by Johanna Seibt ( © 2009)
1. In brief:
Daryush Shayegan is one of Iran’s most prominent comparative philosophers, cultural theorists, and literary writers. His work—written in French and Persian, translated into English, Arabic, Spanish, Turkish, German, and Italian—has received praise from scholars around the world. He is a specialist in Eastern metaphysics and Persian poetry, but also writes with unique scholarly breadth on the cultural history of the Muslim countries, India, Europe, China, Japan, and Latin America. He is widely known among thinkers West and East especially for his analyses of the cultural situation of contemporary Muslim societies. Shayegan argues that many cultural agents (both individuals and societies) currently experience deep cultural conflicts and live in a state of “cultural schizophrenia”. In Shayegan’s view, we need to acknowledge such cultural schizophrenias and overcome them gradually by intercultural dialogue, both at the social and individual level. In a globalized world societies and individuals no longer have simple, ready-made, and fixed cultural identities. In our current situation we should no longer speak of cultural ‘identities’ of cultural agents. Rather, we should conceive of cultural identification as the continuous process of an internal cultural dialogue–a dialogue among and within societies but also among and within individual citizens.
Daryush Shayegan (Persian: داریوش شایگان) was born in 1935 in Tehran. He went to school in Tehran and England, studied philosophy, political science, and Sanskrit in Switzerland and France, and received in 1968 his Doctorate in Philosophy from Sorbonne University at Paris, under the supervision of the orientalist Henri Corbin. From 1962 to 1980 he was professor of Indian Studies and Comparative Philosophy at Tehran University. In 1976 he founded the Iranian Centre for the Study of Civilizations at Tehran University, which he directed until 1979. Between 1981-1989 he was director of the Institute for Ismaili Studies in Paris, thereafter for several years editor-in-chief of the magazine Iramé in Washington. He lives in Paris and Tehran, where he currently runs his own publishing house.
Most of Shayegan’s over 100 academic publications are written in French but many are also translated into English, Arabic, Spanish, Turkish, German, or Italian. Among specialists in comparative philosophy and literature he is known for his work on cultural theory, Persian mysticism, Hinduism, Sufism, and Persian poetry. He also published poetry of his own and he received in 2004 the Prix Littéraire Européen (ADELF) bestowed by the Association of French Authors, for his French novel ‘Land du Mirage’. His analyses of the contemporary cultural situation of Muslim societies received broad attention from intellectuals West and East.
Daryush Shayegan was the first philosopher to recognize and promote the notion of dialogue as essential tool for a cultural theory that does not dodge the realities of the late 20th century. In 1977, more than a decade before mainstream Western philosophers even began to try to come to terms with the phenomenon of multicultural societies and conflicting ‘cultural identities’, Shayegan convened a conference on the possibility of a ‘Dialogue Between Civilizations’. The primary aim of the conference was to articulate the unique cultural experience of Iranian intellectuals at the cross-roads of Asian, Arab, and European culture. But the theoretic potential of the notion of a ‘dialogue of civilizations’ as a general model of interculturality for individuals and societies was immediately recognized and gained currency thereafter.
Shayegan received particular recognition for his eloquent analyses of the cultural experience of Muslim societies in the 20th century, whom he describes as caught in a “schizophrenic mentality”, glorifying historical tradition while simultaneously facing the hegemony of Western modernity. According to Shayegan, the only productive response to this and other experiences of internal cultural conflicts is to allow for “hybridization”. To explain this idea in simple terms, Shayegan recommends that in a globalized world citizens should view their ‘cultural identities’ no longer as a fixed set of values belonging to one single culture, but should view themselves as the ‘forum’ where values of several cultures interact: the cultural self has the unity of an internal intercultural dialogue.
The Global Dialogue Prize is awarded to Daryush Shayegan for his account of a dialogical cultural subjectivity. While Shayegan’s account is based on concrete analyses of the cultural experiences and intellectual developments in Islamic societies, the concept of a dialogical unity of cultural subjectivity has broad systematic significance as a replacement for the notion of ‘cultural identity’. The idea of ready-made cultural identities, which exacerbated social tensions in the multicultural societies of the 20th century, by now has become obsolete. In a world with increasing cultural interaction cultural agents need intercultural dialogue not only to understand each other, but also to understand themselves.
Crossroads of perspectives
As son of a Georgian mother and an Azar-i father, Daryush Shayegan’ may have experienced the problems and opportunities of cultural diversity from early on. In the course of a bi-cultural Persian-European education and academic career, he became ‘native’ in French and acquired English, German, Sanskrit, Latin, Arabic, and Turkish as second and third languages. At the Sorbonne he studied with the famous orientalist Henry Corbin, who (among other research agendas) anticipated Edward Said’s methodological concerns about the Western biases in oriental studies, and thus drew Shayegan’s attention to the particular difficulties of transcultural interpretations.
