The problem of pluralism

How broad can a World Congress of Philosophy get before it loses its focus?

Syncretic shrine in Soeul

Syncretic shrine in Soeul

If there’s one thing the World Congress of Philosophy could never be accused of, it’s narrow-mindedness. On the contrary, for critics, its breadth of scope is one of its greatest weaknesses: there are so many varieties of “philosophy” being discussed at the conference that’s it not a bit clear the participants share a common subject at all.

Take, for example, the session at the most recent congress, held in 2008, on Taopsychotherapy. A mostly Korean audience of about thirty-five gathered to hear one paper which was not even on Taopsychotherapy, followed by a ten-minute talk by Professor Rhee Dongshick, the discipline’s now elderly founder.

Rhee’s main points can be summed up very briefly: The aim of Tao and Western psychotherapy is the same, only the latter achieves them at a lower level. Treatment in Taopsychotherapy consists in overcoming the patient’s “nuclear feelings” through the therapist’s empathy and compassion. In order to achieve this, therapists need to resolve their own nuclear feelings and purify their minds. This process is quite similar to some forms of humanistic psychotherapy, in particular Rogerian person-centred therapy, which Rhee views as a simple form of Taopsychotherapy.

Apart from this, the talk suggested that “Western culture” took a wrong turn as a result of Platonic metaphysics, and that its main error was that it was based on theory and logic. These cannot lead to truth and reality, which can be attained instead through meditation.

You would be justified in having a number of burning questions arising from that brief summary, such as: in what way is the aim of Tao and Western psychotherapy the same? What is the aim of Taopsychotherapy, and what does Rhee take the aim of Western psychotherapy to be? And which kind of Western psychotherapy are we talking about? What are nuclear feelings precisely, and what does overcoming them involve? What does a therapy session look like, and what does the therapist actually do? If the main basis of it is empathy, how is Taopsychotherapy in fact different from person-centred therapy? And so on.

Indeed, a few questions were raised from the floor. Unfortunately, Rhee did not appear to be responsive to challenges. When a participant expressed the view that psychotherapy and Taoism were in fact different, the venerable professor simply replied that he was wrong. And when another delegate asked how Taopsychotherapy works in practice, Rhee repeated that it worked through empathic response, and that in order to develop compassion you need to empty your mind. So we weren’t any further forward on anything.

It is not that Taopsychotherapy can be ruled out of court as a potential subject for a philosophy conference. The notion of psychotherapy is unhelpfully fuzzy, and novel conceptions of it could help to introduce a sense of perspective that is often nowhere to be found. But that opportunity was not taken. The main problem was that all the terms remained so vague. Making progress on this front would require rather more precision in defining our terms, and checking whether everyone was talking about the same things. Or is that desire simply a Western, neurotic reaching out for logic and theories?

Sessions like these raise the issue of how pluralistic a world philosophy congress can be without totally losing its focus. These worries cannot be easily dismissed as lazy Eurocentrism. One does not need to hold that western philosophy, or some subset of it, is superior to other kinds in order to worry about whether different strands of philosophy can meaningfully engage in dialogue together. Nor do these worries necessarily entail any arrogance. We can always learn from others, but that does not mean we should not prioritise some encounters over others. No doubt philosophers can learn from engineers, for example, but that does not mean that large, regular international gatherings of philosophers and engineers are a good idea.

FISP president William McBride is in favour of being “as all-encompassing as is feasible, just as long as people are committed to some sort of sense of philosophy, even if they conceive philosophy in very different ways. Nevertheless, there is something common in terms of a conception of what we’re doing. There’s a love of wisdom, and a feeling that you’re not out to find a new chemical element or something. There are lots of things you’re not doing, and as a philosopher you’re not also trying to figure out the best way to screw your competitors in business or something. There’s a certain common commitment to some notion of truth which is different from other disciplines. All people who would be worthy of being considered for membership in a society like FISP have something in common, at least in being different from other disciplines.”

McBride’s answer is vague, perhaps necessarily so. Rather than search for abstract principles, it might be more fruitful to focus on a good test case, and this the conference provided in the form of a round table on “The role of Jainism in evolving a new paradigm of philosophy.” Even people who didn’t go to it often mentioned it as a good example of how you hear things at world congresses you don’t hear elsewhere, for better or for worse.

Perhaps the most off the wall member of the panel was Jeremy Seligson, who is a member of “a group of international dreamers gathered around the idea of dreaming the world toward peace.” After all, “It is difficult to make war against someone with whom we have shared a dream.” He’s also the founder of the Children’s Peace Train, a project inspired by a dream of “a locomotive crossing over America to the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. where it was greeted by President Al Gore and members of Congress.” There’s a pretty big clue in the detail of that dream that it may not have been very prescient. Seligson has also collected thousands of “precognitive, Korean dreams” which “will someday (in this life or the next) be sewn together into The Great Korean Dreambook.” It’s philosophy, Jim, but not as we know it.

But the main difference between the Jainism session and philosophy as practised in the west (and largely elsewhere) is that the former had its roots firmly in religion. The session was organised by Jain Vishva Bharati, a Jain Institute founded by “His Holiness Acharya Tulsi, a seer, saint and scholar.” His successor, Acharya Mahaprajna is considered a living saint.

The religious beliefs of the panelists were evident in many ways. Dr Samani Chaitanya Prajna was one of two female ascetics (the rough equivalent of nuns) on the panel, who always covered her mouth with a piece of cloth called a muhapti whenever she spoke. This stops small bugs entering the mouth, and hot breath killing microrganisms. This is the most rigorous application of the Jain principle of the sanctity of all life, as well as serving as a reminder to be careful in what we say to others.

Prajna cited the work of the maverick Japanese scientist Masaru Emoto. Emoto claims that he has shown that the molecular structure of ice changes to be either beautiful or ugly depending on whether we speak or think positive or negative thoughts to it before freezing. He is considered a total quack by other scientists, who of course have never been able to replicate his work, but for Prajna, it’s a good example of the deep interconnectivity of humanity and nature.

If the session had contained nothing but wacky science, new age nonsense and religious doctrines, it would be pretty easy to conclude it should never have been held. But it is all much more complicated than that. There was some philosophy at least struggling to get out too.

The central philosophical idea in Jainism is what is often called perspectivism. As SR Bhatt put it in his paper, published in a substantial booklet handed out to delegates, “The real, according to Jaina view, is multifaceted and multidimensional. It has infinite properties (ananta dharma) and therefore it can be approached in infinite ways. … As there are many aspects of reality there can be multiple approaches to reality. Each one is true in itself but it is only partially true. It is true from a particular perspective.”

It is true that in this session, this perspectivism was asserted rather than argued for, but if there is some philosophical thinking behind the doctrine, then shouldn’t it be allowed to be discussed in a global philosophical gathering?

Some say that the answer should be no, because a line has to be drawn between theology, which assumes certain substantive beliefs about the truth of certain doctrines or scriptures, and philosophy, which of course has to make some assumptions, but has no unchallengeable tenets which are taken on authority or faith. If Jainism is a religion, then even if it articulates some philosophical views, and uses reason to develop them, it is still fundamentally different from philosophy.

This kind of objection was raised within FISP when the Sadra Islamic Philosophy Institute applied to join FISP. “There were people who said, look, this is just a front for Iranian islamisasation, a public profile for Islam looking for a mouthpiece,” recalls Dermot Moran. “This debate took place and in fact the majority voted in favour of admission of the Mulla Sadra society and the Iranians are here for probably the first time in 30 years, participating like everyone else, reading papers. They have been in such isolation. Do you want to just leave them in isolation and ignore them and talk down to them and say you clearly don’t understand enough logic to be able to make your case? Or do you invite them and draw them in? I’m for the latter.”

The problem with the opposing view, he says, is that “It presupposes that there’s this sharp distinction between philosophy and religion but that hasn’t always been the case.” There is also a danger of a double standard. “Let me say that the Hebrew University in Jerusalem have philosophers that would have a religious attitude that they would begin with. I used to get essays from students when I was at Yale when they wouldn’t write God, but G–, I’ve been to American Catholic universities that began everything with a prayer. There is a long tradition of the relationship of faith and reason in western thought and that’s an area for dialogue.”

In other parts of the world, it’s not only that religions and philosophy are more mixed, there is more fluidity between religions too. “India has very ancient and varied philosophical traditions,” Bhatt told me. “We have Vedic, Buddhist and Jain traditions, and all these traditions co-existed and there has been intense mutual exchange of ideas among these traditions.” Pluralism is therefore much more deeply ingrained in the philosophy of the subcontinent.

Bhatt insists that although Jainism has its religious dimension, it is essentially a system of philosophy, which he defines as “systematic reflection upon human experiences. Wherever there is systematic and critical reflection we say it is philosophising.” The desire to exclude religion from this is, he claims, unjustified.

“Religion is applied philosophy. It is a part of our existence we can’t ignore. We do have philosophy of religion, we have comparative religion, we do have, not exactly theology, but the study of the development of religious consciousness, and that is all part of philosophy.”

However, when Jain Vishva Bharati applied to be a FISP member at its general assembly in Seoul, its application was rejected. “There was a feeling it was too religious”, says McBride. However, “There are no hard and fast rules. For example we recently readmitted the North Korean Association of Social Scientists. Of course, they subscribe to the official ideology of North Korea, Juche. A better example which everyone is familiar with is from the communist era. In Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union there was an official ideology, but there were lots of good philosophers around who found ways of dealing with it.”

The argument is that it is better to decide on a case-by-case basis, and to draw people into the worldwide philosophical community, than it is to try to define in black and white what proper philosophy is and keep the rest out. “I hate this ‘that’s not really philosophy’,” says Moran. “I really find that a conversation blocker. It’s not like playing football where there’s a rule and if you do something you can say ‘that’s not soccer’. It really is a family resemblance concept, philosophy, we have to recognise that now.”

In any case, received opinion on what is kosher and what isn’t changes over time. “For a long time it was the view that Aristotle was real philosophy and Plotinus wasn’t, but that has been challenged now. People have recognised that in Plotinus there are discussions of self-consciousness that are far richer and more sophisticated than anything you find in Aristotle.”

In the Jain session, the tensions within FISP as to how inclusive it should be were starkly dramatised. McBride, the then presidential candidate, was invited to take to the stage and give his blessing, which he happily did. Past president Ioanna Kuçaradi was asked to do the same and reluctantly gave only partial support. “I like the universalist approach to life,” she said, “but I’m also not for confusing ways of life and world views with philosophy.”

The disagreements are likely to continue, with neither side entirely happy with the result, no final resolution in sight, and everyone arguing their side. Put like that, it sounds a bit like any other disagreement in philosophy.

Julian Baggini is editor of tpm

  1. Wonderful article, cheers! Its refreshing to hear someone call out some of the BS that circulates these days.

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