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Some philosophical aspects of cultural globalisation --

with special attention to Mall's intercultural hermeneutics (English version)

Wim van Binsbergen

[ rough draft translation ]
Dutch version is also available
© 1999 Wim van Binsbergen

paper prepared for the Dutch-Flemish Day of Philosophy (theme ‘globalisation’)
30 October 1999, Catholic University Tilburg, Philosophical Faculty;
the original Dutch version was published in the Proceedings of this conference


1. Introduction: towards a philosophy of globalisation?

From the early 1990s the topic ‘globalisation’ has seen an enormous expansion, first in economics and soon also in the social cultural sciences. That today a conference on the topic is held by philosophers is almost a break-through: philosophers have largely ignored the topic. If one searches the Internet for the combination of ‘philosophy’ and ‘globalisation’, using any of the usual search machines, one can expect only a meagre harvest; considering that philosophy is in general well represented on that medium, this appears to be a reliable indication. One hit would be the website of former Dutch prime minister Ruud Lubbers, now professor of globalisation studies; in articulating the philosophical aspects of globalisation is does not proceed beyond Popper and Teilhard de Chardin, neither of whom use the word ‘globalisation’ in their works.[1] Already in 1988 Herra came with a ‘Kritik der Globalphilosophie’.[2] More recently Paulin Hountondji appealed to members of African cultures to rise in protest against the globalisation process.[3] In the same year Richard Rorty honoured a recent South American collective volume on globalisation studies wit the following frivolous characterisation of the phenomenon, and to boot one which entirely concentrates on the economic dimension of globalisation ignoring the social cultural dimension:

‘ that the financing of business enterprise is a matter of drawing upon a global pool of capital, so that enterprises in Belo Horizonte or in Chicago are financed by money held in the Cayman Islands by Serbian warlords, Hong Kong gangsters, and the kleptocrat presidents of African republics, there is no way in which the laws of Brazil or the US can dictate that money earned in the country will be spent in the country, or money saved in the country invested in the country.’[4]

                        In addition to this bad example I can see a number of reasons for the philosophers’ reticence vis-à-vis globalisation. In the first place the theoretical status of the concept of globalisation was initially so poor that the concept was distrusted for being merely a pretext for the raising of research funds. Secondly, North Atlantic philosophy is still characterised by a certain myopia; hence it only hesitantly dares to address other problematics than those directly derived from the North Atlantic, urban, industrialised, contemporary society. Except for a handful of intercultural and comparative philosophers, most philosophers feel literally ill at home in the field of globalisation. For even though globalisation can be conceived, to a considerable extent, as the world-wide penetration -- in principle conformably recognisable -- of precisely that type of North Atlantic society, the globalisation process also entails creative responses in ‘the South’, as well as the penetration of cultural forms into the North Atlantic part of the world, from the South in its turn. A third, crucial point is that in many respects philosophers have not been lagging behind but have spearheaded the identification of and the reflection upon themes which are now central in the globalisation process. E.g. the conceptualisation of the concept of time in Internet, as a major technological context for globalisation, leans heavily on theories of post-phonocentric time as formulated, decades ago, by Derrida and Rorty.[5] A large part of the problematic which now is addressed under the heading of globalisation, has been explored for a much longer time, and much more profoundly, by philosophers, under such headings as identity, pluralism, relativism, media, postmodernity, the consumption society, comparative and intercultural philosophy, the end of the western construction of subjectivity, the philosophy of information and communication.

                        Philosophy is the dialogical development of a special language which expresses, in an innovative manner, aporias of the human experience in the philosopher’s own historical situation (although such expression usually include partial references to other times and other places). Philosophy thus roots is a concrete spatio-temporal collective situation, whence it derives its empirical impetus and touchstones. Whether ‘globalisation’ will turn out to be a fashionable sham problem (as Rorty seems to suggest), or whether on the contrary it will turn out to sum up one of the core problems of our times, depends on the empirical answer to the question as to the scope of the qualitative and quantitative recent changes which are subsumed under the heading of globalisation. The empirical research of globalisation is obviously not a the philosopher’s task, but meanwhile a spate of recent empirical research did demonstrate that globalisation does indeed entail profound changes and has far reaching effects.


2. Aspects of globalisation

In the first instance, globalisation was encountered as transnational movements of capital along electronic media. Because a recent transformation of the capitalist mode of production is the dominant context of contemporary globalisation, the economic dimension remains of the greatest importance even though we choose to concentrate, in the rest of the present argument, on the social and cultural aspects of globalisation.

