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Oh Come All Ye Thoughtful…

Anja Steinbauer reporting from the 20th World Congress of Philosophy in Boston.

The blazing sun shone hot on the asphalt, the nauseating noise of dense urban traffic surrounded me, as I threw my weight against one of the huge glass doors of the Marriott Hotel. As it opened, the cool relaxed atmosphere of executive luxury mixed with an international flair. Then, tweed-jackets, animated chatter, and huge messy heaps of leaflets and posters, some of which read: “Wanted – Good Ideas – $1000 Reward”, “Philosophers wanted – We are seeking the kind of minds it took to launch a civilisation.”

For six days in August of this year, Boston became the Mecca of philosophers. More than 3500 thinkers from all over the world set out on the pilgrimage to participate in over 2000 symposia organised under the aegis of the twentieth World Congress of Philosophy, the largest ever convention of philosophers.

Opening ceremonies of conferences tend to be boring formalities, so I didn’t have great expectations when I sat in the huge assembly hall, together with thousands of others, to listen to the addresses of organisers and sponsors who convincingly assured us that we were all part of a truly historical event. They encouraged a vivid exchange of ideas, drawing on the exceptional diversity which this mammoth gathering of thinkers with different backgrounds, projects and views on philosophy had to offer. In this atmosphere of universal benevolence and tolerant interest, it came as a great surprise when one of the distinguished speakers, John Silber, Chancellor of Boston University, launched an aggressive attack on postmodern and in particular feminist thinkers, disqualifying their approaches to philosophy as relativistic, and therefore philosophically untenable. Rather than encouraging dialogue, he seemed to schoolmaster his philosophical audience as to which ways of philosophising were acceptable, which unwelcome.

Sessions at the World Congress divided into plenary sessions, some of which were indeed attended by thousands, and invited sessions, presenting papers by speakers chosen by the organising committee. The largest number of sessions, however, were society sessions, organised by a broad range of philosophical organisations, from the Société Philosophique de Kinshasa to the International Institute for Field-Being.

Some of the smaller, often marginalised sessions turned out to be the most interesting ones – interesting in terms of both original philosophy, as well as creativity in making the practice of philosophy meaningful in spheres of life other than the academic. Many believed that philosophy could, if not educate humanity, still make an important contribution to ‘real life’. It was in these forums that ideas about human rights, crosscultural philosophy, and new ways of philosophising were discussed. These dynamic debates gave me the happy sense that many philosophers have finally awoken from their Snow White slumber and, shaking off the last traces of sleepiness, set out to explore new avenues for the application of philosophy.

This became especially manifest at events such as the round table debate organised by the Global Dialogue Institute, including eminent thinkers such as Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Jitendra Mohanty, Martha Nussbaum and Tu Wei-ming, focussing on the question, ‘Is global philosophy possible?’

An area which earned much attention from an international field of participants was the study of values: “Many Chinese philosophers have come especially for the value inquiry events”, Ouyang Kang, Dean of the Wuhan University School of Philosophy, explained to me.

On the plenary side of things, one of the truly momentous events was a round table forum organised by the Library of Living Philosophers, a project which since 1938 has led to the publication of 25 volumes of intellectual autobiographies of great thinkers, as well as discussions of their thought. The event involved philosophers featured in projected volumes of the series, Karl-Otto Apel, Donald Davidson, Marjorie Grene, Sayyed Hossein Nasr, Willard V.O. Quine and Peter Strawson. True to the congress theme ‘Paideia – Philosophy educating Humanity’, the six greats were asked what we should learn from 20th century philosophy. As was to be expected, the answers varied intensely. To give only three examples: Apel elaborated on the three major philosophical ‘turns’ of the 20th century, the linguistic, the hermeneutic and the pragmatic; Strawson explained that “the fundamental bearers of truth and falsity are not linguistic items but what we use them to say”, and Nasr, the only representative of Islamic philosophy in the Library of Living Philosophers, stressed the increased interest in non-Western philosophies.

To me, one of the most exciting meetings of the conference was a round table discussion on the problems of a philosophical ‘North-South’ dialogue. Organised by the ‘Association for Philosophy and Liberation’, it included a number of eminent speakers, but was confined to a small corner room on the fourth floor, which could hardly accommodate a third of the audience. Enrique Dussel (Mexico) expressed the conviction that “philosophers of the world begin to think from their own perspectives and realities, and will go against the particularistic thought of the centre.” A truly universal “world philosophy” would be different from the “self-referential system of the West”. Karl-Otto Apel attempted such a global approach to philosophy by introducing a new aspect of his discourse ethics, designed to add a dimension to moral philosophy significant beyond the level of individual face-to-face encounters of people. At an age in which globalisation has become ‘an irreversible fact’, we must think further: The ‘ethics of responsibility’ must be replaced by an ‘ethics of co-responsibility’ so as to move towards a meaningful ethics of ‘global responsibility’.

At the end of the congress, many felt inspired and stimulated: “The conference was a success”, a philosopher from Delhi declared enthusiastically. Others found themselves simply overwhelmed, symptoms of ‘conference-lethargy’ setting in. A German participant sighed: “It was just too much. Most of the time I went sightseeing instead.”

Ioanna Kucuradi is the organiser of the next World Congress to be held in Istanbul in 2003. Impressed, yet critical of the achievement of the 1998 organisers, she told me that though “there are certain advantages to the American way of doing this”, at the Istanbul congress “several things will have to be done differently”: She believed that the Boston event included too many of “those so-called invited sessions” and that the next World Congress “must be more representative of world philosophy.”

© Anja Steinbauer 1998

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