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

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The Independent Online
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.