UD News: As The Year 2000 Looms, Deep Thinkers Tackle Real Problems At 20th World Congress Of Philosophy

July 31, 1998

AUG. 13, 1998-As the year 2000 approaches, "people are thinking philosophically," and philosophers increasingly are applying their problem-solving skills to real-world issues--from race relations and healthcare to family leave policies, says Eric Hoffman, executive director of the American Philosophical Association at the University of Delaware.

Some of the nation's deepest thinkers will ponder the changing role of philosophy in American public life today at the 20th World Congress of Philosophy in Boston, as part of an APA-sponsored session coordinated by Phil Quinn, the John A. O'Brien Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame and chairperson of the association's national board of officers.

Philosophers are often pictured in small groups, huddled quietly discussing such esoteric subjects as the meaning of life or the existence of absolute right or wrong, Hoffman notes. But, he says, "Part of our job, as philosophers, is to address real-world problems. Quite a few of us are seeking to reach out now to the public in a variety of ways, and to apply critical thinking to help integrate philosophy with other disciplines."

Hoffman cautions, however, that different APA members hold varying views about philosophy's function in public life, and he can't speak on behalf of the entire association. A spectrum of opinions will be presented at today's session by speakers Jorge J.E. Gracia, State University of New York at Buffalo; John Perry, Stanford University; and Robert Audi, University of Nebraska.

American vs. European Views

Quinn says that he has noted "a striking contrast between the United States and some of the Western European countries" in terms of how the public perceives deep thinkers. "Philosophers in particular, and academics more generally, are taken much more seriously as public figures in Europe," Quinn contends.

In places such as Britain, France and Germany, he says, "You constantly see philosophers on television shows and serving on government commissions." The geographic vastness of the United States, compared to smaller European countries with more compact networks of scholars, could be one reason why philosophers don't venture into public service, he says. In England, by comparison, Oxford and Cambridge scholars often end up in government, he notes.

And, a tendency of American philosophers to use obscure, technical jargon may contribute to their isolation, according to Quinn. "We don't often speak in sound bites!" he notes. "It can be difficult to express complex or abstract concepts in short, declarative sentences."

Yet, all this may be changing, says Quinn, whose career has spanned 30 years. He says he has observed an apparent "growth industry" in the discipline, with philosophy increasingly applied "to things like biomedical ethics, business ethics, computer ethics and so on."

Demand has increased for such courses at the university level, he says, and "students are very much interested in ethical problems" for career development.

Thinking Fast: An All-Star Lineup

Gracia, who holds a Ph.D. in medieval philosophy from the University of Toronto, takes a dimmer view of things. Plato's notion of the philosopher-king aside, he says: "I've identified a series of problems that philosophers have" that might prevent them from taking a role in public life. The cold shoulder philosophers get in the (U.S.) halls of power does not extend to other professions. Many physicians and lawyers and people in the literary arts and sociology do play an active role,'' he says.

Gracia also notes potential roadblocks, such as "the skepticism of some philosophers, that many believe truth is not achievable. And another is the glorification of science," which some philosophers buy into.

Nevertheless, if philosophers as a group become more active in American politics, Gracia says, "They're going to have to put their house in order" and settle the "extreme ideological divisions among themselves" concerning historical figures and theoretical systems.

Audi, another speaker at the APA session, holds a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and was editor-in-chief of the 1995 edition of The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. At the University of Nebraska, Audi's graduate courses include one on ethics and another on action theory. He has published extensively on the subject of political philosophy.

Perry, who earned his doctorate in philosophy at Cornell, directs Stanford's Center for the Study of Language and Information. His writings have been translated into Spanish, German, Japanese and Chinese. Perry coauthored books including a 1993 Introduction to Philosophy and the first volume of Situation Theory and Its Applications, published in 1990.

The APA traces its history to the creation of two philosophical societies at the beginning of the 20th century, and their federation after World War I, Quinn says. Today, the association includes three divisions, all with a national headquarters on UD's Newark, Del., campus.

Philosophy may sometimes be seen as irrelevant to modern life, but Quinn says that "a lot of us would like to see philosophers taking a larger part in public life." Forums such as the 20th World Congress of Philosophy could be a step in that direction, he says.

NOTE: This news release describes a session of the 20th World Congress of Philosophy, set to take place at 4 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 13, in Boston. Web: http://www.udel.edu/apa/new/national/worldcon.html

Press registration information: Janice Zazinski, (617) 353-4198, janice@bu.edu

University of Delaware

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