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Prof. Robert Picht: ‘sociology of culture’ to understand Europe of today

Prof. Robert Picht picked up again the theme of the Enlightenment as a philosophical tradition, but this time in terms of a sociology of culture. His initial remark was a response to what Lenoble had said just before. Robert Picht stated that the relationship between novelist and identity of people needs to be reviewed critically. He has the impression that these debates about identity through literature are quite naive, especially when they presume identities are stable. As a matter of fact, identities are most unstable. Exposed to the dynamics of change due to technology, international economies and transport & communication, there is only one term to describe this process: m u t a t i o n. At the same time he is of the opinion that the consequences of Europe are not being really discussed, for there are several issues involved. First of all, there seems to be a connection between cultural diversity, resistance and language; then, the recollection of a national identity can imply a social regression; furthermore, there is to be noticed a growth of phobias all terminating in violence. In other words, 'history is back again as a reaction to change'. There is a special dialectic involved in all of that and this has to be understood. Three parameters seem to govern right now the major concerns:

This is to say, culture deals with the mutation of European societies for the better or the worse. It is interesting to note in this context that the tendency towards regional societies has become an articulation basis of major conflicts.

Picht emphatically stated that if we do not resolve this, then we can also not understand what is happening to people individually. Indeed, there is something going on and yet not one seems to know what is happening to us. It relates to Europe becoming more institutionalised and this again can be reflected in the mutations going on apart from attempts to adhere to historical roots. In other words, to understand what is going on, one must be concerned about the biographies of individuals. The mutation process itself is a way to link the parts to the whole. That can mean in departure from the Enlightenment a kind of social anthropology, in order to grasp the new forms of socialisation as part of an ongoing effort to strengthen individuality and social security, structurally speaking. In terms of education, this would mean going back to the 'human being' as starting point of a 'rational communication' linkage to others.


Odd in this context of reflections about European integration is that mutations, although a biological term, is used for biographical descriptions at the level of identity transformations or what changes an individual undergoes by living in a certain period of time. Mutation captures also more slow moving changes like the free fall of a rain drop upon a rose leaf suspended above the water in a pond. That is a synchronic picture of change as portrayed by technology, hence a system of change escaping observations by the naked eye. But the matter does not really touch upon the essential fact of fascination for some objects and why they become a subject of interest, while others remain completely in obscurity. Such a reflection can be comprehended partially only on the basis of the seventies when the thesis of Habermas was introduced as to how knowledge (Erkenntnislogik) is brought about in direct correction to 'interest' (Erkenntnis und Interesse). This kind of knowledge entails the dialectical relationship between giving actively recognition to something and knowledge becoming among others acknowledgement as a result of certain circumstances prevailing, in order to recognise the existence of something. The latter aspect is in need of further explanations. The existence of something depends in terms of our perceptive abilities upon 'forms' to which we find only access by overcoming arbitrariness when dealing with reality. 1 Arbitrariness should not be confused with irrationality; the critique of arbitrariness means merely nothing can be approached in a lawless manner, that is arbitrarily, since the very existence of something implies lawfulness: the fulfilment of form(s). The latter should not be confused with social norms. For again, it is a matter of how 'lawfulness' is brought into the methods of observation (i.e. conditions under which something is recognised as existing), or how something can be observed. This becomes relevant for the changes individuals undergo in due time, whereas changes to be attributed to European integration must be perceived in a special way, in order not to confuse these changes with those being brought about international developments, impact of technologies, political events etc.. Crucial is apparently to what extent the observation method leads to insights which are apparently inherent in the nature of the subject matter. Here is interesting the reference by Picht to the marked 'tendency towards regional societies' as having become 'an articulation basis of major conflicts'. Understanding would mean to see whether or not the linkage between national and regional identities as a difference is inherent to the kind of 'cultural diversity' we refer to when speaking with affirmation about Europe as a whole, namely not as a 'melting pot', but as a continent of real differences. Crucial in such an emphasis is, however, the humanistic perspective, although outside the tradition of Enlightenment in a move towards a modern kind of social anthropology. If the emphasis upon individuality is to be implemented in practice, then it means certainly a culture of 'rational communication' based on an education system giving everyone the competence to participate in such kind of communication. If successful, it could become a powerful reflection accompanying changes as European integration proceeds. Indeed, this seems to be a variation of the themes already articulated by Habermas, but this time not only within the specific German context, for it is meant to apply European wide.

