who says that binary thinking is Western?

I often hear that binary oppositions are typical of Western thought. The implication is that “we” should strive to avoid being trapped by such oppositions.

To be sure, certain distinctions (white/non-white, male/female, Christian/non-Christian) are the basis of injustices. Those distinctions have been important in Western Europe and have been used to justify oppression. As a result, some people are moved to challenge what they call Western dualism. But the problem isn’t dualism–after all, the whole point is to promote justice over its opposite, injustice–nor is it helpful to introduce a binary distinction between the West and the rest. It seems odd to invent a very simple and global binary in order to criticize dualism.

I’m skeptical of the very notion of the West, because it encompasses so much diversity and has overlapped with so many other parts of the world for so long that I don’t know how to define it. But one thing the West has not been consistently is dualistic.

Christianity is surely a Western phenomenon, and a core Christian idea is that Jesus is both divine and human, both a person and one with the persons of God and the Holy Spirit. Another orthodox Christian assumption is that nature/the world is good and is solely God’s creation, yet it is not identical with God. Many of the thinkers who have been formally condemned as heretics by Christianity have been banned for adopting dualistic views either of Christ or of nature.

Nobody could be more dualist than George Boole, the inventor of Boolean logic (in which all values are reduced to TRUE or FALSE). Apparently Boole was deeply influenced by classical Indian logic, which is rife with sharp distinctions. Taoism is also described as fundamentally dualist. All of which is to say that binary oppositions don’t seem to be particularly “Western” to me.

Jacques Derrida is cited as the source of the view that Western thought is binary, although it would surprise me if he really caused it to be so widespread. Besides, Derrida says things like this: “Doubtless Western metaphysics constitutes a powerful systematization of this illusion, but I believe it would be an imprudent overstatement to assert that Western metaphysics alone does so.”* Three points to notice about this sentence: 1) Derrida is talking about a specific tradition of philosophical thought (“metaphysics,” as Heidegger would define it), not about Western culture, more broadly. 2) He is not criticizing binary thinking per se but certain specific binaries, especially text versus reference. And 3) He doubts that Western metaphysics alone suffers from this “illusion.”

See also: to whom do the ancient Greeks belong?Jesus was a person of coloravoiding the labels of East and Westwhen East and West were oneon modernity and the distinction between East and West.

*Derrida, Positions, translated by Alan Bass (1982), p. 33

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.