It has been a long time since any thinker in Germany has demonstrated such inventiveness, such boundless erudition and such will to shape the public discourse in one weighty work. Jenseits des Westens (literally 'Beyond the West') is both a profoundly original and highly ambitious book. In it, Stefan Weidner cites over 230 authors. For the opening section, which focuses on the definition of the West, Weidner conducts in-depth imagined interviews, mainly with such self-exalted thinkers as Kojeve, Spengler, Huntington and Fukuyama.
In part, these fictitious interviews with some of the prominent thinkers of the recent past have little to do with historical and political realities and more to do with the fantasies, abstruse ideas and prejudices of this Western workshop of ideologies. To a certain extent, Weidner allows his authors to rattle on before showing them up in style.
The twilight of "the West" as a brand
At its core, this is a method borrowed from the sociology of knowledge. It highlights the unsightly twilight of "the West" as a brand and shows how shaky its intellectual foundations are – and, above all, how it is fed by dangerous illusions. It also betrays the dirty little secret they have all been keeping from us, namely that the political brand-name product and mega-seller that is "The West" wasn't even invented by the West; but was attributed to the West by non-Western authors beginning in the late nineteenth century and was only adopted by European authors after the First World War.
At times, when Weidner wants to mark certain thoughts, conclusions and ideas as his own, the reader notices in his language the profound lyrical influence of the Oriental poetry he has been translating for decades. This results in a rare and beautiful clarity in his description of historical, philosophical and theological contexts.
In this way – and also in the rhetorically dramatic manner in which he develops his core theory – Weidner is reminiscent of the great truth pluralist Hans Blumenberg. Blumenberg once sought to protect the Modern Age from being discredited as an illegitimate squatter who had taken up residence in the venerable thought structure of the Christian Middle Ages, in other words as a person who owed her existence entirely to the secularisation of a Christian philosophical substance without ever having created anything of her own.
What it means to be alien
In Weidner's book, the contemporary West takes the place of Blumenberg's Middle Ages, and his illegitimate squatter is not the Modern Age, but all those large-scale, cultural narratives beyond the West whose own claims to the truth, which are no less justified, it is now time to acknowledge.
Beginning with a meditation on what it means to be alien in the full extension of its existence – as a foreigner, as a stateless person, but also as a person in this world who hopes to find his home in the hereafter – Weidner is on the same page as Hannah Arendt when he says that a new beyond-Western cosmopolitanism must at the very least achieve one thing: it must grant people a 'right to rights'.
Because this right to rights must be guaranteed at a supranational and, to a certain extent, suprahuman level in order to claim global validity, new cosmopolitanism needs a higher, transcendental authority that has its back. He is talking here about God, or at least the divine sphere, the space for all things transcendental. This is a high-risk and consequently brave decision, particularly as Weidner himself does not adhere to any religion.
Until well into the nineteenth century, the Enlightenment, the Modern Age and Liberalism had, despite their secular characteristics, at the very least a Christian prejudice towards other world religions or demonstrated an exotic-Orientalist interest in them. However, the rise of the West after 1900 occurred in an atmosphere of increasing religious sterility, which was presumably the greatest obstacle to a "more progressive westernisation" of the world. Instead, the world only "defensively westernised" itself and we are now feeling the full and painful force of the difference that makes.
Civil religion: a definition
A transcendental authority as reinsurance for the core demand of 'new cosmopolitanism', the right to rights, is, therefore, an exciting idea. However, right up until the last third of the book, it remains an idea that is hard to grasp. Weidner could have borrowed the term "civil religion" from the political scientist Eric Voegelin – whom he quotes a number of times throughout the book – to make his thought process clearer.
The term is used to describe a future where impetus for political action could be sent out from a watch-tower of timeless values. These values do not themselves have to be of religious origin. Take, for example, the American "Pursuit of Happiness".
It is the task of a civil religion to help people to link the traditional tenets of their faith to specific tasks, thereby finding a confirmation of their original faith. A civil religion would, therefore, be a kind of supranational, supracultural and suprareligious umbrella religion; a delicate web of ideas, concepts and practices that does not constrict.
Beyond the Western understanding of politics
But Weidner really steps up a gear in the last third of the book and shows the full potential of his idea. In a true master stroke, he sketches Gandhi's reinterpretation of the ancient Hindu epic Bhagavad Gita, tracing in it the genesis of a new, beyond-Western concept of politics that remains true to transcendence and extramundane asceticism while fuelling the Indian struggle for liberation from British colonialism. This is a perfect example of the development and the subsequent living practice of a new civil religion.
One continuous, highly exciting theme in Weidner's book is the development of European sciences out of a desire for an order that the social and political life of the war-torn, catastrophe-ravaged Europe of the Middle Ages and the early modern period could not provide.
According to Weidner, this led to a transfer of the schematic orders of nature that had been explored by science to large sections of society and culture, drying up transcendental sources of order. Nature became a source of order because God – much less humankind – was no longer to be trusted.
If Weidner's call for a new cosmopolitan transcendence is justified, a decisive question must be asked: can the West really move beyond itself and be completely absorbed into a new, stronger, multiperspective cosmopolitanism if being-the-West is possibly much more of an attribute given to the West by others rather than its own description of itself? Is it not the case that those outside the West have long since taken back the authority to interpret?
Although Weidner points out that anti-Western thought is also rooted in the West itself, where its roots reach right back to the Counter-Enlightenment and the Romantic Age, he could have devoted more space to arguments that provide a critical defence of the West – such as those made by Ian Buruma's Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies (2004) – in order to test his own theory.
Moral decline and soulless materialism
Buruma notes that the enemies of the West always give the same four reasons for their hatred: moral decline in globalised large cities, the soulless materialism of Western bourgeoisie, the sacrilegious godlessness of entire nations that believe that man-made laws could replace a divine order and the emancipation of women coupled with the accompanying loss of male privileges.
Do we really want to give up the West and its powerful utopia in order to live up to the demands formulated in this hate? Certainly not. So, if there is really to be a "Beyond the West" as envisaged by Weidner, then we have to ensure that the reactionary enemies of the West will derive no joy from it. This is the task that Weidner sets us as the curators who will manage the legacy of the West.
© Qantara.de 2018
Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan