"Truth is one, the sages speak of it by many names"

On Eastern and Western Values

Essay, 2004

29 Pages, Grade: distinction




1. Introduction

2. Basic Human Conditions

3. Culture

4. The West and the Rest
4.1. Orientalism
4.2. Asian Values

5. Western Values
5.1. European Values
5.2. Western Values

6. Commonalities

7. Conclusion

8. References


The culture we are born into shapes the way we look at the world. Culture, this work claims, is man-made and tends, on the one hand, to secure the predominant social practises, its function is to stabilise the existing order; on the other hand, it is an expression of what its members aspire to be. The notions of ‘Orientalism’ (how the West sees the East) and ‘Asian values’ (how Asia sees herself) are explored before criteria such as rationality, justice, democracy, individual liberty, separation of church and state, and tolerance, that are generally perceived as European, but also as Western, are examined. Despite them having the same roots, European and Western values vary not inconsiderably because they are interpreted (and practised) not in the same way in Europe and in the US. The reason (also for the differences between Eastern and Western values), it is claimed, lies in the politics of power: differences in values are emphasised and thus enforced for political purposes. Furthermore, cultural values, it is argued, are not ‘naturally’ there, they are constructed ideologies and need to be put back in their place for it is our natural commonalities that (should) essentially matter.

1. Introduction

When, in the summer of 1993, the journal Foreign Affairs published an article by Samuel P. Huntington titled “The Clash of Civilizations?” it hit a nerve. That this article stirred up numerous debates had also to do with the fact that the question mark in its title seemed to have been almost routinely overlooked but, first and foremost, it had to do with the author’s assertion that “culture and cultural identities, which at the broadest level are civilization identities, are shaping the patterns of cohesion, disintegration, and conflict in the post-Cold War world” (Huntington 1998: 20). And indeed: when in the late 1980s the communist world collapsed, ideological, political, and economical differences did not seem to be so important anymore, what appeared to matter instead was culture (at its broadest level). As Huntington (1998: 21) puts it:

Peoples and nations are attempting the most basic question humans can face: Who are we? And they are answering that question in the traditional way human beings have answered it, by reference to the things that mean most to them. People define themselves in terms of ancestry, religion, language, history, values, customs, and institutions. They identify with cultural ethnic groups: tribes, ethnic groups, religious communities, nations, and, at the broadest level, civilizations. People use politics not just to advance their interests but also to define their identity. We know who we are only when we know who we are not and often only when we know whom we are against.

In addition, we might also know (or find out) who we are when we know to whom we want to belong – as the relationship between Turkey and the European Union (EU) in autumn 2004 has highlighted. For forty years now, Turkey, a mainly-Muslim state, has aspired to become a member of the EU. The last three years have seen dramatic and so far unprecedented changes, among them a) the civil code overhauled, b) minority groups given cultural rights, c) the military's role in government curtailed, and d) freedoms of assembly, speech, and association bolstered (Dymond 2004). Yet when recently the Turkish parliament voted to criminalize adultery, the EU made it clear that there was no way for accession negotiations to continue if this law wasn’t suspended. Unsurprisingly, such comments by the EU were sharply rebuked by the Turkish prime minister who said that Turkish policy would be decided in Turkey. Nevertheless, a few days later the adultery-law was scrapped – expected future economic benefits triumphed over patriotism. In other words, the Turks’ (the small Turkish elite that runs the country, that is) major concern was not so much national identity (who are we?) but rather better living conditions (who do we want to be?).

Cultural identity, this works argues, is constructed; it has probably more to do with the way we would like to see ourselves (or with what we aspire to be) than with who we really are. This is why when I refer here, for instance, to democracy I mean a democratic ideal, I do not mean democracy in practice. Not least because, for instance, the British democratic system and Thai democracy have not much in common – a member of the Thai national assembly once remarked when we were watching a heated debate in the British parliament on television: ‘if this is democracy, we don’t want it’ (for shouting parliamentarians, according to him, lacked civil manners) – but also because democracy on paper and democracy in real life (in some countries half of the population does not bother to vote, still others are prevented from voting etc.) appear often far apart. This work then is not so much about Western reality than it is about Western ideals, ideals however influence reality – and are thus relevant.

After briefly referring to the human condition – namely the question whether we are ‘free’ to choose our culture is explored –, this work elaborates on the complexity of the notion of culture not least because it is in culture where our values are expressed. It then deals with ‘the West and the rest’ in the sense that it addresses the question of how Westerners see the Orient, and how Asians respond to Western dominance with ‘Asian values’ before then examining characteristics that are generally agreed to be European values that also, it is argued, might be considered Western although in how they are interpreted as well as practised they differ not inconsiderably. This work concludes by arguing that cultural differences are stressed for reasons of power politics, that they are not ‘natural’, that our commonalities however are.

