How to talk across Boundaries

Gereon Kopf serves Luther College as professor of religion and identity studies, the University of Iceland as visiting professor, and the International Research Center for Philosophy at Tōyō University as visiting researcher.

In postwar Germany, the cold war was an ever-present reality. So, when the Berlin wall tumbled on November 9, 1989, and the cold war division seemed to crumble as well, I and many people in my generation felt hope that we humans could live together or at least co-exist after all. Not that any of us thought for one moment that all conflicts had mysteriously disappeared; the collapse of the wall simply carried an enormous symbolic value. Over 30 years later, the world is still partitioned by numerous physical, ideological, and imagined walls. Many thorough analyses explain why this is the case and how we could remedy this situation. There are two extreme positions: globalism and postcolonialism. Kwami Anthony Appiah (2007) suggests a third option: cosmopolitanism. On the basis of such a cosmopolitanism, I would like to introduce 5 fundamental guidelines of how to overcome the boundaries that separate us.

I conceive of cosmopolitanism as a middle way between globalism and postcolonialism. The former attempts to dissolve divisions in the human community by proposing and imposing universal rights while the latter accentuates the uniqueness and multiplicity of individual voices and subjectivities. [1] My vision of cosmopolitanism is inspired by the thoughts of the Japanese philosopher MUTAI Risaku (1890-1974) who writes that “to abolish wars, the priority must be to embrace as a rule that it is indispensable to protect world peace and the independence of nations” (MRC 9: 217). It equally upholds the principles of universality and individuality and, thus, embodies the Tiantai Buddhist dictum “one-and-yet-many” (Chin. yijiduo). The reason that it is often difficult to commit to this is, according to Mutai, not an inherent vice but rather the tendency to treat my own world view as absolute and universally applicable, and to mistake it to be THE world view.

According to Mutai, we live in our “small worlds” (Jap. shōsekai) (MRC 4:59) with our selves at the center. As Buddhist thinkers have reminded us, we tend to mistake our impermanent and relative self for the transcendental subject. [2] This delusion of an ego-centric world will continue as long as it is reinforced/sustained by a community of supporters or like-minded cohorts. It comes to a crashing hold when we encounter independent others who refuse to be assimilated into our world and confront our hermeneutic framework with a world view of their own (see graph). [3]

This encounter of two or more independent subjectivities creating independent visions of the world leads to one of three possible results: 1) conflict, 2) oppression of one subjectivity by another, or 3) an uneasy truce in which both sides agree on common terms or a contrat social. Option one is unsustainable, two oppressive, and three, as a compromise, unsatisfactory.

In a recent article (Kopf 2022), I suggested twenty rules of civil dialogue or multilogue. Here, I focus on the sine qua non without which a dialogue between participants caught in their own worlds is not even possible. [4] These guidelines are a) “to acknowledge one’s social position” (地位意識), b) “to erase all power difference––level the playing field” (消除力差 - 公平場所), c) “to protect all participants” (守護大家), d) “to remember the past––envision the future” (記憶過去 - 展望未來), and e) “to search the common good” (求共同善). Encounters, be they intercultural or interpersonal, are not located in a vacuum but rather in a concrete historical context. Therefore, all participants in a conversation need to acknowledge their histories, commit to the physical and discursive safety of all other participants, and agree on some kind of common vision/good. This process requires the practice of deep listening to all voices, who, in a multilogue, articulate a common vision. Only then can the “long and winding” [5] process of rapprochement, peace-and-justice-making and intercultural understanding begin.


  • [1] One powerful articulation of this view is Sri Aurobindo Ghose’s (1872-1950) plea for “self-determination” (Aurobindo 1992, 601).
  • [2] This idea is inspired by the Buddhist “three poisons”: ignorance, desire, hatred. For a definition see Charles Muller’s Digital Dictionary of Buddhism (
  • [3] I used to create this graph.
  • [4] These “20 rules” were inspired by the Q&A session after my guest lecture in Chiara Robbiano’s seminar on “Dōgen in dialogue with contemporary thinkers” on April 15, 20221. At that time, Anna Hilton Ibold specifically asked about how we can protect historically disenfranchised participants in a multilogue. I would like to thank Ching-yuen Cheung for checking the Chinese.
  • [5] I borrow this image from Paul McCartney’s “Long and Winding Road.”

Works Cited

  • MRC Mutai risaku chosakushū『務台理作著作集』 [Collected Works of Mutai Risaku]. 9 vols. (Tokyo: Kobushi Shobō, 2000–2002).
  • Appiah, Kwame Anthony. 2007. Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. New York W. W. Norton & Company.
  • Aurobindo Ghose, Sri. 1992. The Human Cycle, The Ideal of Human Unity, War and Self-Determination. Pondicherry: Sri Aurbindo Ashram Trust.
  • Kopf, Gereon. 2022. “The Theory and Practice of the Multi-Entry Approach.” In Philosophy of Religion Around the World: A Critical Approach, eds. Nathan Loewen and Agnieszka Rostalska. Bloomsbury Academics.