Forty-seven years after its first meeting, the Society for Asian and Comparative Philosophy continues to play an important role in creating avenues of philosophical dialogue between cultural traditions. In the past six years, during the presidencies of Peimin Ni, Roger T. Ames and myself, the Society has begun to expand to more national and international venues, established sessions at a broader range of professional meetings, introduced our Society to potential new members through social media, structured its conferences so as to put Asian traditions of thought into dialogue with one another as well as comparatively with western traditions, and attempted to integrate wider varieties of traditions into its conferences. In order to flourish, expand the membership and hopefully establish the Society as a truly global one, it is hoped these trends will continue and be strengthened in the coming years.
Though the 47th annual meeting will be returning in 2015 to Monterey, California, a long-beloved site for the membership, the last several years have seen the main yearly conferences migrate consistently and fruitfully. The Society convened at the University of Hawai’i in 2011, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale in 2012 and SUNY Binghamton in 2014. Certainly moving the conference to different locations in the United States enabled new members, both faculty and graduate students from different regions, to participate in the Society more easily. Most promising from the perspective of this president was the meeting of 2013, which was hosted by National University of Singapore. That meeting not only attracted the largest number of participation in the past four years, but featured two keynote speakers and presenters not merely from a number of countries in Asia but also a few from Africa and Qatar. Mention has been made in the past several years of other possible international venues, such as Delhi, Kyoto and Shijiazhuang, China. It is hoped that the practice of adopting new venues both within and beyond the borders of the U.S. will continue so that the Society can become not just a community of predominantly North American-based scholars but a global one.
The Society has continued to hold sessions at regional meetings of the American Philosophical Association and the American Academy of Religion, thanks to the hard work of our regional program chairs and the enthusiastic participation of both loyal and new members. Though previously held sessions at the annual meeting of the Association of Asian Studies have not continued apace, new doors have opened. With the initiative of our own members and the outreach of other groups, the SACP now holds panels at the annual conferences of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy and the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy. The sessions held at these meetings have not merely been thematic ones covering broad ranges of philosophical issues, but have begun to address themselves to the challenges of incorporating Asian philosophical traditions into the instruction of more general courses on philosophy in departments around the country. As all who work in our field are well aware, one of the great challenges of teaching Asian thought in the West has been confronting the exclusivist prejudices of various Anglo-American and European philosophical movements. And so, a broader participation of the Society in such meetings will hopefully bode well for the future of the discipline in North America. Perhaps including a site in Europe for an annual conference or the recruitment of a program who could sponsor annual panel sessions in Europe could become a goal of future Boards.
The Society has employed good webpage managers in the past several years, and our present one has streamlined the main announcement pages of our regular website and cleaned up the member database to a considerable degree. We have also figured out a convenient way for members to pay conference fees online, which makes things more convenient for them and the organizers. In the past several months, the Society has set up a Facebook page, which displays meeting announcements and cfp information, as well as conference programs and sometimes photos from the meetings. In the short time since it was set up, our Facebook page has drawn close to five hundred “likes.” Since Facebook is especially designed to disseminate “like” information among people rather quickly, I believe the Society’s presence on this site will bring it new participants in the future. There does seem to be an appreciably high percentage of the page’s “likes” that live outside the U.S., which only highlights the promise of more international venues in the future.
Since I joined the SACP Board in 2009, and especially during my terms as VP and President when I have organized the conference programs for our annual meetings, I have tried to adopt a novel approach to panel composition. Instead of constructing panels restricted to one thinker, school, cultural tradition or debate within one tradition, I have striven to create thematic panels that allowed scholars representing South and East Asian heritages of thought to present and dialogue together. Depending on the range of proposals we receive from year to year, this has not always been comprehensively possible, and in the present year’s meeting, some area state-of-the-field panels have been arranged given the conference theme. But I have preferred the new thematic and cross-cultural organizational scheme whenever opportunities present themselves. I have done this out of a conviction that, for far too long and to far too great a degree, individual thinkers or schools from South and East Asian thought have been paired off in “dialogue” with western traditions. Most fruitful possibilities for intra-Asian philosophical engagement abound with so many scholars representing disparate areas in Asian thought present at the meetings, so I have wanted to take advantage of those opportunities. Obviously, the Society, by its very nature, remains fully open to engagement from western traditions. But again, I have preferred to include western thinkers and ideas as a partner in conversation with multiple Asian traditions who are at the same time in conversation with one another, so that western traditions are not the hegemonic center that other traditions must, as it were, “answer to.” It is my hope that in the future, at least to some measure, this organizational practice might continue.
Happily, the number of traditions represented in meetings of the Society has begun slowly to increase. Along with ongoing sessions devoted to familiar themes in Chinese, Japanese and Indian thought, recent meetings have been graced with presentations on Sri Lankan, Vietnamese, Korean, African and Islamic ideas and traditions of practice as well. At this year’s annual meeting, a new online journal will be introduced to the participants named Confluences, which aims to actively promote such broadened intercultural dialogue, and ideally the collaborations between this journal and the Society in the future will enrich both. It is hoped that future participants and Boards will enhance the philosophical pluralism that annual and regional Association meetings will feature, since “Asian and Comparative Philosophy” does not describe merely an interaction of Asian traditions with the West or one another, but with the whole host of historical and living traditions of thought. This same principle, furthermore, applies to the range of Asian traditions themselves represented in our meetings. In western academies, the study of Asian traditions of thought has tended to follow larger economic and political turns of the tide, with Indian and Japanese philosophies garnering a great deal of attention from the 1960’s to the 1980’s and Chinese traditions from the 1990’s till the present. These changing fortunes of western interests in Asia affect the Society; during my tenure on the Board in the past six years, the vast majority, on one occasion amounting to as much as two-thirds, of abstract submissions to annual meetings have come from various areas in Chinese thought. Such trends can leave other traditions previously well represented in the Society, or those that have not yet gained much of a foothold in it, out in the cold. The present Board has attempted to remedy these imbalances to some degree and with some success, for instance through inclusion of the various traditions and new journals mentioned above as well as through making one of the plenary panels for the 2015 meeting on the philosophy of a modern Korean Buddhist nun. Perhaps additional steps to actively solicit participation from a broad vista of various traditions, to bring the conference to a greater variety of national and international venues and to maintain the presence of the Society on social media will aid in this endeavor in the coming years.
Our Society is nearing its half-century anniversary. It has fulfilled a pivotal role in the field of Asian and cross-cultural studies, bringing scholars from many parts of the world, specializing in numerous cultural traditions and a myriad of disciplines together to promote a more genuine and far-reaching philosophical pluralism. Its meetings have in my experience been characterized by an extraordinary abundance of civil discussion among philosophers, who are always there not only to present their own work but also to learn from and collegially interact with others. This environment, coupled with the maintaining of our yearly Student Essay Prizes, has also made the Society a comfortable environment for graduate students to fully participate, giving them the opportunity to present their budding research, receive feedback from and converse directly with active and major scholars in their chosen fields. These qualities of the Society’s activities have enabled it to retain the loyalty of literally hundreds of members over the past four decades as well as draw new members annually. It is hoped that these strong foundations and traditions of the Society will empower it to expand and become more relevant in global philosophical circles in the coming half-century.
It has been a great privilege to work on the SACP’s Board for the past six years and to serve the field as its president during my term. Doing so has been for me the wellspring of much learning, extensive and rewarding collaboration and cherished friendships. No Society can function, much less be as successful as the SACP has been, without the devoted work, contributions and wisdom of its elected Board members and regional meeting program chairs. I can only hope that future leaders of the Society will in this regard be as lucky as I have been. I would like to warmly thank all of the following people with whom I have served on Boards as well as the Society’s past and present regional program directors and web designers; Joseph Prabhu, Peimin Ni, Roger Ames, Sor-Hoon Tan, Al Albergate, Mary Bockover, Michael Barnhart, Franklin Perkins, Geoffrey Ashton, Ram-Prasad Chakravarthi, Karsten Struhl, Rajam Raghunathan, Gereon Kopf, Michiko Yusa, Ronnie Littlejohn, Brian Bruya, Jim Behuniak, Leah Kalmanson, Bina Gupta, Amod Lele, Kevin Taylor, Tim Helton and Jay Hammon. I wish incoming Society president Robin R. Wang as well as the Society’s continuing and incoming Board members the very best in what I’m certain will be their sure and innovative leadership.
Douglas L. Berger
President, Society of Asian and Comparative Philosophy
Chief Editor, Dimensions of Asian Spirituality Book Series, U. of Hawai’i Press
Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy, SIU Carbondale