Kenan Malik in Pandaemonium:
A book that I wish I had read many years ago. JJ Clarke’s Oriental Enlightenmentis a superb study of ‘The encounter between Asian and Western thought’, as the subtitle puts it. It is primarily a historical study of Western perceptions of Chinese and Indian cultures and philosophies. Any exploration of the role of ‘Eastern’ thought in the Western intellectual tradition necessarily lies in the shadow of Edward Said’s 1978 work Orientalism, which has effectively set the terms of the debate. Western historians, philologists and philosophers, Said argued, have fabricated a complex set of representations about the Orient through which ‘European culture was able to manage – and even produce – the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period’.
As the title of Clarke’s book reveals, he is not only aware of Said’s importance in this debate, but takes Orientalism as the starting point for his own study. But if Clarke draws upon Said’s insights, he also rejects much of his argument. ‘Where Said painted orientalism in sombre hues, using it as the basis for a powerful ideological critique of Western liberalism’, Clarke writes, ‘I shall use it to uncover a wider range of attitudes, both dark and light, and to recover a richer and often more affirmative orientalism, seeking to show that the West has endeavoured to integrate Eastern thought into its own intellectual concerns in a manner which, on the face of it, cannot be fully understood in terms of “power” and “domination”.’