Philosophers Forum Has Rich History with Hawaii

Honolulu Star - Advertiser, May 20, 2016 | Go to article overview

Philosophers Forum Has Rich History with Hawaii


A few weeks ago I wrote about Mary Foster taking Queen Liliuokalani to a service at the Honpa Hongwanji. It made headlines around the world and gave credence to the value of Buddhist thought and philosophy.

This week I learned that another Hawaii institution also played a substantial role in the acceptance of Eastern philosophies: the East-West Philosophers' Conference.

You probably have never heard of it, but the East-West Philosophers' Conference began in Hawaii in 1939 and will be holding its 11th symposium next week.

While few of us are philosophers (with a capital "P"), I think all of us are philosophers (with a small "p") at our core.

What I didn't know until I began researching this article is that Hawaii is at the epicenter of comparative philosophy for the planet.

The East-West Philosophers' Conference examines the leading issues and challenges the world faces today. It's considered to be the most important forum of its kind in the world, and for over 75 years it's met in our backyard, at the University of Hawaii.

The community is invited to attend all or part of it, and best of all, there is no charge.

Ten participants came from the U.S., Japan and India in 1939. This year 300 world leaders and philosophers are coming from over 40 countries to consider ways of promoting global understanding and cooperation.

*****

The conference has been held about every five years in Honolulu since its start, and philosophy professor Roger Ames tells me the conference led to the founding of the East-West Center here in Hawaii.

"The University of Hawaii, in the years leading up to the establishment of a U.S. East-West Center, had developed a reputation for bringing the wise gray heads of the world (and particularly Asia) together at regular intervals," Ames says, "to participate in these conferences.

"This was used as an argument for locating the East-West Center here in Hawaii."

*****

When the first conference was held in 1939, the world valued Western thought and largely ignored Eastern philosophies.

"One of the first participants, Greg Sinclair, decided, in this multi-ethnic community, philosophy can't be Anglo-European," Ames says. To ignore Japanese, Chinese, Buddhist, Islamic or other perspectives is racist, he felt.

"That ethnocentrism is changing because of this university. The first conference challenged the idea that you can use geographical criteria rather than philosophical criteria to decide what is philosophy and what is not.

"Philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom," Ames says. One of the 1949 participants, John Dewey (considered to be the father of modern American education) said, "Philosophy needs to produce the social intelligence that is necessary for human beings to flourish."

Ames believes what happens at the conference ripples out to the world. "We're educating educators and leaders. It shapes the way the community thinks."

Sinclair later became UH president, and a library is named for him. …

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