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Shinichi Muraoka

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Recommending Dialogical Thought

Shinichi Muraoka
Professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Modern and Contemporary German Philosophy (German Idealism, German-Jewish Thought)

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Having been released briefly from the oppressive Cold War order, we in the modern era are now frequently troubled by ethnic and religious conflicts and clashes between different cultures around the world. Achieving a pluralistic society in which people of differing cultures or ethnicities can live together has therefore become an urgent challenge. One initiative that attempts to resolve this complex issue is “dialogical thought.”

The danger of identical thought

What is required for two human beings to be able to get along well? It is that they share something. If they share the same sense of values or outlook on life, they can make up even if they argue. And if they share the same language, they can converse more smoothly. On the other hand, any differences between them could hamper their relationship. Even if they speak the same language, their conversation will be slowed down if one of them speaks a strong dialect. This is an idea that modern humanism has pursued to its ultimate logical conclusion.

Humanism is monologue-style thought

According to humanism, taking the humanity that is common to all people as the one and only principle would facilitate the creation of a humanitarian society in which there would be universal awareness of mutual equality and therefore no discrimination due to differences in faith, social position or race. This is a wonderful idea, but its validity requires a precise answer as to what humanity is. Whose answer will be accepted? It goes without saying that it will be the dominant group of people who happen to have the strongest voice at present. For example, let’s say that humanity meant “aiming for a materially rich life by planning one’s life rationally and not surrendering to desire.” This can lead to dangerous and meddlesome ideas that people in primitive societies or believers in religions that see wealth as vulgar are not decent human beings and should be excluded, or that they need to be thoroughly educated to turn them into good people. The consequence of thoroughly identical thought is monologue-style thought, which rejects absolutely all differences and can become strongly anti-foreign.

Who is the “other person” in front of you?

Dialogical thought avoids these risks of identical thought. A dialog begins first of all with a call and a response. Once the other person has responded smoothly to our call, we feel friendly toward them and feel they are “one of us.” Just as a stone cannot reply and so can never be “one of us,” we feel little affinity for people who shut themselves away and do not reply, even though they are fellow human beings.

On the other hand, for me to feel a real affinity for someone, their responses should continue to fall short of our expectations. Many years ago, an elaborate canine robot came onto the market. It was meant to be a replacement for a pet. So what were the requirements for this robot to become a pet that would be loved by its family? Of course it had to be able to respond appropriately to people’s calls. It wagged its tail when its head was patted, and ran up to people when they called it. But all this robot was doing was fulfilling some idealized behavior, and people soon tired of it because they felt it was no more than a sophisticated machine. To gain the real affection of its owners, the robot should have given them a hard time, sometimes looking the other way when called or sulking with displeasure. In other words, we can only feel affinity for someone and recognize them as “one of us” if they are an “absolutely other person” who remains beyond our control. What holds human relations together is not our sameness but our differences.

Who am “I”?

Assuming that a person I am in dialog with confounds my expectations, I should let them talk first and listen to what they have to say. The basis of a dialogic relationship is waiting and listening. This would appear at first glance to be a passive attitude, but it is not. I don’t know beforehand what that person is going to say, so I have to be able to respond on a case by-case basis. That is, I have to start talking afresh without any constraints. This is where my real activeness and freedom lie. “I” can, when first spoken to by “you,” become the real “I.”

Dialog and the power of listening

Recently, as our country takes on a more leading role in international society, many people are insisting that Japan needs to be able to say yes or no more clearly. The assumption is that a dialog simply means asserting one another’s opinions. But we must be very wary of this idea, which is often recommending not a dialog but only a monologue on what Japan wants to say. I am not saying we should refrain from speaking our mind in order to maintain good relations, as Japanese have tended to do until now. Rather, dialog means “listening” first and foremost, and believing that the power of listening can, in each case, unveil a new “I” and further new situations for dialog.

Shinichi Muraoka
Professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Modern and Contemporary German Philosophy (German Idealism, German-Jewish Thought)
Professor Muraoka was born in Kumamoto prefecture in 1952. He withdrew from the PhD program in Philosophy from the Graduate School of Letters, Chuo University in 1984 after completing the course requirements. He served as researcher at the Center for General Regional Studies, Akita University of Economics and Law in 1995, Assistant Professor in the Regional Sociology Department, Akita Keijo Junior College in 1996, and Assistant Professor on the Faculty of Science and Engineering, Chuo University in 1998 before taking up his current post in 2004. His major publications as author include The Philosophy of Dialog: The Hidden Lineage of German-Jewish Thought [Taiwa no Tetsugaku—Doitsu-Yudaya Shiso no Kakureta Keifu] (Kodansha Sensho Mechie, 2008) and German Idealism [Doitsu Kannenron] (Kodansha Sensho Mechie, 2012). His major translations into Japanese include Walter Benjamin’s Passages [Pasaju ron] (Iwanami Shoten, 1993), Ernst Cassirer’s The Problem of Knowledge, 4 Volumes [Ninshiki Mondai, Zen 4 Kan] (Misuzu Shobo, 1996-2013), Franz Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption [Kyusai no Hoshi] (Misuzu Shobo, 2009), and Franz Rosenzweig’s Understanding the Sick and the Healthy [Kenko na Gosei to Byoteki na Gosei] (Sakuhinsha, 2011).