Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Overcoming Incommensurability through Intercultural Dialogue

Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Overcoming Incommensurability through Intercultural Dialogue

Article excerpt


Is universalism necessarily ethnocentric? Are there inevitably incommensurable differences between diverse cultures and traditions? While these questions may appear highly theoretical at first sight, they inevitably have significant practical consequences as witnessed by the prominent contemporary discourse about a "clash of civilizations" (e.g., Huntington 1996), on the one hand, and by the challenges confronting multiculturalism (see, e.g., Parekh 2006, especially Introduction, ch. 9), on the other. As these debates attest, the foregoing questions are truly significant because, if there is no genuine possibility of overcoming incommensurability by finding and building on common ground, the future looks bleak for intercultural relations, both internally and externally.

Furthermore, although it may seem at an even further remove in theoretical terms, the cultural rationality debate, which received its contemporary formulation by Peter Winch a few decades back, has significant implications for the ability of seemingly incommensurable cultures to interact productively and harmoniously in the contemporary world. At issue here, fundamentally, is the possibility not just of meaningful communication between cultures, but also of mutual recognition and respect among cultures. The importance of the latter has been underscored by Charles Taylor, who perceptively notes that, "Due recognition is not just a courtesy we owe people. It is a vital human need" (Taylor 1994, 26).

At the same time, it is also vital that intercultural recognition be grounded not just in mere tolerance, but also in genuine appreciation of what a particular culture truly has to offer. And as Winch and Taylor are acutely aware, this in turn brings to fore questions regarding the rationality of unfamiliar, or "alien"--as they have formerly been pejoratively termed--cultures, and in particular that of so called "primitive" cultures. For if other cultures, including aboriginal or indigenous cultures, cannot judiciously be deemed rational, then, problems arise with according them comparable recognition. But how, then, are we to make sense of, let alone do justice to, the seemingly strange beliefs and practices exhibited by other cultures? And more specifically, how are to do this without falling prey to an ethnocentric universalism? And indeed, it is possible to do so at all given the seeming incommensurability of pre-industrialised and industrialised cultures in particular? Further, we may wonder whether unfamiliar cultures can legitimately claim immunity from external scrutiny or accountability as an antidote to an ethnocentric universalism, even if this embroils them in a self-sealing relativism?

In revisiting these pivotal issues at the heart of the Winchean rationality debates, and in drawing some selective comparisons with the Kuhnian incommensurability debates which came to the fore at a similar time, the aim in what follows is to draw on core hermeneutic insights to vindicate the tenability of a hermeneutico-dialogical (1) approach to the problem of intercultural communication and understanding. This approach, it is contended, can give difference its due to the extent of stimulating a genuine and productive process of intercultural learning, in a manner that truly navigates between the Scylla of an ethnocentric universalism and the Charybdis of a self-sealing relativism, and thereby not only averts a destructive cultural stand-off, or clash but facilitates the emergence of a well-grounded "fusion of horizons". (2)


At the heart of the original debate (3) were questions about the putative rationality of other cultures and the availability of transcultural standards with reference to which their rationality could be adjudicated. Notwithstanding the subtlety and diversity of the early contributions, the debate soon crystallised around the polarized alternatives of universalism and relativism. …

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