Is the Eastern/Western distinction in philosophy useful and meaningful?

It definitely is. By and large, Eastern philosophy differs from the Western-type in more than one respect. Firstly, its orientation is much more holistic, by which I mean going beyond logical analysis and the interests of empiricism – including science (the OBJECT) – and touching on human realities and interests (the SUBJECT). Eastern philosophy can thus be characterized as having a religious-mystical dimension which incorporates a soteriology (release or liberation rather than ‘individual salvation’)* and which one can find only in different forms in the West in the philosophies of Stoicism, Epicureanism, and the Cynics. Eastern philosophy has persisted for thousands of years in its geographic areas of spread and is still dominant there, although more recently there has been a Western influence in Indian philosophy, where Hegel, Heidegger, Plato, etc., are being increasingly studied. This is the case mostly in academic circles – and vice versa, East to West, but in the latter case not so much in Academia.

  • Indeed, the release or liberation is from individuality or individualism.

There is no concept of enlightenment or self-realization in Western philosophy, but there are types of Monism (one substance or primary element in nature) in the pre-Socratic philosophers – Parmenides, Heraclitus, Leucippus, etc. Materialism (or physicalism) and Idealism (especially Berkeley) are opposing models in this regard.

The above considerations apply mostly to Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta as they have flourished (and still do) in the Eastern world, but it is to be noted that both of them have a strong rational dimension as well in the areas of epistemology, ontology, and psychology. So both ‘worlds’ tend to approximate each other, but that is all one can say.

Going back to the West, an important mystical tradition must be included here, whether or not monistic or non-dual in nature, such as that of Plotinus, Meister Eckhart, Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, Origen, The Cloud of Unknowing, Teresa of Avila, and John of the Cross (San Juan de la Cruz) – without listing here some great Western Sufis, Ibn al ‘Arabi being the main one.