Do Asian studies

produce a new age of enlightenment?

By Nold Egenter

The present essay was written after a conference organised by the Swiss Academy of the Humanities and Social Sciences and the Swiss Society for Asian Studies which took place in the auditorium of the Union Bank of Switzerland, Zurich (UBS, May 12th 2000). The title of the event was "Culture, Politics and Markets, the Asian Studies in the Dialogue with Politics and Economy." An abstract of the presentations is found in the Annex.



Asia competence! This was the terminological core point of a recent conference in Zurich. Representatives of the commercial world met with exponents of the Asia sciences to discuss related topics. The first group wanted more collaboration between universities, industry and commerce. The universities should present an "Asia business programme", they said. But lectures by the representatives of the domains of Asia studies showed that historical conditions, social obligations, research methods and contents of the Asia sciences have quite different outlooks than the commercial positions with their short-term dynamic strategies and pragmatical needs. Asia has produced three of the most important high cultures, which are still a great challenge for cultural research in Europe and the West. In addition Asian studies are still enormously in progress, thus in this sense too, the expectations in the sense of Asia competence are rather unrealistic.

There is another basic problem particularly of importance in view of the Asia sciences, but this was not mentioned at this meeting. It will therefore be discussed below: the structural problems of the natural sciences and the humanities (in the following sometimes called 'spiritual' sciences, that is their equivalent in the German language).

Disputes in this domain always end up with the natural sciences accusing the humanities of non-efficiency (e.g. the so-called 'scandal of philosophy'). Characteristic of this attitude is the recent evaluation of the humanities, an appalling thing the gravity of which can only be understood if one would suggest evaluating Plato or Aristotle today. The natural sciences including industrialisation and technology profit enormously also because they could and still can develop relatively freely in view of ethical questions. In contrast to this, the humanities are ethically bound in important domains. They have remained structurally conditioned by their historical scholastic past, and these fixations are vehemently defended by specific interests. In the following we will suggest that on one hand these outdated fixations are the main reason why the humanities are retarded in many ways. And in the other sense, particularly in regard to the domain of Asia Studies, anthropologically defined methods can be conceived which may in new ways clarify many problems in the humanities.

The explicit separation of the 'spiritual' and natural sciences was formulated relatively late (Schiel 1849, Dilthey1883). Similarly the fragmented structure of the disciplines is a relatively late thing in the humanities as well as in the natural sciences. All this is essentially the result of struggles lasting centuries between a scholastic theology originally conceived in the most narrow sense as "historical science" and all those domains of research which gradually managed to liberate themselves from absolute scholastic postulates during the periods of Renaissance, Humanism and Enlightenment. In this context we have to be aware of the fact that in the Middle Ages the whole European education system - for nearly 1000 years - had been in the hands of church and monastery schools.

The history of medicine for instance, in particular early anatomy courses with their physical focus on 'God's creature' being condemned to work in dark cellars hidden from authorities, clearly shows this initially 'dangerous' liberation-process of the natural sciences. Similarly in astronomy and physics. In its beginnings, among Copernicus, Bruno, Galilei and Kepler, the geometrical orders of the skies were highly idealised as a divine mathematical system. Only with Newton was it increasingly understood in a profane mechanical sense. The Catholic Church has vehemently attacked this development based on its historic geocentrisms in view of creation, but has later enormously profited from science and its consequences, the perceptive extension of space. The expansion of metaphysics into this newly discovered universe quasi-automatically extended the biblical empire. God now related to the whole globe.

In contrast to the natural sciences, the humanities remained within the limits of religion and ethics to a great extent. Art, for instance. Until today it remained fixed on its platonically deduced pseudo-theological and extremely subjective aesthetics and on its post-medieval Renaissance myth of the artist as a profaned creator genius. Such concepts remained fixed on medieval concepts with disastrous effects on modern architecture and particularly on modern urbanism. The same can be said also in regard to psychology in so far as - in certain domains - it is working with empty abstractions. Similarly also theories of state and economy and legal theories as far as they are related to nature as creation. History too remains strongly historically structured with its auxiliary disciplines archaeology and prehistory. Disciplines like ethnology, Indology, Sinology, Japanology, etc. have to a great extent remained Eurocentric scholastic projections.


The Eurocentrically evolved structure of the humanities is usually projected on other cultures very uncritically, even naively <2>

Eurocentric projections: idealisations

Western humanities tear apart and hatch relations into pieces which have grown quite differently in other cultures.<3> There are also often very illegitimate Eurocentric idealisations, Euroscholastic absolutions of the spiritual projected on non-European facts. Particularly in the Asian sciences this became very clear. Here are some examples:

Fragmentation of grown connections

For about 10 years the author has dealt with the structure of the Japanese agrarian settlement using anthropological concepts related to space, habitat and architecture. In the framework of this pheonomonologically open perspective, one is confronted continuously with Eurocentric classification problems. The established apparatus does not accept certain relations. In this sense the study published by the author about territorial demarcations in 100 villages in central Japan in the framework of annual Shinto cults was acknowledged as a fundamental contribution in the framework of the theory of religion (Zwi Werblowsky, Numen; T. M. Ludwig, History of Religion) but the aesthetico-anthropological dimension, which is at least as important, was neglected. In the Western view it is simply unthinkable to deal with religion essentially and closely related to aesthetics. The main approach of the study is thus difficult to understand, namely, that in traditional or prehistoric agrarian societies, the whole world view, including philosophy and religion, can appear closely related to art, architecture and local space, in addition closely related to the local social hierarchy and territorial politics in the framework of a specific complex. The Western standpoint does not understand that exactly this might be a fundamentally new methodological approach <7>. To cover up this Eurodisciplinary problem the author has moved the paradigms used in Japan into the Euromediterranean domain which produced a plausible theory of Egypto-Judaeo-Christian religion. Doubtless this study will be acknowledged because it touches European culture at a sensitive point.

