Sunday, April 1, 2007

Edward Said's Attack on Samuel Huntington and Arguements Against Theory

An article by Edward Said, written as a refutation of Samuel Huntington’s thesis, was recently sent to me by my fellow blogger at Foreign Policy Watch. I read it and found a response to a comment quickly turning into an entirely new post. I found the article quite disappointing. This is why.

The first 3rd of Said’s article amounts to a trash heap of fallacies in reasoning. Said dismisses the notion of civilization identity out of hand as “belligerent thinking,” while depicting the attempt to classify civilization as an impossible task, which Said argues amounts to a cartoon caricature. Next he assumes that it is illegitimate for the West to seek power, while attempting to assassinate Huntington’s character by essentially calling him a high tower “ideologist” with “hidden loyalties.” After that he goes on to call him a “clumsy writer and an inelegant thinker.” Then he mounts an attack on Huntington by pointing to the irrelevant fact that “international luminaries from former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi have pontificated about Islam's troubles, and in the latter's case have used Huntington's ideas to rant on about the West's superiority.”

We all know that Hitler was an avid fan of “The Prince,” but it doesn’t keep university political science departments from pointing out the value of Machiavelli’s ideas and his place in the field. Nor will the fact that other idiots use Huntington’s theses to advance their agenda’s change my mind about the arguments he makes.

Said continues his morally indignant diatribe by again attacking Huntington ad hominen. He asserts that Huntigton’s work is “plainly designed not to edify but to inflame the reader's indignant passion as a member of the "West," and what we need to do.” This is an attempt to impugn Huntington’s motives. And I shouldn’t have to point this out, but it doesn’t qualify as a real argument against his thesis.

These unsubstantiated and irrelevant attacks should be easily recognizable as Bullshit to any one who has attempted to familiarize himself with a basic logic textbook (I recommend With Good Reason by Morris Engel.) I did however continue reading the article and found one basic legitimate argument. It essentially is an argument against theory in general.

Theorists attempt to isolate key elements within a necessarily restrictive mental construct in order to establish the study of a particular subject in its own right. Theories are necessarily restrictive, and unfortunately the only way we can make sense of the world. Said points to the limitations of theory to undermine Huntington’s thesis. It’s all very postmodern. He supports his critique by asserting that the interdependence between civilizations within their historicity demonstrates they can’t be isolated.

"The West drew on the humanism, science, philosophy, sociology and historiography of Islam, which had already interposed itself between Charlemagne's world and classical antiquity. Islam is inside from the start, as even Dante, great enemy of Mohammed, had to concede when he placed the Prophet at the very heart of his Inferno.”

This may be true, however it does not demonstrate the falsity of Huntington’s theses, nor does it warrant all the attacks that Said erected his critique upon. It simply points to the limitation of theory in general. Theories are measured by their usefulness in explaining the world. If a theory can’t explain a particular aspect of the world then the theory is not falsified it simply reached a limitation.

He concludes his article by pointing out the “bewildering interdependence of our time.” And in deed it will be quite bewildering, especially for those who reject the means by which we ascertain abstract truths about the external world. But as with postmodernism, it largely rejects the concept of truth and sometimes even the existence of an external world.


Jeb said...

Travis - I completely agree with you that Said's belligerent style is both completely rude and a bizarre distraction from the main points he raises. I had the exact same response that you did with regards to the many personal attacks that he levels against Huntington.

That aside, however, the point he raises that there are not 7 easily definable civilizations is hard to argue with, in my opinion. As I pointed out in my last post, how is 'Islam,' for instance, one civilization?

People of the Islamic faith span all across the globe and have numerous differences with one another. To be united under a 'civilization,' Huntington would need to show that this Islamic civilization shares a variety of common characteristics, goals, and histories. It doesn't.

Indonesian Muslims, for instance, are completely unique from Moroccan Muslims. They share entirely different values, backgrounds, biases, and goals. The only commonality that they share is believing in Mohammed. To classify them as one group just doesn't make any sense.

Travis said...

For a good clarification of Huntington’s assertion that Islam constitutes its own civilization, I would recommend reading his book about the subject. He dedicates a good portion of it to that specific point.

I don’t have the book in front of me right now, so I’ll do a little speculating on my own to answer your question. The existence of Islam in different regions of the world separated by geo-graphic and national boundaries is not evidence against Islam as a civilization, but for it.I pulled this off Wikipedia:

“This leads World Systems Theorists like Immanuel Wallerstein[6] to propose that civilizations can be geographically divided between a "core," a hinterland or "semi-periphery" and a "periphery," in which the core draws upon the resource base of the other two areas.”

Civilizations are necessarily expansive. Islam as a religion establishes rule sets across a wide section of human activity. Muslims in one region adhere to comparatively identical belief sets about man’s role in the world; Sharia law provides the foundation for a readily adoptable legal structure. The rituals of Islam are perhaps more rigorous than those of other religions and thus commit its members to increased dependence on Islam as a fundamental aspect of their personal Identity. Islam is also a universalistic ideology that separates members within the Islamic community from those outside of it, regardless of the geo-graphic location of its adherents.

That is just one way to think of Islam as civilization. It really doesn’t seem all that controversial to me. We use terms like the West all the time without any controversy surrounding the use of the term. I speculate that the reason the Western civilization isn’t called Christian civilization is because Christianity isn’t the organizing principle for Western civilization. It plays an important role but it does not dominate all the economic, social and political structures of Western civilization.

Jeb said...

Hey Travis,

Did you disable comments on your latest post (the one on foreign espionage) on purpose? I just wanted to check, as I can't seem to find a place to write-up my response.

Travis said...

Alright, thanks for the heads up. Somehow it accidentally turned on comment moderation.