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The 21st World Congress of Philosophy

Every five years, philosophers from around the globe gather to drink coffee and swap ideas. Philosophy Now’s Anja Steinbauer and Rick Lewis were there.

The August sun glittered alluringly on the waters of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn, and illuminated the ancient domes and minarets of Sultanahmet. In their shadow, bazaars and cafés throbbed with life and noise. Meanwhile, in a modern conference centre near Taksim Square, two thousand philosophers were doing what they do best – staying indoors swapping ideas.

Yes, the five-yearly circus of ideas had come to Istanbul. The last World Congress, in 1998, was held in Boston, a city which shares few similarities with Istanbul apart from a good harbour and a liberal attitude towards dispensing tea. The Boston World Congress was somewhat larger, but this one was far more diverse. Relatively few American and British philosophers were present, perhaps deterred by recent global events from visiting even the outermost fringes of the Islamic world. Indeed, circumstances on the first day of the Congress seemed designed to enhance such paranoia, as the conference centre was ringed by hundreds of troops carrying machineguns and hordes of seriouslooking police officers carrying out spot-searches. An elderly Turkish woman philosopher wandered up to the Philosophy Now display stand in the conference lobby, and glared alarmingly at us.

“You see all these soldiers? They are here to protect you, because everybody hates you!”

“Really? The taxi-driver said they were here because the Prime Minister’s son is getting married in the building next door.”

“Aw, damn, you already heard!” she said, laughing raucously. Indeed the wedding (to an allegedly underage bride) was front page news in the Turkish press, and the sense of being briefly at the hub of Turkey’s national life was heightened later the same day when the President of the Republic and the Mayor of Istanbul addressed the opening session of the Congress. The World Congress itself was very widely reported in Turkey, with the national papers arguing over the best interpretation of major speeches by the likes of Jürgen Habermas.

The high profile of the conference, and indeed the fact that it was being held in Istanbul at all, was largely down to the organiser Professor Ioanna Kuçuradi. She has a high profile in Turkey as the country’s leading public ethicist and a longtime campaigner for human rights. Kuçuradi rejected the temptation to treat philosophy as a big bundle of mutually-incomprehending special interest groups (Islamic philosophers, Marxist philosophers, humanist philosophers etc). According to her, regardless of their particular theoretical positions, philosophers should all talk with one another about the same problems, and according to the same rules.

The World Congress aspires to bring together philosophers from every corner of the Earth, and in this it certainly succeeded. Philosophers from all four permanentlyinhabited continents mingled informally in the lobby, swapping gossip and theories. They came from a wide range of philosophical traditions, from Japan, China, Mexico, from India and Bulgaria and Benin and Sweden. The Russian philosophers, particularly, were there in force. It transpired that about 200 of them had sailed across the Black Sea to Istanbul in a specially-chartered ship officially named the Maria Ermolova, but unofficially dubbed the Philosophy Ship. The name was an ironic reference to the ‘Philosophy Ship’ incident in 1922 when Lenin threw all the non-Communist philosophers out of Russia by putting them onto steamships and telling them not to come home unless they wanted to be shot. (see article in Philosophy Now Issue 31) This new Philosophy Ship had been widely reported in the Russian press; it had enabled academics on subsistence wages to afford the trip to the World Congress, and its voyage to Istanbul had been enlivened by some very serious partying.

Among the thinkers and sages present were such luminaries as Jürgen Habermas, Peter Singer, Gianni Vattimo and Kwasi Wiredu. The week-long Congress had the theme ‘Philosophy Facing World Problems’, and the problems on offer were many and varied. At any one time there were up to four parallel sessions in progress, covering topics as diverse as human rights, ‘new developments in science and technology’, ‘inequality, poverty and development’ and ‘ethics in emergency situations’ (speakers in this last session came from Israel and Palestine...). War, plague, famine and death could all be found on the menu, together with myriad offerings which were less obviously connected to global crises, such as ‘Irrationalism in 18th Century Aesthetics’, or ‘Falsificationism Revisited’.

