Eurocentrism refers to a discursive tendency to interpret the histories and cultures of non-European societies from a European (or Western) perspective. Common features of Eurocentric thought include:
- Ignoring or undervaluing non-European societies as inferior to Western;
- Ignoring or undervaluing what Asians or Africans do within their own society or seeing the histories of non-European societies simply in European terms, or as part of "the expansion of Europe" and its civilizing influence.
Eurocentrism is very old indeed. Already in the fifth century b.c.e. the Greek historian Herodotus mentions "barbaric" Asian hordes who, despite splendid architecture, lack European individuality.
Although Eurocentrism has been common through the ages, it has not been constant, nor has it affected the way Europeans have viewed all non-European societies equally. Moreover, Europeans have not always been in full agreement with each other over the merits or failings of particular non-European societies. In some writers and periods we find a tendency to romanticize Asia and Africa. In general, Eurocentrism has been more pronounced during periods of greatest European assertiveness or self-confidence, the most outstanding example being the age of imperialism and colonialism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
There are certain beliefs, valid or otherwise, that have led Eurocentric thinkers toward ignoring, undervaluing, or condemning non-European societies. There is a wide range of these, some applying more broadly in chronological terms than others. They include the following:
- Non-European societies tend to be despotic and servile, as against the West's freedom and individualism.
- Non-European societies are Islamic, or pagan, or believe in strange religions, which are inferior to Christianity, or lack its truth.
- Non-European societies are cruel and lack concern for human life. They practice barbaric customs toward women, such as female genital mutilation (north Africa), widow-burning (sati, India) or foot-binding (China).
- Non-European societies are inflexible and unchanging. Some European thinkers have attributed this lack of change to topography or climate, for instance extreme dependence on a major river, such as the Nile or the Yellow River, or extreme heat or dryness.
- Non-European societies are poor, backward, and underdeveloped, as opposed to the industrialized, progressive, and rich West.
- Non-European societies lack rational modes of thinking and scientific approaches.
There are innumerable European or Western observers who can be categorized as Eurocentric or otherwise. Between extreme Eurocentrism and its antithesis is a whole spectrum of attitudes toward non-European cultures and peoples, some thinkers being quite Eurocentric in general, but still showing remarkable sympathy toward non-Europeans in some respects, and vice versa. To some extent, the history of Western Asian and African studies shows a spectrum from extreme Eurocentrism to opposition to Eurocentrism, though in most periods the mean tends toward the Eurocentric end. A few examples of major Western thinkers or ideas on Asian and/or African peoples and cultures are selected as illustrations.
Aristotle (384–322 b.c.e.) regarded Africa and Asia as monolithic and influenced by their hot climates, contrasting with temperate or cold Europe. He saw their governments as despotic and peoples as servile and lacking in spirit. On the other hand, he regarded Asians as intelligent and was impressed with Egypt because leisure among the priestly caste had allowed them to found the mathematical arts.
Medieval Europe's main impression of North Africa and Asia was distrust, then fear of, and hostility to, Islam. And in 1242, the Mongols came very close to Vienna and could have captured it but for news reaching them of their khan's death. Yet the thirteenth century also produced Marco Polo, who traveled through much of Asia and left a detailed account of life in China, which is remarkably positive and even romanticized.
The missionaries of the Catholic Society of Jesus (Jesuits) worked in many parts of Asia and Africa. In that they preached a religion that was strongest in their own (European) countries, they were Eurocentric. However, their policy was to try to understand the people they were converting and to adapt to local conditions, practices, and rites as far as they could. Moreover, they were pioneers in scholarship about several Asian countries, especially China. Jesuit missionaries sent back to Europe a flood of information from various parts of Asia, including, from 1703 to 1776, the "Lettres édifiantes et curieuses" (Edifying and curious letters), about one-third of which dealt with China.
The Enlightenment philosophers also discussed Asia and Africa. Although most of their ideas were Eurocentric, some were remarkably inclusive thinkers. Non-European civilizations became part of major philosophical debates in Europe about government, economy, and religion.
