22nd Jan 2022


Stop Eurocentrism, start a universal history of ideas

  • Too often Europeans think that all great ideas originated in Europe. The reality is not only different but also more interesting (Photo: Eszter Zalan)
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Over the centuries, we in Europe have come to think that every important idea originated on our continent and then, step by step, conquered the world. Moreover, we often measure the level of civilisation of other cultures by the number of ideas and standards they have adopted from the West. It's time to get rid of this Eurocentric idea.

The reality is that every culture in history has flourished by learning from other cultures and adopting ideas from others. Cultures, or civilisations as some call them, are not bubbles that exist in isolation.

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  • Rethinking the history of ideas is essential in moving from a Eurocentric towards a universalistic model (Photo: EUobserver)

The same is true of Europe, whose foundations are made up of non-European ideas. Our calendar, for example, comes from Egypt, and our sexagesimal system from Sumeria and Babylon.

Unlike the decimal system, which has 10 as its base digit, 60 is the base digit of the sexagesimal system. We use this ancient system for our timekeeping (an hour has 60 minutes), for our geometry (a circle is 360 degrees), and therefore also for our geographical coordinates (latitude etc.).

Our numbers come from India, after an Arabic transformation.

Algebra, the basis for our arithmetic and for our computers, was invented by the Arab Persian Al-Khwarizmi in the 9th century in Baghdad. His name became Algorithmi in Latin, from where, of course, our word algorithm comes.

Book printing, the most important European invention of the Renaissance, was actually invented in China. Around the year 1,000, a printing press with loose, wooden letters was built in China.

Around 1,400, wood was replaced by metal in Korea. Forty years later, Johannes Gutenberg invented loose-lead printing in Europe. Or did the idea come to him via the Silk Road from Korea?

Is secularism a European idea?

But even ideas that we call fundamentally European have actually been borrowed from other cultures.

Take, for example, the idea of secularism, or the separation of church and state, or faith and science.

This debate first took place in the 9th century in Baghdad, then the capital of the Islamic (Abbasid) caliphate.

In Baghdad, philosophical and scientific works were translated from Greek, Indian, and Persian, among other languages.

With the translation of Aristotle and his logical, scientific thinking, the question suddenly arose as to what actually is the truth?

Is the truth what the Qur'an says, or what is scientifically proven? For example, is the world created by God, or is it eternal, as Aristotle had proved with his method?

According to some Arab philosophers in Baghdad, scientific truth was the real truth and therefore the divine word in the Qur'an had to be interpreted allegorically.

This tradition of thought was continued in Andalusian Cordoba in the 11th and 12th centuries by the philosopher Averroes, among others.

His works were translated into Latin and created an enormous debate between philosophers and theologians at the newly founded University of Paris in the 13th century, and in Italy in the 14th century.

The distinction between faith and science was transformed into the idea of the separation of Church and State by political thinkers who were followers of Averroes.

It is these ideas that were later adopted and further developed by Machiavelli and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In other words, we can say that secularism, one of the fundamental ideas of modern Europe, has Arab or Islamic roots.

How Europe deleted universalism

These are just a few examples of what we could call a universal history of ideas.

It is interesting to note that this was precisely the view of Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond D'Alembert in their Encyclopédie in the mid-18th century.

According to them, ideas are like shards scattered around the world that have influenced each other throughout history and have been glued together to form the ideas we know today (in the 18th century).

Other histories of philosophies of the time and older also regard the history of ideas as universal.

Why is this different today? Why do we learn and read in almost all histories of philosophy or science that all important ideas originated in Greece, were forgotten in the Middle Ages and then rediscovered in the Renaissance?

In the same 18th century, German Enlightenment philosophers believed that the truth could only be Christian and therefore European.

They also saw Germany as the successor to Greece and the Greek thinkers as the preparers of Christian thought. Anything outside that tradition was to be dismissed as inferior. We also read this way of thinking in Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Hegel.

Eurocentrism in our education and thinking is actually a product of a German-Christian ideology of the 18th century.

The same German thinkers, by the way, invented racism, which, by analogy with botany, divided people into superior and inferior races.

These ideas were mixed with the emerging nationalism in Germany and were adopted in other European countries. The result was that non-European thinkers and ideas were systematically removed from the philosophical canon everywhere.

Unnecessary guilt

What should we do with this today? There is no need to admit guilt. We are all a product of the history of ideas without realising it.

As a historian and philosopher, I am also completely against the deletion of thinkers from our history.

Throwing philosophers into the rubbish bin because they contributed to world views we no longer support prevents us from understanding that history properly.

What we must do, however, is re-evaluate our history and this means, in my opinion, bringing back the universal history of ideas as we read it in the Encyclopédie.

Studying other cultures is a first step. Understanding how each culture influenced the other and ultimately pushed human civilisation forward in a complex web of exchanges is a great but extremely interesting challenge for science and education.

What are we waiting for?


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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