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Gail Presbey

Culture, Multiculturalism, and Intercultural Philosophy

Report of American Philosophical Association Conference

American Philosophical Association Conference
Eastern Division
97th Annual Meeting
27-30 December 2000
New York City

Program and Abstracts: external linkMeeting Website

American Philosophical Association (APA)
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  Thousands of philosophers converge yearly in the after-Christmas season for the American Philosophical Association Eastern Division conference. While the majority of papers given at the APA conference are in the analytic tradition, there are growing numbers of panels and papers addressing intercultural philosophy issues. As a member of the APA Committee on International Cooperation (led by Prof. Jaakko Hintikka), I have a special task to try to bring philosophers from outside of the U.S.A. into contact and dialog with American philosophers.

 Multiculturalism and Indian Women


  Two panels of great interest were sponsored by our committee. One was called Multiculturalism and Indian Women. Presenters were excellent. Uma Narayan began by considering the circumstances under which a group has a cultural identity, or a religious one. She argued that cultures are not pre-given entities by are instead constituted by discourses. She was especially concerned with the idea being promoted in India today of a "Hindu culture". She thinks that this concept has been politically shaped, and used for patriarchal purposes against Indian women as well as against Muslims. She advocated a critical and reflective multiculturalism in India, which would replace Hindu fundamentalist nationalism with a more open interpretation of Indian culture.


  Zoya Hassan and Iris Young were also on the panel. Hassan discussed the importance of quotas for women in political participation and holding of offices, and suggested the historical reasons why women in India saw such quotas as a key aspect of their struggle for equality. Young discussed how Western feminists and women from other countries could enter into a fair dialogue, to discern what are the best ways to fully understand each other's feminist political agendas.

»[Walzer] claimed that governments must make room for those who want to live wholly within a culture, or on its margins, across cultures, or apart from all cultures.«


  The respondents to this panel were Michael Walzer and Martha Nussbaum. Walzer argued that not all "cultures" demand the same respect and seriousness. Some have endured the test of time and remained central to their communities. Some cultures are created almost overnight with a clear political agenda. He called the latter use of "culture" manipulative. The former category of well founded cultures deserves support of the State, as in Jewish or Catholic nursing homes for the elderly. He claimed that governments must make room for those who want to live wholly within a culture, or on its margins, across cultures, or apart from all cultures. He noted that sometimes the ground for the culture erodes, and gave as an example the American "working class" as a cultural identity. Today, working class culture is overwhelmed by television which encourages all consumers to identify together and not clearly as members of a class.


  Nussbaum argued that critics of culture like Susan Okin misinterpret cultures as static and monolithic. She argues instead that symbols which might seem oppressive in one context can be badges of liberation in another context. She gave an example of University of Lucknow in India, where wearing jeans became a symbol of liberation for women students, who were fighting back against male students who had attacked feminism on campus.

 Afro-Caribbean Philosophy

»[Dussel] reiterated the importance of a plan that he and Oruka were working on: A South-South philosophical dialogue, that would link the philosophies of Africa and Latin America by the themes of a critical analysis of colonialism, and liberation philosophy.«


  Other societies also sponsored panels which delved into cross cultural issues in philosophy. One of the best was a panel devoted to Paget Henry's latest book, Caliban's Reason: Introducing Afro-Caribbean Philosophy by Routledge. Anthony Bogues gave a commentary on the book from the point of view of being a Caribbean academic philosopher. He argued that while culture is not individualistic, it still has philosophical import. The Caribbean area is a place where there has not been much academic development of philosophy up to this point, but there has been much implicit philosophizing; and a wealth of questions in political philosophy have been asked. Henry's book does a great service in introducing the larger world to a tradition of philosophical thinking in the Caribbean. The chapter on Sylvia Wynter (who analyzes post-colonial thought) was highly praised by reviewers.


  The second reviewer was Enrique Dussel, who related the book to Latin American philosophy as well as African philosophy. While bemoaning the loss of Prof. Henry Odera Oruka of University of Nairobi, he reiterated the importance of a plan that he and Oruka were working on: A South-South philosophical dialogue, that would link the philosophies of Africa and Latin America by the themes of a critical analysis of colonialism, and liberation philosophy. He explained that Africa was a common umbilical cord that nourished many philosophies in Latin America, including the Afro-Caribbean philosophy that Henry discussed, as well as Afro-North American philosophy, and Afro-French/ Anglo and Dutch philosophies. He did have suggestions that Henry should add in his discussion of "ego" the larger topic of subjectivity (which includes corporality) and intersubjectivity (which is shaped also by institutions and history).

 More Intercultural Philosophy panels

Jeanne Curran &
Susan R. Takata
Lewis R. Gordon's Existentia Africana.
external linkReview Essay


  Another panel sponsored by our International Cooperation Committee looked at the issue of teaching philosophy to children around the world. The case of central Asia was discussed by Walter Kohan, while Jen Glaser discussed Israel, and Megan Laverty discussed Australia. There was a lively debate regarding which educational approaches would work in which contexts.

Gail Presbey
College of Liberal Arts
University of Detroit Mercy
4001 W. McNichols Rd.
Detroit MI 48219
Phone +1 (313) 993-1124
Fax +1 (313) 993-1166


  There were many other intercultural philosophy panels. One sponsored by the Gandhi King Society had Love and Justice at its theme, and included Hyun Hochsmann comparing Plato and Confucius' philosophy, Greg Moses addressing the theme from the philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr., and myself following the theme in the works of Hannah Arendt. There was a panel on the dialogue between phenomenology and Islamic philosophy. There were quite a few sessions exploring topics in Chinese philosophy, including a session comparing Postmodernism and Eastern thought. One panel explored the impact of Technology, Westernization and Modernity on Japan.


  There were several sessions on American Indian philosophy, including one on Indigenous Native American Womanism which chose to align itself with African "womanists" rather than white Western "feminists". There was a panel devoted to Lewis Gordon's book, Existentia Africana, his work exploring Africana existential thought. There were so many good panels, many of them running concurrently, that it was impossible to attend all, or even to mention them all here.

Gail Presbey
is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at University of Detroit Mercy.


  One possible frustration remains, and that is that probably a majority of conference attendees only go to the more Western or mainstream panels, and many could probably attend the entire conference without going to one of the intercultural philosophy panels. Most times there are about sixteen sessions going on at once, with only one or two devoted to intercultural philosophy. But the good news is, that there are plenty of panels on intercultural philosophy topics, so that those who have interest can attend. It is also good to see publishers paying attention to this new theme in philosophy. As a conclusion let me suggest that those of you who have ideas for panels that can be sponsored by our International Cooperation Committee should get in touch with me. Panels can be arranged at future APA conferences.

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