Unfabling the East

40126999Jürgen Osterhammel’s monumental book Unfabling the East: The Enlightenment’s Encounter with Asia has already garnered praise and prizes for its account of the eighteenth century’s redescription of a world which trade and travel had made more open.  The travellers and writers from many European countries, who visited an east which is here generously defined, are gathered into a wonderful tapestry of scholars and liars, sympathetic optimists and grumpy pessimists, wide-eyed adventurers and cynical profiteers.  Some seem to have come home utterly transformed by the encounter, others to have remained untouched.  But the discourse as a whole reveals something important about our own time.

Osterhammel’s key thesis is that Europe in the eighteenth century for the most part had not settled into an Orientalist world where the east was foreign and Europe superior.  Its ethnography was still open to wonder and to an appreciation of diversity as a positive and boundless value of humanity.  This is not to deny the baleful consequences of the European impact on other parts of the world, or to posit a period of genial cultural egalitarianism – it was also a time of slavery – but it does complicate the notion that to a European the east in this period was simply the other to an inherently superior west.

Rather, the east, or perhaps it would be better to say, the world, was subject to the same kind of rational analysis and judgement which was relevant to the conditions of Europe itself in what Osterhammel calls a single cognitive continuum (31).

This is obviously and explicitly relevant, and the book is a genuine prequel to Bruno MaçãesThe Dawn of Eurasia, which has rightly captured attention recently.


Both books demand an opening of the mind, a reversal of the process which has intervened between Osterhammel’s Enlightenment and Macaes’ own time, which Osterhammel characterises as follows: ‘Conceptual homogenization went hand in hand with dichotomization.’  The east, which in the enlightenment is diverse, and stands for many things, becomes flattened in the nineteenth century into a simple element in a binary understanding in which European exceptionalism was unchallenged.

For earlier writers, the ethnographic urge could be different.  Instead of proceeding from a notion of cultural superiority which could justify the extinction of the other, a universalist reading allowed for other points of view to be worthy comparisons, informative alternatives which might encourage one to rethink or see more clearly one’s own flaws.  Universalist accounts such as that of Montesquieu, to name only the most obvious, could be judgemental but not exclusive.  This was equally true in science, where the rest of the world could be regarded as not inferior, but a coequal scientific world, or a valuable storehouse to be ransacked – the juxtaposition of Leibniz and Joseph Banks is telling (207-8).

Montesquieu is an interesting figure in Osterhammel’s account.  There is no doubting that he was a towering figure in intellectual history, or that the Lettres persanes are in a way an exemplification of using the east to reveal the problems rather than the superiority of the west.  But his views, which were secondhand, did not go unchallenged.  One opf the many fascinating figures recuperated by Osterhammel’s reading is Abraham-Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron, who had lived for six years in India and who argued specifically against Montesquieu that there was no special form of oriental despotism, but that the political systems of Muslim Asia should be reintegrated into a general theory of monarchy.


Anquetil was a royalist and defender of Bourbon rule in France and no friend of British commercial expansion, but his attack on the notion of despotism as an ideal type which did not correspond to reality is fascinating, almost more so because it was unsuccessful.  Others too challenged the theory from observation of specific examples – for the experienced observer China and even the Ottoman empire offered nuanced counter-examples to the homogenising theory.  However, in some telling lines, Osterhammel argues that by the end of the eighteenth century, a modernized cliché of barbarism had created the conditions for a discourse of liberation from outside, an emancipatory imperialism.

