Meeting of the Minds

Some of the best philosophers on the planet will be in town this month. You’re invited to sit in, and it’s free.


Gregg Sinclair (far left) awarding honorary degrees to (left to right) D.J. Suzuki,
S. Radha Krishnan and Hu Shin at the 1959 conference.

The last time most of us knowingly encountered a philosopher was on a required reading list. But every day we ask ourselves the same questions a philosopher might ask. We want to know what’s really important, how to make ourselves and others happy, what to teach our children.

Here’s a rare chance to consider that last question in the company of some of the sharpest minds on the planet.

Every five years, the East-West Philosophers’ Conference convenes in Honolulu to discuss an issue selected for its importance to contemporary society. This year’s conference focuses on education. “Educations and Their Purposes,” which runs May 29-June 10, will step back from pragmatic points of policy such as classroom size and teachers’ pay, to ask some basic questions: What is education for? What kinds of knowledge should be taught? By whom? And how?

True to the conference’s international nature, the definition of education will be broad, with sessions planned on traditional dance, music and morals, and the wisdom passed on through proverbs. There will be scholarly panels on multiculturalism and colonialism and a special session on the effect of astronomy on human culture.

Most importantly, the conference is designed for, and open to, the public, for free. “If there’s a chair, anybody is welcome to put their bum on it,” says Roger Ames, the conference’s organizer. “This is an open invitation to hang out with a whole bunch of people who have real expertise, and to think about and talk with them about issues that concern everybody.”

The conference will draw prominent philosophers and educators from all over the globe. They bring with them not only the most current modes of European thought, but also North American, Asian and African approaches to education. An international cross-pollination always produces startling and unexpected perspectives—and one on this scale is a sure way to start thinking outside the box.

Ames hopes that people from all walks of life, especially those who work in or are concerned about education, will show up to hear these new ideas, as they have at this conference for decades.

The East-West Conference has grown from small beginnings—just six philosophers attended the first in 1939—into one of the world’s major public forums for international philosophy. In 1964, a crowd overflowed the 4,000-seat Andrews Amphitheatre to hear D.T. Suzuki, the sage who introduced America to Zen Buddhism. After a hiatus in the ’70s, the conferences resumed in 1980.

This year’s event, funded by Warren Luke and the Ching family, among other local benefactors, will attract more than 200 featured panelists and participants from around the world, including Richard Rorty, a star of American pragmatic philosophy, whose work has been translated into 22 languages.

“We’re not just bringing in big shots from the outside,” says Ames. There is also a strong homegrown component that he expects to shine. “There’s a renaissance in Hawaiian studies that can lead the way for indigenous peoples everywhere. Hawaiians should be proud of what’s going on here.”

Then he adds: “We’re talking about solving the problems of our community. Education is where everything starts.”

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Honolulu Magazine May 2020
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