The Great Satan

Both the opening plenary session and the closing session dealt with international justice and peace, with the United States coming under repeated criticism for its own recent approach to tackling world problems. Habermas compared different models of international relations, including that of Kant, the controversial Carl Schmitt and the unilateralist approach taken by the US. Schmitt had argued against the moral condemnation of wars, saying that the rights and wrongs were always difficult to apportion, and that it made made wars more difficult to stop once moral outrage became entrenched on each side. He believed that the right to go to war should be agreed in international fora on a constitutional model – the international community would allow one nation to attack another nation if the situation complied with certain rules, and would not otherwise attempt to judge the morality of the issues. Habermas himself believed strongly in a Kantian approach, that moral considerations and international constitutional arrangements should both have a strong place in our reaction to declarations of war, but he felt that the US might be persuaded to adopt Schmitt’s position, and that this would at least be a step forward from its present unilateralist stance. “The issue is no longer whether ‘justice among nations’ is possible at all, but whether law is the right medium for realizing that kind of justice.” He reminded us of our good fortune that the world’s one and only runaway superpower was also a constitutional democracy, so that a future US Government might return “to the original mission of the nation that was the primary promoter of a constitutionalization of international politics.”.

One Polish journal editor complained to Philosophy Now of censorship and bias. According to him, the panel speakers had been chosen for what he described as “their anti-American, left-liberal views”, and nobody prepared to defend the ethics of unilaterally deposing dictators would have been allowed onto the panel at all.

Societies and Round Tables

The Congress provided a handy opportunity for meetings of a large number of international scholarly societies, such as the Society for the Study of Women Philosophers and the International Society for Value Inquiry. The most ambitious was the International Association of Jaspers Societies, which met not in the conference centre itself but in the nearby Hilton, with a full week of talks and symposia devoted to the existentialist psychologist and philosopher Karl Jaspers. Closeted in airless meeting-rooms for up to ten hours a day, the Society’s treatment of its members made the Moonies look like a humane and open organisation. Late in the evenings, exhausted Jaspers scholars could be observed stumbling glassy-eyed around the streets of Taksim or staring broodily at their beers in the nearby Irish pub, Jaspered-out.

Philosophy Now sponsored a session on ‘Philosophy and its Public’, in which panelists and audience considered ways of taking philosophy to the people on the street. Anja Steinbauer spoke about Philosophy For All’s public philosophy meetings in London, and our friend David White spoke about ‘chapterization’ – in other words, finding a society which produces good material for debates and talks, and then starting a local branch in your home town. As a founder of the Bertrand Russell Society’s highly-active chapter in Rochester, New York, he has done just that. Many other ideas were mooted, though one delegate criticised the panelists for concentrating on reaching only educated English-speakers in developed countries, a small proportion of the world’s population.

Talks and Lectures

Overall, most of the papers given at the World Congress were interesting, but few were philosophically earth-shaking. For instance, one of the most original of contemporary philosophers, Peter Singer, gave a lecture which described changing attitudes to animal rights and to euthanasia but without saying much that was new about the nature of either. One exception was a talk in the final plenary session by Alan Gewirth of the University of Chicago on the foundations of human rights. This did seem to break new ground – to the extent that we’ve summarized it on the next page. (see box).

At the closing session, a speech by Turkey’s Foreign Minister was interrupted when a demonstrator stood up among the bemused philosophers, unfurled a banner and shouted “This isn’t a democracy!” before being unceremoniously frogmarched out of the building by security guards, hotly pursued by three television crews. Apparently he was protesting on behalf of the families of political prisoners in Turkish jails.

Towards the end of this Congress, a vote was held by the organising committee to decide the location of the next World Congress, in 2008. Seoul won, Athens lost, to the ecstasy of the Koreans and the intense disappointment of a large contingent of Greek philosophers, who had campaigned for ‘philosophy to be brought home’. Overall, Seoul has a tough act to follow. Istanbul is one of the world’s friendliest and most fascinating cities, and this Congress must rank as a great success. After a week of chatting with the colourful, engaging possessors of a dazzling variety of theoretical positions, intellectual traditions, cultures, nationalities, languages and (above all) personalities, the strongest impression was of how philosophy really does share common concerns and even, to a surprising degree, common methods, the world over. Ioanna Kuçuradi should be extremely pleased.

