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May, 2005 Vol. 30 No. 2
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Conference session highlights

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Coptic Christians in Egypt November 2003

Social marketing in Asia May 2004

Hawaiian ways July 2003

End of life July 2002

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Published May 2005

Group Think

East-West Philosophers’ Conference open to pondering

by Jeela Ongley (BA ’97 Mānoa)

If the East-West Philosophers’ Conference is, as many suggest, the Olympics of comparative philosophy, then Honolulu is Athens—birthplace and, in this case, permanent home to the periodic gathering of the best talent from all over the world.

From May 29 to June 10, 2005, more than 200 philosophers from over 30 countries will gather again at the East-West Center on the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa campus. They will consider an issue of vital importance to humanity—education. And you are invited (seriously) because passionate and generous sponsors have ensured that the sessions continue to be free and open to the public.

black and white photos of an early philosphy conference
East-West Center Conference, University of Hawaiʻi, 1949

Why care about philosophy?

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Philosophy states that "Philosophy is unavoidable. Even if you think you don’t already have a philosophy, you actually do." Can it be so simple?

"Philosophy is about values, our ways of living and thinking," confirms conference director and UH Mānoa Professor Roger Ames, an expert on Chinese, American and comparative philosophies. Philosophy teaches people how to think clearly about issues, how to think in a compelling way.

"Whether you go into law or drive a taxi cab, if you study philosophy you will be a better person for it," he says with conviction. "You do what you can do in life, but with philosophy you do it better."

The East-West Philosophers’ Conference has historically addressed pressing problems of the day—everybody’s problems, not just the contemplations of professional philosophers.

"That’s where this university is different from others," explains Ames. "At this conference we’ll take on issues like human rights, democratization, prejudice and discrimination—these are philosophical problems that have to do with education and a lack of it."

You are what you think

From the beginning, Mānoa’s philosophy department has been both eastern- and western-oriented in interest and expertise. It galvanized understanding of UH as an institution that serves a multiethnic, multicultural community.

Department Chair Wing-tsit Chan along with Assistant Professor Charles Moore and Oriental Institute Director Gregg Sinclair were instrumental in launching both the department and, soon after, the 1939 East-West Philosophers’ Conference. According to Ames, this was a major factor in Congress’s decision to establish the East-West Center think tank at Mānoa.

"The difference today is that west still means west, but east has expanded to mean everything not-west," says Ames. No longer just a dialogue between just Asian and European schools of thought, the 2005 conference includes idea-people from around the globe, including Africa, the Middle East and the Pacific Islands.

Increasingly, Hawaiian worldviews are integrated into the conference too, creating the tantalizing feeling of coming around in a spiraling progression.

Perhaps local people will throng to the conference by the thousands, like they once did, overflowing Andrews Outdoor Theatre to hear the likes of leading Zen lecturer D. T. Suzuki, who is credited for introducing Buddha to the west.

Other notable past participants include Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, a philosopher-statesman who became president of India during the 1960s, and Hu Shi, a 1920s reformer in China’s vernacular movement, which made education accessible to ordinary people.

Good company

The East-West Philosophers’ Conference has been convened nine times, gradually increasing in size and scope but always enjoying strong support from people Ames calls "the enlightened local business community."

During his lifetime, Hung Wo Ching of Aloha Investments solicited contributions from fellow businesspeople. At his passing, his family continued active support. Others, like Warren Luke, not only donate but take an active role in the ongoing conversation conference organizers have with the community. See the full list of sponsors below.

In turn, the conference remains focused on the community. The issues are relevant, and access is free and easy. This year’s theme is education, specifically, "Educations and their Purposes: A Philosophical Dialogue Among Cultures."

So what happens when you rub shoulders alongside wise guys from all over the world?

"Some of these sessions will be intimidating if you don’t have an interest," admits Ames. He suggests looking for topics on which you wish to be better informed—education as it relates to music, Islam, Tibet, politics, the environment, indigenous cultures, technology, religion, social injustice and so on.

A presentation or moderated panel discussion is typically followed by a question and answer discussion "oriented toward an intelligent audience but not just specialists," says Ames. "Our guests are friendly philosophers. These people are not self-important—they are concerned about issues that matter to more than just a bunch of egghead academics."

Education at the forefront

His own enthusiasm emanates in statements like, "All positive change in the world goes back to education... We have to educate ourselves past our inadequacies... Education is a conversation." Ames is forthright about confronting all sides of the issue, including the very serious, very relevant notion of education versus indoctrination and colonization.

"This year’s conference acknowledges American education as an invasive species in Hawaiʻi that disadvantaged the Native people," he says. The UH administration has renewed commitment to respect and celebrate Hawaiian culture, and Hawaiian and Maori scholars are prominent among participants engaged in a global conversation on where we are going, and why.

You, too can be part of the discussion.


Conference workshop highlights

All sesions are free and open to the public. For complete listing and details, see the conference website.

Educating Sun Yat-Sen: Hawaiʻi and the Chinese Revolution June 1: Ideas and influences Sun Yat-Sen was exposed to while attending ʻIolani and Punahou Schools in Honolulu and how his American education helped shape his later role as the father of modern China.

Religion and Education June 2: A major challenge in the United States today is how to educate people about Islam. Islam is not synonymous with terror, but what is to be done when hatred is part of the curriculum?

illustration of a man trying to gaze at the starts too close to city lights
illustration by Kelly Hironaka

Education and Negotiations of Power June 6: Panel participants from India, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Ethiopia and Ghana consider how disconnects between the people and the powerful marginalize populations, causing desperation that can lead to serious social problems. The solution? Education.

Philosophy for Children: Schooling as Education Not Training June 7: Children who study philosophy tend to score higher in all other subjects than children who do not. This panel includes UH Philosophy in the Schools Director Thomas Jackson and will consider the hows and whys of philosophical inquiry in school classrooms.

Recovering the Sky: Astronomy as Inspiration for the World’s Cultures June 8: With light pollution obscuring the sky from much of the modern world, what are we missing? This innovative panel includes astronomers and Hawaiian cultural experts for a session that may change how you see the sky.

Education for Virtue, Democracy, and Liberation June 8: A special UH Mānoa alumni panel joins Department Chair Eliot Deutsch in a conversation about the highest ideals of a modern education.

Music and Moral Education June 9: What does music have to do with self-cultivation? Join preeminent music scholars for a cross-cultural consideration of the ability of music to promote mutual accommodation among people. Follows an evening of Hawaiian music with Jon Osorio and Erin Sala June 8.

An Epistemology of Feeling: Education and the Emotions June 10: Well-educated people tend to be stable and healthy, but this is based less on IQ than EQ (emotional quotient). A distinguished panel considers the role of feelings and emotion in educating the whole person.

Tibetan Spiritual Education Today June 10: How can the educational system in Tibet preserve and affirm the unique spiritual traditions, lineages and cultural aspects of Tibetan Buddhist sects while preparing students for an uncertain future?


Major donors

Community support opens East-West Philosophers’ Conference workshops to the public at no charge.

2005 conference donors include individual, corporate and foundation support.

Support was also provided by the University of Hawaiʻ Press and UH Mānoa College of Education.

Jeela Ongley is web content coordinator in External Affairs and University Relations


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