A Report on Erwin Schadel’s Visit to Chula

Intercultural Dialog on Philosophy and World Peace:

Erwin Schadel’s Visit to Chulalongkorn University, 28 to 30 July 2010

Many scholars and students in Thailand were fortunate that Erwin Schadel from Bamberg University, Germany visited Chulalongkorn University and gave a series of lectures from 28th to 30th of July this year. I have known Prof. Schadel for a long time, having made first acquaintance with him in April and May, 2002 when I was invited by Prof. Beck to visit Bamberg University under the auspices of the DAAD, who generously gave me a scholarship for my travel and stay in Germany in order to do research. Prof. Beck had visited Thailand before in 1995, and that was the first time I began to know him. Then in 2002, when I had the opportunity to travel to Bamberg, I had another chance to work closely with Prof. Beck and got to know Prof. Schadel, who had been working very closely with Prof. Beck, at the same time.

The visit was very fruitful and it led to many deep impressions on my thinking and my career which is still felt today. I still remember the warm summer days in Bamberg, especially a hike in the Bavarian forest with Prof. Schadel, his wife and Mr. Manfred Wengeborski, a violinist who became my friend. I also remember the days in the office at the Department of Philosophy at the university, which Prof. Schadel shared with me. Even so eight years have passed I still remember it very vividly.

Thus I was very delighted when Prof. Schadel accepted my invitation to come to Thailand. I received a research grant from the project on “Buddhism in World Literature,” directed by Prof. Pornsan Watanangura, a professor in German at Chula, which finally made it possible for me to repay the kindness Prof. Schadel shown to me during my stay in Bamberg. I asked Prof. Schadel to give a series of lectures so that students and faculty members and members of the public could benefit from his expertise and to engage in intercultural dialogs, which had been our common concern for a long time. Even though we are from different continents living far away from one another, we do share this common concern that sustained, common, intercultural, and interreligious dialog is one of the best ways to achieve lasting peace in the world.

Prof. Schadel agreed to talk on three topics to the general audience: John Amos Comenius’ view on dialogs as a means to development of mankind, Leibniz’s famous view on theodicy and whether this is the best possible world, and lastly on ontological elucidation of the principle of harmony. These are very difficult topics; however they are fascinating and, importantly, these are topics that Thai audience hardly ever had a chance to listen to. So to listen to these talks by experts such as Prof. Schadel was highly beneficial to the Thai academic scene. Moreover, Prof. Schadel also agreed to give yet another lecture for a more limited audience on the philosophy of the Japanese philosopher Nishitani, who talked about the Buddhist concept of Emptiness.

The informal talk on Nishitani and Emptiness was the first one that Prof. Schadel gave in the morning of Wednesday, 28th of July. We were a little bit unlucky that the time that Prof. Schadel was available to travel to Thailand was the midterm examination week for students at Chulalongkorn University; hence there were fewer students than we first expected. Nonetheless, those who came were really interested in the topic and we had very stimulating discussion on the very difficult topic of emptiness and how this quintessential Buddhist view could compare and contrast with those in Western philosophy. The topic is “Absolute nothingness as selfless self: Nishitani’s remarks on Zen-Buddhistic concept of reality as Asiatic contribution to intercultural understanding.” What impressed me most during this talk was the quality of the discussion that ensued. We spent quite a lot of time talking about the concept of emptiness and nothingness. In Buddhism the two are not the same; understanding this is key to understanding the central message of the Buddha. Things are empty of their inherent characters; this does not mean that they are nothing. They are there, but they can’t be taken as existing in such a way that they are independent of anything surrounding them. It is this quality of existing without inherent subsistence that should lend a lot of support of the project of cultivating intercultural dialog. If both sides are entrenched in their own position, which would be a consequence of the idea that things and viewpoints are fixed because of their internal essence, then in a real sense no dialog would be possible. For dialog—giving, taking and exchanging—to be possible, one must be prepared to change one’s own view and one’s own position, in effect sharing one’s mind with others. This is provided metaphysical support by the Buddhist conception of emptiness.

The next lecture took place in the afternoon of the same day. Prof. Schadel talked about Comenius, a Czech philosopher who was virtually unknown in Thailand. So this talk was perhaps the first time a lecture was given on the thought of this important philosopher. Comenius is known as the philosopher who advocates dialog as a means toward understanding. He is recognized as the Father of Modern Education, since he put a lot of effort toward reforming the way children were educated in his times. However, Comenius was a “pansophist,” i.e., one who believes that reality is one and that there should be global solidarity and brotherhood of mankind. It is through dialog, a mutual sharing of persons entering into discourse, that reality is revealed. Hence his philosophy is directly constrasted with that of Descartes, who taught famously that there is a radical distinction of mind and body. Since all is one, there must be dialogs between mind and body, resulting in a triangulation by means of which there emerges a realization that both mind and body are merely aspects of the one reality. Here one is reminded of the discussion on the Buddhist concept of Emptiness alluded to earlier, where dialog is possible because no things possess absolute essence or inherent characteristic.

