A Brief History of Navel Gazing in the West

The West has long had poor respect for what is sometimes jokingly called “navel gazing.” Western culture, by and large, hasn’t been terribly interested in self-knowledge and self-reflection until relatively recently. Only in recent years have we begun to “create” understandings of the world that look inward as much as outward.

The West and Self-Reflection

Bhante Vimalaramsi, founder of the american buddhist forest tradition
Understanding the “self” is not a new idea.

When we go out in search of the truth, we don’t go alone. We bring with us everything we’ve already learned, starting with what we were taught as part of the process of enculturation. Whether we rebel against the things we’ve been taught or build on them, it’s critical that we know where we’re coming from.

One of the basic tenets of the scientific method is that what we discover needs to be part of an “objective” reality. Science, in Western culture, holds the belief that a) there is an objective reality, and that b) we can access and understand that reality. Culturally, self-knowledge is often thought to be a waste of time — especially in the pursuit of a truth that is held to be external.

Importing Self-Awareness

The West didn’t create self-reflexive approaches out of whole cloth. The basis of these understandings came from other cultures.

Even where we didn’t attempt to import these approaches (which we did, through yoga, meditation, and the martial arts to name a few), we still were influenced by underlying ideas about the nature of self and perception. We all picked up a little bit of Eastern philosophy as it was absorbed into Western culture.

The importation of Eastern” thought has its own interesting history. By the end of the colonial era, the West had had developed a taste for all things “Eastern,” and these approaches gained a little attention in some circles.

It’s important to note that we didn’t just import foreign ideas to replace “Western” ones. The process was much more organic and tenuous. But our broadening world did force us to look more closely at ourselves. Our widening view of the world forced us to look farther afield.


Starting in the 19th century, the Spiritist and Spiritulalist movements had arisen on the fringes as Science struggled with the Church for cosmological supremacy. Though it was not their intention, they created a cultural space for the Theosophical Society (founded 1875).

Through their scholarly work, this small group of culturally fringe believers (Atlantis, the World Teacher, and Ascended Masters) gave the West a window on whole new ways to view the self. In fact, the whole of the New Age and Self-Help movements come at least partially out of this tradition — as does anyone who says “I’m spiritual, but not religious,” whether they know it or not.

It’s so easy to critique the Theosophical Society’s notions of a universal religion as misguided, colonialist, and racist that it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. However, the efforts of their scholars to make serious translations of many of the major religious texts of Asia had a profound impact on the West.

Nearly a hundred years after the founding of the Theosophical Society, these questions had found some acceptance and become more relevant, or at least more popular, in the West. While the scientific community didn’t devolve into meditation and spirituality, anthropology was the best bet for asking and answering in a scientific way the questions raised.

“How do we know what we know?” “What is the relationship between the self and society?” “What is the self?” These kinds of underlying questions leaked their way from popular culture into research topics. It was these deep, meaningful questions that helped give rise to such theoretical perspectives as postmodernism.

Yet the answers that developed came from the Western intellectual tradition. And the answers have been hard to swallow. It’s terrible to discover that we know much less about the world than we always thought. But hey, that’s science — we’re looking for some truth, not just a feel-good affirmation.

The “hard” scientists, who by their very topics of exploration have the ability to ignore the “self” in their research, have sometimes scoffed — or even claimed that anthropology isn’t a science — but science isn’t a popularity contest.

Anthropologists Aren’t Zen Masters

In seeking the “Truth,” the West has become more aware of the importance of self-knowledge in the past century and a half. While we can trace the Western tradition of self-understanding all the way back to Socrates’s “Know thyself,” it fell out of favor for a while. First, it was replaced by Christianity’s focus on knowledge of God and Jesus. Later it was replaced by scientific objectivity, which was required to hold the “self” as a constant to get any decent results.

Yet these pesky “new” questions, raised by those who looked (and look) more deeply into the nature of self, remained. As anthropology has looked at other cultures’ ways of understanding the world, these questions have grown in importance.

That doesn’t mean that all the anthropologists have gone on to study as Buddhist monks or the like, however. Because of its subject matter (people), anthropology has been forced to address some of these same questions about the nature of self. However, because the field comes out of the Western tradition of science, their methods of exploration are scientific and (relatively) objective.

So while some might dismissively call anthropology “navel gazing,” that’s not really the case. Instead, anthropologists are engaged in trying to answer these age-old questions about people without relying on religious constructions. The field works to answer these questions without wholly abandoning the Western value of objectivity.

Anthropology has been forced to address some of the questions (“What does it mean to be a person?” “What is a person’s relationship with society?” Even “How do we know what we know?”) that we can say were first popularized in the West by the Theosophical society and then by the New Age movement. But the truth is, these are questions that we need to address as a culture.

As travel and communication have become faster, cheaper, and easier, all of us see a lot more of the world. Anthropology is the West’s means of addressing these increasingly relevant questions through science.

To come back to Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Or, to put it a bit cheekily, admitting that navels exist isn’t “navel gazing.” It’s just understanding the ultimate tool of measurement needed for any anthropological exploration — the self.


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