Saudi Arabia

Global academics and young people bring first Riyadh Philosophy Conference to a close

Global academics and young people bring first Riyadh Philosophy Conference to a close

The inaugural Riyadh Philosophy Conference closed today after three days in which leading philosophers from around the world have gathered under the theme of ‘unpredictability’ to address the important role philosophy has in addressing the challenges of our times. 

The conference was a global event, with leading speakers from Saudi Arabia joined by colleagues from Algeria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Lebanon, Mexico, South Africa, Sweden, Turkey, the UK and the US.

They addressed and debated with an audience of thousands both in-person at the iconic King Fahad National Library and online. The audience enjoyed talks and workshops on topics as diverse as ‘Homo Detritus and the Vastness of Time’, with Nicolas de Warren of Pennsylvania State University, and ‘Transmitting Philosophy: Inventing New Educational Paradigms for a Mutating World’ discussed by Edwige Chirouter, from the University of Nantes and UNESCO Chair of Philosophy for Children, philosopher and author Christopher Phillips, and Dalia Toonsi, Founder of the Baseera Educational Consultancy which hosted the Children’s Philosophy Space and ran a series of workshops for children during the family-friendly event.

Highlights from Day Three included an interactive session by Harvard University’s Michael Sandel, described by Newsweek magazine as “a rock star moralist” and by the Times Literary Supplement as “the most important and influential living philosopher.” Sandel, who is famed for his Harvard lectures being viewed tens of millions of times, and for his ‘Public Philosopher’ and ‘Global Philosopher’ programmes for the BBC, posed a moral dilemma for five Saudi students on stage to answer: whether they “felt it was wrong for rich countries to provide booster shots of the Covid vaccine to their citizens rather than donate extra doses to poor countries.”

The students explored different aspects of the question and Sandel elicited a range of perspectives. Abdulaziz Al-Aqeel a Law Student at King Saud University said that “by helping ourselves we’re helping the world. I believe that this moral obligation actually leads us to helping the world first, for the world to help us avoid this virus.”

On the issue of vaccine mandates, AlGhalya Muamar, an English Literature Student at King Saud University noted that “you’re talking about responsibility to a greater community, a responsibility to the country itself and even the world, as once you’re vaccinated, you’re safe, your community is safe, your country is safe and therefore you’re helping the world and your inner circle.”

Sandel concluded that “the very fact that we can reason together and argue together and try to persuade one another when our moral principles seem to clash, suggests that philosophy is possible, that it’s not simply an assertion of tastes. That, I think, is what these discussions reflect, which is why philosophy keeps on going even after centuries. Philosophers and thinkers have come to articulate principles about right and wrong, about how to live, about how to oraganize our life together, about what justice means. It hasn’t ended, because there is an open-ended character to philosophy, but not so open-ended that it’s simply registering personal tastes…Something bigger seems to be at stake.”

Visitors to the conference enjoyed interactive, high-tech visual installations to bring philosophy to life, including a Philosophy Tree, Philosophy Timeline and Unpredictable Wall, through which viewers’ shadows are transformed into the sayings of great philosophers.

Khalid Al Sameti, Director of Literature at the Saudi Ministry of Culture’s Commission for Literature, Publishing and Translation closed the conference by saying: “Thank you for your interaction, thank you for making the unexpected happen with your attendance. Thank you for all the bright minds that joined us across thousands of kilometers and miles to participate. This conference will be repeated over the next few years starting from next week when we will start planning for the next conference.”

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