Daryush Shayegan belongs to the very small group of contemporary thinkers worldwide who command in-depth understanding of several of the cultural traditions of thought taken in their entirety, especially the traditions of Persian, Indian, and European thought. Shayegan’s exceptional scholarly breadth enabled him to produce the currently most perceptive, eloquent, and metaphilosophically sophisticated analysis of the cultural experience of Muslim societies in their encounter with Western thought. Western philosophers so far have discussed the ‘problem of multicultural societies’ mainly as a topic for social and political philosophy, as a question of rights and liberties; the question of how cultures and traditions of thought are affected by migration and globalization has rarely even been raised. Daryush Shayegan poses and answers this question, focusing in his illustrations on contemporary Iran, but presenting an account of cultural dynamics with wide historical and geographic scope.
Shayegan describes the cultural experience of ‘Eastern thinkers’ who in their encounter of ‘Western’ thought find themselves in the intersection of two fundamentally different cultural “paradigms of knowing and being in the world.” The two paradigms, which he calls the “traditional view” and the “view of modernity” are different in the radical sense that they are incommensurable—there is not overlap, their parts (concepts and practices) cannot be mapped onto or imported into another. Individuals and societies are thus caught in a “cultural schizophrenia” which must be understood and addressed as such to preserve social and international peace. In his best-known book, Le regard mutile (translated into English as Cultural Schizophrenia—Islamic Societies Confronting the West; also translated into Spanish and Turkish) Shayegan explains the reasons for the mutual misperceptions and distortions in ‘East-West’ cultural interactions, deriving his general points from a study of contemporary attempts to combine Islam and democracy, i.e., the religious contents of the Islamic tradition with a form of political discourse imported from Western modernity. These attempts of grafting one paradigm onto another create a “mutilated outlook”, since the content of the imported ideas is ahistorical and thus incomplete. In the given case, the ideas of modernity ( democracy, civil society) cannot be understood without their historical, genealogical context of European intellectual developments from the 17th century onwards. Moreover, it is only lived history that adjusts “psychic attitudes” or the “emotional content of beliefs” to changes in belief systems. Thus the program of ‘Islamic democracy’ consists in negotiating “two mutually repellent paradigms, one structuring the mutilated perceptions of the outlook [i.e., the political theory], the other conditioning the emotional content of beliefs.” (ibd. p. 50). Shayegan himself does not see much hope for this project (see Qu’est-ce qu’une Révolution religieuse?), at least as long as the diversity of the paradigms are underestimated.
Dialogue Among Civilizations
Scholarly dialogue across cultural traditions of thought is in Shayegan’s view the only way to overcome the specific experience of “cultural schizophrenia” among Muslim intellectuals as well as the problem of ‘multiculturalism’ in general. The proper reaction to the cultural tensions and conflicts that societies and individuals experience is precisely to sustain these tensions and to allow for the “hybridization” of cultures. Increased cross-cultural knowledge will help cultural agents to develop a kind of “nomadic thinking”, a liberation that results from admitting oneself to live in an “entre-deux” , at “cross-roads of several anthropological fields.” In the first instance Shayegan’s notion of dialogue thus pertains primarily to a configuration of cultural subjectivity: it is the inner dialogue of the cultural agent who “can speak in twenty tongues all at once.”
In a recent interview he recalls the active, cooperative spirit at the Iranian Center for the Study of Civilizations, which he founded in 1976 and directed until 1979: “During those years, many contracts were signed and all intellectuals of the day were invited to cooperate; Dariush Ashuri, Bagher Parham, Jamshid Arjomand and Shahrokh Meskub were some of those thinkers. Our goal was only to step in the path we had defined and we had no personal interest in the issue… Professor Izutsu and Uthman Yahya were going to heads of the Japan and Egypt branch of the institute and seminars were to be held. At those years, there were many intellectual institutes and organizations inside Iran with figures such as Farah-vashi, Shirvanlu, Ehsan Naraghi and Majid Tehranian collaborating with them…those activities had no political agenda and their progress depended on a strong bond between the intellectuals. I remember that for the library that today belongs to Humanities Research Center, we bought thirty-five thousand books in one year”. The Centre also published nearly 20 books in these three years and convened, in 1997, an international conference with the title “Does the Impact of Western Thought Allow for the Possibility of Real Dialogue between Civilizations?” In the opening speech to this conference Shayegan presents dialogue as a method that can be used to bring incommensurable paradigms into productive contact. “By ‘dialogue’ we mean communication and sympathy. By ‘sympathy’ we mean acceptance. Since only by accepting the other can we remain true to ourselves.”