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‘Cultures do not exist’

Part I. Sections 1 to 3



‘Cultures do not exist’

Exploding self-evidences in the investigation of interculturality






to Richard Fardon

1. Introduction

When upon Heinz Kimmerle’s retirement in 1995 the chair of intercultural philosophy at the philosophical faculty, Erasmus University Rotterdam, fell vacant and the post was advertised, candidates were examined in the light of two major requirements: a sound knowledge of at least one non-European ‘culture’, and acquaintance with the Western philosophical tradition. As an anthropologist with extensive fieldwork experience in five African situations[1] I for one can claim the first point, but precisely that relative expertise has inspired the provocative title of this argument, originally delivered as my inaugural lecture when I succeeded Kimmerle. ‘Cultures do not exist’, I will argue. Not so much in order to render the designation of the chair on intercultural philosophy inherently problematic (for surely if cultures do not exist, the adjective ‘intercultural’ as characterisation of a branch of philosophy cannot have any meaning), but in order to indicate the hand luggage[2] that I shall take with me to Philosophers’ Land. This hand luggage comprises


     first, insights that have been gathered in empirical research and that intercultural philosophy ought to take to heart; but also, secondly,

      philosophical problems that have been largely ignored in the context of cultural anthropology’s empiricism as for over a century has constituted the main mode of producing allegedly valid intercultural knowledge in academia.


This indicates the tension currently characterising my work. I have recently given up my chair in the social sciences for one in philosophy, but clearly I am not (yet) a philosopher — I continue to have difficulty reproducing and articulating ideas that seem to be self-evident to every philosopher, and I I think I detect insurmountable problems in philosophical texts that to philosophers appear to be particularly well argued.

                        The structure of my argument is as follows. To begin with, I shall indicate how the concept of ‘culture’ has taken root as a key concept in our contemporary social experience and in philosophy. Precisely because it has done so, it is of the greatest importance to subject to empirical and philosophical scrutiny such self-evidences as attach to ‘culture’. Now more than ever, the process of globalisation has brought together within a common political space a plurality of self-reflexive and militant identities; as this text is being finalised for the press, the truth of this statement is driven home by the violence against military and civilian targets in the USA on 11th September, 2001, probably caused by Middle Eastern Muslims holding just such a diabolical enemy image of the USA as the Americans do of them. An adequate analysis of this kind of situations will be of decisive importance for the fate of humanity in the first centuries of the third millennium CE.[3] As a next step, I shall explore the conditions under which my claim that ‘cultures do not exist’ may acquire meaningfulness. Since in this connection I put forth the social sciences as an example for philosophy, I am compelled to discuss the place of empirical knowledge within philosophy. I shall stress that intercultural philosophy ought to take into account such knowledge as the empirical sciences have gathered through explicit and well-tried methods; and here I am thinking particularly of the empirical discourse on African ethnicity, and of the neo-diffusionist arguments in favour of extensive cultural connections in space and time informing Africa’s cultural history and its place in the world as a whole. But as a next step I shall argue — by reference to my own complex itinerary through Africanist cultural anthropology — how this particular empirical science, despite its unmistakable relevance for intercultural philosophy, is yet so philosophically naïve, and so disposed towards a North Atlantic epistemological perspective from an epistemological point of view, that cultural anthropology can at best constitute a mere point of departure for our theoretical explorations of interculturality. Finally I posit that intercultural mediation ideally situates itself beyond any specific cultural orientation, which allows me to characterise intercultural philosophy as the search for a transgressive and innovative, metacultural medium for the production of knowledge. It is the quest itself which makes this a commendable undertaking, even though its metacultural goal is unlikely to be ever reached.

2. ‘Cultures’ in contemporary society

Ever since the end of the eighteenth century CE, in Western scholarship and subsequently in North-Atlantic society as a whole the concept of ‘culture’ has developed to acquire such great self-evidence that it has almost assumed a transcendental nature; in the latter respect therefore the concept of culture has come to be somewhat comparable to time, space, causality and substance — which in Kant’s philosophy are the basic categories utilised by human thought but not derived from sensory perception.[4] Appropriated by the wider society, the concept of ‘culture’ combines claims of totality, unicity, integration, boundedness, and non-performativity. According to this conception, a human being does at any one moment of time have, not a plurality of intersecting ‘cultural orientations’ co-existing simultaneously, but only one ‘culture’, and in that ‘culture’ she lives her entire life as if she has no option, as if displaying the distinctive features that mark her as an adherent of that culture are free from ostentatiousness and from stategically calculated effect upon her social environment — free from performativity. The claim that such an allegedly unitary culture forms an integrated whole, springs forth from two kind of considerations:


     people’s assumption that, as far as human individuals are concerned, whatever is cultural, is the attribute of one (allegedly integrated) individual personality;

     ‘culture’ produces a meaningful world, that is to say produces the illusion of a self-evidence that can only exist by virtue of the fact that no manifest limitations and boundary conditions are imposed upon that self-evidence in the consciousness of the bearer of that culture; for the sake of maintaining that illusion of self-evidence, of a self-evident universe contained in, and implied by, ‘a culture’, such a ‘culture’ has to be holistic (i.e. geared to a totality, a whole), and by consequence is implicitly intolerant of diversity.


In the last analysis we are dealing here with an implicit claim to universality made by the individual for her ‘culture’. This mechanism was already recognised by Kant when he claimed that whoever considers something beautiful, takes it for granted that it would be beautiful to anyone.[5]

                        Moreover the above, unitary concept of ‘culture’ implies the assumption (and here lies the link with ethnicity) that this one ‘culture’ can be adequately designated by means of an ethnonym: ‘Dutch culture’, ‘Chinese culture’, ‘the culture of the Zambian Nkoya, of the Nigerian Yoruba, of the South African Zulu’, and so one. This produces the classic image that anthropologists have by now largely discarded but that still has wide circulation outside anthropology: the image of Africa as a gaudy patchwork quilt of fundamentally different ‘cultures’, each of which constitutes an integrated, bounded totality. Nor is this conception of ‘culture’ limited to that of a merely descriptive category for the human situation: in contemporary public culture, the use of the concept of ‘culture’ has come to be closely associated with ethical and political judgements based on whether or not the person so judged shows respect for someone else’s ‘culture’

                        What does it mean if someone insists that others should show respect for her own ‘culture’? It means more or less what follows. In a concrete interaction situation, where a person seeks to reinforce her claims to scarce resources (such as prestige, the right to vote, a residence permit, access to the markets of housing, education, employment, the liberties listed in catalogues of human rights), that person may explicitly appeal to a certain idea that has already been privileged by public opinion, and by bureaucratic and political practices and regulations. This is the idea that a person, not by her own free choice but by a determination in his innermost essence and totality, represents not only a universal but also a specific (notably cultural, or ‘ethnic’) mode of being human, a mode that she has in common with only a (usually quite small) small sub-section of humanity, on the grounds of a history shared with the other members of that sub-section, and expressed through practices specific to that sub-section as acquired through a learning process (e.g. speaking a common language).

                        In this insistence on respect a number of heterogeneous elements come together in the most surprising way: totality, essentialism, pluralism, the definition and structuring of the public space as multicultural, political strategy, and performativity. The respect claim expresses a conception according to which ‘culture’ represents a person’s total commitment, constituting the essence of that person. ‘Culture’ becomes the central identity; and like other identities, it legitimates itself by means of the construction of a subject that claims, with Luther: ‘Here I stand, I have no option.’ Interestingly, the person in question can only exhort others to respect his own ‘culture’, by himself taking a distance for his cultural existence, objectivating the latter and making it a topic of conversation. And such a distancing makes one aware of the cultural and ethnic otherness of others, of the accidental, contingent, nature of one’s own cultural and ethnic identity, as if one had, in fact, an option to end up with a different identity.[6]

                        This lends a double layer of performativity to the respect claim: that claim is explicitly performed within the public space,[7] on the basis of a conscious distancing from the self, while the self has wanted, effected, perceived, and evaluated, the effect that that claim has on other people. In the contemporary world the convincing, public stance of authenticity and integrity (which in itself is performative and therefore inherently self-defeating) is indispensable in order to render strategic identity claims successful — in order to gain recognition.

                        The respect claim displays a typical contradiction of post-modern North Atlantic society: whatever is introduced, in a strategic and performative manner, into the public arena, is no longer allowed to be explicitly discussed in terms of strategy and performativity; on the contrary, public opinion, pressures towards politically correctness (i.e. social etiquette), and even formal socio-legal rules (anti-discrimination legislation) are conducive to a situation where in public-arena expressions these elements are explicitly referred to in terms of ‘authenticity’. The concept of ‘culture’ (as a thinking in terms of ‘cultures’, plural) embodies this contraction. It is not a sign of bad faith. On the contrary, this contradiction is inevitable given contemporary conditions. Constituting itself by reference to ‘culture’, self-identity is always and inevitably situated in a field of tension between self-evidence and performativity. Thus the concept of ‘culture’ offers a contemporary solution for the perennial problem of society: how to negotiate the tension between individual and community. This makes ‘culture’ one of the principal empowering concepts at the disposal of political actors in the local, national and global arenas of our time.

                        The great attraction of this concept of ‘culture’ turns out to lie precisely in its capability of encompassing and concealing contradictions.

                        A social-science readership, in the present post-Marxist era, would be likely to realise that here I am referring to a formal, highly abstract conception of society, and of any social institution, relationship, situation, and event, not as a structure or flow of concrete objects and persons but as a bundling of contradictions. A philosophical readership however might have to be specifically alerted to such a sociological view. Of course, the contradiction as a model of thought is a precondition for dialectics and has a splendid pedigree in mainstream philosophy. Yet philosophers (with the exception of post-structuralists and Marxists) may be inclined to consider the articulation of contradictions not an end in itself (as it would be for the anthropologist describing the formal abstract structure of a ritual in terms of contradictions between generations, genders, modes of production, conceptions of power and legitimacy, etc.), but as a stepping-stone towards the rational threshing out of these contradictions: if not in some Hegelian synthesis then at least in the elegance of academic prose.