2. Basic Human Conditions

Our understanding of reality is shaped by the way we were brought up. The most crucial years – from a Freudian point of you – are from, roughly, three and a half to six years. During this period a human being is most significantly formed. This means, as an anonymous New York psychoanalyst (cited in Malcolm 1981: 159) puts it, that

man isn’t master in his own house. That he is determined, that his degree of freedom is zero, that he cannot change his destiny, that he is malleable at one formidable time and that everything in his life is settled and preordained ever after. Yes, it’s a horrible idea to have to accept. And we analysts take it for common knowledge, and when we talk among ourselves it’s a basic assumption derived from a tremendous amount of evidence.

Not a very pleasant idea, and not a very popular one either, one would suspect. But is it true that one’s freedom to choose – and this is what one needs to conclude from this statement – is not only limited but probably almost non-existent? Since there are, for instance, alcoholics who manage to stop drinking, and since there are smokers who successfully quit smoking, one can safely conclude that one’s not condemned to a life of practised addiction. Moreover, any penal system, for instance, is based on the conviction that one is free to (however illusory that might be), and thus responsible for (although not in an absolute sense), committing offences against the law. Could it then be that Freudian psychoanalysis means another kind of freedom, that it defines choice differently? For if everything in life were indeed settled after one’s sixth birthday, why then bother with psychoanalysis? As the anonymous psychoanalyst from New York (cited in Malcolm 1981: 107-108) explains:

This is a popular myth about analysis – that it makes the patient a clearer thinker, that it makes him wise and good, that people who have been analysed know more than other people do. Analysis isn’t intellectual. It isn’t moral. It isn’t educational. It’s an operation. It rearranges things inside the mind the way surgery rearranges things inside the body – even the way an automobile mechanic rearranges things under the hood of the car. It’s that impersonal and that radical. And the changes achieved are very small. We live our lives according to the repetition compulsion, and analysis can only go so far in freeing us from it. Analysis leaves the patient with more freedom of choice – but how much more? This much: instead of going straight down the meridian, he will go five degrees, ten degrees – maybe fifteen degrees if you push very hard – to the left or to the right, but no more than that.

In other words, there exists a basic structure that appears not really changeable and that is highly influential in how we perceive the world as are factors such as race, height, gender, and intelligence. In addition, as Bourdieu (cited in Swartz 1997: 96) states, “the socialized body (which one calls the individual or person) does not stand in opposition to society; it is one of its forms of existence.” This seems to suggest that one can’t escape the laws that govern the society one is born into either. Yet is that true, are our lives as predestined as Freud and Bourdieu appear to believe? Bourdieu, as Swartz (1997: 289-290) states, is not rigidly deterministic …[yet] …his conceptual framework is clearly more attentive to patterns of continuity than to change. The concepts of habitus, cultural capital, and field stress the tendency to perpetuate structures inherited from the past. The propensity of habitus is clearly to address new situations in habituated ways, it takes capital to accumulate more capital, and field permits an impressive mapping of social positions and their continuity over time. His framework does not encourage researchers to seek out forms of change.

What then are Bourdieu’s notions of habitus and of field? The term habitus dates back to Aristotle, yet Bourdieu uses it in a rather specific way and defines it as a system of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles which generate and organize practices and representations that can be objectively adapted to their outcomes without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary in order to attain them (cited in Swartz 1997: 100-101).

In other words, habitus is “a set of dispositions which incline agents to act and react in certain ways” (Thompson 2002: 12). While these dispositions are acquired gradually, early childhood experiences are of particular importance. As Thompson (2002: 12) puts it: “Through a myriad of mundane processes of training and learning, such as those involved in the inculculation of table manners (‘sit up straight’, ‘don’t eat with your mouth full’ etc.), the individual acquires a set of dispositions which literally mould the body and become second nature.” We human beings are therefore, and quite substantially, determined by our social environment – our dispositions, and thus our choices, are not limitless. This is however not to say that we are simply ‘victims’ of our social surroundings, this is only to say that our chances to re-invent ourselves are not without limits.

Habitus, as Swartz (1997: 104) states, “represents a sort of deep-structuring cultural matrix that generates self-fulfilling prophecies according to different class opportunities … Habitus calls us to think of action as engendered and regulated by fundamental dispositions that are internalised primarily through early socialization.” In other words:

Habitus is fairly resistant to change, since primary socialization in Bourdieu’s view is more formative of internal dispositions than subsequent socialization experiences. There is an ongoing adaptation process as habitus encounters new situations, but this process tends to be slow, unconscious, and tends to elaborate rather than alter fundamentally the primary dispositions (Swartz 1997: 107).

