Reconciling Unity and Plurality Through Dialogue

An Interview with the World Public Forum “Dialogue of Civilizations” Co-Chairman Fred Dallmayr conducted by Emeritus Professor Joseph Camilleri, La Trobe University, Melbourne

You have over many years explored the contemporary human predicament that centers on our seeming inability to manage let alone celebrate difference – difference understood as the plurality of cultures, religions, nationalities, ethnicities, states, political systems and ideologies, and, of course the differential access to wealth and resources. Your latest book (just released) Being in the World: Dialogue and Cosmopolis (University of Kentucky Press, 2013) broaches the subject by exploring the notion of Cosmopolis and Cosmopolitanism. We have had several contributions to this perspective in recent years. What are the defining characteristics of the cosmopolitanism you have in mind?

The notion of ‘cosmopolitanism’ has of late gained prominence because of its potential ability to chart a path beyond an abstract, undifferentiated universalism and an array of self-enclosed particular identities (where the latter can refer to cultural, religious, ethnic, political and/or economic identities).

In contemporary literature, the term is used in many different ways.  In my book, Being in the World (2013), I distinguish between three modalities: an empirical, a normative, and a practical or interactive type.

The empirical type coincides basically with the notion of ‘globalization’ and involves the factual extension of economic markets, technological advances, and digital information processes around the globe. The normative type refers to the moral and legal rules which govern or should govern the relations between different identities. Of crucial importance here are the universal principles established by the Western Enlightenment and by modern international law. The practical type – to which I give primacy in my book – places the emphasis on the lateral interactions and mutual engagement between particular identities in our world.

Taken by itself, empirical globalization can lead, and has led, to enormous social and economic inequalities and systems of global exploitation and domination. These ills are to be corrected or at least mitigated by the universal principles of normative cosmopolitanism.

In my view, however, these principles are not sufficiently anchored in practical conduct, a conduct which has to be cultivated and fostered on the level of concrete multilateral experiences and engagements, preferably through interactive dialogue.

Would you agree that all strands of cosmopolitan thought are to a greater or lesser extent subject to an unresolved tension, namely the tension between abstract universal ethical principles and concrete cultural contexts? If so, is this tension resolvable?

There is a basic tension inherent in philosophy as such, but also in cosmopolitan thought. This is the tension between the abstract and the concrete, between universalism and particularism, or (in an older formulation) between ‘the one’ and ‘the many’. Since this tension is endemic to human thinking, it cannot be removed, but it can be mitigated and tempered.

The most promising tempering factor is practice, practical conduct, and especially interactive dialogue. The classical source of this approach is Aristotle’s ethics which moves between Platonic absolutism and Sophistic relativism and which center-stages the practice of virtues. In several of my writings I have pursued this middle path:  especially in my In Search of the Good Life (2007), in Integral Pluralism: Beyond Culture Wars (2010), and most recently in Being in the World (2013). In charting this path, I have differentiated myself from utilitarianism (anchored in self-interest) and also from versions of neo-Kantianism (John Rawls and Habermasian ‘discourse ethics’) which I have found to be too abstract and too aloof from practical engagement.

If we are to argue, as you do both in your latest book and in earlier writings, that dialogue offers a way forward in reconciling the unity of the human family with the plurality of its tribes, how should we visualize this dialogue – its processes, its participants and its potential outcomes?

As a mode of practical interaction, I find dialogue indeed a crucial element in the effort to reconcile unity and plurality. The emphasis on dialogue can be traced back to Aristotelian phronesis; to Hegel’s stress on mutual ‘recognition,’ to Gadamerian hermeneutics (who relies strongly on both Aristotle and Hegel) and to Heidegger’s notion of Mitsein (co-being).

Ideally, dialogue should involve all people who have a stake in an issue and its potential outcomes.  It is important to realize, however, that dialogue does not only involve verbal exchanges – and certainly not only exchanges of rational ‘validity claims’ (in the Habermasian sense). Construed as a sustained mutual engagement and learning process, dialogue can also proceed in the mode of gestures, glances, subtle cues, and even occasional silences.  In this sense, dialogue forms part of what Merleau-Ponty called ‘inter-corporeality’ (or embodied relationships).  The result of dialogue is not necessarily a consensus or ‘fusion of horizons,’ but can also take the form of a better grasp of mutual differences and sometimes a postponement of further negotiations.

Would you say that cosmopolitan ideas are derived primarily from western intellectual traditions, or can they be said to have equally important roots in non-Western civilizations?

In my view, modern cosmopolitan ideas are largely derived from Western intellectual traditions – but not exclusively so. A major problem is that cosmopolitanism, as advanced by Western traditions, is often closely linked with imperialism or the striving for global domination – and also with (what Edward Said called) ‘Orientalism,’ that is, attempts to define non-Western cultures exclusively in Western categories or conceptual frameworks. This linkage puts a stain on cosmopolitanism and sometimes delegitimizes it in non-Western eyes.  Hence, a great effort is needed in the West to cleanse cosmopolitanism of traces of imperialism and unilateral hegemony.  This effort is likely to be more promising of success if it can find parallels in non-Western traditions. Such traces can be found in the classical Indian notion of the universal ‘brahman’, in Confucian ideas of ‘humaneness’ (jen) and more generally in the Asian emphasis on the ‘way’ (tao).

Is the cosmopolitan dialogue you have in mind amenable to concrete, constructive engagement in the here and now?

Since the cosmopolitan dialogue I have in mind arises from concrete mutual engagement, it should also be able to feed back into concrete global interactions. To be sure, dialogue is not the same as direct political intervention. However, dialogue can contribute to the clarification of contested issues, to the reduction of prejudices and mutual animosities, and in this way can prepare the ground for a (hopefully) amicable settlement of conflicts. Dialogue – I want to emphasize – is not the same as idle chit-chat or empty chatter.  Dialogue has an ethical orientation or purpose:  to contribute to a just or fair resolution of disputes.

In several of your writings you have suggested that ‘in modern times nature has tended to be marginalized, colonized and abused’. How is the exile of nature as the dominant strand in modern western thought to be explained?

The fact that ‘nature’ in modern times has been marginalized, colonized or exiled derives from the dominant modern intellectual paradigm: the dichotomy between mind and matter, between subject and object, between the cogito inside and the world outside.

This dichotomy was most famously formulated by René Descartes. Based on this dualism, modern science – inaugurated by Francis Bacon – proceeded to transform nature into an external object, into a target to be analyzed and controlled by human mind or reason. In this paradigm, mind or reason functions as a sovereign ruler mastering the universe. Ultimately, of course, the dualism boomerangs against the master by alienating or exiling humanity from its own ‘nature’ or natural grounding.

Is it possible to recover a different and healthier understanding of and relationship with nature? How might a dialogue between western and non-western traditions assist us in this difficult enterprise?

One of the major endeavors in our time is to recover a non-dualistic and more harmonious relation between humanity and nature. My book Return to Nature? (2012) points in this direction. The task is to find a common ground which does not simply collapse or wipe out relevant distinctions in an amorphous ‘naturalism.’  In my book, I argue in favor of a differentiated wholeness or holism, a wholeness which neither smothers distinctions in a totalizing oneness nor separates or divorces them from each other.

Such an outlook can find considerable support in Asian traditions of thought, especially in the Upanishadic notion of ‘brahman’, the Indian philosophy of ‘Advaita Vedanta’, and in East Asian reflection on the ‘way’ (tao) which is neither inside nor outside, neither purely mental nor purely corporeal. Among more recent thinkers, I have been influenced by Raimon Panikkar’s triadic or trinitarian correlation of the divine, humanity, and nature (the so-called ‘cosmotheandric’ relation).

Fred Dallmayr is Packey J. Dee Professor in the departments of philosophy and political science at the University of Notre Dame. He holds a Doctor of Law degree from the University of Munich (1955) and a PhD in political science from Duke University (1960). He has been a visiting professor at Hamburg University in Germany and at the New School for Social Research in New York, and a Fellow at Nuffield College in Oxford. Currently he is the Executive Co-Chair of “World Public Forum - Dialogue of Civilizations” (Vienna/Moscow) and a member of the Scientific Committee of “RESET - Dialogue on Civilizations” (Rome).

Published at on July 19, 2013.