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Philosophy of Culture

The Concept of Encounter of Cultures in the Philosophy of History: Problems and Solutions

Hamlet A. Gevorkian
Institute of Philosophy and Law of the Armenian National Academy of Sciences

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ABSTRACT: A general problem of philosophical interests concerns the possibility of objective knowledge of other cultures and a past culture, as well as the adequacy of their reconstruction. The problem of cultural development is also crucial. By the criterion I develop, a culture which has expanded its potentialities in various independent forms is an open culture able to enter into dialogue with any other culture.

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1. To begin with, I must mention that at first I intended to present my paper at the Section of Philosophy of History, because the point at issue here has a great concern to the concept of history and to the methodological approaches of historians. Something must be changed in the attitude of historians and brought in accordance with cultural studies and ideas of the philosophy of culture, I think. A kind of etatism is prevailing in the minds of historians when they perceive the history of mankind as a succession of Principalities, States and Empires, Universal States and Great Powers and leave out of vision the historical mosaic of cultures which really comes down from remote past and which is the real essence, value and the very vocation, if you please, of the existence of a human, and of peoples. A people becomes conscious of its Self through its culture, and the historical lifetime of a people is measured by the duration of its culture.

2. The problem of encounter of cultures has a number of particular aspects belonging to universal history, ethnology, archaeology, social and ethnical psychology, sociology, law, etc. But a general - though abstract - idea of this crucial phenomenon of human society and history one can get viewing it from the point of philosophy of history.

The term "encounter of cultures" is intended to cover the whole gamut and all the varieties of this phenomenon: the contacts of cultures in space and time; their interactions; their dialogue, conflict, collision; the inheritance relations between them; the survival, historically, of a culture or of its definite layer in other culture, etc.

The phenomenon of encounter of cultures has been known and described long ago, but in its definite meaning the theoretical analysis of the phenomenon may be dated by the late 19th and early 20th cc., the period of shaping of contemporary anthropology and philosophy of history. In this connection, in the field of the philosophy of history the work of Arnold Toynbee ought to be mentioned who has put forward a conception and a model for systematic representation of the whole diversity of historical facts concerning the encounter of societies, civilizations, cultures in space and time, (1) and, in the field of ethnology, the work of the American cultural anthropologists, of Franz Boas' school, in which theory and practice of intercultural and cross-cultural research have been initiated in different forms. (2)

3. In such a broad meaning of the term, the history of mankind presents itself as a variegated picturesque panorama of encounters of cultures. The immediate reminiscences are the great migrations of tribes and peoples; the Graeco-Roman invasion of the East; the incursion of barbarians into Europe; the invasion of Turkic nomads of the area of ancient civilizations; the Crusades; the discovery of the New World, the conquest of the wild West and Conquista... But, on the other hand, one recalls that encounters of cultures resulted in great cultural epochs - Hellenistic culture in a vast area of the world; the European Middle Ages as a new type of culture; Arabian culture; the Renaissance culture, in which the European civilization encountered the classical Antiquity; the new European culture; Latin American and North American cultures... And now, more and more often, people muse on the problem: was it possible, and how is it possible, to come to such results of encounters of cultures avoiding their conflict and collision?

4.The real historical encounter of cultures has also a specific mode to which particular attention must be given. That is the reflection of philosopher, historian, archaeologist, ethnologist upon other culture and a past culture especially. I shall dwell on two aspects of problems which arise in this connection: epistemological and methodological.

Any reflection upon "other", "alien" culture is possible always from the perspective of a definite culture: the other culture is seen as refracted through the prism of our culture, of our world-perception, world-construction, world-understanding. In this sense the reflection upon other culture is subjective, as if prejudiced and slanted. The awareness of this situation causes attempts to find out how is it possible to overcome this subjectivity of the reflection upon other culture and reach objective knowledge of it, so that the reconstruction of it would be adequate. Thus, here too the Kantian question arises: is objective knowledge possible (in the sense of independence from our cognitive approaches and operations, patterns of thought which are shaped by and "molded" in our culture), and if yes, how? In our case, as in the whole field of the humanities, the situation is complicated, and the question is re-formulated as the following: how objective knowledge of historical and cultural phenomena is possible, taking into account that they are (a) essentially individual - unique, inimitable and transient and (b) get their meaning and become conceivable only in the wholeness of historical and cultural integrities, in which they are incorporated? Different answers given to this question may be represented in two extreme forms.

The conceptions which just continue the traditions of classical philosophy, claim that despite the great variety of particular, individual cultures there are common patterns in their structure and function which scholarly research rests on. (3) These conceptions must assume, implicitly or explicitly, that the existence of common patterns in structure and function of different cultures makes possible to reach - through these common patterns - adequate translation and understanding of other cultures in the language of our culture. These conceptions all were of philosophy of history type in which the unity of mankind, of its history and culture was postulated. Accordingly, common patterns carried out constitutive function in them.

But for this century typical are the conceptions which are concerned to reveal what makes every particular culture a unique whole, with its peculiar vision of the world, with its own classification of phenomena, meanings, values, etc., only within the bounds of which isolated facts are meaningful and intelligible. More distinctly this standpoint is manifested in the theory of linguistic relativity of B. Whorf (4) to whom almost all the adherents of this position appeal; in the philosophy of history it is carried through by A.Toynbee (5) ; in the history of science research - by T.Kuhn (6) and P.Feyerabend (7) ; in ethnology - by the school of American anthropology originating from F.Boas (8) . The extreme form of this position in ethnology has got the name of "cultural relativism". (9)

The most peculiar trait of these conceptions is the changing of world-perspective lines in the observation of cultures, the changing of mental attitude to them. This approach - let me note it - does not in the least exclude inevitably the search for general regulative laws, as well as constant structures, universal categories, invariant values, patterns of thought and cognitive operations common for different cultures, - the cultural universals, in a word. The change of world-perspective by these conceptions comes to another point: cultural universals, regardless of their interpretation, are not considered here as an ultimate goal of research and as a basis for bringing different cultures to a uniform pattern, but merely as a means for comparative studies, i.e. the possibility and the acquisition of these universals does not infringe on the self of each culture and its individuality. This is the nuance which I referred to as the change of mental attitude. It should be noted also that these conceptions reject the ways of postulating cultural universals and prefer empirical scientific researches and specifications of them. (10)

6. Some peculiarities of encounter of cultures are related to the problem of development of cultures. Every culture has an intrinsic value, an internal wealth as if deposited in language, myth, religion, works of art, objects of material culture, in their usage in the life of the bearers of culture, in productive activity, in the forms of organization of public life, in the modes of thought and problem-solving operations, etc. This internal wealth of a culture contains a cognitive gist: historians, ethnologists, archaeologists, culture philosophers try to reveal its meaningful contents, to discern its 'archetype' and thus to reconstruct the image of the people - bearer of the culture, to describe its historical past and understand its present life and behavior. (11) All cultures are equally rich in their intrinsic values and internal contents. That is why scholars in the philosophy of history and in cultural studies believe (quite justly!) that there does not exist hierarchy of cultures by degree or level of their development in respect of intrinsic values and internal wealth; one may speak of development only in another respect: the development takes place at the level of civilazation, of technology, etc., i.e. development is not internal, intrinsic to culture (this is the view routinely shared by philosophers of history and by ethnologists).

Of course, one must be very careful and prudential when using epithetical qualifications such as 'high culture' which, being prejudical, are incorrect if they ignore the above-mentioned considerations, and may be unjust as regards other cultures in moral respect. Nevertheless I think that cultures do develop internally. But to speak of it we must regard culture in a particular way, other than the reconstructable internal wealth of it. We have here another criterion relevant for the philosophy of history approach. In the field of history, and in the whole domain of the humanities, the development consists in emergence of individual - differentiated, discerned, distinguished - independent forms from prior syncretic wholes. To give an example: the disintegration of syncretic mythological consciousness gave birth to morals, law, religion, art, philosophy, science, etc. as distinct independent forms. Or another example: as a result of historical differentiation of primary syncretic artistic thought and practice the separate independent species of art took shape, and till now this process of differentiation has been going on. By this criterion, the development of a culture must be defined as its expanding into a number of distinguished and separate, independent and various forms, in the 'cultural space'. Thus the intrinsic values and internal wealth of a culture, i.e. its potentialities, being the bearers of its unique individuality, its 'archetype', if you please, realize themselves in the variety of different separate forms: in language, art, religion, philosophy, science, morals, political-and-legal forms of public life, etc., in which the life of a people is embodied. In this way also the "higher forms" of culture (the "civilizational layer" of it) are shaped and the transition from ethnographic variety of cultures to the unity of national culture takes place. The degree of differentiation and the variety of separate forms in which the inner potentialities of a culture expand themselves may be taken as a token for the level of development of a culture. Accordingly, for relevent cases I shall use Kroeber's terms "[more] advanced culture" and "[more] retarded (or primitive) culture" (and their correlates - "the culture of an advanced society" and "the culture of a primitive, or traditional, society" (12) ) In the light of all these considerations now I shall formulate some principal theses concerning encounters of cultures.

- A developed culture, the culture which has had expanded its potentialities in the whole 'cultural space', is an open culture, and only such a culture is able to enter into a dialogue with another culture, because only such a culture is capable to translate into its language or, to put it in another way, to construct the phenomena of another culture by its own inner means. In Western culture, for instance, fiction, fairy-tale, religion, rites, myth, etc. co-exist with science and technology. Mythological culture, on the contrary, cannot reconstruct by its own means (and adopt) the phenomena of other types of culture.

- Every culture comprises relevent inner structures and mechanisms responsible for the selection, transformation and adaptation of the phenomena from other cultures, and due to them a culture does not become a combination of diverse elements, gained from other cultures, and preserves its wholeness and individuality, when it differentiates itself in the variety of distinguished forms under the influence of other cultures. For example, the subculture of manuscripts is a characteristic phenomenon for many ancient and medieval cultures, and of the Armenian culture too. So it was not accidental that when printing was discovered the Armenians were among the first nations which adopted printing in their culture: to that time already more than a millenium manuscript had become an indispensable constituent of national life, functioning in different spheres of culture, in education, communication, public relations, and religious life in particular. Printing became the natural continuation of this cultural tradition. This is the case of the wholeness of culture in history, diachronous wholeness of it, and the continuity of its historical evolution, through expanding its inner potentialities in historically emerged new forms.

- A culture which did not prove to be able or, more precisely, had had no possibility, to expand its inner potentialities into a variety of distinguished forms, or has ceased the process of differentiation, - such a culture, encountering another culture, either is forced out by the latter or restricted in traditional forms of ethnic culture, becoming a 'fossilized relic' (if we use Toynbee's term for this case). Another culture, more differentiated and expanded itself in a variety of forms, fills by itself the unoccupied niches of the whole 'cultural space'.

- The culture of traditional societies is re-productive, and it ought to be re-productive to survive as such. The culture of advanced societies is productive; it is able to develop itself through expanding its potentialities in new forms, and, expanding, it ought to fill all the niches of 'cultural space' in order to survive.

7. There is an aspect in the interaction of cultures of retarded and advanced societies which acquires ideological significance. To begin with, let me refer to the authorities in cultural studies who stated that more advanced cultures (in my wording, the cultures which have had expanded their potentialities in the higher forms) are analysed in anthropology insufficiently. "As long as ethnologists and social anthropologists were dealing with, and were primarily interested in, prehistoric and traditional tribal societies, they could safely ignore cultural change...", Bidney notes. (13) The advanced cultures, with their civilizational layer, have become mostly a subject of analysis for social philosophers, Kroeber states (he mentions A.Weber, MacIver, Merton). As a result, we have mainly sociological conception of advanced cultures, (14) a socialized view of them. The explanation for this phenomenon we find in the basic supposition that just traditional layer of the culture of the people fulfills the main ethnic functions; just this layer endows the whole culture of a people its ethnic character, its ethnic form, its particuliarity, because this layer of culture contains archaic elements of it and thus embodies the peculiar traits of an individual culture; that's why the task of cultural studies is reduced to the efforts to find out and reveal in the culture the remnants and transformations of traditional-archaic elements as a material for re-construction of the ethnic self of the people, the bearer of the culture. I think that Kroeber was discontented by the situation; he wanted to dispute this standpoint and to attract anthropologists' attention to advanced cultures and to consider them as a subject of not only sociological, but also of anthropological analysis, cultural studies in proper sense. (15)

Now, if we look through the literature in the social and political philosophy, and in the philosophy of history, we shall find very often striking parallels with the same standpoint: as if the higher forms of culture, composing the civilizational layer of it, especially fine arts, philosophy, science, and political-and-legal forms of public life organization in particular, are alien to the real existence of the people. To demonstrate this standpoint, I shall remind you of some well known and valuable books, in which the authors (J.D.Hunter, B.Anderson, E.Hobsbawm et al.) (16) assume that public culture (that is, one of the main components of 'civilizational layer' of culture, along with fine arts, religion, science etc.) is formed and constructed by a secluded elite and is alien to ordinary people. Moreover, some writers note that sometimes it can be dangerous for ordinary people and can be used against them, against their real everyday life through giving them spurious ideals in the alien realm of public life and spiritual culture. So a demarcation line is drawn between two layers of culture, which coincides with demarcation of ordinary people and elite.

It must be said that, of course, in advanced societies the higher forms of culture, especially fine arts, science, legal system etc., become esoteric, they need professional training to conceive, to participate in them, to enjoy, to appreciate them. But since the society is an integrated whole, its members objectively partake in them, are involved in the process of their functioning through public institutions, school and educational system, etc. And in this process of functioning, ordinary life and public life, private and public, individual and collective, personal and social etc. are different modes of existence for each member of the society, equally real for him.

In the context of attempts to underestimate the 'civilizational layer' of culture and alienate it from the life of ordinary people, we must approach also to the existing criticism of European and all the Western culture. This criticism is represented by the names of such authorities of European philosophy, as Nietsche, Bergson, Sartre. Philip Devine (17) gives impressive examples of such criticism by contemporary "cultural lefts", among whom he mentions also Foucault and Derrida. Some extreme views on European culture were expressed by disputants at Nordic Seminar on multiculturalism (Copenhagen, 1994). (18) This criticism is reasonable when it concerns the concept and the phenomenon of Eurocentrism. This criticism is equitable when it has in view the by-products of technological society, such as the utilitarian moral behavior and the technicism of mentality. But this criticism is not reasonable when it rejects the significance of the higher forms of culture, which are characteristic for European culture. And this criticism is more unreasonable and non equitable when it tries to oppose the retarded cultures to the advanced cultures. The immediate reminiscence is the political ideology and practice of Bolsheviks who opposed "the revolutionary progressive Red East" to "festering imperialistic Europe with its decaying culture". Such kind of criticism of European culture, be it Nietschean nihilism toward it or Sontag's rejection of it, if transformed into political program, gives a wrong perspective and spurious ideal to the peoples of retarded societies; an illusion is inspired as if they already have the embodiment of a unique cultural ideal in their ethnic (folk) culture. And, generally speaking, the amplification of ethnic (folk) culture and, equally, of the ordinary peoples morals, rites, customs etc. (which are of greatest ethnographic interest), - the amplification, I mean, - contains a danger to orient them to narrow-minded provincialism.

8. Now, on the background of all these considerations, I shall return to the specific aspect of the problem of encounter of cultures - the reflection of historian, archaeologist, ethnologist, philosopher upon other culture and a past culture especially, with which I began my analysis. Reconstructive activity is a necessary component of the work of historian, archaeologist, ethnologist, philosopher , when he re-builds another reality, another society, another culture as a whole and tries to place in its integrity - rationally, cogently, coherently - the given particular facts. And it is remarkable, that each generation practices such a reconstruction, it re-writes newly the history, of its own people and of other cultures.

I shall not dwell on particulars of this remarkable phenomenon and shall content with referring to classical works in this field: of philosopher John Dewey, historians James Harvey Robinson and Carl Becker et al. But in the permanently repeating reconstructive activity there is an aspect important for the encounter of cultures. That's the following. In general, every phenomenon, after it has established itself, post factum gathers around itself the facts of historical past, placing them on the vector-arrow directed to that phenomenon. Here are two striking examples. Though cybernetics came into existence in 1948, when Norbert Winer's book was published, but to make the full history of it historians begin their narrative from some ideas developed in ancient Greek philosophy and by modern philosophers. Similar is the case of mathematical logic which, in its strict sense, was shaped at the border-line of the 19th and 20th cc., but is considered as developed from propositional logic of Stoics. So some aspects and trends in syncretic wholes of the past are chosen, picked out and grouped around the later emerged phenomenon.

This peculiarity of historical reconstruction, which seems to be only of special epistemological interest, has its parallels in the history and interaction of cultures. I shall set forth it on an example. In the cultural area which Kroeber called "ancient Oikumene as a historic culture aggregate", (19) a number of unique cultures existed: Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Graeco-Roman, Judaic, Syriac, Persian, Armenian, Byzantine, Arabian etc. Some of these cultures quitted the stage of history, others continued their consecutive development, evolving themselves, century after century, in cultural monuments: manuscripts and books, scriptoriums and printing houses, arts and sciences, architecture and constructional engineering, churches, castles, bridges, roads etc. For each case, these cultural monuments make up together an integrated whole with its unique, unrepeatable features. And each individual monument, each historical fact, person, action gets its meaning and significance, when is placed in this one, definite cultural whole.

But now in the same cultural area several new nations appeared at the stage of history. And their historians in reconstructive activity are destroying the historically existing cultural wholes. As if it is possible, for example, to single out one of the representatives in the row of Persian classical poets - Firdawsi, Roudaki, Rouni, Nizami, Roumi, Saadi et al., and place him alone in a post factum created cultural conglomeration. Unfortunately, such is the routine way of history-writing practiced by many historians of several new nations which appeared in this area. Meanwhile the phenomenon of inheritance of culture (and inheritance relations of cultures) is not a "mechanical" operation of such kind. Inheritance of culture is an aspect of the development of culture and is in accordance with above formulated principle: the culture expands its potentialities in the variety of different forms in which the life of the people, the bearer of the culture, proceeds in the succession of historical epochs. Thus the wholeness, the essential characteristic of culture, is preserved. That is why I introduce the concepts of synchronous and diachronous wholeness of culture and of the continuity of cultural development and formulate the following theses:

A people can claim to be the heir of a culture and its achievements if at least three factors exist:

- if there is not only synchronous but also diachronous wholeness of its culture (unity of its culture in time, in historical duration);

- if the people lives in the forms of that culture, or, better to say, the life of the people is embodied in those forms, viz. patterns of morality, beauty, thought and cognition, the ways of family and public life organization, of production, etc., and the 'higher' forms of that - legal regulations, social organization, art, science, literature, education, etc.;

- if there is continuity of culture, i.e. the life of the people in those cultural forms is reproduced and expanded from generation to generation.

These are the conditions of proper historical reconstruction, which make impossible reconstructive activity, destructive for the wholeness of historical integrities. (20)

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(1) Toynbee, A. A Study of History. London, New York, Toronto: Oxford Univ.Press, 1955. Encounters of civilizations are especially surveyed and analyzed in vv.VIII (encounter between contemporaries) and IX (encounters in time, i.e. the renaissances of cultures in other countries and epochs).

(2) Kroeber, A.(ed.) Anthropology Today. An Encyclopedic Inventory. Chicago, Ill.: The Univ. of Chicago Press, 1958; Stocking, G.W. Jr.(ed.) The Shaping of American Anthropology. 1883-1911. A Franz Boas Reader. N.Y., 1974.

