In your criticism of Fukuyama's theology of history, you turn, among others, to Karl Popper. Indeed you write "If we read Fukuyama with Popper, we come to the disturbing albeit not astonishing conclusion that we must see in Fukuyama (...) an enemy of open society." What exactly do you mean by this?
Weidner: Popper sees the origins of the non-open, illiberal society already in Plato. But, of all people, Fukuyama chooses to refer to Plato and his theory of society and his vision of humankind, in particular with reference to Plato's concept of thumos, ambition, rage, or courage. In the Islamic tradition these crop up again in the exact same form as quwwah ghadabiyya, which can be traced directly back to Plato. It is very difficult to found an open society on the basis of this vision of humankind, because humankind seems trapped in its urges (quwwat), seems predetermined. In short, Fukuyama and Popper – although both ambassadors of liberalism – are in reality incompatible.
The image of a closed West or Europe is nothing new and not only to be found in Fukuyama and Huntington. You analysed other examples in your book that, although not politically motivated, were very Eurocentric in their understanding of the West and its culture, namely Edmund Husserl, Max Weber and also Heidegger (to name just a few of the big guns). Where, in your opinion, does this feeling, this attitude of self-sufficiency come from? Does it come, perhaps, from the unconditional glorification of the idea of Enlightenment?
Weidner: One could describe Western thought as self-sufficient, but I would prefer to describe it as arrogant and conceited, as a school of thought that is not only convinced of its own superiority (Muslims and Buddhists are, after all, also convinced of the superiority of their thinking) but that, unlike other traditional world views, suffers from the compulsion of repeatedly having to confirm its own superiority.
In order to succeed in this endeavour, Western thought has no choice but to re-invent itself over and over again. This means that it is willing, if needs be, to throw its own principles overboard. That is what the Enlightenment did, and later Nietzsche and Heidegger. That is why there are no taboos in Western thought, no red lines, nothing sacred. All that matters is to be cleverer, better, smarter, more advanced, more ruthless than the others, whatever the cost.
With this mentality, you naturally win every dispute. But the others are not stupid. These days, everyone knows how the West works and they are copying it. Some are even beating it at its own game even, becoming more ruthless and more successful than the West. Take China, for example.
The big problem with this world view, which logically gives birth to neo-liberalism, however, is that it gives people nothing to hold on to; it repeatedly pulls the rug from under their feet or tears down the roof over their heads. This is why a neo-conservative revolution has risen up against this world view all over the globe. People want security, identity, home ... everything that Western thinking has abolished in order to maintain its superiority.
For me, the biggest surprise in your book was your criticism of Goethe and his idea of "world literature". Were you not a little rash or biased in your judgement?
Weidner: No, I don't think so! Goethe has really been idealised and not in a good way. No doubt he was a great poet and a major author, but he was also a child of his era. By idealising him and putting him on a pedestal, making him a man with an attitude that may not be criticised, we are acting as if his world view (which is part of his theory of world literature) was natural, self-evident, "normal" and indubitably correct. But that is not the case. It is more the case that we have absorbed and assimilated Goethe's view of the world (which in many ways is identical to that of the Enlightenment) so totally that we no longer see how distorted or downright wrong it really is.
Goethe is just as much an example of hegemonic, Western thought as Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche and many others. As long as we don't take a critical look at Goethe, we are never going to stop being convinced of our superiority over others and will continue to employ terminology that is utterly questionable, such as "nation", "development", "nature", etc.
One final question: can one think about a "beyond the West" without including the West in this project? In other words: without the critical spirit of the West?
Weidner: Of course not. For me, "Beyond the West" doesn't mean "in addition to the West" or "without the West", but "after the West", "above and beyond the West". This means that my critical thinking contains the critical potential of the West; but I am trying to move beyond it and to ask what else there is. It would be absurd to believe that Western thought has completely exhausted, has completely finished with the potential of criticism or the opportunities of thought.
One example: even the most critical and self-critical thinkers in the Western tradition, including those that belong to post-modernism or post-structuralism, have almost never looked beyond the West. Nietzsche, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze ... every one of them spent all their time discussing the Greeks, the Enlightenment, or at best also the Jewish tradition, which as part of the Judeo-Christian tradition is naturally also part of the West. Islam, Indian religions, China, not to mention Africa or the Indians are virtually absent from this thinking.
Even in the work of Spivak, we find more Hegel, Marx and Foucault than non-European or Indian thought. And that is a damning indictment of critical thinking. We have to move beyond that. I have tried to highlight an initial way out of this situation, by also pointing to the many alternatives, mostly thinkers who have been overlooked and forgotten in the West but who were seriously interested in non-European thought. So the West is indeed included in the critical movement that I am striving towards. But it is only a small part of it.
Interview conducted by Rachid Boutayeb
© Qantara.de 2019
Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan