of the European miracle were a gigantic series of coincidences’ and involved ‘causal paths… emanating from all over the European, Near Eastern, and even central Asian civilizations’ (1986: 505).

Interpretative histories of particular regions or traditions can pose new problems and open up new horizons for comparative analysis. An eminent case in point is Marshall Hodgson’s work on Islam (Hodgson, 1974, 1993), perhaps the most ambitious one-man project of that kind in twentieth-century scholarship. Here it is of particular interest because it deals with the civilizational complex least clearly categorized within Weber’s frame of reference and interprets it in a way which enriches the Weberian problematic in various respects. To begin with, Hodgson replaced the dichotomy of East and West with a very different model of regional divisions. Within the Afro-Eurasian complex (important as a geographical background, a context of interregional relations and in later phases an increasingly unified historical configuration), four nuclear regions emerged: Europe (defined as the northern shore and hinterland of the Mediterranean, including Anatolia), the Middle East, India and the Far East. The three more outlying regions derived their respective identities from civilizational traditions which had taken shape during the Axial Age (Hodgson used this concept in a sense which stressed the different directions taken by a new reflexivity and the enduring cultural patterns created in the wake of this breakthrough), whereas the Middle East—or the Nile-to-Oxus region, to use the term Hodgson came to prefer—had a more complex history. It was most central to the early history of civilizations, but its entrenched archaic traditions did not fuse or mutate into a new identity during the Axial Age. Iranian and Jewish prophecy could be seen as Axial innovations in marginal areas, but it was only the much later rise of Islam and Islamicate civilization (Hodgson used the latter term to avoid a conflation of religious traditions and civilizational patterns) that gave the whole region a new identity.

Apart from the core regions, the Afro-Eurasian complex contained crossroads areas (Central Asia and Southeast Asia) and frontier zones dependent on older cultural centres, such as Western Europe, Japan or the Sudan. But the dynamics of cultural traditions expanding beyond their respective core areas are best understood in relation to the Afro-Eurasian complex as a whole. For Hodgson, literary traditions were most closely identified with civilizational cores, whereas religious, philosophical and scientific ones were—in varying degrees—more capable of cross-civilizational diffusion. In some cases, such developments were massive enough to be seen as wholesale enlargements of particular cultures (by analogy with the familiar case of Hellenism, Hodgson coined the term ‘Indicism’ to describe the spread of Indian classical culture to various parts of Asia). However, the most momentous trans-regional-and ultimately global—dynamic was the result of late developments in a frontier zone long relatively isolated from the rest of the Afro-Eurasian complex. The ‘Great Western Transmutation,’ as Hodgson called it (this was for him the only legitimate reference to the West in regional or civilizational terms), gathered pace between 1600 and 1800, became irreversible with the Industrial Revolution, and went on to change the most basic premises of social life worldwide. But in singling out this late and displaced sequel to an earlier emergence of Greco-Roman Europe as a core region, Hodgson was implicitly conceding the case for a stronger version of the ‘rise of the West.’ The ‘transmutation’ occurred within a culture whose relationship to classical sources had no parallel in any other region, and this connection—as well as the ability to reactivate and reinterpret it in response to new contexts—was in turn bound up with the emergence of medieval Western Christendom as a separate civilization, more autonomous than those of other peripheral areas.

