The Limits of Your Universe, Research Time, 09/11/2017

Philosophical thinking sometimes puts you in a tricky place. For example, I’m doing the research for a big book of political philosophy. That research comes mostly from Western traditions of thinking. But it’s going to discuss ideas and concepts that are universal in scope – applying to people no matter their civilization or culture.

Sounds straightforward, doesn’t it? Now put a bunch of philosophers in the room and see if any discussion of universality can make it out alive. Cultural relativism is a common foil here, especially for Westerners like me who know the Western tradition best.

Thanks to the conceptual framework of colonialism that polluted Western thinking for a good few centuries, it’s dangerous for any Western person to apply their writing on a universal scale. Let me give you an example.

Hannah Arendt focussed her energy on understand the core concepts
of Western thought. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Actually, I’ll just link back to the example I gave yesterday when I was writing about something different. Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition examines how a set of cultural presumptions about humanity’s relationship with the world and our place in it developed over time.

She talks about it on the terms of those presumptions’ core concepts themselves. Really anal but important thing I want to call attention to – I don’t say ‘in terms of,’ but ‘on terms of.’ In the same sense that, when you ask someone for an eyewitness account, you say they described the incident on their terms.

Her historical references for this analysis are entirely Western – from Polis Greece through Medieval Christian Europe to the Scientific Revolutions and their growing intensity until the Nuclear Age. But the philosophical problems that all these cultural dynamics influence and change refer to existential questions about humanity itself.

Here we have a culture speaking for all of humanity – the West. And it sounds for a second like the argument we’ve all heard before.

European navies and armies spent a few centuries ruthlessly conquering every other civilization on Earth. Our education systems and most of our cultural traditions have trained and raised* most of us Westerners to think as if we deserved to conquer them. Western ideas were universal – everyone else’s were local. Westerners were Man – everybody else were just a bunch of people.

One of the first great thinkers to see the real end
point of decolonization was Frantz Fanon. In The
Wretched of the Earth, the revolution throwing
the colonizers out is only the beginning. A society
can stay on a war footing for much too long. It
has to begin its own cultural renaissance of
creativity and freedom. Only then can they truly
be equals with the bastards who once conquered
them. Rub that freedom to develop your culture
as you want in their face. That's the real victory.
* Respectively.

The typical reaction is to declare this whole pretence to the Western way of thinking being the true universal a general crock of shit. I’m speaking, of course, about the 20th century left. This is the set of progressive attitudes that the paranoid nationalist right believes is the only left.

That old-fashioned progressive attitude is over – in the 21st century generation anyway. The attitude that appears to be shaking out from our culture right now is what I’m about to describe. Basically, it’s the endpoint of cultural decolonization.

At the end of the day, The Human Condition describes one way to think about humanity. It’s a continuous cultural development – a general trend among many different communities.

But those communities grew similar in this broad set of problems – over humanity’s place in the world – that they all developed similar responses at similar times. They shared a lot among each other. Enough to become Europe.

There are other densely integrated communities throughout the world that interacted much more intensely among each other than beyond for long periods of time. They developed their own traditions of thinking about these broad problems – over humanity’s place in the world.

The Western way of thinking is not the one way, standing apart from the many.

The Western way of thinking is one way among many.

In the 21st century, these many civilizational traditions of thought are now interacting more intensely than they ever have before. Let’s all bring our ideas to each other and see what new thinking results.

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