                        How then does the concept of ‘culture’ deal with social contradictions? It offers the possibility of defining a central identity within which a person’s many identities as the player of many social roles can be re-arranged within a hierarchical framework — which relegates the majority of these identities to a state of being secondary, unessential, invisible, while at the same time reaffirming (in a sense that I consider utterly artificial and performative) the cultural identity as that person’s deepest essence. This identity is supposed to define not just a partial aspect of an individual’s life, not one specific role, but a total life world, whose parts hang together meaningfully and organically have their place within the ensemble — resulting in a situation where the subject can confront the world as if that subject were a monolithic whole, and can find meaning and order in that world. The awareness of such a central and holistic cultural identity is not innate but is explicitly constructed in social communication (in other words, is learned), which often goes hand in hand with the cherishing of a collective historical experience and of selective culturally distinctive features; often also ethnic and cultural mobilisation by an elite is part of the process through which such a cultural identity is being constructed. Nevertheless the actors involved tend to succeed in representing this construction, not as the deliberate human creation of something that was not there in the first place, but as a mere taking consciousness of what allegedly had always been a person’s deepest and innermost essence. Such a construction is in line with modernity’s dominant collective representations: the unified, undivided, individual subject, and its identity. ‘Culture’ as a universally accepted term in North Atlantic society is a thought machine designed to subjectively turn the fragmentation, disintegration and performativity of the modern experience, into unity, coherence, and authenticity. Thus the illusion of self-evidence and integrity are somehow saved in postmodern times when everyone knows that nothing is self-evident any more nor possesses integrity.

                        In its insistence on an essential, authentic otherness, and in its dissimulation of performativity, this conception of ‘culture’ lands us with a huge social problem: it takes for granted, and even rejoices, in the presumed absolute difference alleged to exist between a plurality of positions, and hence freezes the public space to a snake-pit of absolute contradictions, where opposition may persist to the point of mortal combat. The decreased liveability of contemporary society may be attributed, to certain extent, to the ever greater impregnability of an ever greater number of cultural fortresses. Only a few decades ago cultural relativism was simply an expression of the anti-hegemonic, anti-Eurocentric critique of imperialism and colonialism.[8] But now it risks to become a nightmare: a license to reduce contemporary society to an immovable stale-mate of positions between which, on theoretical grounds, no open communication, identification, community and reconciliation is possible any longer; and violence remains as the only way out. However, as the Chinese philosopher Vincent Shen has rightly argued,[9] such insistence on irresolvable differences (however much a respectable philosophical position ever since Nietzsche) is insufficient as a survival strategy for the modern world: in order for us to be able to face the future, we need dialogue, exchange, compromise, between the positions that have been occupied in the name of ‘culture’. Intercultural philosophy is nothing but an exploration of the possibilities that exist on this point. Intercultural philosophy, therefore, has a prophetic function, not in the derived sense of foretelling the future, but in the original (biblical) sense of uninvitedly speaking to contemporary society about its ills, predicaments and alternatives, while invoking a transcendent value or being.

3. The background of the concept of ‘culture’ in cultural anthropology and philosophy

3.1. Culture in cultural anthropology

What is the origin of this concept of ‘culture’? It has a variegated history but its most common meaning it is the popularisation of a cultural anthropological concept that, in that form, was only coined as recently as 1871, by Tylor in his book Primitive Culture.[10] Tylor defines ‘culture’ as:

‘that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.’

A century earlier, with Herder[11] ‘culture’ merely encompassed the so-called higher and public forms of human achievement (religion, art, science, constitutional arrangements); Herder’s merit was, however, that he included the peoples outside Europe among those having a measure of ‘culture’, showing himself surprisingly anti-ethnocentric in this respect.[12] Tylor’s breakthrough was to go beyond ‘high culture’ to include, in his definition of culture, everything that was not given to man by nature, but that he partakes as a member of a human group.

                        Tylor’s was not the last word. From 1900 onwards, in the United States and Great-Britain, prolonged participant observation, carried by mastery of the local language, emerged as the principal empirical tool in cultural anthropology. This means that for the first time one had at one’s disposal abundant and convincing, contemporary data on which to base an analysis geared to the distinctions and the meanings that the people under study applied in their own world-view — an analysis that was emic in the sense of Pike’s paired concepts of emic and etic as propounded in the 1950s.

                        The paired concepts of emic and etic express the distinction between an internal structuring of a cultural orientation such as is found in the consciousness of its bearers, on the one hand, and on the other a structuring that is imposed from the outside. Etic has nothing to do with ethics in the sense of the philosophy of the judgement of human action in terms of good and evil. Pike’s terminology is based on a linguistic analogy. In linguistics one approaches the description of speech sounds from two complementary perspectives: that of phonetics (hence -etic), which furnishes a purely external description, informed by anatomical and physical parameters, revolving on the air vibrations of which the speech sounds consist; and the perspective of phonology, whose basic unit of study is the phoneme (adj. phonemic, hence -emics): the smallest unit of speech sound that is effectively distinguished by language users competent in a particular language, basing themselves on the distinctive features of that speech sound. The phonetic features of actually produced speech sounds is subject to endless variation, that can be registered by any observer and by whatever acoustic apparatus, regardless of competence in the particular language in question. By contrast, every spoken language has only a very limited range of phonemes (usually only a couple of dozens). Language users classify the infinite variety of actually produced speech sounds according to the elements of this series of recognised phonemes, and thus determine which words or sentences, consisting of several phonemes, are at hand in a particular situation.[13]

