Towards a New Trans-Cultural Modernity – The Symposium “Cultures Intertwined: Another Enlightenment” in Berlin

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by Michael Liebig


On June 30, 2010, Christian Wulff, the former christian-democratic Governor of Lower Saxonia, was elected German President, succeeding Horst Köhler who had suddenly resigned in May. It was a hot day in Berlin and it took almost nine hours and three electoral rounds until Wulff received the necessary majority. Wulff is a typical representative of Germany’s political class: clever, good-looking, eloquent and politically experienced. And that’s it.

But there was another event in Berlin that day, which also lasted almost nine hours. It was organized by the Berlin associations “Spree-Athen” and “Initiative Humboldt Forum”. The theme of the symposium was “Cultures Intertwined: Another Enlightenment.” The conference format was that of a panel discussion — not a sequence of speeches. The panelists were: Prof. Volker Gerhardt (Humboldt University, Berlin); Prof. Ryosuke Ohashi (Kyoto University, Japan); Dr. Henrik Jäger, Sinologist; Prof. Karol Sauerland (Warsaw University, Poland), Prof. Jacob Mabe (Technical University, Berlin); Prof. Bettina Schöne-Seifert (University Münster).

The symposium was introduced by Frank Hahn (Spree-Athen) and Prof. Rudolf zur Lippe (Initiative Humboldt Forum), who was the moderator on the podium. Both stressed that the symposium was an “experiment,” trying to correlate eurocentric rationality with different ways of thinking in Asia and Africa. They emphasized that the discussion should hopefully open up new avenues of thinking towards a “trans-cultural philosophy” which would avoid both dichotomous “either-or” positions and cultural indifference/relativism.

The Cultural Dimension of Multipolarity

I was so deeply impressed by the symposium because it addressed an issue of crucial importance in the multipolar world system. By now, the economic and political-strategic strength of the rising powers of the “South” has generally been recognized. But that’s hardly the case when it comes to the cultural potential of these rising powers. Even thoughtful people still believe that the economic and social progress in China, India, Brazil or other emerging powers is simply the result of imitating American and European ways of thinking. There is rarely a recognition of the endogenous cultural (re-)sources in these rising countries. Instead it’s mostly assumed that there is merely some “native coloration” to the copying of American/European epistemology. In reality, the endogenous cultural and epistemological traditions do decisively shape the thinking and practice of these countries.

The “West” is mentally unprepared for the “cognitive challenge” coming from the rising powers in the “South”. If continued, the still predominant mixture of ignorance and arrogance in the “West” towards the cultural dimension of global multipolarity might lead to a rude awakening. Moreover, this attitude is blockading the necessary self-advancement and transformation of European culture and epistemology. Signs of ossification in European culture are paramount. And this has become a most serious societal problem: in terms of social, political and business ethics, in religious life and in science itself.

Here in Germany, Chancellor Merkel is a trained scientist (physics and chemistry), which is certainly an advantage compared to “professional” politicians. Yet, her mindset of “cool” rationality collides with new challenges – within German society and internationally – which cannot be tackled within the boundaries of the prevalent cultural and epistemological “system”.

The chance for transcending cultural and scientific constrictions does exist because there are cultural and scientific traditions in Germany – notably Leibniz and the Humboldt brothers – which provide the directionality for advancing – by no means negating – European culture by opening up to other, non-European cultural frames. The June 30 symposium in Berlin was a fascinating step in that direction.

What Others Have, and We Don’t

Both Ohashi and Jäger elaborated on the cognitive difference between European and South East Asian ways of thinking. On the European side, thinking “is” structure, precise categories, logical rigor and perfection. On the Asian side, thinking “flows” or “wanders,” taking the form of “gestalts”, ambiguities, metaphors; and there is no strict distinction between theory and praxis. Buddhism and Shintoism are religions which are not centered on a personal God. Confucian and Taoist ethics are not “top down” normative, but “bottom up” intuitive and situational. In South East Asia, language is not the exclusive form of communication, but just one form of interpersonal articulation along with non-verbal forms of communication. Ohashi summed up the differences by saying European thinking “is methodology”, while Asian thinking is an “open-ended pathway”.

Mabe pointed to the importance of the oral transmission of knowledge outside European cultural space. In European cultural space, what has not been written up, is seen as worthless or irrelevant knowledge, which Mabe contrasted to the African dictum: “When a wise old man dies, a library is burning down.” He noted that the exclusivity of written knowledge has led to the degeneration of the ability to listen to each other. The “lost art of listening” goes along with the widespread phenomenon of talking at cross purposes. Mabe also pointed to the difference between giving a lecture and making a speech and reading out the text of a lecture or a speech. The latter having become predominant both in education and politics.

