Labels and cultural imperialism

Allow me a small complaint on the way we talk about (or fail to talk about) the great civilisations of Ancient India.

I attended a lecture on comparative philosophy a few months ago, in which the speaker compared the views of three specific named medieval philosophers on a particular subject with “Indian” views on the same subject. While I was delighted at the speaker’s enthusiasm for bringing Indian thought into the study of “mainstream” philosophy, this wasn’t the most convincing demonstration of what we might gain from taking Indian philosophy seriously, in all its complexity and variety. There is no single “Indian” philosophical position on anything, anymore than there is any “Greek” one.

But at least that speaker was keen to point out that not all philosophy originates in Ancient Greece and Rome. A little while later I attended some of the Gifford lectures of Professor Mary Beard, a fabulous Classicist whose work I much admire. Her lecture series was entitled “The Ancient World and Us: From Fear and Loathing to Enlightenment and Ethics”. It was a lovely series, but I had to ask: Why do Classicists think it’s okay to use “The Ancient World” as shorthand for Ancient Greece and Rome? Surely this sort of shorthand – using temporal designators such as “Ancient” (“Late Antique” is another of my bugbears) when a geographical limitation is also meant – is a form of cultural imperialism? It implies that there is no Ancient World other than the one that underpins our own European culture. But there is.

The problem becomes even worse when the geographical designators are explicit rather than implicit, as in the keywords we are asked to choose when applying for funding from the national research councils. Listing the “Time Period” relevant to an AHRC application is a struggle for me. Do I go with “Hellenistic&Roman: 300BC-700AD”? That sort of covers my time period, but with a glaringly obvious problem. Perhaps the “Later Roman Empire: AD250-450” might cover my sources? There is simply no historical designator that I can use that comes without a geographical label too, even though geographical reach is a separate set of keywords in itself. What is implied by this is that the study of Ancient history outside of Europe simply doesn’t exist. (And, incidentally, is it still only Religious Studies that seeks to use the more neutral scholarly options BCE and CE for dates?)

There is a welcome campaign across many fields at the moment to diversify curricula, and bring new voices (from different genders, ethnicities, cultures and classes, to name a few) into our scholarly purview. As we embrace “global history” or the study of “world literatures” I would suggest that we must also begin to adjust how we speak of the subjects overall. Ancient philosophy is more than Aristotle. Classical civilisations were present outside Europe. Literature comes in many different languages and forms. Please, let’s start labelling things with a bit more care.

About naomiappleton

I work in the Divinity School at the University of Edinburgh, where I research and teach subjects related to South and Southeast Asian religions.
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