Understanding the Other to Understand Oneself
German philosophers – especially Kant, Nietzsche, and Heidegger – are very popular in Iran. The interest in Nietzsche stems from his Zarathustra, which allows contemporary Iranians to rediscover Zoroaster, the founder of the ancient Persian religion, as reflected by a European philosopher.
Heidegger's criticism of modernity, on the other hand, was politicised after the Islamic Revolution of 1979 under cultural ideological auspices and became a preferred vehicle for criticising the West.
Kant's philosophy is so popular with Iranian intellectuals because it offers the ideal introduction to western philosophy. This, at least, is the theory of Hamidreza Ayatollahy, professor of philosophy at the Allameh Tabatabaii University in Teheran. However, Iranians do not seek such an introduction purely out of an interest in western thought. According to Ayatollahy, in order to understand one's own thoughts, one must understand other thoughts, including western philosophy.
Iran: Impressive knowledge of western philosophy
As a result of this broadly held view, Iranian philosophers have an impressive knowledge of western philosophy; something which cannot generally be said of western philosophers and their knowledge of Persian philosophy. In this regard, Jürgen Habermas, justifiably spoke of an "asymmetry of understanding" and unmasked western visitors, of which he was one himself a good two years ago, as "barbarians".
Against this backdrop, an international Kant conference, which took place recently in Teheran, would initially appear to worsen this asymmetry.
At the end of the event, which was entitled "200 years after Kant" and was organised by the Institute of Philosophy at the Allameh Tabatabaii University, one can safely say that this conference was undoubtedly a success, not only because it provided a platform for a dialogue between the various philosophical cultures in East and West; but ultimately because it succeeded in mediating between cultures and, above all, between the people living in these cultures, without restricting itself to purely philosophical matters.
"Eternal Peace" and philosophical theology
Twenty-five guests from North America, Europe, Africa, and Asia and the same number of Iranian philosophers were invited to talk about the different aspects of Kant's philosophy. The lion's share of the papers were about Kant's work Eternal Peace and about his foundation for a philosophical theology and practical philosophy, but papers were also given on epistemology and his attitude to Brouwer's mathematical intuitionism.
However, the conference began with a sensation. In the discussion that followed his paper on Kant's cosmopolitanism, the American philosopher Louis Pojman was confronted by an irate Iranian listener who felt he had to use Kant to demonstrate the collision between western, secularised philosophy and eastern, religiously-based philosophy.
An American on Iranian evening television
Other participants from the West witnessed his reduction of Western modernism to the decline of philosophical thinking. The man's theological realism jarred. Pojman, however, defended himself so elegantly in the debate that he was invited for an interview on Iranian evening television.
From the viewpoint of a European visitor, there were many other things that appeared unusual and strange. The conference hall at times resembled a bazaar: countless visitors entered the hall during the lectures, only to leave it again a short time later.
Many female students, especially those reading English language and literature, grasped the opportunity to listen to the English lectures; even a courageous intervention from a female student during a lecture was accepted by the organisers and purposefully taken up later by those taking part in the discussion. In a country where it is still not considered desirable to shake the hand of a woman, this is not a matter of course.
Human rights and their universalisability
The only woman among the foreign speakers was also the only one to speak about the problem of the universalisability of human rights. Susan E. Babbitt, a philosopher teaching in Canada, skilfully demonstrated how this subject can be discussed in the presence of people who still live under the questionable conditions of a theocratic system.
She called for a radical paradigm change in the debate about universalisation and was not afraid to draw comparisons with science: just as modern physics would not have been able to get past Newton's view of the world if Einstein had not completely broken with the fundamental theoretical principles of Newton's physics, the practical philosophy (of the West) must give up its beloved theoretical concepts in order to be able to tackle both the problem of human rights and the question of their universalisability in a sensible way.
For the anti-liberals in the audience, this must initially have sounded like a confirmation of their rejection of political liberalism and western universalism of values; however, it quickly became clear that Ms Babbit is of the opinion that while the universality of human rights cannot be justified with established concepts of political philosophy and ethics now, it is fundamentally possible to do so. There is no clearer way of defending a philosophy that clings to the universal applicability of human rights at an event such as this.
No politics at the table, please
A representative of Iranian philosophy was no less skilful in his attempts to bring about a dialogue between East and West. At a dinner for the delegates, Ayatollah Sayyid M. Chamenei, the brother of Iran's religious leader, called on those present not to talk politics at the table.
Chamenei, who himself wrote a book about the history of philosophy since Ancient Greece (Development of Wisdom in Iran and in the World), also tried to paint a picture of Iran as the "Land of Wisdom". Speaking not as a conference delegate, but as a high-ranking representative of the Muslim clergy of his country, he called on his colleagues who were listening, to acknowledge the practical significance of philosophy and to involve themselves as philosophers in the dialogue of the cultures.
Anyone who heard Chamenei would think that peace between Iran and its international critics depends on the success or failure of philosophy. In the foreword of his book he writes that unlike politicians, who have inflicted pain on the world, philosophers have always felt obliged to make people happy; philosophy considers people to be members of a family and does not recognise any boundaries between them.
The Teheran event was impressive proof of the fact that philosophy is still capable of doing so today.
© FAZ/Qantara.de 2004
This article was previously published in Germany's weekly, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
Translation from German: Aingeal Flanagan