Report on the 20th
World Congress of Philosophy
Boston, August 10-15, 1998

by Elf S. Raymond

The 17th century French poet Jean de La Fontaine, presciently aware of the perverse relations between truth and power which the concept of Cartesian Reason embodies, wrote a wise fable on the wolf and the lamb illustrative of the modern dilemma. Here it is:

Downstream stands a lamb on the riverbank, drinking. Upstream stands the wolf on the riverbank, watching. Gruffly, he says: “How dare you muddy my water?” The lamb looks up, recognizes the wolf, and, trembling, replies: “Sir, be so kind as to take a look and recognize that I don’t muddy your water. It flows from up high, where you are, to me down here.” Annoyed to the point of anger, the wolf replies: "What insolence! Not only dare you disturb my stream, you have the audacity to contradict me. Little white lamb, this is too much. To try to defend yourself and resist me with arguments shows you don’t even know nature’s law which says “THE REASON OF THE STRONGER IS ALWAYS BEST.” The wolf, while lecturing the lamb, had drawn close. In one swift attack he brings the lamb down, sinks his teeth into its neck and kills it.- Accepting death as argument of last resort in the defense of truth, in other words the Socratic principle, is thus re-figured in La Fontaine’s tale, with truth, it appears, no longer standing a chance to make a difference. Neither modern philosophy, Leibniz excepted, nor modern science paid heed to the cautionary tale. So it could happen that in 1793, under Robespierre, the logic of the guillotine replaced the rule of law in the name of deified Reason, and modern reason, reconfigured as brute technological efficiency, produced the nightmares of this century.

Now, this may sound a bit stark, but mutatis mutandis, La Fontaine’s fable about the dissonance between the power of power and the power of truth still echoes shrilly enough in the world as we know it today to serve as introduction to my brief remarks on Philosophy’s 20th World Congress.

This truly global gathering was initiated by the Federation International des Societes de Philosophie, FISP for short; supervised by an International Program Committee; organized, with Yankee expeditiousness, in a setting of tasteful commercialism, by the American Organizing Committee headquartered at Boston University, and held in Boston from Monday, August 10, to Saturday, August 15. All official sessions took place at the Marriott and Westin Hotels at Copley Place, where many people stayed. Other participants found quarters at Boston University and Boston College, and many commuted from Cambridge, Wellesley, and other suburbs to the resplendent conference site. While the trains and buses ran on time, session schedules were often late due to the fact that people in the philosophic and rhetorical profession are often possessed by an inordinate passion for talk, forgetting time in the heat of polemic.

The spectacle of four thousand members of our divers and ancient, parthenogenetically multiplying tribe, – at this point in time not randomly scattered over the globe, but pressed into the narrow space of a skyscraper, – is not necessarily among the loveliest sights ever to behold. This is not to deny the touches of sartorial elegance among traditionalists, nor the pronounced ultra-chic of post-modernists. Yet the highly charged atmosphere, together with the incoherence of many conversations, even presentations, made it impossible not to be ominously reminded of the Tower of Babel. A young Muslim scholar from Bangladesh, who just had given a well-received paper on the changing status of rural women, told me, while riding the escalator, that it is by recalling that the name Babel descends from the Assyrian expression “bab-ilu”, i.e. “Gate of God,” that he is able to hold despair sufficiently at bay to be able to look for rays of hope in the midst of the world in crisis represented by the chaotic ambiance at Philosophy’s World Congress.

The Conference theme had been announced as PAIDEIA, Philosophy Educating Humanity. Now while this theme was framed in the solemn and grandiloquent language of the realist, i.e. universalist tradition, it could not be pursued in any way commensurate with its conceptual foundation at a meeting where nominalistic philosophies, or rather philosophers, of analytical, pragmatist, and reductionist naturalist inclinations were clearly dominant. (An exception must be made for the events clustered around Ewing Cousin’s Global Dialogue Institute: a magnet of good will and international collaboration.) Thus it is not surprising that conceptual fission and political friction surfaced already during the opening ceremony.

On Monday, 10 am, in the Grand Ballroom of the Marriott, Paul Cellucci, Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts welcomed the congress members in a hearty speech, followed by The Honorable Kevin H. White, former mayor of Boston. Then Robert Neville, Dean of the Theology Faculty at Boston University and co-chair with Nobel Laureate Jaakko Hintikka of the Congress’s American Organizing Committee, addressed the huge assembly. He spoke for twenty minutes about the high expectations for this extraordinary meeting, setting a tone of courtesy, inclusivity and intelligent pursuit of common goals. Drawing on references from four continents and weaving them into the seamless fabric of his welcome address, he led the audience to entertain his ecumenical vision in a mood that went beyond cynicism. Neville ended his speech by teaching a philosophic lesson: with quotations from Confucius he admonished the participants of the 20th World Congress of Philosophy to preserve equanimity and show forbearance under the duress of inevitable frustrations. Holding up for imitation the Confucian model of the gentleman-scholar from the ANALECTS, he exhorted the listeners to do their best to forestall the eventuality that discussions turn bitter and end up corrupting good manners. The audience, already in a generous and festive mood, responded to his words with an ovation.

