Skip to content

Quote of the Week: Donal Dorr

June 23, 2009

It is interesting to note that in the 1940s and 1950s the assumption that the West was better endowed by Nature gradually gave way to another assumption, namely, that the West is more ‘advanced’ or ‘developed’ than other parts of the world. This too is based upon a myth — the myth that there is just one single path or ‘ladder’ of development open to all nations and that some are further up the ladder than others. Like the myth that the wealthy nations owe their prosperity to the bounty of Nature, the myth of development served the interests of the West. It led people to assume that because Western countries are wealthy and technologically advanced they are also more civilized. And it gave the impression to the people of the newly emergent nations that they could travel along the Western path to prosperity through ‘development’ — and could even catch up with the Western countries.

–Donal Dorr, Option for the Poor. (Maryknoll, NW: Orbis Books, 2002), 110.

  1. Ursus permalink
    June 23, 2009 11:45 am

    Considering the philosophy at root of Dorr’s analysis understands all aspects of language as mythological, i.e., there’s no definitive truth just language, all is power relations. So what’s wrong with mythologizing in a way that is advantageous for our interests?

    • June 23, 2009 12:11 pm


      That’s rather odd on so many levels. Where do you get him saying “all aspects of language are mythological”?

  2. premodern permalink
    June 23, 2009 1:38 pm

    So, the West is not more advanced and developed than, say, Africa? Would Dorr say, for example, that the lack of sanitation which is common in Afghanistan, could be more civilized than what one finds in any Western country?

    • June 23, 2009 1:49 pm

      Premodern re-read what Dorr is saying. Despite your name (premodern) you are falling for the myth of the modern world as to what is or is not advancement — looking only at criteria based upon empirical sciences and technology, instead of looking to the whole of a culture and its output. Moreover, the problem is not that “this aspect can be seen, in some ways, to be more advanced” the ways in which they are not as advanced, or actually, a devolution are ignored (the advancement has a way of leaving the earth in ruins, for example). Finally, the point is that the method of such advancement and its end should not be seen as univocal — but the myth of progress in the West suggests progress means what we are, and how we got here. This is absurd, especially because of what we had to do to get here was a spiritual devolution.

  3. Ursus permalink
    June 23, 2009 2:24 pm


    Dorr is not explicity saying all aspects of language are mythological, but he his operating with the tools of a philosophical framework which does say this. He’s using them to advance his own ideas. The problem, which I stated above, is that when you frame your arguments in this way, and follow them to the their logical foundations, you get back to the starting assumption that all reality is myth. Truth is merely a construct of language.

    If this is the assumption you start with then reality is merely a series of power struggles for which language becomes our primary weapon. If you’re a Marxist then the West’s myth of progress is merely a tool of oppression. If you’re a Capitalist then it’s a prescription for freedom.

    In the end this is a rather empty way to talk because it boils all of our meaning for doing anthing into arbitrariness and feelings, leaving a struggle for power where we demonize the “other’s” myth they have of themselves.

    • June 23, 2009 2:47 pm


      You are making this up as you go along. He does not operate within this idea. It’s a strange thing to say. Indeed, it seems to be you don’t like the fact that he deconstructs the Western myth and points out it is indeed a myth. But in saying this he does not say “all things are myth” nor does he have empty talk leading to power struggles over language. Really, you need to do better than this. He is being very concrete here.

  4. Ursus permalink
    June 23, 2009 3:12 pm


    Heavens no I am not making this up as I go along I’ve spent too many years in the fever swamps to feign such ignorance. Actually, I think Dorr’s by now generic deconstruction of Western progress mythology is mostly correct. What I object to are the tools and where they come from. I’m just skeptical of using the wholy myth/deconstruction hermaneutic (sp?) too often because it tends toward the absurd and really does ultimately chip away at the idea of truth. This, of course, in the end chips away at Dorr’s very critique of progress.

    • June 23, 2009 3:19 pm


      You are making it up — all from one small paragraph (which should give you pause before you start saying things like “all too generic” because you are basing your own argument a text which has more to it than what is quoted), you are reading into it all kinds of things based, it appears, on how you used to do things? That is the problem. It seems like you are flailing away at what he has to say, and using the word “myth” to ignore the whole point — which is the West’s notion of its history is false, and ignores what aspects of its history made it what it is today (things which if other nations did to us as we did to them, we would complain and understand why they are “progressing” and we are not).

      So what “truth” is being chipped away here? Really. Please, instead of turning windmills into dragons, actually deal with what he said.

  5. premodern permalink
    June 23, 2009 3:50 pm

    Henry, As my moniker implies, I have no problem with a critique of the Modernist project including its faith in empiricism, progress, and autonomous Man and the deleterious consequences of those presuppositions consistently applied. (The same applies to Postmodernism as well.) But let’s not confuse technique with presuppositions. We can identify the false presuppositions of the unbelieving philosopher, and at the same time plunder them. Of course, this needs to be done with sanctified wisdom and the danger of syncretism is very real. However, I can, for example, point out the utter cultural failures of the Enlightenment project, while embracing antibiotics, a “technique” which came directly as a result of applying the scientific method. Why? Because it also happens to be a good example of Man subduing Creation and taking dominion, which is the biblical cultural mandate that we have been given. Thus, one can objectively say that it is more civilized, and more advanced to treat our human waste in a stewardly fashion using technology derived from the scientific method (The Enlightenment), than to urinate on the doorpost of our home, which is common in undeveloped cultures. Would it be better to live in disease needlessly but be able to say that you have rejected the Enlightenment in doing so? No, that would be sin.

  6. premodern permalink
    June 23, 2009 3:59 pm

    I will add that what I have said above in no way baptizes all that we do in the name of progress. That is why I mentioned the need for biblical wisdom. Part of the cultural mandate is stewardship which itself explicitly requires a thinking and deliberate and application of these things.

    My problem with the paragraph cited is that I hear echos of the postmodernist questioning of the validity of objective judgments about what is superior or inferior. Abuses and unwise application of any unbelieving worldview does not negate thoughtful application of same or the validity of a value judgment of what is civilized and what is not.

  7. Ursus permalink
    June 23, 2009 4:20 pm

    Absolutely right premodern. Dorr eventually will undercut his own reason for critique by couching his argument in terms of mythology. Furthermore it leads to a relativism that opens the door to the “800 pound gorilla” who decides what’s true, because, well, what is truth when all is myth? Or is it only the Western idea of progress that is myth?

    • June 23, 2009 4:25 pm


      It is strange that you are telling someone who is using OBJECTIVE standards (justice, for example) to criticize an unobjective fantasy (the “golden” West and its progress) is a relativist. It is because HE IS NOT that he is criticizing the myth the West has developed for itself which ignores the objective standards.

  8. premodern permalink
    June 23, 2009 4:46 pm


    Fair enough. I appreciate his critique of the myth of the “golden West” if….if… that myth is that the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution was a resounding success to be emulated in its particulars by all undeveloped countries so that they can achieve the material comforts that we enjoy, etc. As a fan of the Twelve Southerners , I can say a hearty “Amen”.

    It is the last two sentences that gave me pause. It sounded like he rejected the objective value of development, period and/or that one could even say that the West is more advanced in any sense. That is what I reject.

    By all means, undeveloped nations, if I am allowed to use that term, should look at the mistakes that have been made in the West by blindly embracing and applying Enlightenment presuppositions and to not repeat those mistakes. So yes, they should choose a better path towards cultural maturity as long as we do not deny that such a thing tangibly exists.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: