March 12, 2011

Occidentalist History

Reading John Pocock's work on Gibbon, I came across an observation about the history of the West that I think is worth repeating. What Pocock argues is that the conquest of America represented a huge challenge to Western models of history. Smith, Robertson and the other Scots for example developed models of human progress that depended upon economic stages- from shepherd to farmer to citizen- which did not make as much sense in the Americas. The European thinkers believed that civilisation was impossible without the domestication of hoofed animals: this is a belief that makes sense in the old world- from Britain in the West to China in the East- but did not translate well into the Americas. Consequently Pocock shows that the eighteenth century thinkers developed the concept of a savage: who stood in America, outside of the procession of civilisation. Obviously this has massive unpleasant consequences: to state that someone cannot develop justifies all sorts of racism and abuse. It also had huge consequences for Western thought: it cannot be an accident that Rousseau and Diderot about this time, in different ways, enthused the concept of the savage with a new nobility. Both of the French philosophes used the concept to mount a counterfactual challenge to European hypocrisy and civilisation. It is an interesting reflection that amongst the consequences of the discovery of America is the development of socialism in Europe: but it may well be true. It does show that the history of occidentalism- the image in the Old World of the New- is as important as the history of Orientalism (Proffessor Said's creation). The former has a lot to contribute to the way that we understand how they understood the world around them.


James Higham said...

Really difficult to read, Tiberius, with no paragraphs.