UNESCO: United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization

The Organisation


Joanne Pemberton

Senior Lecturer, School of Politics and International Relations, University of New South Wales
“Towards A Society of Minds: From the International Commission for Intellectual Cooperation to UNESCO”

This paper delineates some of the ideas that gave rise to and animated the International Commission on Intellectual Cooperation which was among the last permanent organisations of the Société des Nations (SDN) and the forerunner of Unesco. Although the Commission’s efforts to build and cement intellectual relations among nations often went unregarded, its proponents considered intellectual cooperation to be the soul of the Covenant of the SDN. It was the distinguished French philosopher Henri Bergson who formed the idea of setting up a committee of thinkers to express what he called the deeper spirit of the SDN. Bergson’s philosophy was neither monistic nor irreducibly pluralistic. It accommodated the notion of harmony as well as that of heterogeneity, of integration as well as that of individuation. It is perhaps not surprising then, that from the outset the Commission sought to harmonise the world’s various intellectual and cultural currents while also maintaining respect for diversity and novelty. During its life, the Commission also became increasingly aware of the issue of its own cultural particularity and the vital need to incorporate perspectives and traditions other than those in which its origins lay.

Some of the most famous intellectual personalities of the day, such as Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Thomas Mann, Paul Valéry, Salvador de Madariaga and Béla Bartok participated in the work of the Commission. Yet, the Commission never sought to impose itself as a supra-national intelligence. It was conscious of the limits of its persuasive power and considered that it was more likely to inspire confidence through its efforts to improve the working conditions of intellectuals and by forging international relations among scientists, artists and teachers, than through issuing grand pronouncements. Nonetheless, as evidenced by the various discussions and correspondences that the Commission organised and published, it was a reflective body that believed in its capacity to uplift world consciousness.

This may explain why the Commission sometimes was caricatured as a priestly caste, engaged in highly cerebral matters far removed from daily affairs. The Commission’s investigations into the international significance of cinema, radio, television and the impact of machine existence, however, indicate an engagement with modernity and an emergent mass society. Nonetheless, it was determined at its Preparatory Commission that Unesco would be a more practically oriented, less rarefied institution. Its first Director-General Julian Huxley, noted that if Unesco were to have a greater presence and influence than its predecessor then it had to be a popular organisation and not just an organisation of intellectuals and governments. To this end, it would have to interest itself in the whole field of mass communications.

Yet even though the terminology had shifted, Unesco remained faithful to the underlying purposes of the Commission: moral disarmament and the promotion of a société des esprits. Even more vigorously than its predecessor, Unesco sought to address the question of the relation between unity and diversity. This development was a result of the changing contours of world politics and reflected a more acute awareness of the problem of cultural specificity as well as a more positive attitude towards cultural difference. An early attempt to render scientific humanism as the guiding philosophy of Unesco stumbled precisely because conditions prevented Unesco from being an agent of uniformity. Indeed early in 1946, Jean-Jacques Mayoux, Director of the Commission’s executive arm, the International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation, urged that Unesco should become the guardian of particularity and heterogeneity.

Functionalist approaches, which bracket differences in order to concentrate on those issues where there is a common interest in cooperation, proved attractive partly because of the inability to establish a unifying philosophy. While this approach has much to recommend it, its tendency is to view difference negatively to the extent that it is hoped that through practical cooperation divisions can be reduced or overcome. In many instances however, such bracketing is impossible or undesirable and the way forward lies with the construction of unities that incorporate difference and treat it as a positive term, an approach that is well exemplified by Unesco’s Convention on the protection and promotion of the diversity of cultural expressions and the practice of inter-cultural dialogue. Yet allowing difference much greater play in the public sphere means more than welcoming and accommodating prized differences, it also requires, especially of the powerful, the qualities of self-control and forbearance.

Europe and North America Latin America and the Caribbean Africa Arab States Asia Pacific