12/21 – Learning to be Human

John O'Neill

John O’Neill

John O’Neil

The XXIV World Congress of Philosophy August 13- 20, 2018 – Beijing, China

The World Congress of Philosophy is a global gathering of philosophers held every five years, since its inception in 1900, in a different city each time. Recent previous ones were held in Istanbul, Seoul and Athens. They are opportunities for philosophers from around the globe to get together, develop relationships, share ideas and contribute towards the development of philosophy globally.

The last Congress was held mainly at the Chinese National Convention Centre, which is part of the former Olympic Village. It was attended by around 8000 people from 121 countries. 60% of the participants were Chinese, many of them students. It was the largest philosophical gathering so far held.

The official languages of the Congress were English, French, German, Spanish, Russian, and Chinese. Many of the papers and presentations were in Chinese. I used a headset for translation for one of the days, for the plenary sessions. The majority of the smaller sessions did not have translations. I found that my intellectual bandwidth was insufficient to be able to concentrate to hear speakers in translation, especially as I was taking copious notes. So, I limited myself after that day, to only attending English language sessions.

The organisers were the International Federation of Philosophical Societies (FISP) and Beijing University. The program consisted of plenary sessions, symposia, sections for contributed papers, endowed lectures, invited sessions, round tables, society sessions, student sessions and special sessions.

It was fitting that the Congress was held in Beijing as “China has a long history of philosophy and the cultivation of wisdom more generally and has made an enduring contribution to world heritage and philosophy” Dermot Moran, then President of FISP. Some of China’s early philosophers were Confucius, Mencius, Lao Tze, Chuang Tse and Wang Yang- Ming. Chinese philosophy has a long continuous tradition that has absorbed many elements from other cultures, including India. From Moran’s welcome message: “the Congress offers by far the largest, richest and most diverse philosophy program that has ever been offered at any World Congress”.

It was a very successful attempt to go beyond Western ways of doing philosophy in terms of largely Greek origins and categories. It included many forms of philosophy- Greek, Indian, Chinese, Jewish, Christian, Muslim – as well as Marxist philosophy, philosophy of indigenous
cultures, environmental philosophy, philosophy of cosmopolitanism, religion, African philosophy, feminism.

The theme of the conference was “Learning to be Human”. One hope was for it to contribute towards “a more globalised philosophy, capable of communicating multiple cultural and social contexts and responding to the future” (Hal Ping, President of the Chinese Organising Committee).

The main themes of the plenary sessions were Spirituality, Self (1st person, in Integral Terminology), Community (2nd person), Nature (3rd person), and Traditions.

There were symposia on:

  • Ren, Ubuntu, Love and the Heart
  • Reason, Dialogue, and the Good Life
  • Philosophy at the Margins: Domination, Freedom and Solidarity
  • Rights, Responsibilities and Justice
  • Differences, Diversity, Commonality
  • Mind, Brain, Body, Consciousness, Emotions
  • Human, Non-Human, Post-Human
  • Science, Technology and the Environment
  • Creativity, Symbol and Aesthetic Sense

There were also many concurrent streams of contributed papers throughout the congress, eg Comparative Philosophy, Philosophy of Religion, Artificial Intelligence, Science, Politics, Ethics, Phenomenology, Ontology, Cinema, Sex and Love, Transhumanism, etc, including many which I would have liked to attend. I did take one day off during the Congress to visit the Summer Palace instead.

Richard Kearney was one of the first keynote speakers, as part of the plenary on Spirituality. He spoke of a philosophy of radical welcome: what, if anything, comes after the death of God? His tentative answer is “anatheism – God after God”. He called for re- engaging with the stranger, a radical openness to the mystery that has been forgotten, which may blossom into friendship. He drew on examples from the Abrahamic tradition, as well as Interreligious hospitality in 5 traditions. He spoke of spirituality without religion, as well, although he mentioned the advantage of religion as embodying commitment. For him, the word “sacred” implies a commitment to mystery, something higher and other than oneself.

Judith Butler gave the Simone De Beauvoir lecture, on Butler’s philosophy of gender. She began by talking about how sex cannot be separated from language, whereas gender is difficult to translate and has trouble entering into a language. She referred to the difficulties of translating it from monolingual English into French, as well as debates about it in France.

Gender can now have various meanings eg to do with women and reproductive rights, transgender, homosexuality, etc. She called for thoughtful reflection on gender theory, which has become quite provocative and controversial in many countries. She spoke about the history of the term since the 1950’s and how it has changed from normatively negative back then to much more positive meanings currently. She cautioned that we need to be careful to not impose new gender norms. No one language or mode of usage can monopolise gender, with new forms proliferating. Every way of referring to gender has contingency. She asserted that one must be free to choose one’s own gender. Butler impressed me as a very lucid, clear, articulate, good philosopher. I thought that she pushed gender issues a bit too far, almost exclusively, a bit too far, while downplaying and almost ignoring biological sex factors.

The following day there were papers and presentations on the self, including Western phenomenological, Buddhist and African perspectives. I also heard an interesting presentation by Elena Avraamidou, on “Learning to be Human and Philosophy as a Way of Life: A Comparative Approach between Confucius’ and Socrates’ Thought.

Another session was on the mystical traditions in philosophy, with a paper drawing together Plato, the Upanishads, Plotinus, Augustine, Meister Eckhart, Nicholas of Cusa and Chinese philosophy, using “polishing the mirror “as a connecting metaphor. A Muslim philosopher spoke about Ibn Arabi and the Metaphysics of Solitariness, drawing together Nietzsche and the Sufi path.

Another theme was on Reason, Wisdom and the Good Life, again bringing together Confucianism with a Greek philosophy and touching on joy as comprehensive satisfaction and as relational.

The third day was on the theme of Community with, again, papers on Confucianism, African and Western philosophies. Another paper on “Towards a Global Non- exclusionary Community” drew together Habermas and Kant and spoke of the duty towards a global system of well- disposed human beings.

One of the highlights of the conference for me was a paper by William Franke: “Outline of an Intercultural Philosophy of Universalism”. He discussed his latest book “Apophatic Paths from India to China: Regions without Borders”. He claimed that universal thinking has been the aim of philosophy- East and West. For him, every conceptual system is exclusive. The universal dimension belongs to the unsayable, the apophatic, which is the challenge to move between various dimensions. He observed that comparative philosophy has been critiqued by philosophers. Franke points towards discourses of transcendent which are “the way beyond what can be said.” He sees this in the Chinese tradition, while apophatic discourses in the West can be traced from Plato to the postmodernists. It is worth turning to China which developed independently from the West. He sees links between apophatic transcendence and negative theology. He wants to renew the claim of universality through a critical intercultural philosophy. Another speaker Renata Schepen, in that session spoke of dialogue in which both sides need to be able to listen, as the best method for intercultural philosophy. There were other papers through the Congress on intercultural philosophy, which seems to be a leading and growing trend within world philosophy, I am pleased to see.

Several African speakers drew attention to the bias in Western philosophy against Africa and African philosophy eg in the disparaging comments about Africa and Africans in the writings of Locke, Kant and Hegel. I think this area is a lacuna in Integral Theory as well, with African Philosophy, culture and traditions rarely mentioned or discussed.

Peter Singer, an Australian philosopher, gave a very good keynote address on “The Moral Status of Animals and our Treatment of Them”. He spoke about this in the Judeo-Christian-Greek tradition and in the Buddhist one. He thinks that in today’s Western view we have duties to be kind. However, we allow our interests to outweigh those of animals. We should reject this bias towards other beings because of their species, as well reject racism. He spoke about speciesism, which holds the interests of human beings as more important than other species. His criterion for discerning which creatures have consciousness was their capacity to feel pain. He extended this down from mammals and birds to vertebrates, some invertebrates like octopus and was unsure about crustaceans. He seemed to have only a rudimentary understanding of a hierarchy of complexity and consciousness. He raised three questions: what are the experiences of animals like, is killing animals painlessly wrong and what about the suffering of wild animals? He considers that the area of ethics and animals is a lively one for ethics. He thought that the issue was an important one to raise because of the increasing meat consumption in China.

I attended a very rowdy, boisterous session on “A Global World – Conflicts of Interest”. This had several Russian speakers with some of the dialogue conducted in Russian. The contributions of Kant and Hannah Arendt were acknowledged. The importance of confidence building measures within dangerous political and human realities was mentioned. It was suggested that there is a need to create “islands of hope” within our groups, families, communities, philosophical societies, etc.

