BOOK REVIEW / Fearful similarity in the old and new worlds: 'European Encounters with the New World' - Anthony Pagden: Yale, 18.95 pounds

Share
Related Topics
ANTHROPOLOGY has always provided Western thought with deep-rooted convictions about non-European cultures. These amount to a political cosmology, which guides new work on the lives of 'other' cultures. Anthropology ensures, in other words, that the more things change, the more Western perceptions of non-Western cultures stay the same.

Anthony Pagden's works are dedicated to tracing the philosophical and theological roots of Western notions of 'others'. They provide us with fascinating, lucid and well documented explorations of an intellectual tradition in the making. In an earlier study, The Fall of Natural Man (Cambridge, 1986), he showed how the works of three Spanish thinkers, writing between 1512 and 1724, established a way to understand the American Indians that was later applied to all other non-Western cultures. In European Encounters with the New World he tries to prove that the writings of Columbus, La Casas, Diderot, Herder and Humboldt have shaped not only anthropology but our understanding of mankind as a whole.

Western culture does not always respond to, or engage with, the presence on this planet of so many diverse non-European cultures. Instead it 'creates' them - as though giving birth to new life forms - by seeing its own self-image in others. This is why, Pagden argues, the Europeans have taken such an intense interest in other cultures; in particular those which are, by its own standards of measurement, demonstrably inferior.

But Pagden does not accept that the European construction of the 'other' is simply a question of political motivation, though political appropriation does play some part in this process. The construction of 'others' is, rather, a product of how certain conceptual issues were handled. These arose from the difficulties in understanding the beliefs and lives of others - a problem of a different magnitude than understanding their cuisine or how their kinship structure functions. Now comes the irony in Pagden's argument: the conceptual difficulties emerged not because the cultures that Europe encountered were so different, but because they were similar.

Thus it is not just difference that frightens Europe. The Europeans feared the people they met in the New World also because their culture touched directly upon recognisable areas of European ethical life.

The political cosmology that emerged during the 16th and 17th centuries, when Europe first came across different cultures, is very much with us today. The modern demographical descriptions may appear more complex, more sophisticated, more enlightened then their pre- modern counterparts, but a close reading reveals the complexity and sophistication to be an illusion. Our concerns today may be different, but, suggests Pagden, the political cosmology within which we operate is still the same. The West still thinks in terms of good and bad savages.

Pagden is an impressive scholar. His strength is the clarity with which he handles his formidable material, the patience with which he provides the intellectual context, and the sensitivity with which he dissects the ideas of those who were involved in colonising the New World. Yet, in European Encounters with the New World as well as in his other works, one cannot help feeling that the author is uneasy with himself. Despite his sharp insights and frequently devastating criticism, Pagden is no radical thinker. He doesn't really want a break from the past; he is simply content to develop a critique of the formative history of anthropology. Indeed, he even harbours the desire to save anthropology from itself.

But he does provide those who want to change things with a great facilitating service. He has unearthed much new material, focused attention on the right debates and has his finger securely on the pulse of ideas that made Europe tick and turned it into what it is today. It is now up to more radical thinkers to take this material and run.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive or Senior Sales Executive - B2B Exhibitions

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A press image from the company  

If men are so obsessed by their genitals, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities of sex?

Chloë Hamilton
Workers clean the area in front of the new Turkish Presidential Palace prior to an official reception for Republic day in Ankara  

Up Ankara, for a tour of great crapital cities

Dom Joly
A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory