Macfie’s overview (2002) of orientalism highlights the forces of individualism

In Orientalism (2002), Alexander Lyon Macfie analyzes the ongoing debate regarding orientalism.

This blog post will highlight Macfie’s definition of and his concluding comments regarding orientalism.

His comments in the book’s concluding chapter highlight the role of individualism, a topic that appears to be of relevance in relation to the emergence of postmodernity and postmodernism.

Definitions of orientalism

The Oxford English Dictionary (1971) notes that ‘orientalism’ in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (1) generally referred to the work of a scholar versed in the languages and literatures of the East, and (2) identified a character, style, or quality associated with the East.

Macfie notes that in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the word acquired an additional meaning (3), as a reference to a ‘conservative or romantic’ approach to problems of government faced by colonial officials in India.

According to this approach, the languages and laws of Muslim and Hindu India should be preserved as foundations of the traditional social order. At the end of the eighteenth century, however, the combined forces of evangelicalism and utilitarianism challenged the approach.

As a consequence, in the 1830s an ‘Anglicist’ strategy — driven by “British scholarship, imparted through the English language” (p. 4) — began a complete supplanting of indigenous learning, as Macfie details in a chapter devoted to the process.

From orientalism to ‘orientalism’

The decolonization period gave rise to an additional meaning, in which orientalism (4) was also defined as “a corporate institution, designed for dealing with the Orient, a partial view of Islam, an instrument of Western imperialism,” and more (p. 4).

The result of the transformation of meaning was that “orientalists, members of what had, in recent years, become an abstruse, dry-as-dust profession, were now accused of practising, not orientalism, but ‘orientalism’, that is to say a type of imperialism, racism, and even, according to some, anti-Semitism” (pp. 4-5).

Macfie notes that the conditions necessary for the launching of the assault on orientalism were established by events and developments, starting in the early 1900s, which showed that the military and political hegemony of European powers, in large parts of Asia and Africa, “could now be successfully challenged, and even on occasion undermined” (p. 5).

The assault was launched on four fronts: on orientalism (1) as an instrument of imperialism; (2) as a mode of understanding Islam and Arab nationalism; (3) as a ‘corporate identity’ and ‘hegemonic system’; and (4) as “the justification of a syndrome of beliefs, attitudes and theories, affecting the geography, economics and sociology of the Orient” (p. 6).

Hinduism and Buddhism

I’ve chosen India as a topic to focus upon after reading Macfie’s account of the claim by Richard King (1999) “that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries orientalists effectively created the religions of Hinduism and Buddhism” (p. 179).

Macfie notes that “the notion of a religion as a composite belief system, based on specific texts and supported by some kind of priesthood … originated, according to King, in the third century when Christians living in the Roman Empire redefined the Latin word religio” (pp. 179-80).

By the time of the Enlightenment, it was consequently “taken for granted that all cultures are, in one way or another, supported by religions, easily identifiable and classifiable, in terms of specific names such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam” (p. 180).

According to King, the term Hindoo was originally a Persian variant of a Sanskrit word, sindhu, the Indus River, used by the Persians to indentify people living in the region of the river. Later people living of the area used the term to distinguish themselves from foreigners.

It appears the term was not used as a religious designation until the arrival of the British and French, who “would have found it difficult to envisage the existence of a set of religious beliefs and practices not categorized as a ‘religion'” (p. 180).

Toward the end of the eighteenth century, the British expression ‘religion of the Hindoos’ became common, and in 1816, according to King, a leading Indian intellectual, Rammahon Roy, used the term Hinduism. In 1858 the word was used by Max Müller, a leading orientalist.

Macfie notes that Hinduism was not necessarily imposed on the Hindus by the British. On the contrary, many Hindus were pleased to adopt the new categorization, as this supplied them with a ready-made cultural tradition along with a politically useful ‘national’ identity.

European essentializing of Asia

“As in the case of other Indian religions,” says Macfie, “European scholars, in identifying Buddhist religious belief as a religion, sought to impose on them an essential identity, supposedly discoverable in a series of specific classical texts” (p. 181).

As in the case of Hinduism, European scholars portrayed contemporary Buddhism “as a degenerate version of a classical original, much in need of reform” (p. 181).

Macfie concludes that King, for the most part, accepts Edward Said’s thesis that in the past, Western studies of Asian culture involved a degree of essentialism that had the effect of distinguishing between Asian and Western culture, “and that Western scholars believed that their work presented an accurate and unproblematic picture of the reality they were endeavouring to explain” (p. 182).

In King’s opinion, however, the orientalist discourses thus created were not univocal. In India they were were appropriated by Indian intelligentsia to promote ‘Hunduism’ as the religion of the Indian ‘nation.’

In the post-independence period, according to King, this appropriation had the consequence of leaving Indian self-awareness imbued with the orientalist presuppositions on which it had been constructed.

Said’s essentializing of Europe

Several writers have brought attention to the fact that Said, as a critic of European essentialization of the Orient, “has himself, in Orientalism, essentialized Europe, providing it with a fixed and unchanging identity” (p. 100).

In this context, Aijaz Ahmad, the noted Indian scholar, “enquires, how can it be permissible for Said to essentialize Europe? Foucault, for one, would not have accepted such an essentialization” (p. 100).

Macfie concludes that Said’s essentialiation of Europe “is of course not an accident. Without it he would be unable to sustain the essential distinction between Occident and Orient, West and East, and ‘self’ and ‘other’, on which he builds his thesis” (p. 101).

It may be noted that the use of ‘essentialism,’ referring to a quality of fixity, as a pejorative term is closely associated with the emergence of postmodernity and postmodernism.

Peter Burke notes in History and social theory, second edition (2005), in this regard, that “In contrast to the structuralists, poststructuralists emphasize human agency and also change, not so much construction as reconstruction, a process of continuous creation. For this reason the term ‘essentialism’ is one of the greatest insults in their vocabulary” (Burke 2005, p. 175).

The debate hasn’t divided its participants on basis of ethnic, racial, cultural, philosophical, and religious affiliation

“What is striking,” remarks Macfie, “about the debate regarding orientalism inspired by the critique of the subject, mounted … in the decades following the end of the Second World War, is the extent to which it fails to divide its participants on the basis of ethnic, racial, cultural, philosophical and religious affiliation” (p. 216).

He describes they key debaters as follows (pp. 216-17):

  • Anowar Abdel-Malek (Egyptian, Coptic) and Bryan Turner (English), leading critics of orientalism, adopt a rigourously Marxist (materialist) approach.
  • Abdul-Latif Tibawi (Palestinian), a convinced Muslim, adopts a Muslim-humanist approach.
  • Edward Said (Palestinian, Christian) adopts a post-modernist approach, based on the Foucauldian concepts of epistemic field, power-knowledge and discourse, and the Gramscian concept of cultural hegemony.
  • Bernard Lewis (British-American), John MacKenzie (Scottish), and David Kopf (American), critics of Said’s Orientalism, adopt a traditional (realist) approach to the subject — though MacKenzie claims an awareness of postmodernist theory.
  • Aijaz Ahmad (Indian), also a critic of Said’s Orientalism, adopts a Marxist (materialist) approach, similar to approaches adopted by Abdel-Malek and Turner.
  • Sheldon Pollock (American), a supporter of Said, sees German orientalism as an example of the power-knowledge relationship identified by Foucault, while
  • Michael Richardson (English) adopts a philosophical-analytical approach, and
  • Sadik Al-Azm (Arab) criticizes Said for being non-scientific.
  • Bart Moore-Gilbert (English), Jane Rendall (British), and Sharif Gemie (Arab) adopt a severely empiricist approach, while
  • Martha Hildreth (American) defends Said against the attack by MacKenzie, calling up in Said’s defence the philosophical approach advocated by Edmund Husserl, the German philosopher.
  • Ronald Inden (American) and Richard King (British) seek to analyze British views of Indian history from a Saidian, representational point of view, while Javid Majeed (Indian) sees them as the product of English utilitarianism.
  • John MacKenzie and Rana Kabbani (Arab) both employ post-modernist methods of analysis to deconstruct nineteenth-century orientalist art, arriving at radically different conclusions.

Ahmad argues the postmodernist mind elides objective experience

In this book I have followed with interest discussions related to the ‘Saidian, representational point of view’ referred to above.

Macfie notes (pp. 125-26) that Aijaz Ahmad, a noted Indian scholar, asserts that Said fails to decide whether the orientalism he identifies is the product of a system of representation in a postmodernist sense (featuring a ‘mobile army of metaphors’) or a deliberate system of misrepresentation, produced by the West.

“The latter case,” notes Macfie, “would suggest that an objective reality exists, against which misrepresentations can be measured. The former case would allow no such positive outcome. According to Ahmad, it is a peculiarity of the post-modernist mind that it elides [alters] objective experience into a purely textual notion of ‘representation'” (p. 126).

At the conclusion of his study Macfie adds (p. 217) that ‘If a consistent division of sorts can be identified between the participants in the debate regarding orientalism, it is the division between Said’s representational view of knowledge and the traditional (realist-Marxist) view taken by many of his principal critics.

“But that division, though important, is not sufficient to establish an overall pattern. In the context of the debate about orientalism, therefore, the standard polarization of Orient-Occident, East-West, Christian-Muslim, white-black and capitalist-socialist, simply does not apply.

“Does this mean that, in academic circles at least, the forces of globalism, or perhaps better still individualism, have overcome orientalism? It would seem that it does.”

Museum on roof of the world

The museum on the roof of the world (2012) provides a valuable overview of topics related to colonialism.

“I argue,” remarks Clare E. Harris (p. 13), “that the Younghusband Mission was instrumental in creating Tibetan art as a class of consumption and connoisseurship by inserting it into British popular culture as a facet of interior design and public spectacle.”

“By contrast, at the Tiber Museum in exile,” she notes on p. 167, “objects were to be absent. Texts, images, and architectonics [the reference here is possibly to architectonics in the sense of arranging knowledge into a system] would carry the burden of the representation instead. This may be partly explained on the grounds that, rather than collecting old things and relishing the chance to view them in glass cases, Tibetan Buddhists generally assign high value to newly constructed and freshly consecrated objects, since commissioning and using them enhances their chances of a better rebirth.

“Sacred objects that have become worn or damaged are potentially dangerous to the moral wellbeing of a community and must therefore be carefully disposed of rather than preserved. For these reasons, the concept of a museum premised on the idea of collecting the artifacts of the past or as a space for admiring artworks was entirely alien to Tibetans until the second half of the twentieth century.”


A May 24, 2013 New Yorker article entitled Letter from Delhi: A bookstore of safety by   provides context related to the history of colonialism.


2 replies
  1. Trang Candela
    Trang Candela says:

    The term Hinduism also occurs sporadically in Sanskrit texts such as the later Rajataranginis of Kashmir (Hinduka, c. 1450), some 16th-18th century Bengali Gaudiya Vaishnava texts, including Chaitanya Charitamrita and Chaitanya Bhagavata, usually to contrast Hindus with Yavanas or Mlecchas….,’

    Our own website

    • Jaan Pill
      Jaan Pill says:

      It’s interesting to know of the earlier appearance of the term Hinduism in such texts. This is a topic that warrants further exploration.


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