Franz Martin Wimmer

Papers in English

By what criteria can progress in legal theory be determined?
in: (I. Tammelo u. A. Aarnio, eds.: Rechtstheorie, Beiheft 3) On the Advancement of Theory and Technique in Law and Ethics.
Berlin: Duncker & Humblot 1981, pp. 35-44

The role of philosophy for a global culture
in: Territorio. Trimestrale di problemi sociali, economici, scientifici e culturali
Larino, II, 1983, H. 2/3, pp. 60-76

(with Kurt R. Fischer) The Historical Consciousness in Analytical Philosophy
in: Proceedings of the International Wittgenstein Symposium 1985
Wien 1986, pp. 378-380

The Problem with Philosophy from Africa
in: Zeitschrift für Afrika-Studien (ZAST), vol.1, 1987, no. 1

Is Intercultural Philosophy a New Branch or a New Orientation in Philosophy?
in: D Souza, Gregory (ed.): Interculturality of Philosophy and Religion. Bangalore 1996, pp. 45-57

Intercultural Philosophy as a New Orientation in Philosophy
The Concept of Polylogue

This text, not yet published otherwise, is a developed version of the last mentioned above.

Probably every human culture has developed typical ways of philosophising in the sense that there were given explanations of the world, of what man is, and of the right relationships between human beings. Some of the cultures of the past have invented systems of writing and documentation, thereby establishing long lasting traditions of thought. Amidst a period of globalisation of many aspects of human life, the problem now arises, whether there will be one single form or method of philosophy in the future. If so: what then will be the role of the different traditions in shaping this future thinking? If not: must we give up the idea that philosophy ever can argue for universally acceptable truths or insights?

Speaking about philosophy, we are confronted with a permanent dilemma: philosophers never can demonstrate what they conceptualise other than by concepts, formed by words in a certain language, a language that is tied to a cultural, social, historical context. Yet philosophers always at least pretend to speak in the name of reason, which means that their judgements are true for all people and forever. So the dilemmatic question is: how can we achieve transcultural, globally valid "insights" or "truths" if our perceptions of the world - and the means to express these - are particular (not to say "parochial") out of necessity?

There are two thinkable ways out of this dilemma. One way is, to search for a single method of reasoning that goes beyond every cultural conditioning. This was the way of Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Husserl and the whole of Analytic Philosophy. However, neither in the past (nor likely in the future) any one method has convinced every thinker.

The second way out consists in cultivating ethnic particularities and calling "philosophy". In such a case the problem of translation and interpretation will be reduced, and equally reduced will be the audience.

a) The first consequence considering the situation of a globalised humankind with basically different regional ways of thinking consists in a (self-)critical evaluation of philosophy as a profession. We have to acknowledge that any professional training of philosophers, that equates the general term "philosophy" with the culturally bound term "occidental philosophy" is misleading. This equation has been the normal case with almost all professional philosophers, at least in the West, for a long period. This will be no easy task, since a necessary precondition for it - by far not a sufficient one - Euro-centrism has to be criticised and developed into a general criticism of centristic ways of thinking, and moulded into a theory of non-centristic philosophy.

b) The relevance of cultural traditions for the present and the future has to be analysed. The first step again will be to reconstruct different traditions of thought in a comprehensive and differentiated way. In that field, contemporary African philosophers did pioneering work. However, if their work is not limited to provide better self-understanding, but to lead to better understanding between persons of different cultural coinage, new categories and concepts must be elaborated. This will be a continuation of the project of European enlightenment with different means: not by relying on a unique method of science, but by creating a polylogue of traditions.

We have to consider the preconditions and the limitations, as well as expectable results of such a polylogue. Different grades and forms of the influence of one or more traditions upon other traditions have to be distinguished. For the purpose of an illustration, let us take the case of, say, four relevant traditions: A, B, C, D.[1] Between all of these traditions there might be unilateral (->) or bilateral (<->) influences. Under these conditions we can formally distinguish the following models:

(1) Unilateral centristic influence:

A -> B and A -> C and A -> D

In this case, it is logically possible (but not expectable in real life) that there are no dialogues (and of course there is no polylogue) between A, B, C, and D. Every tradition with the exception of A is considered to be barbarian[2] i.e. that B, C, and D have to be changed and eliminated by some means, in order to be finally overcome. The task is the extension of A and the elimination of B, C, and D. The idea behind that concept is expressed in terms like "civilisation", "westernisation", "cultural imperialism", or "Euro-centrism". It should be noted that in this model B, C, and D are ignoring each other.

(2) Unilateral and transitive influence:

A -> B and A -> C and A -> D and B -> C

In this stage, no dialogues are necessary, although by the double sided influence of C (by A and by B) comparative descriptions between A and B become possible. For the tradition A in this case every other tradition remains barbarian; B ignores D, C also ignores D. But B imitates A and therefore "civilises" C with concepts partly derived from A.

(3) Partially bilateral influence: the period of dialogues

There are many logically possible stages from

A <-> B and A -> C and A -> D
A <-> B and A -> C and A -> D and B -> C
up to
A <-> B and A <-> C and B <-> C and B <-> D and C <-> D and A -> D

Between each of these models several stages can be distinguished. We can skip listing all of them. Partly bilateral influences are processes of selective acculturation. For tradition A some other traditions are not barbarian any longer, but exotic. The same holds for B, C, and D in an increasing manner, but mutual influencing is never complete. The stage symbolised in the last line represents a polylogue between all relevant traditions with the partial exclusion of D. In that situation, comparative philosophy is firmly established.

(4) Complete bilateral influence: the period of polylogues

A <-> B and A <-> C and A <-> D and B <-> C and B <-> D and C <-> D

For every tradition any different is exotic: the consequent form of a polylogue, and of intercultural philosophy is achieved.

We have to ask whether philosophy is possible under the conditions of a polylogue. The question can perhaps be answered by analysing processes from the (European) history of ideas, something I do not want to do here.

We can resume the program of philosophy in an intercultural orientation in two points. Firstly, there has to be created a fresh view on the history of philosophy, and secondly, there is a need for a polylogue in every systematic question of philosophy.

Is there a third way, a real alternative to Eurocentrism - or any other form of centrism - and the separatism of ethnophilosophy? I think there is such an alternative: it consists in a procedure, which is no longer merely comparative, or "dia-logical", but rather "polylogical". Questions of philosophy - questions concerning the fundamental structures of reality, the knowledgeability, the validity of norms - have to be discussed in such a way that a solution is not propagated unless a polylogue between as many traditions as possible has taken place. This presupposes the relativity of concepts and methods, and it implies a non-centristic view to the history of human thinking. At the very beginning there can be formulated a negative rule: never accept a philosophical thesis from authors of a single cultural tradition to be well founded.[3]

There are tensions in probably every society or country in our days, demonstrating the need of polylogic argumentations, tensions between traditions and modernity, between ethnic groups within a society, between laicist and religious convictions. Has philosophy anything to say with respect to such tensions?

As an example I intend to discuss the case of Julián Tzul, reported by Rafael Angel Herra:

A special example for the occidental way of treating different cultures is provided by the crime of Julián TZUL, an Indio from Guatemala who was sentenced for jail by the occidentalized jury of ladinos because of a crime. The jury was not able to interpret the case in Julián Tzul's own cultural context. Starting from the Spanish conquest, the Guatemaltekans were forced to submit to laws and forms of justice which are alien to the weltanschauung of the indigenous Indian population, which represents the majority until today. Therefore, the indio Julián TZUL became victim to these laws. He had killed a brujo, brought to this action by his weltanschauung, because he surprised the man ejecting maledictions agains himself and his children, having previously put to death his wife in the same way. The jury did not judge because of self-defence (which would have been a European legal concept, globalized by penal law) in case of this Indio surprising his superior enemy who was invoking the demons and wishing destroyment to him. Despair in that moment facilitated the action of Julián Tzul. This judgement shows the impossibility to do justice to such persons within the (monocultural) legal system of the type of Spanish law, who are living in the cultural climate of Quiche, and having a system of values belonging to the pre-colonial epoch.[4]

From this description questions of two types result:
firstly, concerning cases in our society or societies which are structurally similar: what cases exist, and how are they handled?
Second: what can philosophy contribute to a clearance of such cases?

The first kind of questions is empirical, namely questions of social sciences and of theory and/or practice of law.
The second kind are methodological and ethical questions.

It is useful to be informed about the first kind of questions as precisely as possible, but this is not sufficient to answer the second kind of questions. However, reflections of sociologists and political scientists are very helpful in this respect.

