A Dozen Rules of Thumb for Avoiding Intercultural Misunderstandings (Elmar Holenstein)

Elmar Holenstein


About Author: Elmar Holenstein (1937 near St. Gallen, Switzerland) studied philosophy, psychology and linguistics at the Universities of Leuven, Heidelberg and Zurich. During this time and later he was a scientific researcher at the Husserl Archives in Leuven, at the Institute for Linguistics of the University of Cologne, at the Universities of Harvard, Hawaii, and Stanford and at the Institute for the Studies of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa in Tokyo. From 1977 to 1990 he was Professor of Philosophy at the Ruhr University in Bochum, from 1990 to 2002 at the ETH (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) in Zurich. In 1986/87 he was a visiting professor at the University of Tokyo. Since his retirement 2002 he lives in Yokohama, Japan. His focus of research is on philosophical psychology (mind/body problem, the relations between experience, language and thought, the contrast between natural and artificial intelligence) and on cultural philosophy (intercultural invariants and intracultural variations, the role of geography in the history of philosophy and sciences).


A Dozen Rules of Thumb
for Avoiding Intercultural Misunderstandings


Elmar Holenstein


Intercultural understanding does not fail by reason of insurmountable ontological obstacles, which are only susceptible to philosophical analysis. Intercultural misunderstandings are of the same kind as intracultural misunderstanding on the part of members of one and the same culture who belong to different regions, social strata, professions and the like, and are like these susceptible to explanation in psychological and sociological terms. Observing a number of rules of thumb makes it possible to avoid such misunderstandings for the most part.
The governing principle of intercultural hermeneutics is the traditional hermeneutic principle of equity: What all, particularly those concerned, affirm on full consideration of the circumstances is taken as the basis. One of the first requirements is that one must take members of alien cultures seriously and that one must rather doubt one’s own perception than their capacity for logical consistency, goal-orientated rationality and ethical responsibility.
Intercultural misunderstandings are often related to ideas now recognized as being dogmatic, to the assumption that cultures are homogeneous and stand in polar opposition to each other, to the supposition that ethical and ethnic differences are correlated, to the lack of distinction between “is” and “ought”, but also, among those who seek salvation in alien cultures, to the lack of distinction between what in fact cannot be understood and what fundamentally cannot be understood.

0. Principle of hermeneutic fairness (“equity”)

1. Rule of logical rationality

2. Rule of teleological rationality (functionality rule)

3. Humanity rule (naturalness rule)

4. Nos-quoque rule (we-do-it-too-rule)

5. Vos-quoque rule (you-do-it-too-rule)

6. Anti-crypto-racism rule

7. Personality rule

8. Subjectivity rule

9. Ontology-deontology rule (“is” versus “ought”)

10. Depolarization rule (rule against cultural dualism)

11. Non-homogeneity rule

12. Agnosticism rule


0. Principle of hermeneutic fairness (“equity”)


The most helpful governing principle for intercultural understanding is the venerable principle of equity. It is the basic principle of hermeneutics, the classical theory of understanding, and is accordingly called aequitas hermeneutica in Latin. All rules that open a way to understanding foreign cultures are related to this principle of equity.

In the context of understanding, it is no longer a matter of course to speak of “equity”. In order to understand what is meant by equity, it may be instructive to note that its Latin cognate, aequus, is sometimes translated as »fair« in modern English law literature. The traditional German word for “equity” is Billigkeit. To understand this word, which is nowadays antiquated, one can consider the verb billigen, which is still current in everyday language. Wir billigen, that is, we approve of, a judgement when it suits or fits the matter judged. This is the case when it takes account of all circumstances and the entire context in which a state of affairs is given. Hence, a second principle of hermeneutics which is derived from the principle of equity has become better known, namely the principle that a text is only understandable together with its context, a “part” only together with the “whole” to which it belongs. The next question is then, of what kind or what manifold of kinds this entire context is. Opinions on this diverge considerably according to sensibility. In the first place, the concerns of all whom the judgement affects are pertinent. A judgement is thus properly called »equitable« when all, in particular those concerned, can approve it. In legal practice it is a matter of course that those on whom judgement is to be passed are given the opportunity to speak. They have the right to counsel. If necessary, they are assigned a court-appointed lawyer.

In jurisprudence, a judgement is also said to be “equitable” if it is such that it distinguishes between the strict wording of the law, the letter of the law, and the goal which the legislator pursued with it, the public good. Along this line, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg regarded chicanery as the contrary of “hermeneutic equity”. 1 One aspect that belongs to an adequate understanding of something is that no violence should be done to it. Accordingly, in this essay the word used will not be the usual German word, Faustregel, a rule of the fist, but rather the English expression, rules of thumb for intercultural understanding. Let me present twelve such rules, noted in the course of reading works on other cultures, for discussion.


1. Rule of logical rationality


A “principle of charity” has been formulated in philosophical theories of translation in the past few decades, apparently unaware of the venerable hermeneutic principle of equity but convergent with it. What is meant is that one should not attribute alogical or prelogical thought to people whose language and culture is foreign, but rather assume that one has misunderstood them. “For certainly, the more absurd or exotic the beliefs imputed to a people, the more suspicious we are entitled to be of the translations [or interpretations].

To bring out the core of the rule, it is also called “principle of rationality”. There is a philosophical reason for adducing such a principle as the first rule for understanding. If we are not only to explain linguistic utterances causally as physical events, but also to understand them meaningfully, the presupposition is that a logical relationship can be discerned between them. In order to judge whether and how someone understands linguistic utterances, one must find out what consequences he is in a position to draw from them with a certain consistency.

Hegel had a different view of this. As far as he and his period were concerned, there seemed to be cultures in which absurdity which from the outset deserves no further examination was the rule, and rationality which is only recognized on closer examination was the exception. Hegel quotes from Warren Hastings’s preface to the first English edition of the Bhagavad Gītā: “Every reader must make allowance for the properties of obscurity, absurdity, barbarous habits, and a perverted morality from the beginning. Where the reverse appears, he must receive this as so much clear gain, and allow it a merit proportioned to the disappointment of a different expectation. Without claiming such indulgence, he [Hastings] could hardly have dared to recommend this poem for publication.

The simplest example for something which at first sight, literally understood, is obvious nonsense is double negation. It is usual in many languages, and is not foreign to everyday German. Martin Heidegger wrote to Ernst Jünger about a »cousin of mine« who was wont to say of himself, »I bi nie kein Nazi gesei«, in literal translation (but without the dialect coloration)”I was never no Nazi«. 4 In such turns of phrase, the second negation does not have the function of cancelling the first one, rather it has the opposite function of lending it emphasis. Doublings (“very, very interesting”) are a means of emphasizing in natural language.

Getting a grasp of the rationality of a cultural achievement presupposes that the interpreter is capable of changing his standpoint.”There is a simple proposition which is often forgotten but should be at the head of every study dealing with “rationalism”: it is possible to “rationalize” life … in very different ways.” 5 Max Weber’s “simple proposition” also belongs at the beginning of every study comparing cultures.


2. Rule of teleological rationality (functionality rule)


People are able and want to do more than only express themselves with logical rationality. In what they do, they pursue an end, as is normal for living beings. If one cannot distinguish logical and teleological rationality, the literal meaning of a sentence and the goal pursued with it, many utterances will seem to be irrational. If only the meaning of the individual words and their syntax is taken into consideration, simple untruths are stated with double negations. Statements about what is obvious, for example about how late it is when all being addressed have just heard it from the chiming of the clock, seem to be superfluous and pointless if one does not notice that the speaker, in the form of a factual report, actually wants to express a wish or a worry. Finally, very many utterances will seem to be inexpedient if, although one is actually familiar with the functional perspective, one is fixated on a narrow concept of goal and if one equates purposefulness with parsimony or simple utility, or if it escapes one that, depending on the circumstances, diametrically opposed forms of behaviour can be purposeful.

At the beginning of the pragmatic turn in linguistics, one communication rule (for some it was the first rule) was “Be short!”. But there is an unwritten rule of politeness intuitively adhered to all over the world which has it that »the longer (an address or a greeting is), the more polite«. Many classical texts of Indian philosophy with their repetitions are remarkably tiring for the contemporary reader. What causes weariness in a written tradition may well be an aid to the memory in a tradition passed down only by word of mouth over the centuries. In an autobiographical novel, Susan Taubes describes how her father, an early adherent to Freudian psychoanalysis, made it his educational objective pitilessly to root out roundabout talk. He regarded roundabout expressions as purely hypocritical, and forbade his daughter the use of polite phrases: »When asking for something, one was not allowed to say “Do you have …, please?” or “Could you give me …?” or “I would like to ask you for something”, no, Sophie only got the piece of chocolate when she said, “Give me …”. She couldn’t, and she cried.6

For human beings it is not only significant what is said, but also how it is said. There are texts which owe their forcefulness to a hidden poetic form. Buddha’s”noble truth” about the origin of suffering ends with a list of three kinds of thirst (taṇhā): “thirst for love, thirst for life, thirst for prosperity”. A glance at the Indian text suggests that phonetic and rhythmic factors played a part in the precise sequence of the list of kinds of thirst: kāma-taṇhā, bhava-taṇhā, vibhava-taṇhā.


3. Humanity rule (naturalness rule)


The words “rationality” and “functionality” (or “expediency”) are generally only used in a narrow, technical sense in the humanities. Hence, when the appropriate attitude towards people of foreign cultures is at issue, the preferred expression is “principle of humanity” or – somewhat less anthropocentric – “principle of naturalness”: 7 Before meaningless, unnatural, non-human or immature behaviour and corresponding values are attributed to people of another culture, it is better to begin by doubting the adequacy of one’s own judgement and knowledge.

In his speech on receiving the Nobel prize, the Nigerian author Wole Soyinka 8 quotes Hegel 9, “who found it convenient to pretend that the African had not yet developed to the level where he “attained that realization of any substantial objective existence – as for example God or law – in which the interest of man’s volition is involved and in which he realizes his own being”. For Soyinka it is”futile to waste a moment refuting the banal untruthfulness of this claim«. It is indeed difficult to imagine how the self-esteem and the dignity which Africans express in their very bearing and their striking sense of honour and shame should be compatible with the cognitive inability to distinguish between what one in fact is and what one would like to be ideally, intrinsically.

There would really be no point to quoting Hegel if his views could not be found in contemporarily modified language today. Here is a gaffe committed in the second-last decade before 2000 A.D. »A term like “self-realization” is questionable as a category to grasp Japanese reality, because it is based on the Western concept of an autonomous personality which ultimately is not recognized as valid either for men or for women in Japan. A phrase like “traditional forms of self-realization [in Japan]” is thus a contradiction in itself.” 10

But the topos of self-cultivation (self-esteem, self-invigoration, self-examination), which is typical of Confucian philosophy 11, was also received into

Japanese philosophy. Every Samurai-film demonstrates visibly what form the ideal of self-realization could take in traditional Japan. Apart from that, an infant in Japan, no differently from an infant in Europe, already experiences in the first months of life that it is a being distinct from its surroundings. A human child learns very early to distinguish between its own feelings and impulses and those of its contact persons. It realizes that it is its own affair how it behaves and how it is then appreciated by others and on this basis by itself. Innate abilities of this kind are distinguished by the fact that they are accompanied by an equally innate tendency to make use of them. It would be surprising if such an ability, which is demonstrably a phenomenon of early childhood, should not be promoted in cultures which are held to be particularly child orientated. 12 What can be expected is rather a realistic assessment of the conditions of self-realization, that is, its initial dependency on support and on models, and especially on recognition by others (a condition that Hegel in particular was not unaware of). In these cultures, it is not likely that human self-realization, which is at once individuation and socialization, will be confused with solitary self-fulfilment.

If we encounter something in a foreign culture which seems inhuman to us and which apparently is still accepted by the members of that culture without much fuss, it is quite probable that there is something else that makes what seems unbearable bearable. A »test-case« (in the literal and metaphorical sense) is the Japanese »examination hell«. In this »hell«, one is not “godforsaken” and forlornly lonely, with only oneself to rely on, as people in the West think. Preparation for the examination is done in groups, living as if in a camp. The feeling of fellowship and esprit de corps that are established there are further cultivated at the university and at work. The experience that one is not left alone in a difficult phase of life makes this »hell« – and at the same time the prospect of later life – bearable. One acquires in good time a realistic self-assessment regarding one’s own abilities and one’s dependency on co-operation. The »examination hell« has features of an initiation rite appropriate to the phase of life in which it takes place. 13


4. Nos-quoque rule (we-do-it-too-rule)


Does “understanding everything” mean “forgiving everything”? J.L. Austin, the Oxfordian founder of speech-act theory, is said to have responded to the French proverb, Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner, with, “Understanding might just add contempt to hatred”. It is tempting to think, despite the present rules for avoiding prejudice, that this blasé way of speaking is really at home in Oxford.

It is good to be realistic, but one aspect of realism is that the boundary between what one indulgently forgives and what one rancorously condemns should not be drawn precisely between one’s own and the foreign culture. Not only others, “we too” (nos quoque) tend to behave in the same way under the same conditions. If one encounters something in a foreign culture which one is completely unwilling to accept without contradiction (for example, the death sentence on Salman Rushdie), it is not unlikely that one will find comparable, if not worse occurrences in one’s own culture, historical (Auschwitz) and contemporary (the pursuit of Black Africans in Magdeburg in 1994).

As the counterexamples show, we do not need to go back to the Middle Ages in Europe, back before the Enlightenment, which people in Europe like to cite to explain what distinguishes Western from other cultures. We also do not need to retire to rural areas, to an interior that has remained economically backward, we can remain in the centres of the European modern era.

A few years ago, the corporeal punishment which a young American received in Singapore was a cause of irritation in the West: a form of punishment which the British colonial government had introduced to the Malaysian peninsula. Ulrich Bräker, “the poor man” from Toggenburg in Switzerland who involuntarily landed in the mercenary service of Friedrich the Great, recounts in his autobiography how mercenaries whose attempt to desert failed were forced to run the gauntlet in Berlin in 1756: “until strips of coagulated blood hung down over their trowsers. Then Schärer [Bräker’s countryman] and I looked at each other trembling and deathly pale and whispered into each others’ ear: These damned barbarians!” 14

In the weekly newspaper Die Zeit of 30th September 1994, Japan was denounced for the fact that between 1932 and 1945 its army conscripted more than 100,000 women from occupied territories into front-line brothels. Up to now, the culprits have not been called to account, and the victims are still waiting for an official apology and adequate restitution. The reproach was accompanied by a moving picture of now elderly Korean women who had been »comfort women« 15, as the women who had been thus violated were called in war. Independently of this, a day later the Neue Zürcher Zeitung published a review of a book by Ingrid Strobl dealing with the rape of women in the German army: “The topic is still subject to a particularly strict “prohibition” in Germany.” But the Nuremberg trials documented the fact “that the German troops systematically committed rape”. Next to the brothels was the “science block”, where various methods of sterilization were “scientifically tested” on the Jews among the violated women. For them, forced prostitution was a “first step towards administrative mass murder”.

The Korean women in the Japanese army were called “comfort women”; the Jewesses in the German army were further derided with the stamp “field whore” or “whore for Hitler’s troops”. A report on both crimes, which occurred simultaneously, in the same article in the same newspaper, would have helped shed light on the causes. The one-eyed exposure of infamy committed in alien cultures insinuates that it is culture-specific cruelty. The macabre sense of ethical superiority which the West tends to have is secretly nurtured by this.

In Japan, a sort of occupier’s raison d’état is cited in this connection. The forced prostitution of women who were mostly poor and uneducated was an attempt to keep the rape of women in the occupied territories under control. It is the causes of war that were the fundamental wrong. That is were to start. The massive increase in prostitution (example: Vietnam) and rape (example: Yugoslavia) is an inexorable result of war, which forced prostitution attempts to canalize on a higher, rationalized level of misogyny – at a slightly higher order of vileness in East Europe than in East Asia. 16

The Japanese view is that in a culture of shame one will seek a private way of apologizing and making recompense for an offence. Indirect forms of compensation are preferred, forms that make it possible to veil both the other’s wounds and one’s own face. Verbal and intellectual ways of coming to terms with the past which are loudly proclaimed as such and which involve ostentatious financial compensation can serve to obscure the fact that there are crimes for which there is no exculpation, neither a whole life long nor in the history of the states which committed them. The rationalization of coming to terms with the past can nourish an illusion of autonomy without the realization of how deceptive human emotional self-assessment is.


5. Vos-quoque rule (you-do-it-too-rule)


If in foreign cultures one encounters offences against humanity which one is not prepared to take cognizance of without contradiction, then it is not only likely that one will find comparably objectionable events in one’s own culture. It is no less probable that one will find persons in the foreign culture who reject the scandalous event. There are also many Muslims, both theologians and lay-persons, who reject the death sentence on Salman Rushdie as reprehensible. It is probable that in all cultures, certainly in those that spread over a larger expanse of time, space and population, elementary ideas of an ethics conformable to human rights can be made out. 17 They are not free of contradiction, and generally not dominant. Nor are they in the Western – Greek and Christian – tradition.

World-wide observance of human rights will not be furthered by attempting to urge their enforcement everywhere in the same formal legal form in which they have gained validity in the West. What is indicated is a Socratic-Pauline approach: Beginning with a view of humanity and with values which are naturally shared by one’s partners (“vos quoque – you too adhere to the maxim …”), it can be shown that behaviour conformable to human rights is indeed well founded in the philosophy of this culture. If a culture like the Chinese has ren (humanity) and yi (the Chinese counterpart of the Roman principle of aequitas) as guiding principles and if wise sayings on political philosophy such as, “Only someone who does not seek to shed human blood can keep the Empire together” 18, are widespread proverbs, then a terror regime is questionable on the basis of its own Chinese tradition.


6. Anti-crypto-racism rule


Human beings have insidious dispositions. When they are frustrated or suffering from stress, they are inclined to perceive shortcomings pertaining to themselves or to the group with which they identify in magnified form in members of other groups. It is called racism when appearance (in particular the skin colour), origin and a different language and culture are decisive for the formation of the anti-group. Racists associate with deviant and especially conspicuous external features “profound” internal differences. Systematic correlation, co-extension and co-variation (the same extension and uniform variation) cannot be detected in anatomical and physiological terms between body-surface properties and inner-bodily properties nor in psychological and sociological terms between visible bodily properties and mental properties. Racists see drawbacks and detriments (a) only in the other group, (b) generalizing in all members of the group, and they see (c) only drawbacks and detriments in the other group.

Racism is proscribed and ostracized in the sciences today. But racism is comparable to a pathogenic agent against which a wide-ranging campaign has been fought. It has transformed itself unnoticed, and is now subliminally effective in sublimated form. It cannot be always immediately and everywhere plainly recognized as such. What is reliable, however, is that as a rule racism goes hand in hand with an overestimation of one’s own culture. Crypto-racism, hidden racism, is apt to become manifest when one’s own feeling of superiority is threatened. The result is invective against a successful rival which is quite out of place.

In a philosophical essay 19, for example, the following completely irrational remarks come without any warning: To respond to the dispute on science and technology by “lauding the naiveté with which South-East Asian cultures now handle science and technology is also naive. Such a view would mean recommending to our own culture that it should return to its beginnings”. It is indeed deplorable how science and technology are currently used in South-East Asia. In the West, however, we have no reason to make disparaging remarks about it, quite the contrary. The South-East Asian states are attempting to cope with their immense development problems with their own resources. The issue is to ensure the minimum necessary for subsistence fit for human beings in an overpopulated continent; and, understandably, at issue is also the international reputation of a population which was long regarded by the West as not being of equal rank. In Europe, we too are prepared to set aside environmental concerns in order to reduce unemployment or to safeguard our geopolitical position. Furthermore, with our standard of living in the West we are still individually the greatest environmental damagers. At least up to 1997, the worst environmental destruction in South-East Asia stemmed from the West, the chemical defoliation during the Vietnam War. The claim that adopting the science and technology policy of South-East Asian countries would mean regressing to the beginnings of European culture is a self-glorification. It would mean a relapse to the fifties, to the decades before the troubling insight into the limits of economic growth. At worst, it would be a relapse to the 19th century, not however to the beginnings of Western culture, but only to the beginning of Western industrialization.

It is not possible to give free rein to the antipathy to a rival civilization in the higher channels available to an academic without it having a disinhibiting effect on other sections of society who are only in a position to give vent to their distaste for self-confident foreigners with tangible means, with stones and firebrands. There are academic beginnings of racism which it is better to resist.

Half-truths are more dangerous than crude and simple untruths. Cultural developments have as a rule two sides. They are ambivalent. Everybody knows the bottle that the pessimist perceives to be half-empty, the optimist half-full. If in a culture like the Japanese, individual self-sufficiency is not much of an issue, if success and failure, brilliant feat and dismal performance are seen as dependent on the group to which the individual belongs and by which he is always supported, then someone with a pessimistic view of other cultures – or, to put it more exquisitely, a heteroculturepessimist – may well write of Japanese society that it is a “society with limited liability” which “tends to avoid holding the individual liable and to clearly localize responsibility”. 20 Those with an optimistic view of other cultures – heterocultureoptimists – who believe there is more to be learned from foreign cultures than to be criticized see this from the other, complementary side, from which the bottle looks half full. Among those who have taken psychological or sociological training in Japan itself, Japanese society seems to be a society with shared, participative liability. 21

The assumption of blame in Japan by the group leader, which is often cited, has several functions. By taking the blame himself as the “scapegoat”, he protects the pitiable culprit, who has generally been compromised enough by his deed, as well as the other members of the group. He helps preserve the group’s autonomy since the demonstrated capacity for self-correction is warrant that intervention from outside, in particular on the part of the state, is superfluous. The admission of guilt on the part of the superior does not so much serve the search for the truth, as evidence for a judge’s verdict of guilt, but rather serves to initiate the restoration of orderly conditions and to certify the capacity for rehabilitation. An admission of guilt that includes the entire group and all who are jointly responsible makes it easier for the victim to forgive the guilty party and for the judge to avert a legal dispute and a formal and severe ruling. Both are conducive to the restoration of harmony.

When something in a culture appears disreputable, there is still a way to reach a view of it which is not one-sidedly disparaging, namely by including the counterpart in one’s own culture in the evaluation. If one describes Japan as a “land of ritual harmony”, one can ask if there is not just as much reason to speak of “ritual individualism” with respect to Western countries. 22 The conformity in fashion, media and even in academic operations in the West stands in strange contrast to the individualism which is one-sidedly proclaimed.

The successful analysis of a foreign culture will always shed revealing light on one’s own culture.


7. Personality rule


Kant’s practical imperative is well known:”Act so that you always treat humanity both in your own person and in everyone else’s person as an end, never as a mere means.” 23 Nonetheless, there is not much written about his view that one expresses the idea one has of humanity in the manner in which one treats oneself and others.

It is possible to avoid misjudgements and tactlessness by never treating members of another culture as objects of research, or as means of research (as subordinate informants and interpreters), but as research partners of equal right. They are persons. They have the right to be heard and to ask counter-questions before a judgement about them is published. A mutual exchange of opinions on an equal basis will promote the discovery of truth. A comprehensive judgement of persons involves the view from within and from without, self-image and the other’s view. Hence, cultural studies are ideally conducted in tandem or in teamwork, with members of another culture together with members of the culture being studied. Method, result and interpretation must always also be published in the language of the culture being studied, must be open to discussion and offered for review.


8. Subjectivity rule


A self-image is no more to be taken at face value without a check-test than are the impressions of an outsider. Both require a mutual cross-check. According to their constitution and the kind of encounter, people tend to overestimate, superelevate and embellish themselves, or to underestimate, diminish and denigrate themselves.

It has become apparent that in their own case and in the case of close associates with whom they identify themselves, people tend to overlook behaviours that in their eyes are inferior or which they view as socially proscribed. Language researchers have noticed that for this reason they cannot simply rely on the testimony of native speakers. A women from Inner Switzerland, on being asked whether she uses the local dialect word eister or the standard German word immer for “always”, contradicted herself by answering, “Ich sage eister “immer”.” 24

It is not infrequent for self-abasement and »formal« self-denigration to occur purely by reason of politeness. It is »good form« in many places for host and hostess to disparage what they are offering and what they are able to offer. Strangers, particularly when they belong to a culture held to be superior and when they act as such, are treated in many cultures with particularly marked politeness. In this manner, a naive researcher can have his views on another culture confirmed, seemingly “objectively”, intersubjectively observably, and substantiate this on film and discs.

It is instructive when two interlocutors try to outdo each other with self-abasement, especially when it is not so much self-criticism referring to themselves but rather compromising remarks about their own countries. It may be a good sign that this has become possible between representatives of different cultures. At the 1990 Frankfurt book fair, at which Japan was the guest country, there was a podium discussion between the two authors Günter Grass and Ōe Kenzaburō, who both belong to the same post-war generation and see themselves as critical spokespersons of their own countries:

Grass began by lamenting German unification. Auschwitz, he said, should have made reunification impossible. A unified Germany was a danger to itself and to the entire world. Ōe nodded gravely and added that Japan was a great danger too. The Japanese, he said, had never faced up to their crimes. Japan was a racist country. Yes, but so was Germany, said Grass, not to be outdone, so was Germany; in fact Germany was worse: what about the hatred of Poles, Turks, and foreigners in general. Ah, said Ōe, but what about Japanese discrimination against Koreans and Ainu? No, the Japanese must surely be worse. 25

The strangest form of self-misunderstanding to which an encounter with a foreign culture that is held to be scientifically and technologically superior can lead is self-exoticization. It can appear both in the form of self-denigration and in the form of self-glorification. In the first case, the unfavourable foreign judgement is adopted, and salvation is sought in adopting the other culture, its language, clothing, etiquette, style of life, values. Not only one’s own tradition, all other cultures which do not subscribe to the goal culture are objects of contempt. In the second case the enraptured foreign judgement is internalized. Instead of rediscovering one’s own culture with its strengths and weaknesses by means of the challenge presented by the other culture, one begins to perceive it and to represent it in one’s own literature and art in the manner corresponding to the consciously or unconsciously perceived longings and reveries of the strangers. Ultimately, the Japanese author Mishima Yukio shaped his own life to correspond to the burlesque Western image of Japan. 26


9. Ontology-deontology rule (“is” versus “ought”)


Behaviour codes and lists of commandments, treatises on statecraft and constitutional texts do not represent conditions as they are, but as they should be according to the view of the group or stratum that have the say. Sometimes they manifest a mirror image of what is not the case. Proscriptions are made and hagiologies written precisely when something that in the view of legislators and guardians of public morals is “proper” is not general practice. In Japan there is a rule of etiquette according to which women are supposed to walk three steps behind men. It is not only today that the opposite can be observed; the Portuguese Jesuit Luis Frois already recorded it in 1585: “In Europe, men precede and the women follow; in Japan the men follow and women precede.”27

Someone who is only able to draw his knowledge of an other culture from a library is not always in a position to distinguish between “is” (ontology) and “ought” (deontology).


10. Depolarization rule (rule against cultural dualism)


Polarization is an elementary means of reducing complexity and classifying things. Its primary function is not to render things as they in fact are, but rather to represent them in a manner in which they are useful. It is not at all levels of language and reality that the result of a systematic polarization is of the same utility as on the phonological level, where the phonetic oppositions (light – dark, tense – lax) have a sense-discriminative function.

In cultural sciences, the belief in a systematic correlation between opposing pairs (light – dark; active – passive; living – non-living; rational – emotional; masculine – feminine; occidental – oriental; yang – yin) has proved to be something that distorts things disastrously. There would only be two cultures (in the world: orient and occident; in society: woman and man; in the sciences: natural science and humanities) if all opposing pairs that have such currency in the cultural sciences were coextensive. In reality, the same oppositions that are thought to be ascertainable between two cultures (interculturally) can often be detected in the same kind and degree within one and the same culture (intraculturally), even within one and the same person (intrasubjectively) depending on age, surroundings, task or just on mood and humour. One example, which has become famous for first being internalized by a representative member of a non-European culture and then stoutly proclaimed, stems from the Senegalese poet and statesman Léopold Senghor: “L’émotion est nègre, comme la raison hellène.” 28

Polarizations with their simplification, exaggeration, absolutism, and exclusivity are best prevented by comparing several cultures with each other, instead of restricting the comparison to two, and by paying attention to the circumstances under which such a polar relationship between two cultures can be maintained and under what conditions it can also be detected within the cultures that are contrasted with each other.

When Frois records that in Japan as distinct from Europe women precede men, it must be pointed out that both here and there there are certain occasions, festive ceremonies and processions, at which women (and children) traditionally precede the men. There are ceremonies at which it is more dignified to make an appearance, to speak and to leave at the end. In a letter dating from 1565, Frois, a discriminating observer, notes that in Japan, too, the colours black and grey are “signs of mourning”. In the treatise of 1585 cited above, in which his aim is a contrast of Japan and Europe, he writes with simple exaggeration:”We [Europeans] use black for mourning, the Japanese white” 29 It must be added that for children (as well as in the choice of flowers) the colour of mourning can also be white in Europe.

In older literature authors generally base their contrastive comparisons of cultures on detailed observations. Thus, Herodotos, writing in the 5th pre-Christian century, records in his list of 16 cultural contrasts between Egypt and Greece that the Egyptians write from right to left in contrast to the Greeks, which Frois, writing in the 16th post-Christian century, noted of the Japanese in his list of 609 contrasts between Japan and Europe. 30

Modern contrasts increasingly tend to be orientated on general and abstract categories and principles. Typologies based on complementary mental capacities such as reason and intuition or intellect and emotion, or on equally complementary behaviours such as passivity and activity, or on global attitudes such as world affirmation and world negation almost unavoidably lead to a distortion of the cultures described. 31

For decades, European economists perceived Confucian ethics as a hindrance to the modernization of China. Today they praise it as a driving factor of economic advancement, just as Weber had seen such force in protestant ethics. It is not the case that the contemporary view is correct and the earlier one wrong. Both are equally undifferentiated. They both overlook the fact that in systems of world views as historically complex as are Confucianism and Christianity there are motives for opposing forms of behaviour. Depending on the constellation, one or the other direction can be dominant.

According to which eras and trends receive preferred treatment within a cultural area, typologies offer completely contradictory classifications. Jürgen Habermas regards Christianity and Hinduism as world-negating religions – following Max Weber, but omitting his express reservation that the typological approach is historically relative. 32 In the book on India by the liberal theologian Albert Schweitzer, Christian thought, together with Zarathustra’s thought and Chinese thought, is called world affirming and contrasted with world-denying Indian thought. 33 In Friedrich Nietzsche’s view, finally, the Ancient Indian religion was “an affirmative Aryan religion”: “noble values everywhere, a feeling of perfection, an affirmation of life, a triumphal sense of well-being in oneself and in the world – the sun bears on the entire book” of the ancient Indian law-giver Manu. 34

Neither Christian denominations nor Indian religions can be accommodated whole with all their developmental phases and formations in the Procrustes-bed of a dualistic typology.

Christianity India
Habermas world denial (–) world denial (–)
Nietzsche denial of life (–) affirmation of life (+)
Schweitzer affirmation of life
and the world
(+) denial of life
and the world

11. Non-homogeneity rule

According to a way of thinking that has been cultivated since the early romantic era, there may well be no single humanity, but there are “indeed societies and cultures about which general statements can be made just as about plant species and animal kinds”. 35 The article of faith was heterogeneous humanity (perhaps even polygenetic human race) and homogeneous cultures (the same stock, the same customs, the same language).

The assumption that cultures are homogeneous is a temptation to place the various eras, trends and formations to be found in them in a unilinear order as if they are only distinguished by their degree of development and none of them has its own originality and autonomy. Their qualitative peculiarity, originality, sometimes their antagonistic and alternative features are cut off.

In India, Buddhism is held to be a heterodox view of the world. Jaspers explains it and magnifies it as the “consummation of the Indian … form of life” and as the “conclusion of Indian philosophy” to which there is “nothing new as far as detail is concerned”. 36 This view was already prepared by Max Weber, but from the start, as is to be expected, circumspect and clearly relativized: “Ancient Buddhism was … the most thorough-going, consistent of the noble soteriologies cultivated by Hindu intellectuals and to this extent [!] their consummation.” 37 Within Hinduism itself, another philosophical trend, the Vedānta (“Veda end”), is regarded as the consummation of the Vedic tradition.

With respect to Korea, a satellite state of China, Weber, too, adheres fully to the linear view: “The Korean social order was a pale image of the Chinese order.” 38

In the 19th century, Gottfried Keller thought no differently of Switzerland in relationship to the larger neighbour Germany: “The staid business of his own countrymen was warrant to him [the green Heinrich] that the stock had gone cold and become degenerated, and on the other side of the Rhine he hoped to find the original glow and depth of Germanic life.« 39 But it was precisely in Gottfried Keller that Max Weber perceived a “Germanity” of a special, unique mould, such as is only possible outside of a nation-state with political power, in polities that renounce political power. 40

It is conceivable that adequate knowledge would shed similarly autochthonous light on Korea in comparison to China, just as Max Weber saw Switzerland in such a light during the First World War. Indeed, in the 15th century, Korea, independently of its politically and culturally predominant neighbour China, created for its vernacular, which is not related to Chinese, an alphabet that today is enthusiastically praised in linguistics.


