Feyerabend: Westernization and culture

There is a short thought, quoted by Paul K. Feyerabend in “Notes on Relativism”, that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. Paul, ever critical of Western rationalism, is commenting at length on the expansion of (Western, capitalist) industrial scientific society to the margins of the developing world and minority cultures. He quotes François Jacob from The Possible and the Actual:

In humans … natural diversity is … strengthened by cultural diversity, which allows mankind to better adapt to a variety of life conditions and to better use the resources of the world. In this area, however, we are now threatened with monotony and dullness. The extraordinary variety which humans have put into their beliefs, their customs and their institutions is dwindling every day. Whether people die out out physically or become transformed under the influence of the model provided by industrial civilization, many cultures are disappearing. If we do not want to live in a world covered with a single technological, pidgin-speaking, uniform way of life — that is, in a very boring world — we have to be careful. We have to use our imagination better.

Prima facie, I want to say, the general message is correct: the world is slowly homogenizing, and homogeneity is boring. People no longer just consult their local markets and preserve culture organically; we buy and sell all over. Although Dallas and San Francisco have very different cultures, to some extent Los Angeles looks like Seattle looks like St. Louis looks like New York City… looks like Athens looks like downtown Rome, etc. This doesn’t explain what we should do — neither Jacob as quoted, nor Feyerabend in his entire book explain how we should “use our imagination better” (which is what makes this paragraph so unsettling). Feyerabend offers some views in other writings, e.g., using the state to intervene with the success of the sciences.

Feyerabend can be interpreted in a plethora of contradictory ways. Though co-opted by the political left (perhaps to their own detriment), far-right nationalists, primitivists and humanists can all find theoretical support in his ideas. He seems to have written surprisingly little specifically about capitalism, although there are plenty of implications in his anthropology; maybe understanding his views on political economy could provide the path to extracting a substantive political philosophy. In any case, the concern of Jacob and Feyerabend is a consequence of, to a large extent, the West’s powerful free markets, globalizing trade, science and universalistic liberalism. And, I want to say, their concern is not only prima facie correct but a growing left/right critique of Western capitalism/liberalism, and therefore one worth addressing.

There may not be a market approach to preserving cultural diversity; maybe all we can say is that so long as homogeneity is a result of the free interactions of individuals it is not undesirable. Here are a few responses anyway, which may or may not be satisfying.

  1. The process of homogenization predates capitalism, and is really just a function of multicultural nations living side by side and competing and trading. Cultures grow, die and are subsumed ad nauseam, some survive well past the initial spawning phase and become hegemonic but eventually these too face extinction or subsumption.
  2. Homogenization in a free world means that the “best of the best” is accessible for societies which, though previously they may have maintained unique non-Western cultures, were far worse-off before the commercial tsunami. Firstly, the people in these societies didn’t consider the expatriate cultural elements “boring” when they arrived, and secondly, they would prefer “boring” Western/industrial culture than their previous dilapidated state. (We may want interesting tourism destinations, but does that take precedent over human well-being and free choice?)
  3. With the success of industrial, liberal society, science has grown and actually developed better preservation technology (and projection tech, like 3D modeling underground structures). Ancient artifacts from long dead cultures are able to survive longer to be appreciated, and living cultures are better able to create and preserve in the present.
  4. Globalization/Westernization means that we discover living cultures we would never have known otherwise. Under the eye of Western society they are opened up to the melting pot process, but discovery is mutual. We take and they take, and therefore,
  5. Another response could be to actually reject Jacob’s story. We are not trending toward a single McWorld, because although Starbucks can be found nearly globally, it functions alongside original cultural products and cuisine, and at the same time foreign cuisine thrives in the West and impacts our identity.

Evaluating the consolidation of cultural diversity sits at an uneasy crossroads between rights concerns, utilitarianism and aesthetics. I’m not sure these responses would be satisfying to those that buy Jacob’s argument, but it’s likely I’ll be returning to this subject at length in the future.


  1. Abu Raihan al-Biruni, an Islamic scholar from Central Asia, may have discovered the New World centuries before Columbus S. Frederick Starr, History Today
  2. Gendun Chopel: Tibet’s Modern Buddhist Visionary John Butler, Asian Review of Books
  3. Toru Dutt’s strangeness from India and the French Revolution Blake Smith, Coldnoon
  4. Singapore in translation Theophilus Kwek, Times Literary Supplement

“The Dutch Empire”

That’s the subject of my weekend column over at RealClearHistory. An excerpt:

6. The Dutch Empire vied for supremacy with the Portuguese empire, which, beginning in 1580 with the Iberian Union of Spain and Portugal, was a rival Catholic state attempting to establish a global hegemony of its own. The Portuguese were actually the first Europeans to establish trading forts throughout the world, but the aforementioned Iberian Union severely weakened Lisbon’s plans for global hegemony due to the fact that the union made Portugal the junior partner. The Dutch conquered and then established colonial rule at Portuguese colonies on four different continents, and unlike the Portuguese, focused on commercial interests rather than converting the natives to Catholicism and creating a politically connected empire. Because of the commercial nature of the Dutch project, many of the indigenous factions were happy to switch from Portugal to the Netherlands as business partners. And partners they were. Both the Portuguese and the Dutch (as well as the British and French later on) paid rent to local political units on the trading forts they built throughout the world. Such was the nature of power on the world scene before the end of the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century.

Please, read the rest.