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The ethnicities of philosophy and the limits of culture

Joseph Steven Yeh, University of Massachusetts Amherst


The cultural difference between the philosophies of West and East has been assumed for so long that it has attained the status of a fact. Recent developments in social and political theory have undermined this facticity by pointing toward the processes which produce such "facts," convincingly arguing that there are vested social and political interests which lie behind the designation of cultural "others." The presumption of the fact of cultural difference is thus hardly innocent observation. The critique of Orientalism, as instigated by Edward Said, is usfuell but limited in this regard, and this dissertation is an attempt to further the critiques of Orientalism by investigating the central, but previously unexamined, concept of culture which underpins such critiques. This dissertation specifically examines the presumed split between Western and Chinese philosophy by carefully tracing part of the history of how Chinese philosophy comes to be understood as Chinese. For this purpose, it analyzes the work of a sampling of prominent and divergent "Western" thinkers on the "problem" of China, demonstrating that what lies behind the history of the Western/Chinese "difference" is a process of Western self-identification concomitant with a certain cultural desire. The assertion of a difference in philosophies ultimately speaks more about Western cultural desires than about the "nature" of Chinese culture and thought. The results of this line of thought are then applied to the concepts of democracy and gender, played out against the tableau of the presumed "cultural difference" between the West and China. This dissertation can thus be seen as arguing against the notions of culture and cultural difference as they appear in their current manifestations in liberal multiculturalism. Although seemingly opposed, the insights of Foucauldian theories of discourse and Lacanian analyses of subjective desire are utilized for this analysis. The conclusion, an argument for an understanding of culture and cultural difference which adequately captures the deep interfusion of human populations and its agonistic quality, is an attempt to escape some of the deadlocks faced by contemporary multiculturalism and to point to the directions which the ongoing diminishment of global distance compels our self-understanding as "cultured" subjects.

Subject Area

Philosophy|Cultural anthropology|Minority & ethnic groups|Sociology

Recommended Citation

Yeh, Joseph Steven, "The ethnicities of philosophy and the limits of culture" (1998). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9823793.