Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Hans Köchler

Chairman, Department of Philosophy, University of Innsbruck, Austria

Life Fellow, International Academy for Philosophy (IAPh)

President of the International Progress Organization (I.P.O.)

Member of the International Co-ordinating Committee, World Public Forum "Dialogue of Civilizations"

Education and Intercultural Dialogue:

A Philosophical Perspective

Statement delivered at the conference on

 Education as a Dialogue Model of Social Development

 jointly organized by

 World Public Forum "Dialogue of Civilizations"


 Carleton University

 Ottawa, Canada, 12 June 2008

I.P.O. Online Publications

International Progress Organization, A-1010 Vienna, Kohlmarkt 4, Austria

 © International Progress Organization, 2008


Education is a primary factor of cultural and – in the most general sense – civilizational identity. As such, it is indispensable for the development of a community’s self-awareness vis-à-vis other communities (“cultural self-comprehension”)*. Quite obviously, cultural identity is not something static; it is shaped through constant interaction – in space and time – with other cultural identities.

This implies that education, if it is to be productive for the shaping and development of cultural identity, must contain an element of dialogue with other cultures or civilizations. More specifically: a curriculum of national education has to include the familiarization with other cultural traditions – and for essentially two distinct reasons:

  1. The first reason is structural; it can be described as “hermeneutical necessity”: In order to fully understand myself, I have to know “the other”: identity requires difference, i. e. awareness of differences, for individuals as well as for communities. To know “who I am,” it is in no way sufficient to solely teach one’s own history and cultural tradition. Comprehensive education cannot be practiced on the basis of an idiosyncratic approach.

  2. The second reason may be circumscribed as “imperative of peace”: Familiarity with other cultures, their distinct value systems and perceptions of the world (“life-world” in terms of Husserlian phenomenology), is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for societal tolerance (at the level of domestic and even more so of global society) and, thus, of a sustainable order of peace. As history amply demonstrates, cultural ignorance and civilizational narrow-mindedness breed the spirit of exclusivism and discrimination that has been at the roots of so many wars – and not only in premodern times.

Furthermore, in more “practical” terms, a culture that is not able to relate to other cultures – and in a comprehensive manner –, will be at a severe disadvantage in the global competition of ideas. It is rather obvious that – in terms of economic and socio-cultural dynamics – an exclusively inward-looking society will not be competitive under the conditions of globalization. Thus, national education must always contain elements of universal culture if the respective community is to preserve its identity in today’s global environment – which is not only multicultural, but has become multi-civilizational – and wants to be part of a worldwide system of entrepreneurial competition and socio-political coexistence.

There indeed exists an interdependent relationship between the educational process and intercultural dialogue:

  1. On the one hand, education, if understood and practiced in the above described comprehensive (or inclusive) sense, is one of the enabling factors of a community’s interaction with different cultures; it prepares the population for an attitude of open-mindedness towards “the other” and promotes an inclusive understanding of cultural identity.

  2. On the other hand, a global dialogue – as a hermeneutically productive and socially constructive interaction – between cultures and civilizations (such as the one envisaged, for instance, by the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations) will improve the very conditions of cultural education within the domestic (national) realm. Such a dialogue will not only have a positive impact on the socio-cultural “climate” in the respective countries, but will facilitate – in terms of hermeneutics as well as social psychology – cultural education in a regional framework. It may, thus, be an important factor of political stability in geopolitically sensitive regions (such as the Mediterranean, the Middle East, the Caucasus, Southeast Asia, or South-Eastern Europe).

In view of this rather complex interdependence, education is to be understood as inter-cultural project per se. A comprehensive educational process always relates a given culture – the “culture of reference” – to other “life-worlds,” i.e. ways in which the world is perceived in different cultural frameworks.

The inter-cultural dimension of education, however, is not to be confused with multi-culturalism which is a characteristic at the level of societal organization and politics. While the former relates to a hermeneutical category – namely to questions of cultural identity and how this identity is shaped by interaction between cultures –, the latter expresses the simultaneous presence of different cultures – or eventually civilizations – within a polity and the political, legal and social consequences at the domestic, regional or global levels.

What is required here, in specific terms, is more than just providing historical information and adding courses on particular aspects of other cultural traditions in the respective national curricula. The basic goal has to be the creation of a deeper awareness of one's own culture and value system through the ability to define one’s position – according to the original Latin meaning of de-finitio, namely: drawing the borderline between two distinct realms, an act of comparison which is at the roots of self-reflection and, thus, identity. This approach obviously – and almost naturally – excludes the imposition of a singular cultural (civilizational) model, that is declared as the paradigmatic one, upon the rest of the world.** Cultural or civilizational exclusivism is incompatible with human dignity. (This is also a point made yesterday, albeit implicitly, in the historical session in the Parliament of Canada in the course of which the country’s Prime Minister officially renounced the earlier policy of forced assimilation of indigenous civilizations through the “residential school” system.)

In our era – in which a global “clash of civilizations” is a real danger, albeit one that is to be averted by our joint efforts – there simply exists no alternative to what we call the “intercultural dialogue model of education”:

Summing up: Education is an integral part of the process of a nation’s (community’s, people’s) self-realization; it shapes its political identity and determines its global competitiveness. If there is to be a peaceful future for mankind, education has to be based on a genuine intercultural approach – which is neither multicultural nor transcultural.

Because of the process of globalization, the world has become a kind of multicultural and multi-civilizational “village” – with the simultaneous presence of different (and often competing or antagonizing) “life-worlds” (Lebenswelten) at a degree of intensity that was unimaginable just a few decades ago.

To prevent the multicultural reality at the global level from becoming the cause of permanent conflict (as described in Samuel Huntington’s scenario of the “clash of civilizations”), intercultural dialogue has to be promoted by means of a reformed education system that is oriented at strengthening cultural identity through improving each culture’s very ability to relate to “the other” (i.e. to other cultures). This is not only a necessity of cultural hermeneutics; in an era of instant global communication, cultural self-awareness in the inclusive sense is the best antidote to prejudice and civilizational conflict. Since dialogue is the very essence of reflection (in the sense of individual as well as collective consciousness), genuine intercultural education – expressing an attitude of dialogue and partnership between cultures – provides that sense of cultural self-reflection that is necessary to ensure global peace.



* Hans Köchler (ed.), Cultural Self-comprehension of Nations. Tübingen: Erdmann, 1978.

** See Hans Köchler, “Civilization as Instrument of World Order? The Role of the Civilizational Paradigm in the Absence of a Balance of Power.” I.P.O. Online Paper, May 22, 2006, Vienna: International Progress Organization, 2006,