Monday, January 4, 2016

Some Critiques of Edward Said’s Orientalism

The late Edward Said (1935–2003) is an icon of the modern left. His book Orientalism (1978) has been very influential indeed in modern intellectual life, and not just on the left.

But does he deserve the great reputation he has? Let me be clear: everyone sensible knows that a lot of shameful racism, imperialism and colonialism has come out of the West. This is not in dispute.

But what is in dispute is Edward Said’s “Orientalist” thesis which is just another branch of the Postmodernist rot that has infected the modern left and also goes far beyond reasonable claims about Western imperialism. Much of Edward Said’s grand orientalist theory was based on the absurd philosophy of Michel Foucault, for example.

Take one of the most notorious things Edward Said ever wrote:
“For the Orient idioms became frequent, and these idioms took firm hold in European discourse. Beneath the idioms there was a layer of doctrine about the Orient; this doctrine was fashioned out of the experiences of many Europeans, all of them converging upon such essential aspects of the Orient as the Oriental character, Oriental despotism, Oriental sensuality, and the like. For any European during the nineteenth century—and I think one can say this almost without qualification—Orientalism was such a system of truths, truths in Nietzsche’s sense of the word. It is therefore correct that every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric.” (Said 1978: 203–204).
Wait, are you telling me that all *all and every* European of the 19th century who wrote about the Orient was a “racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric”? There was no tradition of sympathetic interest in the Orient not marked by racism or imperialism? None at all?

If you think Said’s ramblings here are ridiculous nonsense, you would not be alone. Historians who actually study Oriental scholarship have long called Said out on this bizarre smear, and point to the rich and varied opinions of Europeans when they studied the Orient.

Right before this passage Said appears to flirt with Nietzsche’s denial of any objective truths, so that the passage is doubly outrageous: how can you deny objective truth and then assert this sweeping statement and expect people to think it is true?

At any rate, here is some critical writing on Said and orientalism:
Ibn Warraq. 2007. Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism. Prometheus Books, Amherst, N.Y.

Irwin, Robert. 2006. For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their Enemies. Allen Lane, London.

Irwin, Robert. 2008. Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and its Discontents. Overlook Press, Woodstock, NY.

Irwin, Robert. 2008. “Edward Said’s Shadowy Legacy,” Times Literary Supplement, 7 May 2008.

Muravchik, Joshua. 2013. “Enough Said: The False Scholarship of Edward Said.” April 2013. World Affairs.

Proudman, M. F. 2005. “Disraeli as an Orientalist: The Polemical Errors of Edward Said,” Journal of the Historical Society 5.4: 547–568.

Varisco, Daniel Martin. 2007. Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid. University of Washington Press, Seattle.

Windschuttle, Keith. 1998. “Liberalism and Imperialism,” The New Criterion 17.4: 4–14.

Windschuttle, Keith. 1999. “Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism Revisited,’” The New Criterion 17.5
Like Foucault, one of the many charges that can be made about Said is that he frequently made factual errors and engaged in shallow readings of his sources. He also largely ignored German oriental scholarship – a fundamental oversight that when looked at closely undermines many of his claims about oriental scholarship essentially being a cover for Western imperialism.

Finally, Robert Irwin, author of two books that critique Said (see Irwin 2006, 2008), speaks below in an interview on BBC radio.

Said, Edward W. 1978. Orientalism. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.


  1. Interesting interview. Embarrassing woman at the end, with her ridiculous special pleading.
    Said's reputation is higher in the bullshit subjects, such as sociology or English, where evidence has been a foreign concept these past few decades.
    This is as you say another form of the post modernist dodge, which reminds me of the logical positivists.
    Good post.

  2. Thanks for this, LK. My shaken faith has become a clear rejection of Said's thesis-the fact that he ignored the German orientalists pretty much sealed the deal. Irwin pointing to Bernard Lewis as exactly the type of caricature of an Orientalist that Said was attacking-and noted Lewis as an exception, not a rule-also made it easier to reject Said's thesis.

    There's a bit of an irony that those who accept the thesis in Orientalism (rightly) reject the ignorant notion of Islamic culture as some monolith, and yet don't seem to realize how they are making the same mistake when they paint all Orientalists with the same brush.

  3. Upon rereading my above comment, I do feel the need to clarify that I wasn't trying to imply that Irwin disagreed with Lewis's work, or his importance to the field, with the caricature comment.