Meta-Empirical Questions in the Rise of the West Debate

Kevin MacDonald


This is a commentary on a review-essay, “Reorienting the Discovery Machine: Perspectives from China and Islamdom on Toby Huff’s Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution: A Global Perspective,” published in the Journal of World History (June 2012), by Ting Xu and Khodadad Rezakhani.  The aim is to offer a sample of the way Europe’s history is being re-written in a globalist Trotskyite direction consistent with the normative requirements of multiculturalism and mass immigration. The historical profession in the West has been moving in this direction for some decades now, and hundreds of other publications could have served as well or even better to illustrate this point. But this publication works well for my purposes; it is sufficiently short for a thorough examination of the way this re-orientation operates in its handling of scholarly sources and empirical evidence; and it also happens to be written by two upcoming researchers who completed their PhDs at the London School of Economics, which houses the Global Economic History Network (GEHN), the product of cooperation across five partner institutions (LSE, the University of California at Irvine, UCLA, Leiden and Osaka Universities), and one of the major promoters of England as a cosmopolitan place ideal for the mixing of cultures and races against the “parochial” identity of the past. 

Wittgenstein said that all discursive claims are ultimately framed by language games which the proponents of particular discourses don’t subject to probing questions, but accept for moral or politically motivated reasons. I would not thereby conclude that the evidence a discourse marshals in support of its claims is subsidiary or incidental to its normative goals. Different discourses generate different types of evidential support, and some discourses have a keener appreciation and commitment to the evidence available.  But Wittgenstein is correct to alert us to the presence in all discourses of language games or meta-political norms which stand independently of the evidence and are generally taken for granted.

Although Ting Xu has recently obtained a lectureship at Queens University (Belfast), both she and Khodadad Rezakhani are listed as “research officers” of the Global Economic History Network (GEHN). The “Mission Statement” of GEHN, in operation since 2003, and consisting of some 49 international academics backed by numerous grants, states that this network “seeks to broaden and deepen people’s understanding of themselves, their cultures and their states by extending the geographical spaces and lengthening the chronologies that most historians normally take into their narratives and analyses.”  It further states, and this passage is worth quoting and clarifying:

Aspirations to transcend the confines of personal, local, national and European history go back to Herodotus and were certainly present in histories published in the medieval era of Christendom. They blossomed in secular form during the Enlightenment, almost disappeared during the centuries which witnessed the Rise of the West, but have revived again during recent decades of intensified globalization and multiculturalism.

The claim is that Europeans were generally seeking to “transcend” their national parochialism from ancient times through to the Enlightenment era, but then they became too flattered with their dominion over the world during the nineteenth century (“rise of the West”) and, consequently, lost interest in overcoming their ethnocentric biases; but with the intensification of globalization and multiculturalism there has been a revival of this transcendentalism. Europeans are escaping their confining, parochial nationalisms. Never mind that the Greeks only granted citizenship to ethnic members of the polis and that during the nineteenth century Europeans were exceptionally  curious (anthropologically) about other cultures, eagerly writing the histories of non-Europeans in a proper scholarly manner. 

The point to note is that the professors working or hired into this program, including the students, are expected to accept this meta-political mission. Multiculturalism is accepted without definition, analysis or debate. In their varying ways, the research publications of the members of GEHN are consistent with the mission statement. The central premise of multiculturalism — that all cultures are equal in achievements and merit — is accepted ab initio.  The Network takes it for granted that England’s (and Europe’s) “intensified globalization” should come with multiculturalism (and mass immigration), without making it a subject of research interest. Moreover, it does not ask whether Asian nations, too, should be experiencing globalization while undermining their own national identities and inviting their countries to be flooded by immigrants.

The history mandated by this network, then, cannot be seen in neutral, purely empirical terms, but as a meta-empirical mission to promote an interpretation of Europe’s history that suits the increasingly multi-racial character of Western nations consistent with cultural egalitarianism. This does not mean that there are no debates over various factual matters and comparative assessments of the regions of the world. However, the overall tenor and objective of the program is geared towards the internationalization of European culture from a pro-immigrant, multicultural perspective.

Maxine Berg, a major GEHN member and Director of Global History and Culture Centre (GHCC) at the University of Warwick, eloquently expresses the same aim: a “global approach to historical questions and research.” The mission is not to encourage a global history because it is a more empirically in tune with the evidence, but to promote a “global culture”, and a new way of writing the history of Europe by “going beyond borders and pursuing wider concepts of connectedness and cosmopolitanism.”  Included among her many appointments and fellowships is the title of “European Research Council Fellow, 2010–2014 & Director of ERC Fellowship project Europe’s Asian Centuries: Trading Eurasia 1600-1830′,” in reference to which Berg states, in a booming tone: “The 21st Century has witnessed a new Asian ascendancy over the West. Europe has lost the manufacturing catalyst of textiles, ceramics and metal goods back to India and China.” Don’t expect to find a similar expression about the ascendancy of Europe “over Asia” after 1500. To the contrary, the traditional “rise of the West” debate has now been replaced by “the great divergence” which examines Europe’s industrial revolution in terms of its global origins, “Chinese, Indian, and African antecedents.”

From a booklet celebrating the GHCC fifth anniversary, its teaching and research focus, the Marxist orientation is apparent:

Focal points developed based on the specialism of Centre members, including the material culture of global connections, postcolonial theory, comparisons in technology, frameworks of local and regional histories, Chinese cities in global context, Caribbean and Spanish American trade and slavery, African decolonization, Indian Ocean diasporas, and South and East Asian health and medicine.

Take a look at the “Selected Publications” listed at the end of this booklet, from its members since 2007, the are overwhelmingly about Europe’s slave colonies, and Asia’s and Africa’s liberation and beautiful cultural tapestries—thus ignoring the slavery that was endemic throughout the non-Western world and long predated European colonialism.

The review of Huff’s Intellectual Curiosities by Xu and Rezakhani cannot be adequately evaluated without an awareness of these meta-empirical norms. Both Xu and Rezakhani are leftist in their politics, believers in multiculturalism and mass immigration; well-trained in the prevailing academic orthodoxies. Rezakhani can be easily classified as an Iranian nationalist thoroughly committed to Marxist or World-Systems theory, well-stepped in the anti-Western writings of Immanuel Wallerstein, Janet Abu Lughod, James Blaut, and Andre Gunder Frank. He is an enthusiastic advocate of “an alternative, non-Eurocentric, and truly global history”. Xu is quieter; her parents survived Mao’s cultural revolution, but she has embraced Western cultural Marxism, though she likely has no idea what this term means; either way, she lists Kenneth Pomeranz’s Marxist text, Great Divergence (2000), as one of the “seminal” books in her education, including Karl Polanyi’s, The Great Transformation (1944), and  other books which condemn Western neo-liberal imperialism. 

These meta-norms are not explicitly stated in this review; they come understated, neutralized, normalized, as if they were purely methodological in character; its advocates don’t feel obligated to offer justifications for them:  Xu and Rezakhani thus write gently in their conclusion:

His [Huff’s] comparative study could have been more persuasive if he had adopted a framework of “two-way comparisons.” Instead of asking “why not” questions, such reciprocal comparisons establish what was similar about Chinese/Islamic and European proto-science before examining what was different. Instead of asking simply “Why Europe?” and “Why not China or the Islamic world?” historians need to observe and elaborate upon similarities while appreciating contrasts (412).

Xu and Rezakhani cite Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence and Bin Wong’s China Transformed (1997) as emulating examples of this “two-way” comparative “method”. It should be called “attitude” rather than “method.” From this “two way,” “reciprocal” perspective, Pomeranz and Wong concluded that Europe and Asia were “surprisingly similar” in their institutions and economic development as late as 1750/1800. The industrial revolution was a late occurrence arising from a series of fortunate accidents and “conjunctural” tendencies within the “capitalist international economy”. It is not that Pomeranz and Wong did not collect any evidence; actually they were both quite astute in gathering evidence. But their evidence was framed according to an attitude in which the industrial revolution had to be seen as equally probable in both Europe and Asia. With this method, there can never be a prognosis, a foreseeing, an examination of extrapolative indicators, in such a way that one region is given priority (or not) in the search for indicators; rather, the investigator is precluded from “assuming” that one region or country did (or did not) experience an industrial revolution first.

Huff, however, is an old school historian, who goes for evidence where he thinks it is likely to be, searching as well for contrary evidence and contradicting arguments. When he started his book, Intellectual Curiosities, he was not guessing or “supposing” that Europe invented the telescope and microscope; the evidence was already irrefutable that it did, and that Asia did not. But for Xu and Rezakhani this is not a “two-way” approach; Huff is not being “reciprocal,” that is, mutual and equivalent in his suppositions. He made the mistake of posing the “binary” question: why did Europe embrace the invention of telescopes and microscopes? And, conversely: why China, Mughal India and the Ottoman did not show curiosity for these quintessential instruments of scientific discovery? These instruments were actually brought to China and India but the elites showed little enthusiasm for them.

