Georgetown University Georgetown University Logo Berkley Center Berkley Center Logo

Polylogue and the Excluded in Cultural Encounters: A Philosophical Comment

By: Michael Reder

August 23, 2022

Challenges of Interculturality: Responses to Fr. Arturo Sosa

Encounter as a Dimension of Cultures and a Path to Peace

In his address at the Culture of Encounter: An Imperative for a Divided World conference, Rev. Arturo Sosa, S.J., presented reflections on the importance of intercultural dialogues that interpret and expand Pope Francis’ arguments on the culture of encounter. He shows that cultures of encounter can build bridges between separate cultures and can also develop pathways to a peaceful cooperation. In this sense, he places Pope Francis’ reflections in a larger cultural-theoretical context.

It is precisely this cultural-theoretical translation of the idea of a culture of encounter that I would like to discuss from a philosophical perspective, in reference to Sosa’s keynote. Within philosophy, the question of the culture of encounter is discussed in two major traditions, namely intercultural philosophy and postcolonialism. A brief look at both traditions can help place Sosa’s arguments in a broader context and clarify the concept of culture of encounter. 

Since the 1970s, the humanities and social sciences have been undergoing a cultural turn. Culture has become an analytical heuristic through which plurality can be explained. In a normative sense, this cultural perspective avoids an ethnocentric reductionism. Because all cultures have their own structure and logic, the diversity of cultures is the starting point of human coexistence. Mostly, the background of these approaches is a broad understanding of culture. Culture is not a mysterious and sublime substance in the minds of people. Rather, culture means the multiple specific imprints of human action and thought. The study of culture, in this sense, often implies a critique of existing negative aspects of society. However, culture is not a uniform horizon, as Sosa impressively points out regarding the writings of Francis. For every culture is itself an amalgamation of diverse elements. For example, what constitutes European culture is an interweaving of different cultural traditions. At the same time, different cultural traditions (e.g. German culture) are also extremely heterogeneous, because all cultures are shaped by diverse regional and local cultures. Of course, this is true not only for Europe, but for all cultures worldwide. 

Thus, an important basic assumption of Sosa and Francis can be summarized as follows: Their perspective on the encounter of cultures equally implies the rejection of a cultural essentialism that interprets cultures in a monolithic or static way. Culture is made from moment to moment, which is why what constitutes a culture is constantly changing. Intercultural philosophy as a school of thought aims to make such cultural processes conscious and to bring them into multidisciplinary discourse. This applies first and foremost to the exploration of different cultural traditions. Oftentimes, even when the keyword philosophy is mentioned, one thinks exclusively of European philosophy. Against this thesis, intercultural philosophy focuses on non-European traditions–which Sosa would surely agree with.

For Sosa’s interpretation of culture, however, another aspect is important. Intercultural philosophy does not see itself as a juxtaposition of traditions in the sense of a comparative method. Rather, it seeks overlaps and commonalities–the intercultural bridges. However, it is important to be skeptical of these bridges that involve only one culture and make it the single standard of evaluation. Thinking about interculturality, as Sosa’s thesis suggests, should therefore acknowledge cultural differences and at the same time look for possible overlaps. 

Intercultural philosophy calls this process a polylogue. In contrast to the concept of multiculturalism, the polylogue emphasizes that the relationship between cultures should at best take on a dialogical character. However, this is not just a conversation between two cultures, but a multidimensional process. The polylogue, which could also be interpreted as a culture of encounter, ultimately leads to a recognition of cultural diversity and cooperation in the sense of an understanding of overlaps between ideas about man, the world, and God. This does not preclude conflict, but the goal in normative terms is clearly a cooperative relationship with reciprocal recognition of the diversity of culturally formed interpretations of the world and God.

This view of the relationship between cultures and their encounter is, however, also critically challenged today. An example is the discourse on postcolonialism, which for about 30 years has been asking about the implicit consequences of colonialism for cultural encounters. The underlying assumption is that the history of colonialism did not end with independence movements, but that the cultural framework of colonialism still continues to shape interpretations of people and their societies today. 

For example, postcolonial theorists reflect how knowledge is constructed and what colonial images still imply in this process. They especially focus on the consequences of colonial inequality, and how they are embedded in current constructions of the “East” and the “West,” or between the “Occident” and “Islam.” This perspective could be used as a critical frame for Sosa’s interpretation of the culture of encounter. I would like to illustrate this impulse with the example of religious interpretations of humans.

From the postcolonial perspective, religious interpretations of the human being are not only religious frameworks that have developed independently. Rather, religious images of humans always reflect a power relationship between cultures. Through sublime processes of othering, images of humanity emerge as self-attributions that derive from colonial asymmetries without being explicitly conscious of them as such. When the question is discussed whether and to what extent the encounter of different cultures can promote cooperation, this question already appears to be wrongly posed from a postcolonial perspective, for cultures do not meet as neutral entities. Rather, they are in every respect mostly unconscious results of historical experiences of dependence, injustice, or powerlessness. 

In recent years, postcolonial theorists have drawn attention to the fact that the excluded are often given too little attention when intercultural dialogue is promoted as a political project. Instead, they focus on those who are pushed to the margins by economic asymmetries, those who become stateless as refugees, or those who think of themselves as second-class dialogue partners because they are not as “reasonable” as citizens of the West. The goal of postcolonial critique is to highlight such asymmetries between people. This is a necessary condition for entering into any kind of dialogue with one another. 

The culture of encounter as Sosa formulates it in relation to Francis is certainly not meant naively or as blind to power dynamics. Francis himself often addresses the injustices of the world, which must be considered in every encounter. However, the fact that these injustices are the result of long-lasting processes and that we should learn how to overcome colonial patterns of asymmetry when we encounter each other as cultural beings is certainly a critically important point of departure. Especially to enable a peaceful culture of encounter.