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Are Western Historians Biased? [Copy link] 中文

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Post time 2007-2-17 08:27:51 |Display all floors
Jack Goody is one of the pre-eminent social scientists in the world.

In The Theft of History Goody proves that Western historical writing is characterized by bias.

He builds on his own previous work (notably The East in the West) to extend further his highly influential critique of what he sees as the pervasive Eurocentric, or Occidentalist, biases of so much Western historical writing, and the consequent 憈heft?by the West of the achievements of other cultures in the invention of (notably) democracy, capitalism, individualism, and love.

Do you think that he is right?

[ Last edited by changabula at 2007-2-17 08:29 AM ]
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Post time 2007-2-17 08:35:19 |Display all floors
What the West Stole from the East
Professor Jack Goody

Professor Goody was originally concerned in his research with regions like West Africa and Ghana, where he conducted extensive field work, when his interest in the Middle East was sparked from visiting Palestine, Cyprus, and Egypt during the First World War. "In my work, I dealt with the same problems as those dealt with by Edward Said," says Goody, "but I tackled them from a different point of view.

My main question is, 'What did the West appropriate from the East as far as history is concerned?'"

He gave a number of examples in that regard, among them: "The time concept was adopted from the Near East with the initiation of the Hijra calendar and the Chinese calendar... The same is true for concepts such as space. The coordinates of longitude and latitude were extensively dealt with in the East earlier than the sixteenth century when it was only then that those studies started in Europe."

According to Goody the city of Carthage was where the alphabet was developed. Greece benefited from this and went on to develop a different kind of civilization. "Carthage had a big library and Tyre used a great deal of its documents for organizing city states. Moreover, writing activity in China surpassed what was going on in Europe until the sixteenth century in terms of scientific work," added Professor Goody.

Therefore, according to the professor, the classical view that antiquity is different in terms of its literary achievements to other parts of the world does not hold.

Another example Professor Goody gives is the notion of democracy, which is usually associated with Greek civilization and was inevitably bound to the notion of slavery. "The Asiatic despotism vs. European democracy also was a wrong notion because, first, philosophers and historians know little about how tribal communities run themselves." The latters' government, he pointed out, was based on representational systems, as was described by Ibn Khaldun in his writings on tribal structures in North Africa.

After giving more examples of the sort, Professor Goody concluded by saying that the "the notion of antiquity is a theft of history from the Middle East; it claimed things unique in the Western world that were in no way unique." What had developed in Europe started somewhere else.

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Post time 2007-2-17 08:51:32 |Display all floors
Written out of history
Ziauddin Sardar

Many of civilisation's crowning glories originated in the east. Yet you'd be unlikely to learn this from reading western historians.

What constitutes a "great idea"? How do we measure the impact of an idea on history? Or, to adopt the blurb from Penguin's Great Ideas series, how can we say which ideas have "changed the world" and "transformed the way we see ourselves - and each other"? Even the language presents problems. Who are "we", and what "world" is this? People inhabit different worlds and have different histories. What is regarded as a great idea in one world may matter little in another.

For example, when Copernicus published On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres in 1543, the idea that the earth was at the centre of the universe was a religious dogma in Europe. Not surprisingly, Copernicus transformed the European world-view. However, in the Muslim world, where no one believed that the universe revolved around the earth, his ideas, far from being seen as revolutionary, were simply appreciated as an advance in mathematical analysis.

Similarly, Friedrich Nietzsche's idea of the "super ego", or Sigmund Freud's technique of psychoanalysis, were hardly news for the Muslim world. For centuries earlier, Sufi thought had grappled with the notion of the ego, while the scrutiny of dreams was also well established. Moreover, thinkers in different cultures sometimes draw very different conclusions from the same premise. Descartes declared: "Cogito ergo sum" (I think, therefore I am), but long before him, Buddha had proved the opposite just as convincingly: "I think, therefore I am not."

In an age of globalisation in particular, it is important to distinguish truly transformative ideas from mundane, provincial ones. Many of the "great ideas" featured in Penguin's exceptionally well-designed series are in fact decidedly commonplace. There is nothing great about Jonathan Swift's A Tale of a Tub or William Hazlitt's On the Pleasure of Hating. Who wants to read the confused Meditations of the fatalist Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius when one can turn to The Book of Mencius, with its profound insights into righteousness, love, justice, fairness and the importance of ordinary people? Is the impact of Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince greater than one of the most influential political texts of Chinese civilisation, The Analects of Confucius, which insists that good influence is of greater value in politics than force or Machiavellian machinations? Why bother with Virginia Woolf's suppressed middle-class angst when, in Sei Shonagon's The Pillow Book, you can explore the complex aesthetic sensibilities of Japanese culture?

Tariq Ali describes the Penguin list as "parochial and philistine". He is being generous. It is, in fact, a disingenuous attempt to maintain the hegemony of western mediocrity. Starting with Seneca and Aurelius, it moves in a straight line to Freud and George Orwell, suggesting a universality that is both pretentious and deceptive. Great ideas, this list screams, are the sole preserve of western - mostly English - thought; and it offers its linear genealogy as the proof of western superiority.

Very few people now believe, as Thomas Macaulay once wrote, that "a single shelf of a good European library is worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia". Certainly, Charles Murray is not one of them. His huge book Human Accomplishment places a great deal of emphasis on plurality. For Murray, "we" refers not just to the west, but also to the civilisations of China, India, Japan and Islam. And he has a much more objective way of measuring great ideas and their impact on history.

Murray's basic tool is statistics. He painstakingly examines 163 historical surveys and encyclopaedias of the arts and sciences and compiles from them a list of the thinkers who have contributed most to achievement in these fields. Only if thinkers are mentioned in at least half of his sources does he regard them as important. A savvy statistician, he employs a number of tricks to avoid bias. For example, he ignores any entry on a thinker from the editor's own country. What we end up with is a list of 4,002 significant figures in science, philosophy, literature, music and technology; these individuals are then subjected to more statistical analysis and rated for their achievement across cultures and time. To counter the accusation of Eurocentrism, Murray provides two types of list. The first concentrates on science and technology and features major figures in astronomy, biology, mathematics and medicine. The second separately covers Chinese, Japanese and western art; Arabic, Chinese, Indian, Japanese and western literature; and Chinese, Indian and western philosophy.

Not surprisingly, the leading names are western - Newton, Shakespeare and Michelangelo - yet the book does give a strong impression that non-western cultures have played some part in human accomplishment. In astronomy, for example, names such as Ibn Yunus and Ulugh-Beg sit alongside Galileo. In physics, you find Alhazen as well as Albert Einstein. In philosophy and literature, names such as Shenhui, al-Mutanabbi and Kalidasa are seen as being on a par with Aristotle, Ovid and Goethe.

What Murray has done is extend the standard tool of citation analysis, commonly used in the natural and social sciences, into the arts and literature. There are two problems with such an endeavour. First, you need a decent spread of biographical literature on and from all civilisations and cultures to ensure that everyone is represented fairly. A quick look at Murray's sources reveals most of them to be western encyclopaedias and historical surveys. On Arabic literature, for example, he relies exclusively on orientalist sources. Thus, right from the start, his assessment is filtered through a western lens.

Second, there is the problem of constructed ignorance. Western scholarship ignores non-western achievements that do not fit with its assumption of superiority. In the history of science, for example, the monumental achievement of the 13th-century Muslim astronomer Nasir al-Din al-Tusi has been suppressed. Al-Tusi, who came very close to developing a theory of a heliocentric world, invented a mathematical device without which Copernicus could not have produced his "revolutions". Because western historians have knowingly ignored al-Tusi - he throws a spanner in the works that create the accepted picture of a pure western science - he does not figure in Murray's list.

So citation analysis provides an excellent example of the dictum "garbage in, garbage out". Despite Murray's mammoth effort, Human Accomplishment is intrinsically biased in favour of western thinkers. By his own admission, his list is dominated by dead white men. It also contains some bizarre anomalies. If the author is to be believed, Islam has produced neither philosophy nor art. India, China and Islam have no medicine worthy of the name. Only western civilisation is capable of producing music. And citation analysis leads Murray to certain strange conclusions. Picasso, for example, is rated much higher than Raphael, Leonardo, Titian and Rembrandt. Arnold Schoenberg stands above Johannes Brahms, Frederic Chopin and Giuseppe Verdi.

