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Chris Barrigar

Philosophical Polylogues in a Global Society

On Franz Martin Wimmer: Essays on Intercultural Philosophy

Philosophy in search of universally valid insight

Franz Martin Wimmer:
Essays on Intercultural Philosophy.
Chennai: Satya Nilayam, 2002.
(Satya Nilayam Endowment Lectures Series 4)
ix, 133 pages
ISBN 81-901345-1-5
book cover
Satya Nilayam Publications:
external linkWebsite
1 This new book, Essays on Intercultural Philosophy, provides a collection of Wimmer's papers written since 1995, some published and some appearing here in print for the first time – in particular his "Pedro Arrupe Endowment Lectures" for 1998.
2 Wimmer informs us of what constitutes intercultural philosophy, why it is necessary, and what are the criteria for doing it. Broadly speaking, intercultural philosophy is doing philosophy from multiple frameworks, without one cultural framework dominating. This naturally undermines traditional Western methods of doing philosophy, since Western philosophies are traditionally Euro-centric, rendering non-Western philosophies merely peripheral or ignorable. In contrast, Wimmer proposes that a revised non-Eurocentric historiography is needed, one which recognizes, »that philosophy originated not only in Europe, but elsewhere as well … philosophy in a general sense has several – and perhaps many – origins« (8). From this observation he derives a rule for practice: »Do not expect philosophical theories to be well founded, whose authors stem from one single cultural tradition. The rule can be formulated in a positive way too: Wherever possible, look for transcultural overlapping of philosophical concepts and theories, since it is probable that well-founded theories have developed in more than one cultural tradition« (33).
3 This rule might be seen as fitting well with post-modern proclivities, however he then makes a move which seems decidedly modern – he wants to identify global insights: »the questions, methods, plausibilities and beliefs of philosophers originate within a temporal, social and cultural framework. And yet if they will philosophise, they always will try to arrive at transcultural insights« (9) – and it is these transcultural insights for which he seeks. Of course, we may immediately ask, how can we »achieve transcultural, globally valid insights or truths if our perceptions of the world – and the means to express them – are embedded in a particular context« (13)? To answer this he surveys three options prior to making his own proposal. »One way out of this dilemma, expounded by Hegel and Heidegger is giving previlege [sic!] to one language, which then is said to be exceptional.« (13) A second way is »to construct a method, … without relying on any tradition or cultural coinage« (13). These two methods – which we may call the privileged language approach and the a-contextual approach – are both eurocentric, and so Wimmer rejects them. A third way is ethnophilosophy, which privileges local philosophies. Here Wimmer examines in particular African proposals for ethnophilosophy, affirming the need for local philosophies and affirming some of their critiques of occidental philosophy (such as of Hegel's eurocentric reading of history). Yet in the end Wimmer also rejects ethnophilosophy, primarily because it is still a form of ›centrism‹ (whether Sino-centrism, Afro-centrism, Islamo-centrism, etc.), and thus unable to provide globally valid insights.

1. Is Intercultural Philosophy a New Branch or a New Orientation in Philosophy?

2. Perspectives of Cultural Identity

3. Cultural Centrisms and Tolerance in the Context of Intercultural Philosophy

4. The Role of Philosophy for A Global Culture

5. We are Shifting Borders – the Meaning of Internationality in Academia and Society

6. Universal Homeland or Interculturality as the Life Idea of a Global Culture
4 If none of these suffices, then we have a serious methodology problem: »Who is to judge the validity of an answer? There is no extraterrestrial, no extra-cultural intelligence whom we could expect to come and to decide between [competing philosophical projects]« (24). His answer, and thus his counter-proposal to the other three models, is polylogue philosophy. Polylogue is defined as the situation »that many persons, representing many philosophical traditions, go into discourse with each other on one [or more] topic or problem« (Note 21). This is opposed to bilateral dialogue, whereby two positions may discuss issues with each other, for Wimmer's concern is that two-way dialogue by itself is not enough to break our various centric patterns of doing philosophy – multiple participants and frameworks are needed for the task. Thus he calls his polylogue proposal »non-centrist,« whereby there »are influences from all sides to every tradition; everyone is interested in every other; all of the influences are working with equal intensity« (29). For example, supposing a polylogue is on »humanity,« the participating philosophers »ought to be ready and sufficiently informed, to explicate and to evaluate not only the connotations of such words as humanum or Menschheit, but also of muntu in the Bantu or ren in the Chinese language, as well as other relevant concepts« (32).
5 The purpose here is not simply an exercise in comparative philosophy – it is to gain universally valid insight. Thus polylogue will have a range of consequences, such as that »Relativity of viewpoints is the first lesson we learn by reading the stories of philosophy« (31), or that »dichotomic classifications can be heuristically deficient. Therefore, innovative forms and contents of periodisation, classification and interpretation can only be expected from an interaction of scholars with their different cultural backgrounds yet standing in equal relation to each other« (31). Nonetheless, even with polylogue, »We will have to continue using different languages to find and to express our ideas. All of these languages will have particularities; none will be completely adequate to what we are trying to think and to express. The game of differentiation and of definition will go on. We will never have the certainty that any of our expressions really hit the point, because as philosophers we will never have other means than our words to show what we mean, and all of these words will be rooted in certain, very particular cultural settings and experiences … At the same time, one does not have to recede in relativism.« (24)

