Ellie Robson (Birkbeck, University of London)

The history of philosophy is a history of men talking to men, about other men. Our answer to the question ‘What is philosophy for?’ has been shaped by this historical narrative. My talk explores an answer to this question posed by the woman philosopher Mary Midgley. Midgley argued that philosophy is a necessity, not a luxury. She described it as ‘something we are doing all the time, a continuous, necessary background activity which is likely to go badly if we don’t attend to it’ (2018:81). These insights of Midgley’s have been systematically underappreciated and overlooked within the academic discipline of philosophy. My talk questions the connection between Midgley as a philosophical practitioner, and her conception of philosophy as a practise. I will ask whether and to what extent being a minority in philosophy impacted the way Midgley conceived of the practise of philosophy. And further, how our accepted practise of the history of philosophy sustains and perpetuate the neglect of women philosophers (and other minorities). Overall, our standard story of men, talking to men about men, needs disrupting to include the (her)stories of overlooked philosophers. And doing so might change our conception of philosophical practise itself.

Prof. Sharon Stein (University of British Columbia): “The Challenges and Possibilities of Decolonizing Higher Education in VUCA Times”

Discussions about the decolonization of philosophy take place within the wider context of efforts to interrupt inherited hierarchies of knowledge and reimagine higher education as we know it. In this presentation I offer some insights from recent research and pedagogical experiments that engage the challenges and complexities of undertaking decolonizing work in a contemporary educational context characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA). Rather than prescribe a single pathway forward, I invite people to develop the capacities and the stamina to walk toward as-yet-unimaginable futures with more honesty, humility, and hyper-self-reflexivity. In particular, drawing on my work with the Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures research/arts collective, I will review a series of pedagogical frameworks that we have developed for inviting intellectually and relationally rigorous engagements with social and ecological challenges.

Prof. TAN Sor-hoon (Singapore Management University): “Confucian Democracy and the Analects”

There has been a lively debate over the relationship of Confucianism to democracy. Samuel Huntington’s dismissal of Confucian democracy as an oxymoron has been overtaken by a variety of different proposals on whether or not the Confucian political ideal could be democratic. Disagreements among the participants in this debate include issues to do with interpretation of Confucian canonical texts, the most important of which is arguably the Analects. This talk will discuss some of the key passages in the Analects for understanding the political thought of Confucius and its implications for constructing a Confucian democracy today.

Prof. Li Chenyang (Nanyang Technological University of Singapore): “Li as Cultural Grammar: On the Relation between Li and Ren in Confucius’ Analects”

A major controversy in the study of the Analects has been over the relation between the two central concepts of li (rites, rituals of propriety) and ren (humanity, human excellence). Confucius seems to have said inconsistent things about this relation. Some passages appear to suggest that ren is more fundamental than li, while others seem to imply the contrary, and it is therefore not surprising that there have been different interpretations and characterizations. In this presentation, I will present an interpretation that I believe best characterizes the relation between li and ren. Using the analogy of language grammar and mastery of a language, I propose that we should understand li as a cultural grammar and ren as the mastery of a culture. In this account, society cultivates its members through li toward the goal of ren.

Prof. Stephen C. Angle (Wesleyan University): “The Analects and Modern Moral Philosophy”

This talk explores the advantages and disadvantages of viewing the Analects through the lens of contemporary moral theory. It looks in particular at Kantian deontology, which Sinophone scholarship on the text has tended to stress; virtue ethics, which is more prominent in Anglophone secondary literature; and role ethics, which has emerged as a potential alternative to both deontology and virtue ethics. These discussions reveal that Sinophone and Anglophone philosophers are starting to engage one another, which is helping to spur the related (though not identical) process of dialogue between Western and Chinese philosophical traditions. Concern about an unhealthy hegemony of Western categories is by no means a thing of the past, but we are beginning to see glimpses of a future that is pluralistic, open, and global.

Prof. Jessica Frazier (University of Oxford): “You are What you Know: Becoming the Cosmos in Ancient India”

Some of India’s earliest philosophy in the Upanisads relied on an implicit theory of knowledge that saw the mind as a malleable material that ‘becomes’ what it knows. We look at how this theory, when it meets the beginnings of metaphysics, sets the scene for speculative philosophy as a therapy of self-expansion, self-deepening, and self-remaking. Here, rather than a quietist or stoic purpose for philosophy – as Pierre Hadot has suggested – we see philosophy as the mind’s capacity to recreate itself in the likeness of the cosmos.

Ana Laura Funes Maderey (Eastern Connecticut State University): “Joy as Medicine? Yogavāsiṣṭha on the Affective Sources of Disease”
According to the psychosomatic model found in the Yogavāsiṣtha, it is through the cultivation of joy—understood as the blissful tranquility of the mind (ānanda) that results from emotional purification— that we can heal from disease. In this paper I present Vasiṣṭha’s psychosomatic medical theory and analyze it in light of the main philosophical problem that arises: How much control do we have upon our own mental agitations and thus, upon our own healing? I will show that Vāsiṣṭha’s typology of disease offers a useful distinction for a phenomenology of illness that can accommodate the subjective feeling of the experience of disease as something that “affects us” while being, at the same time, an experience that we can transcend, and in this way, “heal”.  However,  I will question Vasiṣṭha’s use of the famous Vedānta analogy, the snake-and-the-rope, to explain our experience of “incurable diseases” and will reinterpret it from a feminist, intersectional perspective inspired by Johanna Hedva’s manifesto: “Sick Woman Theory”. By applying this perspective, the dialogical and intersubjective aspect of Vasiṣṭha’s therapeutic advice to Rāma becomes much more evident, avoiding individualistic and psychologizing interpretations on the emotional management of our lives.

Prof. Katja Vogt (Columbia University): “No More This Than That”

In the Theaetetus, Plato ascribes a metaphysics to relativism according to which there are no stable objects or properties. In effect, the world dissolves and there is nothing we can refer to in speech. En route to this revisionist picture, Plato toys with expressions that might be suitable to talk about a world in flux: something is no more tall than not tall, no more cold than not cold, etc. The Greek expression used in these formulations, ou mallon, becomes a stock element of Pyrrhonian skepticism. My paper makes a novel proposal by arguing that the Stoics too find a place for this idea. The idea that something can be “no more this than that,” I argue, is philosophically richer than is commonly assumed. It is not just a part of radically revisionist approaches. It is a compelling dimension of the Stoic distinction between impressions and propositions. The Stoic wise person suspends judgment when her impressions are neither true nor false–arguably, this concerns rather many ordinary impressions. For the Stoics, the epistemic norms that call for such suspension of judgment are key to leading a good life.

Prof. Graham Priest (CUNY): “Buddhism, Philosophy, Therapy”

Buddhist philosophy starts life, in the shape of the “Four Noble Truths” (Catvāri Āryasatyāni), with an analysis of the somewhat unhappy human condition, its ground, and what to do about it. Over the next two millennia, as Buddhism spreads through Asia, and especially into China, different schools of Buddhism develop and add to these fundamental insights in different ways. In this talk, I will discuss the Four Noble Truths, and then, to the extent that time permits, some of the later developments.

Derek Van Zoonen (University of Groningen): “Plato’s Therapy of Pleasure”

It is well-known that modern strands of psychotherapy—like Beck’s cognitive-behavioural therapy or Ellis’ rational emotive therapy—have been influenced by the Stoics and their take on the nature of emotions. It is not the world which causes our emotional upheaval, the Stoics and therapists propose, but how we construe the world through our mediating beliefs.  What is rarely appreciated, though, is the fact that a precursor of this cognitivist theory of human emotion can already be found in Plato’s Philebus. Here Socrates offers a famous yet puzzling argument (between 36c3 and 41a4) according to which our anticipatory pleasures can be false (pseudês). Most recent literature has focused on the source of these pleasures’ alleged falsity: some scholars maintain that they are false because they do not latch onto the world (e.g. D. Frede), others think they are false because there is something evaluatively or morally wrong with them (e.g. V. Harte). In this paper I want to sidestep this long-standing debate and suggest that we can (and should) excavate a cognitivist model of pleasure from this puzzling stretch of text, as it were running in the background of the argument and making it possible in the first place. On this model, I suggest, any human pathos centrally involves a doxa that a state of affairs obtains and that this state of affairs is, somehow, positively evaluatively charged for the person undergoing the affective experience. Having this cognitivist model in view, we can examine how it sheds light on the framing question of the Philebus—what makes someone’s life go best?—and explore its promising therapeutic potential.” 

Prof. Amber D Carpenter (Yale-NUS College): “Ideals and Ethical Formation, or Confessions of a Buddhist Platonist”

Buddhist ethics shares with Plato a rationalist orientation in the weak but crucial sense that a correct view of reality is the final goal, and that seeking and attaining this goal is transformative. This implies a further similarity, namely that the focus of ethical concern is on transformation of view, from which transformation of character (or experience) follows. Choice, deliberation, action, reason happen too far downstream, and too much simply as the result of transformation of view and character, for them to be of much theoretical interest in their own right. Buddhist ethics further shares with Plato a sublime indifference to human beings becoming ‘good things of their kind’. Normativity is not grounded in our nature, nor in a metaphysics of natural kinds. While correctly understanding our human condition may be of vital practical value in appreciating the manifestation of ultimate reality in the everyday, or in motivating our concerted efforts to achieve this understanding, it does not provide a goal to aim at. This is an overlooked reason why ‘virtue ethics’ also fits ill as a classification of Buddhist ethics. It holds us, as does Plato’s ethics, to a much more ambitious ethical ideal than virtue ethics can conceive, and this makes a difference for how seeking that ideal transforms us.

Maria Victoria Salazar (CUNY): “Recalibrating the Demos: Unknowing through Zen Kōans and Platonic Dialogues”
Zen kōans serve a didactic function within the institution of Buddhist schools, with teachers using them to help their pupils reach enlightenment. In this paper, I suggest that Platonic dialogues function similarly to Zen kōans in their inducement of aporia. Thus, reading and understanding the role Zen kōans are intended to play within Buddhist schools illuminates the role of aporia in Western philosophy. Using Plato’s Seventh Letter as a guide for reading Platonic dialogues, I analyze the form of Platonic dialogues generally and highlight how the commentarial traditions engage dialectically with the original texts. Second, I compare and contrast the form and function of Zen kōans and Platonic dialogues, taking the authority of the master and philosopher and their orientation towards truth as the driving force in both. I focus on a kōan written, ostensibly, by Qingyuan Weixin in the 13th century and Plato’s Republic. I then show how, when stripped of content, the engagement with Zen kōans can be understood in terms of the catuskoti. I suggest how this might also be the case for Platonic dialogues.

Prof. Christopher Gill (University of Exeter): “Stoic therapy of emotions and modern cognitive psychotherapy”

It is well-known that Stoic ideas about ethical guidance and the therapy of emotion influenced the formation of modern cognitive therapy. This paper outlines those links and also explores how far the two practices are parallel in their aims and methods with special reference to Epictetus’ ‘Discourses’ and ACT therapy. Bearing in mind the broader theme of the conference, on the intellectual challenge of philosophy (and its significance for practice), I ask how far the distinctive theoretical commitments of Stoic ‘therapy’ render it different in its objectives and procedure from modern cognitive psychotherapy.

Elisabeth Huh (University of Oxford): “Unifying The Eating-Disordered Soul: Treating Anorexia Nervosa Through Ancient Greek Ethics and Psychoanalysis.”

A growing number of philosophers are recognizing the value of psychoanalysis in enriching our understanding of rational psychic integration—a central task within the Platonic-Aristotelian ethical tradition. Here, I join their ranks by proposing that ancient Greek ethical concepts and Freudian psychoanalytic insights may be jointly applied to conceptualize the psychiatric illness anorexia nervosa as an ethical disorder, and to suggest a means of treating it as such.

