Catholic University Philosopher Builds Bridges

By Filteau, Jerry | National Catholic Reporter, January 8, 2010 | Go to article overview

Catholic University Philosopher Builds Bridges


Filteau, Jerry, National Catholic Reporter


WASHINGTON. In 40 years of quiet work, Oblate Fr. George F. McLean has traveled the globe -- China, India, Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America -- promoting intercultural dialogue and understanding on basic human and social issues among thinkers in scores of countries.

"We had 10 meetings behind the Iron Curtain before the [Berlin] Wall came down in 1989," McLean said, referring to seminars he arranged during the Cold War years involving Western philosophers and leaders of academies of science in communist countries.

The collapse of communism left "a real vacuum in those academies of science. They were all dialectical materialists," he said. But the relations that were built up through the previous years offered an opening.

"They were at sea. I went around to all the academies and said, 'You have a new job now. Write about your own philosophical heritage. Retrieve your past beyond that 40 years'" of communist rule, he said.

The result in the next couple of years were international philosophical and interdisciplinary meetings that led to eight books recovering the pre-communist philosophical and cultural heritage of countries like Poland, Lithuania, Georgia and the Czech Republic.

"Now they are trying to become democratic societies," and seminars on those issues led to the" next eight volumes in that series, he said. Additional topics like human values, ethics, pluralism and globalism in post-communist societies have led to at least 12 other volumes so far.

And then there's China. Before its opening to the West in the 1980s, McLean said, he would often meet scholars from China at other international gatherings, especially in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. But after they returned to China he would not hear from them again.

Now, he said, China is working on issues of its modernization and what face as an economic power it will present to the world--that of a feared competitor or a humane society. He said he helped organize numerous international conferences in China in recent years on a variety of social and philosophical issues.

On a visit to Asia last June and July McLean attended gatherings organized by the Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, which he founded in 1983 and continues to direct. A conference in Cambodia examined the role of philosophy in the development in Southeast Asia, and a series of conferences in China covered various topics, including a meeting July 6-8 in Xian on "Ethics in Public Administration and Citizen Participation."

The next and last conference in the series was scheduled to take place on the same topic a couple of days later in Urumqi, capital of the 'Xinjiang Uighuir Autonomous Region of Western China, but severe antigovernment rioting there by Uighuir protesters forced cancellation of the meeting.

Some 400 people were killed as police suppressed the riots, described as the worst in China since Tiananmen Square 20 years earlier.

McLean said ruefully that the riots demonstrated how on-target the conference's topic was. "This is really important: How can a territory be administered in such a way that it takes account of the people?"

The Uighuirs, who are ethnically Turkic and religiously Muslim, object to China's severe restrictions on their religious practice, and many of them want Xinjiang to become an independent nation, East Turkestan.

McLean said addressing such issues is "a philosophical project" -- not in the way philosophy is usually treated in academic courses, but in the more fundamental sense of "philosophy as an effort at self-understanding, with attention to subjectivity," looking at people in the context of their cultural heritage, how they address contemporary change and their struggles over "how to understand themselves"

Philosophy in that sense is "transformative" and a participation in "the existential effort of humankind," he said. …

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