The world is facing a great transformation of civilization stemming from the rise of the East, fast-spreading globalization and the advancement of science and technology.
The shifts cast uncertainties over the future of Korea. Its culture is steeped in both Eastern tradition and Western modernization as globalization seeps into every aspect of life. And science and technology has been the key driver of its rapid growth in the latter half of the 20th century.
In this transitional period, the country is witnessing the shaping of a characteristically Korean civilization, which is hard to define and prompts its people to explore fundamental studies on humanity and futurology, says Kim Yer-su, director of the Global Academy for Future Civilizations at Kyung Hee University.
|Kim Yer-su, director of the Global Academy for Future Civilizations at Kyung Hee University. (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)|
“The world is going through a kind of cultural, civilizational transformation. Economic, political and cultural centers of gravity are shifting from the West to the East,” Kim said in an interview with The Korea Herald.
“We’re heading into something very different from both Western and Eastern (of which Korea has been a part) civilizations. Precisely what that is, how that is being formulated and so forth, that is the main interest we have in dialogue and discourse.”
The 77-year-old scholar is a well-known philosopher, adviser and the author of many published articles and papers on international ethics, and the philosophy of language and culture.
Kim served more than 20 years as a professor of philosophy at Seoul National University and played a leading role in enhancing liberal arts studies as the chairman of the humanities policy committee under the Prime Minister’s Office from 2002 to 2005.
In those years, scholars raised their voices about the crisis of the humanities and universities worried about declining enrollment as students preferred practical studies for future career prospects over philosophy, history and literature.
The situation has now reversed dramatically. Books in the field are among bestsellers, and liberal arts lectures in universities, companies and community institutions are increasingly popular.
“I think one of the reasons why we nowadays put so much emphasis on humanities education, is that it enables us to see the world in broader and more fundamental terms,” he said.
Now seven months into his new role as head of the Global Academy for Future Civilizations, Kim noted that people are living in extraordinary and unprecedented times.
Humanity studies concentrate on the question of what it means to be human, and this question involves various subjects, Kim said.
“For instance, biotechnology and nanotechnology is very important today in conceiving what it means to be human,” he said.
Established in 2005, as part of the school’s effort to enhance humanity education, the research center boasts some big names in the academic field, including Paul Kennedy, director of international security studies at Yale University; Lee Chong-sik, emeritus professor of political science at University of Pennsylvania; and John Ikenberry, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University.
“We want to have people from different disciplines, although today, we have three foreign scholars, and we hope to expand to about a dozen from different fields.”
Following are excerpts from the interview with Kim Yer-su.
Herald: What is the role of Global Academy for Future Civilizations at Kyung Hee University?
Kim: The first thing we’re doing is we think that the world is going through a kind of cultural civilization transformation. Many of the economic, political and cultural centers of gravity are shifting from the West to the East, and we think that this has something to do with changes in the basic structure of humanities. So we’d like to identify and conceptualize what the direction of this civilization transformation is.
People say that the civilization of the West is declining while the civilization of the East is on the rise. But when we say civilization of the East, we don’t know exactly what that is.
We’re heading into something very different from both Western and Eastern (of which Korea has been a part) civilizations. Precisely what that is, how that is being formulated and so forth, that is the main interest we have.
Herald: How do you define the term “civilization” in your work?
Kim: Civilization is actually a part of our daily life, and yet we don’t think of it very much. It’s like we think we know what life is, but when you think of the definition of life it’s very difficult to answer.
Civilization as a term began to be used during the 18th century in Europe. Of course, we had Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations and so forth, but the term civilization began to be conceptualized in the 18th century in Europe, and used as mainly as descriptive of Western civilization. So one never spoke of civilization in plural; that is civilizations.
Civilization is still regarded as the development of western civilization from Greek antiquity to Roman times, Renaissance to industrial revolution. But there is also the Chinese civilization, and there are also an Indian and Islamic civilizations. There have always been civilizations. To get to your question, what is civilization, it is very difficult to give you a precise definition.
Herald: Do you think Korea is on the right path to reach “optimal civilization”?
Kim: According to British historian Arnold Toynbee, there is a list of 21 civilizations, including Egyptian, Arabic, Hindu and Mexican, and Korea is not part of that and neither is Japan nor Vietnam.
But I think Korea is becoming more of a civilization with a very distinguished character, all this enthusiasm for humanity studies, I think, is one indication of trying to make sense of a radical change during the past 50 years.
We have become a very important economic and political force and also are becoming the cultural force.
Korean Wave and Psy and all, it seems like we’re developing into an independent civilization force. We now seem to be on the verge of producing something that can be called peculiarly characteristic of Korea.
Herald: How would you characterize President-elect Park Geun-hye’s orientation, in particular, the creation of the Ministry of Future Creative Science?
Kim: The “future” and “creative” are very important concepts. I think this has to do with the concept of Korean civilization too. (President-elect Park) emphasizes “creativity” because until now, Korea’s development has been an emulation of other civilizations. And when we had a problem we didn’t have to worry deeply about the problem, because we could find answers from American civilization, that’s always been like that. But now this game of ‘catching-up’ has reached its end. That’s why there is so much confusion in this country. We have to make our own model and in order to do that we have to think about creativity.
I think her idea is conceptually the right direction. But in order to work toward this goal, she has to choose the right people who can think about the future with great expertise in making decisions. And I’m a bit worried as she seems to be having difficulty appointing people.
Herald: According to a study of life-satisfaction by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Korea is ranked 32nd among 34 OECD members. What do you think is the reason behind this result?
Kim: I think one of the reasons is because of the rapid development of Korean society. People have expected for our society to grow almost indefinitely without any hitches, without any difficulties. And we thought happiness would come naturally as the result of economic development.
But people are beginning to think that now we live much better than we used to be, however, we’re not as happy as we thought. And we think we’re unhappy because we are not as happy as we should be.
Also, in the past we have many difficulties, for instance, the problem of unification, and regional rivalry and problem of identities too; these fundamental problems, which we can do little about it, and yet make our life uncertain.
Herald: So how do we need to prepare for the future?
Kim: You should try to be creative. You shouldn’t try to follow established patterns of others. You should try to set out your own path. Of course that puts a great deal of pressure on you, but you have to overcome that.Kim Yer-su
● Kim first took office as director of the Global Academy for Future Civilization at Kyung Hee University in 2007, before becoming a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
● Kim graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Harvard University in 1959 and received his doctoral degree from the University of Bonn in Germany.
● He was a professor of philosophy at Seoul National University from 1977-1998. He served as director of the UNESCO division of philosophy and ethics and also as secretary-general of the Korean National Commission for UNESCO.
By Oh Kyu-wook (email@example.com