If the 19th and 20th centuries were to be classed as a period where the world became Westernised, surely the 21st century is the period of Easternisation.
Perhaps not? My laptop would agree with you, as it understands Westernisation, but not Easternisation – even though it was made in a factory in China.
The East, and in particular the Far East, has become synonymous with discord, autocracy, illiberality, and non-capitalist economics.
And yet, for some reason, the East is become romanticised, in a way the West had been in the 19th and 20th centuries, with the Industrial Revolution, growth of medicine and technology, and the well-reputed systems of education and scholarly thought.
This appears to be changing, and it is an era in which Eastern philosophy, culture, and economics is becoming evermore prevalent in the lives of us all.
Take Eastern philosophy, for instance.
When was the last time you heard someone finding solace in Aristotle; or being “aided in their life’s quest” by reading J.S. Mill; or expressing the views of Rousseau as a basis for a “good” society?
Compare this with the slow growth in practising Buddhists in the UK, and the 1.2 million Buddhists in the USA. Other practices and beliefs such as Yoga, Confucianism, Taoism, Tai Chi, and so on, are becoming the new Platonism.
What is the issue? Perhaps it lies in the West’s pursuit of academic thought.
As with a number of things in the West, philosophy has suffered from the issue a number of things have, such as politics, economics, and so on.
The elites begin playing with abstract concepts, and focus on analysing a theorists concept of liberty, or comparing the ideas of Locke and Hobbes, or investigating theories of sovereignty.
It is similar to some discussions in politics; take the EU referendum.
Right now, the debate has been held mostly amongst diplomats and elected officials. There is not a strong debate amongst the electorate, and it is appearing more of a top-down elite debate than a open and public-engaging one.
This is a personal observation, of course. But what does it say of philosophy?
Philosophy was born out of the pursuit of knowledge and “the good life.”
A fantastic article in the Irish Times argued for philosophy’s reinstatement in schools, arguing the skills of debate, fallibility, and coming to terms with our own and other’s understanding is a crucial development in understanding our society, and our place in it.
Western philosophy is not fulfilling this just now, and people are looking East to find the Yin to their Yang, meditating, thinking beyond themselves.
But why do we crave these over abstract conceptualisation?
Perhaps it is indicative of our changing culture, one in which we feel we cannot grasp a hold of, and which appears chaotic and undisciplined, and where the lay folk have no opportunity to move ahead of big businesses and politicians.
This chaotic society, and seemingly futile exertion, can have negative impacts on our mental health, pushing us to find relaxation and “ourselves” in a world of social media and varying personalities.
At a time when nothing appears fixed, we often retreat, and attempt to conceptualise something close at hand. Most often: ourselves. What makes me unique?
When we look to the East, it is often (rightly or wrongly) romanticised. It is a world of juxtaposed notions, and spiritual and moral pursuit.
It is authoritarian, yet free minded; it is censoring, yet liberal; it is factories and slums, yet rolling hills and blossom; it is Communist and controlled, yet innovative and forward-thinking; it is disciplined and ordered, yet fluid.
It does not need to be such abstract things.
We have always been fans of Chinese products – I might not even be writing this without it.
Nevertheless, food, fashion, dance, drama, cinema either from or concerning the East is an important part of Western culture.
These romantic ideas – applied to countries such as China, Japan, South Korea, and to some extent India – press some to discard our capitalist and “winner takes all” society.
If we look at figures for tertiary education attainment (post-secondary school), we find some Eastern countries outstripping the UK and USA.
Japan has 58.6% of tertiary educated 25-34 year-olds; the UK has 49.2%.
Korea has 67.7%, whilst the USA has 45.7%.
Other European countries like Norway, Poland, the Netherlands, and Denmark do not make it to 50%.
These are all behind the OECD average of 58%.
Of course, a number of Eastern countries do not even register data for tertiary education, such as China, India and Indonesia.
Nevertheless, Eastern Asia is becoming increasingly well-educated, and a huge player in the economic field, (possibly) as a result.
Despite its record on human rights and social inequalities, China remains one of the fastest growing economies in the world, to the extent it rivals the USA as a world superpower.
I would argue strong the “BRIC” category is woefully outdated, due to China hardly being able to be called an “emerging” economy, and Brazil and Russia suffering greatly. This may be investigated another time, though.
Even if economists in the West state China is “slowing down”, it remains at 7.3% for 2014. India, too, is seeing 7.3% growth.
This compares with 2.9% and 2.4% for the UK and USA respectively.
The anomaly is Japan, whose economy shrank 0.1% in 2014.
There have been several explanations, such as a rapidly ageing population, top-down business structures, lack of initiative by the Japanese government.
Debate continues over Japan, but some have pressed for the importance of observing Japan on-the-ground not just at the facts.
Furthermore, Japan’s income per capita (an important indicator of individual purchasing power, and national living standards) is $36,194. Meanwhile China’s is little over $7,000.
And it isn’t horrendous when compared with the UK’s $46,300.
Whatever the ins and outs, the Eastern economic powerhouses are doing well, particularly China. India is a growing player, and Malaysia and Myanmar are growing after recent turbulence.
Perhaps it is too soon to argue for an Easternisation of the globe, but that time may not be far away.
It is evident education in such countries (from the brief analysis provided (not including vocational qualifications, which Germany heavily invest in)) is growing; their economies are beginning to match that of Western powers; and their cultures are being attempted to be replicated in the West, too.
At the heart of it lies philosophy. How a society, nation, and individual sees it or themselves, and how it wishes to be seen is a question of philosophy.
Questions of morality and self-understanding, are – I would argue – the underpinnings of what makes a “good” society good.
Are those in the West living in “good societies”? That is a quesiton all too often misunderstood or avoided now, and it is essential we observe it; not so as to rival Eastern philosphy in any way, but to be its equal.
And in doing so, we provide those of us who require help in answering philosophical questions, in understanding our society, a chance to ask them.
Maybe the East is the Yin to the West’s Yang. Maybe, one day, the two will compliment one another in a global vision.
NOTE: For the sake of scope, I have selected those East Asian countries most often attributed to the concepts discussed above. This is not to ignore countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, or Vietnam. What I am discussing is general romansticism and imagery projected about East Asia.