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The stranger between oppression and superiority

Close encounter with Heinz Kimmerle



Response to Mogobe B. Ramose by Heinz Kimmerle



Mogobe B. Ramose (Pretoria)

The question of identity in intercultural philosophy




For many people the question who am I is often answered with reference to external factors. These could be the information that I am the son or daughter of so and so. It could also be that I speak English and therefore I am English. Seldom is it realized that this way of answering the question is in reality the affirmation of bounded reasoning. It is impossible to define one�s identity and that of others without recourse to bounded reasoning. What then is bounded reasoning?

1. Bounded reasoning

Bounded reasoning is the ontological necessity to contemporaneously include and exclude specific elements or qualities in order to define either oneself or others. Thus conceived bounded reasoning involves the imposition of limitation upon substance and form. At the same time it acknowledges the relation with the external world as the structure of existence. The construction of boundaries in relation to the external world is actually what underlies the meaning of bounded reasoning. Without the erection of boundaries it is impossible to define and identify oneself or others. Only in this way can one define oneself. It is from the perspective of bounded reasoning that I wish to discuss questions around identity with particular reference to intercultural philosophy.

2. Permeable and impermeable boundaries

The erection of boundaries is undoubtedly an act of discrimination. Discrimination as an ontological necessity is in theoretically neutral. However, it is often the case that in practice the theoretical neutrality of discrimination disappears. It is infused with and characterized by the experience and cultural content of the individual subject. On this basis bounded reasoning is at the same time the representation in practice of the experience and culture of the individual subject. It is precisely as this kind of representation that bounded reasoning is the bearer of the values of the individual. To define oneself against this background is to communicate to others the values to which one subscribes. Thus the concept of identity must be understood as the affirmation of one�s values. The affirmation may take one of the two forms. It may be totally exclusive protecting identity within a completely sealed circle. This is an impermeable boundary. It may also be exclusive protecting identity but within a perforated circle. This is a permeable boundary.< style='font-size:12.0pt;font-family:"Times New Roman";'>

Because they are total and completely sealed enclosures impermeable boundaries do not allow for the possibility of change of identity resulting from external influences. Their response to the existential necessity to relate to the external world tends to proceed from the assumption that its identity is the only most important relative to all other possible identities. In this sense it is absolutist and inward looking. The theory and experience of colonization is one example of how impermeable boundaries relate to other identities. (V.Y. Mudimbe: The invention of Africa, Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indiana University Press 1988.) On the other hand permeable boundaries are by definition open to the possibility for change of identity resulting from external influences.� Their perforated character allows for the possibility of some kind of osmotic interaction that could result in the change of identity. Permeable boundaries are inward and outward looking simultaneously. Accordingly, they cannot proceed from the assumption of absolutism and dogmatism. Their openness speaks to the desideratum for interaction or dialogue in the philosophical sense. It is precisely for this reason that permeable boundaries are the appropriate basis for intercultural philosophy.

3. What is intercultural philosophy?

Heinz Kimmerle has gone a very long, long way in defining and reflecting upon the meaning of intercultural philosophy. This he has done through his writing and interaction with other philosophers. When I met him for the first time in Kenya more than ten years ago, I was struck by his wonder in the philosophical sense of the word. He was inquisitive and wanted to know what African philosophers thought about philosophy. He moved with ease and freely among us inquiring about various aspects of philosophy as understood by African philosophers. In this process he did something as well, namely, giving his own understanding of philosophy. It is precisely this manner of inquire which underlined for me that Heinz understood the importance of openness to change through dialogue. For me the birth of intercultural philosophy was in my encounter with Heinz Kimmerle in Mombasa, Kenya.

His understanding of intercultural philosophy is spread out in his many writings on the subject, for example, in Philosophy and Democracy in Intercultural Perspective (Amsterdam/Atlanta, GA: Rodopi 1997), Time and Development in the Thought of Sub-Saharan Africa (Rodopi 1998), Mazungumzo (Amsterdam: Boom 1995) and Time and Temporality in Intercultural Perspective (Rodopi 1996). Some of my thoughts about my initial encounter with Heinz in Mombasa are expressed by Jan Hoogland below. I am rather curious to know what Heinz makes of them. According to Jan Hoogland, and, I should state, me through the hand of Jan Hoogland to a large extent, intercultural philosophy stands opposed to �the unifying, universalistic and totalizing way of thinking Intercultural philosophy resists rightly the totalizing claims of Western thinking. It stresses rightly the contextuality of all human norms, values and cultures. It states rightly the equivalence of all cultures. But it does so by mistakenly doubting the universal or considering it as an ideal which cannot be realized.� (J Hoogland, �The necessity of intercultural philosophy�, in: Time and Temporality, l.c. p. 37)

Again, in my continuing conversations with Heinz I have focused some of our discussion upon the concept of a mirror. This is because I am continuing to reflect upon the public lecture he delivered in the University of Venda. The title of the lecture was: Africa the mirror of Europe. One of the issues we discussed was the question of self-knowledge and understanding. My impression is that we agreed that in order to know oneself it is necessary to acknowledge relations with others and to be actively aware of our interaction with them. This was linked to the idea that self-knowledge and understanding are incomplete without the recognition of responsibility towards the others. Of course, responsibility towards the others did not, as I understood our conversations, necessarily impose the duty of solidarity with them. Nevertheless solidarity could be seen as a positive complement of responsibility. I tired to problematize the mirror. This happened when we continued the conversation from Heinz� home while driving to the Hague railway station. Alas! We could not complete the conversation and now I take the opportunity to resume it in point form mainly. I am curious once more to receive Heinz� response. One of the points I made was that the mirror is rather problematic since it cannot engage in an interactive relation with the person looking at himself/herself through the mirror. The philosophical point I implied in this observation was that the mirror may be conceived as the representation of impermeable boundaries. As such it is the denial of dialogue as the principle of philosophy in general and, intercultural philosophy in particular.

Another point I made was that often we go watch ourselves at the mirror when we want to affirm our good looks or beauty. Whenever we consider ourselves ugly we frequently make sure we avoid the mirror. Therefore, the visit to the mirror is designed to provide us with an incomplete and often artificial image of ourselves. The mirror then is not the best point of contact whenever we want to be honest with ourselves. On this basis, the mirror may be construed as the vehicle for either deliberate or inadvertent dishonesty. As such it detracts from our sense of responsibility and renders it obtuse. A pertinent experience that affirms this observation is the refusal by Western countries at the World Congress against Racism held in Durban, South Africa, to consider reparations to Africa arising from the injustice of colonization.

Yet another point is that our visit to the mirror is often a solitary event. We visit the mirror alone. The visit is a private affair. This provides us with the opportunity to watch and observe ourselves and, sometimes using more than one mirror, anywhere we want to. Our sense of shame disappears when we are watching ourselves through the mirror. The mirror is the one point of contact at which we have no fear of being completely naked. It provides thus the opportunity for us to watch ourselves naked in private. Alone in front of the mirror we can thus be shameless and free. In this way the mirror provides us with an opportunity which we dare not ask for except in the context of intimacy and ody culture, in our relations with others. Our boundaries are thus permeable when we stand alone in front of the mirror but they are often impermeable in our relations with others. Would it then not be better just to smash and shatter the mirror?

The above appear to be three negative observations about the mirror. Yet, in all three of them we may discern something positive. The mirror is a valuable point of contact availing us at opportunity to look at ourselves. If we take a step further and ask why is it that we often visit the mirror when we wish to affirm our beauty then this questioning might lead to the revelation that we need the mirror even when we consider ourselves to be ugly. If it is wrong to be ugly then the mirror could help us detect and take responsibility for our wrongs. In this way the privacy of our visit to the mirror can affirm it as a veritable instrument for the definition of our own identity. From this self-knowledge and understanding we may be better poised to interact with others provided our boundaries are permeable. The philosophical value of the mirror is that it is a passive instrument having the potential to provide us with an idea of our identity. Because of its passivity the mirror is also a call upon us to test the validity and the reliability of our identity through active interaction with others.


In the above reflections about the mirror I have come to the conclusion that Heinz�choice of the term in the title of his lecture was philosophically significant. The significance of the mirror is that it is potentially a vehicle for intercultural philosophy. Intercultural philosophy could be enriched through philosophical reflection upon the mirror.


Response to Mogobe Ramose by Heinz Kimmerle

With regard to the contribution of Mogobe Ramose, I see three points of discussion: First of all, the critical differentiaton between permeable and impermeable boundaries when we are looking for our own identity. Secondly the metaphor of the mirror; what are its weak points and what is its usefulness? Can the look into the mirror help to understand not only oneself, but also the other? Thirdly, and may be most importantly, the quest for universals in intercultural philosophy. This last point has also been raised by Jan Hoogland in a publication of 1996.

Theorizing identity is highly complicated. And I understand that it is extra complicated in the situation of South Africa today. There are so many different groups of people in this country. Many times per day they are assured by a television-spot, illustrating the Zulu-word: �Simunye�, we are one. So it is most important to make clear, how oneness and difference belong together, how I can be I and at the same time member of this and of that group and in the end citizen of that country. The colonial past can show how this relation has not to be determined. Although this will never be possible in an absolute sense, boundaries have been erected which were impermeable as much as possible. �Apartheid� has been the word for this kind of bounded reasoning. The new South Africa with its democratic constitution understands itself as �Rainbownation�. This presupposes that boundaries do not disappear, but that they are permeable in more than one direction. Thus identity can be determined, and it can be changed by looking inward and outward my own self-understanding and that of the groups to which I belong.

Thus the situation of South Africa today is a commentary on Mogobe�s reflections on identity and bounded reasoning. The first task of intercultural philosophy is then to plead for and to practice openness. The permeability of the boundaries has to be improved. This is relevant in intracultural or multicultural respect within one country and in intercultural respect between countries of different parts of the world. The question of permeable boundaries is relevant within one culture, especially if it is the culture of a Rainbownation and between different cultures. Insofar multiculturalism and interculturalism have the same task.

The complications of determining and developing identities make it unlikely that looking into the mirror can really help with that. Mogobe has summed up the problematic aspects of this metaphor in a clear way. It is a sign of his dialogical attitude that he comes out also at positive aspects. The passivity of the mirror calls upon our activity to test the validity and reliability of the identity, which we encounter in our reflected image. I should say, however, that this is not all what a reflection on the mirror can do to enrich intercultural philosophy. At least, I have meant something different or something, which goes further than that when I used this metaphor in my public lecture of 1997 at the University of Venda: �Africa the mirror of Europe?� First of all, behind this title I have put a question-mark. The answer to this question is, that historically Africa has been the mirror of Europe in a very specific sense. And more recently, after the struggle for independence, in the middle of the struggle for new identities of the African countries, this metaphor is not useful any more.

I have taken this metaphor from the Foreword of Jean-Paul Sartre to Frantz Fanon�s book The wretched of the earth (original French edition Paris: Maspero 1961). For Sartre the mirror is not at all passive. It is some kind of a magic mirror, and the reflected image tells me something about myself, which has been hidden in the unconscious motives of my actions. The use of violence in the struggle for independence is justified by Sartre as counter-violence, because it mirrors the violence of colonial politics. Fanon discusses, as we know, especially the struggle of the people of Algeria against French colonial rule. But he sees also, according to Sartre, already a more general consequence of the counter-violence by the colonized. In order to free themselves from the anger, which is stowed back in the minds of the oppressed, �they slaughter themselves: the tribes fight against each other because they cannot attack their proper enemy�.

Somehow these mirror-effects are still going on. But they are no longer the only or the most important factors. In my public lecture, which is published in German in the Austrian Journal: polylog (nr. 4, 1999. p. 75-84), I refer to Mudimbe�s analysis of the �colonial structure� with its different elements. To dissolve them, different political strategies are needed. Derrida speaks about a politics of difference, which is in the last instance a politics of language. The identities of African peoples, like the peoples of any other part of the world, are strongly expressed in their language. The African peoples will only reach real independence and definite foundations of their own identities when they rely on their own languages in the manifold choir of the languages of the world. Because the answer to the question: Africa - the mirror of Europe? certainly is not just in the positive, I had also to refer in my lecture to these more recent judgements of the relations between Europe an Africa.��

But now to the question of universalism. Mogobe quotes Jan Hoogland�s statement, that I am �mistakenly doubting the universal�. Jan Hoogland himself chooses for the position of an �enigmatic universalism�, which he takes over from an article of J. Klapwijk who is intepreting H. Dooyweerd (�The necessity of intercultural philosophy�, in: D. Tiemersma/H.A.F. Oosterling (eds), Time and temporality in intercultural perspective, l.c., p. 37). In an article of Jan in Tijdschrift voor Filosofie of the same year on �The meaning of intercultural philosophy�, I have reacted on this position. I have tried to make clear that I agree with Jan that universals cannot be objectified and that we cannot speak of them like of finite things. They must be presupposed, but they remain an enigma, which we cannot solve. Dooyeweerd as a philosopher of Calvinistic Protestantism has other sources to tell what that enigma is about, which are based on Christian belief. I do not think this step is necessary to give a relational frame to which cultural particulars have to be referred (p. 245/6). I find my own position exactly expressed in a sentence of Fanon, which is quoted twice by Murray Hofmeyr in his contribution to this Close Encounter-session: �Universality resides in this decision to recognize and accept the reciprocal relativism of different cultures�. The enigma of cultural universals is concrete in the recognition of different cultures as being of the same value.

Kwasi Wiredu tries to go further and specify �some cognitive and ethical universals�. These are what he calls �the three supreme laws of thought and conduct, namely, the principles of non-contradiction, induction, and the categorical imperative� (Cultural Universals and Particulars. An African Perspective, Bloomington/Indianapolis 1996, p. 1/2). It is, however, easy to see that these universals have a Western origin. They are already concretizations of the enigmatic universality which we cannot articulate in a specific language. I hope to have reacted with that to Mogobe�s third point of critique and also to Jan, who is the chairman of this session and, therefore, cannot bring in his own position. My favorite example is language. All cultures have a certain concrete language. Therefore language is presupposed as a universal. But there are only concrete languages, no universal language. The latter �resides�, with Fanon�s word, in the former.


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