The second instance in which Xu and Rezakhani silently exhibit this meta-normative evaluation of the evidence comes in the contrast they draw between Huff’s “clash of civilizations” approach and their “dialogue of civilizations” approach. The word clash is defined in dictionaries as: ‘To collide with a loud, harsh, usually metallic noise; to create an unpleasant visual impression when placed together; a conflict, as between opposing or irreconcilable ideas; an encounter between hostile forces.’ The word “dialogue” is defined in reverse terms: ‘conversation between two or more persons; an exchange of ideas or opinions, especially a political or religious issue, with a view to reaching an amicable agreement or settlement’. Huff does not have the right attitude, whereas Xu and Rezakhani are frankly trying to debate in a good-natured, give and take, manner. Huff is setting Europe above Asia, creating an unpleasant impression among Chinese and Iranian students, who may feel left out, and nurturing an aggressive, loud attitude among European natives, who may exhibit vain pride.

The Greeks were the first to nurture the idea that truth is best attained through a dialogue rather than commandments imposed from above as was the norm in the East. This dialogical style was adopted by Islamic scholars early in the 9th century, but as a way of determining Islamic orthodoxy through consensus. The scholastics of medieval Europe developed this method in a more intricate direction, along the lines of the following schema: i) thesis and counter thesis, ii) arguments for the thesis, iii) objections to the argument, iv) replies to the objections, v) pseudo-arguments for the counter-thesis, and vi) replies in refutation of the pseudo arguments. Catholic scholasticsengaged major works by renowned authors, read them thoroughly, then compared the book’s theories to other sources; through a series of dialogues they would ascertain the respective merits and demerits of these sources. This did not imply that any argument expressed by anyone was taken to be on an equal footing deserving to be combined with the existing ideas. Today, world historians are misusing this dialectical method to push through the notion that the ideas the West achieved through this method are incomplete unless they are integrated with the claims of other civilizations. Some are even pushing the absurd and destructive concept of “Euroislam” or “Islamo-Christian Civilization” as a way to create a more dialogical culture in Europe.

Xu and Rezakhani thus reference Arun Bala’s book, The Dialogue of Civilizations in the Birth of Modern Science (2006) for its ability to portray the rise of Newtonian mechanics as a friendly conversation involving Chinese mechanical inventions and cosmological views, Indian computational techniques and atomic hypotheses, Arabic planetary and optical theories, and Greek ideas. Bala’s dialogical explanation can be summed up in one sentence: Europe’s overseas explorations opened the intellectual corridors of communication and exchange of ideas providing the impetus for the Renaissance and the birth of modern science and philosophy in Europe. H. Floris Cohen demolished this pseudo argument in one effective paragraph:

Bala’s point of departure is that in the history of science a ‘dialogue of civilizations’ is a priori plausible and is not in any given case in indispensable need of empirical evidence. He gives body to the point by means of the following criterion … : “If, shortly after a new corridor of communication opens between a culture A and a culture B, and great interest [is] shown by A to understand B, a theme becomes dominant in A similar to a dominant theme in B, then we can presume that the development of the theme in A was due to the influence of B, even if the new theme had existed as a recessive theme in A prior to contact between the cultures.” In practice Bala has now given himself sufficient leeway for what he goes on to do in the remainder of his book. Without a shred of empirical evidence he allows critiques of Ptolemy in the Arabic world to affect Copernicus’ thinking, or fifteenth/sixteenth century Indian mathematicians to contribute to Newton’s discovery of the calculus, or Shen Kua’s late-eleventh century discovery of magnetic declination to culminate in Kepler’s laws.

(Parenthetically, Dialogue of Civilizations propelled Bala, from Singapore, into the international academic scene with Visiting Professorships at University of Toronto, Dalhousie University, and University of Western Ontario, including conference presentations at the prestigious GEHN, with approving references by leading researcher, Patrick O’Brien. He is now seen as a foremost contributor to the “continuity thesis,” and a major voice in the exhaustive debate on Thomas Kuhn’s  The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.) 

The passage quoted above comes from “Review-Essay: From West to East, from East to West?” (2012), where Floris Cohen addresses other similarly argued books, as well as “Eurocentric” books, including Huff’s, which he also criticizes. Cohen reproaches Huff for portraying Asians as a people lacking in intellectual curiosity; he should have investigated the reasons why Asians were not as enthusiastic for these scientific instruments. Huff failed to appreciate the rather different “cultural context” of Asians. It is “Eurocentric” to presume that the Asians should have chosen the same curiosity in respect to these instruments; and, besides, adds Cohen, Huff underestimates the resistance to science in Christian Europe proper.  

Xu and Rezakhani offer a slightly more elaborated version of this same argument. They say that Huff “failed” to identify the cosmographical or world views of the Chinese; a cultural context, which included the particular ways in which Chinese scholars thought about astronomy, mathematics, mechanics, and so on, which “was strictly controlled by the state and was traditionally conceived in terms of ‘correlations between man and the universe’ or between the emperor and the heavens rather than an inquiry into the laws of motion and physics of some remote celestial sphere” (408). It was not that the Chinese lacked curiosity but that they inhabited a different cultural horizon.

