Thursday, February 8, 2007

Oriental Enlightenment

Oriental Enlightenment
The Encounter Between Asian And Western Thought.
JJ Clarke
Routledge, 1997, £13.99 p/b

The intellectual encounter of East and West has continued for two centuries and, as JJ Clarke’s excellent account demonstrates, it has been a major theme in western culture over this period. Clarke’s most accessible chapters are those describing this encounter in the fields of philosophy, religious dialogue, psychology, science and ecology. These marshal truly prodigious reading, and offer a valuable guide to anyone interested in these areas.

There is also a useful interpretive history of the successive western passions for China, India and Buddhism, which attempts to account for why the West has been drawn to aspects of Asian thought at particular times. This leads Clarke to consider the lenses through which Asia has been viewed and misunderstood by westerners, and thence into the tangled academic debates of ‘orientalism’.

Views of the East have often been constructed as projections of western fantasies and fears, or in response to imperial agendas. So, academics ask, can there be a western understanding of the East free of such cultural biases? Clarke suggests that, as cultures fragment in the ‘post-modern’ age, and merge with one another under the forces of globalisation, new understandings are indeed possible. The scope of his insight into these possibilities seems rather circumscribed by the limits of the academic debates that are his starting point, and also because his subject is ‘Asian and western thought’. Ultimately the encounter is between people, and the only necessary limits are those of the individuals themselves.

Reviewed by Vishvapani, Dharma Life 9, Winter 1998

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