An international conference on Inter-Cultural Philosophy was held some years back in Costa Rica. Representatives from Korea, Taiwan, Congo, Tunisia, Germany, Austria and much of Central and South America, convened in order to share perspectives on the task of living together in the age of globalization and all its attendant problems…global warming, migration, cultural intolerance, terrorism of various sorts, economical crises, etc.
That sounds like “an admirable task and an ingeniously devised approach,” but the philosophical premises behind inter-national and inter-cultural constructions have become invalid and non-viable.
The prefix ‘inter’ means between. Therefore the basic supposition of any word that begins with ‘inter’ is of the primacy and equality of separate things, whether nation-states or cultures. At best, the prefix ‘inter’ is meant to imply a bridge between two or more divided categories.
This isn’t an abstract philosophical point. The organizer of the conference, Gerardo Mora, emphatically stated: “Globalization is destroying particular cultures.” The underlying aim of intercultural philosophy, he said, is to “protect particular cultures in the world.”
Given the fragmentary thinking inherent in that goal, it’s fair to ask, is the intercultural philosophical approach contributing to the erosion of cultures? More to the point, does globalization have to produce homogenization? And why do “particular cultures” need to be “protected” in any case?
The title of the conference: “Living together: Problems and possibilities in today’s world–an intercultural approximation,” managed to be both evocative and arcane. It begins with an inviting potential, but the added clause–“an intercultural approximation”—seems superfluous and unclear.
Inter-Cultural Philosophy is defined as “the endeavor to give expression to the many voices of philosophy in their respective cultural contexts.” (Italics mine.) As such, it raises a fundamental question: Is philosophy dependent on cultural context? Indeed, is it philosophy at all when cultural contexts are given primacy?
The root meaning of philosophy is the love of wisdom, which has at its core the quest for truth. To place philosophy within cultural contexts is to maintain that truth (even with a small ‘t’) is relative. And if truth is relative, then there is no such thing.
That doesn’t mean truth is absolute, since absolutism is merely the flipside of relativism. It simply means that insight arises from a deeper source, and therefore speaks to a dimension beyond particular cultures, irrespective of language, tradition or background.
If philosophy is solely, or even primarily a product of the cultures that give rise to it, then all claims of universality are false and futile. In that case, purported insights into the human condition, not to mention our ever-elusive and supposedly immutable ‘human nature,’ are illusory and worthless. Clearly, that isn’t the case, as great literature, art, music and philosophy from all lands attest.
Certainly we’re largely the products of our cultures and times, but they don’t necessarily determine us. So-called mystical experiencing is essentially the same across cultures and ages. And one of the main tasks of philosophy in my view is to demystify ‘mystical experience.’
When words, images, memories, associations and knowledge cease operating, even for a few moments in the fully alert human brain, one is beyond culture and time.
In other words, a deeply quiet mind has spontaneously stepped out of the context and content of cultural conditioning. Far from being a terrifying experience, as most people imagine it, there is unbounded peace and joy in such a state of being, which is available to all human beings.
Why don’t we live that way now? Is it because humans are social animals, and to grow into a human being requires inwardly standing alone? Very few people see the complete necessity of standing alone, but freedom–liberating ourselves from the shackles of culture and conditioning—is not possible if we don’t.
Going beyond our particular cultures, one’s mind is genuinely creative, and contributes to the creation of a new kind of culture, a true, urgently necessary global civilization.
Particular cultures, based on tradition, are things of the human past. Paradoxically, they can retain meaning, if not coherence, to the degree that free individuals infuse them with insights into the whole of humanity.
Trying to preserve cultures in their particularity (the core aim of intercultural philosophy) only increases their fragmentation and erosion. That guarantees the attrition of indigenous and traditional cultures to the forces of globalization, with the loss of their richness and meanings for present and future peoples in the global civilization.
What are the sources of a new global culture, and what would it look like? It wouldn’t know the birth, buildup, decay and death of previous, particular cultures, because such a culture would be dying and being reborn in awakened individuals in every generation.
Wholeness has no accretion. In the culture of ever-renewing human beings, computers will contain the cumulative growth of knowledge, to which anyone will have access at any time.
The beliefs, traditions, rituals and mores of particular cultures—the rich and rapidly eroding soil of man’s past—will be sources of insight, and retain meaning to the degree that people have ongoing insight into them.