Murray aims to do much more than simply produce a list of geniuses. He wants to provide a general overview of the historical conditions necessary for the arts and sciences to flourish. And he reaches two general conclusions: human accomplishment is fostered by "a culture in which the most talented people believe that life has a purpose and that the function of life is to fulfil that purpose", and which "encourages the belief that individuals can act efficaciously as individuals". So religion and individualism are two essential criteria for producing geniuses. But not any old religion. Murray examines Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam and early Christianity and finds them flawed. Only late Christianity, welded to Protestant ethics, will do. This is hardly news. Macro-historians from Herbert Spencer to Arnold Toynbee have beaten this drum. Nor is it surprising to learn that right-wing American Christians are using Murray's work to argue for the superiority of their world-view.

So it all comes down to the purity of western thought. As John Hobson points out in his ground-breaking work The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation, the west believes it has an "autonomous genealogy": "a pristine west made it of its own accord as a result of its innate or superior virtues". History is simply a tale of western virtue triumphing over the bad guys of the east. Yet the truth is otherwise. Far from being responsible for its own development, the west is a product of eastern accomplishment. As Hobson shows, the east was largely responsible for creating and sustaining a global economy from the year 500 onwards. It also contributed to the rise of the west by pioneering many advanced "resource portfolios" of ideas, institutions and technologies.

Each major turning point in Europe's development, he argues, was driven by assimilating eastern ideas and innovations. Printing was invented by Pi Sheng, who first set up a printing press in China in roughly 1040; the first movable metal-type press was invented in Korea in 1403, 50 years before Gutenberg made his. Liberal humanism and institutions of higher learning were imported from the Muslim world. The industrial revolution began not in Britain, but in China. And so it continues.

The west shaped its identity, Hobson demonstrates convincingly, by appropriating eastern achievements and then writing them out of history. History looks quite different when seen from China, Japan, India or Islam. In relative historical terms, Hobson concludes, the west is not all that significant.

[ Last edited by changabula at 2007-2-17 09:00 AM ]
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Post time 2007-2-17 08:53:16 |Display all floors
*shrug* Are Eastern historians biased?

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Post time 2007-2-17 09:00:43 |Display all floors
Reference to post #3:

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Ziauddin Sardar's American Dream, Global Nightmare, co-written with Merryl Wyn Davies, is published by Icon Books.

[ Last edited by changabula at 2007-2-17 09:02 AM ]
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Post time 2007-2-17 09:06:04 |Display all floors
The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation
John M Hobson Cambridge University Press

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John Hobson challenges the ethnocentric bias of mainstream accounts of the Rise of the West. It is often assumed that since Ancient Greek times Europeans have pioneered their own development, and that the East has been a passive by-stander in the story of progressive world history. Hobson argues that there were two processes that enabled the Rise of the 慜riental West? First, each major developmental turning point in Europe was informed in large part by the assimilation of Eastern inventions (e.g. ideas, technologies and institutions) which diffused from the more advanced East across the Eastern-led global economy between 500?800. Second, the construction of European identity after 1453 led to imperialism, through which Europeans appropriated many Eastern resources (land, labour and markets). Hobson抯 book thus propels the hitherto marginalised Eastern peoples to the forefront of the story of progress in world history.

?Provides a fresh non-racist account of the Rise of the West

?Rethinks the essential categories, concepts and assumptions of world history

?This is the first book to explore the role of identity in world historical development

Hobson's main accomplishment is to show that cultures do not exist, nor have they ever existed, in isolation. Cultures are shaped in relation to each other; and great ideas often emerge through synthesis and tension. Western culture is not pure, but has been impregnated and "contaminated" by the rest of the world.

The great books of western - or any - civilisation are a product of interactions with different cultures, and are full of contradictions. Truly great ideas and books that cross boundaries and appeal to different and diverse cultures emphasise their own incoherence, advertise their incompleteness. They tell their readers that they are all about "our" world and "their" worlds; about "me", "you" and "we"; about "us" and "them".


