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How will humans learn to live together in the world?

What can the West learn from the East and vice versa when it comes to being human? Learning to be Human was the theme of this year's World Conference in Philosophy in China.


All the Norwegian universities sent delegations to Beijing. Among these were Lars Svendsen with the post "Being Human", in which he raised questions about the boundaries between people and other living beings, Gunnar Skirbekk with a lecture on global philosophy history, and Oda Tvedt, who writes a doctoral dissertation on Plato's critique of democracy. I myself was invited to the conference of the American Karl Jaspers Society and gave a lecture on the understanding of humanity by philosopher Karl Jaspers and Hannah Arendt – for both of them communication is central to man's success in living together in the world.

Theory and practice

How can we learn to be human? At the Philosophy Conference it was also about what the West can learn from the East – and vice versa. For example, does it make sense to translate the English term "gender" into Chinese? The American philosopher Judith Butler, as the first female speaker for the newly created Simone de Beauvoir Lecture, undertook the task of investigating what happens when the term is exported to the whole world and finds entry into different societies and cultures. Conversely, for many Chinese, it is not a theoretical question of learning to be human: In a country where Confucianism stands strong, it is not uncommon for business people to learn Confucian business ethics.

Several sections had Karl Marx as the theme – noteworthy many of these had Chinese speakers. China is a one-party state, and freedom of speech is not high in price. This was illustrated one morning on the way to the conference: Upon arrival at the China National Convention Center (CNCC), a small group of people stood outside the entrance, and one of them quickly stuck a flyer in my hand. I couldn't even read the headline until it was snapped from me. The "perpetrator" was taken care of, so it became impossible for me to talk to him. Everything happened so fast that I wondered if it had really happened. What was the group outside the center not allowed to tell us? The question reappeared when I could only identify Chinese media outside the conference – foreign media were strikingly absent.

When thousands of Chinese, Koreans, Indians, Americans, and Europeans flock through the security locks into the CNCC to discuss how we learn to be human — and to discuss human rights — yes, the contrast between academic discourse and outside censorship becomes intrusive.

Security and control

Of course, I was expecting a security check when I landed at Beijing International Airport. The security check also made sense upon arrival at the CNCC, which not only housed the philosophy conference, but also at least one more conference. But the question of whether it was justifiable that I just came here, to Beijing, to discuss learning to be human, needed.

An educational journey requires a willingness to listen to the stories of the inhabitants.

What I do know is that I do not regret the journey. First, I do not regret because the encounter with China's rich cultural and civilization history made a strong impression – the excursion to the Forbidden City, the visit to China's National Museum with the fascinating horses of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), to see the Temple of Heaven (finished in year 1420) and the summer palace, located by a lake I walked along, in the Emperor's richly decorated and covered times. I am also thinking of the visit to the state-owned Cloisonné factory, which makes beautiful vases and has treasures on display in the factory outlet. And not least to experience the Great Wall of China outside Beijing. It is said that traveling is formation. This does not only mean meeting the country's cultural treasury – it also means having the will to listen to the citizens' stories.

Chinese people love their children immensely, perhaps because for a certain period of time only one child was allowed. To be honest, I had not reflected on the one-child policy until I traveled to Beijing. However, my meeting with our guide Maggi on the trip to the Forbidden City made me reflect on the relationship between the private, the state, the family and politics. She said she was the second child, despite the strict family policy. The state paid for her brother, the firstborn. Maggi expressed great joy in having a brother, because once her parents passed away, she would still have a close relative – unlike all the country's only children. She added that the Chinese authorities now allow two children, and that her other is a girl of barely one year.

Before Maggie shared this, I thought that the one-child policy was a sensible limitation, since we should also be able to produce enough food for everyone in the world. But her story left me with more existential questions about what it means to grow up – and grow old – without siblings.


In addition, I do not regret the journey because to those degrees it made me aware of how central the language is – and that we should learn more languages. Being able to communicate, to be able to express who you are and what the world looks like from your own point of view, characterizes you as a human being. Å learn å be human presupposes living conditions that guarantee the freedom to attend public conversations, debate and exchange of views. This gives you the opportunity to connect with people who share your own principles, and get a guideline for actions that contribute to the world becoming a humane place for everyone. This presupposes that the public space functions as a meeting place for the exchange of arguments – and counter-arguments. Not because we have the right to say anything, but because none of us alone can understand the world adequately in all its reality. We are not able to do that, since the world for me, and each one, only appears in one perspective – that which corresponds to our own viewpoint. If we want to see and experience the world as it really is, we must realize that the world is shared by many people and at the same time experienced differently by the individual. The world we understand to the extent that many can talk about it and exchange opinions and perspectives with each other – again and again. It was this insight Hannah Arendt articulated, which penetrated into the tension between being inside and outside the convention center in Beijing.

Without elaborating on what she meant, she added that when the country is governed by one party, there is no need to engage politically.

And that was exactly what I experienced during my short stay in Beijing: that my ability to exchange opinions and hear how others experience the world was mainly limited to the debates the philosophers conducted inside the conference hall. As soon as I moved outside, I became dependent on people speaking English, which they did to varying degrees. For me, this was a new experience, since I have never traveled to a country where I can not understand a single word.

Glimpses of the future?

Outside the convention center, I met not only the rich history of Chinese civilization, but also the swirling consumption of modern society. Wangfujing Main Street – one of Beijing's major shopping streets, which some compare to the Champs-Élysées in Paris – nowadays has stores with fashion brands such as Gucci and others. The street acts as a magnet for both Chinese and visitors. In itself, there is nothing wrong, I think, with spending money on expensive things like the finest silk clothes. Work and consumption are in a way two sides of the same coin. It is part of the logic of capitalism. We are consuming China's production in Western countries, and gradually more and more Chinese are making good money to buy beautiful products such as silk, pearls or whatever the heart desires. Why then did I not feel completely comfortable in this shopping street? There are similar shopping streets in London, New York, Paris and Rome. Maybe my reservation has something to do with what another guide said, namely that working days in China are far too long, and that it can take ten years or more before you have saved enough for an apartment. Housing should really be a basic right for every human being, and perhaps not least in Chinese society, which understands itself as socialist.

My thoughts turn to politics, since the direction of society is governed by political guidelines. When I asked the guide about what is socialist with today's China, I noticed that she answered "a Chinese version of socialism". Without elaborating on what she meant, she added that when the country is governed by one party, there is no need to engage politically. It sounds logical, and then it really makes sense to put all the commitment in private happiness. And then I wonder if during my short visit to Beijing I have got a glimpse of a future where work and consumption control life – both in the West and in the East. Or do Western societies, such as Norway, have a political tradition that is stable enough for democracy, with the active participation of its citizens, to have a real chance of survival? Or are we already on the verge of losing public space, without even noticing it?

A journey is formation. Maybe your eyes on your own country will be sharpened when you get home.

Mahrdt is a State Fellow and philosopher.

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