As a part of the Afro-Eurasian complex, Islamic civilization was not simply one among several others: it had—for the first time unified the original heartland of urban civilization, and gone on to become the premodern interregional civilization par excellence. For Hodgson, its trajectory was therefore central to comparative history. Notwithstanding new perspectives opened up by later debates, his comprehensive interpretation of Islamic history still helps to locate the main issues within a broader context. Five aspects of his argument seem especially relevant to such concerns. First, the formation of Islam was a more complex and long-drawn-out process than its traditional self-image suggested: the ‘incipient Islam’ of Arab conquerors combined with traditions and innovations of the conquered Middle Eastern heartland. Second, the religious core of the resultant synthesis was a more distinctive and self-contained version of monotheism than Western analysts—directly or indirectly linked to a Christian background—had tended to assume. As Hodgson saw it, the most central religious imperative of the Christian tradition was ‘the demand for personal responsibility to redemptive love in a corrupted world,’ whereas the corresponding Muslim one was ‘the demand for personal responsibility for the ordering of the natural world’ (1974: Vol. 2, 337, original emphasis). Third, the synthesis took shape in several divergent contexts, and more particularly on the interconnected but never identical levels of political power and religious doctrine; the outcome was a state of multiple tensions between various components of Islamicate civilization: state and society, religion and politics, entrenched aristocracies and shifts towards a more mobile and egalitarian society. Fourth, this led not to a stalemate or a structural failure of the whole civilizational pattern, but to long-term processes which ‘developed simultaneously in many parallel and interconnected spheres’ (1974: Vol. 1, 239). This applies to cultural as well as political development; the fragmentation, delegitimation and ethnic alienation of state power structures left their mark on Islamicate civilization, but so did significant counter-trends, including attempts to re-unify the religious and political dimensions of Islam. Finally, Hodgson saw late Islamic history as a more significant phase than most Western historians had done, and it exemplified the role of contingent encounters and external factors. The Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal ‘gunpowder empires’ had drawn on Mongol statecraft and new military technologies; but the new phase of state formation reproduced old problems on a larger scale, and at the same time, the Islamic world was outflanked by the Western transmutation.

As for the civilizational formations central to Weber’s project, the most ambitious and controversial post-Weberian interpretation of India is Louis Dumont’s work on the caste system (Dumont, 1980). Here the comparative perspective is based on a stark contrast between societal paradigms: the traditional order embodies a hierarchical vision of the human condition, diametrically opposed to the modern Western combination of economic, egalitarian and individualistic values. As Dumont’s critics have argued, his portrayal of India as the archetypal traditional society conflates different levels of analysis. The search for a relational logic of the caste system narrows down to a vision of rigid and coherent structural order, and the structural principles are in turn identified with an ideological model. The result is an ahistorical projection of Brahmin perceptions of the caste regime. Among the alternatives, two approaches taken together—seem most conducive to a historical understanding of Indian civilization. On the one hand, J.C. Heesterman (1985) argues that the Brahmin component of the Indian tradition centres on an insoluble and ever-renewed conflict between the vision of liberation through transcendence and the imperatives of social order; on the other hand, this problematic and unstable character of the Brahmin self-image (and therefore of Brahmin authority) enables other social actors in pursuit of power—especially the rulers of permanently brittle polities—to compensate for structural weaknesses by claims to sacred status or shared sovereignty (Quigley, 1993).

No single work on China has been as central to debates as Dumont’s analysis of India. But new perspectives on the Chinese world have given rise to more diverse comparative projects than any research on India. Joseph Needham’s monumental survey of Chinese achievements in science and technology (1954-), assisted and continued by numerous collaborators, was at first widely regarded as a major breakthrough in civilizational studies (for Benjamin Nelson it represented the most significant step beyond Weber), but recent criticism (Finlay, 2000) has convincingly shown that Needham’s view of Chinese thought and culture was a priori adapted to the eclectic construct of an ‘organic materialism’ derived from Western sources but projected onto Far Eastern traditions. Much more promising approaches have emerged in the field of social and economic history. Growing insight into the dynamics at work during the imperial phase of Chinese history (including, in particular, the technological, economic and cultural innovations of the eleventh and twelfth centuries) suggested new ways of comparing China and Europe. This debate is still unfolding, but a distinction can at least be drawn between two schools of thought. One side stresses the self-limiting factors that kept social and economic developments in imperial China within the framework of a flexible but cohesive order (Deng, 1999; Elvin, 1973); on this view, the forces and mechanisms of containment operated throughout the instutional setting, not only at the level of imperial control. The other approach gives more weight to long-term similarities of preindustrial development in the most dynamic regions of China and Europe, but this makes the industrial breakthrough in Europe seem all the more unique; preconditions for the late Western European (and primarily British) divergence from a common pattern have to do with geographical contingencies as well as gains from expansion across the Atlantic (Pomeranz, 2000). These contrasting perspectives are most clearly defined in terms of economic history. As for attempts to broaden the focus, R. Bin Wong’s work (1997) on long-term transformations in China and Europe merits a special mention: it is a landmark contribution to comparative history, particularly noteworthy for the analysis of state formation in the two regions.