慐vidence that Asia抯 primacy was crucial to the Rise of the West has been accumulating for twenty years. Dr Hobson has now pulled the pieces together in a compellingly written and most challenging scheme. His grand conception will open a whole new order of debate.?Eric Jones, author of The European Miracle and Growth Recurring

慦e are still at the beginning stage of a much-needed revisionist history of the world, to which this book makes a lively scholarly contribution. Hobson抯 well-documented argument warrants serious consideration.?Janet Abu-Lughod, author of Before European Hegemony

慗ohn Hobson抯 work is thoroughly researched, enormously wide ranging and well written. It does not merely provide a thoughtful response to recent Eurocentric world histories. It is also certain to play a central role in the new wave of studies demonstrating the substantial contributions to modern 慶ivilisation?made by so many non-European peoples.?Martin Bernal, author of Black Athena

慣his is an important book of comparative and historical sociology. It is both a punchy polemic against Eurocentrism and an impressive gathering of evidence on the historical development of Europe and Asia. Hobson argues that the many inventions which supposedly enabled Europe to dominate the world were actually diffused to Europe from Asia (usually from China) and that Asia/China remained as developed as Europe until the 19th century - and mostly he convinces.?Michael Mann, author of Sources of Social Power (2 volumes)

慗ohn Hobson has written an immensely ambitious book which seeks, literally and metaphorically, to redraw the historical map. Drawing on an impressive range of economic and cultural historiography, he proposes a new 憁eta-narrative?for a millennium of global history, which is perhaps best summed up as 慣he Oriental Contribution to the Rise of the West? Hobson argues that Western industrialization was based in large measure on the adoption of Arab and Chinese knowledge, the enslavement of African labour and the imposition of asymmetric trading arrangements on Asian economies. As a polemic against European triumphalism, The Eastern Origins of Western Civilization recalls the hugely influential work of the author's great grandfather, the radical anti-imperialist J. A. Hobson.?Niall Ferguson, author of Empire

憛ground-breaking work ?Hobson抯 main accomplishment is to show that cultures do not exist, not have they ever existed, in isolation.?New Statesman

慗ohn Hobson has written an original and insightful book which amounts to no less than an alternative history of the modern world. Dr Hobson breaks through the received wisdom about East and West, recasting familiar assumptions about 慦estern抍ivilization and tracing the West抯 indebtedness to the East. His is a rare act of intellectual rediscovery - a remarkable and thought-provoking work.?Shashi Tharoor, author of The Great Indian Novel, and India: From Midnight to the Millennium

[ Last edited by changabula at 2007-2-17 09:12 AM ]
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Post time 2007-2-17 13:00:27 |Display all floors

I can count :)

I can count thanks to the Hindu-Arabic numeral system with 1's and 0's and further powers of 10's.

Mathematics historians traced the numeral system back to third century BC. That's right, folks, three hundred years before Christ. Following is quoted from Wiki:

Before the rise of the Arab empire, the Hindu-Arabic numeral system was already moving West and was mentioned in Syria in 662 AD by the Nestorian scholar Severus Sebokht who wrote:

"I will omit all discussion of the science of the Indians, ... , of their subtle discoveries in astronomy, discoveries that are more ingenious than those of the Greeks and the Babylonians, and of their valuable methods of calculation which surpass description. I wish only to say that this computation is done by means of nine signs. If those who believe, because they speak Greek, that they have arrived at the limits of science, would read the Indian texts, they would be convinced, even if a little late in the day, that there are others who know something of value."
Links ... abic_numeral_system

The Anglicised word "algebra" is derived from the Arabic word al-jebr. Classical algebra has been around for almost two milleniums. That said, modern algebra, has been around only the last two hundred years.

None of the sciences would have been possible without the Hindu-Arabic numeral system as we know it today. It is only science if it is quantifiable, measurable and repeatable and you cannot quantify or measure without numbers.

[ Last edited by cestmoi at 2007-2-17 01:02 PM ]

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