The Appropriation of ‘Curiosity’


An vital historiographical debate developed ranging from the Eighties. It was triggered by the publication of some influential books by British historian Bernard Lewis. The latter argued that “mental curiosity” about “different cultures” – and thus the predisposition and can to review languages, historical past and traditions – is “nonetheless peculiar to Western Europe, and to the inheritors and emulators of the European scholarly custom”. Lewis, who was writing within the very interval by which new approaches to world historical past in addition to the subaltern research venture had been beginning to acquire floor, discovered it pure to assert that it’s only with the European Renaissance that “a human society for the primary time developed the sophistication, the detachment and, above, all, the curiosity to review and admire the literary achievements of alien and even hostile societies”.

Over time, these arguments have been echoed by dozens of public intellectuals, a lot of whom have utilized them to particular contests and “cultures”. Franco Cardini, an internationally famend medievalist and historian of religions, went to this point to assert that “disinterest in civilizations aside from Islamic ones” is “a attribute of the tradition which emerged from Muhammad’s spiritual revolution”. Different students have framed the identical challenge in barely completely different phrases, by inserting a lot emphasis on “the unusual openness of Europeans to studying from different cultures”, whereas stressing, on the identical time, that curiosity grew to become “the trademark of progress itself”.

In more moderen years, a bunch of recent tutorial publications have demonstrated, in an more and more correct and well-documented method, how problematic these sorts of approaches are: certainly, every society – from the hunter-gatherers to the most important of the Empires – was in a technique or one other curious.

Roxanne L. Euben’s research, as an illustration, provide a wide selection of circumstances on “others’ curiosity” and the way they’ve contributed to “world Europe”.Additional examples embody the works of Sanjay Subramanyam, – which highlights the risks of conceiving of “Europe as a deus ex machina” and fosters a world mental historical past which are inclined to universalize parochial insights – Iraj Omidvar, whose research goal at “recovering Oriental Views on the West”, and the Lebanese historian Nabīl Matar, who gives a wealth of element in outlining India’s position and the writings of 17th century Arab vacationers expressing their curiosity concerning the “lands of the Christians” (Bilād al-Nasārā), in addition to their means to understand “non-Islamic” ideas and points.

As Nizar F. Hermes has famous, particularly in relation to the Mediterranean context, “the issue lies extra within the Western neglect of the corpus of medieval writings concerning the Different”. In different phrases, the restricted data of advanced “non-colonial languages” and a plethora of manuscripts and paperwork produced in places which stay troublesome to entry, have erroneously led some students to emphasise “others’” alleged lack of curiosity.

But, the controversy on ‘curiosity’, or the dearth of it, may be absolutely grasped solely inside a much wider body which is rooted within the old-new narratives related to ‘European exceptionalism’.  Nonetheless in the present day, actually, loads of students hyperlink the important thing achievements in human historical past – together with, amongst a lot else, “important considering, freedom of analysis, experimental science, the secularity of tradition and politics, technological inventiveness, the economic revolution, modernization, capitalism, the autonomy of the person” – to the affect exerted by “Europe’s data and actions”, and its “leaning toward curiosity”. Others find the origins of common ideas, such because the “notion of freedom”, within the “historical Western world”. The thesis that “there is no doubt that these values [democracy, rule of law and human rights] had been born in Europe” is not any much less widespread.

These claims are all rooted, in several kinds and methods, to what Peter Burke known as “the grand narrative” of the institution of Western civilization, particularly a triumphalist account of Western achievement from the Greeks onwards by which the Renaissance is a hyperlink in a sequence which incorporates the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and so forth. Every of those historic intervals has been (and nonetheless is) typically introduced as an ethical success story, in addition to by juxtaposing an alleged European pro-activeness to a supposedly intrinsic “Japanese” passivity.

What is essentially lacking in all these approaches are the structural contributions of the “others”. Take, as an illustration, the case of the debates round democracy, and the associated and largely profitable try and detach historical Greece’s legacy from its Mediterranean and ‘oriental’ background. In Ellen Meiksins Wooden’s phrases, “it’s much more synthetic to detach historical Greece from, say, Egypt or Persia, as if the Greeks had been all the time ‘European’, dwelling a separate historical past, and never half of a bigger Mediterranean and ‘Japanese’ world”.

