Philosophy at UNESCO: Past and Present

Since its creation, UNESCO had used philosophy to implement the ideals that inspired its Constitution. These ideals come from the renewal of philosophical tradition.

In 1942, when the outcome of World War II was by no means certain, the allied Ministers for Education got together to found an organization that, through moral and intellectual means, would help build a world free from hatred, fanaticism and obscurantism.

During the new Organization’s first conference (London, 1945), Leon Blum, its Vice-President, pointed out that this war had essentially been “ideological” and had shown how education, culture and science could be used against mankind’s common interests. It was no longer enough to develop and improve them: they needed to be in the spirit of “ideology”, democracy and progress, which are the logical conditions and psychological bases for international peace and solidarity.

The Preamble of UNESCO’s Constitution, which was adopted on 16 November 1945, reasserts that it was “a war made possible by the denial of the democratic principles of the dignity, equality and mutual respect of men” but blamed ignorance and prejudice for the conflict, and not the decline of education, culture and science.

So, how should the first clause of the Preamble, “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed”, be understood? To achieve this, it is necessary to develop contacts and exchanges so that mutual knowledge and understanding can progress and open the way for the moral and intellectual solidarity of the human race, which is the only way to ensure lasting and real peace.

This may be where the utopian spirit that inspired the founders of UNESCO is to be found.

A moral and political task

The state of philosophy required effective action from UNESCO. The war had interrupted contacts between philosophers of different countries, universities and their students were facing the void, and publications had stopped circulating.

But, above all, philosophical concepts had been hijacked and appropriated for propaganda purposes by the totalitarian states; and, even in the democratic nations, the principles of human dignity had been pushed into the background, supplanted by the need for efficiency.

As a result, UNESCO tried to spread, implement, and even popularize an international philosophical culture, which was meant to reinforce respect for the human person, love of peace, hatred of narrow-minded nationalism and of the reign of strength, solidarity and commitment to an ideal of culture.

UNESCO decided to make the values of its moral and political philosophy available to everyone, but also to encourage the progress of philosophical studies themselves. Its two main goals are therefore:

  • To set up international instruments to help the progress of philosophical studies
  • To make philosophy work for the international education of nations

The founders of UNESCO did not limit philosophy to the speculative field of pure metaphysics, normative and theoretical ethics and individual psychology, but saw it as reaching out to the borders not only of human knowledge but also of all human activity.

Its scope is therefore similar to that of UNESCO. As a result, UNESCO’s action is to:

  • Encourage international philosophical studies by supporting, stimulating and coordinating the activities of philosophical associations, universities and publishers, by provoking or encouraging meetings between philosophers from different countries, by establishing direct contacts between philosophers, by publishing or encouraging international publications (bibliographies, files, manuscripts, translations, magazines, Index Translationum, glossaries of equivalent terms), by encouraging international exchanges of professors and students, and finally by partly internationalizing universities and by specializing them in a specific branch of philosophy.
  • Ensure that philosophy plays a role in the awakening of public opinion by going deeper into the concepts that are at the root of human rights – especially the rights of the individual in the modern world – by examining the present state of civilization and the uncertainties of modern conscience, and of course the possible solutions, by disseminating publications on these topics and by taking part in the training of primary school teachers.

Patrice Vermeren’s book, La philosophie saisie par l’UNESCO, traces a complete history of philosophy at UNESCO.

To download the complete document (PDF in French)

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