Report of the Telos Student Seminar in Israel


Telos Student Seminars provide a forum for students around the world to engage in critical theory by discussing a common set of paired texts from bones—one current essay and one relevant essay from our archives. In our second cycle of seminars, we discuss Huimin Jin “Cultural self-confidence and constellated community: an in-depth discussion of some of Xi Jinping’s speeches” (bones 195, summer 2021) and an excerpt from Cornelius Castoriadis “The Crisis of Western Societies” (bones 53, fall 1982). The following report is from the Telos Student Seminars group in Haifa, Israel. For more details on the Telos Student Seminars, including summaries of the two essays under discussion, click here.

From Haifa, Israel

Abandon philosophy for politics? Castoriadis, Jin and Zeno’s Arrow

Speakers: Peli Meir (doctoral student), Dr. Lilach Ben-Zvi, Ayal Yechezkel (doctoral student), Eyal Kanfi (doctoral student)

In our seminar conversation, the group focused on a single issue that arises from the integration of the two articles by Cornelius Castoriadis and Huim Jin: Does intercultural dialogue require not intervening in other cultures, thereby abandoning universal values ​​that both cultures perceive as moral red lines? The question arose when Jin’s suggestion in his article, which advocates a Sino-Western dialogue that strengthens the two cultures by learning from each other, is challenged by a reality in which states act atrociously in the name of their culture. In addition, cross-cultural dialogue is conducted in existing China-Western relations, but only when it comes to issues that are already in agreement. Dialogue usually only becomes difficult when values ​​considered sacred or universal are introduced (for example, Western objection to media censorship or human rights abuses in Xinjiang, which Western societies oppose in because of the individualism described by Castoriadis). The question then becomes: what exactly is Jin suggesting in his idea of ​​dialogue? Should we ignore violations of values ​​that we deem universal in the name of dialogue? How should we interpret the very term ‘dialogue’, which is so crucial in this endeavor?

The participants then took a step back and conversed about the problem that arises in the very discussion that arises from Jin’s article, namely the problem of particularity and universality. Bridging these two terms seems inconceivable, and it seems that is exactly what Jin attempts in his article. This attempt goes as follows: Chinese and Western cultures have a diplomatic problem because of their cultural differences. Jin’s solution is to present a theoretical basis for enabling an intercultural dialogue that consists of recognizing the other culture without changing it. The introduction of this theoretical foundation seems to bring out a new universal in the name of particularity; after all, the definition of a universal must include an element of singularity, that is, a value above all others that must not be transcended. In the case of Jin’s article, that universal seems to be the dialogue itself, since it requires each side to avoid abandoning the conversation for other values ​​they deem sacred. Therefore, Jin’s suggestion seems to have an internal tension: it is a universal of particularities. That is to say that any value deemed universal in these cultures, and incompatible with that of the other, must be ignored in the name of dialogue. The problem is not just internal tension, but Jin seems to be suggesting this dialogue as an alternative to the Western hegemony of liberalism, as he claims that liberalism is too confrontational for dialogue due to its claim to universality. Certainly, the criticism of Western universalism is legitimate, but it seems doubtful to suggest another universality in its place.

This claim to universal particularity (a universal value in which particulars keep to themselves) is exactly what has ruined intersubjective dialogue in the West in Castoriadis’ article, said one participant. In Western individualism, the intersubjective dialogue between individuals is lost due to their avoidance of discussing difficult topics in the name of individualism. This theoretical impasse between particularity and universality seems insurmountable.

The problem solves itself, said one participant, not in theory but in factual reality only. Hamas and Israel are enemies, but they still conduct a dialogue even after all the wars and calamities between them. The theoretical tension between particularity and universality resembles one of Zeno’s paradoxes: if we consider theoretically the flight of an arrow towards its target, it is mathematically impossible for this movement to occur. Indeed, between every two points of the axis of its linear travel extends an infinity of numbers, which means that the arrow would have to pass infinity several times before reaching its target – a mathematical impossibility. Yet the arrow reaches its target in reality.

What does this paradox have to do with intercultural dialogue between China and the West? The paradox is relevant in that even if it is theoretically impossible, the bringing together of the universalities and particularities of China and the West actually occurs. This means that the issue of improving China-Western relations should not be to find a theoretical basis for them. Rather, it should revolve around the question of action: asking ourselves what we should do rather than what we should theorize. Notwithstanding the theoretical impossibility of particularity and universality theoretically, rapprochement between cultures is indeed possible in action. In other words, as there are values ​​considered universal or sacred in the two cultures, but incompatible with each other (harmony for China, rights for the West), the rapprochement of the two powers cannot be achieved. in theory. This can only be done through action, such as Xi Jinping’s speech suggesting bilateral cooperation in Jin’s article, or Jin’s own article highlighting this goodwill in the face of Western prejudice.

This seminar conversation revealed more questions than answers: What is the role of political philosophy in bringing cultures together? Does he have a role in politics? Should we abandon philosophy for politics, as Hannah Arendt suggested? And how do we live the internal dialogue among ourselves and externally with others? One participant suggested that these fundamental questions arise because of our exposure to another culture, which upsets our theoretical assumptions while challenging them. Or rather, asks another participant, does our perplexity with Jin’s idea stem from the crisis described in Castoriadis’s essay, where the individual in Western societies “no longer wants social relationships, in which he feels trapped, and that he reproduces only insofar as he cannot do otherwise”?


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