The paradox is that speaking and listening to each other – dialogue – is the very foundation of European culture and science – beginning with Plato’s Dialogues. And dialogue is the most crucial source for generating (and testing) hypotheses, which are the principal drivers of scientific progress. Valid hypotheses are the way to transcend a “closed system” leading to new scientific concepts and theories.

Schöne-Seifert, a medical researcher and expert on bio-ethics, supported Mabe’s argument on the importance of oral transmission of knowledge by referring to a widespread “research activity” of world-leading pharmaceutical companies. They are roaming the jungles and primeval forests worldwide in the search for medicine men, magicians and shamans trying to extract from their “primitive” medications the pharmaceutical agents for developing “state of the art” drugs.

Obviously, written and oral transmission of knowledge are no contradiction. Instead what is required is the rehabilitation of orally transmitted knowledge in non-European cultural space and its integration into the “recognized” body of human knowledge. For sure, the Humboldt brothers did know that already.

Sauerland gave a fascinating insight into the mind of a scientist who acknowledged the limitations of eurocentric rationality: The Polish-Jewish medical researcher and science theorist Ludwik Fleck. In his “The Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact” (1935) investigated the cognitive process of scientific research. Fleck saw scientific progress as an outcome of a social process (“thought collective”), in which concepts are exchanged in an interdisciplinary and intercultural manner. For Fleck, there were no “primitive” ideas or “inferior” thoughts in the process of scientific concept formation. In that way, a gestalt concept is developed that transcends the existing system of scientific categories, which he called “thought style”. Sauerland, backed by Schöne-Seifert, emphasized that Thomas Kuhn – in his “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” – copied the key concepts from Fleck without giving credit to the author.

Trans-Cultural Cross-Fertilization in European History

Gerhardt’s lecture provided an historical example for the obstruction of trans-cultural dialogue: the case of the German philosopher Christian Wolff (1679-1754). In the footsteps of Leibniz and the Jesuit missionaries in China, notably Matteo Ricci, Wolff engaged in intensive studies of Chinese philosophy and religion. Wolff was professor at the Protestant University of Halle. When he proclaimed that Christian Europeans could “learn something from Chinese philosophy and theology”, the Protestant Church accused him of “atheism”. The Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm I ordered Wolff’s expulsion from Halle university and Prussia under the threat of capital punishment (Frederick the Great later rehabilitated Wolff). In parallel, the Pope terminated the missionary work of the Jesuits in China claiming they were compromising Catholic beliefs by adapting to Chinese philosophy. Thus, a hopeful trans-cultural dialogue between Europe and China was broken off.

But Gerhardt also pointed to a most successful “transcultural axis” 2500 years ago, which in fact laid the basis for European culture. He noted that Socrates and Confucius were contemporaries and that there are parallels in their ethical philosophy, for example the central role of the “personal example” in ethical education. Also, Plato himself has reported in his writings that he had traveled to Egypt to study mathematics and philosophy there. Thus, what appears to be the “pure” source of European culture – classical Greek philosophy – was in fact cross-fertilized by non-European cultures. Gerhardt emphasized the “multitude of sources” for classical Greek philosophy: Not just Egypt, but India and China. Most of these early trans-cultural and trans-civilizational exchanges have not been recorded in writing, yet the conceptual content of the key scripts of the main civilizations of that time does reveal inter-cultural connectivity. Obviously, still a wide and fertile field for scientific research.

One may add that classical Greek philosophy – notably Plato and Aristoteles – “returned” to Europe via the Islamic world. And it was the absorption of Arab and Iranian philosophy by Raimundus Lullus and Cusanus which laid the philosophical foundation for the Renaissance and Enlightenment in Europe. And, one tends to forget that Christianity – a core feature of European culture – does not originate from within Europe, but from West Asia.

Hahn pointed to the importance of Jewish theology and philosophy in influencing European culture throughout the past 2500 years. He particularly pointed to Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) as a thinker who criticized the “one-dimensionality” of eurocentric rationality.

The June 30 symposium in Berlin was a reminder that the exclusivity of European culture is fictional. The evolution of European culture over the past 2500 years had always a transcultural dimension. The European Renaissance and Enlightenment laid the foundation for unprecedented scientific and social progress. For that reason, European culture gained global hegemony for roughly 500 years and with European colonialism other civilizations were marginalized. With the beginning of the 20th century the inner limitations of European culture became manifest. It became evident that European culture had to “open up” to other cultural paradigms. At the beginning of the 21st century the endogenous strength of non-European cultures has matured to a level which permits and necessitates a “multiple, globally intertwined modernity.” And the Berlin symposium was a most appropriate step in that direction.

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