Among his three kinds of government, republic, monarchy, and despotism, Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755) puts Asian societies unequivocally in the last. Being of the view that climate and topography influence government system, Montesquieu saw despotism in Asia, especially in China and India, as the result of vastness and heat. Although he does see some merits in Asia, such as lenient laws in India, the general picture he presents of Asia is grim and Eurocentric. To be fair, his Lettres persanes (1721; Persian letters) is in a style new to his time and explicitly non-Eurocentric in showing Persian visitors to Europe criticizing what they found.
Montesquieu's most vigorous opponent was François Quesnay (1694–1774), the leader of the philosophical school called the Physiocrats. His primary interest was in the economy, and specifically agriculture, and the model he chose was China. His main work, Le despotisme de la Chine (1767; Despotism in China), shows that he regarded that country as an example of despotism. However, it was an enlightened despotism, with the emperor governing according to natural laws both he and all his subjects must obey.
The most famous of the Enlightenment thinkers was Voltaire (1694–1778). His great Essai sur les mœurs et l'esprit des nations et sur les principaux faits de l'histoire depuis Charlemagne jusqu'à Louis XIII (1756; Essay on the customs and spirit of the nations and the principal facts of history from Charlemagne to Louis XIII) is a world or "universal" history, and the first ever written to treat the growth of civilization as a whole. It has two chapters on China, two on India, one on Persia, and two on the Arabs. In that sense it is the very antithesis of Eurocentrism, even though it does give much more space to European than to other cultures.
Voltaire's picture of China and India was very positive, especially China, which drew his praise for its secular government. However, he regarded both civilizations as having made their greatest contributions many centuries before, at a time when Europe was still at the stage of barbarism, and having since become static.
Karl Marx (1818–1883) belongs in the tradition of Eurocentric thinkers. He developed the idea of "oriental despotism" into his theory of the "Asiatic mode of production," the most important plank of which was an absence of private property in land—the commune, state, or monarch being the owner of all land. Marx's main exemplars for his theory were India and China, but also included Egypt and the countries of the Sahara, as well as Arabia and Persia. Ironically he exempted Japan from the "Asiatic mode of production," being thus one of a number of Western thinkers for whom Japan was in many respects more like a Western than an Asian society.
England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindostan, was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution.
source: Karl Marx, "The British Rule in India," p. 493.
The basis of "Asiatic mode" societies was villages and communities, which Marx regarded as backward, miserable, and lacking in historical spirit. He believed the government of such societies was despotic, because communal agriculture necessitates large-scale hydraulic works and irrigation, itself requiring large-scale bureaucracy. Marx was thus in a long line of environmental determinists.
Because of Marx's environmental determinism, he castigated "Asiatic mode" societies as unchanging. It required outside force to impose change and, while that may have been painful, it was necessary. In an article entitled "The British Rule in India," published in the New-York Daily Tribune on 25 June 1853, he condemns British activity in India, but still believes that British colonialism there was historically progressive.
The chief follower of Marx's environmental determinism in the twentieth century was Karl A. Wittfogel (1896–1988), whose main work concerned China. Wittfogel was initially an activist in the German Communist Party but migrated to the United States and became naturalized in 1939, turning strongly against communism. He continued his work on Asia there, especially in Oriental Despotism (1957), where he argues strongly that the need for large-scale waterworks spawns despotic bureaucracies that impact on the whole nature of societies.
Max Weber (1864–1920) is most famous for attributing the growth of the capitalist spirit to the Puritan Protestant work ethic, especially John Calvin's (1509–1564) belief in predestination. Yet he also deserves a mention here for his attempts to develop a comparative methodology of sociology through his studies of the religious cultures of Asia, notably India and China.
In order to determine why Asian societies had failed to develop the "spirit of capitalism," Weber examined in great detail the impact on society and "personality" of great religions such as Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and, though to a slighter extent, Islam. His conclusion: that none of the Asian religions engaged with the world in such a way as to seek salvation through exertion in a calling and through profitable work in the way that ascetic Protestantism did. Confucianism he characterized as the ethic of officials, which adapted to the world, while Buddhism divorced itself from the world and Islam sought to rule it. Weber believed that the religions of Asia all accepted the world just as it was, the implication of this being that there was no incentive to transform it. He also saw the family systems in societies such as China and India as major inhibitors of modernization.
