Eurocentrism and More

For this fourth post in our symposium on John M. Hobson’s The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics, TDOT is delighted to welcome a response from Brett Bowden, Associate Professor of History and Political Thought at the University of Western Sydney.  The first three posts included an introduction from the author, and responses by TDOT’s Meera and Srdjan. In the next few days we look forward to a response from the author.

Let me begin by stating what will soon become obvious: this is not a book review of John Hobson’s The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics. The earlier posts from Meera and Srdjan have done an admirable job of engaging with the book in greater depth than I intend to here. Given that this is a blog, I will lay my cards on the table upfront – I’m a fan of John Hobson’s work. And I’m a big fan of The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics, which probably comes as no surprise to anyone remotely familiar with my own Empire of Civilization (all three of you). More specifically, I largely agree with the general tone and thrust of John’s book and the larger points he seeks to make about Eurocentrism. I don’t always agree with the details or finer points, but I too don’t want to split hairs. For instance, as John notes, I am not so kind to Kant, as I think his Lectures on Geography cast a doubt on some of his cosmopolitan claims and anti-imperialist credentials. But this is a minor difference of opinion that has no real bearing on the larger points being made about Eurocentrism and the study of world politics, or more specifically, international theory, for there is a difference.

As noted in an earlier posting, similar observations could be made about the humanities and social and behavioural sciences more generally, which is where, as an undergrad, I was first struck by Eurocentrism, albeit probably without knowing it by name. I can’t recall all of the details, but it was in a small seminar (only three students and a lecturer) on political philosophy where something we were reading and some comments on it struck me as rather odd; I made a point of raising my objections, which were dismissed by my three interlocutors, and I recall thinking to myself: ‘Wow, people still think like that’ – and well-educated people at that. Yes, Eurocentrism, along with a few other accompanying -centrisms are alive and well. This book won’t be the death of Eurocentrism, but hopefully it will shine a light in to some of the darker corners of the discipline and help to open the eyes and ears of a new generation of students and scholars. Which brings me to my purpose here; given that I’ve said I’m not exactly reviewing the book.  The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics and some of John’s earlier work has done a great service in bringing contentious issues to the fore where they can be debated openly – and now that John has opened up the can of worms, I’m going to jump on the bandwagon, get on my soapbox and ride on his coattails.

But first, I think I should probably also clarify a couple of points John makes in his generous introductory blog: (1) I’m not sure that I really consider myself an IR scholar, and I’m fairly certain that serious IR scholars would likely agree. Which is fine by me, as I hope becomes evident a bit further below. (2) I’m also not sure that I would consider myself a post-colonialist, and I suspect post-colonial scholars would be pleased to hear that.  That is not to say that my work has nothing to do with IR or doesn’t draw on or inspiration from post-colonialism – I do and it does. But it also takes in a range of disciplines and modes of thought. Much like my eating and drinking habits, I’m a pluralist and like to try lots of things, some I return to, many I don’t.

But I digress. Let me return to the topic of Eurocentrism and Word Politics, if not explicitly The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics. I think Oswald Spengler pretty much hit the nail on the head in The Decline of the West (1962: 13), which John identifies as a Eurocentric-institutionalist text (p. 135),when he wrote: ‘The Western European area’ came to be ‘regarded as a fixed pole, a unique patch chosen on the surface of the sphere for no better reason, it seems, than because we live on it’. Moreover, ‘great histories of millennial duration and mighty faraway Cultures are made to revolve around this pole in all modesty. It is a quaintly conceived system of sun and planets! We select a single bit of ground as the natural centre of the historical system, and make it the central sun. From it all the events of history receive their real light; from it their importance is judged in perspective.’ I’m not sure that there is a more succinct account of Eurocentrism, nor one that better highlights its folly.

Oswald Spengler (1880-1936)

Running alongside Eurocentrism, with its privileging of a particular space and its inhabitants, is a kind of tempocentrism, which similarly privileges a particular time and its inhabitants – the present over the past. As noted in the preceding post, Francis Fukuyama, for instance, couldn’t see how the liberal democracy he was born into and grew up with could be improved upon as a form of government. Likewise, Georg Hegel, who Fukuyama looked to for inspiration (albeit circuitously, see Srdjan’s post), could not see beyond the constitutional monarchy of Prussia. This particular form of centrism is by no means exclusive to IR, or the West for that matter, yet John Hobson has highlighted some similar concerns in the discipline in his essay on ‘transcending “chronofetishism” and “tempocentrism” in IR’ (Hobson 2002). In the essay he observes that ‘mainstream international relations appears caught within two modes of ahistoricism and asociologism’: what he calls chronofetishism and tempocentrism. My use of tempocentrism above differs slightly from John’s use (I’ll let you look up precisely what he means by these terms); in effect it is the temporal equivalent of Eurocentrism – the notion that what goes on in the here and now is somehow qualitatively unique/different/superior to everything that has gone in the past to the extent that it constitutes a new chapter or version.

