Justin E. H. Smith: A Comment on Akeel Bilgrami’s “Occidentalism, The Very Idea”

Justin E. H. Smith is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Concordia University.

Akeel Bilgrami has so decisively exposed the weaknesses of the recent attempt to invert the argument of Said’s Orientalism that I do not see much point here in weighing the virtues of his essay against those of Buruma and Margalit’s book.  I would like to focus instead on his essay as a self-standing argument, and to pursue a few problems I see arising from it.  In broad outline, these problems stem from two very large aims of the essay: to describe the way things are today, and to account for how they got to be that way. 

Bilgrami’s broad historical thesis concerning a dissenting indigenous tradition in the West is intriguing but debatable.  He does not focus on Spinoza explicitly, but on the notion of a “Radical Enlightenment” that, since the publication of Jonathan Israel’s tome of that name, has been primarily associated with the impact of Spinoza on modern history.  Now, Spinoza has been recruited of late to do all sorts of things for all sorts of factions.  He has become the great hope of some segments of the post-Marxist Left, yet the uses to which he has been posthumously put are part of Spinoza’s reception history, not part of Spinoza.  The 17th-century philosopher was not a post-Marxist, and was no more sympathetic to Giorgio Agamben than to Paul Wolfowitz.

Spinoza is said to represent a possible alternative modernity because he conceived God as immanent rather than transcendent, and of nature as itself divine.  Yet Robert Boyle, too, had compelling reasons to believe that the vision of nature as clockwork, and of God as mechanic who set the world in motion and then absconded, was the only vision that adequately exalted God and thus that was acceptable for a pious natural philosopher such as himself.  For Boyle, to have God implicated in the “operose and distractious” workings of nature (Cudworth’s phrase), whether through direct implication or through the parting out of motive force to subordinate plastic natures or archaei, would be to render God a lowly custodian, when in fact, he wanted to argue, God is great enough to create a nature great enough to do everything it has to do in accord with a few basic laws.  There is no contempt for nature here, and no call to replace piety and awe with hard-headed rationality.  There is only a desire to avoid the ‘pagan’ mistake of conflating God and the world, and of explaining natural processes in terms of the inherence of quasidivinities in the natural landscape of clouds, streams, mountains, etc.  There may in fact be nothing wrong with such paganism, but Boyle’s desire to avoid it was not a symptom of some nascent disenchantment; it was rather a central feature of the great majority of theological reflection in all three of the great traditions of Abrahamic religion.

Another prominent theory of how nature works, and of God’s relationship to nature, was occasionalism, the doctrine defended by Nicolas Malebranche, Louis La Forge, Arnold Geulincx and others, according to which nature is intrinsically inert, and every change that comes about in the world is the result of God’s direct causal intervention (“perpetual miracle,” Leibniz called it).  Reading Bilgrami, the question naturally arises: were Malebranche and his kind early disciples of disenchantment, or were they part of the countercurrent?  It is worth noting that in the 17th century occasionalism was consciously and explicitly appropriated from medieval Islamic philosophy: Al-Ghazali, for example, had thought that it was an easy step from “There is no God but God” to “There is no Cause but God.” Occasionalism from 11th-century Persia through 17th-century France appears to have been motivated, again, by a form of piety, characteristic of monotheism and not of animism, that seeks to glorify God by attributing direct responsibility for every state of Creation to him.  Now, Bilgrami may simply think that belief in a unique transcendent God is unfortunate, and thus may find Spinozan immanentism and animism attractive.  But he has not convinced me that the representatives of the “Radical Enlightenment” were resisting what we would later come to recognize as the scourge of scientific rationalism, nor that the Occidentalists have anything in common with the members of this supposed indigenous Western countercurrent.  I thus remain skeptical concerning Bilgrami’s central thesis, that, in his words, “there really are conspicuous intellectual and critical affinities between the ‘Occidentalist Enemies of the West’ and Gandhi on the one hand and a longstanding and continuous dissenting tradition within the West itself on the other.”

My own sense (and this is a point I’ve made before in this space, in connection with the theory of “intelligent design”) is that it is impossible to determine prima facie which philosophy of nature is more pious than the others, which way of thinking about the role of spirit in the workings of the world is best suited to the decent, virtuous, and, yes, religious life.  I am inclined to say that such considerations are afterthoughts, and, with Mahmoud Mamdani, that the engine of turmoil throughout history is material inequality, that, when factions believe they are fighting over competing conceptions of God or the Creation, they are largely mistaken about their own motivations. This is not to say the ideas a culture comes up with (‘God’, ’cause’, ‘matter’, ‘law’, ‘reason’) aren’t interesting, but only that they should be deployed cautiously in explaining why the world has ended up the way it has.

In short, it seems to me that any effort to carve up the different camps in the history of modern thought into the goats and the sheep –those who pushed for the disenchantment of the world and those who valiantly resisted– cannot but fall apart under scrutiny.  A bit of care in thinking ourselves into the actual world of concerns of Newton, Boyle, Descartes, Spinoza, Cudworth, et al., rather than resting content with the unlikely roles to which they have been assigned centuries after their deaths, shows that with some stretching any one of their natural philosophies could have served as the official philosophy of a disenchanted world, or an enchanted one, and that to trace the malaises of modernity back to, e.g., the Cartesian definition of matter as res extensa, is assuredly to allow ‘culture talk’ to explain too much.   Certainly, few in 1620 would have thought that there was anything intrinsically more ‘rational’ about seeing the physical world as a collection of particles exhaustively analysable in terms of mass, figure, and motion than in seeing that same world as consisting in hylomorphic compounds moved along by final causes.  Quite the contrary, the mechanical hypothesis was one of the most radical and counterintuitive claims about nature ever made.  (It was also one that Spinoza defended, albeit with modifications, which renders questionable the effort to position him as a member of some sort of resistance simply in virtue of his immanentist theology.)

It is Bilgrami’s thesis about the West’s indigenous countercurrent that enables him to make sense of reactionary Western political trends in just the same terms as his charitable reception of Osama bin Laden’s list of grievances.  The inhabitants of the red states may indeed be suffering from the disenchantment inherited from their own civilization, and Bilgrami’s refusal to dismiss their cries out of hand is commendable and rare.  But there is no getting around the fact that the content of these cries is alarmingly wrong, such as, that the world is 5000 years old, that Akeel Bilgrami is going to burn in hell, and that it is not important, as one country song puts it, to know “the difference between Iraq and Iran.”  Well it’s not, he’s not, and it is.  It has proven much more difficult than once was hoped for the main current of the Enlightenment to compel people to believe things on the basis of evidence, but neither the main current nor the countercurrent, if there ever was such a thing, ever held that we should do anything but that, and so again, I fail to see the genealogical link between Spinoza and the Kansas creationists.  Correlatively, when I tune into bin Laden’s messages, I do not hear a “clear and precise” statement of concrete political aims.  I hear talk at a register I have to strain to understand, stuff about infidels, martyrdom, love of death, etc.  Stupid, mystifying, manipulative stuff with no possible constructive political consequences.  I would love to see a genuine pole of political authority emerge as a counterbalance to American hegemony in the world.  At present, Latin America seems a much more promising place to look for this than the caves of Tora Bora.   

Having spent large segments of my adult life in Russia and the Balkans, I have been sharply aware for some time that where one places the boundaries of the Orient has a good deal to do with where one already is.  Of course the Christian East, extending from Skopje to Vladivostok, is a region of little interest to the new cold warriors and their academic explainers.  Yet it is the Byzantine world that has the deepest experience of anxiety over the “Turkish menace,” and it is the Orthodox church that has staked the most politically on the touted spiritual difference of its members from their Muslim neighbors, a difference that from the outside can easily look like a paradigm instance of Freud’s narcissism of minor differences.  Consider in this connection Dziga Vertov’s fine propaganda piece, Three Songs about Lenin (1934).  The film has the structure of a triptych, each part a ‘song’ consisting of images instead of notes.  The title of the first song is “My Face Was in a Dark Prison.”  Shot in Uzbekistan, it recounts how Lenin’s teachings and the arrival of the Bolsheviks in Central Asia brought about the liberation of Muslim women from their miserable lives underneath their burqas. It is striking that well into Cold War II, one of the common after-the-fact justifications given by the US for its imperial expansion was also a favorite of our enemies in Cold War I. 

The Bolshevik Revolution was the result of a Westernizing swing in Russian history: ideas borrowed from a German writing in London, the fetishization of hydroelectric dams and power lines, and the effort to build a respectable industrial proletariat to the great detriment of the peasantry (unlike later Asian communisms).  As Buruma and Margalit point out, it did not have to be this way.  That famous question, What is to be done?, could have been answered along Solzhenitsyn’s lines through isolationism, xenophobia, and a proud sense of ethnic particularity that would explain, somehow, why Russia is tragically doomed to lag behind the West.  As they emphasize, moreover, the national Sonderweg has at various times seemed more attractive in places like Japan and Germany than the sort of complacent integration into the West we see in these countries today.  One could add the Balkan peoples, Ozark hillbillies, libertarian Nevada ranchers, etc., to the list of peoples cartographically within the bounds of the West who nonetheless have, or have often had, a tenuous relationship to it. Conversely, not just in the Middle Ages, but well into the 18th century, Muslims were seen by many Europeans as people of the book and, what’s more, as guardians of ancient science and philosophy.  In 1714 Leibniz wrote in his Discourse on the Natural Theology of the Chinese that Islamic expansion into Central Asia had the positive effect of saving countless souls of formerly idolatrous Turkic pagans. 

Where, then, is the West?  It is evidently not in Kansas these days, while in recent history it has been spotted in Uzbekistan.  It showed up there in the guise of the Muslim conquests, Avicenna’s Aristotelianism, the Bolsheviks’ polyclinics.  The Soviets were Orientalists in relation to the Turkic Muslims in the Eastern part of their Empire; the Americans in turn conceptualized the Soviets as Asiatic despots, and it was only after the end of that Cold War that the Western focus shifted and we picked up where Vertov and his comrades had left off, fighting against the mujahideen and liberating faces from their dark prisons. 

It is precisely this ability to reorient so quickly, to pick up where the Communists left off, that ought to cause us to stop and wonder how relevant ‘the spiritual’ really is to our understanding of what is at stake in the current Cold War.  Certainly, it is this feeling that some cosmic Manichaean battle is unfolding that makes it all so gripping, yet our picture of the world is greatly distorted by the persistent media focus on the Muslim/non-Muslim divide.  This is a feature of almost all post-Cold War reflections on the broad outlines of geopolitics, uniting Huntington, Buruma and Margalit, and Bilgrami. It may be, however, that the North/South divide is more real, and more important for the future of the world than the East/West one.  It may be that the ‘spiritual’ questions at stake in the showdown between the West and the jihadists –the questions that are not there in the kidnapping and drugging of child soldiers in sub-Saharan Africa, in the ‘war on drugs’– have caused us to see this current scrap as more fateful, as more epoch-making, than it in fact is.  Of course one can write on whatever topic one chooses, as Bilgrami notes.  But now that he has done such a fine job in exposing Buruma and Margalit’s Occidentalism for the faint echo of vested interests that it is, how nice it would be to exit that enchanted forest altogether.

For an extensive archive of Justin Smith’s writing, please visit www.jehsmith.com.