Justice – Its Conditions and Content

Summary of paper given by Alan Gewirth

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights commits its signatories – most of the nations on Earth – to respecting certain fundamental rights. But some claim that this is nothing more than the imposition of a particular set of Western values, and that human rights have no universal validity at all. After all, the great utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham didn’t believe in natural rights at all, declaring natural and inalienable rights to be “nonsense on stilts.” This used to trouble me a little in the days when I was a member of Amnesty International, and I was therefore very interested to hear that Alan Gewirth of the University of Chicago would be speaking in support of universal human rights at the closing plenary session of the World Congress. His talk seemed to me to be very coherent and interesting, though I haven’t quite decided yet whether or not I am convinced by it. I’ve summarized here some of the main points of his argument, from notes which I took at the time. Apologies in advance to Alan Gewirth and to you, gentle reader, if I’ve got the wrong end of the stick. RL

Plato said that justice consists of rendering to each person that which is his or her due. Human rights are rights which are due to all human beings simply as a result of them being human beings.

Can it be proved that there are any such rights which are due to all human beings? There are two approaches to this: the intuitive and the argumentative.

1) Intuitive: to say that it is self evident that certain rights exist. This was the approach taken by Jefferson when drafting the US Constitution. However what is self evident to one person may not be self-evident to another.

2) Argumentative: There are two sorts of arguments in favour of rights: religious arguments and secular ones.

2a) Religious: All humans are children of God and human life has a sacredness for that reason. But this wouldn’t convince a non-believer.

2b) Secular: for example John Rawls in A Theory of Justice put forward arguments based on the idea of reflective equilibrium.

Gewirth’s Argument for Human Rights

Gewirth’s approach is also a secular argument, and goes as follows. He says that when we say that someone has a right to something, it is in the context of human action. All moralities require people to act in certain ways. So, he says, let’s focus on action. Action has necessary conditions. These conditions justify the move from “A is human” to “A has certain rights.” Actions require both freedom (autonomy through unforced choice in the light of knowledge) and purposefulness: people act with some end in view. Well-being is having the conditions for purposeful action. Basic well-being requires life, physical integrity and mental equilibrium. Gewirth then presents us with three propositions:

(1) Every agent must regard freedom and well-being as necessary goods, as without them we cannot act – cannot be an agent – at all.

Logically, he said, every agent either

(2) must regard freedom and wellbeing as rights or

(3) must accept that others can curtail his or her freedom and wellbeing.

However, (3) would contradict (1) so therefore every agent must accept (2) to avoid a contradiction. Therefore consistency requires all agents to act to claim their own rights. But to claim rights necessarily entails accepting duties, so the agent must recognize rights for other people. Therefore, Gewirth concludes that to violate somebody’s rights to freedom and well-being involves the agent in selfcontradiction.

In practice, says Gewirth, governments act for human beings as recognisors of rights. Governments and their representatives are also bound by the logic above to support these human rights.

Gewirth says that the nature of this argument means that it can only provide a basis for rights to freedom and well-being, not to other goods however desirable. To use his example, one can’t say “I have a right to a 10-speed bike.” The argument doesn’t work for that, as having a 10-speed bike isn’t a necessity for acting at all, whereas freedom and well-being are.

He described and dealt with several potential objections to his theory. One interesting objection was that it could be said that human rights as supported by his argument aren’t sufficient, as they only protect the freedom and well-being of individuals. Therefore they might conflict with rights which protect communities. (The example he gave was the idea of ‘Asian values’ popular with governments in Singapore and elsewhere, which includes an idea of deference to due authority and so on). But, asked Gewirth, what is this community whose rights take precedence? Is it really distinct from the individuals who comprise it? He argued that when two rights are in conflict and can’t both be fulfilled, as might be the case here, then that right should take precedence which is more needed for action. Therefore when the right not to starve conflicts with the right to private property, it is the latter which should give way. This is because, for Gewirth, human rights are based on the necessary conditions for human action.

Rick Lewis

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