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.