Osterhammel’s book has much to say to the modern world.[1]  In particular, it lays bare a certain arrogance and inflexibility within the concept of Europe.  One way of reading the book is as an argument that we perhaps did not need to arrive at the place we did, although Osterhammel is far too sophisticated a historian to conceal that the roots of nineteenth century European exceptionalism are precisely to be found in its Englightenment roots, or that elements of enlightenment thinking survived.  It will be tempting to some to make the thesis reductive.  There is already one review claiming that Osterhammel refutes Edward Said.  Certainly Unfabling the East speaks to some of the same concerns as postcolonialism; certainly it proceeds by bracketing some of the economic realities which offer a different history of Europe’s damaging encounter with the rest of the world.  Captain Cook is more of a hero than the harbinger of Polynesian disaster.  But I think it would be unfortunate, and unfair, if the book were simply interpreted as a counterblast to postcolonialism; it is far more complex than that.[2]

One reading is comparative.  Greg Woolf’s brilliant account of ancient ethnography argues that the practice of writing about the rest of the world becomes flat, derivative and fails to progress.  There are distinct resemblances between his account of Roman imperial ethnography and Osterhammel’s hints at the nineteenth century’s failure to sustain the intellectual openness of its Enlightenment predecessors.  There is food for thought here about the relationships between science and empire, which is an important and growing topic.[3]

Another reading is about the development of disciplines.[4]  One of Osterhammel’s heroes is Carsten Niebuhr, father of Barthold Georg Niebuhr, the great Roman historian, and really the founder of the discipline.


The story of how classics became divorced from other parts of the ancient world has been brilliantly told for Germany by Suzanne Marchand in her book German Orientalism in the Age of Empire: Religion, Race, and Scholarship, and we continue to struggle with a series of disciplinary boundaries and blindspots which were simply not part of the Enlightenment view.


Classics is as much an outcome of as well as a participant in the conceptual homogenisation of the east which Osterhammel describes as an outcome of empire.

A third reading is about the nature of ethnography and the development of social anthropology.  Ironically, almost all of the advanced thinking outlined by Osterhammel was conducted in the context of a completely erroneous chronological framework for human development, which over the course of the nineteenth century would be radically disproven.  The mental revolution which geology and evolutionism created led to the hardening of hierarchical views of civilization, the rank order of peoples against a yardstick which placed Europe at the pinnacle of human evolution.  This revolution was itself liberating and enlightening; it paved the way for our secular understanding of the conditions of life.  But the intellectual step forward which changed the world from being an almost atemporal Wunderkammer into a ladder of human achievement brought a sense of moral superiority which justified the diminution of a notion of human equality.[5]  This is not an argument to abandon scientific advance but the construction of a scientific anthropology clearly came with the same kinds of disadvantages which attended the construction of a scientifically defensible philology.

At the same time, even in the Enlightenment, scholars and others travelled with explicit or implicit classifications which mostly derived from antiquity.  As Osterhammel writes (11-12), it is not enough to dismiss their achievements as part of a model of disillusioned humanism; to say that armed with the ancients’ notion of the barbarian, a touch of Aristotle and a smattering of Augustine the traveller simply found what they were expecting, fitting everything into their existing matrix.  But it was unavoidably part of what happened.

This leads to the question of what we are doing when we look beyond ourselves.  Both eighteenth and nineteenth century writers sought a degree of scientific rigour.  Invention was frowned on and called out.  But the myth of objectivity seems relatively absent from the eighteenth century, and the explicit purpose of much observation was to learn about oneself, even where the outcome was to reinforce a sense of superiority.  But that was not inevitable – look for instance at the ambivalence over the fading of a genuine notion of hospitality into a saleable commodity –  ‘the host makes way for the hotelier.[6]

This is not trivial – a sociology of hospitality is a significant way of understanding interpersonal relations – it is after all not far from the concerns of the founding tract of so much modern social thought, Marcel Mauss’ The Gift.  Understanding hospitality as one of the strategies of sociability which were constitutive of but also dependent on holistic conceptions of social, economic and political life is a substantial intellectual achievement, though not one which would have surprised the ancients.  I found time and again in reading this book that Enlightenment authors described or deployed patterns of behaviour and rhetorical strategies which are visible in antiquity, and sometimes precisely when ancient authors are describing others.  But I take from this not that ancient ethnography was wholly fictitious, or that Enlightenment unfabling was a reductive exercise of applying one matrix rigidly to another world, but that there is a complex intertwining of the limits of categorization, the enduring constraints of human and physical geography, and the recursive but dynamic reinforcement of habits of enquiry.  When unfabling the east led to Weberian disenchantment, it did not close all avenues of intellectual development, but moved attention elsewhere.