                        We could define[6] globalisation as the social elaboration of the technological reduction -- brought about towards the end of the twentieth century of the North Atlantic era -- to practically zero, of time and place as limiting factors in human communication. In this way globalisation means a profound transformation of the contemporary experience:

the panic of space

the new home is nowhere, the new boundary is situational and constructed, the new identity is performative (multiculturality!); the new other is -- as a migrant, an applicant for refugee status, a fellow-European, a fellow world citizen, a non-co-religionist, as someone who is somatically specially different, as a disembodied part in electronic communication - the uninvited messenger of globalisation. The construction of identities around ethnicity and culture is one of the most important phenomena in the contemporary world, as an expression of the need -- constantly increasing all over the world -- for subjective self-definition.

the panic of time

discontinuity vis-à-vis the recent past, but especially the collapse of the spatial frameworks (the family, the work floor, the neighbourhood, the community, the country) within which, under the previous technologies of the past, a person’s activities were practically confined as a context for the experience and for the budgeting of time, and therefore an embedding for the creation of values and meaning

the panic of language

the specific language recognised as one’s own provided the communicative embedding for the many meaning-carrying ‘homes’ constructed under previous technologies so as to exist side by side; the contemporary assumption of the self-evident convertibility between language domains,[7] coupled with the erosion of each domain by the annihilation of its spatio-temporary technological conditions, produces a tension between meaninglessness versus the deliberate construction of distinctive new domains.

rebellion against old inequalities

more than ever before the globalisation process has brought together a multitude of reflexively conscious, and militant, identities within one and the same political space. A central bone of contention there is the mutual relationship between partial worlds: is that relationship co-ordinative, sub-ordinative, evolutionary, based on class exploitation? The raison d’être of the Black Athena debate, Afrocentrism, politically radical post-modern theory,[8] is that these expression propagate models deviating from the dominant Eurocentric hierarchical (or hegemonic) model.

the new object

the subject - as the historical result of relations of production within a limited horizon confined by previous technologies - dissolves in the consumption of commodified objects, whose industrial aesthetics canalises desire if such desire happens to be gratified, and stirs up desire if left without gratification.[9]

virtualisation[10] of the experience

man-machine interaction, and man-machine-man interaction, are rapidly replacing the older technologies of direct bodily contact with one’s surroundings and with other people

the new inequality

omnipresence and immediacy of action (once divine attribute) have become the technological power instruments of a minority (globally under North Atlantic hegemony, but also -- at a more local scale -- internally, within the North Atlantic society itself); hence the power inequalities which characterised late capitalism (labour/capital, citizen/state, colony/motherland, young/old. woman/man, ignorant/educated) are compressed into contradictions between (a) those who anonymously control and dictate the technology; (b) the powerless but privileged users of that technology, and (c) the globally predominant mass, concentrated in the South, of people who are excluded. The globalisation process is thus the expression of fundamental contradictions in the world today, mirroring a crucial struggle for power.

the new body

globalisation goes hand in hand with a changing concept of the person; and especially of the body: as a locus of the experience of freedom in regard to the older inequalities summed up above, but also as a local of cultural distinction through consumption, and thus as the condition for the surreptitious installation of the new inequalities


Previous technologies of communication and information (from the footpath and the face-to-face conversation, to taking drums, horse riding and the sailing ship) constructed narrow horizons, which were soon to be breached by newer technologies. This is a process as old as humanity itself. Every successive technological innovation had as a potential or actual implication the reduction of the cost of time and space. Therefore many forms of proto-globalisation can be trace in the millennia which lie behind us, until round about 3000 BCE we lose track. Such forms include imperial states; promissory notes, cheques and bonds amounting to a complete separation between increasingly virtualised circulation and actual production; trade networks and cultic networks which may encompass many social cultural local contexts even though in most other respects these local contexts may have be very different from one other. However, under these older technological conditions space and time continued to exact a heavy tax. Characteristic of the latest few decades only is the reduction of space and time to practically zero, the massive communication at near light speed where information and electronic commands are involved, at speeds of around 1000 km/hr where persons and material goods are concerned. This is why we are justified to reserve the time ‘globalisation’ in the narrower sense to our time and age.


3. An invitation to philosophising

For philosophy the developments around globalisation mean more than just a handful of new questions to be approached by the time-honoured methods of the discipline. For these developments undermine the very position from which philosophising can take place. Also philosophy displays the characteristics of previous technologies, since it is a form of intersubjective language-based communication, typically using one specific language for each distinct communication event, and it does so within a self-evident collective home (the faculty, the school, the movement, the main stream, the specific continental tradition, of philosophy) which identifies both by demarcation in space and by (none too extensive) continuity over time. Such concepts as the philosophising subject, the I, meaning, truth, presuppose a home, which is being undermine by the relativistic awareness of the cultural constructedness of that home. Globalisation confronts us with the overwhelming plurality of homes, none of which is entitled any more to claim absolute validity, even though they may claim such absolute validity more eloquently and forcibly than ever (Christian and Islamic fundamentalism, human rights, natural science.).