12. Agnosticism rule


There are mysteries that remain mysteries in all cultures and across cultures, transculturally. Of course, proofs of indeterminacy or undecidability can be based on false presuppositions and thus deceive. Still, one must be prepared for the fact that a satisfactory answer to Leibniz’s question will not be found in any culture: “Why is there something and not nothing?” The same holds of Locke’s question as to how it is possible that “bare incogitative matter should produce a thinking intelligent being”. What can be expected from other cultures is at best how to halt before such questions.


1Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1801): “Sudelbücher” (J 1207). In: Schriften und Briefe. Vol. 1. Frankfurt/M. 1992, 499: “Every author can demand hermeneutic equity from his reader; and it is chicanery if the reader refuses it.”

2 Willard Van Orman Quine (1960): Word and Object. Cambridge/Mass., 69.

3  G.W.F. Hegel: “Über die unter dem Namen Bhagavad-Gita bekannte Episode des Mahabharata”. In: Werke. Vol. 11. Frankfurt/M. 1970, 134f.
One of the evident rules of literary hermeneutics is that a quotation should not be adduced without checking its context. It is just as evident a rule of translation that as far as possible back-translations should be avoided, and the original wording of the quotation should be checked. My translator obligingly heeded both rules. It turned out that Hegel only quotes a negative concession from Hastings’s preface, without quoting the plea for appreciation of an other culture in which this concession is embedded. Hastings’s preface to The Bhagvat-Geeta (translated by Charles Wilkins, London 1785) is indeed exemplary for the application of the hermeneutic “principle of charity”. An extended extract is therefore indicated. Hastings writes (7f):
“Might I, an unlettered man, venture to prescribe bounds to the latitude of criticism, I should exclude, in estimating the merit of such a production, all rules drawn from the ancient or modern literature of Europe, all references to such sentiments or manners as are become the standards of propriety for opinion and action in our own modes of life, and equally all appeals to our revealed tenets of religion, and moral duty. I should exclude them, as by no means applicable to the language, sentiments, manners, or morality appertaining to a system of society with which we have for ages been unconnected, and of an antiquity preceding even the first efforts of civilization in our own quarter of the globe.”
The passage that Hegel quotes almost literally follows here. Hastings then continues:
“Many passages will be found obscure, many will seem redundant; others will be found cloathed with ornaments of fancy unsuited to our tastes, and some elevated to a track of sublimity into which our habits of judgment will find it difficult to pursue them; but few will shock either our religious faith or moral sentiments. Something too must be allowed to the subject itself, which is highly metaphysical, to the extreme difficulty of rendering abstract terms by others exactly corresponding with them in another language, to the arbitrary combination of ideas, in words expressing unsubstantial qualities, and more, to the errors of interpretation. The modesty of the translator would induce him to defend the credit of his work, by laying all its apparent defects to his own charge, under the article last enumerated; but neither does his accuracy merit, nor the work itself require that concession.”

4  Letter from Heidegger to Jünger dated 7th November 1969, printed in: Ernst Jünger (1980): Federbälle. Zürich, 71.

5 Max Weber (1920): Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie. Vol. 1. Tübingen 1988, 62.

6 Susan Taubes (1969): Divorcing. New York.

7 My suggestion in: Elmar Holenstein (1980): Von der Hintergehbarkeit der Sprache. Frankfurt/M., 53ff.

8 Wole Soyinka: This Past Must Address Its Present. Nobel Lecture. Stockholm, December 8, 1986.

9 G.W.F. Hegel (1822/23): Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Geschichte. In: Werke. Vol. 12. Frankfurt/M. 1970, 122.

10 Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereit (1981): Review of Gebhard Hielscher (Hg.) (1980): Die Frau. In: Bochumer Jahrbuch zur Ostasienforschung 4, 503.

11 Cf. Heiner Roetz (1992): Die chinesische Ethik der Achsenzeit. Frankfurt/M., 242ff.

12 Cf. Ulric Neisser (1988): “Five Kinds of Self-Knowledge”. In: Philosophical Psychology 1, 35-59, and, with respect to Japan, Robert N. Emde (1992): “Amae, Intimacy, and the Early Moral Self”. In: Infant Mental Health Journal 13, 34-42. – R.D. Hess et al. (eds.) (1986) write in a comparative study of Japanese and American children (Child development and Education in Japan. New York, 163): »Japanese mothers appeared to place higher confidence in efficacy of effort than did American mothers. Perhaps the Japanese mothers were thus expressing a belief that problems are susceptible to persistence and hard work and that responsibility for achievement lies with the individual. Despite the individualism that presumably characterizes American culture, mothers and children in the United States seemed to be less oriented toward internal sources of achievement. They emphasized the role of parents in children’s success in school, were more likely to place blame on the school for the children’s failure, and appealed more to authority than to internal states in attempts to persuade children to conform.«

13 Kae Ito (1993): “Das japanische Schul- und Bildungssystem”. In: ETH-Bulletin 250 (July 1993), 16.

14 Ulrich Bräker (1789): Der arme Mann im Tockenburg. Stuttgart 1965, 113.

15 In Japanese: Jugun (troop-accompanying) ian-fu (comfort women); Indonesian-Dutch: troostmeisjes.

16 E. Wehrmann (1994): “Verschweigen und Vergessen”. In: Die Zeit (30th September 1994), 94; H. Abosch (1994): “Die Blitze der Trauer”. In: Neue Zürcher Zeitung (1st-2nd Oktober 1994), 89 (Review of: I. Strobl (1994): Das Feld des Vergessens. Jüdischer Widerstand und deutsche “Vergangenheitsbewältigung”. Berlin – Amsterdam).

17 Cf. Elmar Holenstein (1985): Menschliches Selbstverständnis. Frankfurt/M., 135; Jeanne Hersch (Hg.) (1990): Das Recht ein Mensch zu sein. Leseproben aus aller Welt zum Thema Freiheit und Menschenrechte. Basel.

18 Quoted according to Weber 1920. Vol. 1, 457.

19 Jürgen Mittelstrass (1994): “Risiko und Akzeptanz”. In: Neue Zürcher Zeitung (9th November 1994), 45.

20 Florian Coulmas (1993): Das Land der rituellen Harmonie. Japan: Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung. Frankfurt/M., 234. It would be more natural to write: In Japan there is a tendency to avoid holding the individual alone liable and to localize responsibility individually.

21 Cf. among others: John O. Haley (1991): Authority Without Power. Law and the Japanese Paradox. Oxford, 132-137; Frank A. Johnson (1993): Dependency and Japanese Socialization. New York, 167.

22 Cf. Weber 1920. Vol. 1, 215: “In the past and up to the present it was a feature precisely of the specifically American democracy that it is not an amorphous sand-heap of individuals, but a jumble of strictly exclusive but voluntarisitic associations.”

23 Immanuel Kant (1785): Grundlegung der Metaphysik der Sitten. In: Werke (Akademie-Textausgabe). Vol. 4. Berlin 1968, 429.

24 Cf. Holenstein 1980, 140; 1985, 97-103.

25 Ian Buruma (1994): The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan. New York, 11f.

26 Cf. Joseph J. Tobin (1992): “Introduction”. En: Joseph J. Tobin (ed.): Re-Made in Japan: Everyday Life and Consumer Taste in a Changing Society. New Haven, 30f.

27 Luis Frois (1585): Kulturgegensätze Europa-Japan. Tokyo 1955, chapter 2, no. 29.

28 Léopold Senghor (1939): “Ce que l’homme noir apporte”. In: Négritude et humanisme. Paris 1964, 24. Cf. Holenstein 1985, 139-152, and (1994) “L’herméneutique interculturelle”. In: Revue de théologie et de philosophie 126, 32f.

29 Frois 1585, chapter 1, no. 30; Engelbert Jorissen (1988): Das Japanbild im »Traktat« (1585) des Luis Frois. Münster, 188f.

30 Frois 1585, chapter 10, no. 3; on Herodotos cf. Holenstein 1985, 140f.

31According to Coulmas 1993, 235, the Japanese concept of responsibility is not directed to the future, as is the European, but to the past. What is decisive is whether one proves worthy of one’s forbears. Such a responsibility, being directed backwards, implies »no responsibility for the future in the sense that Max Weber described the ethics of responsibility of the political person«. Coulmas seems to be guided by thought in terms of opposites that exclude each other without any mutual reference. Past and future are indeed mutually exclusive, but the awareness of past and of future are not. The one refers to the other – as the consciousness of obligation towards forbears is future-orientated. Is it not the case that in traditional societies one proves one’s worth with respect to one’s forbears primarily by providing for one’s descendants? The Japanese education system is orientated towards the responsibility of the whole class for the success of each member of the class in the examination, Japanese company policy towards the responsibility of each employee for the quality and the market value of the products in the production of which he is involved. In the Japanese system of justice, the restitution of harm matters more than the punishment of the culprit. In Japan there is an ethics of responsibility of social persons which Weber could hardly have drafted more vividly.

32 Jürgen Habermas (1982): Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns. Vol. 1. Frankfurt/M., 283-294; English translation: (1987): The Theory of Communicative Action. Trans. by Thomas McCarthy. Cambridge.

33 Albert Schweitzer (1935): Die Weltanschauung der indischen Denker. München, 23. Despite his dogmatic wording, it did not escape Schweitzer’s notice that in India there are also positive attitudes to the world.

34Friedrich Nietzsche (1895): Aus dem Nachlass der Achtzigerjahre, and (1888): Der Antichrist (No. 56). In: Werke. Ed. by Karl Schlechta. München 1966, Vol. 3, 701; Vol. 2, 1224. Nietzsche, like Schweitzer, was not unaware of the fact that there are contradictory attitudes towards life to be found in India’s long history and complex society.

35 Jürgen Habermas (1958): “Philosophische Anthropologie”. In: Kultur und Kritik. Frankfurt/M. 1973, 106. – There is reason to believe that in his early handbook article Habermas reflects the views of his teachers more than he presents a view that he would advocate himself today. His repeated allocation of “advanced civilizations” to the homogenous (and dualistically describable) cells of a four-celled pattern of civilizations, however, does suggest the suspicion that Herder’s belief in compact cultures about which general statements can be made has continued to affect his thought up to the Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns (1981).

36 Karl Jaspers (1957): Die großen Philosophen. München 1988, 143f.; English translation: (1966): The Great Philosophers. Ed. by Hannah Arendt, trans. by Ralph Manheim. New York.

37 Max Weber (1921): Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie. Vol. 2. Tübingen 1988, 251.

38 Ibid., 294.

39 Gottfried Keller (1853): Der grüne Heinrich (1st volume, 3rd chapter). Frankfurt/M. 1985, 38.

40 Max Weber (1916): “Zwischen zwei Gesetzen”. In: Gesammelte politische Schriften. Tübingen 1988, 143.