At the least Osterhammel shows us that generous readings of others, and of ourselves, lead to potentially enlightening stories of humanity.  He also shows I think that whilst there may be no way of avoiding the unintended consequences of our scientific revolutions, we need to accept that there are gains and losses when our paradigms shift.

One of the revolutions which seems to be required of us now is not to create another fable of the east, but to re-encounter the world in all its complexity but on new terms.  We are at least sometimes listening again to what others say about themselves and about us, but we need to do more.  We live with the consequences of an urge to scientific objectivity which is entirely justified, but which still requires us to acknowledge that a gaze outwards is also and inevitably a gaze inwards.  One of the reasons why some of Osterhammel’s intellectual heroes and heroines seem so modern is that they sought to do both.  The process of unfabling the east was one which started form the notion of meeting the world as an equal, and ended in a story of western superiority.  That is the myth we now need to address.

Does the study of antiquity have anything to offer?  The pre-industrial worlds which Enlightenment travellers encountered had more in common with classical antiquity than with the artificial megacities, post-industrial technology hubs, and post-human knowledge interfaces around and along which Eurasia is being constructed.  New languages will certainly be required.  However, a greater awareness of the contingency of human knowledge and its progress implies an acknowledgement that every unfabling and disenchantment entails new myths and fables, which must then be deconstructed.  It is precisely here that theoretically informed reflection on the body of knowledge we call classics, which will include the recognition of its unfortunate disciplinary boundaries and blindspots, will remain one of the touchstones for our self-understanding.  The fallibility of our myths and the incompleteness of our unfabling are some of the subtexts of the enlightenment ethnography and the evolution of disciplines which Osterhammel describes.





[1] This is clearly deliberate; what we now call global history was always engaged history; see Osterhammel’s fascinating Toynbee lecture http://toynbeeprize.org/blog/the-2017-toynbee-prize-lecture-arnold-toynbee-and-the-problems-of-today-jurgen-osterhammel/.

[2] Osterhammel explicitly states that Edward Said did not include the eighteenth century within his concept of orientalism (10); and in defending the authenticity of eighteenth-century European attempts to say something about others, he does not deny that they reveal something about the eighteenth-century Europeans.  Nevertheless there is more to be said in defence of discourse analysis, an as we shall see there are ways of reading the inward gaze back into Osterhammel’s account.  For Osterhammel’s fuller critique of postcolonial studies see his article ‘Edward W. Said und die “Orientalismus”-Debatte : ein Rückblick,’ in Asien-Afrika-Lateinamerika 25 (1997), pp. 597-607.

[3] G. Woolf, Tales of the Barbarians: Ethnography and Empire in the Roman West, London; J. König, T. Whitmarsh (ed.), Ordering Knowledge in the Roman Empire, Cambridge, 2007; further modern bibliography at https://www.hps.cam.ac.uk/students/research-guide/science-empire.

[4] See also G. E. R. Lloyd’s important book Disciplines in the Making: Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Elites, Learning, and Innovation, Cambridge, 2009.

[5] Almost, because the spectrum of barbarism to civilization, deploying notions of primitivism, was of course open to the eighteenth century and sanctioned by its presence in antiquity (see the old but valuable survey of Arthur O. Lovejoy and George Boas Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity, Baltimore, 1935).  As Osterhammel notes however (303), many eighteenth-century theorists preferred to speak of modes of subsistence – Adam Smith for instance distinguishes hunting, pasturage, farming trade, and manufacture.

[6] Osterhammel, p. 444.


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