Consider symbols such because the myrtle devoted to the Goddess Aphrodite and Athena’s olive tree, each borrowed from the traditions of historical Egypt. In different phrases, students who hyperlink Europe’s roots to Historic Greece, and thus to most of the beforehand talked about ideas and concepts, are merely (kind of consciously) recognizing Europe’s oriental connections (in Greek mythology, Europe is the identify of the daughter of Agenor’s, king of Tyre, in modern-day Lebanon), dominant faith (Christianity was an Oriental faith), and philosophical roots.

The time period φιλόσοφος (philosophos) itself, “lover of knowledge”, is drawn from the Egyptian mer-rekh (mr-rḫ), “lover of data”. Probably the most historical philosophical texts originate exactly from historical Egypt, starting with the papyrus on the “Immortality of writers”, (re)found within the Nineteen Twenties and dated 1200 BCE.

The invention of a “Judeo-Christian custom”

The concerns highlighted to this point are additionally caught up with the deceptive view ceaselessly known as the “Western Judeo-Christian custom”. The latter paradigm denies the big entanglement between Judeo-Christian-Muslim faiths, and overshadows the millenary historical past which predated them. Nonetheless in the present day, loads of students habitually seek advice from a supposed Judeo-Christian custom as “the cradle of rules of equality and justice”, whereas others deal with “democracy’s biblical roots” and, extra typically, the position of Biblical texts in fostering secular political energy and its desacralization. On this case as properly, nevertheless, such assumptions replicate restricted, simplistic, and ceaselessly anachronistic views.

Certainly, atheism, in addition to some rules associated to secularism, had been launched into Indian traditions lengthy earlier than being launched in Europe. Much more vital throughout the body of this text is the truth that, within the words of the American Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, “‘Judeo-Christian” isn’t a factor. It a) positions Jews & Christians towards Muslims, is Islamophobic b) elides Christian oppression & homicide of Jews over greater than 1000 years & c) ignores Jewish civilization worldwide & info of key Jewish developments in Center East & N[orth] Africa”.

Along with being deceptive, the widespread tendency to seek advice from a “Western Jewish-Christian custom” dangers accentuating harmful antagonisms and “watershed” phenomena on the expense of a higher understanding of the shared historic legacy underlying the three largest mono-theistic religions. A robust affirmation of this reality may be seen within the Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 2100), a literary product of historical Mesopotamia, the cradle of Sumerians, to whom we owe, amongst many different innovations, cheques, letters of credit score, and curiosity funds on loans. The Epic comprises most of the themes – together with the parable of the “common flood”, Noah’s Ark, the Backyard of Eden – that had been later included within the Bible and different spiritual texts.

What’s has simply been argued applies to many different associated points as properly. Suppose, as an illustration, of the literary parallelisms of the Tune of Songs, that’s, compositions of comparable matters that existed beforehand in historical Egyptian and Sumerian literature: “The love music style”, as famous by Michael V. Fox, “definitely underwent many modifications between its presumed Egyptian origins and the time when it reached Palestine, took root in Hebrew literature, grew in native kinds, and blossomed because the music of songs”. To stay within the discipline of literature, it must be famous, by the way, that 14th-century BCE Mesopotamia was the birthplace of the primary poetess in historical past: the Sumerian priestess Enheduanna.

An additional vital instance may be discovered within the ‘holy metropolis’ par excellence, Jerusalem. As famous in a research revealed by the College of Bar-Ilan, “Canaanite Jerusalem had two holy websites; each had been above and outdoors the town partitions. Shalem was most likely worshipped within the space of the Temple Mount, which later grew to become the holiest website for the Jews and the third most holy website for Moslems”.

The thought of the rosary itself was borrowed from Muslims in Spain, who had been impressed by the prayer beads Buddhists utilized in Central Asia, who in flip borrowed the thought from Brahmans in Hindu India. Even Christianity underwent steady contamination because it expanded from the Japanese Mediterranean to Europe: throughout this course of, it took on quite a few spatio-architectural practices, – such because the “Gothic fashion”, adopted to construct many cathedrals in Europe (but in addition castles, palaces, and city halls) – and cultural customs, together with traditions typical of pre-Christian Europe that kind the idea of some key points of the Christmas and Easter holidays. Like all of the themes and points talked about on this article, religions are thus the results of human ‘accumulation’: a course of which isn’t all the time understood in all its complexity and potential.

Well being and rights

Two different points have performed a very related position within the improvement of humankind and symbolize key parts throughout the body of ‘entanglements’: well being and rights.

It was above all the traditional Egyptians and Indians, and later some Persian, Chinese language and Arab luminaries, who invented – or performed a key position in introducing – practices corresponding to anesthesia, bloodletting, and cosmetic surgery (Alexander the Nice was accountable for importing the traditional Indian Sanskrit texts devoted to early methods for ear, nostril and lip reconstruction into Europe), in addition to loads of surgical methods and the primary medical diagnoses for tons of of ailments corresponding to smallpox, measles and Parkinson’s.

Chinese language docs had been the primary to develop rudimentary vaccines and it was a Chinese language writer, Wan Quan (1499-1582), the primary historic determine to obviously seek advice from the follow of vaccination by inoculation: the 12 months was 1549 and Wan Quan was intent on highlighting efforts to fight the scourge of smallpox. It’s price recalling that inoculation was not practiced exterior of China, India, Turkey and different “jap international locations” till the 18th century.

The medieval hospitals in Iraq and several other different Islamic majority international locations pioneered the follow of dividing hospitalization into completely different sections, primarily based on the ailments that the sufferers had been affected by. It must also be remembered the position performed by figures such because the Persian scientist Zakariyyā al-Rāzī (the primary physician to know the operate of fever, uncover allergic bronchial asthma and describe ailments corresponding to smallpox, on the finish of the ninth century), the Basra-based physicist ibn al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham (who based fashionable optics initially of the 11th century), the Syrian doctor ʿAlī ibn ʿĪsā al-Kahhāl (the primary to prescribe an anesthetic for surgical functions and produce an illustration of optic chiasm and the mind, across the 12 months 1000), the scholar Ibn al-Nafīs from Damascus (thought-about “the daddy of circulatory physiology”), and the Turkish physicist Şerafeddin Sabuncuoğlu (writer of the primary surgical atlas). These and lots of different examples present that the sphere of contemporary medication, like all others talked about to this point, owes its improvement to a protracted technique of ‘accumulation’, inside which European physicians have largely performed the position of beneficiaries, and far much less the one in all contributors.

The query of well being and safeguarding well being is carefully intertwined with the protection of human rights, that’s, the inalienable rights that each human being possesses. Opposite to what’s generally asserted, the popularity of those rights is certainly not a “product of Europe”, “the West”, or the Enlightenment.

Within the phrases of Indian jurist Upendra Baxi, “the dominant discourse presents the very notion of human rights as ‘the present of the West to the Relaxation’”. The latter is a meta-narrative that, amongst different unintended effects, fosters a type of ‘collective amnesia’: “The ‘Enlightenment’ epoch that gave start to the liberal ‘fashionable’ notions of human rights […] in impact, globalized terribly merciless practices of Social Darwinism”.

It must also be clarified that the problem of human rights is rooted in a a lot earlier previous than the one Baxi analyzes. Certainly, the primary recognized historic determine to handle the problem was the Persian Emperor Cyrus the Nice (590 BCE-530 BCE). His decrees had been engraved, in Akkadic cuneiform characters, on a baked clay cylinder generally known as the Cyrus Cylinder: this represents the world’s first doc about human rights. The precept of ‘human rights’ unfold from Babylon primarily to India. Within the latter, the idea of human rights and the protective of such rights should not seen in any means as ‘Western’; relatively, they’re perceived as rules embedded in Indian tradition because the daybreak of time.

This argument neither erases nor diminishes the truth that the Magna Carta (1215), the Petition of Proper (1628), the Structure of america (1787), the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789) and america’ Invoice of Rights (1791) are paperwork with epochal scope and worth. They’ve been extremely influential within the technique of asserting particular person rights, albeit for a really restricted group of human beings (the rich and/or highly effective).

