The Crooked Timber of Humanity

Posted on:

Re-reading (amongst other things) Isaiah Berlin’s wonderful collection of essays, The Crooked Timber of Humanity. The title is based on a quotation from Kant “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.”

At heart it is a passionate defence of diversity and the liberty to choose.

He traces his realisation that more than one system of values exists in principle as well as in practice to Machiavelli, and blames a lot of the ‘-isms’ that caused so much turmoil and cruelty in the last century to a belief in absolute values running from Plato, via the French Enlightenment, to Marx. Berlin witnessed the Russian Revolution first hand as a young boy in St. Petersburg, so knows from experience – not just theory – what he is talking about.

One of his heroes is clearly the German philosopher Herder, pupil of Kant, who taught in Riga – the town of Berlin’s birth. Herder reacted against French rationalism and a belief in absolute values and argued that values are culturally-determined and that our whole way of thinking is dictated by the language we are brought up with. This pre-dates the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis by about 200 years.

Nowadays the accepted wisdom seems to be somewhere between Sapir-Whorf and the opposite view of Chomsky who thinks that language is at bottom universal, or Pinker, who seems not to believe that we think in language at all. Who knows?

But the idea that not everything human can be unified into one all-embracing system, and that many of our problems arise from believing that we should try to find and impose one, is one that is of bigger relevance than ever today.

Being able to enter into other world-views and understand and feel them, rather than just know about them, is a must-have skill for the 21st century.

The Germans have a good linguistic distinction for this, which Berlin mentions – the difference between ‘verstehen’ which is more like understanding by putting yourself in someone else’s place, and ‘wissen’ which is more like scientific knowledge.

Deep thinkers, these Germans!

Post Tags:

4 Responses

  1. A speaker you can’t miss in your conference programme!!
    I’m responding here not only to this Blog on ‘The Crooked Timber of Humanity’ but to explain on our last lecture of the Afera Conference last year which was the most popular, covering “Intercultural Management in Europe” and was delivered by Michael J. Gates of Richard Lewis Communications (U.K.). Mr. Gates explained in an interesting set of slides that cultural interaction is a business process that must be managed—that it cannot be left to chance.
    In order to compete globally, the European adhesive tape industry needs increasingly to collaborate. Global collaboration is also necessary to promote a legislative environment which will benefit the industry as a whole. And, of course, collaboration across borders will be increasingly important within individual companies—as well as understanding the needs of customers and end-users in different countries and regions.
    But collaboration requires us to understand people with different ways of thinking, behaving and communicating. Not only to understand them, but to do something about it. The challenge is that there are so many different cultures in the world – more than 200 national cultures. Is there a systematic way of approaching this?
    Michael Gates introduced the audience to a model of culture devised by Richard D. Lewis, author of When Cultures Collide: Leading Across Cultures. The Lewis Model has been steadily gaining acceptance among corporations and universities in the 1990s as the clearest and most effective model for cultural analysis that currently exists. The Lewis Model of culture divides cultures into:
    • Linear-active: Cool, decisive planners. Task-oriented. Complete action chains.
    • Multi-active: Emotional and impulsive. Creative. Relationship-orientated. People-time rather than clock-time.
    • Reactive: Patient, harmonising and introverted. Use silence and rarely initiate. Courteous and respectful.
    This is a useful starting point for analysing global cultural types, then beginning to adapt our behaviour when trying to make ourselves understood, and ultimately profiting from diversity. Mr. Gates looked at what culture is, what its origins are and how we acquire it—probably more or less by the age of 7. This is why we assume our way is normal, and people who are different have got it wrong!
    We need to look at our own values, beliefs and personal style as if from the outside. This is even more important than learning lots of detailed facts about other cultures. Once we have understood more clearly the essence of our own culture and that of the other culture—our different cultural horizons—we need to try and focus on common ground, as well as plan how we will manage the differences.
    It helps systematically to apply the model to different areas of importance in business such as communication patterns, listening habits, presentations, audience expectations, meetings and negotiations, leadership, motivation, the language of management, time and space, teams… the list is endless. You then need to work out how you are going to adapt.
    Perhaps we could accentuate the personal, emotional appeal if we want to get through to Russians. For our presentation in Sweden, maybe we should add more facts and figures and think of involving people in the decision-making process. In the U.S.A., we need to focus on the future and keep it simple. In Germany, on the historical background, and on the complexity of the situation and all possible eventualities.
    In the end, all human systems are built on trust, but different cultures build trust in different ways. Understanding this and using cultural sensitivity as a part of our business planning and strategy can give us a real competitive edge in a time when the margins for competitive edge are becoming smaller. Know yourself, try to understand other cultures, and then do something about it!
    In addition to cross-cultural training, Richard Lewis Communications also conducts high-level language and communications skills training for business.
    Astrid Lejeune
    Afera Secretary General

  2. Guy Cookson says:

    This is a great post, and raises an incredibly important issue at a time when the space between us is seeming to shrink thanks to online communications and global travel and yet the risk of cultural misunderstanding remains ever present. Many of the most serious issues we face can be attributed to the inability of one cultural group to understand another, from the fight against AIDS to the occupation of Iraq. The failure to understand leads to a failure to anticipate outcomes, and that leaves even the best intentions in danger of failure, with potentially catastrophic results. I believe cross-culture training should be compulsory for anyone engaging in international trade, aid and diplomacy.

  3. Rick Andrews says:

    I welcome this blog and the debate it will, indeed already is, stimulating. My own experience, both as a course director and instructor in a large international institution and as a defence ‘diplomat’, leads me to agree with all that has been said concerning the vital importance of cross-cultural teaching, awareness and understanding. We have only to look at many current events – this week’s visit to the UK by the French President, the attempt to impose security and a form of Western style democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq, the forthcoming meeting between Presidents Bush and Putin next week or the situation with China in Tibet – to see the relevance of such training today and into the future. It should also not be forgotten that an understanding of cultural influences is also essential to commentators and historians in interpreting events of the past.

  4. Martin KRALIK; says:

    A stimulating post, and blog.
    I’m particularly glad it touches on Plato and, by extension, his ‘cave’ metaphor. Its influence on Western cultural vocabulary and overall world view, at the most fundamental level, seem to be quite underestimated. Only after reading some of the more inspired books by exegetes of Asian philosophical traditions (especially Confucianism) and by experts on ‘core values’ / organizational behaviour does one start to appreciate the extent to which Plato’s/Greek/early Christian legacy lives on, and how inaccessible to non-European cultures it renders the purportedly ‘global’/’universal’ rhetoric.
    Sapir/Whorf and Chomsky made great contributions to understanding language and communication on a psycholinguistic level. Nonetheless, in the context of cross-cultural communication and civilizational dialogue, it is useful to examine the philosophical underpinnings of systematic thinking in different civilizations. To put it simplistically, Western thought inhabits a space best described as ‘the other [= absolute; divine] world’; hence our predisposition to operate with elevated, largely abstract constructs like democracy, human rights, responsibility; but also our instinct to taxonomize knowledge, create bureaucracies etc.
    The Asian/classical Chinese/Eastern tradition is rooted in a fluid, ‘this world’ model. Rather than absolutes, it relies on relationships, context, custom, symbolism etc.
    One only has to open the daily press and read the stories on global politics to notice this dichotomy. The US/China relationship in particular is a great ‘microcosm’: The West points to standards, rules, and other abstracts [and it means well, believing that these are universally accessible and applicable]; the East is defensive/offended [and secretly puzzled by the abstract logic that is called upon as the arbiter, instead of the specific context, goodwill, ritual, ‘face-saving’ practices, or other things that would ‘make more sense’].
    Perhaps if more practitioners of ‘global’ politics, business and media had a chance to visit in more depth the roots of systematic thinking in their own culture, this would be in itself a solid contribution to the cross-cultural communication edifice.

© 2024 | WordPress Web Development by CuCo