Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Achebe on Western vs. Non-Western Thinking

I discovered Chinua Achebe in a short story class, and was taken in by the effective simplicity of his prose; then I learned more of him in a class on Post-Colonial Literature, and was impressed by his philosophical framework. Last month, I discovered several of his books lying in a National Bookstore bargain bin -- only P50! Of course I had to buy them!

I am now reading his book of essays, "Hopes and Impediments." Several thought-provoking pieces, but probably the one I like best (so far) is his essay The Writer and His Community, which delves into the differences between Western and non-Western thinking. Passages reproduced below:

It may be thought over-bold, if not downright impertinent, for anyone, but more particularly for an African student, to describe Descartes, the very father of modern Western philosophy, as the cause of a gigantic philosophical accident. But there are undoubtedly good grounds for the proposition advanced here that if they should return to the world today Socrates -- or his student Plato, whom we know better -- and Augustine might find African communalism more congenial than Western individualism. The Republic, "conjured out of the ruins of fourth-century Athens," was after all a grand design for the ordering of men in society; and The City of God a Christian reordering of society after the destruction of the Roman Empire by the pagains. In other words, philosophy for Plato and Augustine, historically equidistant from Christ, was concerned with architectural designs for a better world.
Descartes, on the other hand, would probably be an American citizen if he should return. He had rejected the traditional contemplative ideal of philosophy and put in its place a new experimental rationalism and a mechanistic view of the physical world. He regarded science as a means of acquiring mastery over nature for the benefit of mankind and led the way himself in optics and physiology. But -- and this perhaps more than all else makes him a true modern, Western man -- he made the foundation of his philosophical edifice, including the existence of God, contingent on his own first person singular! Cogito ergo sum. I think therefore I am.

Perhaps it is the triumphant, breathtaking egocentrism of that declaration that occasionally troubles the non-Western mind, conscious as it must be of hierarchies above self; adn so leads it to the brazen thought of a Western ontological accident.

But troubled though he may be, non-Western man is also, in spite of himself, dazzled by the technological marvels created by the West; by its ability to provide better than anybody else for man's material needs. And so we find him going out to meet the West in a bid to find out the secret of its astonishing success or, if that proves too rigorous, then simple to taste its fruits.


  1. I don't really know if Descartes and Augustine are philosophically far apart. Descartes's method of doubt actually strongly echoes Augustine's own thinking. In De Trinitate, Augustine has a chapter titled: "Every Mind Knows Certainly Three Things Concerning Itself— That It Understands, that It Is, and that It Lives."

    Pardon the long quote:
    "Yet who ever doubts that he himself lives, and remembers, and understands, and wills, and thinks, and knows, and judges? Seeing that even if he doubts, he lives; if he doubts, he remembers why he doubts; if he doubts, he understands that he doubts; if he doubts, he wishes to be certain; if he doubts, he thinks; if he doubts, he knows that he does not know; if he doubts, he judges that he ought not to assent rashly. Whosoever therefore doubts about anything else, ought not to doubt of all these things; which if they were not, he would not be able to doubt of anything."
    (more here)

    Both Descartes and Augustine wanted to start from a position of irrefutable fact, and build from there. It's been a while since my Philo classes, but I remember, that Descartes puts his proof of the existence of God as a foundation from which we can know scientific truths.

  2. Perhaps understandable since Descartes says, "Cogito ergo sum" whereas Augustine says, "Si fallor sum." But there is a distinction: Descartes begins with himself, whereas Augustine begins outside of himself. Descartes predicates existence in himself (cogito) whereas Augustine acknowledges an external reality that he may perceive in error.

  3. It seems to me that the difference between the two is a subtle shift in emphasis, but the logic is the same (descartes also started his method of doubt with the question of what if we are mistaken with what we perceive of the world, for example).

    I guess what I'm saying is Descartes did not think his thoughts in a vacuum, and actually was an evolution of an intellectual tradition that goes back to augustine and plato. Thus, if both Descartes and Augustine were to be transported to the modern world, I think they would have much more in common than not.

    This reminds me of taking a class with Fr. de Torre. He claimed that Western civilization was clearly superior (he said it in a nice way, haha). And he said that the West basically had two things that made it superior: the Judeo-Christian faith, and the Graeco-Roman thought.

    Though I think Fr. De Torre would agree somewhat with Achebe in that Descartes marks some sort of turning point to placing man rather than something more transcendent as the focus of philosophy.