Introducing the Global Dialogue Prize

by Jesper Garsdal ( © 2010)

Distinguished laureate, members of the award committee, founding members of the Global Dialogue Project Group, esteemed guests.

Globalization creates new opportunities and new challenges. The most important current challenge of globalization consists in finding productive ways to deal with the diversity of cultural and moral values. For it is needs and values that motivate us to act. The basic physiological and psychological needs of people around the world are very similar: nutrition, shelter, healthcare, security, privacy, friendship. The needs of the mind, self-esteem, social recognition, self-actualization display greater cross-cultural variation, since it is here where cultural and moral values come into play. People of different cultures disagree on the relative significance of individual freedom, honor, harmony, equality, honesty, respect, attunement with nature, technological control, scientific knowledge, faith, to name just a few basic values. Each culture has its own value system that provides existential orientation for the members of this culture, a recipe for the good life as it were. We cannot ignore the differences in the value systems of different cultures. There are practical reasons for this. Global tasks—as, for example, the mitigation of climate change—require concerted action: we need to find out how to motivate joint solutions that cannot be motivated by economic interest alone. But, much more importantly, for us members of Western culture—at its current stage of historical development—there are moral reasons for why we cannot ignore the profound cross-cultural differences in value systems. It is an essential part of our system of morality to believe in the moral authority of the individual and thus we need to acknowledge (though not endorse of course) alternative answers to the question of what constitutes human flourishing, social and personal well-being, or, as philosophers say, eudaimonia, the ‘happy life’. At the age of globalization, given the mentioned global tasks, this moral command of recognizing differences in existential wisdom loses its theoretical,  ‘academic’ character and becomes a concrete research assignment. If our local practices have global effects, we cannot be oblivious to how our practices could be coordinated with the practices of those we affect.

The question of how can we coordinate practices that are driven by different value systems (or better: value horizons) has given rise to so-called intercultural value studies. There are many occasions for intercultural encounter—we travel, there is encounter at home due to migration. But these encounters do not necessarily reach very deep. Explicit understanding of different cultures values and existential wisdom requires patient inquiry of the cultural and in particular intellectual history of several cultures. This is so because the questions regarding the deepest aspects of human existence, —to use Kant’s famous formulation—the questions of “what can I know”, “what should I do” and “what can I hope for” have created answers that can only be understood from within the context of their development in a given intellectual tradition. To use a bit of philosophical jargon, the value systems of different cultures are frequently incommensurable: one cannot compare the single components of each system. Even if we translate certain Chinese or Indian terms as ‘attunement’ or ‘knowledge’, these terms carry there a different meaning since they are embedded in a different tradition of thought.

Philosophers search for existential wisdom – after all philo-sophia means: the philein, the being-directed-towards sophia, wisdom. The investigation of values and existential insights is thus a core activity of philosophy in the Western world. But philosophy is an activity that is taking place and has taken place for 3500 years outside the Western world. In the age of globalization, in the 21st century philosophy everywhere must have the ambition to acknowledge its global presence.  Philosophers everywhere should have the ambition to recognize the Other sort of philosophy outside of one’s own tradition of thought. This ambition could perhaps take the form of a global joint search for and love of Sophia, “Wisdom” in its different apparitions. During the 20th century philosophers around the world became increasingly aware of the need for such a new form of philosophy. The well-known specialist in comparative history of ideas, J.J. Clarke described three phases in this development: a first phase, in which it was presumed that the same methods of Western philosophy could easily be related to other philosophical traditions in so-called ‘world philosophy’, a second phase, where one focused on comparing ideas in different traditions of thought, and the third and current phase, where philosophers address interpretational difficulties head-on and develop new methodologies that can generate understanding across different knowledge paradigms, methodologies that span out a space in-between cultures, a terra nullis   as Raimundo Panikkar called it, the “no mans land” of intercultural philosophy. The name for one such a method to enter the space in-between cultural traditions is ‘intercultural dialogue’.

To engage in intercultural dialogue—again, in the very specific sense of a method that engages incommensurable value horizons–is difficult for several reasons. Dialogue requires, first, that the participants in general should be willing to listen to other views than their own; second, participants of a dialogue should be intellectually and existentially willing and able to internalize the dialogue in the sense of giving other views space within oneself, of letting other views resonate within one’s own horizon of understanding. This may be best explained with regards to interreligious dialogue, one particular variety of intercultural dialogue. As Raimundo Panikkar one of the pioneers in intercultural philosophy in relation to interreligious dialogue has put it, interreligious dialogue only happens, when it becomes intra-religious dialogue. Intercultural thinkers let themselves consciously become an arena in which different forms of existential cultural values are given voice and play out their role, thereby leading to new creative polyphonic expressions of spirit. This sort of philosophy is demanding, but at the same time it extends one’s understanding of oneself as a dialogical or hybrid self. A common characteristic between intercultural thinkers and intellectuals like Panikkar, Nishida, Izutsu, Borges, Corbin and today’s laureate, to mention a few giants in intercultural thought, is precisely that they are able to sustain this internal creative tension.

Intercultural thinkers are always situated in a historical context. The dialogical engagement of different traditions of thought thus is always situated and from a certain perspective. This explains why intercultural dialogue as method moves beyond relativism. The relativist claims that there are many value systems that are equally valid, assuming a fictitious external standpoint and pretending that one cannot be in two value system at the same time. In contrast, the method of intercultural dialogue allows for dialogical selves, allows for a self to be in several value systems at the same time, and to relate to them from a certain historically conditioned perspective. Dialogue is always a perspectival ‘in-between’. Dialogue is not out to deny differences or smoothen over differences—it uses differences to gain a better understanding of its own perspective. Of course, intercultural dialogue not only affirms and explores differences of traditions of thought but often discovers similarities and communalities. But the experience of such communalities is far away  from the postulates of any abstract universalism. There is no easy route to ‘Global Ethics’ –we cannot, as Western philosophers in the phase of the ‘Enlightenment’ or ‘modernity’ once thought, simply go and see what we have in common and can all agree on. People of different cultures may reason differently and the cultural status of reason itself differs. To be sure, Western ideas have had an immense influence globally for several reasons, from colonialism to economic globalization, and there are many insights, especially in political philosophy, that have been attractive elsewhere. But it is now high time that Western philosophers acknowledge that there is a multiplicity of traditions of thought, and accordingly also a multiplicity of encounters with the Western ideas, such as the idea of liberal democracy. Just as attempts to engage Eastern ideas by Western philosophers have brought inspiring results—Heidegger is a prime example—so it might be important and inspiring to follow the perspectival reception of Western ideas in non-Western contexts. For example, there may be other models of democracy than those we have developed in the West. To restate, there is no easy route to global ethics beyond the process of increasing mutual understanding—comparing how Western and Eastern philosophers view Western Enlightenment vis-à-vis Ibn Sina and Suhrawardi’s view on the relation between East and West and the light of wisdom would be a first step.

So far I have been talking as though intercultural dialogue, the method of intercultural value theory, is something that is performed by an individual scholar. But of course the internal dialogue of the individual intercultural thinker must be embedded in an external dialogue between intercultural thinkers of different traditions. This was the original impetus for the “dialogue of civilizations” that Daryush Shayegan called for in 1977. The Global Dialogue Prize aims to continue this initiative, which has been taken up by various institutes for intercultural dialogue around the world. The Global Dialogue Prize is carried by an informal network of international scholars in intercultural thought and related areas and will, we hope, further extend this network. These scholars do not agree in their personal or professional convictions, but they agree on two principles that Mahatma Ghandi has particularly well formulated:

“Honest differences are often a healthy sign of progress”-

“Be the Change you want to see in this world”.