The Questionable Questions of Intercultural Philosophy

Orbis Terrarum Nova et Accuratissima Tabula, Pieter Goos (1666)


The 9th International Conference on Intercultural Philosophy was held last month at the University of Costa Rica, and went under the banner of ‘Living together: Problems and possibilities in today’s world. An intercultural approximation’. The general objective of the conference was stated as: To know the various dimensions of human living together according to diverse current cultures of the world, particularly as ways of life in today’s societies. The ‘intercultural’ ethos of this particular event consisted in approaching the above objective in a tripartite manner:

1. Each of the various cultures’ perceptions regarding living together; 2. The discussion of the various proposals provided by each culture in relation to living together from an intercultural point of view; 3. The analysis of the possible interpretations of living together for human beings under the current conditions of today’s global society.

Representatives from Korea, Taiwan, Congo, Tunisia, Germany, Austria and much of Central and South America, convened for this occasion in order to share perspectives on the task of living together in the age of globalisation and all its attendant problems (‘…global warming, migration, cultural intolerance, terrorism of various sorts, economical crises…’).

An admirable task and an ingeniously devised approach, one might well think, but not everyone seems to agree. Writing for The Costa Rica News, Martin LeFevre points out what he thinks to be a number of insidious premises in the very idea of intercultural philosophy, defined as ‘the endeavor to give expression to the many voices of philosophy in their respective cultural contexts’. One of his main worries is that intercultural philosophy appears to assume a kind of relativism about truth; ‘Is philosophy dependent on cultural context?’ he asks, ‘Indeed, is it philosophy at all when cultural contexts are given primacy?’.

In a moment of etymological sloppiness, LeFevre states that ‘[t]he root meaning of philosophy is the love of truth’, which in fact serves to expose one aspect of the misguidedness in his claim. The love that philosophy has at its root, in its original sense at least, is for wisdom, and this may more easily be accepted as relative (to culture or otherwise). Wisdom consists in the sound faculty of judgement that is conducive to ‘the good life’, that is, the correct way of living – and, in spite of the definite article here, it is by no means necessary that there be only one way to live well (as the very conference in question attests to).

Furthermore, even if philosophers are, or ought to be, lusting after ‘a dimension beyond particular cultures, irrespective of language, tradition, or background’, as LeFevre suggests, why would this undermine the project of intercultural consultation in philosophy? Firstly, the methodology used in approaching this fabled realm of truth is likely to differ from culture to culture. This kind of relativism, a relativism of method rather than of aim or results, is no more useless than comparing the best route to take on a car journey. Secondly, as a consequence of the respective merits and demerits of the various culturally-dependent methodological ways of approaching (supposedly acultural) truth, no doubt some would have had more success than others, and some would have arrived at insights that others have not.

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