In fact, this criticism reinforces the argument that Europeans were peculiarly scientific in a way that Asians (or the Chinese) were not in profoundly cultural ways. Floris Cohen has done extensive research on the question at hand: why there was a scientific revolution in Europe and not elsewhere? What is the point of looking for scientific evidence in a non-European context and then, at the moment one finds out that this context lacked a scientific mentality, concluding that it is unfair to look for scientific motivations in that context? This way of thinking (which Floris Cohen has assimilated from multiculturalists, leading him to believe that Eurocentrism “still” dominates academia and must be moderated by his middle-of-the-road attitude) is plainly characterized by a “heads I win, tails you lose” style. Tails: “Don’t be so Eurocentric believing that Asians were not as equally important to the rise of modern science.” Heads: “Don’t be so Eurocentric assuming that Asians should have been as curious in the use of scientific instruments.”

The focus of Xu and Rezakhani’s review is to highlight the way Asians were the possessors of a legacy as important (up until about 1500) to science as that of the Europeans. They say that Huff ignores Islamic interest in the study of the vacuum and optics, and then cite an article from 1964 on the suction pump and a book on Islamic science from 1993. Actually, the vacuum was studied empirically only in the 17th century when Evangelista Torricelli produced the first laboratory vacuum in 1643. They try to dispute Huff’s argument that only Europeans created universities with the institutional quality and autonomy to pursue rationally based knowledge, by quickly referring to some alleged Muslim “private foundations generating research comparable in range and quality to the medieval universities of the West,” but the only source they use to back this claim is an Iranian paper three pages long.

They rebuke Huff for relying heavily on a 1981 book by George Makdisi, but what is revealing here is that Makdisi is the author of a readily available article published in 1974, “The Scholastic Method in Medieval Education: An Inquiry into Its Origins and in Law and Theology” (which I used for a paragraph above), which opens up referencing European scholars who long ago seriously acknowledged the extent of influence of Islamic scholarly culture on the West.   Since ancient times, Europeans have acknowledged their debts to others; and through the twentieth century countless books and articles have been written by them on the history and accomplishments of other civilizations, and their influence on the West.

What multicultural world historians are doing today is something altogether dissimilar. The research has never shown that the sources of modern science were not primarily due to Europe’s internal culture and institutions, but has instead shown that Europeans were progenitors of multiple novelties and revolutions (if you read beyond one epoch and contrary to Floris Cohen’s assumption that Western uniqueness is predicated on the seventeenth century):  the inventors of universities, ninety five percent of all the explorers in history, the cartographic revolution of the sixteenth century, the “long” military revolution from 1350 onwards, three industrial revolutions, the Enlightenment, the Greek “discovery” of the mind, politics, geometry, tragedy, historical writing, and the Roman superior contribution to technologyand law; the European singular legacy in classical music and in the writing of  novels, the printing revolution, mechanical clocks,  changing styles in clothing, architecture, poetry and literature.  Consequently, world historians have decided to frame the debate, silently, within a meta-empirical world view which calls for the tolerance and inclusiveness of alternative viewpoints, notwithstanding the weight of the evidence.

Xu and Rezakhani don’t even try to find evidence against Huff’s research on telescopes and microscopes.  They simply think that his research “runs contrary to a useful, multilinear study of scientific inquiry and diffusion in premodern world history.” Most of the counterpoints they bring are in the manner of “he says, she says”. For example, they question Huff’s observation that institutions of learning outside Europe did not enjoy an autonomous status, claiming that there were private academies in Asia that “resembled their European counterparts in other respects.” But then they use other sources showing that “studies of the natural world in China became marginal to a concentration on moral and ethical philosophy—especially after Neo-Confucianism became the state orthodoxy from the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) onward.” “Substantial and sustained cultural and institutional innovation did not mark China’s long history.” What a great multilinear perspective!

Huff says that madrasas were pious centers unlike the curriculum at European universities which, in the words of Edward Grant, “was overwhelmingly analytical and rational” (p.102).  But this is too unilinear, so Xu and Rezakhani counter: “many of Europe’s medieval universities were also pious, indeed monastic, foundations with closer ties to ecclesiastical and secular hierarchies than many madrasas of the post-thirteenth-century Islamic world.” The scholarship prodigiously favors Huff’s and Grant’s position, but that’s not the point, as long as the other side can come up with a source that creates an impression of “balance” and multicultural interconnections, the argument is taken seriously in our cultural Marxist academic world.

This debate is no longer about scholarly comparisons but about the meta-empirical politics underlying the promoters of multiculturalism and mass immigration and the opponents who want to fight for European memory, ancestry, ethnic identity, and truthful historical scholarship.

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