The Dance of East and West: A Brief History of an Unstable but Enduring Conceptual Partnership

Tim Lomas, Brendan Case, Flynn Cratty, Alexander Batson


The distinction between East and West is among the most prominent and influential cross-cultural tropes in both academic scholarship and public discourse. However, in most cases, this attention tends to focus narrowly on certain instances or iterations of this binary. In particular, Edward Said’s influential analysis of ‘Orientalism’ has led to a relative fixation on the dynamic between Western Europe and the ‘near’ and ‘far’ East in the 19th century. However, the East-West polarity has been a defining feature of at least the last 2,500 years of human history. It is, moreover, a complex and contested binary, whose boundaries and contours have constantly shift ed. This paper therefore highlights these complexities through a ‘psycho-historical’ approach, namely, exploring the psychological nature and dynamics of this distinction through a historical lens. Th us, we explore variations on the East-West theme throughout six key historical eras: pre-history; the Classical Age; the rise of Christianity; the medieval world; the Enlightenment; and the Cold War. It is hoped that our analysis not only offers a useful introduction to the evolution of the East-West distinction but also encourages scholars to adopt a more subtle and nuanced approach to its dynamics.

Keywords: East, West, cross-cultural, history, orientalism.

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