                        An important question in all this is the question after the nature of the distinct parts out of which, under conditions of globalisation, the global whole of human experience might be constituted. The general assumption is that we are dealing here with a plurality of cultures. In my recent Rotterdam inaugural lecture[11] I have argued at length that cultures do not exist in the sense of discrete, bounded units which are closed onto themselves and which produce a total field of life. In stead what is involved is a plurality of overlapping cultural orientations, in such a way that each person is always involved in a multiple of such orientations at the same time, while none of these orientations coincides with only one society or only one territory, many of them having a very wide distribution in space and even in time. Contemporary conditions of globalisation have brought out more than ever the fact that no cultural situation in homogeneous, and that cultural specificity can only occur thanks to effective boundary management against the inroads of a global field of cultural alternatives. Nonetheless one is justified to distinguish as least as many distinct domains of signification as there are distinct languages available within the globalised world field.

                        After our kaleidoscopic introduction of globalisation, this lead to the central philosophical question of the present argument. The globalisation process presupposes a plurality of domains which have been separately constructed and which have been internally structured by processes of signification which are predominantly embedded in language. Within a shared social political field intensive communication is continuously brought about. The structuring of each of these domains is highly specific in cultural and linguistic respect. Then how is it possible that intercultural knowledge is produced at all, and to boot in the language of only one of the languages involved in the intercultural encounter.

                        We shall consider this question in the light of the intercultural hermeneutics as developed by the German-Indian philosopher Mall. [12]


4. Mall’s intercultural hermeneutics

No misunderstanding should arise about the stakes of this review. I chose Mall – who in Germany occupies a position which my illustrious predecessor occupied in The Netherlands in the first of the 1990s: that of the leading intercultural philosopher – because Mall’s approach of intercultural hermeneutics offers the greatest promise. Both as an intercultural philosopher and as an empirical social anthropologist I realise only too well the seriousness of the problems with which these colleagues are struggling. If I bring to bear on the argument Mall’s personal situation, it is because anthropologists – in a manner rather different from philosophers, who find the argument ad hominem distasteful – have learned to view intercultural knowledge production as a personal struggle with the total mobilisation of personal identities. Elsewhere[13] I have indicated that I certainly do not consider the anthropological mediation as superior to the intercultural philosophical mediation. But let us simply admit that here we are dealing with one of the greatest problems of our times – we can simply not afford the risk of obscuring underlying complexities and contradictions simply for the sake of social decorum.

                        Like most intercultural philosophers, Mall appears to subscribe to the apparently self-evident postulate of humanity as subdivided in a manageable number of cultures each of which are assumed to be unproblematically situated in time and space. For Mall, such cultures are the units between with the ‘understanding’ has to be achieved.

                        Mall begins his argument on intercultural hermeneutics full of hope and expectation. Clearly he does not rule out the possibility of intercultural understanding – and should we not take him himself as a clear proof, as an Indian with a Cologne doctorate (1963) and a professorial chair in Germany? Mall appeals to the development of the hermeneutic tradition from the 17th century (of the North Atlantic era) onwards, and stresses a type of hermeneutic model

‘das die Einsicht ‘‘Wir alle sind Menschen’’ ernster nimst, als es je geschehen is.’[14]

In passing we note that it is probably only under very special – but still to be specified -- new conditions that, as Mall says, the fellow-humanity of the other may be taken more seriously than ever; especially now, at the end of the twentieth century, which has seen far more massive wars, genocide, exclusion, organised interethnic and intercultural hatred than ever before, these conditions are not self-evident. Here the important thing is to tolerantly acknowledge that the other differs from that which one considers one’s own:

‘Die Theorie einer offenen Hermeneutik geht von einen Erkenntnisbegriff aus, der das zu Verstehende nicht einverleibt, nicht der eigenen Denkform anpaßt. Die Tatsache, daß uns Erfahrung lehrt, ist selbst ein kognitives, epistemologisches Element. Es gibt eine auf Erfahrung beruhende Basis für die kognitive Vielfalt. ’[15]

And misunderstanding is immediately implied in understanding, for Mall quotes Jaspers affirmatively: just like, in the personal intercourse – in the general social sense, not per se sexually -- between people, in the face of all intimacy suddenly a rift of consciousness of distance may yawn,

‘als ob ein Nicht-anders-sein-Können sich trennte und dies im letzten Grunde doch nicht anerkennen will, weil die Forderung der gemeinsamen Bezogenheit auf die Mitte der Ewigkeit nich aufhört, daher ein besseres Verstehen immer wieder gesucht wird -- so ist es zwischen Asien und Abendland.’[16]

Now this appears to be only a minimum advance as compared to Kipling’s adage of one century ago, at the height of colonial society as organised around social segregation, exclusion and subordination:

‘East is East and West is West
and never the twain shall meet’.

