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Robert Neville, Dean of the School of Theology at Boston University, was co-organiser of the World Congress. Anja Steinbauer interviewed him about his hopes, fears and crazy dreams for philosophy.
AS Prof. Neville, the title of this World Congress has been ‘Paideia’ – ‘Education’. To what degree do you think justice has been done to the theme of the conference, can philosophy educate humanity?
RN I think that one of the remarkable things is that the illustrious response has been from many traditions of philosophy. The word for paideia in Chinese is daxue, which is the term for ‘university’ or ‘grownup learning’. There are 26 delegates here from the People’s Republic and many more from Taiwan and Singapore, the Chinese Diaspora, including a large number from the United States, Chinese Americans. So there have been many sessions on the Confucian and Daoist traditions in paideia. And the same thing with Indian philosophy, and Buddhist and Islamic philosophy. Many Western philosophers were not aware that in fact in all of the great traditions of philosophy a deep set of concepts would have to do with education and with the formation of character. Also I think that they developed a very strong consciousness of the interconnection of world cultures, the global character of the social situation, in terms of the military, economy, and the Internet – so that paideia is not something that is practised the Greek way in Greece, and the Chinese way in China, but that they are very much connected and the perception is that we do not have adequate paideia for a world society. Even recognising the differences in culture we don’t have an adequate way to live recognising discrepancies. So I think a lot of people are trying to make progress in that, and the result will be shown at the next World Congress. People will have to go back and think about this.
It is interesting that you mention this cross-cultural aspect, which I know has been very much at the focus of your own philosophical work.
It seems to me that although there has been a conscious effort to make this event as much into a ‘world’ congress as possible by emphasising its international aspect, it has still been greatly dominated by the Western, and in particular by the Anglo-American tradition. What could be done to on the one hand encourage more participation from representatives of other philosophical traditions, and on the other hand, as far as such participation is there, to make their voices more heard at such events?
I think that the previous congresses have been much more European oriented, including England and North America in ‘European’, and it is this Western tradition which philosophers have meant by ‘philosophy’. And although there have been token representatives of the Chinese and Indian traditions, this time I think is the first time that it’s ever been very powerful, and where the programme committee tried hard to bring them together, to engage them in dialogue, so there was more of that. Now, of course we are in America, where we speak English. And American philosophy is bitterly divided between the Anglo-American kind and the Continental kind, and there are also many people who take pragmatism to be something that should not be infected by either one of those…I am following that line myself…And I find pragmatism to be better connected with Confucianism than with Enlightenment European philosophy. I suppose there is no way by which we could eliminate the great preponderance of native English speakers here. I tried very hard to persuade FISP (the International Federation of Philosophical Societies) to make Chinese, Japanese and Korean official languages, so that there would be simultaneous translations at the plenary sessions. I was unsuccessful in that. It would have been difficult to raise the money to pay for that…It’s a very, very expensive thing. But it also illustrates the conservatism of the people who really do think that philosophy is the European tradition; and the fact that Anglo-American philosophy is taught at the University of Hong Kong, which is a British university, makes it seem global.
In the closing ceremony just now the congress has been called a ‘celebration of world philosophy’. However, in some of the sessions, notably at some of the roundtables and human rights panels, we have been reminded of the difficult situations which many of our fellow-philosophers find themselves in, who are less fortunate than us in that political or economic pressures make it impossible for them to express their views. Thus many philosophers of the world are excluded from such an event. Do we have to remain powerless in the face of their plight?
We certainly have tried to get visas for people to come, we have raised money for philosophers from countries where they would not receive any support from home – and have done a whole lot of that…We of course need to do more, but I think this is a step forward. I don’t know if we can get jailed philosophers out of jail, though we can speak up about that. And I think many of the panels did do that. And what they say can be represented in those countries. People often don’t care about the issues of Rwanda. But if these issues are talked about in Rwanda…I understand that some of the African sessions have been the most moving. I haven’t been attending these sessions but I hear they have been very powerful. And if that word gets back, it will be helpful.
This conference has been successful in that it has offered much diversity, not only culturally but also in terms of the different kinds of philosophy represented. Do you think a more conscious effort should be made to give thinkers concerned with areas of philosophical inquiry which are often marginalised, such as feminist philosophy, a better platform to present their views?
Well, they certainly were encouraged. We arranged for the International Society for Women in Philosophy to meet with us, which means that they got rooms. Some people were offended by John Silber’s opening attack on those kinds of feminisms that say you need to be a woman to understand. But what he was doing was saying we need to have a universal discourse, and feminism needs to be brought into that. He was very clear to say that it is good for the programme to have included all of those positions…He said that four or five times in his speech.
This World Congress in philosophy is the last of this century. In what sense has it been able mark the end of the old and set the scene for the new century?
I think what we have learnt this century is that if you make philosophy a speciality, an academic field like biochemistry, it dies. When philosophy becomes specialised in that sense it loses contact with the issues of the world. And the old analytic philosophers who were talking tonight and the people from the Library of Living Philosophers said, well…maybe we can’t pull together some things; they’re fifty years behind. But what the rest of the people have learnt, coming from different, very different perspectives, is that philosophy needs to be engaged in public life more. Its whole base has been in the university. But the university is not helped by keeping philosophy locked up in a department. And that’s true across the philosophic traditions, the Chinese, the Indian. The study of socalled primal cultures, Native American, African and so forth, that’s usually done in anthropology departments. But in ten years at least I am sure that there will be a large body of literature so that that material can be entered in the philosophical conversation.
Could you give a word of advice to those of our readers who are new to philosophy but who wish develop their interest further, and will perhaps attend one of the future World Congresses?
It helps to read philosophical literature, but I recommend to read broadly – don’t just read the Western tradition. It is also important to get together with people to talk about philosophic ideas in a critical way, not only reinforcing their own views but to see what the alternatives are… It helps a lot to travel and find philosophers in other parts of the world.
Professor Neville, thank you for this interview.