neo-Orientalism (i)

Michael Witzel witzel at FAS.HARVARD.EDU
Tue Oct 31 04:45:49 UTC 2000

Prof.s R. Zydenbos and  VV Raman both have mentioned the inside/outside
aspects that scholars in our field of study (and indeed of the study of any
civilization) have to face. This is not exactly new;  anthropologists have
discussed this problem for quite some time. But it is important to mention
it at a time when so many allege that 'outsiders' cannot study a given
civilization without prejudice or empathy. Obviously both aspects, the
endo- and the exo- one, are required for succesful investigation and study.
-- In the case of India, 'Westerners', E. Asians, etc. have to acquire as
much of inside knowledge as they can, and Indians have to step back from
their cultural immersion (since childhood!) as far as they can. (The last
point frequently is not even admitted!).

Having experienced this dilemma during my long stay in Nepal in the
Seventies and having talked about such items in class for a long time, I
finally put them down on paper, in a talk given at symposium of the
Japanese Ministry of Education's (mombusho) project (Dec. 1998 conf. in
"Classical Studies and Indology". In: H. Nakatani (ed.) Reconstitution of
Classical Studies. Special Issue : A Report on the First Symposium towards
a Reconstitution of Classical Studies, No. 3. 3/11/Heisei 11 /[1999]: 16-36

I quote a few pertinent lines:

 6.1. "Outside/inside" views of texts belonging to a particular civilization
        In recent years it has frequently been stressed that non-native
scholars of a particular civilization should try to achieve an inside view
of that civilization. This has the obvious advantage that one can better
understand all the subtleties of gestures, expression, customs,
non-enunciated beliefs, nuances of language, allusions made in literature,
        To "enter" a foreign culture in this fashion is, certainly, an
ideal. How far this is actually possible is quite another question. Having
lived and worked in Nepal for more than five years, I am keenly aware of
the ideal but also of the problem. ...

6.2. Dilemma of the foreign/indigenous scholar: need to combine
outside/inside approaches
        On the other hand, the inside view has some disadvantages as well.
This may not be obvious to a native scholar. .... [in my own case, that of
Germany] one day I came across a paper written by a French Indologist, L.
Dumont, describing German culture. He stressed the importance of 'Bildung',
that is education and continuing self-education, (something, I believe,
that is not so very different from the Chinese concept of continuous
self-education and improvement). Only then, I understood; but, typically, I
did not find out myself, having grown up inside the culture. ...   In other
words, the outsider's view is valuable, too. An outsider can detect many
items that are, as it were, invisible to a native member of a particular
civilization. In short, in our study of the Classics, we have to try to
combine both the inside and the outside view.  ...

6.3. Growing non-Eurocentric respect for other cultures by "outside"
        Luckily, all of this coincides with a growing respect, in the West,
for non-western civilizations; we are only too well aware of the past
century of Eurocentric and now America-centric attitudes. This kind of
attitude is, in itself, not surprising: "We" are always in the center, and
"We" are surrounded by "Others". Similar attitudes are found with the Greek
(Greeks :: barbarians), Indians (Ärya of the madhyadesa "the middle
country' :: Mleccha barbarians), or Chinese ('the middle country',
chu-goku/chu-ka :: barbarians)   ....
        When I think back, my high school texts books still viewed the
history of the world in terms of European history: other regions were just
exotic and their history basically started with the European contact in the
15th and 16th centuries. .... High School text books would not point out,
as my Indian friends in the US complain, the Indian origin of many of our
mathematical concepts, from the so-called Arabic numbers to roots and
binary numbers used by our computers now. ....
...   ....
        It will have appeared, I hope, that we have to take our own
conscious and unconscious views of neighboring and distant cultures into
account and that we have to achieve a balance of inside and outside views.
In this way we can try to come closer to the ultimately important task of
our fields, to an understanding of the world view, the weltanschauung that
drives a particular civilization, what "makes it tick." While we have to
work on establishing this for the civilization we work on, the present
project should make use of the chance now afforded and start an in-depth
comparison of these basic world views.  ...

Michael Witzel
Department of Sanskrit & Indian Studies, Harvard University
2 Divinity Avenue, Cambridge MA 02138, USA

ph. 1- 617-496 2990 (also messages)
home page:

Elect. Journ. of Vedic Studies:

More information about the INDOLOGY mailing list