Here, with Jaspers and by implication Mall, there is still the same absolutising of the East and the West as if these were self-evident, workable categories, each forming a unit onto itself and each absolutely non-overlapping with the other – as if the experience and (as forms of cultural programming!) the practical knowledge and skills of a cab driver in Calcutta or Bombay does not have just as much in common with those of a cab driver in Rotterdam or New York, as it has in common with that of many of the Indian cap driver’s fellow-nationals, e.g. strict Brahmans involved in Sanskrit studies and ritual leadership in the countryside, or rich industrialists and merchants who move with the same studied ease in, and between, London and New York as in their own heavily guarded mansions in Bombay.

                       A theoretical position as Mall’s (or of any other person, for that matter, including my own, or the reader’s) can scarcely be detached from Mall’s own sociological position within the world system. Here the tension between his Indian background and his brilliantly realised German academic achievements have inspired him to formulate an intercultural philosophy which combines respect for non-European philosophy with the application – as self-evident -- of a conceptual apparatus grown within the North Atlantic tradition, in order to discuss that non-European philosophy. My suggestion is that Mall did not have much of an option in occupying the ambiguous philosophical position that he does. But if this were really true – if Mall because of the particular social identity which he has privately constructed for himself could scarcely have afforded himself a different theoretical option, that the specific theoretical option which he has taken loses much of it powers to convince.

                       Behind this lurks a problematic which is inherent to the language nature of the type of philosophical understanding which is aspired at in intercultural hermeneutics. Theoretically we may take a distance from the medium (in this case contemporary German and the philosophical conceptualisations of the professional specialist), arguing that that medium is accidental and merely local. Yet because of its dictate over the form and the contents of statements which are expressly intended to be intercultural, this medium does produce a universalist slant, in fact it does take the place of a touch stone which is situated at n unreachably higher and more valid level than that on which the other which it seeks to comprehend, is situated. Such a medium can only claim the understanding of the other but it cannot live up to such a claim -- in fact it insists, perhaps we should say smugly, on non-understanding. The language and the culturally programmed format which we use for philosophical communication, cannot constantly deny its own impact under the pretext of being accidental, optional, unintentionally structuring, preliminary, mumbling, stammering... in modern philosophy neologisms and grammatical oddities are admissible to a limited degree, but even these are merely relative deviations within a firmly given phonological, lexical and syntactic structure which dictatorially penetrates into every philosophical language utterance. At any rate for the moment itself of the language utterance this structure lends a hegemonically greater validity to that utterance than to that which it describes. At the moment that the interpreter’s language is being used, that language’s laws rule supreme, creating as it were an illusion of momentaneous universality. The claimed equivalence between (a) the person who understands and (b) the person whose expressions are being understood, is only a rhetorical gesture -- in fact the old card-players wisdom (however manipulative and treacherous) applies to the effect that ‘who records the score, wins a lot more’[17] -- whoever describes, records, has dominance, and reduces the other, however respectfully, to a state of being subjugated to the structuring -- the world architecture -- which is implied in the recorder’s own language. On second thoughts, once the utterance has been made, the recorder may seek to deny the compulsive nature of his own language structuring, and try to mitigate that one-sidedly imposed ordering - but this can never be done at the moment of the utterance itself: the utterance is about something else, not about its own structure, and -- given the exceptionally high level of regulation typical of language -- dispensing considerably with that structure destroys the utterance as a well-formed and meaningful utterance in the recorder’s specific language.

                       I have the impression that in the last analysis Mall himself sees the problem of intercultural hermeneutics in similar terms as sketched by me here: as a balancing act between misplaced universality and distressing relativistic fragmentation. I derive this impression from the way in which Mall attempts to dismiss Habermas’ longing for a non-metaphysical universalism. here Mall makes an affirmative appeal to an elaborate evocation of the postmodern situation à la Lyotard.[18] In Mall’s reading of Lyotard practically all philosophising is stripped of its apparently compelling scientific validity, its smug appeal to reason is dismissed, and what is left is recognised as the basically literary format that it is:

‘Dennoch könnte ein allgemeine Regel uns leiten und lenken, die in den Worten Lyotards heißt: ‘‘Laßt spelen... und laßt uns in Ruhe spielen’’ ’.[19]

Mall posits that reason, far from having one unique manifestation, has no concrete local format: the various local forms of reason which have precipitated in history are in themselves the result of a becoming, a genesis -- and the same is true for the various hermeneutic models to which these local forms of reasons are subjected.[20] In Mall’s opinion this position is sufficient ground for his claim that

‘Die postmoderne Hermeneutik priviligiert keine Tradition, keinen Ort, keine Sprache; sie ist ortlos orthaft oder, anders gewendet, orthaft ortlos, weil sie jedes hermeneutische Modell vor den Gefahren einer Verabsolutiering warnt.’[21]

However, I am of a contrary opinion. However sympathetic we may find Mall’s point of view, and however much we would like it to be true, his statement is merely an apotropaic formula, which is to conceal that fact that, contrary to what Mall claims, localisation undeniably takes place in this hermeneutic process. This localisation does not necessarily take the form of any geographical domain the size of a language region or a nation state; but localisation certainly in this sense that a home base is being explicitly constructed through the competent use of specialist philosophical natural language. In this process at the same time a rather small set of people is constructed (several tens of thousands, I estimate, at the most a few hundreds of thousands) who are philosophical initiates for whom such language use is familiar and meaningful -- and who at the same time are in a position to check the specialist language for formal and substantial impeccability.