G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831)                                   Francis Fukuyama

The kind of thing I have in mind here are recently emerged labels such as War 2.0 or Revolution 2.0, just because some of the participants make use of new media technologies such as Facebook and Twitter (e.g. Rid and Hecker 2009; Ghonim 2012). War is as old as human civilization, and the means by which it is fought, observed and recorded has been continually evolving across millennia. The same goes for revolutions. The use of new media might be yet another significant development in the evolutionary process, but it does not represent the kind of seismic shift that relegates everything that has gone on prior to the twenty first century as Version 1.0, while the first decade of the new century is Version 2.0. Such thinking is rather disrespectful to Gutenberg and his press, not to mention the significance of still photography and moving pictures, or other history-making and world-changing technologies, such as gunpowder, the repeating rifle or the Atomic bomb. Closely tied up with the idea of progress and human perfectibility (see Bowden 2012), this kind of tempocentrism requires as much arrogance as Eurocentrism. To suggest that the here and now is somehow (temporally) superior to the past just because I/we live in it is as flawed as claims to superiority on the basis that I was born on this particular patch of ground and happen to be this particular skin colour.  Sports commentators are prone to such hyperbole in the heat of the moment – ‘the greatest individual goal since …’ – but scholars with time to pause and reflect ought to be able to do better. In The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics and elsewhere, this is precisely the kind of greater historical perspective and appreciation of long-term processes that John, and others, have sought to adopt in the study of international relations and world politics more broadly.

Another concern for the disincline of IR is its tendency to talk to itself to the exclusion of others. I recently reviewed (here) Ayse Zarakol’s impressive book, After Defeat: How the East Learned to Live with the West (CUP, 2011), which begins with something of an apology for daring to venture beyond the ‘familiar confines’ of international relations and in to neighbouring disciplines. As I wrote in the review, there is no need to apologise, for Zarakol could not have undertaken the project anywhere near as thoroughly or as successfully as she has without venturing beyond the confines of IR. My only gripe was that while Zarakol was successful in stepping outside of IR in gathering evidence to make her case, much of the language she uses still reflects the familiar confines of IR. I argued that if scholars are going to reciprocally reach across boundaries, then there is a need to go beyond reading across disciplines and to get better at also talking to other disciplines. I think the same applies to The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics. This might be a bit unfair on both books; After Defeat is published in Cambridge’s Studies in IR series and Hobson’s audience is explicitly the discipline he is so vigorously taking to task. But as John states at the outset of his book and in his introductory blog, much of what he has to say applies to the social sciences more generally. Likewise, many of the thinkers under examination are not exclusively IR theorists. Hence, I think it is in the interests of the discipline as a whole that the familiar confines become less familiar and we as a discipline get better at talking to neighbouring disciplines and beyond.

There are one or two other issue I am tempted to raise but I think I’d best leave it at that and return to The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics and John’s concluding key question: which is no longer ‘to be or not to be a positivist’, but is now ‘to be or not to be Eurocentric’. In her post Meera seemed somewhat surprised that there are scholars out there who have done and continue to wear the badge with pride. Not only are some proudly Eurocentric, but proudly triumphantly Eurocentric, such as J.M. Roberts’s, Triumph of the West (London 1985) or Victor Davis Hanson, Why the West Has Won: Carnage and Culture from Salamis to Vietnam (London 2002). Not so long ago many sought to explain away Eurocentric or racist thinking by arguing that the person in question was simply a product of their time: it was how people thought back then. But there have always been a few who have gone against the grain, such as those who saw something wrong with slavery when most saw it as normal.

In the late eighteenth century, Johann Gottfried Herder (1997: 47, 41) went against the grain and wondered: ‘Is not the good dispersed all over earth?’ Surely ‘it could not be encompassed by one face of humankind, by one region of the compass’. He thought, rather, that it is ‘dispersed in a thousand faces, ever changing – an eternal Proteus – through all continents and centuries’. In short, Herder questioned ‘why should the western extremity of our Northern Hemisphere [Western Europe] alone be the home of civilisation? And is that really so?’ Indeed, is that really so; has it ever been so. Thanks to John Hobson’s fine book, which goes against the grain of so much of Western International Theory, Eurocentric thinking and theorising is increasingly harder to defend or explain away.


Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803)


Bowden, Brett. 2012. ‘Colonialism, Anti-Colonialism and the Idea of Progress’, in History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, eds. UNESCO-EOLSS Joint Committee, in Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems. Oxford: Eolss Publishers.

Herder, Johann Gottfried. 1997. On World History: An Anthology, eds. Hans Adler and Ernest A. Menze, trans. Ernest A. Menze and Michael Palma. Armonk, N.Y. and London: M.E. Sharpe.

Hobson, John, M. “What’s at stake in ‘bringing historical sociology back into international relations’? Transcending ‘chronofetishism’ and ‘tempocentrism’ in international relations,” in Historical Sociology of International Relations, eds. Stephen Hobden and John M. Hobson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 3-41.

Oswald Spengler, Oswald. 1962. The Decline of the West, trans. C.F. Atkinson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Rid, Thomas and Marc Hecker. 2009. War 2.0: Irregular Warfare in the Information Age. Westpeort, CT: Praeger.

Whael Ghonim, Whael. 2012. Revolution 2.0: The Power of the People Is Greater Than the People in Power: A Memoir. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Zarakol, Ayşe. 2011. After Defeat: How the East Learned to Live with the West. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


2 thoughts on “Eurocentrism and More

  1. Pingback: Empire... | Pearltrees

  2. Pingback: A Foolish Discipline? | The Disorder Of Things

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