The Oslo Desk covers Bryan van Norden on «Mat & Viten» at the Intercultural Museum (IKM)

Some weeks before the Corona virus and COVID-19 shut down much of Europe, the US professor Bryan van Norden (the author of Taking Back Philosophy, 2017) held the sellout lecture «Learning from Chinese Philosophy» at the Intercultural Museum of Oslo (Interkulturelt Museum, IKM) on the 25th of February 2020. The event was part of the series «Mat & Viten» – «Food & Knowledge» (all info at this SGOKI page).

The cultural website The Oslo Desk – founded by Ka Man Mak – was also present, and on the 10th of April, they published the report «Contemplating China: More Than Just Food on the Table» by the writer V Ayer.

Some excerpts from The Oslo Desk article:

«I was invited to attend the sixth edition of ‘Mat og Viten’ on 25th February on the theme of “Learning from Chinese Philosophy”. Mat og Viten is a monthly event curated by co-organizers Anders Bettum and Christine Pramm of the initiative’s namesake, and Dag Herbjørnsrud from SGOKI (Center for Global and Comparative History Ideas).

These events are designed to investigate topics such as intolerances in society; often in partnership with distinguished guest speakers such as Bryan William Van Norden. Bryan is the ‘James Monroe Taylor Chair’ in Philosophy, at Vassar College, US and is currently the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple Professor in the Humanities, at Yale NUS College, Singapore.»

«Bryan William Van Norden comes from a small town in Pennsylvania, USA which is “99% White and 99% Christian”, and now is happily based in the bustling metropolis of Singapore; a journey that was encouraged by having an understanding of, and being welcomed into different cultures. He acknowledges the importance of events such as “Mat og Viten” given the known fact that “We live in an increasingly small world, and it’s impossible for cultures to isolate themselves, so it’s more important than ever for us to learn about other cultures”.

Dag echoed Bryan’s view by sharing, “I hope that the virus crisis can teach us that we need to listen more to and learn more from other people around the world. I think they can take away [from the event] with them the fact that there are so many perspectives all over the world, we don’t get to know about in the traditional canons. The history and knowledge systems in Africa, Asia, and Indigenous America are so vast – and in general, we don’t get to know about this in the reading lists of the European schools and universities. Also, the European history is more complex than we are thought to believe – for example, reflecting and understanding the contributions of the Sami people here in Northern Europe.”

Dag further discerned- “I think it is prudent with a global perspective – as the coronavirus (COVID-19) has demonstrated. The medical staff and politicians of Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, and China can now help the European countries in order to cope with the virus. China has sent tons of medical equipment to Italy and Spain, and they have sent their experts and doctors in order to give advice. We all depend on each other, as the virus demonstrates. A eurocentric (Europe-centered), or Sinocentric (China-centered) worldview will not help anyone now. This scenario has amplified the need for listening and taking each-others’ opinions resolutely. If the European politicians had listened more to the warnings from East Asia in January, could they have saved more lives then? This crisis has made me think more about the classical Chinese philosopher Mozi (c. 4th century BCE), who argued that we need to base our thinking and actions on “impartial concern” (jian’ai) – or “universal love”, global solidarity. Such thinking as that of Mozi is what we need now, not more selfish nationalism and ethnocentricism.”

“Nothing is not oneself”. Did I hear correctly? Thankfully Bryan gently introduced us to Chinese Philosophy by pairing metaphysical prose with examples such as how one might feel compassion for a child in pain, because “your mind forms one body with the child”. The Corona pandemic highlights how intertwined we all are irrespective of age, gender, ethnicity or location. Bryan supported this with the knowledge that Chinese Philosophy is “intrinsically opposed to the politics of division and of hatred”.  The audience was treated to a vision of interconnected lines, which Bryan zoomed into, resulting in further interconnected lines.

Bryan van Norden holding the lecture. Photo: Ka Man Mak/The Oslo Desk

«Upon reflection, Omer Ahmar shared, ‘My experience has been a little bit different than Norwegians, probably because in Turkish culture, we believe in interknit roots; which is stark in contrast with people here who are saying things like- we believe that we are completely separate from one another. So this Chinese philosophy held a close similarity to what I had grown up with.’

Anders Bettum, a Senior Curator and Research co-ordinator at the Intercultural Museum of Oslo is from Norway. He hopes to create research from both the ‘Mat og Viten series’ and from his interviews with students aged between 13-20+ group on the topic of prejudices. Anders is keen to understand where prejudices come from, given his observation that “culturally immigration enriches us”. Mat og Viten events are “a way of trying to go behind some of all the prejudices that are controlling us”.

As I stepped back out into the streets of Grønland, I recalled the chef looking at the guests and wishing that “they come here happy, they go home happy”. I certainly did.»

NB! Due to the Corona virus, the «Mat & Viten» events are postponed. Please check out these links for updated info: