What is dialogue? And how can we understand inter-cultural dialogue?

The Danish educational philosopher Peter Kemp defines the existential dialogue between cultures on 4 different levels:

1. The everyday interaction and conversation, when partners are engaged in common projects and common actions – taking about the weather, eating together, going for walks or seeing something together. In this basic form of dialogue we recognize strangers as human beings like ourselves

2. Intellectual conversation – the exchange of interpretations of life and works. Here we try to understand concepts, forms and symbols, that are developed in other contexts and traditions. This often means the need for translation – and some aspects can be ‘lost in translation’, because we cannot translate all our experiences, and some experiences can be expressed better in one language than another.

3. The listening conversation – a mutual effort to create common experience and find complementary interpretations in spite of differences. This is born by a hope, that there must be a basis for mutual understanding among people with different cultural or religious backgrounds. We hope that all great cultures are an expression of the same human reality, which is beyond each different interpretation of reality –  and this gives us a ground for openness to other cultures and a drive force for the dialogue between cultures.

4. Intense conversation between people who have some common historical experiences of values and convictions. Here we can engage into a strenuous attempt to achieve genuine insight into human reality. On this level of dialogue we have the trust to be able to pose the critical questions, not to be proven right or to win a discussion, but in order to find out what “the good life” is and how it can be realized. But this intense conversation can only take place between a few people at a time.

A dialogue between cultures will normally take place on the first three levels, says Kemp, but the objective must be that individuals from different cultures get together in twos or threes to understand their lives in a common world history or a common worldview, so that they experience humanity – despite their differences – as one family, whose members can affirm each other’s dignity and integrity.

Read on in Peter Kemp’s book, Citizen of the World:

Citizen of the World: Cosmoplitan Ideals for the 21st Century

Can you recognize and relate to his distinction between 4 levels of dialogue?

Are they useful for the practice of dialogue?


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