His lecture on the second day, Thursday 29th of July, was the most attended, and in fact a number of both graduate and undergraduate students came to listen to his talk today who did not come to the others. This is perhaps because Leibniz is better known to Thai students than Comenius. The title of the talk was a question: Do We Live in the Best Possible World? (The exact title was “Do We Live in the Best Possible World?: Some Commentaries on Leibniz’ Monadology and Theodicy.”) Leibniz was well known as a great optimist and he taught that this world of ours is the best possible world there is because God, being supremely merciful and rational, could not have created it otherwise. For God to have created the world otherwise would mean that God acts in contrary to his Being, which is absurd. Leibniz’s view here has a direct relation to the problem of evil. For theistic religions, one of the thorniest philosophical and theological problems has been this: Since God is omnipotent and all compassionate, how could it be that he created the world in such a way that there are many evils, such as tsunamis, earthquakes, wars, epidemics, and so on. Since these calamities are facts of life which can’t be denied, either the Christian has to accept that God somehow allows them to happen, or God is not all powerful and all compassionate as once thought. Either way God does not look good to the believers at all. Leibniz’s answer to this is that, since God could not have created the world otherwise, all these calamities are already parts of the nature created by Him and must serve some purpose. In other words, we have to accept all these evils and calamities as facts of life which we can’t escape from, and since we are mortal creatures with limited capacity of understanding, we cannot fathom God’s ulterior plan behind all these evils. There must be some good behind such things as tsunamis, earthquakes and so on. When these events occur, the best possible world would show that humans are capable of helping one another, so that they show their best possible aspects toward one another. Without these calamities, there would be no occasion for this supremely good aspect of human beings to come to the fore.

The first two lectures took place at Room 708, Faculty of Arts Building; however, last lecture took place at the Recital Hall of Faculty of Fine and Applied Arts, where the music department of the university resides. The topic was “The Principle of Harmony: Ontological Elucidations of the Basic Structures of Tonality (with a Special Reference to Johannes Kepler).” This is a different lecture from the previous three, as Prof. Schadel talked about the physical and ontological basis of harmony as the underlying feature of reality and the cosmos. Here the phrase “music of the spheres” is given literal interpretation as the cosmological spheres themselves are compared to a huge symphony consisting of harmonious interactions resulting in a cosmologically grand piece of music. The basic idea in his lecture is that there are harmonious relations between music and reality. The structures and relations one finds in music have their counterparts in reality. For example, the interval of the octave is produced by sound frequencies having a 1:2 relation with each other. That is, the pitch C and C of a higher octave are produced when the frequency of C is doubled. And there are also other ratios for other intervals. These intervals and ratios also appear in nature. Most interestingly perhaps is Schadel’s diagram showing the male and female human bodies with their internal ratios, which correspond to the ratios in music. It is known that a philosopher or scientist who paid the most attention to this issue was Johannes Kepler. It was Kepler who discovered that, instead of the plants orbiting around the sun in perfect circles as previously believed, they traveled around the sun in an elliptical orbit, with the sun functioning as one of the focal points. Hence it was in this lecture that the principle of harmony in philosophy and metaphysics which he expounded a great deal in the previous two lectures came to concrete reality. It is in musical harmony that the principle of triangulation, a process by which two things of dissimilar nature come together in a “dialog” and produce a harmonious and pleasing sound. One should note that harmonious tones, such as a triad, are not the same as unisons. In unisons one does not have a harmony, because every sound is the same. Harmony occurs when there are different sounds, each of which plays a part in the emerging whole. Hence one can say that here all is one (i.e., all are parts of the harmony), and one is all (i.e., each of the part is distinct and retains one’s own identity). Thus his last lecture provides a concretization context of the whole series, a fitting end indeed. Furthermore, Prof. Schadel also played the pipe and the piano for the benefits of the audience in the Recital Hall. He played pieces by Chopin, Mozart and some others to the delights of all in the audience.

So the performance was a very appropriate end to his series of talk; we discussed about harmony and we got the opportunity to listen to music, which is a concrete expression of harmony. I would like to thank Prof. Schadel, his wife Helene and her sister Maria for their visit to Bangkok, enriching us with their presence. I certainly hope that we will have a chance to meet again in the near future.

Soraj Hongladarom

Department of Philosophy

Chulalongkorn University

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