There is still a further problem to be resolved: how mutations can be best formulated, so that they can be observed without thereby taking recourse to the well-established thesis of Monod about mutations meaning a synthesis of 'coincidence and necessity', until some evolutionary leaps seem conceivable and also possible. Again, this was a discussion during the seventies when some linkage between philosophy and biology was attempted, but the reflective framework of philosophy for using rational tools like Picht was concerned very much on how to relate the education system to ongoing changes. Here he sees a true dilemma, for the education system is something that changes the least and thus continues to create national styles of thinking and understanding things. While everything else changes, the education system remains a constant of the particular society which has brought forth this practical way of passing on knowledge in preparation for the future. As Arthur Koestler would have formulated it, insights and perspectives are linked by a special quest for knowledge taking one beyond those narrow confines of schools and even universities. Especially as the prevailing education systems throughout Europe, according to Picht, were made for the old state-nation relationship. Now there is a crisis in every education system, but no one seems to know really how to deal with it in the best possible manner.

At the level of working relationships, it is clear that aside from new technologies destabilising everything, new organisational methods require of every individual abilities to work in teams, to transfer knowledge and respond to the work in progress at many levels, not only to single defined functions. The education system hardly prepares the individual for such flexible adaptability. Furthermore, there is no longer the one educational path for the job for life. Instead, continual learning and all sorts of qualification strategies have made it increasingly difficult for societies and their respective ministries for education to standardise, to regulate and to control the qualification test procedures. Still, a society has to know if that doctor or mechanic can be trusted, as much as the opening up of job opportunities in other member states requires that qualification is no longer a specific cultural phenomenon, but rather a lawyer or other specialists can practise their profession throughout Europe. That this is not yet the case, points to the fact that perhaps aside from culture, education is considered by the nation state as 'their' key to survival. Given also the fact that education is, for instance, in Germany a matter of the Laender within the federal state system, while France or Greece have their highly centralised ministries of education at the national state level, there is not much convergence between the different European countries in sight. Exchange programmes (ERASMUS) are minimal compared to what mutual cultural understanding would require, and then ERASMUS, although successful in this limited sense, is being phased out. Thus it appears that the European Union does not react to the 'disturbed identities' accompanying the many changes, and where the Commission does, then in forms of wrong concessions to the nation states. The Maastricht Treaty with Article 128 reinforces only this negative trend.

There are many aspects to be dealt with when it comes to education, the panel discussion of the Fourth Seminar could but take note that there is a serious issue: the unchanging nature of the present education system as a contradiction to so many changes taking place.

Picht wanted to make a brief contribution as one of the panel speakers during the discussion that followed the specific lecture. He wanted to make one more point clear, in reference to what Lenoble would call the 'discursive culture of post-modern times', in order to form an identity out of parts. This effort can be seen as an attempt to bring about 'civil society', yet the crisis stems from the fact, that there are no European dialogues taking place about the following issues:

A closer look at these three factors would spell out the need for new forms of a culture able to deal with change within the very context of European cultural forms based upon the 'dialogue'. This debate, so feels Robert Picht, is not only of an intellectual nature, but rather constitutes a practical concern, namely how to maintain the European cultural infrastructures altogether.

Since Picht wrote also a special paper on "Disturbed Identities: Social and Cultural Mutations in Contemporary Europe", it is important to follow his examination of what alternatives exist to the tendency to return to folklorist attempts to keep up 'identity' despite many changes. He states that the question of identity becomes at the same time a health issue. His interest would be to establish a rational communication network between the regions of Europe, in order to ascertain and to reach a mature cultural understanding as to what is sufficient for a unity altogether without ignoring the mutations taking place at individual level. A concern for the individual expresses itself best in an active interest in the biographies of these individuals. This is not self-understood, given an out-dated education system, that mutations in the biographies of the individuals suffice to bring about a cultural adaptation process required, in order to cope with ongoing changes.

1 A different approach is surely that of Derrida and others of the Deconstructivist school of thought, for they wish no longer to make perception even dependent upon form; the form of existence being for them rather a flow - see here Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes, Berkeley, 1994.
mathematics and advanced sciences was simply lacking, in order to follow up with a dialectic between practical insights and general notions of man, life and the world. In other words, science has added to many changes in the particular, but any attempt to reconstruct the whole at even metaphysical levels have failed. There is no way to fall back to positions like those of Heidegger who tried to escape the dilemma by simply declaring that 'science does not think'. Yet between scientific or technological causes of changes and human abilities to cope with these changes, there is a still widening discrepancy since the seventies for without philosophy or anything else giving human beings the reassurance, things seem no longer under control. Feelings of insecurity stem largely from the fact that they are not. The continual destruction of the environment has become in that context more and more a visible exponent of that fear. This is when irrationality comes into the picture, but, as the saying goes, that is in this context yet another story.

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