                        Pike thus codified the two-stage analytical stance (both etic and emic) of the classic anthropology that had emerged in the second quarter of the twentieth century with such proponents as Malinowski, Evans-Pritchard, Fortes, Griaule and Leiris. Before this development, anthropology had been dominated by analysis in terms of externally imposed analytical schemes (the etic approach) such as evolutionism, diffusionism, materialism, theories concerning the fixed and universal phases of aesthetic development, etc. The rise of fieldwork and of an emic perspective meant that the empirical horizon of individual studies contracted greatly. Emic analysis required that one learned a new language and stayed on the spot for years. Such an investment, and the analysis based upon it, could only take place within a very narrow spatial and temporal horizon: that horizon which the fieldworker could cover by her own individual action — an area of at most a few thousand square kilometres and usually very much smaller, situated in a limited period of time that for the duration of the fieldwork and writing-up was even frozen into a stereotypified ‘ethnographic present’. Gone were the days, in cultural anthropology, of searching for extensive connections in space and time. The ethnographic monograph became the standard format of anthropological knowledge production, the ethnographer and her book came to identify with the name of the group under study, with the ethnonym. The idea arose that each such a monograph amounted to the description of ‘a culture’. Presumably there would be about as many ‘cultures’ as there are ethnographic monographs, and each ‘culture’ would be effectively conceived after the model of the book: bounded, internally integrated, consistent, unique — a whole that is well described with the term ‘holistic’. It became the anthropologist’s task to seek entrance to an ‘other culture’,[14] conceived as a total, bounded, integrated, and non-performative form of human existence — as a nearly impregnable fortress. Until quite recently, this view has determined the pathos and the rhetoric of fieldwork and ethnography. Henceforth not only our vision of continents outside Europe, but also the anthropologist’s individual career was to be organised around the ethnographic standard monograph. Cultural relativism became the operative term for the respect that anthropologists, and the outside world, owed to this fieldwork-related celebration of distinctive otherness. Its emergence no doubt had to do with the way in which individual anthropologists positioned themselves on the North Atlantic academic market of intercultural knowledge: as monopolists peddling their own unique knowledge of the reified culture where they had done individual fieldwork.

                        Also in another way was cultural relativism instigated by the practice of fieldwork. On the one hand fieldwork, as an emic activity, claims the most far-reaching intersubjectivity between fieldworker and host population; but on the other hand it is a lonely and unique experience that essentially escapes external critical assessment and hence among fellow-professionals is scarcely conducive to an intersubjectivity based on shared external analytical (i.e. etic) abstraction from the local culture under study. For this methodological dilemma the dogma of cultural relativism has offered a safety net: under the aegis of cultural relativism it became ideologically impossible, in professional anthropological circles, to express doubt about the specific pronouncements of ethnographers; for since fellow professionals lacked the prolonged personal experience with the local ethnographic context under study, such doubt could only be based on the etic extrapolation of connections that had merely been established for another ‘culture’, by applying an emic analysis specific to that other ‘culture’... Henceforth the professional stance of anthropologists would be a combination of intradisciplinary avoidance[15] in academia, among anthropological colleagues, combined with the myth of such limitless communication in the field as could yield a comprehensive and allegedly valid view of the local ‘culture’ under investigation in the field. Anthropological restudies of the same community by different fieldworkers have demonstrated[16] that this methodological dilemma is virtually without solution, a state of affairs that casts severe doubt on anthropology’s claims of constituting a scientific discipline.

                        Whoever took up the academic study of cultural anthropology in The Netherlands in the early 1960s, still had to learn the anthropological definition or definitions of culture as an unmistakably technical term, as a far from obvious addition to the common vocabulary[17] with which one had left secondary school. But in the course of the four decades that have since elapsed, the concept of culture has spread world-wide (among the western Indo-European languages, but also outside) to become one of the most frequently used and taken-for-granted terms by which to express the contemporary world, its variety, and especially its conflicts. The concept of culture was transformed from an academic technical term to a self-evident, common societal concept that nowadays is on the lips of practically any social actors regardless of their class or education. This transformation is closely related to the rise, in the last quarter of the twentieth century within the North Atlantic society, of a migrant population that stood out both in terms of geographical origin and of somatic characteristics. Another major factor of this transformation has been the cultural globalisation of our daily life, as the result of new techniques of communication and information that led among other effects to frequent displacements across great distances. More than ever before it is evident that no cultural situation is homogeneous, that no culture exists in isolation, and that cultural specificity can only occur by virtue of a local, parochial boundary maintenance in the face of an expanding, world-wide field of locally available and perceived cultural alternatives.

3.2. Culture in philosophy

Also philosophers today frequently utilise the concept of ‘culture’; it is even one of the two constituent lexical elements in the expression ‘intercultural philosophy’, whose foundations my Rotterdam chair seeks to investigate. It is remarkable to what great extent philosophers (who usually are very critical in their use of concepts) have taken concepts as ‘culture’, ‘cultures’, ‘cultural specificity’ and ‘interculturality’ for granted, for self-evident — as if the human condition could not be thought otherwise but in terms of a plurality, of a ‘multiversum’, of ‘cultures’.[18]

                        The following is a possible, perhaps even obvious, definition of ‘intercultural philosophy’ that remains so close to everyday language use that it takes aboard the entire loading of ‘culture’ as a pre-scientific societal concept used by general actors in the modern world:


taking as its point of departure the existence, side by side, of a plurality of mutually distinct ‘cultures’, intercultural philosophy investigates the conditions under which an exchange can take between two or more different ‘cultures’, especially an exchange under such aspects as knowledge production of one culture about another; tolerance or intolerance; conflict or co-operation in the economic, social and political domain.[19]


                        In a more specific form of the above we would conceive of intercultural philosophy as the search for a philosophical intermediate position where specialist philosophical thought seeks to escape from its presumed determination by any specific distinct ‘culture’. The following has been a common path along which philosophers have sought to effect such an escape: we render explicit the traditions of thought peculiar to a number of cultures, and we subsequently explore the possibilities of cross-fertilisation between these traditions of thought. By doing so, the emphasis is not on the philosophical enunciation of such intercultural practices in which non-philosophers are involved, but on the philosophical practice itself; and the central issue to be problematised is not the fact (or the illusion; see the final section of this argument) of communication across cultural boundaries, but a comparison of conceptual contents on either sides of such boundaries — as if intercultural communication in itself is a given that may already be taken for granted. Under the heading of ‘non-western’ or ‘comparative’ philosophy such a form of intercultural philosophy is frequently engaged in but — to my mind — prematurely so, as long as the central concept of ‘interculturality’ (i.e. the fact, the conditions, and effects of communication across cultural boundaries) has been insufficiently analysed in its own right. It is as if we concentrate all our efforts on seeking to determine the fur coat pattern resulting from a cross between a zebra and a giraffe, without asking the question of whether such a cross could ever produce viable offspring in the first place.

