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The XXII World Congress of Philosophy

Filiz Peach reports from the World Congress in Seoul, 30th July – 5th August 2008.

As soon as one arrives in Seoul, the distinct smell of kimchi, a combination of boiled cabbage, garlic and spices, welcomes all visitors. It’s a traditional dish served with every meal. I had a struggle to get used to it, particularly in extreme heat and humidity. It wasn’t the only struggle I had initially.

Seoul is a big city, with 15 million inhabitants and an impressive state-of-the-art university, which accommodated about 2000 philosophers during the conference week. Seoul National University occupies a vast area, in which I think there are about 250-300 buildings scattered around. It’s not only a place of learning, but contains all the facilities a small town can offer. However, the layout of the university is quite complex. I often got lost while searching for the conference buildings for various sessions. Even simply trying to get to the central building, the information centre of the Congress and the gathering point for the attendees, was challenging in the heat at times. There were many volunteers, mostly students, ready to help the Congress participants with any problems or questions that might arise, but sometimes even the volunteers didn’t have a clue where things were.

The first day seemed very confusing. It was comical to see so many people, including myself, running around searching for venues and looking absolutely lost. It took me almost an hour to confirm where my group was meeting. After the first day, however, the volunteers were better informed and far more helpful. On the whole Koreans are friendly people and they want to help, but being unable to communicate in their language was a serious obstacle for most of us.

The theme of the Congress was Rethinking Philosophy Today. The President of the Congress this year was Danish ethicist Peter Kemp. Myung-Hyun Lee was the President of the Korean Organising Committee for the Congress. Both the opening performance and closing ceremony were impressive, well-organised and entertaining. The welcome party was an open air event with drinks and traditional Korean food, speeches by the Mayor of Seoul and the organisers, and music and dance.

As usual, there were special and invited sessions, contributed papers, society meetings, round tables and student sessions covering a vast number of topics. These ranged from the philosophical mainstream, to issues such as ‘Rethinking Globalisation from the position of Multipolarity’, ‘Philosophy of Creation’, ‘Reflection, Development and the Relational Field’ and ‘Leibniz and the Asiatic World’. The President of the previous Congress, Ioanna Kucuradi, gave an interesting, well-attended talk in the Grand Auditorium as a special guest speaker. She presented a paper on ‘Rethinking Epistemology’ and gave an analysis of the history of knowledge. Symposia also took place in various parts of the University. There were some very interesting titles, especially concerning consciousness, ethics, and philosophy of religion, but it was simply impossible to attend them all. Although the sessions were well-distributed and balanced, it was often difficult to get from one session to another, especially when the building it was in was not so close.

There were several interesting ‘Insert philosopher’s name here’ Society Meetings, but these were well away from the central building, which made interaction with others rather difficult. Unlike previous times, Society Meeting contributions and contributors were not listed in the programme, except the location of meetings and the organiser’s name. My group, The International Association of Jaspers Societies, had about 30-35 participants, and our theme was: ‘Cross-Cultural Conflicts and Communication – Rethinking Jaspers’ Philosophy Today’. I read a paper entitled ‘Karl Jaspers, Existential Communication and Globalisation’. It was interesting to note that Jaspers’ reception in Korea was much more enthusiastic than in Britain.

The general atmosphere was serious, very serious. I don’t know why, but there were not many smiling faces around. People were constantly rushing around the grounds, mostly in a gloomy fashion. I also sensed that there was not much interaction between philosophers. The excitement, buzz and friendly interaction one had in the previous Boston and Istanbul conferences were missing. Most philosophers who attended the Congress were from Asia, Africa and Russia, which was refreshing, but it was noticeable that there were very few Western European philosophers. This is likely to be different next time, as it was announced that the 23rd World Congress of Philosophy in 2013 will be held in Athens.

© Filiz Peach 2008

Filiz Peach’s book on Jaspers, Death, Deathlessness and Existenz in Karl Jaspers’ Philosophy, has just come out (Edinburgh U. P.).

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