Weber's views, including those on Asia, remain controversial. In the late twentieth century many argued that Confucianism, including the Confucian emphasis on family, was responsible not for economic backwardness, but for capitalist progress. Despite his attempts to compare cultures dispassionately, Weber's basic conclusions point to commendation for the accomplishments of peoples following ascetic Protestantism, and criticism for other cultures, including Asian and African.
Twentieth-Century Critics of Eurocentrism
Frantz Fanon (1925–1961) was born in Martinique but trained mostly in France, serving in the French army during World War II. A strongly anticolonial theorist, he became involved in the Algerian war against the French and was the most articulate spokesperson for its cause. He did not live to see peace restored, dying of leukemia in Washington, D.C. in 1961. His most famous work is Les damnés de la terre (1961; The wretched of the earth), which is a passionate indictment of colonialism, especially that in Africa.
A major point of criticism of Eurocentrism in Fanon's work is his attacks on those Africans who internalize European culture at the expense of their own. He calls on Africans to promote their own culture as the symbol of their national consciousness. And that involves rejecting Europe and its sense of superiority, in other words Eurocentrism.
Edward Said (1935–2003) was a Palestinian Arab, who was born in Jerusalem but was trained in Cairo and the United States. He spent most of his professional career working at Columbia University in New York. Famous as a public intellectual and thinker generally, Said became a passionate critic of Eurocentrism.
So, my brothers, how is it that we do not understand that we have better things to do than to follow that same Europe?
That same Europe where they were never done talking of Man, and where they never stopped proclaiming that they were only anxious for the welfare of Man: today we know with what sufferings humanity has paid for every one of their triumphs of the mind.
Come, then, comrades, the European game has finally ended; we must find something different. We today can do everything, so long as we do not imitate Europe, so long as we are not obsessed by the desire to catch up with Europe.
Said's best known work is Orientalism (1978), a strong attack on Western scholarship on Islamic West Asia and North Africa, which he regarded as deeply ethnocentric or "Orientalist." By its nature, the theory of "Orientalism" applies to all non-Western societies, even though its focus is West Asia. He claims that in colonizing West Asia and North Africa, European states also "colonized" knowledge about these regions, meaning that there is a power factor of superior/inferior in Western scholarship concerning them, which is deeply "hegemonic." The result is that Western scholarship is generally simply an abstraction or invention shot through with various kinds of racism or imperialism. Certainly, it is incapable of examining Asian or African cultures and societies in their own terms. It is in line with a Western political agenda and suits Western interests generally.
Despite what many critics have claimed as an extreme view, Said does acknowledge the possibility that Western scholarship can be "decolonialized." His belief was that allegiance to a discipline, not to area studies, can lead to scholarship "that is not as corrupt, or at least as blind to human reality" as the Orientalist type (p. 326). Naturally, it is essential that all links between scholar and state be very specifically ruptured.
Said's work has attracted both support and criticism. Among the supporters is Ronald Inden, who has written works with similar thrust concerning India, especially Imagining India (1990). It has also sparked an opposite theory of "Occidentalism," which lies outside the scope of this entry.
The twentieth century saw numerous other critics of Eurocentrism closely involved in antiracist and anticolonial movements. A particularly distinguished American example was W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963), a leader of the American civil rights movement as well as an advocate of black rights worldwide. A distinguished academic as well as a political activist, he wrote many books attacking Eurocentric and racist thinking, as well as defending black integrity, identities, and traditions. Du Bois was also notable in his understanding of the relationship between racism and sexism and in his high evaluation of the contributions of black women. He was born and lived most of his life in the United States, but emigrated to Africa in 1961, dying in Ghana.
Eurocentrism, Anticolonialism, Modernity,
The tendency to examine the histories of Asia and Africa through the prism of "European expansion" was very common, even prevalent, in Western scholarship on these two continents in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The rise of nationalism, anticolonialism, and independence movements brought greater realization of the importance Asians and Africans had played in their own country, and hence a trend away from Eurocentrism. Scholars from Africa and Asia went to live in the West in increasing numbers for training. They brought understandings from their own countries as well as taking back ideas from the West. At the same time, the rise in influence of many former colonies brought about a shift in attitude in the West itself toward Asia's and Africa's histories and cultures.
One illustrative example is the literary movement negritude of the 1930s to the 1950s. Led by Léopold Sédar Senghor, who was elected first president of the previously French-colonized West African Republic of Senegal in 1960, this movement arose in Paris, where several major literary figures from French African colonies lived. It attacked the humiliation and contempt European colonialism had inflicted on Africa and black people. Above all, it opposed colonialism and Eurocentrism by seeking to reassert the value and dignity of African traditions.
Modernity and the question of when the modern age began are important in Eurocentrism. Until World War II, most scholars studying Asian and African peoples were content to attach modernity to European colonialism or imperialism. But this attitude came under attack in the post-war West, and even more with the Vietnam War of 1965–1973, because it ignores or underplays processes that might have been taking place in the country of concern.
Taking China as an example of a major civilization that never actually became a colony despite major attacks from imperialist powers ranging from Britain to Japan, we find that prewar Western historians of the "modern" period tended to see the beginnings of modernity in the middle of the nineteenth century, which was when the Western impact began in earnest. For example, the great American sinologist John King Fairbank (1907–1991) developed a theory of "change within tradition" before the Western impact, but "transformation" brought about by the West in the nineteenth century. Since the 1970s, more and more historians see internal dynamics within the long range of Chinese history, in which the Western impact of the nineteenth century was an important factor, but certainly not one so fundamental as to define the boundaries of "modern" China. They challenge the notion of a stagnant China awaiting deliverance from a dynamic West as Eurocentric, and either see no point in assigning the boundary of a "modern" China or choose times other than the mid-nineteenth century.
Postmodern and postcolonial studies.
Since the 1980s Eurocentrism has been more closely associated in the humanities and social sciences with ideologies such as sexism and racism. "Subaltern studies," which attack all forms of scholarship and ideology that give space to any kind of dominationism or inequality have become increasingly influential in the humanities and social sciences.
One highly significant example is the rise of gender and feminist scholarship that associates Eurocentrism, imperialism, and racism with sexism. These theories argue against the possibility of fully understanding imperialism without reference to gendered power. Colonialism was male in its interests and violent in its methods. Europe was essentially male, the colonies female.
An interesting case study of the way anti-Eurocentrism has merged with antiracism in the field of ancient history is the argument that Ancient Greek civilization derived from Asia and Africa, especially Egypt. Ancient Greece is generally regarded as one of the most important sources, or even "the cradle," of European civilization. But Martin Bernal (1987) suggests that it was nineteenth-century racism that exalted the Ancient Greeks as racially pure Aryans, even though the roots of their civilization were Semitic, Phoenician, and Egyptian.
Together with the existence of a thinker like Edward Said, these examples of alternative paradigms suggest that Eurocentrism is on the decline in the postcolonial era. But it is very far from dead.
See also Anticolonialism ; Colonialism ; Cultural Revivals ; Internal Colonialism ; Negritude ; Occidentalism ; Orientalism ; Other, The, European Views of .
Amin, Samir. Eurocentrism. Translated by Russell Moore. New York: Monthly Review, 1989. Major attack on Eurocentrism.
Bernal, Martin. The Fabrication of Ancient Greece, 1785–1985. Vol. 1 of Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization. London: Free Association Books, 1987. Argues that Ancient Greek civilization had its roots in Africa and Asia.
Blaut, James M. The Colonizer's Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History. New York: Guilford, 1993.
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Preface by Jean-Paul Sartre. Translated by Constance Farrington. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1967. Classic text condemning colonialism, including its influence on the mind.
Goody, Jack. The East in the West. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Major anti-Eurocentrist theory of world history.
Inden, Ronald B. Imagining India. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.
Lach, Donald F. Asia in the Making of Europe, 3 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965–1993. In three volumes and nine books covers South Asian, East Asian, and Southeast Asian impact on Europe over three centuries.
Mackerras, Colin. Western Images of China. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. Covers all periods.
Marx, Karl. "The British Rule in India." In Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Selected Works, in Three Volumes. Vol. 1. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1969. Classic text summing up Marx's views on environmental determinism and colonialism.
McClintock, Anne. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. New York and London: Routledge, 1995. Using mainly African examples, argues interconnections among imperialism, sexism, racism, and class.
Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon, 1978. Major twentieth-century theory attacking Eurocentrism.