                        Also in the more specifically ‘comparative-philosophy’ approach to interculturality, philosophers tend to take their cue from a concept of ‘culture’ that is holist in nature, assuming an existential cultural identity that is the opposite of performative; such a concept coincides with the socially accepted concept of ‘culture’, which because of its built-in contradictions is directly linked to social power relations and ideological mystification. Thus the philosopher risks to become the slave or the mouth piece of his own society, at the very moment when he seeks to think away from the latter’s cultural structuring, and to apply a comparative perspective. Genuinely philosophical analysis would on the contrary consist in the attempt to expose terms that have become self-evident and are taken for granted, and to replace them — with good and explicit reasons — by other terms, that are likely to offer new insights since they are detached from the societal tissue of power and ideology, for instance as neologisms which never had that kind of social embedding in the first place.

                        Meanwhile it is easily understood why, of all people, intercultural philosophers have borrowed the concept of ‘culture’ from cultural anthropology. Let us consider these reasons now.

3.3. Philosophers against philosophical ethnocentrism and Eurocentrism

In the first place the concept of ‘culture’, with its implied cultural relativism, offered philosophers the possibility to take a critical distance from Eurocentrism[20] and ethnocentrism as characteristics of the main stream of Western philosophy from Hegel to Rorty and the French post-structuralist philosophers. Hegel’s ethnocentrism and his contempt of Africa have been well documented.[21] Rorty’s ethnocentrism is evident, conscious, and he shows it off.[22] The reproach of ethnocentrism is laid at the doorstep of the French post-structuralists — Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault — by Rattansi.[23] Nonetheless the latter allows himself to be largely inspired by their work for his post-colonial theory of racism, feminism and North Atlantic hegemony. Foucault travelled widely, held (or was considered for) intercontinental appointments, yet (with the exception of his notes on the Iranian revolution of 1978) in his philosophical and historical analyses almost completely limited himself to the North Atlantic; this however did not prevent him from profoundly inspiring thinkers with a background and identity outside the North Atlantic, as is clear from Mudimbe’s seminal The Invention of Africa (1988) — an emphatically Foucaultian book, although it is firmly based on the early Foucault and overlooks the developments in the latter’s work after the 1960s.[24] To the French philosophers mentioned by Rattansi we might add Deleuze and Guattari. In their work the exotic Other is repeatedly appropriated, in the most stereotypical fashion, merely in order to add further contrast to these authors’ statements concerning their own, North Atlantic, post-modern cultural orientations. At the same time world-wide cultural diversity and the intellectual problems which it poses, mainly feature in their work in a local and domesticated form: to the extent to which, over the last few decades, France itself has become a multicultural society. But also to Deleuze and Guattari we must grant what Rattansi had to grant to the French post-structuralists he discusses: in principle their work contains the starting point for a non-ethnocentric theorising of processes of globalisation, identity and signification.[25]

                        But these are only signs of a changing tide. Until recently the Western philosopher implicitly took for granted that there is one, self-evident, social and cultural context (the North Atlantic one), and one self-evident language (his own). Especially the twentieth century has seen a very great investment in the philosophical articulation of language and of social and cultural identity. Yet the philosophical investigation of interaction between two or more cultural and social contexts, two or more languages, is till in its infancy. Not only interculturality, but also interlinguality is a relatively underdeveloped aspect of mainstream Western philosophy. The twentieth century has seen a very rich harvest of approaches to the philosophy of language.[26] However, also in this domain one has tended to limit oneself to one’s own language, as an expression of the philosophical ethnocentrism that takes the North Atlantic society, ‘culture’, and historical experience, as self-evident and as the universal norm. Philosophical approaches to interlinguality (concerning such topics as translation from one language into the other, and as the ethnographic representation of concepts and representations embedded in a different cultural orientation) have been relatively rare[27] and, what is more important, have not been accorded the central place in today’s mainstream Western philosophy that they deserve.[28] In the contemporary world at large, under conditions of globalisation, problems of communication across linguistic and cultural boundaries are of vital political, economic, social and artistic importance. The ecological survival of mankind and the avoidance of a Third and probably final World War over issues of race; ethnicity; the definition of such fundamental concepts as freedom, truth, legitimacy, personhood, and the supernatural; economic hegemony; and North-South inequality to a not inconsiderable extent depend on mankind’s increased capability of intercultural and interlinguistic communication, a future goal towards which philosophy is to deliver models of thought. Once again I may remind the reader of the prophetic mission of intercultural philosophy.

