The United Nations Educational and Scientific Organization (UNESCO), headquartered in Paris, has been celebrating World Philosophy Day every year in November since 2002. Today is the special occasion, and on the special focus is “Philosophy, Cultural Diversity and Rapprochement of Cultures” with special attention to Asia, Latin America, and Africa.
This is an interesting topic, considering the controversy behind UNESCO’s World Philosophy Day. While I strongly believe that UNESCO deserves special praise for honoring this ancient field of study, I understand why it may not seem relevant to a mining worker in Bolivia, to a teenager flipping burgers in a fast food joint in Detroit, to an immigrant maid in a hotel in Dubai. For the vast majority of people, feeding, clothing, and sheltering themselves and their families is and ought be first priority as the instinct of survival dictates. And in the age of runaway materialism when the only golden rule that matters is the one imposed on the rest by those who own the “gold” and the institutional power to protect their gold, it is understandable that the masses are immersed in cynicism about this ancient noble profession conveniently and opportunistically used by some among the educated elites to justify unjust government and institutions, to justify war and exploi tation.
UNESCO’s World Philosophy Day was not free of political controversy this year. In 2008, UNESCO accepted Iran’s proposal for Tehran to host this year’s World Philosophy Day. Despite tremendous opposition from various quarters in the past few months, UNESCO stuck to its decision until last week, when officials announced to abstain from any event in Tehran. Well-known scholars like Otfried Hoffe, a specialist on Kantian philosophy, decided against attending the conference for political reasons, joining others who politicized the event. Joined by scholars from various parts of the world, Iranian philosophers Mohammadreza Nikfar and Ramin Jahanbegloo and other Iranian-born scholars called for boycotting Tehran as the host, arguing that Iran has exiled philosophers or isolated them thus proving it has no respect for basic human rights and academic freedom.
In April 2006, Ramin Jahanbegloo was arrested in Tehran on a charge of fomenting a “velvet revolution” and he spent four months in jail. Currently a professor at the University of Toronto, Ramin Jahanbegloo has been accused of links to the CIA and Israeli security agency Mossad, but hard evidence proving his ties to those agencies is not available. Similarly it is difficult to prove the political hand of US, Israel and other countries behind UNESCO’s decision.
That philosophy is subject to politics and a reflection of political trends is as old as Socrates’ trial by the Athenian establishment. When Socrates was put to death for non-conformity, with him was poisoned Athenian democracy and the idea that it was a “free and open” society, as Pericles praised it at the start of the Peloponnesian Wars. While Iran is hardly an open society in comparison with Norway, let us say, the “democratic societies” to which UNESCO yielded when it chose not to hold World Philosophy Day in Tehran are hypocritical about their commitment to pluralism and openness–central topics of the various UNESCO conferences. Is it any wonder that people throughout much of the world are cynical about all elites, from academics, including philosophers driven by political agendas, to “democratic” institutions proclaiming equality and justice for all and delivering inequality and injustice for most?
UNESCO topics include: “Women philosophers and political correctness,” “Al-Fârâbi: enlightened bridge-building among different cultures,” “Rethinking intellectual, cultural and political issues relating to the notion of civilization,” “10th International Meeting on New Philosophical Practices,” “The reason and its struggles: Enlightenment, modern rationalism and revolution, yesterday and today,” “Questions on the universal and diversity,” “The work of Mohammed Iqbal, a proposal for human achievement,” “Rethinking the human condition–homage to Gustave Guillaume and Jean Piaget,” “Philosophy of education and philosophy teaching. From knowledge transmission to building competencies,” “Intercultural Vademecum,” “Scientific, philosophical, literary and artistic itineraries between the Arab-Muslim and Western worlds (from the seventh to the nineteenth centuries),” “Arab-Muslim civilization in the mirror of the universal: philosophical perspectives.”