After a brief and stiff welcome by Yersu Kim, Director of the Philosophy and Ethics Division of UNESCO, John R. Silber, Chancellor of Boston University and Chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Education, took his turn. As his address unfolded, all notions that philosophic discourse by its nature is sufficiently potent to educate its practitioners, and thus contribute to comity among peoples by teaching the skills and habits of understanding, were quickly shattered. The chancellor nearly succeeded in doing the impossible: sinking the ship before it was launched. He attacked members of the committee, members of his faculty, including Robert Neville, and a great many guests in the audience. Unrestrained by the fact that he was, as Chancellor of Boston University, the official host of the World Congress, he trampled the law of hospitality underfoot and acted simultaneously the sycophant and the tyrant on a rampage. It seemed to me that for Dr. Silber, the world of philosophy consists of only two parts: one, the chosen few who read Plato’s REPUBLIC the way he does, that is in a literal and completely self-serving way. And then there is the rest, that is to say the rabble. The audience bore up under the attack and, although put on edge, preferred for a while to ignore the insults. (That this barbarous attack on freedom of thought and speech, not to mention scholarly autonomy, as well as the autonomy of different cultural traditions, occurred in Boston at this particular occasion puts a nice ironic twist on the battle against intolerance and strengthens one’s resolve to work assiduously for increased cooperation and the mutual exchange of ideas.)

When public apprehension became palpable, interventive damage control by Mssrs. Quesada, President of FISP, and Robert Neville managed to prevent the meeting from degenerating into a brawl. At the stroke of noon, amidst excitement, anticipation, ambivalence and suppressed anger, the 20th World Congress of Philosophy officially opened, and work in large and small sessions, and at many public Round Tables could begin. But first there was light lunch.

The presentations of the official sessions will be published by the Philosophy Documentation Center at Bowling Green University, Bowling Green, Ohio and some of the Round Table contributions will be published by Philosophy journals. Whereas it is safe to predict that the quantity of material will be most impressive, predictions about quality seem to me rash and risky. The warrant for my last remark lies with my observations made at a cross-section of official sessions, and the events, I will recount next, from the Invited Panel of Distinguished Philosophers on Wednesday evening, three days into the conference.

This highly publicized panel presented the analytical school’s most prestigious exponents: Willard van Orman Quine of “gavagai” fame, Peter Strawson, and Donald Davidson. They and their colleagues were assembled for the purpose to respond to the Congress’ central question, and I quote, “What have we learned from Philosophy in the 20th century?” Quine, nimble and witty at ninety, simply said “I should have thought up an answer to that one. I’m going to have to pass.” Peter Strawson, from Princeton, went next and parried with the question: “Is the question about what we have learned collectively, or what each of us has learned individually? If it’s the former the possibility of any reply seems remote. And if it’s the latter, there is no shortage of replies.” This struck the audience, me included, as perfectly sensible, yet also a touch disappointing given the occasion and the high expectations that filled the by now quite familiar Marriott ballroom. Peter Strawson then treated the audience with an excursion into the paradox that while philosophers, as well as the general public, maintain that Plato is the founder of philosophy and Descartes the father of modern philosophy, to call somebody a Platonist, or a Cartesian is a serious, at times even fatal charge. Polite laughter rippled and Donald Davidson, from Berkeley, found his turn had arrived. He ignored the question altogether and, instead, marveled at how very American philosophy had been in the last century. To refine his point and give it precision he added “to be honest, it was mostly Harvard.” This remark caused merriment in some quarters and consternation in others. To smooth things over he added pleasantly that things are now more international. To stress the point, Donaldson enlarged on the merits of global travel and grew almost rhapsodic over the delights of e-mail. As table conversation, all of this would have been fine, but under the circumstances it seemed embarrassing as well as eerie.

The next three speakers were less elusive. Marjorie Grene, at 88, was spirited indeed. She sharply questioned the pedagogic value of mathematical logic, inveighed against the persistence of Descartes’ influence, needled academic ethicists while delivering flourishes on the common sense nature of ethics, and last, not least, she vigorously indicted Heidegger as man of evil who ought to be forgotten before his use of language succeeds in poisoning more minds. The next speaker came from Germany. A latter day member of the Frankfurt school, Karl-Otto Apel seems to be reinventing the hermeneutical wheel of Philo Judeus by working on a ‘new’ transcendental semiotics. Apel professed the harsh opinion that all the questions which are traditionally considered philosophical have turned into “non-sense” by the assiduous labors of linguistic and analytical philosophers. What is now left over for human reflection is simply an infinite mathematical series ordinary language expresses as “etcetera, etcetera…”

The last panelist was Seyyed Hossein Nasr, controversial American scholar of Islamic Philosophy. He observed that the evening’s question as to what we have learned from philosophy in this century had been pursued in a narrow provincial way, only addressing whether anything had been learned from American Philosophy. Now in light of the preceding panelists’ public declaration of bankruptcy of philosophy in the linguistic and analytical vein, he urges a more ecumenical and historical approach, To wit: By fully incorporating, not just in terms of tokenism, the thought systems of India, China, Tibet, Japan and of Islam into the curriculum, a sense of the importance, even indispensability of tradition could be restored. This would revive an appreciation of the value of truth-seeking and lead to a re-discovery of the main springs of the Western tradition itself. The currently dominant preoccupation with ever more sophisticated quantification methods and logical formulations would lose its grip on contemporary consciousness and open up the energies for the resurgence of humankind’s spiritual quest.

This nostalgic/prophetic admonition, coming as it did in the wake of a demonstration of the disenchantment with this century’s aspirations for anti-metaphysical philosophy of the Anglo-Saxon variety, seems to indicate, at least to me, that philosophy is in a most precarious position in her own odyssey. Will she be able to nimbly navigate between the Scylla of being subsumed by science as a minor academic specialty, and the Charybdis of being submerged by the mounting tides of religious movements, be they fundamentalist, millenary, revivalist, or New Age ? A third, equally unattractive possibility is the radical reduction of philosophy to one or the other secular ideology functioning as a substitute for religion. A case in point is Richard Rorty’s liberal democratic pragmatism, or Edward O. Wilson’s reductive socio-biology. Philosophy, in such a pitiful, reduced form would not be opium for the media saturated masses, but, paraphrasing Raymond Aron, a drug of choice for post-modern intellectuals.

Another option, available however only for believing Catholics, was given by John Hittinger, professor of philosophy at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado, at a session on Newman’s “Idea of the University”. Hittinger offered a clear description of the sorry state of liberal education and leveled a battery of eminently reasonable charges against the secular neo-orthodoxies of pragmatism a la Rorty, and Wilson’s latently racist reductionist naturalism, both of which he sees as lying at the root of the current culture crisis. Relying on Newman, he is able to argue from premises that are orthodox, traditionalist, and yet reformist. Hittinger answers Tertullian’s perennially provocative and relevant question “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens” with Newman’s saying “Religious truth is not only a portion, but a condition of general knowledge.” Thus he adopts and updates Newman’s grand reconciliation of Faith and Reason. Tempting as such a reconciliation is, it lacks appeal for people who are wary of organized religion’s record and its future potential for infringing on thought’s legitimate freedom, i.e., philosophy’s autonomy.

A fifth option was left unexplored at the 20th World Congress, thus I’ll mention it only in passing: The genuine re-discovery of the classical heritage and a rehabilitation of the Athenian conceptions of reason, justice, and freedom. Not the reason of the stronger, like in La Fontaine’s fable, but cosmic reason of which we can give a probable account by following the lines of reasoning Plato advances in his narrative on the creation of the cosmos in the TIMAEUS. Two recent books encourage me to mention this turn to the objective thought patterns of classical Greece as a viable option: one is Thomas Nagel’s “The Last Word” (1997), where fully rational discourse is seen as generative of justice and indispensable for the conceptual foundation of the rule of law; and, secondly, T.K. Seung’s study “Plato Rediscovered” (1996). Seung’s main argument overturns neo-Kantian claims and restores Plato’s concept of reason to its task of being the ground of normative ethics. In today’s ambiance of epistemological nihilism, banality, and the exhaustion of the analytical movement, these two books, written in defense of classical rationalism, are as exceptional as they are important.

To conclude this report with some personal observations: there was an impressive number of finely honed thoughtful contributions from all four corners of this terrestrial orb. Many came from the so-called Third World’s poorest countries. Philosophers from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Somalia, all emphasized the need for small-scale local efforts to improve the lives of the vast numbers of impoverished rural people, especially the landless. The blend of timeless poverty and hunger no longer simply triggers fatalistic apathy, or Malthusian exculpatory pessimism, but circumspect innovations: New institutions, successfully experimenting with micro-banking, are in the process of lifting the usurious burden of traditional moneylenders and, in tandem with health services, including access to contraceptive technology, improve the lives and prospects of the rural poor. Friendships were formed at the Congress where the focus was on the reality of the global poverty crisis. The discussions often turned to incremental gradualist approaches to local development, and to what seems to me to be a new and urgent concern for laws buttressing individual autonomy.

The gap between the Old Guard of the Establishment and younger thinkers, mostly from abroad, was wide and deep. Hope filled many of the voices from parts of the world where suffering is most intense, and the representatives of these regions spoke with keen intelligence on vital issues with analytical powers matched by the strength of their compassion. In retrospect, I’ve come to feel that it may be less important to register what happened at the formal levels of this enormous international gathering of people in the philosophic discipline, but to query what such an event may signify. For me the critical question is whether the meeting has been serving as catalyst to enlarge the minds of some of the participants, and inspire them toward bringing closer the realization of the ancient philosophic goal for human ontological parity, now that we have reached the dawn, or dusk, of the global communication age and, almost, the common era’s year 2000.