Drawing from the Stoic theory of the emotions, as well as Aristotelian virtue ethics, I identify the anorexic’s characteristic fear of gaining weight and pleasure at losing weight as symptoms of an excessively rigid understanding of virtue and vice—one constitutive of a false conception of eudaemonia. After describing strengths and weaknesses of this particular characterization of the disorder, I argue that Freudian psychodynamic theory enriches this psycho-ethical portrait by illuminating how unconscious wishes mediate communication between the rational and non-rational parts of the soul. These psychodynamic relations yield a disordered understanding of eudaemonia that is maintained, reinforced, and shielded from self-conscious criticism through a kind of ‘ersatz reason’, or a logical structure masquerading as reason. 

I conclude by suggesting psychoanalytic talk-therapy may function as a kind of Socratic dialogue that helps anorexics perceive and give voice to their true unconscious fears and basic desires—such as love, success, respect, and self-esteem. In so doing, psychoanalysis may help anorexics achieve a central task Aristotle attributes to ethical life: training the non-rational soul to ‘speak with the same voice’ as the rational soul.

Prof. Graham Parkes (Institute of Philosophy, University of Vienna): “Being-Here: There’s No App for That”

The purpose of many computer products in the area of information and communications technology is to capture the user’s attention, distract it from the actual place where the user is situated, and export it to some virtual space where advertisers practise their persuasion. The enterprise has been enormously successful, though the effects on users aren’t always benign (anxiety, depression, etc). Philosophically, the more insidious effects are on how we think and who we think we are, encouraging calculative thinking and a post-Cartesian self-image of ourselves as disembodied minds only contingently situated in physical places. The implications for education deserve careful consideration.

Adrian Kreutz (University of St Andrews): “The Soteriology of Contradiction”

Contradictions (and, arguably, the acceptance thereof) pervade Buddhist Philosophy. What is the point of those contradictions? In this talk, I shall argue that contradictions are an important soteriological instrument (upāya) for the practitioner. The enigmatic catuṣkoṭi, a statement to the effect that every proposition holds, does not hold, both holds and does not holds, and neither holds nor does not hold, is noteworthy in this context. In Western research, the catuṣkoṭi has been responsible for plenty furore. Recently, Graham Priest (2010, 2018) has put forward an interpretation of the catuṣkoṭi in non-classical logic. With resource to this technical apparatus, we can uncover the family resemblance of the Kōan practice of the Zen tradition with the catuṣkoṭi. The Kōan, as I shall argue, may be considered an abbreviated catuṣkoṭi. It is generally accepted that the Kōan is a soteriological instrument on the journey towards enlightenment (satori). Thus, given their resemblance, I argue by induction that the catuṣkoṭi is more than a purely logical instrument, applied to refute philosophical enemies – it, too, has soteriological importance.

Prof. Livia Kohn (Department of Religion, Boston University): “The Daoist Dimensions of Tai Chi”

Tai Chi is a popular method of self-cultivation and health enhancement that goes back to a 17th-century combination of martial arts and healing exercises (daoyin). The latter are first documented in the 3rd century BCE and today activated, under biomedical auspices, in the practice of qigong. To facilitate the smooth movements of Tai Chi, teachers emphasize certain key ideals, such as overall freedom from tension or relaxation, an upright posture, natural breathing, a sense of centrality, weight separation, mental focus, and an awareness of the body (and nature) as one unity. These concepts relate directly to certain core Daoist values, most importantly, oneness or the holographic nature of the universe, continuous change and constant motion, naturalness (spontaneity), nonaction or pervasive fluidity,  as well as authenticity, integrity, simplicity, and sufficiency. This presentation will outline the historical development of Tai Chi and its major characteristics, then describe how its practice embodies key aspects of Daoist philosophy, cosmology, and ethics.

Dr Barbara Jikai Gabrys, (Zen Master in the Hakuin-Inzan line of the Rinzai tradition; University of Oxford): “Zen and Science: The Search for Meaning”

There is an apparent contradiction between Zen way of life and scientific studies of nature. However, on the fundamental level they have in common search for reality: through critical examination of facts, acceptance of impermanence of things and phenomena, and non-reliance on scriptures. Implementing and understanding common ground in both outlooks can lead to finding the meaning of human existence, personal flourishing and happiness.