Transculturalism

Transculturalism is a philosophical concept that has become a significant idea in Academe only relatively recently. Its underlying premise is that we need to overcome local cultural prejudices in order to attain a level of understanding that is equally sensible from the perspective of, and equally applicable to, any other culture. It responds to the growing recognition that the long-standing western philosophical perspective is not as readily exportable as the mercantile, technical and military power that recently helped to spread it around the globe. It is the initial step in overcoming the natural inclination for cultures to favour their own perspective and, inevitably, exercise hubris - the greater a culture’s power, the more likely it is to dominate others and become hubristic.

Transculturalism begins to question the authority of any one set of cultural prejudices in order to deal sensibly with all others. The set that has dominated the world for the last few centuries is that of the West, increasingly from the fifteenth to the twentieth century as it flirted with world hegemony.

Tseng Yu-ho, Palms
Tseng Yu-ho, Palms, Circa 1997-2001 76 x 76cm
Private Collection

In nearly conquering the world, the West failed to understand it intellectually since its eastern hemisphere was governed by a way of knowing that transcended the intellect. This was summed up by the mutual antipathy and cultural dismissal that thwarted Lord Macartney’s Embassy to China in the late-eighteenth century. When he arrived in Beijing in 1793, the exchanges clearly demonstrated their mutual disdain. They had translators to deal with the language difference, but the Embassy failed because the languages used were based on two entirely different mindsets that were mutually misunderstood.

The intellect relies on separating the phenomenal world into its fragments, naming them, and then creating ever more sophisticated languages in order to deal with them. It was born when self-consciousness evolved to the capacity to separate self from environment and deal with each independently. This vastly accelerated what was in any case the exponential process of evolving consciousness. The fragments, the separate things and ideas and the languages we have evolved to deal with them, are not Meaning, they are the means we have evolved to deal with Meaning. They are our tools, and vital to evolving consciousness, but as servant not master. Flirting with autonomy, the intellect becomes both confusing and dangerous. The moment we begin to place a higher value on the explanations of meaning than on meaning itself, the vast bounty of intellect is subverted and becomes less efficient as well as dangerous. We see this in monotheism, where human intellectual interpretations of God and what he wants have been granted authority over an inexplicable, transcendent, spiritual domain creating millennia of harm along with such solace and benefit as monotheism might also offer. When Christians are killing other Christians for no other reason than the difference between Papal and Protestant interpretations of monotheism, there is clearly something amiss.

The animist world of spirits such as of wind, sun, volcanoes, and thunder steadily gave way to a pantheon of separate deities, the gods of the Greek and Norse traditions, among many others, who were then finally reduced during the first millennium BCE to just one God in the monotheism of the Abrahamic tradition. The intellectual fragmentation process began to get out of hand at this point as we applied it to the Transcendent and allowed a separate God as yet another fragment, eternally separate from us.

In the East, epitomized by Chinese culture, the ultimate focus of consciousness among the cognoscenti wasn’t union in some form with a higher Being, but direct realization of a higher state of being, an undifferentiated, non-fragmentary way of knowing directly accessible to experience – but not intellectual experience, even if the intellect is the only tool we have for post-rationalization of it as we try to explain the inexplicable. This led to religious response being quite different. Instead of a governing deity, all religious response, all the deities, immortals and saints, were a lower level, relative concern. In the Eastern traditions (Vedanta, Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and, in China, Daoism), a different way of knowing was seen as the governing perspective. Once the individual directly realized the second way of knowing, the bandwidth of consciousness was complete, the perspective of the transcendent way of knowing making sense of the confusion of the fragmented mode, and the full bandwidth of consciousness became available. In the West, since the rationality of the Greeks began to exert its influence, this other, trans-rational way of knowing has been marginalized, at times completely denied (the Age of Reason in Europe in the 18th century, also confusingly known as the Enlightenment since it represented the polar opposite of what the Chinese would have considered Enlightenment at the time.

Wang Jiqian, Blue Water
Wang Jiqian, Blue Water (Landscape 476), 1983 50.5 x 100cm
Private Collection

Transculturalism is equally applicable to all our principle vehicles of evolving consciousness, philosophy, including political philosophy, religion, science and art. Science is already partly transcultural in so far as scientists from around the world can communicate with far less confusion than those involved in the other main domains. Science sets out to objectively deal with the natural world which is perceived in much the same way by scientists everywhere and is relatively free of subjectivity. However, transcultural philosophy also applies to science in how different cultures value its input and incorporate its findings.

Hugh Moss
Consultant