Concerning the problems of the second kind of questions, the argument of Herra can be analyzed more clearly:
1) There is a uniform ("monocultural") legal system.
2) There are legally relevant world-views which can be different up to contrariety, i.a. it is possible that certain actions for one individual not only are permitted, but ought to be performed, which are prohibited for other individuals.
3) Under such conditions it is impossible to do justice to every member of the society.

Resulting questions:
ad 1) Is there an alternative to the regulation of a society by an uniform legal system, valid for all of its members? What could a legal system look like, which would not be monocultural?
ad 2) Is it imaginable that in a given uniform legal system an action / a kind of behaviour is at the same time prescribed or permitted and forbidden? What is the role of convictions relative to the legal judging of the actions of other men? Which opinions have been developed by philosophers of law, and how these are argued for?
ad 3) Is there a concept of justice which is independent culturally? Which concept of justice is more adequate to multicultural societies than others concepts are?
It is important to see that questions of that kind cannot be cleared up by the elimination of differences or by domination of the politically weak.

In the case of a "polylogue" every cultural tradition is considered to be exotic with respect to every other tradition. In human reality such a form of mutual influence on strictly equal terms does not exist other than as a programatic or regulative idea. But the same is true for the model of strictly centrist influence.[5] If therefore real processes of influencing always have to be described as being one form of the models (2) or (3), we have to ask about the desirable orientation in direction to one of the extremes (1) or (4).That means: we have to ask about the argumentability of centristic influencing versus polylogues. The answer to that question seems to be easy theoretically: as long as there exist possibly different traditions, which are relevant with respect to philosophical questions, the first model of a centristic monologue can not be argued for at all.

Practically, however, the idea of a polylogue seems to be leading into aporetic situations, since every basic concept can be doubted at any time. But such an apory does not mean that the orientation towards the idea of a polylogue is less adequate to philosophy than the monocentric ideal, because philosophy regularly leads to differences which are not to be neglected.

In order to describe situations of influencing between A, B, C and D in a realistic manner, we ought to differentiate. This can be shown by two diagrams, depicting the regulative models (1) and (4) respectively:

Diagram 1: Unilateral centristic influence

We have to reflect on different grades of influences in such a model, causing different processes of influencing according to the intensity of influencing. There are many possible variations, as for example:

Such variations let us see that the interest with respect to the other can be very different in intensity. These differences appear much more in the case of the polylogic model:

Diagram 2: Polylogues

In this model an almost infinite number of variations is possible. Consider two of them:

If we consider the model of polylogue to be preferable, even if not more than a regulative idea, we have to ask about the possibility of philosophy under the presuppositions of such an idea. This question ought to be discussed both historically and theoretically. Historical reflections can show us that there have been developed methods of argumentation and of convincing each other on equal terms, under the presupposition of different, though equally valuable traditions. Such cases have to be analyzed. Theoretical reflection ought to concentrate on differences of linguistic and conceptual frameworks, and on the possibility of translinguistic, transcultural understanding.


[1]It is not at all evident in a given discussion that there will be unanimous agreement about what "A,B,C,D" means, nor about which traditions are relevant. However, I only want to consider the formal side of the question.--Back to text--

[2]The terms "barbarian" and "exotic", used here, are introduced in Franz Wimmer: Interkulturelle Philosophie. Theorie und Geschichte, Wien: Passagen 1990.--Back to text--

[3]This rule can be formulated in a positive way too: Wherever possible, look for transcultural, "overlapping" (Ram A. Mall) philosophical concepts, since it is probable that well-founded ideas have been developed in more than one cultural tradition.--Back to text--

[4]Albertina SARAVIA ENRÍQUEZ: El delito de Julián Tzul, in: Cultura de Guatemala, V.(II), Mai-Aug. 1984, S. 53-101; vgl. auch Héctor PÉREZ BRIGNOLI: España y América. Interrelaciones ideológicas en los últimos 150 años (in: Fundación Sánchez Albornoz, Instituto de Colaboracion Iberoamericana: Primeras Jornadas América-España, Oviedo, Juni 1986). Cf.: Herra, Rafael Angel: "Kritik der Globalphilosophie". in: Wimmer, Franz Martin: (Hg.): Vier Fragen zur Philosophie in Afrika, Asien und Lateinamerika. Wien: Passagen Verlag (1988) pp. 13-34, quoted from: p. 15.--Back to text--

[5]The global expansion of occidental civilization in modern times has been sometimes presented to be a case of unilateral influence (the "process of civilization"). However, bilateral influences in many fields have developed in this process.--Back to text--

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