Eastern practices of yoga and meditation are increasingly being adopted in the West. (Photo: JD Mason / Unsplash)
"In the West we live in our own little province of thought"
"Our cultural education has a blind spot: we confuse universal philosophy with Western philosophy. It no longer makes sense to view the East through a prism of exoticism. We live in a world that is global and highly diverse, and deeply unconnected, despite all our networks…" explains Marina Garcés, a member of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC). Garcés, a philosopher and writer, was reflecting on how Eastern philosophies and cultures influence our society to mark World Philosophy Day – an initiative established by UNESCO in 2002.
Garcés is renowned for her numerous essays and media appearances, and for having brought philosophical debate to a wider audience, but her expertise as a specialist in Eastern philosophies is less well known.
The boom in Eastern culture
We have witnessed an explosion in Eastern practices in the Western world in recent years: yoga, meditation, mindfulness... Likewise, some philosophical doctrines such as Buddhism are gaining an increasing number of followers in our society. Despite this growth, most currents of Eastern philosophy are practically ignored by the West, and not studied at centres of learning.
Garcés believes there should be more dialogue between the two cultures, and that they should both be considered at the same level: "We have a colonial outlook that converts 'the other' into an object of study, or even fascination, rather than an interlocutor on an equal footing. This colonial structure of the global world has enabled non-Western countries and cultures to become very familiar with us and our languages, while we are much less conversant with them and theirs. This means that the people really living in a plural world today are not Westerners, while we remain stuck in our own little province of thought."
To mark World Philosophy Day, the philosopher and writer, who is the director of the UOC's University Master's Degree in Philosophy for Contemporary Challenges, reflected on the role of the discipline in our society: "Philosophy forms part of each society's way of life. The question is: to what extent are the philosophical debates of our times also social debates?" She said that "our main problems today (identities, the limits of sustainability, the crisis of democracy and humanity's relationship with other species) are all deeply philosophical and, at the same time, urgent."
A gateway to Eastern culture
As for Eastern culture's influence on our society, Carles Prado, an expert in Chinese literature and culture and member of the UOC's Faculty of Arts and Humanities, believes that "if practices like meditation and mindfulness lead people to study these traditions in a more in-depth and respectful way, then they are a good thing. They can help us to understand that we live in a plural world and to adopt an attitude of empathy and openness, not just to these cultures, but also to our fellow citizens who hail from Eastern countries." Prado also warns that the Western view of these disciplines could "end up simplifying an entire universe".
According to Garcés, the days of the Western world's hegemony over the East are numbered, as we are witnessing a shift in the world's power relations: "Consider the fact that most of the world's young people do not live in Western countries." In her words, this marks a turning point that will have "interesting cultural consequences".
Member of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC)