In the 17th century, Galileo challenged the Pope at the risk of death by publishing evidence that the earth revolved around the sun, not the other way around. And in reality, it is perhaps the West’s most dangerous idea—because it stops at nothing. Portrait of Galileo by Giusto Sustermans via Wikimedia Commons
In the 17th century, Galileo challenged the Pope at the risk of death by publishing evidence that the earth revolved around the sun, not the other way around. And in reality, it is perhaps the West’s most dangerous idea—because it stops at nothing. Portrait of Galileo by Giusto Sustermans via Wikimedia Commons

The West’s most dangerous idea

The Enlightenment kicked-off a period of unprecedented invention and political transformationand overseas conquest

After four years of studying economics, I was running behind schedule as I had passed only a few exams of the second year. Then a friend told me that our university offered the option of a co-study in the philosophy of economics. Thrilled, I called my father to say that I had taken up a second study and asked him to pay the double tuition fees. He asked me if I had gone absolutely mad. “Why take up a second study, while floundering in the first?" he asked.

I do not remember how I convinced him but believe he made me promise that I would finish both. And three years later both degrees were in my pocket. The philosophy faculty was deeply academic. They tried to teach us to think, to question everything in a rational, logical way. It was the best investment I could have ever made in myself and am still grateful to be allowed to do it.

The Western philosophy we studied teaches much about life and how to live it, although the practical philosophies from India, like Vedanta and Buddhism, are perhaps even more radical and audacious. But when it comes to theoretical thinking, Western philosophy is as radical as the Indian practical traditions. Its influence on Western culture, from the ancient Greeks until today, has been immense. In a way, it is affecting our world directly. The technological society that is arising today would not have been possible without it and philosophical ideas are in a way embedded in it.

Perhaps the most radical idea that came out of this long tradition is from a period called the Enlightenment, which marked a turning point in European thinking. The Enlightenment kicked-off a period of unprecedented invention and political transformation—and overseas conquest, as India for one has experienced. Great new ideas were formed in that period, from modern economics to parliamentary democracy.

But by far the most sweeping thought was an idea about ideas themselves. It was a shocking yet simple notion, and in my view it has become a cornerstone of Western thinking. This idea about ideas was that literally every existing idea could be challenged. Faith, dogma, religion, scientific knowledge, social conventions, power relationships—nothing was exempted from scrutiny.

This was a new and subversive notion, in a society that was still deeply religious and feudal. It marked the start of what we now call modern Europe. In the world of business, in which change seems to be speeding up, this notion is extremely important for survival today.

Western society is culturally driven, in part, by this philosophical concept. The idea means that, at the outset, the status quo in all aspects of life is not necessarily to be accepted as self-evident, optimal, desirable, just or final. In other words, the status quo and all existing phenomena and ideas are to be challenged. Not that the status quo is wrong by definition, but it does not have to be taken for granted. In a motto: dear to know and ask why of everything. While it is simple to understand, its consequences have proved to be tremendously creative, as well as destabilizing—for rulers, governments, institutionalized religion, entire industries, businesses and for our everyday lives.

Naturally, the idea to question even fundamental assumptions of life is not just Western. The Buddha had the courage to question and change the very fundamentals of his country’s dominant religion. Gandhi did the same in his struggle against Imperialism. And there are countless others. But the mandate that anyone can question anything, and that not just the elite can play with ideas, perhaps distinguishes the West from other societies. It has affected the way we govern and structure institutions. It has fundamentally changed even our education systems and child-rearing practices, which are aimed—at least in principle—at raising critical individual minds ready to face the world while standing on their own two feet.

The legitimacy of questioning fundamentals perhaps also marks the dividing line between conservatives and progressives. Conservatives tend to apply the questioning of the status quo mainly to science, technology and business. Progressives, on the other hand, tend to focus their questioning of the status quo mainly on social conventions, class divisions and the structure of society.

But it has also been a controversial idea—to put it mildly. Many who embraced it ran into conflict with the powers of king, church and society at large. In the 17th century, Galileo challenged the Pope at the risk of death by publishing evidence that the earth revolved around the sun, not the other way around. And in reality, it is perhaps the West’s most dangerous idea—because it stops at nothing.

But we have not applied this idea to itself. When should we stop questioning and changing, and embrace what is? If it is true that we are destroying the planet thanks to the advances reached through it, there are also limits to progress. If progress in artificial intelligence are becoming so dangerous that it could become a threat to humanity within a few decades, how do we stop it? If we can create life or manipulate our own DNA and create superhumans within a decade, must we do it? Progress is not always better, especially if progress itself is not or cannot be questioned. Paradoxically, unquestioned belief in change is rigid: change has become a dogma.

If we are allowed to question everything, we should also be able to question that very notion also—applying subversion to itself. Not to be against change and progress, but to be discerning about it. At that point we reach a higher level of conscious thinking, one that is self-reflective. Only then could we become masters of the change we have created. Perhaps it is time for a new counterculture, one against mindless and automatic change, and in favour of aware questioning. The question is which brand could lead it?

Tjaco Walvis is the managing director of brand consulting and advertising agency THEY India, and a speaker at the Outstanding Speakers’ Bureau. He writes a fortnightly column on the softer cultural aspects of marketing that often tend to be ignored by marketers.

Close