William McBride, a former president of FISP, gave a fascinating and scholarly account of why he considers Marx to be the most important philosopher of the last 150 years and still relevant for our times. He thought that, though much has changed since Marx’s time, much has not changed eg the capitalist mode of production. He claimed that there is no thinker better able than Marx to explain the circumstances of today even though there was much he didn’t know eg about China.

The “labour theory of value” was central to his thinking. This plays less of a role these days and automation is putting this into question. McBride didn’t have anything critical to say about Marx. He claimed that Marx didn’t make predictions about what a future society would look like, other than “a society of associated producers”.

McBride said that there is a rich scholarship on Marx. There is more and more widespread willingness by many people to talk about the failures of capitalism, with its maximisation of profit for the few, regardless of the needs of the many. McBride considers that Marx can assist with getting beyond the injustices of the current world. He observed that the international workers movement is not in good shape with labour unions under attack and dwindling.

He didn’t offer a view on how capitalism could transition into a post capitalist future. I didn’t think that he gave an adequate account of the disasters and atrocities committed in the name of Marxism in the 20th and 21st centuries, especially in the Soviet Union and China. He didn’t consider that Marx’s theory was responsible for these. Nevertheless, it was a very stimulating and well-informed, erudite paper on the contribution of Marx to world philosophy.

Professor Tu Weiming, from Peking University, who first proposed to FISP the suggestion of having this Congress in Beijing, gave the finest address of the Congress, drawing deeply on Confucian Philosophy. This is the concluding paragraph of his paper, called “Spiritual Humanism: Self, Community, Earth and Heaven”:

“A human being so conceived is not a creature but an active agent in the cosmic transformation as an observer, participant, indeed co- creator. Even though there may not be a Creator, the creativity since the Big Bang has never been lost but accumulated in every segment of the evolutionary story – sun, earth, life, animal, and human. We are the inheritors of this cosmic energy. We are charged with the responsibility to see to it that what has been endowed in our nature continues to give generative power to new realities and life forms. Spiritual Humanism believes that human life has transcendent meaning, that there is always mystery to be comprehended, and that theism as well as other manifestations of human religiosity teaches us to rise above secularism. We are finite beings, but in our finitude, there is the constant presence of infinite divinity. Spiritual Humanism is a faith in Humanity: the talk of learning to be fully human is to “form one body with Heaven, Earth and the myriad things,” for there is intrinsic unity between immanence and transcendence.”

The conference could have benefited from an integral understanding of stages of philosophical development, individually, collectively, socially, culturally and historically, although the many streams and lines of global philosophy were very evident. Some more explicit acknowledgement of the various states of consciousness would also have assisted with the papers on mystical, religious and spiritual themes.

While the conference was quite integral in the sense of being very comprehensive in bringing many philosophies together under the big tent of the theme of the conference and their unifying purposes in advancing the contributions that philosophy can make to our contemporary world and challenges, I could find no overall integral theoretical framework for world philosophy. Maybe it was unrealistic to expect such a framework, with such diversity and depths within the various philosophies presented and discussed. At a couple of previous congresses, there were papers on Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory. There weren’t any at this one. However, I was very encouraged that world philosophy is becoming more recognised. As Wilber said in his introduction to Sex, Ecology and Spirituality, he would like to see Integral Theory become a credible world philosophy. I think that, while it is overly ambitious for Integral Theory to become a world philosophy on its own, it has much to contribute towards a growing, global world philosophy.

I think that there are major opportunities and possibilities for contributions on Integral Theory and Philosophy to be presented at the next one, to be held in Melbourne, Australia, in 2023.


Kwame Antony Appiah. Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. Penguin Books, 2007.

Julian Baggini How the World thinks : a Global History of Philosophy. London: Granta Books, 2018.

Eliot Deutsch and Ron Bontoke, eds. A Companion to World Philosophies. Oxford, Blackwell, 1999.

Jonardon Ganeri, ed. Oxford Handbook of Indian Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Jay Garfield and William Edelglass, eds. Oxford Handbook of World Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Bryan Van Norden. Taking Back Philosophy A Multicultural Manifesto. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.

Ninian Smart. World Philosophies. New York. Routledge , 1999. Ken Wilber. Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, Boston: Shambhala, 2000.

About the Author

John O’Neill is a retired Commonwealth Government social worker, studied some philosophy in two degrees, long term member of Sydney Integral, Australian and world integral communities from Pelaw Main NSW Australia.

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