Eurocentric value system

With this a further characteristic of European 'spiritual sciences' becomes clear. They are often not scientifically objective and neutral, but are, to a great extent and particularly where foreign cultures are involved, an Eurocentric value system. What does not correspond to the 'high' standards of the European norm is devalued. Very clearly this is shown in terms like 'high' religion and 'primitive' religion, 'high' art and 'low' art, 'history' and mere 'tradition', economically in the designations 'First' and 'Third' world. The examples are legion. Most elementary demands for value free objectivity are seriously infringed continuously in the disciplines of the humanities. This is also valid intraculturally, particularly for instance in the relation of urban and rural domains, e.g. in conventional folklore theories.

Those who have their own personal experiences with this value system in foreign cultures should know the disastrous effects it produced in the world for centuries. It still produces very distorted views today. It has very little to do with objective science.

Eurocentric historism

A further handicap of the humanities: the overestimation of history! This too has its origins in scholastic Middle Ages in which it was somehow legitimate because there were no other sources. Written history was the basic source for the whole worldview. Religion explained at the same time the 'five sciences': cosmology, geology, biology, anthropology (Adam and Eve) as well as culture (religion and history!). This unshakeable belief of the Middle Ages into written history paradoxically still continues not only among the uneducated. It was present to a great extent in philological orientalistics and it plays an important role in our modern historical consciousness, for instance in religion, most disastrously in the American 'scientific' (!) creationism (see scandal of Kansas Univ. in Aug. 1999 <10>). All this is going on in spite of the fact that the 'six modern sciences' today (Cosmo-, Geo-, Bio-, Anthropo-, Archaeo-logy and history) with their 'histories' accounting for billions and millions of years have been inset reliably a long time ago<11>.

Further, the rather naive belief of archaeologists that we can dig out the human prehistory from the ground has to be mentioned here. In addition the term of material culture is limited to the durable. There is a high probability that what supported the cultural evolution of man was not of a durable nature - including what produced the ontologically highest values. If we want to preserve the basic axiom of archaeology and prehistory according to which cultural developments can be clarified on the basis of material culture, we will have to define the corresponding basic term of 'material culture' much more wider, that is: anthropologically or ethno-prehistorically (see Egenter 1999 'Habitat anthropology and the anthropological definition of material culture' [on the Internet]) .

However, the main problem is history in general. History propagates early sources as beginnings. Often the historian celebrates his glorious find, but, seen anthropologically, this is more than often merely a retroprojection. In Sinology for instance, Hermann Koester has critically indicated this problem in his book on Chinese Universism. The earliest Chinese periods were still strongly influenced by the agrarian village world. Correspondingly the historian has to be careful in view of the euphemistic glory describing the early palaces as huge and brilliant in gold. According to Koester they might have been simple huts. Since they represented high ontological values, they were described in polar categorical terms, that is, in structural analogy to spatially wider spaces like heaven and earth. This allowed later generations to glorify their past by retroprojections.

Another example: until recently the essentially historico-philologically oriented Japanology interpreted the early imperial chronicles of Japan as myth. In the meantime this became questionable from various sides, but the early settlement organisation shows clearly that the religious language of these texts with their names of deities are related to a territorial demarcation system which has been conserved traditionally in the agrarian village Shinto. In fact the imperial chronicles describe the imperial superseding process of the former counties (kuni) referring to the territorial constitutions valid at those times. This ends very clearly in the territorio-legal conditions of the Taika reform. With this historically well documented reform the imperial house de lege took hold of the agrarian lands in order to tax them all over the then time state. Centrally structured Buddhism played a decisive role in this process by eliminating the local and regional Shinto constitutions which had evolved autochthonously with the agricultural settling of the islands during the Yayoi and Kofun periods <12>.

The problem of space

A further very important problem of the European humanities is the problem of space. religions and the science of religions, as well as myth and symbol research, translating antique texts with modern universal space concepts. Whether texts from ancient Babylonia, Assyria, Egypt, or Hebraic texts, for instance, the type of so called 'creation myths'. All these texts are interpreted with universal spatial concepts which were developed very late (Europe: 14th century). Thus ancient texts which were originally legal texts related to settlement foundations and the like are completely misinterpreted. Their meaning appears distorted. But, since the results serve certain interests, nobody cares. The same is valid in regard to Asian studies. Early texts are often misinterpreted in regard to the factual spatial dimensions involved. And similarly in ethnology verbal traditions of marginal populations are often translated with completely wrong concepts of space.

The term culture used like a dogsbody

It is finally also the Eurocentric term culture which, used as a collective term with most heterogeneous meanings, has been decisively criticised a long time ago (Kroeber/Kluckohn 1952, 1962/3) but it is still used very uncritically also in the domain of Asia sciences. As a container, the term culture is packed with analytically produced results of Western cognition: endless cultural differences. Culture(s)? Everybody may help himself to show anything according to his own will.

Summing up we can say: in the West we are still deeply blocked in a historically conditioned inter-culturally comparative system which has never become aware of its own tremendous projections. In the 80ies these problems have come up in ethnology (Schmied- Kowarzik/ Stagl 1981) but after a short time of intense discussions the interest disappeared. Relevant action was not taken. The only - questionable - result: the theoretical cripple-child called "urban ethnology".

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