DIALOGUE AMONG CIVILIZATIONS:
ITS MEANING AND PURPOSE
University of Notre Dame
It is for me a real pleasure and a great honor to present a lecture at the new Balvant Parekh Centre in Baroda. I regret that I was unable to be present at the formal inauguration of the Centre two months ago. But I had sent some inaugural remarks to my friend, Professor Thomas Pantham, and I understand that he delivered these remarks in my absence. Now it is my good fortune to deliver a kind of inaugural lecture post factum or after the fact.
The new Centre is called the Balvant Parekh Centre for General Semantics and Other Human Sciences. The phrase “other human sciences” refers especially to the so-called “Forum for Contemporary Theory” which has a long and distinguished history under the leadership of Professor Prafulla Kar and which is now integrated into the new Centre.
As I pointed out in my earlier “inaugural” remarks, one of the prominent features of the Forum has always been its inter-disciplinary and cross-cultural character, evident in its effort to bring together practitioners from different social and “human” disciplines and from different cultures and civilizations. This cross-disciplinary character is now strengthened by the integration of the “human sciences” with the fields of linguistics and general semantics.
It so happens that, in recent times, inter-disciplinary and cross-cultural studies have experienced an upsurge in many parts of the world. The reasons for this upsurge are not hard to discern. Surely, a main reason is the ongoing process of globalization, a process in which peoples, cultures, and civilizations are pushed closer and closer together and compelled to interact more and more directly—for good or ill. In this unfolding scenario with its steadily expanding horizons, traditional compartmentalized forms of knowledge—the so-called academic “disciplines”—are increasingly unable in their separation to grasp what is happening and thus are forced to interact closely with each other. Hence, what is dawning today on the global horizon are new learning experiences, or at least the opportunity of new learning experiences, of a cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural pedagogy. The basic question is whether we are willing to shoulder the task and burden of new forms of learning. I want to discuss the challenge under the label of a “dialogue among civilizations”—which is clearly a challenge not just for politicians, but also for ordinary people as well as practitioners of semantics and the human sciences.
This willingness to face this challenge cannot always be taken for granted. In fact, there are great obstacles standing in the way or obstructing such learning. The obstacles are political and economic; but often they are also cultural and religious. In 1993, not long after the dismantling of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, a leading American expert of international politics by the name of Samuel Huntington offered a new and gloomy prognosis. Although agreeing that the old ideological conflict that had fueled the Cold War was over, Huntington saw a new conflict emerging on the global horizon—what he called a “clash of civilizations.” Without claiming that national or ideological rivalries would entirely disappear, he noted a shift of focus to the broader civilizational level. As he wrote in a section devoted to the dawning “New Era in World Politics”: “The central distinction is [or will be] between the West as the hitherto dominant civilization and all the others which, however, have little if anything in common among them”—that is between the West and the “rest.” Although nation-states were likely to remain “important actors” in world affairs, their interests, associations, and conflicts—according to Huntington—were bound to be “increasingly shaped by cultural and civilizational factors.” This means that, despite the persistence of older rivalries, the conflicts that “pose the greatest dangers for stability” in the world today are those “between states or groups from different civilizations.”
Huntington’s prognosis was stark and provocative—and meant to be so. But was this an inevitable scenario, perhaps a “self-fulfilling prophecy”? Is there no possibility for cultures and civilizations to coexist peacefully, maybe even to learn from each other? Is there no room for pedagogy? The assumption that there is such a room lies behind another phrase which became prominent not long after Huntington’s prognosis: the so-called “dialogue of civilizations.” In 1998, the then President of Iran Mohammad Khatami issued the plea and stressed the need for a “dialogue among civilizations.” (As one may note, Iran at that time was still part of what in the West was called the “axis of evil.”) To give to his plea greater international prominence or resonance, President Khatami appealed to the United Nations to designate a coming year as the “Year of the Dialogue among Civilizations.” By a Resolution of the General Assembly this was in effect done and the year so designated was 2001. In the same year, the first day of January was designated by Pope John Paul II as the “World Day of Peace,” at which time the Pope urged people everywhere to foster dialogue between cultures for the sake of a “civilization of love.” As we know, 2001 was not very propitious to civilizational dialogue. On September 11, terrorists attacked and demolished the twin towers in New York causing a horrible blood bath. Two years later, a new war started between the West and a prominent country in the Muslim world: Iraq. Had Huntington been proven correct? Was his prognosis always bound to be correct or on target? An army of international political “realists” (so-called) are ready to answer this question in the affirmative.
But we, as educators and students of the human sciences, can we leave matters at this impass? Is it not our obligation to look for an alternative to bloodshed and mayhem, to privilege learning over killing, empathy and understanding over ignorance and hatred? To be sure, precisely as educators and students, we cannot avoid or dodge certain questions posed to us not only by political “realists” but also by well-meaning people friendly to learning. Among these questions are the following: What is “civilization” or what do we mean by this term? Next: What is “dialogue” and how can civilizations at all dialogue with each other? And finally: How can such dialogue lead to something good, say to human well-being and peace. I want to address these questions because their answers are certainly not self-evident or matters of course.
2. What is Civilization?
Regarding civilization, Plato can give us some clues or pointers. I am referring to his great dialogue The Republic. There Plato talks about the nature, meaning or purpose of the “city” (in Greek “polis”, in Latin “civitas”). The member of a city is a “citizen” (in Greek “polites,” in Latin “cives”). To live properly as a citizen requires the cultivation of civil or civic virtues which lead to “civility.” And here we have the root of “civilization.” So, being a citizen does not just mean to belong to a business association or a bowling club, but to be a member of a civilizing community. And what does this mean? Again Plato gives us a clue. In the Republic, Socrates and his friends propose to build a city (in speech or imagination) in order to find out what makes or goes into a city. They start from simple things: we need food, shelter, utensils; hence we need farmers, craftspeople, traders, and the like. Is the city now complete? Socrates does not think so. He says jokingly: this is almost like a “city for pigs”; it provides only for survival and self-satisfaction. What more is needed? Socrates now points to the deeper purpose of a city or human community: justice or moral goodness. To pursue justice we need to practice civil virtues; we need to civilize ourselves. So, the beginning of the city resides in material benefits, the end of the city in ethical, even spiritual benefits. Aristotle took over this distinction from Plato. He said: we enter the city in order to live or to survive, we remain in the city in order to live well (eu zen) or to live the “good life”—where the latter does not mean a life of luxury but a life of goodness. This same trajectory inhabits “civilization.”
But are these just old teachings, irrevelant or obsolete in our modern world? Another cue comes from the Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of the Indian independence movement in the last century. (And here, as you note, we are already taking some steps in a cross-cultural or inter-civilizational direction.) In one of his early writings called Indian Home Rule (Hind Swaraj), Gandhi devoted some sections to the discussion of “civilization.” (By the way, the book was written in 1909, and this year we celebrate the 100th anniversary of its publication.) In his book, Gandhi distinguishes between a bad or corrupt and a good or ethical civilization. In a bad or defective civilization, he writes, people “make bodily welfare the sole object of life”; and improvements in bodily welfare are considered advances in civilization. To give an example: “People in Europe today live in better built houses than they did a hundred years ago. This is considered an emblem of civilization. . . . Formerly, they wore skins, and used spears as their weapons. Now, they wear long trousers . . . and instead of spears, they carry with them revolvers containing five or more chambers.” If these were the signs of civilization, Gandhi wanted to have none of it. This kind of civilization, he complained, “takes note neither of morality nor of religion”; it “seeks to increase human bodily comforts, and fails miserably even in doing so.” There is, however, another kind which Gandhi calls “true civilization.” Such civilization, he says, is “that mode of conduct which points out to humans the path of duty. Performance of duty and observance of morality (or ethics) are convertible terms. To observe morality is to attain mastery over our mind and our passions. In so doing, we come to know ourselves. The Gujarati equivalent for civilization is ‘good conduct’.”
As one can see, although coming from different backgrounds, the accounts of Plato and of Gandhi are entirely compatible. The one (Socrates/Plato) speaks in Greek, the other (Gandhi) in Gujarati. But both equate civilization with civility and goodness. Before proceeding I want to add some further considerations. “Civilization” as a civilized life in the city does not stand in a vacuum or by itself; it is always surrounded by, and depends on the support of, other factors. In my book Dialogue among Civilizations (of 2002), I point to (what I call) two important “corollaries” or supplements of civilization: these are nature and the divine. As we know, life in the city depends upon, and needs to be sustained by, a crucial substrate of the city: the country, the earth, or (more broadly) nature. As we learn today with growing insistence, civilizational “progress”—if unchecked—can lead and will lead to the steady subjugation and ultimate spoliation or destruction of our natural habitat. Hence, we are faced today with an urgent ecological problem—a problem crystallized in the question: is civilizational or technological progress “sustainable” in the long run? Differently phrased how can human civilization be sustained in the face of looming ecological disaster?
Clearly what is needed here are ethical and spiritual restraints. This leads me to my second supplement or corollary: our relation to the “divine.” By the latter term, I do not mean any religious dogma or sectarian doctrine. I simply mean a human acknowledgement of our finitude, our limitations, of the fact that we are sustained in life by something we did not create or fabricate or call into being. Reference to the divine here simply means that we are not the lords of the universe and this world but only custodians or care-takers. As custodians we have to be cautious that we do not overreach ourselves, that we keep in good order all the dimensions of this world—including nature, the biosphere, and our own habitat as a sustainable civilization. As custodians, we must also do our best to prevent inter-civilizational conflict, the “clashes” of civilization which might lead to a nuclear holocaust. Here we are back to Plato and Gandhi and the ethical or spiritual task of civilization. To repeat Gandhi’s formulation: civilization is “that mode of conduct which points out to humans the path of duty.”
I turn now to the next question concerning dialogue. What is dialogue? Now clearly, it does not just mean chit-chat or empty-chatter; nor does it mean simply passing a piece of information from one person to another. What is lacking in these exchanges is real engagement or personal involvement. In a genuine dialogue, by contrast, one person opens himself/herself up to another person who reciprocates in kind—with the result that in both persons something happens: a deepening of insights, a correction of mistaken convictions, perhaps a transformation. Plato’s dialogues, with Socrates at the center, are all transformative dialogues. Gandhi’s book Indian Home Rule is also written in the form of a dialogue (between a “reader” and an “editor”). A good insight into the nature of dialogue can be found in the work of the Brazilian thinker Paolo Freire, well known for his books A Pedagogy of the Oppressed and A Pedagogy of the Heart. As he writes at one point: “How can I really dialogue if I always impute ignorance to others and never perceive my own?” This means dialogue requires the sacrifice of self-certainty and self-righteousness and thus a willingness to learn.
The best witness regarding the nature of dialogue, however, is a German philosopher by the name of Hans-Georg Gadamer who is sometimes called the philosopher of dialogue. Gadamer deserves the label “philosopher of dialogue” because, for him, dialogue is not marginal or accidental but crucial and even central in human life. In order to live, he argues, we need to eat, drink, sleep; but in order to live a properly human life, we need more: we need to “understand”—understand what is happening, who we are, who others are, what they are doing or saying to us. Now, to gain understanding we need to ask questions: what is the point, what is the meaning? And this is the beginning of dialogue where we not only question or interrogate, but listen and ponder. For Gadamer, we dialogue always: with ourselves, with fellow human beings, with nature, and even with God or the divine. There is always a search for meaning and understanding. From Gadamer’s perspective, studying and reading books is also an enterprise of dialogue. For instance, if I want to understand The Republic, I enter into a dialogue with Plato. I ask: what does your text mean, and the text answers back—in a way which at first I perhaps do not fully comprehend; hence I ask some more. Just a while ago, I offered an interpretation, my understanding of Plato’s Republic, saying that, in my reading, it provides a guidepost toward civility and justice. From here, I can ask some more detailed questions (about justice, civility, goodness).
In order for dialogue to bear fruit—and this becomes important especially when we turn to inter-civilizational dialogue—we must be neither too passive nor too active or self-assertive. In a way, we need to find a balance or midpoint (which is the midpoint of justice). In dealing with another person or an unfamiliar text, we must not assume that we already know or understand everything and then simply impose or inflict this spurious knowledge or prejudice on the other person or the text. To proceed in this way means to overpower the other, to subjugate the other person or the text to our will. Hence, we have to be more patient, more reticent, almost passive; we need to open ourselves up to a new experience. But, of course, if we remain entirely passive, nothing is going to happen. We cannot expect the other person or a text to tell us explicitly what she or the text means (a text does not interpret itself). We have to ask the question of meaning. Hence the effort of understanding asserts itself; it comes to life—it is life. But, of course, that effort does not come to rest or reach its goal quickly. We still have to listen and remain attentive to allow a further deepening or transformation of our understanding. We know this in great works of art—which we can never exhaust. We know this in a text of Plato—which we can read and read again, and always find new unexpected levels or meaning. And we know it in love—when we experience the unfathomable inexhaustibility of the other person.
