How philosophical reflection can help bridge the East-West cultural divide

Nicolas Berggruen explains why we must encourage, and reward, new thinking that helps bridge the political and social divides in these increasingly dangerous times

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 September, 2015, 3:32pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 September, 2015, 3:32pm

At times of geopolitical tension, economic concerns and humanitarian crises, turning to philosophy may seem like an evasion. It is my belief, however, that philosophical reflection helps leaders reframe difficult problems and helps the world bridge cultural gaps. This is why I am founding a US$1 million annual prize for philosophy. Economists can aspire to a Nobel Prize; innovative thinkers who contribute to bridging the cultural gap need a similar form of recognition.

Ideas have power. In his best-selling book, Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari argues that what distinguishes humankind from all other species is its ability for large-scale cooperation based on mental abstractions such as human rights, money or gods.

Ironically, in the Age of Information, many of us know less about other perspectives and cultures than before

Throughout history, new conceptual frameworks have arisen in the imagination and taken hold in the physical world when circumstances of the human condition warrant: Confucianism; democracy; the Enlightenment; Marxism; existentialism; feminism; and so on.

But ideas move different people in different ways. Most philosophical traditions have aimed at a universal truth, but divergent views and values have often been prioritised in different historical traditions. Some differences may be intractable, some need to be tolerated, and some will allow for mutual learning.

One cannot fully make sense of politics without a good understanding of philosophical and religious traditions. Dissimilar views about politics in the US and China, for example, are partly rooted in different priorities given by each society to key values and aspirations, not simply in conflicting economic and military interests. Not recognising these distinctions and not engaging with different cultures today - more needed than ever in an increasingly multipolar world - expose us to geopolitical risk.

Modern technological advances should facilitate the global cross-fertilisation of ideas. Yet, ironically, in the Age of Information, many of us know less about other perspectives and cultures than before.

Why have technological innovation and globalisation in the marketplace not been accompanied by a more thorough or reciprocal interpenetration of ideas and intellectual traditions? One reason is that speed facilitates more superficial engagement. In the early 20th century, leading thinkers such as Bertrand Russell and John Dewey spent extended periods in China, and a great deal of mutual learning took place. Today, thinkers fly in and out in a few days, spending time in "international" hotels that owe nothing to the local culture.

And knowledge is often rewarded in ways that hinders the cross-fertilisation of ideas. Universities tend to be divided into silos of disciplines that rarely communicate with each other. Professional philosophers tend to publish articles in highly specialised periodicals, leaving media pundits and novelists to address the grand civilisational issues that arise from the new challenges of a multipolar world and artificial intelligence. The biosciences, combined with "big data" analysis, are speeding up biological evolution and transgressing the boundaries of what it has meant for millennia to be human - all with precious little philosophical reflection on the path humanity is heedlessly taking.

It is high time to focus our minds on our fate in a more expansive and imaginative way than the hallowed confines our institutions of learning at present generally allow. The Berggruen Institute is creating a centre dedicated to promoting fresh thinking across cultures and disciplines. It will collaborate with existing teaching and research institutions in the West and Asia.

In an increasingly multipolar world, there is an urgent need to understand cultures and develop new thinking. It seems obvious that centres for the production and dissemination of knowledge should aim to extend beyond particular cultures and disciplines and engage with a broader public.

Nicolas Berggruen is chairman of the Berggruen Institute, which is engaged in issues of political governance, philosophy and culture. He is also chairman of Berggruen Holdings, a private company, the direct investment vehicle of The Nicolas Berggruen Charitable Foundation