“Wrestling with the angel”

Intercultural philosophy is based on a dialogue, i.e., not just on a sheer juxtaposition of monologues, since such a juxtaposition would not lead to any new result and both partners would not be able to gain anything out of it. In order to achieve this result, one needs to be able to engage in a real dialogue. This is a less trivial issue than it may look like at first sight and in fact thousands of pages, from Plato to H.-G. Gadamer, have been dedicated only to the topic of how can dialogues and especially philosophical dialogues take place. The situation becomes even more difficult when in addition to the normal boundaries between people one needs to cross the additional bridge of cultures and of time. How can such a dialogue look like?

A.L. Leloir from render.fineartamerica.com

Genesis 32,22-32 contains the strange episode of Jacob wrestling with God. It is a single combat which cannot aim at the destruction of the other combatant, but rather at engaging closely with him. I will claim here that this is a good simile for the kind of dialogue one should look for in intercultural philosophy, especially when dealing with historical sources. In fact, one should not aim at destroying one’s opponent, but also not remain at the superficial level of a peaceful chatting. In order for the encounter to be really fertile, one needs to engage in a real combat, i.e., in a strict philosophical confrontation, being ready to have to admit one’s defeat and to change at least some of one’s assumptions. Vice versa, one’s opponent might also end up being defeated insofar as one might find out that they overlooked a possible objection or did not take into account some possible development of their theories. How can this practically occur?

In my experience, again, Jacob’s wrestling offers a good clue: One needs to get closer to one’s philosophical opponent. It is not enough to just cherry-pick an idea and expand it in a different direction in order to claim that a dialogue had taken place. Rather, one needs to be able to engage closely with a whole theory, possibly taking into account its context and its consequences. Now, a historical opponent offers in this sense serious disadvantages but also an important advantage. The disadvantages lie in the fact that an opponent who is no-longer alive cannot react, reassessing one’s views, explaining their point better, correcting misunderstandings and the like. Much more work needs to be done, consequently, by the partner who is alive and able to engage in the discussion. She will need to fill holes, reconstruct partially unexplained views, make implicit points explicit, expand theories to unexpected cases etc. She will have to be humble in her attempt, trying to substantiate each claim in the dead opponent’s own words. I am in this connection a strong believer in the principle of charity and I try to reconstruct a theory in the most charitable way. Nothing is gained, I think, by defeating a weak opponent, and it is even offensive to think that great thinkers of the past did not think of attacks which look evident for us.

The advantage of engaging with an opponent of the past lies, conversely, in their being far from the actuality. They do not need to be influenced by extra-philosophical issues, such as their opponent’s academical position or country of residence. This is particularly relevant when it comes to asymmetrical power relations, such as a star professor in a well-known university in the Anglo-American world engaging in a dialogue with an opponent coming from a very different background. Our opponents from the past do not need to feel intimidated. They will not be impressed by one’s pedigree and remain inflexible on their positions, even if they are out of fashion, such as idealism.

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog: elisafreschi.com, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

3 thoughts on ““Wrestling with the angel”

  1. Thanks, Elisa. I agree with these ideas. I think there’s an additional consequence that we should choose our main opponents carefully, because our thought will become more like them in consequence. (Rawls spends his career fighting utilitarianism, but the result is a philosophy that looks a lot like utilitarianism to someone not immersed in Rawls’s own battles.)

    I appreciate the remarks about the extra work one needs to do with historical opponents – and I might go further to say it’s not only opponents. I disagree with Śāntideva on a lot of key points but I wouldn’t say I consider him an opponent; I draw significant aspects of my own philosophy from him. In philosophy the boundary between opponent and ally can blur; often when one is first studying a thinker one doesn’t know which of those categories he falls in. But in order to determine that, I think you are absolutely right that one needs to read the text charitably enough to give it the benefit of the doubt. That was very much the methodology I tried to apply in studying Śāntideva and I wrote a post about that methodology a while ago.

    Interestingly, a professor of Jewish studies once told me that the name “Israel” literally means “wrestling”, in exactly the sense you’re talking about here.

    • Thank you, Amod. Yes, I agree. My metaphor of wrestling with the angel is also meant to show that one needs to fight, i.e., closely engage, also when one is involved in a discussion with someone one holds in high esteem. And, yes, I think that your work with Śāntideva is a perfect example of the good application of the principle of charity. You applied it and could gain something additional out of the text.

  2. I came upon Jacob recently from Newton, struggling with an unwelcome commission from the Royal Society to publish his astronomy, which he felt was not ready. In the second edition of the Principia, you find him patching the errors, and admitting the saggita, from the architecture of Vitruvius, and the ancient method of exhaustion, perfected by Eudoxus of Cnidus in the circle of Plato. And the trail leads on back to the Jacob’s Staff, the first instrument devised for measuring the heavens, and navigating thereby.

    Strange to say, one hears of it millennia later in China, evidently carried there by Nestorian Christians, who prospered in Asia trade and spread widely. Later, picked on by Buddhists, they moved to Japan. or, I beleive, crossed the ocean to found the settlement of Los Angelos. In basements there are some curious traces of old pagan architecture, and the Owl of Minerva, also seen on a memorial to Portugese explorers on the Durban waterfront.

    So the issues Newton left hanging between himself, Hooke, Huygens and Leibniz, take us back not to Solomon’s Temple, but to Jacob’s anxious reckoning. And for many in Africa and Asia now looking from politics through philosophy to law, Jacob is a beacon and an inspiration. This wrestling with ourselves seem like the hard middle of the road to prosperity.

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