Nonetheless, the widespread strategy of figuring out the Magna Carta as the start line within the technique of recognizing human rights is tantamount to framing the “Metropolis of Three Monotheisms” (Jerusalem) in 1000 BCE as the start of human historical past (an equally widespread strategy). In actuality, simply because the “Holy Metropolis par excellence” had already skilled 2000 years of historical past when it was conquered by King David (1010 BCE), so most of the rules contained within the Magna Carta belonged to a bigger ‘human historical past’ that had developed in locations fairly distant from the supposed “cradle of the rule of legislation” (England) and conceived in occasions a lot older than modernity alone.

As well as, all of the above-mentioned declarations and constitutions had been addressed to solely a small subsection of the inhabitants and, in later occasions, of the residents. The Magna Carta, for instance, was conceived for the unique advantage of “free males”, to the detriment of the “servants” who accounted for almost all of England’ s inhabitants on the time. For hundreds of years, as confirmed by the unfold of slavery, the appropriate to property – which, in numerous kinds, have existed in South Asia and different world areas because the ‘Early Center Ages’ – was believed to have precedence over the rights of human beings.

It may be rightly argued that it was solely with the United Nations (1948) – inside which, beside Western international locations, additionally quite a few Asian, African, and Center Japanese diplomats offered vital contributions – and, afterward, the Council of Europe (1949), that instruments and monitoring mechanisms to make sure the common safety of human rights had been enacted: the try to realize such ‘universality’ represented certainly an unprecedented step in world historical past. And but, solely a restricted variety of tutorial research have handled the position performed by worldwide human rights in legitimizing and reproducing current relations of dominations.

Even much less are the research which have mentioned the hyperlink between white supremacy and the method which dropped at the introduction of the idea of ‘human rights’ into the UN Constitution. Final however not least, that exact same instruments and monitoring mechanisms had been adopted proper after the bloodiest and most devastating conflict in human historical past, a “European conflict”[1] which grew to become a world, or world, battle solely at a later stage.

Finally, the misunderstood authorship discourse of human rights is embedded in a solipsistic strategy that also in the present day typically confounds and overlaps a simplified notion of the ‘historical past of the West’ with a extra advanced, ongoing ‘human journey’.


Every of the points addressed on this article reminds us of the necessity to help the mainstreaming of a extra syncretic (within the authentic historical Persian that means of the time period), ‘cross-pollinating’, and entangled data, which is able to be capable to place additionally the ‘others’ – with their ‘curiosities’ and contributions – on the heart stage, to higher perceive ‘ourselves’ and the fluid world which we inhabit.

How to take action? By opposing any type of “epistemic violence”, – that’s the course of by which the non-Western peoples are seen as passive, weak and disinterested – whereas on the identical time enabling the retrieval of various methods of realizing and a wider understanding the “epistemologies of the South”; by deconstructing and tackling the idea “that the West represents the middle of scholarship and the remaining (often Africa, Asia, and Latin America) suits the margin”; by involving – in keeping with the continuing “Why is My Curriculum White” marketing campaign – a bigger variety of non-Western school from establishments all over the world; by investing extra in “denationalized curricula”, occluded and marginalized knowledges, and tutorial positions which foster indigenous approaches.

All this requires, before everything, mental flexibility and the need to query long-established scholarly traditions. It additionally calls for a technique of ‘unlearning’ the best way by which historical past – and significantly the one linked to mental curiosity – continues to be (typically) taught and learnt. It’s certainly essential to unlearn with a view to relearn, to deconstruct with a view to reconstruct. In Susan Buck-Morss’ phrases: “The higher the specialization of data, the extra superior the extent of analysis, the longer and extra venerable the scholarly custom, the simpler it’s to disregard discordant info”.


[1] Middle for Asia Minor Research (CAMS) – KP 350, p. 94. Doc produced within the late 1910s by Ioanna Palaxtsis, Farasa (Cappadocia), undated: “After the European conflict individuals from Farasa went to seek for work elsewhere”.

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