(3) Let us remember the characteristic considerations of Husserl and Cassirer. See: Husserl, E. Shorter Works. Notre Dame, Indiana: Univ. of Notre Dame Press and the Harvester Press, 1981, p. 205. Cassirer, E. Symbol, Myth, and Culture. New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1979, p.137-138.

(4) Whorf B. Language, Thought, and Reality. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1956.

(5) The main thesis of Toynbee's "A Study of History" may be epitomized in this way: different societies (civilizations) form their own universes, and the history of a nation becomes intelligible if we view it as a part of a society which that nation is a member in company with other nations, "each of which reacts, though each in its own way, to the common experiences of the society as a whole". The theses of "the history of Mankind as a whole", of "the unity of Civilization" are based on misconceptions (Toynbee, A. A Study of History, vol. I, p.149-150).

(6) Kuhn,T. Essential Tension. Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago press, 1997, p.XXII-XXIII.

(7) Feyerabend, P. Against Method. London: Humanities Press, 1975, p. 271-274.

(8) See: The Shaping of American Anthropology, pp. 66, 62. Thus in all these conceptions the holistic principle (considering every culture as a whole) is connected with the principle of individuality (unique character) of every cultural phenomenon.

(9) Bidney, D. The Concept of Value in Modern Anthropology. - In: Anthropology Today, p. 688.

(10) Kluckhohn, C. Universal categories of culture. Anthropology Today, p. 506.Besides the inventory (review) papers of Bidney and Kluckhohn which were mentioned right now, there must be some other works alluded to, particularly "Culture and Thought" by M.Cole and S.Scribner (John Wiley & Sons Publ., 1974) as an efficatious example of investigations which transfer the problem of cultural universals, in this case - the problem of "universal logic", "human knowledge patterns", "universal cognitive operations", into the field of concrete experimental studies. Cf. also researces in the sociology of knowledge and sociology of science by M.Mulkey, D.Bloor, B.Barnes et. al.

(11) Moreover, some specialists in ethnology consider this kind of reconstructive activity as the main vocation and destination of ethnology as a science (see: Ethnography and Related Disciplines/Ed. by M.V.Krukov, I.Zelnow. - Moscow, Nauka Publ., 1988, p. 26-27 (in Russian).

(12) Kroeber, A.L. The Nature of Culture. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1987, p. 153.

(13) Bidney, D. Theoretical Anthropology. New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 1996, p. lii.

(14) Kroeber, A.L. Op. cit., p. 152-166.

(15) Socialized view of culture focuses on politics and economics, meanwhile, as Kroeber states, these are "only single facets of society and culture, and no one primarily interested in the more general and fundamental problem of what culture is and how it operates would be likely to want to limit his operations to this particular facets" (Ibid., p. 76-77).

(16) Hunter, J.D. Culture Wars: the Struggle to Define America. Basic Books, 1991; Anderson,B. Imagined Communities. London, New York: Verso, 1996; Hobsbawm, E.J. Nations and Nationalism since 1780. Cambridge, G.B., New York , N.Y.: Cambridge Univ. Press,1993.

(17) Devine, P.E. Human Diversituy and the Culture Wars. Westport,CT: Praeger Publ., 1996, p. XYII-XYIII.

(18) Braun,H., Klooss,W. (eds.) Multiculturalism in North America and Europe.Trier: WVT Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, 1995.

(19) Kroeber, A.L. Op.cit.., p. 379-395.

(20) The problems of historical reconstruction are analysed in my books: Gevorkian, H.A. An Essay on Historical Methodology of Science. Yerevan: Armenian Academy of Sciences Press, 1987; Gevorkian, H.A. National culture in Philosophy of History Viewpoint. Yerevan: Armenian Academy of Sciences Press, 1992, and in ch. 1 and ch.2 of the book: The Method of Historical Reconstruction in the History of Science. Yerevan: Armenian Academy of Sciences Press, 1992 (in Russian).

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