Finally, the question of the West and its historical identity can now be reformulated in more concrete terms. It relates to the specific features of European trajectories in general and Western European ones (including transoceanic offshoots) in particular, seen in the context of the emerging pluralistic vision of civilizational complexes. Four main themes of current and prospective work in this field may be singled out for comment. First, the importance of Greco-Roman preconditions for the European historical experience can be acknowledged without any short-circuiting of civilizational shifts (for interesting reflections on this matter, see Meier, 2001). Second, the consolidation of Western Christendom as a civilizational unit at the beginning of the second millennium ad, followed by the social, intellectual, religious and political transformations of the High Middle Ages (Wittrock, 2001: 36-7), was of crucial importance for all subsequent developments. Third, the regional divisions of Europe, both inside the boundaries of Western Christendom and within the larger domain which it shared with its Byzantine counterpart, are a significant but highly controversial part of the picture. (One of the most seminal texts on this topic was written by the Hungarian historian Jenö Szücs [1985]). Fourth, the early modern rise of the Far West—the empire-building states of the Atlantic seaboard—represents the culminating outcome of multi-secular inter-civilizational dynamics which involved other parts of the Afro-Eurasian complex. This view is adumbrated in William McNeill’s well-known account, but becomes much more explicit in a preface to a later edition (McNeill, 1991), as well as in recent essays. The balancing of internal and external factors contributing to the Far Western ascendancy will remain on the agenda of comparative history for the foreseeable future.

In short, historical and theoretical reflection on inherited notions of East and West has led to differentiations on both sides, as well as to alternative mappings of the Afro-Eurasian world. This ongoing deconstruction of a traditional problematic seems more fruitful than attempts to discard it en bloc, in the name of indiscriminate emphasis on cultural diversity and connectivity at the same time. The critique of ‘Orientalism’ is the most widespread current version of the latter approach. Apart from the vague connotation of power conditioned and power-oriented Western preconceptions about the East, the label is applied to a bewildering variety of intellectual offences. Those who posit—or seem to imply—a global or essential inferiority of Eastern cultures are accused of Orientalism, but so are those who see the East as a realm of mystery or superior wisdom; in the same way, the ‘essentializing’ of identities on either side is amalgamated with the denial of identity to Eastern victims of Western oppression; a radical separation of East and West is as symptomatic of Orientalism as is the projection of Western self-images onto the East. As a result, the critics of Orientalism lay themselves open to the very objection which they raise against traditional views of Western scholars. If concepts like Buddhism or Hinduism are to be discarded because they impose spurious identities on heterogeneous phenomena, the same would apply to the concept of Orientalism.

The critique of Orientalism has obviously found receptive audiences in many quarters and expanded far beyond its first targets, but the over-extension of the key concept was prefigured in the text which did most to launch the debate. Edward Said’s definitions of Orientalism are characterized by a studied ambiguity which affects the historical contours as well as the imputed content of the tradition in question. The main points of criticism are explicitly aimed at French and British conceptions of the Orient, with less emphasis on American ideas (there is no reference to Hodgson) and only marginal allusions to German scholarship (Weber is mentioned in passing, but in a way which suggests—without any analysis of his work—that he aligned himself with pre-existing orientalist stereotypes). Although the geographical focus is, in the first instance, on ‘India and the Levant’ (Said, 1995: 4), extension to the Far East is suggested clearly enough for others to take that line further. A puzzling reference to ‘Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies’ (1995: 1) suggests another shift: the Levant, more important than India to Said’s argument, can only be counted among the ‘oldest colonies’ if Europe goes back to Hellenistic and Roman times, and that view might seem vulnerable to anti-essentialist criticism. Said stresses the ‘determining imprint’ of individual writers (1995: 23), and thus by implication acknowledges the need for case-by-case interpretation, but he also refers to Orientalism as a system and a ‘corporate institution,’ constructed for the purpose of ‘dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient’ (1995: 3). Finally, he insists on the ‘variability and unpredictability’ of Orientalism, but this does not prevent him from sweeping generalizations, such as the claim that ‘Orientalism expresses antipathy to Islam’ (1995: 340, 343).

To sum up, ‘Orientalism’ seems to have darkened into the proverbial night where all cows are black. It is not being suggested that its critics have done no useful work; but the inflation of the concept has now reached such extremes that informed discussion of the multiple meanings of East and West would be easier without it.