Why The Berggruen Philosophy And Culture Center Aims For The Big Questions

"Ideas shape our humanity ... Understanding their origin and political traditions are critical to producing long-lasting change for a better world."

There’s no shortage of thinkers, academics, artists and activists working on some of the world's biggest issues -- poverty, war, economic and political instability, to name a few. But to Nicolas Berggruen, much of that intellectual work either fails to escape cultural, geographic, linguistic or professional silos or -- when it does -- doesn’t get the support it needs to take root.

Philosophy and contemplating the big questions were key parts of education in ancient societies, such as the Greeks. But today, the philanthropist and investor said, that work is often left to specialists, who speak to each other but perhaps not to the public.

That’s why Berggruen, who five years ago started the the Santa Monica, California-based Berggruen Institute -- an independent think tank that focuses on policy and governance -- this week launched a new chapter in his life’s work with a unique cause.

Nicolas Berggruen.
Nicolas Berggruen.

The Berggruen Philosophy and Culture Center includes cross-cultural projects in six areas, ranging from popular global currents (sustainable innovation) to pursuits that are more timeless and esoteric (“the autonomous self and relational self”); a global fellowship connecting scholars from China, the United Kingdom and the United States; a $1 million philosophy prize; and an annual Aspen-Berggruen ideas competition.

More broadly, the new center focuses on two questions: What new ideas can humans come up with to help society and individuals flourish, and how can we use and reinvigorate the best philosophy of the past-- from the Greeks to the ancient Chinese --to create a better world? (Other project focus areas include the future of political governance: democracy and meritocracy; harmony and freedom; equality and hierarchy; and humans and technology.)

“Ideas are so influential, they really have made who we are,” said Berggruen, 54. The self-described philosophy aficionado cut his teeth in the very earth-bound investment world via his private firm, Berggruen Holdings, but said his passion lies in the cosmic quest for meaning.

“We have never been more close and connected in the world in some ways, yet there are also gaps. We have access to information, yet we are not always willing to go beyond our own beliefs and cultures,” said Berggruen, whose institute partners with The Huffington Post to run The WorldPost.

“Ideas shape our humanity, therefore understanding their origin and political traditions are critical to producing long-lasting change for a better world," Berggruen added. “In a rapidly globalizing yet increasingly fractured world, we aim to close the gap that has been widened by narrow views.”

The Philosophy and Culture Center includes top global thinkers on its advisory and academic boards, including Alain de Botton, Francis Fukuyama, and high-profile philosophers from Germany, France and India. Its initial cohort of fellows includes Yi-Huah Jiang, the former Taiwanese premier, as well as Rajeev Bhargava, director of the Institute of Indian Thought at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi.

Fellows, who had their first gathering at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University this week, will spend two years split between universities in the West -- the U.S., U.K. -- and in China. Partnering institutions include Harvard Divinity School, UCLA, New York University, University of Cambridge, Tsinghua University and Peking University.

The Berggruen Philosophy and Culture Center held a workshop at the University of Cambridge in June. Left to right and cl
The Berggruen Philosophy and Culture Center held a workshop at the University of Cambridge in June. Left to right and clockwise are Michael Puett, John Dunn, Pankaj Mishra, Daniel Bell, Annabel Brett, Yoselyn Bencosme, Nicolas Berggruen, Janet Soskice, Jules Evans, Martin Rees, Julian Baggini, Richard Holton, Nathan Gardels, Molly Bodfish, Beatrice Schmidt, Peter Sloterdijk, Huw Price, Galen Strawso, and Seung-Yoon Lee.

“What is different about this program is that our fellows will have the unique opportunity to study, live and produce work at major universities, initially in the U.S., U.K., and China,” said Daniel Bell, director of the Philosophy and Culture Center and a Tsinghua University professor. “We are not restricted to academics. We want to work on issues that are cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary.”

Dawn Nakagawa, executive vice president of the Berggruen Institute, whose efforts have included attempts to reform governing in California and tackle joblessness among European youth, called the development of the new center “a natural evolution of our work on governance."

"By expanding the understanding of the deeply held beliefs and philosophical roots between cultures, we can create a more constructive dialogue on shared challenges,” Nakagawa said. "From our work on governance, we discovered that even proximal cultures with relatively shared religions and histories -- such as France and Germany -- can have quite different understandings of basic political concepts. This result is very different policy approaches. The farther we get in distance and history, the more challenging communication becomes and more room for misunderstanding. When the history of the 21st century is told, it will rely heavily on the kind of relationship between China and the U.S. We hope to help contribute to a story of peace and prosperity."

Bhargava, an Indian who is one of center’s first fellows, said its focus beyond the U.S. and Europe is especially appealing.

“While a million reams of paper have been written on a small but dominant number of traditions in the West, little systematic research has been done to excavate the treasures of other traditions," Bhargava said. "What a profound transformation in our intellectual world would occur if these treasures were unearthed. And what difference it would make to the social sciences and to the world at large when influenced by the critical traditions of India, Africa, China, Persia, Arab, or the Latin American subcontinent.” 

He added: “Social science and our wider intellectual landscape as we know them would become unrecognizable when shaped by the encounter between these traditions. Perhaps only then will we make headway towards resolving the many different problems that we commonly encounter everywhere in the world. Only then can we hope to achieve a better world globally."