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Field Being

Rick Lewis was at the 3rd Symposium on Field Being and the Non-Substantialistic Turn, August 12-17 1999.

In August a rather unusual philosophy conference took place on the campus of Fairfield University, Connecticut. Not many events bring together Buddhists, Daoists, Jesuits and scholars of A.N. Whitehead, but this one did.

Field What?

Field-Being is, broadly speaking, the philosophical system of Professor Lik Kuen Tong. A lesser man might merely write up his ideas and hope that posterity would be kind to them. Lik Kuen Tong, being endowed with persuasiveness, charm and a considerable organisational ability, has attempted to turn his ideas into an international philosophical movement. To an extent he has succeeded; certainly the annual Field-Being conferences are enthusiastically attended by a large and growing number of philosophers. I had the impression that few attendees subscribed to the whole package of Lik Kuen Tong’s ideas, and that some were pretty hazy about what Field-Being actually was. However, most agreed with one or other aspect of Tong’s system, and it seems that the conferences have made them more aware of their philosophical kinships with other thinkers from wildly divergent backgrounds. Tong should be happy with this – although he does have a detailed philosophical system his main wish seems to be to celebrate and encourage a tendency which he calls the ‘Non-Substantialistic Turn’ which he perceives in many different strands of modern thought. According to Tong, Field-Being involves the complimentary ideas of relatedness and relativity, and is based on the notion of Activity. Instead of seeing the world as a collection of substances, of material entities, it sees it primarily as a collection of activities. ‘Things’ are merely the individuations of activity. Everything is in motion, and everything is changing – think of Heraclitus,who said you can’t step into the same river twice. Since Heraclitus this kind of thinking has been very much a minority strand in Western philosophy. However, in the early 20th century Alfred North Whitehead tried to explain the world in terms of activity and called this Process Thought. It didn’t really catch on in a big way, but scattered pockets of Whitehead fans have carried on his intellectual project ever since. In non-Western philosophy the idea of process being basic has always been more to the fore. Tong explains: “Activity is always activity under conditions – This conditional matrix is the Field of its Field-Being. Thus Being and Field are two sides of the same underlying reality. Since there is nothing outside the movement of Activity, the Field of Being is not external to Being. Indeed, in the final analysis, Field is Being, and Being is Field.” Tong’s view is that aided by developments in modern physics ‘non-substantialism’ is becoming the spirit of the age. Whether he is right or not, his attempts to bring together ‘non-substantialists’ from all over the world at these conferences create a fertile environment for swapping ideas on all aspects of philosophy.

Being in Fairfield

The conference was held in improbably sumptuous surroundings. Tong had somehow sweet-talked the university’s School of Business into lending him their conference venue for the week. Every morning a minibus collected us and whisked us through the immaculately manicured campus to the conference centre, where at 7am a hearty cooked breakfast awaited us. We then waddled into the lecture theatre by eight, for an intensive ten hours of lectures, debates, personality clashes, networking and even genuine exchange of ideas.

The star of the show, Tong apart, was undoubtedly Professor Lewis Hahn, eminent editor of the Library of Living Philosophers. Ninety years old, he chaired a session, gave a paper (‘On Contextualism and Field-Being’), took a lively part in discussions and, with his wife, dispensed Southern charm and good cheer. This was a remarkably friendly conference all round. This may have been down to the size (around 60 participants) and duration, which meant it was possible in the course of the conference to chat with most of the those present and to be on friendly nodding terms with the rest. More likely it was down to the extraordinary efforts of the Fairfield philosophers to make us all welcome

Delegates at the Fairfield conference spoke on an extraordinary variety of philosophical topics, philosophical interests ranging from Neo Confucianism to the philosophy of science. A few people fell into several of these categories at once: for instance the IIFB’s secretary Albert Shansky, a chemist and ordained Buddhist monk. The presence of a number of Jesuits might seem surprising until you know that Fairfield University started life as a Jesuit institution, and there are still several Jesuits, such as the Whiteheadian scholar Thomas Regan, in the Philosophy Department. The Buddhist, Daoist and Confucian elements make the conferences are very international, with plenty of attendees from Japan and from the various parts of the Chinese-speaking world.

The papers presented included a number of extreme cases of comparative philosophy, drawing explicit parallels between thinkers in different philosophical traditions. These were, by and large, the less successful offerings, although one by Robert Magliola on ‘Derridean Gaming and Buddhist Rising/Falling’ turned out to be very interesting, as he described that puns and visual jokes which Jacques Derrida used to put his point across. Defending Derrida against a hostile questioner, Magliola drew himself to his full height and, moustache bristling, said: “This is not mere game playing. This is serious game playing.”

Other papers dealt with modern Chinese philosophy, Indian philosophy, feminist ethics, political economy, free will, Richard Rorty, Immanuel Kant, Derrida Joseph Butler and, of course, Alfred North Whitehead. One of the more memorable presentations was John Schroeder’s highly original and vividly theatrical dialogue with the Buddha.

Kenneth Inada, on ‘Field-Being and the Possibility of a Universal Ethics’, was sticking closer to Professor Tong’s research programme. He argued that ethics should be borderless and boundless, and that a picture of concentric circles of interest, surrounding each agent was a useful one. He felt we should draw our ethics from the simplest basis of our experience, utilising two fundamental principles.

Lively contributions from Beth Singer (talking about ‘nonsubstantialism and Justus Buchler’ and Curtis Naser on the physiology of freedom (complete with computer models of the flocking behaviour of birds) were fascinating and deserve more space than I can given them here.

The philosophy of Field-Being strikes me as needing a lot more clarification, and I am looking forward to more publications to provide it. At the same time, however, I feel that as a philosophical movement Field-Being does something extremely useful: It provides a forum for philosophers of different traditions to listen and talk to each other, to engage in a fruitful dialogue. This may well be the best way forward in the philosophical world of today.

The Third Symposium on Field-Being was sponsored by the International Institute for Field-Being (IIFB), Fairfield University. For more information on Field-Being, as well as forthcoming conventions visit their website at http://www.iifb.org

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