The Place of Philosophy: Some after-thoughts following the third BESETO Conference
A few weeks ago (January 9-10, 2009) UTCP hosted the third BESETO philosophy conference. I will not try here to summarize this large and diverse event, although I will say that I think it’s been a great success, both in terms of the level of presentations as well as in terms of its diversity and richness. I would like, though, to offer some “meta-reflections” on this conference, which was titled “Philosophy in the East Asian context”: some thoughts on the question of “context” or, if you will, the “place” of philosophy.
The place of the conference was Tokyo University, with guests coming from two other east-Asian places, Seoul and Beijing. But the place or context of the conference also seemed to be marked by the language in which it took place—a language that has become the globalized lingua franca not only of commerce and diplomacy but also of the academy, certainly of most international conference—the English language.
What is the place of this language? Certainly, it has a place in East-Asia, certainly in this conference and in our communication. But it did not always have this place. It came from other places and has acquired this place, and not always by peaceful or merely “cultural” ways. But to clarify quickly: while it is indeed imperative to recall and to ask questions about the place this language came from and the ways in which it came, we must also keep in mind the wonderful conference that came together through this language, in this language. (Could it have taken place, here and now, in East-Asia today, under any other language, whether east-Asian or not?) An exciting coming-together, in one place, of people from three places, histories, traditions, who are all, as one says, non-“native” speakers of this language.
And what about philosophy: Are we “native” speakers (thinkers) of philosophy? The question is the question of the place of “nativity”. But also of philosophy. Of the (native?) place of philosophy. Where? Here, in East-Asia, in Tokyo for example.
Is philosophy confined to a specific place, to a historical-cultural-geographic-linguistic context? More importantly, is it necessarily related to specific ways, routes, and passages of thought, of argumentation, of reasoning?
In the so-called Western tradition there are those who would say philosophy is Greek. The name by which it goes is surely Greek. That much we can be sure of: philo-sophia, the love of wisdom. Thus, it has often been said that one must master Greek in order to do philosophy properly. But as is often the case, such claims about mastery and properness do not stay in place. This claim has often been expanded to other places, arguing that the Europe is now the place of philosophy. And we should not be surprised to find the opposite claim, the one that insists on sticking to its place, namely the claim that only Greeks can do philosophy (in Greek, of course).
But history seems to offer a different verdict. The history of philosophy seems to be the history of its migration, of its translation. Moving between languages—perhaps even being in more than one language at once—is this not, if we might perhaps risk an over-philosophical term here, a necessary quality of philosophy? Where would the history of Western philosophy be, indeed where would the history of Europe be, without the translations of Plato of Aristotle into Latin? Without Kant’s insistence on bending the German language so that he could write philosophy in it? But perhaps we don’t have to venture far from this (real or imaginary) birth place in the hills of Athens: already then and there philosophy is marked by disagreement and plurality. To take but one obvious example, we can recall the difference between Aristotle and Plato over the meanings of both "philo" and "sophia", and certainly over the meaning of the two put together. The question is never just who is the proper inheritor of the Greeks (or of any other “founder”, for that matter); it is always also the question of which Greeks one decides to inherit.
Back to the place of our conference, to East-Asia, and to the place of philosophy in it, and to the place of language in the story of its philosophy.
--- but before I continue, I feel it is important that I know my own place. In this case, I think it is also important to make it known, because, in some sense, I am out of place here, I who am not from East-Asia. Is it my place to think about this place, as someone who comes from another place? I feel I must state this inherent limitation of mine, and to state that I am writing this out of the utmost respect for this place that I now call home. ---
The words (in English, let us not forget) of two speakers come to mind (I must apologize here for those speakers I haven’t had a chance to hear and who may have made similar important remarks). KIM Sang-Hwan began his lecture by reflecting on the extent to which the three East-Asian cultures represented in our conference have influenced each other. While another speaker, KIM Tae-ho, discussed the way a certain Chinese neo-Confucianism was re-interpreted by Korean and Japanese scholars. Here one could of course go on to ask about the place of the Chinese language in the history of those scholarships. Or indeed, about the very idea of the “place” called east-Asia: do we know where it begins and where it ends?
East-Asian thought—let us try to escape the word philosophia, at least for a moment—is also marked by its migrations and translations, by its dialogues (which are sometimes monologues) and conversations (sometimes with the living, sometimes with the dead). It too makes its home everywhere, and seems reluctant to “return” to some “home”, despite the best efforts of some. Do we know, and will we ever know with absolute certainty, just how far the routes of exchange, the paths of thinking, extend? (To mention just one brief example, without trying to be critical or negative: what is the place, and there certainly is an important place, of India in what we referred to as “East-Asia”?)
We are running out of place in this little blog entry. But if we must make some closing remarks, let them be remarks of opening. For one of the profound senses this conference left me with is precisely this sense of openness. Both “philosophy” and the "East-Asia" that came out of this conference were anything but a closed entity. Before the first word of the conference was even uttered, it was formed by forces before and beyond it: by an "Asia" that extends beyond its "East" (India?), beyond Asia (Greece, Europe?), and by taking place in a non-native yet not-so-foreign language (English).
We have learned a lot of philosophy in this conference, and perhaps we have also learned something about the (non-)place of philosophy. To philosophize, or perhaps better, to think, is also to think in another language, in the language of another; it is to be in more than one place, yours and yet another. Do we really know what was the context, the place of our conference? Can we really define, with cartographic accuracy, as if with some “cultural GPS”, its absolute coordinates? We have already set a time and place for the next meeting: Seoul, January 2010. Certainly, we will all know our way there. But perhaps we should never feel too sure where “there” is.