                        Meanwhile it is good to realise that currently not only the anthropological, but also the philosophical practice is based on the tacit assumption of the possibility of adequate translation — despite the existence of philosophical theories, such as Quine’s, claiming the indeterminacy of translation. Contemporary philosophers, including those in the most entrenched Western position, rely on a large number of predecessors, who wrote in the following languages among others: Greek, Latin, Italian, Arabic, Hebrew, French, English, German, Spanish, Russian, Polish, Danish, Dutch and Afrikaans. The great majority of philosophers only command one, two or three of these languages at the specialist level necessary for philosophical discourse and for independent research in the history of philosophy. Manifestly it is accepted practice that even professional philosophers consult the great majority of relevant philosophical texts in translation. Now in Western philosophy we are only dealing with two large linguistic families, Indo-European and Afroasiatic (with the sub-family of Semitic, including Arabic and Hebrew); in intercultural philosophy the problem is substantially more complex, since this field in principle encompasses all[29] current and extinct languages of the world.[30] It is important to stress that philosophers in their everyday practice give every indication of a solid, self-evident trust in their own and other people’s capability of interlinguality — pace Quine. This does not make them our best prima facie guides in the exploration of problems of interlinguality as an aspect of interculturality.

                        Modern philosophy’s ethnocentrism is probably, more than anything else, and far from being the manifestation of a sinister anti-South complot, merely a pardonable simplification: within one language, one cultural orientation, most philosophical problems are already highly aporetic — impossible to ford (as least not by pedestrian means...), like a deep and wide river. Yet intermeshing plurality, in combination with people’s identitary retreat inside apparently unassailable boundaries, is the central experience of the contemporary world, and in this light Western philosophy’s standard simplification of its problem field to just one language and one culture is increasingly unacceptable.

3.4. Culture and difference

Also the second reason why philosophers have taken over the Tylorian concept of ‘culture’ is largely internal philosophical:[31] the convergence of the concept of culture with the creation, by post-structuralists such as Derrida, Lyotard, Deleuze and Guattari, of a sophisticated conceptual apparatus for the thinking and handling of difference. Here the logocentric fascination with binary contradictions, which has captivated Western thought from the Presocratics right up to Hegel, Marx and the twentieth-century structuralists such as Lévi-Strauss, suddenly appeared in a different and critical light. Post-structuralism, which as a strategy of difference contained the possibility both of deconstructing and of affirming identity at the same time, came after two major intellectual movements (marxism, structualism) which relegated the diversity of ‘cultures’ to the status of an epiphenomenon; for both movements denied the specificity of distinct cultures in the light of some postulated more fundamental condition (‘the historical inevitability of the stuggle over material production and appropriation’ in marxism; or alternatively, ‘the innate binary structure of the human mind’ in structuralism) effectively reducing emic otherness to etic samenness. With the realisation that the binary opposition is a figure of thought whose two poles in fact may to some extent (like the ourobouros snake biting its tail in ancient Hermetic and alchemistic symbolism) contain each other and dissolve into each other, doubt was cast on two major strategies of thought, hitherto taken for granted:


(a)  the reduction of otherness to sameness (as in Marxism and structuralism), and

(b)  the entrenched conception of otherness as amounting to an absolute and irresolvable difference (as in Shen’s dilemma).


                        Both strategies are of prime political importance in the contemporary globalising world: under the hegemonic onslaught of North Atlantic social, cultural, scientific and political forms, ultimately backed by the superior military power of the NATO and particularly the USA, there are strong pressures upon any person, community and polity outside the centre of power, to either submit to being co-opted into sameness (a), or to be subjected to exclusion as irretrievably different (b). For the post-structural ‘philosophy of difference’, difference becomes a basis for a recognition of the other as both equivalent and other — as a basis for respect instead of either appropriative imposition (a) or exclusion (b). At the same time the philosopher is reminded of the possibility that whatever samenness to self he believed to recognise in the other, might well be vain self-projection, appropriation, and subjugation — and for this reason grand schemes as to some ultimate, underlying convergence of mankind, of all cultures and languages of the world, of all Old-World cultures, of all philosophical traditions world-wide, of all African cultures, etc., are treated with healthy suspicion. The difference-orientated intercultural philosopher wholeheartedly affirms what anthropologists had discovered decades earlier: culture is a machine for the production of difference, especially where initially there was undifferentiated and unarticulated sameness. For intercultural philosophy the anthropological concept of ‘culture’ turns out to be a tool for the articulation of collective positions of difference that may count as accepted points of departure for social and political action, in such a way that any attempt to merge these positions of difference into a higher unity will be dismissed as a (modernist or hegemonic) assault on their integrity.[32]

                        But while this is a laudable position, that converges with the cultural relativism dominating anthropology from the mid-twentieth century onward, there is a price to be paid for the philosophical adoption of the anthropological concept of culture: Shen’s dilemma then can no longer be solved. Cultural relativism, which was ushered into intercultural philosophy with the best of intentions, ultimately means an impediment towards the fulfilment of intercultural philosophy’s most urgent social responsibility.

                        Philosophers have taken over the Tylorian concept of ‘culture’ as a strange body, a black box, without attempt to attune it systematically to other contemporary philosophical concepts such as category, subject, mind, the state, etc. In philosophy the concept of ‘culture’ has an interesting history that however does not lead straight to Tylor. The origin of the concept lies in Roman antiquity: Cicero’s cultura animi in the Stoic sense of spiritual exercise through reticence and respectful sociability. An absolute concept of ‘culture’ as referring to human action within a society was first used by the seventeenth-century theoretician of natural law Pufendorf. When one century later Herder added to this the notion of historicity, and began to speak of the ‘culture’ of specific peoples, the basis had been laid for a philosophy of culture. And such a philosophy of culture did materialise, with considerable delay, in the beginning of the twentieth century, with philosophers like Dilthey, Rickert, Cassirer and Simmel; but it was to address almost exclusively European culture.[33] Even Spengler’s world-wide perspective, which at first view would have little that is condescending vis-à-vis other civilisations,[34] had yet been inspired by the question as to the future of European civilisation.[35] The German school of cultural philosophy around 1900 counted however among its ranks one writer who inexhaustibly and with visionary powers wrote about non-Western civilisations: Max Weber; but he can scarcely be considered a philosopher any more. The main achievement of this phase of the philosophy of culture was the development of a macro perspective on civilisations and cultures as totalities, occasionally (Rothacker, Gehlen)[36] in confrontation with nature in the context of the historical genesis of man at the beginning of the Palaeolithic. Such philosophy of culture did have a profound effect on the social sciences in many respects (particularly it stressed the hermeneutic stance of Verstehen, that soon was to be popularised through Weber’s writings),[37] but its concept of ‘culture’ proved a dead-end. If contemporary philosophers use the concept of ‘culture’ this is not in continuity with the philosophy of culture in Germany around the turn of the twentieth century, but in the sense of contemporary cultural anthropologists as heirs to Tylor. As the authoritative Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie states, almost with relief:

‘Die empirische K[ulturanthropologie] hängt mit der Kulturanthropologie der deutschen philosophisch-geisteswissenschaftlichen Tradition nicht zusammen.’[38]

                        Before 1960 (when Winch initiated the important debate on rationality and the analysis of exotic cultures)[39] philosophy could scarcely offer an elaborate discourse on the encounter between ‘cultures’ at the micro level of individual participants and their concrete interaction situations, or on the production of knowledge at the boundary claimed to exist between ‘cultures’. It is only for a slightly longer period that the sub-discipline of ‘comparative philosophy’ has existed; here the European, Chinese and Indian traditions — often characterised as ‘cultures’ in the sense critiqued above — are scrutinised for the extent to which they possess parallel themes. Islamic and African philosophy offer specific problems of classification for this sub-discipline. Islamic philosophy does so in that, in the few centuries that it can be said to have flourished (notably in the 3rd-5th century AH, i.e. in the 8th-11th centuries CE), it remained so close to classic Greek philosophy as to be virtually a branch of that tradition; African philosophy poses a classificatory problem because it is either very old but largely unrecorded (a point of view held by many passionate defenders of African philosophy), or (as Hountondji would have it) new and largely tributary to the North Atlantic academic philosophical tradition.

                        Understandably, contemporary philosophers have given in to the temptation of adopting the anthropological concept of ‘culture’, and to apply it within their own philosophical arguments without further revision. Thus by the middle of the twentieth century philosophy ended up with a concept of ‘culture’ that displayed heavily holistic and essentialist traits just like in that concept’s original cultural anthropological setting, and that was too naïve to problematise the performative aspects of cultural identity. However, especially in the last thirty years cultural anthropology, of all disciplines, has had no choice but to take a more relative and dynamic view of the concept of ‘culture’. The two related main factors of this development have been the emerging theory of ethnicity (see below, section 7), and the need to account analytically for globalisation and the resulting multicultural society of the late twentieth century of the Common Era. This process in anthropology has certainly parallels in philosophy (especially in the post-structuralist philosophy of difference[40] that has been a major inspiration in the development of intercultural philosophy,[41] despite the implicit Eurocentrism for which the most prominent post-structuralists have been chided.

[1]       Rural Tunisia, urban Zambia, rural Zambia, rural Guinea Bissau, and urban Botswana.

[2]       Van Binsbergen & Doornbos 1987.

[3]       The ‘Christian’ or ‘Common’ Era (CE) is a hegemonic North Atlantic concept whose particularism we should not dissimulate. For the great majority of people in the contemporary world, the traditional (and most probably erroneous) year of birth of the founder of Christianity is an unlikely and irrelevant calibration point for time reckoning. As is the case with so many hegemonic concepts, this calendrical concept reveals its hegemonic nature precisely by its unfounded but taken-for-granted claim of universalism.

[4]       Kant 1983c.

[5]       Kant 1983b; Cf. Kimmerle & Oosterling 2000; my contribution to the latter book examines Kant’s aesthetics in the light of an empirical African example.

[6]       Cf. Mall 1995: 92.

[7]       Notably that of the ‘politics of recognition’; cf. Taylor 1992.

[8]       For formulations of classic cultural relativism, cf. Herskovits 1973; Nowell-Smith 1971; Rudolph 1968; Tennekes 1971. In many respects, the problematic of cultural relativism is the mirror image of the problematic of interculturality; the field is too complex than to expect that justice will be done to it in the present, limited context. For an interesting exploration, cf. Procée 1991. Around Gellner an important group of critics of cultural relativism has formed, cf.: Aya 1996; Boudon 1996; Gellner 1996. Also cf. the exhange between Geertz and Gellner: Geertz 1995; Gellner 1995; and Geertz 1984.

[9]       Shen, in preparation.

[10]     Tylor 1871.

[11]     Herder n.d.

[12]     This does however not exonerate him from charges of racism, which in recent debates have been levelled against not only Herder, but also Kant (in his non-critical, anthropological work) and other Enlightenment philosophers; cf. Eze 1996, 1997; Bernal 1987; Rose 1990; Kant 1983d. However, these allegations have met with forceful defenses of the Enlightenment philosophers as pillars of universalism and tolerance: Palter 1996b; Norton 1996; Jenkyns 1996. The truth is that, while unmistakably, and forgivably, children of their time and age and hence racists, they were often (like Herder in much of his writings, and Kant in his critical work), and to their great credit, able to rise above these limitations.

[13]     Cf. Headland, Pike & Harris 1990; cf. Harris 1969, ch. 20, pp. 568-604 who was seriously criticised by Burling 1969; Müller 1983.

[14]     Cf. Beattie 1964.

[15]     I am deliberately using the anthropological technical term ‘avoidance’, that designates a mode of highly elusive and restrictive behaviour of individuals belonging to social categories between which strong structural tensions exist, e.g. son-in-law and mother-in-law.

[16]     Van Beek 1991; Kloos 1987; Lewis 1951; Harris 1969.

[17]     How fast the social appropriation of the concept of ‘culture’ has proceeded in recent decades is manifest, for instance, from the Shorter Oxford Dictionary of 1978, where ‘culture’ still only occurs in the sense of religious worship (first attested in English in 1483), agriculture (1626), and civilising activity (1510, 1805). Little c.s. 1978 s.v. ‘culture’.

[18]     Some examples from among countless many are: Appiah 1992; Copleston 1980; Gyegye 1997; Kimmerle 1994a; Mall 1995; Sogolo 1998; the latter article is an excerpt from: Sogolo 1993.

[19]     Mall 1995, ch. 1; cf. Mall 1993.

[20]     Since the nineteenth century (of the North Atlantic era; the self-evidence of the so-called Common Era is in itself a hegemonic claim to be deconstructed!) Eurocentrism has taken a North Atlantic variant which comprises not only Western Europe but also North America.

[21]     Hegel 1992; for a critical distance from the perspective of contemporary intercultural philosophy, cf. Kimmerle 1993; also Eze 1996, 1997.

[22]     For striking relevant passages, cf. Rorty 1997.

[23]     Rattansi 1994.

[24]     Mudimbe 1988, 1992a; cf. my extensive study of Mudimbe, van Binsbergen 2001.

[25]     Deleuze c.s. 1980; Deleuze & Guattari 1972, 1991; Guattari 1992; Oosterling & Thisse 1998; van Binsbergen 1999g.

[26]     For an authoritative overview cf. Hale & Wright 1999.

[27]     Cf. Hookway 1993; Quine 1960, 1970, 1990b; Gadamer 1967; Volosinov 1973; and the notorious polemics between Searle and Derrida: Searle 1977, 1983; Derrida 1988; cf. Hadreas n.d.

[28]     Thus it is remarkable that in Genzler’s (1993) thorough review of contemporary translation theories in five chapters, only one chapter was to be devoted to philosophical theories notably deconstructionism à la Derrida c.s., while the great majority of reflection in this fundamental field of study came from cultural theorists, anthropologists and literary scholars.

[29]     Cf. Raju 1966.

[30]     In the face of such global diversity, one is amazed to see the term ‘intercultural’ frequently used to refer to exchanges between speakers of German, English, French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, and Scandinavian languages within the European Union — af if these languages could still legitimately count as the boundary marker of just as many distinct ‘cultures’; however, I prefer to see the case as a plurality intimately related local linguistic forms within one comprehensive North Atlantic civilisation at the beginning of the third millennium of the Common Era.

[31]     I am grateful to Heinz Kimmerle and Henk Oosterling for pointing out serious shortcomings in an earlier version of this paragraph.

[32]     Cf. Kimmerle 1990.

[33]     Perpeet 1974, with exhaustive bibliographical references. The history of the concept of ‘culture’ between Roman antiquity and the eighteenth century is exhaustively treated in: Niedermann 1941.

[34]     I define a civilisation as a socio-political system which — by virtue of such institutions as food production, state formation, writing and organised religion — displays a considerable degree of continuity over a vast geographical area and within which a plurality of cultural orientations are comprised. The contradiction between ‘culture’ and civilisation, as posed by Kant and as elaborated by Spengler, is not fertile from a cultural anthropological perspective. Outside the German language area it has not been common to make such a distinction. Cf. Perpeet 1974, especially cols. 1318f.; Kant 1983a; Spengler 1993: 42f.

[35]     Spengler 1993.

[36]     Gehlen 1977; Rothacker 1920, 1926; Schoeps 1966: 216f; Achterhuis 1992.

[37]     Cf. Palmer 1969.

[38]     Grawe 1974.

[39]     Main events in this debate are, in alphabetic order: Appiah 1992; Duerr 1981; Gellner 1959; Gellner 1990; Hallen & Sodipo 1986; Hollis & Lukes 1982; Horton & Finnegan; Horton 1967; Kippenberg & Luchesi 1978; Sogolo 1993; Wilson 1970; Winch 1964, 1970. Winch’s main inspiration was: Wittgenstein 1953.

[40]     For the potential relevance of Guattari & Deleuze’s work for contemporary cultural anthropology, cf. van Binsbergen 1999g. Meanwhile this does not take away the fact that — as I argue at length in the article cited — Guattari himself has only realised this potential in a very partial way, while relying on concepts and points of view which are unacceptable for professional anthropologists today.

[41]     Mall 1995, which leans heavily on the post-structuralist philosophy of difference; Kimmerle 1990, 1994b; Kimmerle & Wimmer 1997; Kimmerle & Oosterling 2000; Oosterling 1989, 1996.


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