                        In Mall’s work, the ‘placeless local’ character of intercultural philosophy is complementary to other paradoxical contradictions: the contradiction between strangeness and familiarity, and especially that between ‘understanding misunderstanding’ or ‘misunderstanding understanding’.[22] The latter paradoxical formulae sun up Mall’s attractive alternative to extreme relativism -- attractive nonetheless, because of its insistence on the possibility of mediation, its avoidance of total self-projective appropriation but avoidance of total rejection at the same time. Then, in an amazing turn, Mall even appeal to a ‘universalism of a modern type’ (notably: one that does way with all claims of absoluteness); he claims that such universalism points to the desirability of opening oneself

‘für die unendliche Aufgabe, die die Zusammengehörigkeit aller Menschen in einem möglichen Verstehen, in einem sensus communis philosophicus bezeugt’.[23]

Mall goes on to creatively summon to the support of his argument a considerable number of hermeneutically orientated philosophers.[24] In contradiction to Heidegger Mall affirms explicitly that any search for a common historical source which may have been shared by European and non-western thought[25] is besides the point, constitutes an ontological prejudice: such a common source (which appear to deny the ‘echte Pluralität’[26] -- ‘the genuine plurality’) cannot possibly exist, for

‘Kein Denken is vom Sein selbst geschickt, und keine Sprache ist die eigentliche Muttersprache des Seins.’[27]

However, in stead of accepting the consequence that language-based philosophical interpretations -- the defective, stammering echo emulating what is already a defective stammering in the first place, crude and untranslated, emulating the Language of Being of which no man is the native speaker -- Mall takes refuge in the following understatements:

‘Philosophie ist nicht reine Sprachimmanenz. (..) Die Übersetzung ist daher selbst ein Prozeß, der ebensoviel Beachtung verdient wie der Kommunikationsprozeß.’[28]

Whereas Gadamer’s concept of the merging of horizons is dismissed as ‘something mystical’,[29] Mall fall to recognise the mystical character of his own apotropaic formula:

‘Eine postmoderne Hermeneutik hat der Versuchung zu widerstehen, aus vielen Sinnen einen Sinn, aus vielen Kulturen eine Kultur, aus vielen Religionen eine Religion, aus vielen Wahrheiten eine Wahrheit zu wollen’.[30]

Here the irreducible, irrevocable otherness of cultures in a countable plurality is raised to the central postulate of intercultural philosophy. Mall merely affirms this postulate as self-evident and necessary, but does not offer a specific argument in support of this view. Neither does he investigate whether that postulate may perhaps owe its existence, not to any technical philosophical necessity imposed by analytical thinking, but rather to the political constellation of a democratic postmodern society, whose credibility and practical functioning, in our time and day, derive from the ‘politics of recognition’ involving vocal and strategically operating minority groups.[31]

                        Recent research on wide-ranging connection in time and space in such fields as religious and ideological systems, myths, systems of knowledge, philosophies, forms of early science, board games and other formal systems,[32] points in exactly the opposite direction. It does so precisely in order to explode the political tenets of today’s globalising multicultural society, in other words in order to confront the reification of irreducible difference. If in these fields of research we encounter, everywhere, forms of proto-globalisation, then this is indicative, not so much of some common primal source of all knowledge in the Old World, but certainly of a interconnectivity from specific place to specific place, of chains of invention and transmission, diffusion and transformative localisation, across large stretches of space and time. The painstaking compartmentalisation (each compartment boasting its own boundary, identity, distinctive attributes, birth rights, cultivated sensitivities -- each issued with their own history, or each issued with the politically correct denial of the significance of an origin) of communal identities in the contemporary globalising multicultural society then appears as the recent product of a peculiar historical mode of structuring socio-political power -- and therefore does no longer appear -- as Mall would have it -- as the manifestation of an eternal dogma of redeeming difference in the history of mankind. For it is now becoming increasingly clear that for black, brown and white, African, Asiatic, European, and if we care to look a little further afield even for the Americas, Oceania and Australia, and for the myriad national and ethnic traditions within these somatic and geographical contexts, a common history and a common heritage could possibly be constructed to a much grater degree than would be suggested by the emphatic affirmation of a difference which is irresolvable and has to stay that way. Mall does not enter at all into a discussion of these socio-political backgrounds of identity construction in the contemporary world. And yet he allows himself to suggest that the absolutising of difference between culturally constructed worlds is merely the hallmark of

‘eine in der naiven Einstellung lebende Person’.[33]

Mall’s hope continues to be inspired by

‘...die Bereitschaft zur Kommunikation, ausgehend von einer orthaften Ortlosigkeit eines erdgebundenen, aber doch meditativ-reflexiven hermeneutischen Subjekts, das weder eine totale Übersetzbarkeit noch eine totale Inkommensurabilität zum Dogma erhebt. Ein solches hermeneutisches Subjekt hat keine bestimmte Sprache als Muttersprache. Inkarniert als ein orthaftes Subjekt, hat es teil an einer bestimmten Tradition und spricht eine bestimmte Sprache. Nur ein solches Subjekt ist in der Lage, eine gewaltsame Aneignung oder eine völlige Vernachlässigung des Fremden zu vermeiden. Dies geschieht in dem Bewußtsein, daß ich als konkretes Subjekt hätte auch ein anderes werden konnen.

Übersetzbarkeit, Verstehbarkeit und Kommunikation sind regulative Ideale, deren schrittweise Realisation die Überwindung der präreflexiven, mundanen Naivität zur Voraussetzung hat. Das Kennzeichen einer solchen Naivität ist das Unvermogen, den eigenen Standpunkt als einen unter den vielen wahrnehmen zu konnen. Die Einstellung, daß es kein konkretes Freisein von Standpunkten gibt, ist ein Ergebnis einer höherstufigen Reflexion und ermöglicht uns, dem Vielfältigen gegenüber tolerant zu sein.’[34]


Manifestly (as Mall’s play on words already indicates) what is involved here is a utopia, a Nowhereland, and even an elitist Nowhereland entry to which is reserved to only a few. I cannot escape the impression that this position once again owes a lot to the way in which the author Mall has constructed his own identity in a subjective attempt at impartiality between East and West -- without being able to admit that he has only reached such a vantage point at the expense of practically giving up his Indian language, concepts, modes of expression, contexts, at least -- to judge by his published works -- in his public philosophical practice.

                        Mall then returns to Habermas, and shows how the latter’s views on communication are based on the assumption that a fundamental unity of reason, and a formal convergence of conceptions of rationality, of truth and of justice, underlie all languages. Mall has little difficulty exposing Habermas’ views on this point as another version of the theory of universal grammar. Although this does not prevent Mall from borrowing selectively from Habermas, Mall rightly doubts -- with the later Wittgenstein and the postmodern philosophy of language -[35] whether we are dealing here primarily with givens in language and through language.

                        But I would like to go even further.

                        In the first place a self-reflexive moment needs to be built into our approach to intercultural hermeneutics. This would allow us to admit that intercultural hermeneutics in an academic context would usually be language-based, and to that extent would be incapable of liberating itself from the limitations of an othering and subordinating, appropriating stammering as discussed above. Language’s shortcomings for inter-language understanding cannot be made good within language, not even by (language-based) self criticism after the fact. The language-based hermeneutic operation is to fundamentally fail, precisely if it is justified on paper.

                        In the second place (and here we are back with Habermas, with his vision of communicative action) the philosopher attributes to himself with regard to intercultural hermeneutics a privileged position which is probably totally unfounded, precisely because of the philosopher’s entrenchment in formalised language. Of all human products, language is the most subtly and intolerantly structured -- allow the pronunciation of one phoneme to fall just outside the range of tolerance, and an entire word becomes unintelligible -- put the intonation slightly differently, commit a minor grammatical error, and an entire sentence is rendered unintelligible, erroneous, ridiculous, or at least obtains a totally different meaning. because of the same regulation competent language use is also the touch stone par excellence of whether a person has had prolonged and early exposure to effective socialisation as a member of what one considers one’s own group, in other words as a touchstone of ethnic identity:[36] for practically no non-native speaker ever succeeds in speaking totally accentlessly and idiomatically any language acquired later in life. This means that of all human product language is least suitable as a medium of intercultural communication, and least reliable as a touchstone of whether such intercultural communication has in fact been established. There are myriad forms in which the negotiation, full of compromises, between various forms of initially unaccommodated otherness may evolve better and more effectively, may more easily adopt intermediate forms, may more easily be learned and adjusted, than if we continue to hold language in the centre of intercultural communication. Defective language-based communication coupled to far more competent non-language-based actions -- the latter structured around clothing, gestures, images, material attributes and objects especially industrial artefacts: this is the practice of the globalised world, in pop culture, at sports fields, at the Internet, during vacations, in the streets, in the pubs, in urban neighbourhoods, at the counter of formal bureaucratic institutions, in the doctor’s surgery, and even in bed. Hence to my mind the most characteristic situations of intercultural exchange are not those of philosophical hermeneutics. In stead I would suggest, as more characteristic: trade transactions of all sorts of degrees of formality and informality, and often carried by only partially known linguae francae; the clumsy intercourse (in the social sense, but without necessarily excluding the narrower sexul sense) with strangers with whom one can only exchange a handful of words -- such as has become common experience in the globalising society; and even anthropological fieldwork (which is far more often undertaken with very defective linguistic competence than most non-anthropologists realise -- the anthropological professional myth of adequate language mastery has been accepted too well). Here we see a genuine, albeit (luckily) still only very partial, fusion of publicly constructed identities on a world scale. Such fusion is the real hallmark of contemporary globalisation. It is light Malls insistence on cultural boundaries and cultural distinctness makes an obsolete and rigid impression.

                        Now when Mall summarises the three main points of his hermeneutics, we encounter -- next to the rejection of the idea of one universal world philosophy, and insistence on the impartiality of any comparative philosophy -- the following trait:

‘Auf dem Felde der Interkulturalität weist die interkulturelle Hermeneutik mit Nachdruck die vielen expliziten und impliziten Formen der Inkulturation, der Akkulturation zurück und plädiert für eine Art Interkulturation, die die Existenz der vielen Kulturen nicht als eine Bedrohung empfindet. Sie betont nicht nur das spannungsvolle Nebeneinander, sonder ein Füreinander der Kulturen. Zim Begriff der Interkulturation gehört die Überzeugung von der Hermeneutik als einem interkulturellen Postulat.’[37]

Let us respectfully realise from what background of personal enculturation or acculturation - from what personal involvement in the globalisation process, Mall speaks here -- even though he implicitly denies that background. And let us realise that it is not the detached, possibly conflictive, parallel co-existence side by side of distinct cultures (more or less as books attributes to a specific ‘culture’ stand side by side in a library for comparative philosophy) which characterises today’s globalisation. It essence lies in the paradoxical interplay between

(a) the strategically confronting construction of performative cultural diversity, in which people selectively and transformingly draw from local cultural orientations which however seldom occur in pure and distinct form

(b) the fact that people the world over in many respects share in a world-wide society producing more and more similar environments and similar experiences at many different places (imagine watching the same movie or wearing the same jeans in five different continents), underpinned by technology, manufactured products, and formal organisations the state, education, health services, media, enterprises dealing with production, distribution and consumption).


5. Conclusion

So far our exploration of the possibility to approach the problem of ‘intercultural’ knowledge, under contemporary conditions of globalisation, from the point of view of a specific intercultural hermeneutics. In fact Mall turns away from the messy situations of interculturality which are typical of globalisation. His entrenchment in language and his balancing act of paradoxes make us suspect the limitations of all intercultural hermeneutics in the hands of philosophers. Nonetheless his struggle with the problem proves very inspiring. Maybe it will indicate the direction along which the problem may be reduced to more practical and partly resolvable proportions.


[1]      . For Lubbers’ reasons to parade Popper as a philosopher of globalisation, see there. Moreover cf. Teilhard de Chardin, P., 1955, Le phénomène humain, Paris: Seuil ( (where the quasi-mystical term ‘planetarisation’ is being launced, but according to a natural science model which does not do justice to the agence, the complex interdependence and the interaction which are characteristic of globalisation.

[2]               Herra, R.A., 1988, ‘Kritik der Globalphilosophie’, in: Wimmer, R., ed., Vier Fragen zur Philosophie in Afrika, Asien und Lateinamerika, Wien.

[3]               Hountondji, P.J., 1997, ‘Afrikanische Kulturen und Globalisierung: Aufruf zum Widerstand’, E+Z Entwicklung und Zusammenarbeit, 38, 7.

[4]               Rorty, R., 1997, ‘Global utopias, history and philosophy’, in: Soares, L.E., ed., Cultural pluralism, identity, and globalization, Rio de Janeiro: UNESCO/ ISSC/ Educam, pp. 459-471, p. 464.

[5]               Cf. Sandbothe, M., 1998, ‘Media temporalities in the Internet’, paper, 20th World Congress of Philosophy, 5/9/98, zie htttp:// Cf. Derrida, J., 1967, De la grammatologie. Minuit, Paris; Rorty, R., 1979, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[6]               The literature offers many circumscriptions and definitions of globalisation. For my contributins to this debate, cf. van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1997, Virtuality as a key concept in the study of globalisation: Aspects of the symbolic transformation of contemporary Africa, The Hague: WOTRO; van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1998, ‘Globalization and virtuality: Analytical problems posed by the contemporary transformation of African societies’, in: Meyer, B., & Geschiere, P., eds., Globalization and idenity: Dialectics of flow and closure, Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 273-303; also see my website .

[7]               This is not to deny or ignore Quine’s principle of the indeterminacy of translation, but simply to state the empirical fact that present-day global communicative practices are based on the implicit assumption that translation is eminently possible and meaningful; incidentally, contemporary philosophical practices of multilingual handling of texts are based on the same assumption, cf. van Binsbergen, Cultures do not exist, note...[ give number ]

[8]               For political-radical postmodern theory, , cf. Rattansi, A., 1994, ‘ ‘’Western’’ racisms, ethnicities and identities in a ‘’postmodern’’ frame’, in: Rattansi, A., & Westwood, S., 1994, eds., Racism, modernity and identity: On the western front, London: Polity Press, pp. 15-86. For Afrocentrism, cf. Berlinerblau, J., 1999, Heresy in the University: The Black Athena controvery and the responsibilities of American intellectuals, New Brunswick etc.: Rutgers University Press, pp. 133f. For the Black Athena debate, cf. Berlinerblau, o.c., en: van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1997, ed., Black Athena: Ten Years After, Hoofddorp: Dutch Archaeological and Historical Society; van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1996, ‘Black Athena and Africa’s contribution to global cultural history’, Quest, 9, 2 / 10, 1: 100-137.

[9]               Cf. Fardon, R., van Binsbergen, W.M.J., & van Dijk, R., 1999, eds., Modernity on a shoestring: Dimensions of globalization, consumption and development in Africa and beyond, Leiden/London: EIDOS.

[10]             Cf. references to my work on virtuality, footnote above.

[11]             van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1999, ‘Culturen bestaan niet’: Het onderzoek van interculturaliteit als een openbreken van vanzelfsprekendheden, inaugural lecture, Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam, Rotterdam: Rotterdamse Filosofische Studies; English version forthcoming in: Quest, Winter 1999. also see my website .

[12]             Mall, R.A., 1995, Philosophie im Vergleich der Kulturen: Interkulturelle Philosophie, eine neue Orientierung, Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, pp. 67f.

[13]             ‘Culturen bestaan niet’, o.c.

[14]             Mall, o.c., p. 69. This is possibly an allusion to the principle of shared humanity or principle of charity as developed by D. Davidson (1984, ‘Belief and the basis of meaning’, in zijn: Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation, Oxford: Oxford University Press) and R. Grandy (1973, ‘Reference, meaning and belief’, Journal of Philosophy, 70: 439-452).

[15]             Mall, o.c., p. 68f

[16]             Mall, o.c., p. 69; cf Jaspers, K., 1980, Die maßgebenden Menschen, Sokrates, Buddha, Konfuzius, Jesus, München, 6e druk, p. 131.

[17]             An attempt to render, by an expression which does not exist in English, the Dutch expression ‘wie schrijft die blijft’.

[18]             Mall, o.c., p. 69-77

[19]             Mall, o.c., p. 75; cf. Lyotard, J.-F., 1979, La condition postmoderne: Rapport sur le savoir, Paris: Minuit, quoted by Mall in the German translation, Lyotard, J.-R, 1982, Das postmoderne Wissen. Ein Bericht, Bremen, p. 131.

[20]             Mall, o.c., p. 77.

[21]             Mall, o.c., p. 78. This is a recurrent theme throughout Mall’s work, see the titles in the bibliography in Mall, o.c.

[22]             Mall, o.c., p. 78f.

[23]             Mall, o.c., p. 80.

[24]             Mall, o.c., .pp. 80-88 -- of course (p. 90f) Mall’s hermeneutics owes less to Hegel, Heidegger and Gadamer than to more historically inclined hermeneutic philosophers from Vico to Dilthey -- with whom the distance in time, between intepreter and the historical producer of utterances to be interpreted, is more or less equivalent to the distance in space between more or less localised culutral orientations.

[25]             . As in the Black Athena and Afrocentrism discussions, see above.

[26]             Mall, o.c., p. 90.

[27]             Mall, o.c., p. 89.

[28]             Mall, o.c., p. 89.

[29]             Mall, o.c., 90f.

[30]             Mall, o.c., 92.

[31]             Taylor, C., 1992, Multiculturalism and ‘the Politics of Recognition’, Princeton: University of Princeton Press.

[32]             For a short characterisation of such research, with bibliography, cf. my ‘Culturen bestaan niet’, pp. 30f. also see my website:

[33]             Mall, o.c., .p. 97.

[34]             Mall, o.c., p. 92-93; my italics.

[35]             In this connection we may mention Derrida; Rorty’s thesis of absolute contextualism is rejected by Mall as being too much of a western thing, and as an absolutisation of Rorty’s own relativistic point of view.

[36]             van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1994, ‘Minority language, ethnicity and the state in two African situations: the Nkoya of Zambia and the Kalanga of Botswana’, in: Fardon, R. & Furniss, G., ed., African languages, development and the state, Londen etc.: Routledge, pp. 142-188.

[37]             Mall, o.c., p. 99.