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Fundamentals

The annual theme of European Forum Alpbach 2020

Certain fundamentals that once appeared secure are now manifestly under threat, and not just in politics. This means that it is also an attractive option to question the fundamentals that underpin our activities at Alpbach—the topics of the symposia, as well as the redesigned seminar week—to put some so-called basic knowledge to the test, and to sift out those fundamental tenets that are truly indispensable.

But what if all these basic convictions are no more than “elite knowledge?” What if the exact tenets on which we all agree are no longer adequate to get through to an increasing number of people? And why can’t we reach those people, anyway?

In Alpbach in 2020, we want to make the effort to understand the basis of certain convictions that seem irrational to us, and to show them for what they are: irrational and damaging. We want to try to rebuild trust in a rational, scientific world view, and to halt the widespread retreat into nationalistic, emotionally driven thinking. To do this, however, we also have to learn to understand what makes people receptive to seductive demagoguery and to “fake news”.

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The guiding principles, the foundations of the European Forum Alpbach—and its predecessor, the Austrian College—include a concept of education that is based neither on mere “chalk and talk” teaching nor on the relatively authoritarian system of knowledgeable teachers and listening, obedient students. Education, as understood by the European Forum Alpbach, is an egalitarian process in which participants work to develop themselves as much as to acquire knowledge about the world. That is the central idea behind the Seminar Week redesign.

The concept of the Alpbach Learning Missions (ALM) goes a step further. This begins first of all with participation in one or two academic seminars, which then leads into a process of independent work in small groups, at the end of which participants should have come up with suggestions to solve real challenges in our world. Individual responsibility for the desired educational outcome is in the foreground here. The Forum offers both group-dynamic and specialist coaching as needed. The capacity for empathy and communication, and willingness to engage with one another, are the fundamentals of our democracy.

In the following, I will attempt briefly to address the foundations of all the different events within the framework of the Alpbach Forum:

  • In politics, it no longer seems certain that our societies are built on a common political understanding: on the idea of liberal democracy, the rule of law and human rights. Politicians, some of them even from EU member states, have turned away from liberal democracy and are advocating something they call “illiberal democracy”. But democracy is necessarily liberal in the first place; an “illiberal democracy” is no democracy at all. These politicians are consciously abandoning something we previously believed was the basis consensus, the fundamental principle of the EU.
  • But many citizens also seem increasingly to be turning away from democracy. What drives them to abandon their original shared fundamentals? There’s plenty to suggest that it’s about disappointment: disappointment, because it is becoming clear that the democracy they believed in—a democracy that guaranteed rights of decision and participation—has now changed, and no longer offers this combination of rights. Economic globalisation and neoliberal policies have exploded these foundations. But the simple democratic right of co-decision is not as attractive as the fundamental concept of rights of decision and participation. This has opened the door for antidemocratic populists, who are now making use of these complex circumstances to advance their simple, nationalistic solutions.
  • Since the Enlightenment, science and research have been considered basic to our view and understanding of the world. Facts, critically questioned and empirically confirmed, were the fundamentals that united us. However, in the era of “fake news” and the redefining of fact as mere opinion (see, for example, Donald Trump’s attitude to climate change), this certainty is also shifting. How can we regain trust in a rational world view? How can we re-enter into dialogue with the adherents of other “truths”?
  • The latest medical experiments in China have already created designer babies. Using genetic engineering, the DNA of two embryos was altered in such a way that, so far as anyone can tell, they are protected against HIV. Further experiments are underway to make children more intelligent. Right now, procedures of this type are unequivocally banned within the EU on the basis of the Charter of Fundamental Rights (article 3, para 2, second indent[1]). Therefore, this ban is not a fundamental principle outside of the EU; and even within the EU, this basis is no longer secure. Will international competition and researcherly curiosity—a necessary basis of all research—break down all barriers against genetically engineered human breeding? Here, there is clearly a fundamental need for wider discussion, and subsequently too for the formulation and implementation of clear rules.
  • What are the basic tenets that guide scientific and technical development? Are there common ethical fundamentals, for example, in the development of AI? Are there principles which help to ensure that not everything that can be done really will be done—for example, if new developments pose a challenge to the implementation of human rights or the social foundations of common living, or even endanger human life? And isn’t replacing human labour with machines a rational decision for those who own the machines, and yet, at the same time, a threat to peaceful social coexistence? Is this indifference to fundamental human concerns part of the reason for the increasing rejection of scientific knowledge, of rationality?
  • It isn’t only music that transports people into a particular and pleasurable mood. Poetry and novels clearly have a similar effect, as does visual art. It seems that art truly is one of the fundamentals of human cultural development. Could artistic interventions, perhaps, pull people out of their ever-narrowing, irrational, increasingly nationalistic world view?
  • As mentioned above, science and research are concerned with the rational bases of knowledge. But in universities, it’s not just about knowledge transmission. At least equally important is the ability to engage with one another, the ability to communicate and the empathy to use these skills to play a constructive role in society. Here, the “old” fundamentals require further development in places. What must education look like in order to be an effective basis for knowledge acquisition in a time of all-encompassing digitisation, while also enabling opposition to the spread of irrationality? Which lived realities give rise to unreal interpretations? Why are so many people placing trust in solutions that are simple, and so appear understandable to them? Why is it so easy for populist politicians to win people over with these so-called solutions?
  • In procedural terms, the fundamental principle of law is that it should be formulated constitutionally, within a legislative decision-making process conducted on a democratic basis. In terms of content, attention should be paid to the provisions of the relevant constitution and to the international basic rights that have constitutional status. However, this procedural understanding of law leaves many questions unanswered, and thus also leeway for widely perceived injustice. How can trust be regained in law and the administration of justice?
  • It isn’t only basic, underlying economic data that most often inform economics and finance, but also heated disputes about the basis on which economic policy interventions should be carried out. Are there basic ethical tenets for economic activity? By which benchmarks should success be measured? What is the impact of very different levels of wealth and/or income within a society?

[1] “In the fields of medicine and biology, the following must be respected in particular: the prohibition of eugenic practices, in particular those aiming at the selection of persons”

Overall, this year’s theme—this motto—sets us two tasks:

  • To test particular convictions and certainties (fundamentals) of the scientific, economic and political elite that are now often left unquestioned—and so do justice to the European Forum Alpbach’s own claims, and
  • not only to anchor those fundamentals that do prove indispensable in the consciousness of the Forum’s participants, but to find a way to communicate them to their sceptics.

Caspar Einem, Vice President of the European Forum Alpbach

Please klick here for the exact dates of EFA 2020.