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Ideas Matter

In a fast-changing and increasingly multipolar world there is an urgent need to understand cultures and develop new thinking.

Humans benefit from better understanding of and empathy for diverse societies and cultures.

Ethics and politics have failed to keep pace with scientific and technological progress.

The goal of the Berggruen Institute’s Philosophy and Culture Center is to develop fresh ideas through comparative and interdisciplinary work and relate these insights to the pressing issues of our day.

The Berggruen Institute’s Philosophy and Culture Center will look at both the theory and the practice of ideas. We bring together the best possible minds from across cultural and political boundaries to explore the key questions of our time.

In addition to furthering scholarly debate, we intend to engage the public.


Philosophy and religion shape culture and political traditions. In a world where there is competition between cultural ideas, it is now even more important to go to their roots to understand them and develop new ones. What are the effects of philosophy and culture in different parts of the world? What are the important differences within cultures and how have cultures changed? How can new philosophies be developed for modern day mindsets and current social and political circumstances? How should the extraordinary advances in science and technology factor into philosophical thinking? Why has globalization in the marketplace not been accompanied by a more thorough or reciprocal interpenetration of ideas or intellectual traditions? Understanding the origins of various cultures will help shape the future. These questions, which are important to help minimize cultural conflict, promote mutual understanding, and recognize differences, need to be explored in greater depth.

Taking into account that most philosophical, political, religious, and scientific traditions have often aimed at a universal truth, the Philosophy and Culture Center recognizes that in reality divergent views and values have been prioritized in different historical traditions. Some dissimilarities may be intractable, some need to be tolerated, and some will allow for mutual learning. Not recognizing these distinctions and not engaging in different cultures today - more than ever in an increasingly multipolar world - exposes us to geopolitical risk.


The systematic encounter of different traditions can lead to philosophical breakthroughs. These developments could help decision-makers address key challenges of the twenty-first century. In a multipolar and interconnected world, where the West and its culture may lose its dominance, it is vital to bring to life cultures from around the world.

One cannot fully make sense of politics without a good understanding of philosophical and religious traditions. Dissimilar views about politics in the United States and China, for example, are partly rooted in variant priorities given by each society to key values and aspirations, not simply in conflicting economic and military interests. To better understand traditions and to defuse conflicts rooted in cultural misunderstandings, the Philosophy and Culture Center will attempt to cast light on important sources of political tension.

The Philosophy and Culture Center is a non-profit, non-partisan, and non-ideological organization committed to explore the origins and development of thought; clarify consensus and divergence among different philosophical traditions; and stimulate new developments within and across traditions as well as develop new and original philosophical thinking. We will compare both ideals and traditions as practiced in everyday life over time and look at philosophy as a way of life in different cultures. As an independent Institute we aim to empower risk taking with ideas and change. We are at the service of ideas and we are willing to go where others are not.

The Philosophy and Culture Center will support projects that build bridges between cultures, disciplines, the normative and the empirical, experts and the public, and political leaders and thinkers. The Philosophy and Culture Center will not only involve philosophers, religious thinkers and public intellectuals – but will also include artists, writers, architects, scientists, historians, poets, psychologists, musicians, the military, and public officials to help enrich and communicate Philosophy and Culture Center’s mission.

The Philosophy and Culture Center aims to not only further scholarly debate, but to encourage the cross-fertilization of ideas, thought and practice. This includes the influence of science on our thinking and, potentially, on human nature. The Philosophy and Culture Center seeks to promote better understanding of both the commonalities and the distinctive outlooks of philosophical and religious traditions among the public at large. We also encourage political leaders and economic decision-makers to engage with the world of ideas and the diversity of cultures.

The Philosophy and Culture Center will offer scholarly research as well as non-academic material that interprets the key elements of culture of different societies and how they apply to contemporary economics and politics. This research will be made accessible through the publication of high-quality, original academic articles and books. Work will also be published and publicized in major media outlets. The Philosophy and Culture Center will support video broadcasting, webcasts, lectures and debates to engage the public in a wider discussion of philosophical ideas. Ultimately our aim is to publish and communicate in at least two languages starting with English and Chinese.


While most philosophical and religious traditions share a commitment to certain basic values such as respect for human life, they do not all share the same answer to the question of what constitutes human flourishing.

The Philosophy and Culture Center will foster research on themes (1) that encompass polarities and tensions both within and between traditions of great long-term political and philosophical significance (2) can generate fresh insights if explored from the perspective of different ethical traditions and disciplines and (3) where much systematic and comparative research remains to be done. The objective is to not only clarify areas of commonalities and morally legitimate difference, but also to inspire learning new perspectives and fresh philosophical thinking.

Following extensive deliberation at workshops at Stanford, Princeton, NYU, Harvard, and Cambridge, we chose to prioritize the following themes for the 2015-2020 period:

  1. Individual and the World

    To what extent are we independent, and to what extent are we part of society, and what sorts of responsibilities do we owe to ourselves and to others? Such questions are central to most philosophical thinking and ethical traditions. We will explore the following polarities and tensions that characterize the relationship of the individual and the society:

    1. The Authentic Self and the Relational Self

      What does it mean to be true to one’s self? And what does it mean to conceive of the self in relation to others? There are profound differences within and between societies in the way people conceive of self and society: to what extent do differences and commonalities have social and political impact? Philosophically, how free is the individual and/or how dependent is the individual on society? When and how should individual claims to rights give way to the interests of other people? In today’s world, how can the individual protect his or her privacy?

    2. Harmony and Freedom

      Harmony is central to China’s political culture and individual freedom is constantly celebrated in the United States. But what does each general idea amount to in practice, and what do they tell us about the differences and similarities of China and the U.S.? And what is the relationship between the two ideals? To what extent does the pursuit of harmony undermine freedom, and how to resolve cases of conflict? Much has been written about freedom, but to what extent and under what conditions is harmony a socially desirable goal and what do different societies and traditions say about harmony? How are the ideals of harmony and freedom contested in societies that prize those ideals, and how to prevent abuses of those ideas by governments and powerful private interests in practice? How can music help to promote social harmony and freedom? How can we establish harmony with the natural environment? Which forms of government best promote harmony and freedom, properly understood? How to measure harmony and freedom in different societies? Which rituals and legal mechanisms help to reduce social conflict and nourish harmonious social relations without undermining freedom?

    3. Equality and Hierarchy

      Equality is clearly an important value and much has been written on the ideal and practice of equality and the need to equalize relations between genders, sexuality, classes, and ethnic and religious groups. But hierarchy, arguably, is equally important and research on hierarchy has lagged behind. All large-scale societies need to be organized along certain hierarchies. But which hierarchies are justified, and which ones not? What are the commonalities and differences among the ways that different societies and ethical traditions conceive of equality and hierarchy? What are the responsibilities of those on top and bottom of hierarchies – between humans and nature, countries, citizens, religious organizations, at the workplace and in the family -- and what are the best mechanisms to promote those reciprocal responsibilities? What are the roles for empathy, accountability, and other values and virtues in just legitimate and productive hierarchical relations, and how can these be cultivated?

  2. The Future of Political Governance

    In a rapidly changing and interconnected world order, clearly we need to reconsider traditional ways of governance. The rise of China – not just as an economic and military power, but as a cultural presence with its own ethical systems and forms of governance -- poses a particular challenge to the dominance of the West, giving rise to a new competition of ideas as well as the possibility of mutual enrichment. But which political values fit particular societies, and how best to institutionalize those values? We will explore the future of political governance by researching the following polarities and tensions:

    1. Democracy and Meritocracy

      How should power be delegated and what are appropriate mechanisms for selecting rulers at different levels of government and for engaging with the ruled? Which qualities matter for rulers in different political contexts and how can rulers be selected and promoted in accordance with those qualities? How can rulers be made accountable without electoral democracy, and how can rulers be seen as legitimate if they are not elected by the people? What is the best model to combine elements of democracy and meritocracy?

    2. Tradition and Progress

      The Enlightenment ideal that societies improve as they progress towards a more rational and transparent mode of social and political organization has influenced both liberals and Marxists. But economically modernizing societies such as China and Russia seem to be increasingly turning “backward” to tradition to judge what counts as political progress and regress, and to provide legitimacy for rulers. How will – and how should -- different conceptions of tradition and progress influence political governance in the future?

    3. City and Nation

      In the twentieth century, the nation became the main source of political identity and site of collective self-determination. A patriot takes pride in his or her own country because it expresses a particular way of life in its history, politics, and institutions. But states find it increasingly difficult to provide this sense of uniqueness because they have to comply with the demands of the market and international agreements. And vested interests block necessary change in large states such as the United States and China. In response, the city is emerging as a site of collective identity and political action. How can cities provide a sense of community in a globalized world, and how can cities within and across countries cooperate to deal with collective problems such as climate change and increasing economic inequality?

    4. Centralization and Decentralization

      To what extent should political power be decentralized? What is the best way of organizing relations between different levels of government? How can states cooperate with, if not defer to, international organizations meant to deal with global problems? To what extent does political history shape views about decentralization and centralization? Is federalism or ad hoc experimentation at lower levels of government the best way to deal with issues of local significance? In addition we have to take into account non-state and supranational powers.

  3. Humans and Technology

    Science and technology progress at an exponential rate and will change our conceptions of what it means to be human. Are humans losing control of our future or can we harness the benefits of science and technology to promote human well-being? We will explore the following polarities and tensions that characterize the relationship between humans and technological development.

    1. Humans and Non-Humans

      New developments in neurobiology and artificial intelligence may blur, if not abolish, the boundaries of the human and the non-human worlds. How can we harness such developments in ways that promote human well-being? And how will these developments shape conceptions of what it means to be human in different cultural traditions? What are the implications for our views on consciousness and identity?

    2. Neuroscience, Culture and Morality

      Different traditions offer different ways of thinking about the relations between the brain (cognition) and the heart, and recent developments in neuroscience offer a way of testing different possibilities. How can neuroscience help explain cultural change and diversity? And what does neuroscience say about the limits of moral choice? How can neuroscience help us think about ethics and politics, and how can normative considerations from different cultural traditions be brought to bear on what counts as scientific and technological progress?

    3. Sustainable Innovation

      How can rapid innovations in artificial intelligence and biotechnology be harnessed for desirable purposes and prevented from harming human beings and the world we live in? Should there be constraints on innovation? If so, what should be the standards for permissible innovation at the national and global levels?

    4. Work and Leisure

      Karl Marx predicted a high-tech future where machines would do most of the necessary work and humans would be free to realize their capacity for creativity in work. But what if machines come to dominate humans rather than the other way around? How will new technologies change our conceptions of work and leisure? And how will technological developments affect power relations in the workplace and the distribution of power and economic wealth?

    5. This Life and After Life.

      The bio-tech revolution promises to cure diseases and prolong life, yet accelerating genetic mutation challenges our notions of who we are and our relationships with each other. How will such developments affect what different cultural traditions value in this life and/or the after-life? What are the implications of such developments from different secular and sacred perspectives, and how will they challenge views of the boundary between the secular and the sacred?

  4. Big Ideas

    What are the most important ideas that have shaped human history over the last millennia? What new ideas will foster social development over the next hundred years? Which ideas matter most in different times and places, how is this determined, and what allows these ideas to flourish? What are the moral implications of these ideas in general?

    1. The annual $1 Million Berggruen Prize.

      The prize will reward a living thinker whose ideas have deeply influenced our world. Numerous prizes are rightly awarded for invention and achievement in science and the arts, but few prizes recognize ideas that have broader philosophical and cultural impact. An independent and diverse jury composed of leading thinkers will award the prize. The first prize is expected to be awarded presented in the Fall of 2016.

    2. The Berggruen Ideas Contest.

      Looking to the future, which ideas will do the most to shape our world over the next few decades? The Berggruen Ideas Competition will be organized annually to identify and further research ideas that will meaningfully impact the way we think and live. The first competition is expected to take place in the Summer of 2016.


Research. The Philosophy and Culture Center will regularly assemble workshops with a select group of scholars and thinkers (including artists, scientists, public officials) with expertise in different traditions and ethical perspectives to deliberate and write about key philosophical themes. The aim is to develop new ideas and produce cutting edge projects and publications of lasting value.

Fellowships. The Philosophy and Culture Center will offer fellowships for scholars to write on themes in comparative philosophy and religion for flexible periods up to two years. A theme leader will help to plan events such as workshops and reading groups and help to select fellows. Initially we will seek out thinkers/scholars to work on selected themes individually and in small groups and over time open it up to applications. Fellows will have the opportunity to live and work in both the West and Asia. Fellows will publish their written work, deliver public lectures, and participate in other Philosophy and Culture Center’s public outreach efforts.

Public Outreach. The Philosophy and Culture Center will make public outreach a priority. In time, the website will serve as an interactive multi-lingual resource of comparative philosophy and culture for the public at large and decision-makers. Key research findings and public events hosted by the Institute will be publicized on the website. The Philosophy and Culture Center will promote free online access to its research output. Ultimately the Philosophy and Culture Center will regularly publish written and video content (including blogs). Select work will be in collaboration with leading publishers and broadcasters in the West and Asia.

Events. Beyond the usual conferences, workshops and panels we will also seek to host debates on key subjects that are similar to the participatory public hearings which exist in the Western context or monastic debates as exist in the Buddhist tradition. These are intended to be open debates involving experts and non-experts.

Affiliations. The Philosophy and Culture Center is developing affiliations with leading universities and institutes in different countries including China and the United States. Collaborations include: Beijing University, Cambridge University, Harvard University, New York University, Tsinghua University, University of California Los Angeles, and University of Southern California. The Philosophy and Culture Center will also partner with thinkers and institutions that want to advance similar goals.

Physical location(s). The Philosophy and Culture Center will provide a physical space in Los Angeles for scholars and fellows to live and work.


Berggruen Institute’s Philosophy and Culture Center has established advisory and academic boards to establish and further the Center’s mission.