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7 August 1998

Vol. II, No. 3

Feature Article

BU host to record international omnium gatherum of philosophers

by Eric McHenry

René Descartes preferred "radical skepticism" to conventional wisdom, but the World Congress of Philosophy is a convention he might well have embraced. Once every five years, the prominent philosophers of the world gather for a week to discuss the state of their art; one might call it the Olympiad of critical thinking.

This year, Boston University will host the event, which hasn't been held in the United States since 1926. The 20th and final Congress of the millennium, it will also be the largest, with more than 3,000 thinkers from over 100 nations converging on the Marriott and Westin Hotels at Copley Place from August 10 to 16. The Congress will include more than 2,000 symposia and is the occasion for some 1,300 scholarly papers. Governor Paul Cellucci will open the week's proceedings with an address on the morning of the 10th. BU Chancellor John Silber will also speak at the opening ceremony and will be a featured panelist in one of the Congress' plenary sessions.

With the assistance of a half-dozen other regional colleges and universities and under the aegis of the Fédération Internationale des Sociétiés de Philosophie, a team of BU faculty led by CAS Professor of Philosophy Jaakko Hintikka, STH Professor and Dean Robert Neville, and CAS Professor of Philosophy and Religion Alan Olson organized the Congress. Olson says assembling it has been an "all-consuming task" for the past three years.

The strength of BU's faculty in philosophy and religion, according to Silber, makes the University a particularly appropriate choice to host the event.

"Following the 18th World Congress in Brighton, England, in 1988, Professors Neville, Hintikka, and Olson began to discuss with me the prospect of holding the 1998 Congress in Boston with Boston University as the primary sponsor," says Silber. "Because of Boston University's outstanding department of philosophy -- a department that emphasizes the history of philosophy no less than the subspecialties in philosophy, a department within which philosophy continues to be a search for truth and wisdom and is not subject to ideological fads and political correctness -- I concluded that we should spearhead the effort to bring the 20th World Congress of Philosophy to the United States. Accordingly, a proposal was tendered at the 19th World Congress in Moscow in 1993, our offer was accepted, and here we are. The Boston Congress will be not only the largest gathering of philosophers ever held, but also the most substantive."

Concluding a century of Congresses with one in the United States is another meaningful gesture, say the event's organizers -- particularly in a city so deeply associated with the origins of American liberal democracy.

"When you say words like 'the American Century,' it sounds like an epitaph," says Olson, the Congress' executive director. "But the Congress certainly is in one sense a celebration of the achievements of liberal democracy."

"And in Boston, the Athens of America," notes Jeremy Murray-Brown, COM associate professor of broadcasting and media consultant to Congress planners. "American pragmatism, American democratic ideals do represent a form of political philosophy that has in its way triumphed at the end of this century."

The participation of Silber, chairman of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Board of Education, will be appropriate to the 20th Congress' theme: Paideia: Philosophy Educating Humanity. From the Greek, Paideia is the lexical forebear of English words such as "pedagogy." Giving their work practical application in the world at large, and particularly in classrooms, is an ongoing challenge faced by philosophers. The Congress will speak both to the teaching of philosophy, says Olson, and to the philosophy of teaching.

"It's an old and very current debate," he says. "What can you teach? What should you teach? What is true education, real education? What is education that can inculcate values and prepare people for responsible citizenship as opposed to simply training them to be investment bankers and athletes?

"Traditionally, philosophers have provided paradigms, systems that other people emulate," Olson continues. "Every major approach to education has made reference, has linked itself, to some philosophical approach, whether it's neopositivism or Rousseau and Romantic education or Dewey and egalitarian models. The question facing us is, 'What, if anything, does philosophy have to say to the current situation?'"

Some of the timely topics to which presentations and discussions will be dedicated include the ethical questions posed by biotechnology, the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection, the responsibilities of educators in a global context, and the impact of the Internet on society. High technology, Neville said in a Boston University's World of Ideas interview that aired June 28 on WBUR, "raises questions that are very important for philosophy . . .

"Electronic technology bombards us with many, many bits of information that we need to put together, like assembling a collage," he said, "whereas philosophy, particularly in the West, has been extremely discursive, ruminative, long-drawn-out, going back over material again and again. That, of course, was the way I was trained, and I find it perhaps harder than my students do to come to philosophic rigor with the great press of information that's pushed. On the other hand, that is one of the most important philosophic problems for our time: how to handle information. In some respects, philosophy is easier the less you know."

The interests of philosophy, Olson added during the same interview, are not always at odds with high technology. Congress organizers committed considerable time to the design and implementation of a remarkably comprehensive Web site, which has to this point received approximately 60,000 hits.

"It would have cost us a vast amount of money," Olson said, "to transmit paper all over the world, to try to convey that information. At the most immediate level . . . I can say personally that without the Web, without access to the Internet, without HTML, we couldn't have done it."

Diversity, like Paideia, is a theme that virtually all the Congress' symposia will address in some manner. Globalization of media and the economy are naturally being reflected in philosophical developments, Murray-Brown observes. Philosophies informed by several great traditions are supplanting the insular ones that have been prevalent. It is necessary and inevitable, Congress organizers say, that philosophic discourse become inclusive and nonjingoistic. East and South Asian philosophies will be central to the Congress, and it will highlight thinking from myriad other traditions.

A special pre-Congress event devoted to women in philosophy is taking place August 6 through 10 at BU. The Eighth Symposium of the International Association of Women Philosophers will forward a series of now-triennial gatherings that began in 1980. The text of a Web page on the Symposium, which comes to the United States for the first time this year, acknowledges that "Paideia . . . evokes the image of the great male philosophers of antiquity. As a gentle reminder that there have been women philosophers, too, in every historical era including ancient Greece, we have titled our symposium Lessons from the Gynaeceum: Women Philosophizing -- Past, Present and Future. (The gynaeceum was the women's quarters in the Greek household.)"

Another group of people not overlooked in the Congress' planning is laypeople. If the event's output is to be relevant to contemporary pedagogy, Murray-Brown says, it must be comprehensible to nonspecialists.

"I think the philosophers are very keen to try and make the whole conference accessible to educators, to high school teachers," he says. "It's at that level, really, that practical philosophy needs to be understood and felt and practiced. And I think they're very well aware of that."

For more information about the Congress, visit its Web site at http://www.bu.edu/WCP.