It was announced in the introductory session that the Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy was the largest gathering of philosophers (three thousand plus) in history and the last world congress of the twentieth century. The congress theme, grandly enough, was ʻPaideia: Philosophy Educating Humanityʼ. From the opening platform it was asserted that ʻthe clash between civilizations needs to be mediated and interpreted philosophicallyʼ and that ʻonly philosophy can raise our children to confront these issues with wisdomʼ. It was as if, amidst such declarations of solemn purpose, portentous fact and significant number, we were being tacitly enjoined to see ourselves as clasping hands, across the millennia, with the inhabitants of the Academy and the Lyceum.
The theme was echoed in a smattering of plenary papers, among the best of which was Martha Nussbaumʼs, whose discussion ranged from an entertaining account of alternative models of education in Aristophanesʼ The Clouds to a report of how philosophy has helped to broaden the imaginative and critical horizons of Chicago law students. The theme was also picked up, after a fashion, in the opening address from the principal of the University of Boston, a sometime teacher of philosophy, who used the occasion to deliver a defence of rationality, liberal tolerance and universal values (which, one surmised, all come to the same thing) against self-refuting relativism. The self-refuting relativists and relativisms he had in mind were the usual culprits, Nietzsche, Marx and Freud – all advocates, in one way or another, of the self-refuting idea that mind is in some way determined – together with postmodernists, feminists and sundry self-refuting assaulters of reason and rationality. It was the kind of self-assured tirade that is apt to make rational and reasonable non-postmodernists (such as myself) cringe. After a few pot-shots at self-refuting abstracts for papers to be presented later in the conference, he announced that the organizers, solid reliable types no doubt, had ʻdiplomatically avoidedʼ asking whether relativists are really philosophers, and applauded their inclusion in the programme, by means of which we could compound their self-refuting ways, by proving them wrong by our tolerance and learn from them, as from signposts for the unwary traveller, as we forged ahead on the straight road to truth.
It was, at any rate, difficult to tell what selection procedures the redoubtable organizers had applied to submitted papers, reasonable or relativist. Some were good, some bad and some, no doubt, self-refuting. Most areas and schools of philosophy were represented, along with many societies and organizations, with the (not overwhelming) majority belonging to those subjects and approaches considered mainstream in the English-speaking philosophical world. What it did or meant for philosophy or humanity is difficult to say. Most of the paper-givers and delegates appeared to get on with the business of presenting papers, listening, networking and sightseeing with, save the odd chuckle, little or no thought to the conference theme. I donʼt doubt that they got something of value from the conference, but I wonder how much of that had anything to do with educating humanity or that funny Greek word, paideia.