Remembering Jean-Pierre Lehmann
Jean-Pierre Lehmann, a true thinker between cultures, serves as an example to us all for his unstinting courage.
December 21, 2019
This December 21, 2019 is the second anniversary of the passing of Jean-Pierre Lehmann. It is a fitting occasion for a personal reflection.
Virtually everyone who ever got into personal contact with Jean-Pierre Lehmann in academic and other public environments remembers his great enthusiasm and his almost encyclopedic knowledge. Yes, he was a great teacher and interlocutor. But what, looking ahead, deserves far greater attention beyond these well-known qualities is the courage he showed.
Many of us, like Jean-Pierre, think deeply about very complex, hard-to-resolve issues. And most of us also care greatly about actually solving them, which is not a given by any means.
Furthermore, many of us also engage, like Jean-Pierre, in international comparative thinking. We want to understand the forces, good and bad, that drive the behavior of nations, societies, cultures and companies.
A thinker between cultures
Yes, Jean-Pierre Lehmann was a master comparer of nations and cultures. He had a real penchant not just for thinking about cultures, but also between cultures. The latter talent is far more important, but also more difficult to master.
Where most of us are just happy to come up with good and hopefully more or less original insights on critical intercultural frontlines of human thought and modern developments, those insights, to Jean-Pierre, were really just a tool.
Where Jean-Pierre reached well beyond most of us was in his ability, his drive and his determination to name names where necessary.
A true humanist and globalist
Paradoxical as that sounds at first, as a true humanist and globalist, Jean-Pierre was always aware that, for insights to be effective and to lead to desired changes, especially in the relationships among peoples and nations, they almost always hurt.
For only then do those insights touch the raw, but mostly hidden nerves that can lead human beings to rethink unproductive and/or stereotypical forms of behavior that still determine and, unfortunately, often obscure the behavior of nations.
Breaking such patterns matters greatly throughout the entire universe of human interaction for a very simple reason. Such limitations of thought, such a lack of openness of thought means that nations, and at times even entire continents, cannot fully develop their human potential in any productive manner.
Improving the human condition
In that regard, Jean-Pierre acted as a great admonisher for us all. Too many of us are just happy that we are smart, sophisticated and insight-laden. Jean-Pierre was always aware that having those talents is not enough. His inner urge was to deploy those insights in such a manner that they could potentially alter people’s – and, yes, even nations’ – thinking.
To believe that this is possible and necessary is not a matter of hyperbole or arrogance. It is a gift that allows one to make a meaningful contribution to improving the human condition.
Of course, Jean-Pierre was never sure that engaging in such acts of direct intellectual intervention would lead to the desired results. That might well have been his ambition. But he was content in the knowledge that at least he gave it a hard try.
As much as he was equipped with a big heart and was often the heart of any conference dinner, his goal was never to please others – and even less to impress those around him. Thanks to the irrepressible energy inside him, his goal was to unleash to the outside world the energy and the vast pool of knowledge and insight that he had accumulated on the inside.
Through sharing his insights, he had an effect on others. By often referencing very personal insights, he made it that much more probable that others would open their own minds and truly understand what he was driving at.
Jean-Pierre brought his talent to bear especially with regard to a particularly touchy matter, the interrelationship of nations throughout Asia. To this day, that vast continent harbors many resentments that stand in the way of unfolding its human potential to the fullest. Just think of the severe dividing lines that mar the Japanese-Korean relationship to this day.
What we can – what we must – learn from Jean-Pierre’s example, if we really want to honor and serve his memory, is his ability, his willingness and his urge to name names and, yes, to use insights to shame, where necessary.
His “naming names,” however, applied with a very important proviso. He never directed his courageous and sharp insights against individuals, but fittingly turned his intellectual and rhetorical crispness towards institutions, governments, administrations and boards.
Unless we at least are willing to risk that, unless we put our own personal good will on the line that much, we risk just fiddling on the surface and never having a real impact.
A man with a big brain and an equally big heart
And then there is one more thing to remember: As a young person told me who had met Jean-Pierre a decade ago and who had benefitted from his wise guidance regarding studying in China, Jean-Pierre Lehmann was a man not just with a very big brain, but an at least equally big heart.
What a legacy to leave behind – and what an amazing example for all of us at least to strive for.
Jean-Pierre Lehmann was a master comparer of nations and cultures. He had a penchant not just for thinking about cultures, but also between them.
Jean-Pierre Lehmann was always aware that, for insights to be effective and to lead to desired changes, they almost always hurt.
To believe that insights can alter thinking is a gift that allows one to make a meaningful contribution to improving the human condition.
Jean-Pierre Lehmann was a man with not just a very big brain, but with an equally big heart.