This seems to correspond with the above mentioned notion of Freud according to which the patterns acquired in early childhood can only be slightly modified in later life.

Individuals who act in specific social contexts that Bourdieu calls fields, act on the basis of generative principles, or dispositions, that underlie perceptions as well as practises. “Hence particular practises or perceptions should be seen, not as products of the habitus as such, but as the product of the relation between the habitus, on the one hand, and the specific social contexts or ‘fields’ within which individuals act, on the other” (Thompson 2002: 14). The importance of the concept of ‘field’ lies in that it aims at rejecting “idealist interpretations of cultural practices. Field analysis calls attention to the social conditions of struggle that shape cultural production” (Swartz 1997: 119). Consider, for example, the literary field in which writers, grammarians and teachers stick to a variety of rules that are however in “the process of continuous creation, which occurs through the unceasing struggles between the different authorities who compete … for the monopolistic power to impose the legitimate mode of expression” (Bourdieu 2002: 58): what takes thus place here is a struggle for the legitimate language – it is a game of power and must be accepted as a game of power. As Bourdieu (2002: 58) asks: “What would become of the literary world if one began to argue, not about the value of this or that author’s style, but about the value of arguments about style?” The game would be over, of course, for its basis would not be in place anymore.

Yet doesn’t this resistance to change that both Freud and Bourdieu identified stand in opposition to, say, the biological principle of growth which is, at its root, not different from the Buddhist law of impermanence which essentially states that the only permanent thing is change? Not necessarily for change and resistance to change needn’t exclude each other as Nietzsche (Miller 1993: 69) argues: he depicts the human being as, on the one hand, formed by a host of historically contingent rules, statutes, and norms, defined by the customs, practices, and institutions every human being must grow up within and as, on the other hand, called upon to create his/her own truth. In other words, as a creature of history, every human being embodies a compound of nature and culture, chaos and order, instinct and reason, change and resistance to change – two heterogeneous dimensions of being human symbolized, as Nietzsche saw it, by Dionysus and Apollo.

In addition, the media increasingly contribute to shaping our perceptions for most of what we nowadays know about the world, we know from the media. And despite us not trusting the media, we nevertheless build our view of the world on them (Luhmann 1996). Moreover, we are guided by them for they set the agenda, they decide (to a large extent) what we are talking about. As van Ginneken (1997: 88) reports:

Classic examples were the dramatization of the discovery of the presence of Soviet missile sites in Cuba (whereas the previous existence of equivalent American missile sites in Turkey was completely passed over in silence), the ‘discovery’ of a Soviet army unit near Havana on the eve of the summit of non-aligned countries in that country (whereas the previous presence of American army units in similar countries – and indeed of a huge military base on Cuba itself [Guantanamo] – was ignored, the discovery of crates with ‘possible’ parts of Mig-21 fighters in Nicaragua (whereas the massive military build-up in neighbouring Honduras was treated almost casually). But in fact hardly a month passes without major drummed-up news items in this category.

Agenda-setting thus emphasises the gatekeeping aspect of the news (Jowett & O’Donnell 1999: 192). What we get to see and hear is sometimes termed “the management of public opinion” (Jowett & O’Donnell 1999: 44), in other words: propaganda. And while the effects (on the behaviour) of such manipulation cannot be measured (in a clear-cut cause and effect way), hardly anyone doubts the significant influence of, for example, advertising, a peculiar form of propaganda that Ellul (1973: 274) describes as the “education of reflexes and instilling of habits”, to which we are almost constantly exposed – for most of us are nowadays familiar with the idea that the unconscious plays an important role in our lives.

As much as culture (family, society, media) appear to shape our destiny, can, say, success or failure, as scholars from Max Weber to Samuel Huntington claimed, really be explained with culture? That seems indeed too simple for, as Zakaria (2003: 52-53) argues, the US culture, for instance, produced not only (in the last two decades) an economic boom but also the Great Depression. In other words, “A single country can succeed and fail at different times, sometimes just a few decades apart, which would suggest that something other than its culture – which is relatively unchanging – is at work” (Zakaria 2003: 52). One of course wonders what “that something other” might be yet, unfortunately, Zakaria (2003: 55) volunteers no more than stating: “The West’s real advantage is that its history led to the creation of institutions and practices that, although in no sense bound up with Western genes, are hard to replicate from scratch in other societies. But it can be done.” That of course is a matter of belief. It is a belief that I share yet I cannot help but wonder if I were to think like that had I been brought up in a non-Western culture for, in terms of world views – “systems of knowing understood at a level deeper than is usually intended when scientific paradigms are discussed” (Holbrook 1981: 86) – I’m conditioned by the West European way of looking at the world for which, as Spengler (1986: 435) argues, the imperative ‘one should’ is so typical that West Europeans aren’t even aware of it.

3. Culture

“Culture”, as Eagleton (2000:1) states, “is said to be one of the two or three most complex words in the English language”. As to the various meanings of ‘culture’, Williams (1982: 11) elaborates:

We can distinguish a range of meanings form (i) a developed state of mind – as in ‘a person of culture’, ‘a cultured person’ to (ii) the processes of this development – as in ‘cultural interests’, ‘cultural activities’ to (iii) the means of theses processes – as in culture as ‘the arts’, and ‘humane intellectual works’. In our time (iii) is the most common general meaning though all are current. It coexists, often uneasily, with the anthropological and extended sociological use to indicate the ‘whole way of life’ of a distinct people or other social group.

The word ‘culture’ thus, it seems, is too broad and at the same time too narrow to be greatly useful. In the words of Eagleton (2000: 32):

Its anthropological meaning covers everything from hairstyles and drinking habits to how to address your husband’s second cousin, while the aesthetic sense of the word includes Igor Stravinsky but not science fiction. Science fiction belongs to ‘mass’ or popular culture, a category which floats ambiguously between the anthropological and the aesthetic. Conversely, one can see the aesthetic meaning as too nebulous and the anthropological one as too cramping.

While it may well be, as Archer (cited in Eagleton 2000: 32) observes, that the concept of culture has displayed “the weakest analytical development of any key concept in sociology and it has played the most wildly vacillating role within sociological theory”, from a practical point of view such openness could be welcome. Contrary to Eagleton, one might argue that it is perfectly possible to judge science fiction despite being popular culture as belonging to the aesthetic category of culture – there are after all some ‘quality writers’ (Stanislaw Lem, for instance) to be found in this genre. In addition, since culture is not static but constantly changing, developing as well as progressing (albeit slowly and seldom in straight lines) – Bob Dylan was once regarded as an outsider (and then definitely not representing popular culture), nowadays one would probably see him more as mainstream (and thus belonging to popular culture) – it is somewhat difficult to understand why popular culture (popular, after all, refers solely to the amount of items sold) should not be understood as culture, especially in times when the word combination ‘consumer culture’ seems not only widely acceptable but to largely characterise modern culture as such.

Moreover, Zakaria (2003: 14) argues that culture has been democratised:

What was once called “high culture” continues to flourish, of course, but as a niche product for the elderly set, no longer at the center of society’s cultural life, which is now defined and dominated by popular music, blockbuster movies, and prime-time television. Those three make up the canon of the modern age, the set of cultural references with which everyone in society is familiar. The democratic revolution coursing through society has changed our very definition of culture. The key to the reputation of, say, a singer in an old order would have been who liked her. The key to fame today is how many like her. And by that yardstick Madonna will always trump Jessye Norman. Quantity has become quality.

While agreeing that there seems indeed to have been a shift in our understanding of culture, the conclusion that ‘quantity has become quality’ is certainly questionable. Rather, it seems, there are various cultures and sub-cultures living comfortably side by side – to find on bookshelves the works of Bob Dylan next to the tomes of Shakespeare doesn’t strike one as ‘inappropriate’ anymore. This has largely to do with the appearance of ‘counter culture’ in the 1960s – it basically meant a culture that stood in opposition to ‘high brow culture’ which was seen (by some) as elitist and distinctly unexciting. Yet this ‘counter culture’-movement that was, originally, probably as elitist as the established culture it opposed became – over time – increasingly popular and thus integrated in, and a part of, today’s dominant culture. Seabrook (2000: 25-26), referring to the world of (New York) publishing, asserts:

The old aristocracy of high culture was dying, and a new, more democratic but also more commercial elite was being born – a meritocracy of taste. The old cultural arbiters, whose job was to decide what was “good” in the sense of “valuable”, were being replaced by a new type of arbiter, whose skill was to define “good” in terms of “popular”. This vast change in our civilization made itself felt in virtually every museum, library, university, publishing house, magazine, newspaper, and TV station in the country.


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"Truth is one, the sages speak of it by many names"
On Eastern and Western Values
Charles Darwin University
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truth, oriental perspectives, western perspectives, eastern values, western values, intercultural communication
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Hans Durrer (Author), 2004, "Truth is one, the sages speak of it by many names", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/176241


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