The role of philosophy for a global culture

»This global culture is different from any one of the foregoing regional cultures including the western culture.«

Franz Martin Wimmer
6 This brings us to Wimmer's next major theme, namely his view that our age is »the beginning of a global culture« (75), and so philosophy must play a role in this emergence – indeed, two roles. First, philosophy »should provide methodological rules to prove our knowledge about cultures in general, and about the present situation of humanity in particular« (75). Second, philosophy should »discuss the contributions and values brought about by all regional traditional cultures of the past in order to make them known and applicable to our present problems« (75). In other words, the former makes culture an object of philosophy, and the latter addresses the function of historical knowledge in the field of philosophy.
7 Wimmer supports this rise of a global culture. In technology and economics, in forms of human settlement and transportation, in political organizations, and in the arts, he sees increasing tendencies to global uniformity of standards and practices, and hence an emerging global culture. Within this development, »philosophy can provide the methodological discussions, which can help to decide whether or not the very concept of a global culture is useful and applicable to our present situation. This is part of philosophy of science, namely, the discussion of basic terms and assumptions of theories describing the intellectual, economic, and cultural conditions of humankind« (87). And fortunately, these increasing tendencies (according to Wimmer) are not just occidental: for instance, »Political traditions not only from Western sources, but also from Asian and African past as well, are effective in building up these organizations« (83), such as the OAU, the European Union, the United Nations and its sub-organizations. Finally then, since philosophy »also has theory of value as one of its fields …A study should be presented, in co-operation with philosophers from all parts of the world which could show the human values developed in the different traditional cultures, their universality as well as their rootedness to certain historical conditions. It also will show their applicability in the formation of a just global society of the future« (87-88). There are many other aspects of Wimmer's book that warrant our attention, such as his examination of what it means to be culturally authentic, how to respond to cultural brokenness, and tolerance of centrisms.

Critical assessment

Franz Martin Wimmer:
Theses, Conditions, and Tasks for Interculturally Oriented Philosophy.
In: polylog 1 (2000):
internal linkArticle

Franz Martin Wimmer:
external linkWebsite
8 Some assessment is now in order. There is much of value in Wimmer's articles. »Wimmer's Rule« about well-formed philosophies should hang on every philosopher's office wall! He is right that the first lesson of polylogue is to see relativity in one's own beliefs that was not previously seen. Post-modernists will welcome his proposals for pluri-culturalist and hence self-relativising epistemology, yet he is certainly modernist in his desire to seek global verities, and it is this desire for global verities which results in his »non-absolute relativity« (my phrase, not his) – which will be decidedly criticized by some, although personally I agree with him on this. His six-fold typology of human identities is also very helpful (34-53).
9 On the other hand, three significant clarifications are needed. First, it is unclear why he is so supportive of the emerging global culture. He says, philosophy should provide categories and tools of critique, yet he is so enthusiastic about the emerging global culture that he provides no critique, nor warnings of such potential dangers as homogenization and hegemony; neither does he interact with any of the vast range of globalization literature. His support for global culture also appears to be in tension with his discussion of ›authentic cultural identity‹.
10 Second, what does he see as the metaphysical/ontological basis of the universal verities that he seeks? The answer to this question will affect the success of his polylogue proposal: polylogue does indeed provide the basis for better describing verities about humanity, that is, about subjective human experience and values, but will this method provide metaphysical verities? It might, but this verges on assuming epistemology-by-majority: what most philosophers believe across most cultures must be true. Yet cannot many people, even the majority across many cultures, be wrong? It seems that Wimmer excludes the possibility of self-communicative theism, yet, if a ›personal self-communicating Ultimate Reality‹ – God – is the basis for universal verities, polylogue as an epistemological method for discovering metaphysical verities may be inadequate. Through its effect of relativizing beliefs, polylogue rightly inculcates an attitude of humility (for which philosophers are not famous!); however, the epistemological effect of relativization (whether absolute or non-absolute relativization!) and the epistemological effect of discovery (i.e., discovering universal verities) are two different epistemological effects – and I suspect that polylogue is more effective for the former than for the latter.
11 Third, while Wimmer's book attends to issues of epistemology and method, it would be good to see his proposal in practice, that is, to read his interculturally formed ideas on specific topics in philosophy: e.g., humanity, cosmos, hermeneutics, ethics, aesthetics, etc. It would be in such topics as these that the value of his intercultural proposals would truly be seen. Nonetheless, there is much to appreciate in Wimmer's programmatic and provocative ideas.
polylog: Forum for Intercultural Philosophy 4 (2003).
Online: http://lit.polylog.org/4/rbc-en.htm
ISSN 1616-2943
external linkSatya Nilayam. Chennai Journal for Intercultural Philosophy 3 (2003), 107-113.
Author: Chris Barrigar, Chennai (India)
© 2003 Author & polylog e.V.
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