But what has all this to do with the “dialogue among civilizations”? Can we simply transfer the notion of dialogue between individuals or between readers and texts to the level of civilizations? Here, some people are liable to balk and refuse to go along. How—they ask—can civilizations dialogue? Are human civilizations not big and complex entities which have evolved in history over a long period of time? Moreover, they are surely not uniform things, but exhibit many different strands, different cultural, religious, and linguistic strata. How can such entities dialogue, and who can presume or is entitled to speak for them? These are weighty objections which should not be taken lightly. Let me attempt to delineate a possible meaning of the phrase. For me, the phrase does not mean that huge entities called “civilizations” come together and dialogue with each other. Nor do I wish to restrict the phrase to an encounter between elites—say, the encounter between leading representatives of world religions and cultural communities (for example, the Pope and the Dalai Lama). For me, dialogue among civilizations means an encounter among people, ordinary people. In our time of relentless “globalization,” people from different cultural, religious, and linguistic backgrounds are increasingly pushed closer and closer together. Moreover, in our “information age,” people of diverse backgrounds are increasingly exposed—through the media, the internet, and otherwise—to initially unfamiliar ideas, customs, and ways of life. Being thus exposed, they are liable to ask themselves: what do these ideas, teachings, ways of life mean? How can I understand them, and how should I situate myself toward them? And here we are back in the domain of dialogue, of questioning, listening, and seeking to understand. Such dialogue can happen today inside a given group, community, or nation—we may call it an intra-civilizational dialogue. (A prominent intra-civilizational dialogue in the West is the debate over the meaning of “modernity.”) But it can also happen, and happens with increasing frequency, across borders and across vast distances.
For me, civilizational dialogue is basically an educational or learning enterprise designed to counteract or overcome ignorance, ill will, and prejudice. It is an attempt to familarize people living in a given cultural tradition with the customs, beliefs, and living conditions of people inhabiting other cultures or parts of the world. Dialogue in this sense is very different from, and even radically opposed to, “monologue,” that is, one-sided propaganda; we must again find a mid-point between questioning and listening. The importance of civilizational dialogue was well recognized by Hans-Georg Gadamer (whom I mentioned before). As he writes at one point: “To live with the other—this basic human task applies to the micro- as well as the macro-level. Just as each of us learns to live with the other in the process of individual maturation, a similar learning process holds true for larger communities, for nations and cultures.” The basic goal here again is to find a balance between interrogation or exploration and the appreciation and recognition of differences. In his words: “Where the goal is not [unilateral] mastery or control, we are liable to experience the difference of others precisely against the backdrop of our own pre-judgments. The highest and most elevated aim we can strive for in this context is to partake in the other, to share the other’s integrity.” Given the enormous potential of destruction looming or accumulated in our world today, Gadamer assigned a particular importance to dialogue on the macro-level. In fact, he argued, “the future survival of humankind” may well depend on the proper cultivation of cross-cultural understanding—more particularly on “our readiness not to utilize the immense resources of power and technical efficiency [available in some parts of the world] but to pause in front of the other’s integrity—the integrity of nature as well as that of historically grown cultures of peoples and countries.”
4. What is Dialogue Good for?
As can be seen, just as ordinary dialogue, dialogue among civilizations is not just empty chatter or chit-chat, but serves a deeper purpose: the purpose of “civilizing” humanity, by guiding us to higher levels of civility, justice, and ethical conduct. Here we recall Gandhi’s notion of genuine or “true civilization,” and Plato’s vision of the deeper purpose of the “city.” What emerges here is another meaning of “globalization”: not just the globalization of the market, the globalization of information and technology, but the globalization of learning, the cultivation of a global civility animated by a sense of justice and ethical standards. As one should note, these processes cannot simply be collapsed. In contrast to the globalization of the market and technology, globalization of learning takes cultural and linguistic differences seriously (without supporting the idea of cultural relativism). This leads me back to the occasion of this lecture: the inauguration of a Centre devoted to the study of semantics and the human sciences.
As I mentioned at the beginning, the human sciences today are divided along disciplinary lines (psychology, anthropology, sociology, political science, history, literature and the arts). They are also divided along cultural lines in the form of self-contained so-called “area studies.” Little interaction occurs across these boundaries. In the case of cultural area studies, some practitioners even maintain the “incommensurability” of cultures and the ultimate untranslatability of semantic language games. A basic aim or purpose of the “dialogue of civilization” idea is to transgress these boundary lines—without, however, submerging all differences in a uniform homogeneity. Here we have to remember the balance required in genuine dialogue: to be active and passive, to be inquiring and receptive. This is at the heart of what I called the “globalization of learning”: a learning without hegemonic domination or subjugation, a pedagogy which allows for mutual transformation. What undergirds and sustains this aim is the vision of a shared cosmopolitan civility, a vision oriented toward “truth” and the “good life” respecting the diversity of life-forms.
By way of conclusion, I want to indicate how we can learn cross-culturally, taking as my examples the cultures of South and East Asia. In my view, the study of East Asia, and especially of the long history of Chinese culture, is important precisely as a guidepost to civility. Despite episodes of brute power politics (which you can find in all civilizations), the Chinese tradition has an eminently redeeming quality: the legacy of Confucian ethical teachings. As I see it, Confucian ethics is not individualistic or ego-centric but rather based precisely on interaction, mutuality or relationship. The famous “five relations” in Confucian ethics underscore this interactive (perhaps dialogical) feature: the relation between husband and wife, between parents and children, between older and younger siblings, between ruler and ministers, and between friends. To be sure, the character of these relations needs to be reinterpreted today, to guard against certain hierarchical overtones. In our contemporary democratic or democratizing age, I think it is chiefly the relation between friends—reconceived as relations between citizens—which needs to be emphasized and strengthened. Seen in this civic light, the relation between friends is particularly civilizing and a yardstick for civility. (Aristotle, following Plato, defined the city as a kind of friendship or community of friends.)
A famous teaching of Confucius concerns the nature of “man” or what it means to be a properly human being. The key term here is “jen”, variously translated as humaneness, goodness, kindness. Here is a statement about “jen”; you find it in Lün Yu or the Analects (6:28): “If you want to establish yourself [be valued], then seek to establish [value] others. If you wish to advance, then advance others. From what is near to you seize the analogy [that is, treat your fellow-being as yourself]—this is jen’s way.” And here is another saying: “Fan Chi asked about ‘jen’ (or goodness). The Master said: In daily life courteous; in business diligent; in relationships loyal. These precepts, even among barbarians, may not be set aside.” And here another one for good measure: “The Master said: A great person understands what is right; a small person understands what is profitable [to him or her].” The great Confucian scholar and expert, Herbert Fingarette, offered this comment: “If we examine the core of the Analects, we quickly find that the topics and chief concepts pertain primarily to our human nature, to comportment and relationships.” If we pay attention to these central topics and concepts, then deeper insights come quickly to the fore. In the words of Fingarette again: “It is in this beautiful and dignified, shared and open participation with others who are ultimately like oneself that a human being realizes himself/herself. Thus, the perfect human community—the Confucian analogue to Christian brotherhood—becomes an inextricable part, the chief aspect, of divine worship.”
We in the modern West have traveled quite far from this conception of shared humanity or humaneness. During the last few centuries, people in the West have become increasingly individualistic and self-centered; under the aegis of the modern market, human and social life is increasingly governed by the profit motive and the striving for personal wealth and power. What the exclusive cult of the profit motive can lead to, we experience today in the global economic “meltdown.” In this situation, we certainly have a lot to learn from Confucian ethics. But we can also learn a great deal from the traditions of South Asia, especially from the teachings of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. As we know, the Gita was especially dear to the Mahatma Gandhi—although he amplified its teachings with insights culled from Christainity, Jainism, Buddhism, and Western literature. Here are some lines from the Gita:
Even as the unwise work selfishly
in the bondage of selfish works,
Let the wise person work unselfishly
for the good of all the world (3:25).
Those who ever follow my teachings
and who have faith and goodwill,
find through pure work
their freedom (3:31).
And here is a passage from what is sometimes called the Gita’s “mahavakya” and which Gandhi was particularly fond to recall:
When a person surrenders to me
all desires that come to the heart,
and by the grace of God finds divine joy,
his/her soul has indeed found peace (2:55).
This is “bahmasthithi,” O Arjuna.
[the meeting of human and the divine] (2:72).