The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has had a perhaps surprising passion for philosophy ever since its inception. At its fifth session, in Florence in 1950, it decided to conduct “an inquiry into the place of the teaching of philosophy in the several educational systems [sic], the way in which it is given, and its influence upon the moulding of the citizen.” The resulting report contained an analysis of the problems raised by the teaching of philosophy, by the then young Georges Canguilhem, who went to be one of the most important philosophers in France.
That first report set the tone for UNESCO’s attitude to philosophy ever since, which it sees as having an important role in the development of a more open and democratic world. So, in the 70s and 80s, UNESCO prepared studies on philosophy teaching and research in each region of the world. In 1995, UNESCO signed the Paris Declaration for Philosophy, “recognising the important role of philosophy in promoting democracy by encouraging independent thought and enhancing people’s capacity for judgement.” In view of this, they declared that “the role and teaching of philosophy should be promoted and expanded.” The declaration built on the results of a study conducted by Roger-Pol Droit for UNESCO and published that year, Philosophy and Democracy in the World, which claimed to show a correlation between the levels of democracy and philosophy in countries all over the world.
Ten years later, UNESCO adopted a formal philosophy strategy, which it describes as resting on “three pillars of action: i) Philosophy facing world problems: dialogue, analysis and questioning of contemporary society; ii) Teaching philosophy in the world: fostering critical reflection and independent thinking; and iii) Promotion of philosophical thought and research.”
The first of those pillars points to the link between UNESCO and FISP (Fédération Internationale des Sociétés de Philosophie), for “Philosophy facing world problems” was the theme of the 2003 World Congress of Philosophy in Istanbul. This is surely no coincidence: FISP has for a long time been UNESCO’s main international partner, as is evident from the large number of FISP committee members who participate in the annual UNESCO philosophy day meetings (see tpm 41), initiated in 2002. Despite the close links, however, FISP is entirely independent of UNESCO.
Last year another report was published, which in its conclusions and goals was entirely continuous with what preceded it. Philosophy: A School of Freedom looked at the status and prospects of teaching philosophy and learning to philosophise. The report reflects an inherent tension in the UNESCO project. On the one hand, it is keen to promote philosophy as a specific discipline, saying that “philosophical teaching must be maintained or expanded where it exists, introduced where it does not yet exist, and explicitly be called ‘philosophy’” On the other, its commitment to diversity and plurality means it cannot be prescriptive about what this supposedly single subject is.
The result is that the report is bigger on generalities than specifics, as, arguably, are UNESCO’s broader goals. For instance, the report supports philosophy for children at the primary and pre-school level, concluding “that it is possible to learn to philosophise from a very young age, and that this is, in fact, strongly desirable for philosophical, political, ethical and educational reasons.” But there are many different ways of doing this, and rather than judge their merits, the report says that “a plurality of practices and a diversity of pedagogical and didactic approaches throughout the world is highly desirable.” Likewise, the chapter on philosophy in higher education says that UNESCO “can only aim at reinforcing philosophical communities, while leaving them free to develop a maximum diversity of methodological and conceptual approaches and themes.”
“Can only” is perhaps a telling phrase, and it is not obvious how UNESCO could be involved in philosophy without being broad and inclusive. Hence statements like that of Koïchiro Matsuura, Director-General of UNESCO, in the preface to the report: “What is the teaching of philosophy if not the teaching of freedom and critical reasoning?”
But is UNESCO right to put so much emphasis on – one might even say faith in – philosophy? At the World Congress, a more specific example of UNESCO’s work provided some sort of case study for its value. On the programme were three events which were part of the ongoing series of Asia-Arab Interregional Philosophical Dialogues, which were started in 2004. They looked at “Challenges of globalisation to philosophy and democracy”, “Ethical views of nature”, and “Philosophy facing the challenges of Modern technology”.
The man behind these events is Daryl Macer, UNESCO’s regional advisor in Social and Human Sciences in Asia and the Pacific. What does he see as the point of these dialogues?
“We try to have meetings every year and find ways to stimulate dialogue and exchange between Asian and Arab scholars,” he told me in Seoul. “The objective is to try to develop a culture of exchange, of critical thinking, between Asian and Arab traditions; to try to rediscover indigenous traditions and apply these to some modern challenges; and to prepare some materials that may be used for teaching that replace European-centred textbooks, material and culture with greater reflection on indigenous traditions. In some countries it’s about 10% local philosophy. Many states have less than 30% local philosophy and a lot have almost nothing.”
What is striking about this is the explicit desire to promote indigenous philosophy and resist western hegemony. For example, Macer wants “young scholars from Asian or Arab countries to think about going to other Asian or Arab countries to do their PhDs, postdocs, sabbaticals or exchanges, and studying Asian scholars, rather than always going to European or North American institutions. I ask even many philosophers in different Asian countries, like Cambodia, Thailand, or Japan to name ten philosophers from their culture, and in many countries they can’t think of anyone, they can only name European philosophers. Even in countries with a solid academic infrastructure, like Japan or Korea, still they’re focusing on studying European philosophers.”
But is it the business of UNESCO to actively counter that trend? Some may see it as too much of a political or ideological goal for an arm of the United Nations.
“That is the whole function of UNESCO: to promote diversity of ideas,” counters Macer, adding a phrase from the Paris Declaration: “It’s a laboratory of ideas. We have a danger in the world if we only focus on mainstream ideas. The whole purpose of the UN is to bring nations together. In an era of globalisation and short term economic goals and values, we need to go back to reflect on the purposes of UNESCO as a place for foresight, a laboratory of ideas, exploring people’s identity and helping shape this. And I also hope that through the publications, or through the dialogues, we can introduce these ideas back to the mainstream European and North American traditions, which tend to dominate, so that people can see there are different traditions and cultures and there’s not only one way to see the world.”
There is a potential tension in this project. On the one hand, the aim is to bring people together. On the other, it is all about promoting what is different. How do those two goals fit? Macer argues that only by building a community of people whose differences are accepted can we actually bring them together as equals.
“From the good side of globalisation, it’s trying to promote diversity and people’s understanding, because if we have a globalisation with only one or two major paradigms or ideas, its going to reduce our human culture to something that’s rather sad. If we can develop exchanges of ideas we have true globalisation. That term is so difficult, but at least true understanding.”
Although these aims can seem very abstract, there are parts of the world where simply allowing some open dialogue is real progress.
“We hope to promote freedom of thought in all countries, because in some countries that we’re working in, philosophers are repressed or killed for their beliefs.” UNESCO believes it can actually be a driver for change in this respect. “The actual programme is unanimously agreed by member states of UNESO, so governments have agreed to exchange ideas.”
Of course, not all philosophy has been used historically to promote mutual understanding and freedom. Governments have also used ideas of thinkers like Marx and Nietzsche for less desirable ends. So why is UNESCO so sure that promoting philosophy will be good for freedom? The answer is that the critical thinking side of philosophy is promoted, not any given doctrines.
“Anything can be misused, and ideas are often very convenient for political rulers. Economics and philosophy has been misused and will continue to be, I think,” says Macer. However, he argues that if a state allows critical thinking, it promotes diversity. “So in a state, different parties may adopt different ideologies, inspired by philosophy, but if they followed the concept of philosophical dialogue inside their states as well, they would not be able to promote only one view of the world.”
The majority of people professionally involved in philosophy are probably unaware just how committed UNESCO is to their subject. Whether it is doing the right things, or is even right to be so involved in the first place, are questions that do not have obvious answers. But they are surely questions that UNESCO itself, with its commitment to critical thinking and dialogue, would be happy to discuss further.