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28 August 1998

Vol. II, No. 4

Feature Article

A Paideia whose time had come

World Congress of Philosophy 'the best that's ever been'

By Eric McHenry

Most full-time philosophers are also full-time educators. So the 20th World Congress of Philosophy, held August 10 through 16 and attended by close to 3,500 thinkers, was attended by close to 3,500 teachers.

CAS Professor of Philosophy Jaakko Hintikka foresaw this when he first suggested the Congress be themed Paideia: Philosophy Educating Humanity. The Greek word, he says, has a double meaning that makes it a doubly appropriate title.

"Choosing it was partly a reaction to the nominal themes of earlier Congresses &emdash; highfalutin but nearly meaningless," says Hintikka, cochairman of the American Organizing Committee, Inc., which spearheaded the Congress. "Philosophy pretends to do everything, to solve all the problems of the world. My idea was that even though the role of philosophy in the larger scheme of things is extremely important, the only way in which philosophers can influence the future, can carry out their grand projects, is as teachers. And there the double meaning of the Greek word Paideia came in very handy, because it means both the process of education and the aims of education."

In addresses opening the event and during one of its plenary sessions, BU Chancellor John Silber elucidated the theme by charging Congress participants to return philosophy to its origins: as a means by which wisdom is sought, conveyed, and received. These speeches set a tone, Congress Executive Director Alan Olson says, for the week's proceedings.

"He quite correctly said that the only justification for professional philosophers is to transmit some moral knowledge and wisdom to students," says Olson, CAS professor of philosophy and religion. "It has been their task since Socrates, and when they start dabbling in a lot of other things, they get distracted from that purpose.

"I think a lot of people there found the idea inspiring. They came away feeling that there was reason for them to be doing what they were doing. The overwhelming response to his message was positive."

Olson says that the entire week was a popular success. He is pleased that the American Organizing Committee met its target number of 3,500 participants, and pleased by the compliments he and other organizers have received.

"I went to sessions late in the evening &emdash; 9 and 10 o'clock at night, and they were very well attended," he says. "I think people were amazed by how much was going on and by the quality. It's certainly the best Congress that's ever been. We raised the bar to a much higher level."

A highlight of the 20th World Congress of Philosophy, held August 10 through 16 in the Marriott and Westin Hotels at Copley Place, was the Library of Living Philosophers panel, which brought together six of this century's most distinguished thinkers. From left are Donald Davidson, Sir Peter Strawson, Marjorie Grene, moderator Peter Caws, Willard Van Orman Quine, S. H. Nasr, and Karl-Otto Appel. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky