Istanbul by Gail Presbey

Presbey, Gail (Univ. of Detroit-Mercy). “Istanbul: Days and Nights at the World Congress.” CPP Newsletter Vol. 23, Nos. 1-2 (Spring-Fall 2003).

I really enjoyed my stay in Istanbul at the World Congress of Philosophy. The conference was so big, and there were so many sessions, surely one person can’t give a complete impression of what went on. What follows is my account of the panels I heard.

But let me begin by describing a conference that met in conjunction with (actually, just prior to) the World Congress, on August 8 and 9. The conference was organized by George McLean of the Catholic University in Washington, D.C., and his organization, Council on Research and Values in Philosophy (CRVP). Its theme was how intercultural dialog could help resolve world problems. A couple hundred people were there; it was really an international crowd with extensive representation from Southern countries. For example, I met Stephen Omondi Owino from Kenya, he teaches at Kenyatta University, who was quite young, but George and others were impressed with his paper. Sessions were held at the Culture University.

One day began with a panel that included Tamara Albertini, a Swiss woman who grew up in Tunisia and now teaches in Hawaii. She wanted pluralism in Islam, and criticized the Saudis for insisting that Muslims must become more uniform in their practice. She also argued that fundamentalists were misinterpreting Islam. Whereas Islam originally categorized acts in five ways, as obligatory, recommended, permitted, discouraged, or forbidden, fundamentalists had overemphasized the obligatory and forbidden to the detriment of the middle categories. She also said that in Islam obligatory acts could be of two kinds: either required of each individual, or required of at least some persons in the community.

Fundamentalists, and even bin Laden she argued, emphasized the former, for example saying each individual must engage in jihad. In addition to several folks from Kazakhstan who debated the possibility or desirability of a national philosophy, an Indian woman, Dr. Habrani, argued in favor of religious pluralism.

In the afternoon there was a session on globalization. Dan Smith presented a paper, where he argued that we need to establish a new “hegemony” (the catchword of both conferences) based on a new idea of development. He appealed to Habermas’s idea of “will formation in common” and uncoerced consensus as models for his idea, and he suggested that sage philosophy could be a methodology to help us reach this goal. Quite an impressive debate started, spurred by Dan’s presentation. Most supported Dan’s critique of
globalization. Several especially agreed that the “academy” is part of the problem, being located in the “center.” Both in Dan’s session and the concluding panel, participants raised the issue of whether dialog could solve world problems (as the conference theme had suggested).

Professor Blanchette argued that dialog with the “masters” does not get very far, and he cited an anecdote in which Cheney agreed to meet with protestors, since they had a right to speak, but clearly he didn’t listen to what they had to say. Near the end of the day a debate ensued – do ideas lead the world or not? Someone cited the example of Vaclav Havel as evidence that ideas do shape the world. Others said we can’t rely on ethics alone, we have to address power issues.

August 10th was the beginning of the WCP, on the theme, “Philosophy Confronting World Problems.” The conference center was huge, the auditorium was packed with thousands, and the whole place surrounded by police, metal detectors and x-ray machines. Media cameras rolled. The President of Turkey, Ahmet Needet Sezer, talked. He said very nice things. He said the goal of education was to produce creative and free individuals who can question basic principles, become active subjects, and reach their own truth. He then made claims that philosophy could help do this, which would then make Turkey powerful and prosperous.
Well, let’s hope he’s right.

Ionna Kucaradi gave her speech. She started out, in that unmistakably philosophical fashion, “What is a world problem?” She said philosophers had to search for a common cause of seeming independent events, in order to give their diagnosis. She cautioned philosophers to not confuse causes with outcomes. She also spoke against the fundamentalists, who she said took advantage of the guarantee of freedom of speech as well as respect and tolerance for religions, to propose their own views which go against freedom of speech and human rights. (This tension with the fundamentalists resurfaced at her closing speech).

My session was the first session of the conference after the opening (there were about 12 sessions at once). There were supposed to be six panelists on philosophy in Africa, but I was the only one who showed up. Even the Chair was missing, so Kwasi Wiredu was volunteered all of a sudden to chair. Hountondji attended, and even Habermas! There were about 25 people there. I spoke for 40 minutes, and I took questions and answers for 1 hour ten minutes. The paper was on sage philosophy.

F. Ochieng’-Odhiambo (Formerly of University of Nairobi, now teaching in Barbados) divides Oruka’s sage philosophy project into three categories – early, middle and late. He then makes implicit arguments that the first stage is the best. He prefers “philosophic sagacity” – the first stage – because it clearly fights against ethnophilosophy, whereas by the third stage ethnophilosophy “fits comfortably” into sage philosophy according to him. I disagree that Oruka’s project incorporates ethnophilosophy, while I agree it does incorporate folk sages who would then represent the culture philosophy of their community. These are fine distinctions I realize. I then argue that the third stage of the project is the best, because its motivation is broad and means to be helpful to Kenyans in their own identity search.

I got a lot of good questions, such as: does the analytic/ phenomenology split in philosophy affect the sage philosophy project? Who has a right to speak – does sage philosophy address power relations? How do Oruka’s earlier works like Philosophy of Liberty and his book on Punishment and Terrorism fit into his life’s work? What is my role when I interview sages, particularly when I raise issues about their position on gender equality? People’s interest in African philosophy was sparked by the debate.

In the afternoon there was a session on Gandhi with Fred Dallmeyer, Doug Allen and Joseph Prabhu. It was held in the military museum across the street from the conference center, so the Gandhians were getting a kick out of the irony. The building was lined with lots of old cannons, and even had some old missiles out in front. The halls had famous sayings from Turkish military leaders over the years. I thought the panel covered a lot of obvious ground in their speeches, as if they purposively aimed their papers at a general audience.

The new twist was that they used Gandhian ideas to address the contemporary problems of terrorism, but I thought the leap was rather quick, along the lines of “Gandhi wouldn’t approve of terrorism, state terrorism, starvation and inequality etc.” However, we had a good discussion with the audience. I myself leapt upon the example of Joseph Prabhu when he said that in fact Gandhi made an exception to his general counsel against war and agreed that the Indian army should fight the Pakistanis in 1948 over the invasion of Kashmir. Allen and others agreed that what he said there was inconsistent with other passages where he counseled non-resistance and non-cooperation with invading armies. They then got engaged in some apologetics about it, such as how could Gandhi be so inconsistent, must be because he is human like everyone else. But what I really wanted was an outline of the actual reasons he gave, to see if they were criteria or not.

Karsten Struhl was also sharp in noticing problems with Doug Allen’s definition of terrorism which, since it emphasizes the intention of the terrorist, could rule out much of structural violence (which Allen had said was also terrorism) since perpetrators are not necessarily intentionally trying to terrorize (they might just be pursuing self-interest, with terror in the form of fear of starvation or unemployment as an unintended side effect). There was also an interesting debate about coercion – does it have a role in nonviolence or not? Can
there be such a thing as moral coercion, as Prabhu suggested, or is it an oxymoron?

On the 11th there was a plenary with Habermas, Vottimo (of Italy) and Wiredu. Habermas was hard to understand but interesting. In a nutshell, he talked about how Kant emphasized the rights of world citizens in a cosmopolitan age. He didn’t foresee the rise of nationalism in the 19th century. Nationalism emphasized instead the sovereignty of states based on their exclusive control of territory and immunity from prosecution by other states.

The problem of the nineteenth century was that only a small number of nations considered themselves to be peers of each other, bound by international law, whereas they considered themselves able to colonize other weaker countries. Now in the twentieth century the United Nations has been based on the idea that international law is a law among sovereign states who have rights to non-intervention. This idea is now being challenged by those who want an international criminal court that will override immunity to prosecution. Also there is the push to override sovereignty in the name of international security against terrorism, as well as to bring justice to criminal states and order to failed states.

Recognition of sovereignty is now dependent on one’s compliance with human rights and security guidelines. Habermas seems to approve of these challenges to sovereignty insofar as they come closer to Kant’s cosmopolitan ideal, but he fears that the current context, where one superpower dominates, brings a harsh asymmetry to Kant’s ideal. He therefore approves of Europe’s attempt to become a counterweight to the USA. Since values change from country to country it will be hard to judge what justice among nations would be. He
prefers a legalization, rather than moralization, of war, since he fears that a moralized war cannot be kept within limits (as Karl Schmidt cautioned). I was left with the question of whether Habermas could be consistent in approving of abridgement of sovereignty in the case of the World Court while still condemning
ways that the “war on terrorism” ignores sovereignty of nations in its ceaseless search for security.

Gianni Vottimo addressed the topic, “The End of Philosophy in the Age of Democracy.” He noted that the end of metaphysics (citing critiques by Popper, Nietzsche, and Heidegger against claims of absolute truth in ontology) coincides with the re-emergence of democracy. The infallible philosopher is a thing of the past. (I realize this account is too brief.) And then it was Wiredu’s turn. I was a bit concerned because the Chair of the session introduced Wiredu as the one who would provide the perspective of “the Other.” (In the end, this Chair quite inaccurately, almost oppositely, summarized what Wiredu had said). Wiredu interrogated the word “dialog” and asked what it meant to have an intercultural dialog. When we enter dialog we cannot be overconfident and think that we cannot err. We must make clear at the beginning what the different cultures bring to the table, and the contributions to dialog must be taken or rejected on independent considerations. He argued that we must cast away both relativism and religious dogmatism in order to have true dialog. Relativism presumes that there are irreducible differences, whereas Wiredu only thinks that there are possible impediments to intercultural understandings. Wiredu then reiterated his famous claim that traditional African
religions did not used to be dogmatic (because they had no institutions to enforce dogma like Western religions). He thought that resort to God’s “revelation” by anyone did not help intercultural dialog. The Chair then misunderstood and said in his summary that Wiredu was advocating relativism.

In the afternoon was another plenary with Agnes Heller, Robert Bernasconi, and Thomas Pogge on “Inequality, Poverty, and Development.” Bernasconi argued that people have a right to charity, and if they aren’t given
what they need, they have a right to take what they need to survive. Bernasconi noted that this right came into conflict with Locke’s notion of property and money, because property was defined as what no one can take from me without my consent. Bernasconi argued that addressing the poverty issue is the true task of philosophy today. The current idea of development forecloses all novelty in searching for solutions to poverty. He suggests that statistically it can be shown to be rather easy to lift the lowest wage-earners from one to two dollars a day, but that system would still be unjust. Pogge showed the problems with the definitions of poverty used by the World Bank. He argued that their statistics were by any account unscientific and arbitrary. Pogge asserted that according to his studies, one third of human deaths are due to poverty-related causes. Forty six per cent of humans live on less than two dollars a day and own only 1.5 per cent of the world’s income. He raised the issue of personal responsibility – what are any of us required to do? His answer was that we must do enough that if everyone were to do the same, it would solve the poverty problem (regardless of whether others do so or not). While some blame corruption in Southern countries for their poverty problems, Pogge pointed out the role of Northern countries, who basically send the message that regardless of how rulers take over power, once they do so they will be rewarded with lucrative business contracts and loans.

Heller followed up with a more theoretical discussion. She said that we needed to focus on the two pillars of modern ethics: the good person and the good citizen (with a just constitution). The latter’s main virtue is solidarity; the former’s virtue is authenticity. As citizens we must freely found our constitution and take up our responsibilities. As individuals we must found our own ethics in our own self-certainty. We cannot rely on reason to decide for us, because reason hits antinomies. For example, Socrates argued that it is better to suffer evil than commit it; but another reasoner could prove the opposite. So-called self-evident truths are self evident only to the signatories, she asserted. We must decide our own destiny, she asserted. Heller also concluded with some criticisms of how the other two speakers had addressed the issue of poverty in a statistical way. She argued that it is not easy to talk of those who die of poverty and separate them from those who die of violence, because the two overlap. Also, one shouldn’t just say for example that a certain percentage of the world’s population dies of violence – one must mention the specifics, who is killed where and why? When the Jews are killed in Germany does it help just to say that three per cent of the world’s people died violently? So these overarching statistics obscure much important information.

Later in the afternoon there was a panel on “Reconciliation and Forgiveness” with two speakers who held opposing views. Leonard Harris argued that tolerance is a virtue only for a justified purpose. He notes the irony that some countries that promoted tolerance also practiced terrorism, and gave as examples apartheid
South Africa and the United States and other slave societies. He argues against the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of South Africa which holds that tolerance is better than resentment and expects Africans to forgive their victimizers. He claims that wealth accumulation is still racist in South Africa and that there has been no perceptible change since the end of apartheid. Instead of forgiveness of injustice, black South Africans need compensation. Resentment has a function; it helps one to be vigilant against future wrongs. He argues that the virtue of forgiveness is more like courage than honesty – it should be voluntary, not required. He argues that justice must exist institutionally before individuals can be expected to forgive.

This position was countered by a German philosopher named Klaus-Michael Kodalle. Kodalle argued that forgiveness is incorporated into formal rule of law of societies in transition. In fact the spirit of forgiveness is a precondition for establishing a rule of law. He gave several examples of the psychological benefits of forgiveness and how they later led to the normalization of relations. By dragging atrocities into the open as in the TRC, the deeds can be expressed and recognized as an injustice, and only then can they be “decontaminated” and even forgotten. He cautions that we cannot reconcile too quickly before fully remembering. Each of us must also recognize our own evil, so that we can see how we somehow resemble the “enemy.”

This panel inspired a lot of questions. The first audience participant argued cynically that most governments go through reconciliation as a matter of expediency. Others were concerned that amnesty was used as a weak surrogate of the spirit of forgiveness. Iris Young questioned Harris, wondering if he was counseling resentment as a virtue? She suggested that maybe indignation or anger would be better. Harris argued that he saw virtues as instrumental, not intrinsic. While he didn’t counsel resentment, he thought that if people happened to experience it, they should not be obliged to give it up. Eduardo Mendieta suggested that forgiveness was a compound virtue based on the simpler virtues of self-respect, humility, and magnanimity. Workineh Kelbessa suggested that traditional African elders had already mastered the techniques of reconciliation, but Harris upheld that reconciliation is not necessarily a virtue. Kodalle responded to questions with reference to Arendt’s emphasis on political forgiveness in her book, The Human Condition. He mentioned several cases of individuals or groups of persons whose identities were so caught up with being victims, that they couldn’t forgive and forget, and that eventually destroyed
them.

That night on the rooftop of the Sari Konak Hotel, Bob Stone and Betsy Bowman hosted a Radical Philosophy Association (RPA) party. About thirty people up there on the roof! They were all discussing whether they wanted to join Bob and Betsy in starting a “radical” retirement community in San Miguel, Mexico. Even Enrique Dussel was there. The debate at one point centered on the question, “Why Mexico?” Globalization is a problem in a lot of places. This later morphed into the idea that maybe the Russians and the Turks would set up similar “points of resistance” in their countries that would be in loose collaboration with the Mexico group.

Let me skip now to Wednesday August 13. We had two sessions for Concerned Philosophers for Peace in a row. These were sessions organized by Bill Gay in conjunction with the Russian Philosophical Society led by Alexander Chumakov. The Russians had all come to Istanbul on a big boat and they were docked in a port in Istanbul, so the boat doubled as their hotel. The sessions were crowded with about fourteen people listed, but in reality about eight people presented each two hour session. I was charged with sitting in front of the speakers and holding up a two-minute warning sign after six minutes, and a stop sign at 8 minutes, and then the translator had time to give a summary translation. Bill Gay chaired the first session and Alexander Buzgalin chaired the second session. Deb Peterson and John Bryant were the other Americans from CPP presenting.

I presented in the second session. I will not mention more details because Bill said he will submit a summary (please see “With Russian Colleagues” in this newsletter).

In the afternoon there was a panel with on “Pragmatism, War and Peace” by the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy. Omar Dahbour and John Shook were talking about the pragmatists’s stance on war. Shook went into some detail about how Dewey changed his stance on war during World War I. He was against the war before it started, but once it had begun, he thought he had to make the best of it. It is always a “pragmatic temptation” to find some use for war, Shook cautions. So Dewey tried to control war rather than eradicate it. He considered war a human institution that was capable of being reconstructed.

Dewey saw war as an opportunity for education. Instead of succumbing to war hysteria (a temptation in democracies where masses must be mobilized) or sentimentality, people should instead look at moral arguments for when to go to war, and what means to use. A lively debate ensued afterward, with Omar Dahbour raising the question of whether so-called “pinpoint bombing” is an example of humanizing war, or if it too easily makes intervention palatable. Others wondered how the emphasis on precision bombing could be reconciled with the recent “shock and awe” strategy used by USA forces in Iraq. Dahbour also thought that supposed human moral progress was “toothless” in the face of rapid technological advances. Shook conceded that while Dewey had insisted that democracies could control war, nevertheless even the USA is a
very imperfect democracy by Dewey’s criteria.

Thursday there were two big plenary sessions, one with Peter Singer and Iris Young, and a South African named John Pendleberry. The latter argued that poverty is avoidable and compromises people’s individual autonomy. Both Singer and Young addressed the Iraq war and I thought their papers were good.

Singer began by noting that technology had now developed to the point where “enemies” could wreak large scale havoc cheaply, and so nations can’t exercise “containment” as they did during the Cold War. Instead, the USA’s “National Security Strategy” argues that the state must act pre-emptively against “immanent threats.” In this way the USA has as its goal to possess military strength beyond challenge. However, Singer points out that moral rights don’t adhere to one nation alone.

According to the criteria by which the USA acted against Iraq, North Korea could justify a pre-emptive attack against the USA, since the USA has weapons of mass destruction and has been threatening to use them against North Korea. Singer argued that the National Security Council of the United Nations should be reformed. Why should the war veto power belong to four countries that are Christian, and none that are Islamic? Why doesn’t India get a vote – based on its size? Singer also finds an interesting precedent. When the USA was trying to gather votes for its own position on attacking Iraq, it suggested that the French veto should be disregarded, that the important thing would be to see if the USA had a majority vote from the Council. Singer says that if this is the case, then the USA should agree to try to dismantle the veto system altogether, in favor of a democratic vote.

Iris Young offered her “Modest Reflections on Hegemony.” She argued that people are living under a global dictatorship. The USA dominates the world, yet most people do not live in the USA and so did not have a chance to vote in that government. However, she hopes that another world is possible. Referring to Locke’s notion of the state of nature, in which a person who serves as her own judge of cases cannot protect the judgment against her own bias or error, she argues that the USA currently faces the same problem. Without
submitting itself to a World Court, the USA will not be able to make fair judgments of when other countries are in danger and in need of help or intervention. The USA should instead see itself as engaged in relational autonomy and mutual obligations. Young argues that it is necessary to withdraw cooperation from this world dictatorship. We must isolate the USA and the international corporate powers allied with it. We need debt cancellation, a global tax, and a surcharge on financial transactions to slow capital flow. Finally we must develop a transnational military force that can challenge USA military might.

Not everyone in the audience agreed with the speakers. Seyla Benhabib challenged Young, saying that Bush was not yet a dictator, he could be voted out. She thought that Young’s use of sixties rhetoric of anti-imperialism was unhelpful. Young aptly responded that while the USA is a democracy, it can still exercise dictatorship over other countries (and in fact, imperialism practiced by “democratic” countries did just that). One audience member challenged Singer, saying that some evil regimes in the world deserved to be overthrown. Singer agreed but asked, who should decide which regimes should be overthrown? Perhaps a reformed U.N. Security Council could make those decisions.

A late afternoon session on Global Institutions and Global Responsibilities brought together a large number of panelists into a roundtable of sorts. Nancy Kukoch of International Relations, University of Toronto, focused on unarticulated issues of fairness that crop up in WTO meetings, the Kyoto agreements, and other international bodies. She called for a systematic treatment of fairness, which would be more aware of differential burdens and benefits. According to the WTO’s own principles, it is committed to “fair trade” – but
questions arise: what is unfair protectionism? What is fair sanction? Other panelists brought up the question of human rights. Otto Hotte who teaches at Tubigen argued that we can separate questions of the legitimacy of rights from their origin – in this way, advocating universal human rights even if their origin is Western. For Matthias Kaufmann, hegemony destroys the idea of equality of all humans.

On Friday afternoon CPP and Bill Gay had another session with the Russian philosophers, in which Dan Smith was presenting. When Kai and I got there, we saw that the Russians were not there – it turns out there was a scheduling error and a bunch of them were presenting elsewhere at the same time! So suddenly Dan was the only speaker, similar to how I had become the only speaker in the first session. There were about ten of us and we had a discussion until 7:30.

On Saturday, the conference was hosting a performance of a local famous dance group. They mixed traditional Turkish folkloric dance with modern dance called “Magic You Ney.” There were at least fifty dancers, all young and beautiful, and they changed into so many different costumes, the dances were so energetic and lively! They had a raised platform in back where some highly costumed dancers would do dances in the interludes (while the others were changing costume I presume) including a Sufi dancer, a mermaid, two old women spinning tin plates on sticks, an old Sultan who falls in love with a bride in white, etc. The auditorium was packed, I ended up sitting in the balcony because all the main seats were filled and people had neglected going up to the balcony. They were actually excellent seats up there. The only complaint was one politically incorrect dance where some male dancers put on African masks and shirts to make them look black, and they danced around a lone white woman who seemed to be in distress. I think it was as if the African men were her nightmare that she had to wrestle with. But the woman was incredibly flexible. She could bend in half backwards!

I will leave coverage of the closing party, and closing sessions, to someone else to describe. All in all I will say that it was heartening to see so many philosophers apply their skills to shedding light on the world’s problems and putting forward sound judgments and practical analyses. It was easy for this CPP member to feel at home in the discussions and debates of the conference. If only all philosophy conferences were this meaningful!

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