Ming-Fui Chai '15 Presents at the World Congress of Philosophy
For seven days in early August, more than 5,000 scholars from around the world converged on the University of Athens, in Athens, Greece, for the 23rd World Congress of Philosophy. The opening ceremony was held inside the Acropolis, special sessions took place at archaeological sites where Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s school once stood, and among the notable speakers was Italian philosopher/novelist Umberto Eco.
Also on hand in Athens was Haverford philosophy major Ming-Fui Chai ’15, who presented a paper at the Congress on John Locke’s doctrine of personal identity in his 1689 work An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.
Chai, who wrote the paper (titled “Rationality and Identity: It’s more personal than you think”) for Assistant Professor of Philosophy Joel Yurdin’s Early Modern British Philosophy course during his sophomore year, was not the only undergraduate presenter at the Congress, but he was one of the few to be included in a section for professionals. “The philosophy department is very proud of Ming-Fui’s accomplishment,” says Yurdin, who encouraged his student to submit the paper. Also a major support for Chai was Professor of Philosophy Kathleen Wright, who ran through his presentation with him and gave him useful tips before the Congress.
“The limit for student papers was 1,000 words, and mine was 4,000,” says Chai, who was born in Michigan and grew up in Singapore speaking both Chinese and English. “So I asked if I could send it to the professional section, and the Congress organizers said, ‘Yes, but you still have to summarize it in 2,000 words and you have 20 minutes to present it.”
The experience was a valuable one, says Chai, who carefully rehearsed his talk and came armed with handouts for his audience, which numbered about 30. “It really taught me to be succinct,” he says. “And it gave me confidence because it showed I could present in front of a very diverse audience. Some have been doing philosophy for 40 years. Some came from countries where English is not the first language. You have to be simple and clear in the delivery. And the most important thing is to solicit feedback that can help you advance your paper.”
Indeed, the Congress also gave Chai some high-level practice in networking. “One of the great things about it was that some of the of the most famous living philosophers in the world attended. If you are brave enough to go up and say, ‘Hi, my name is … I am really excited to see you here,’ a lot of them are very friendly and accessible.”
That’s how he got to meet Jürgen Habermas, the 84-year-old German scholar who is considered one the most influential living philosophers in the world today. “I met him at a bus stop and I talked to him for 15 minutes,” says Chai. “We talked about life and philosophy and how he managed to come to the conference. He knows [Haverford] Professor Mark Gould from the department of sociology, and he asked me to send him his regards.”
Funding for Chai’s trip to Athens came through the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship, a national program—open to 40 of the country’s top colleges and universities—that seeks to remedy the serious shortage of faculty of color in academia. Chai was one of three Haverford students selected as a Mellon Mays Fellow this year, and he is thrilled with the mentoring and financial support the program provides. “My family is very heavily dependent on Haverford for financial aid, which we are very grateful for,” he says, “but there was no way I could have gone to this conference without the Fellowship funding.”
The Mellon Mays program also provides fellows with monthly stipends during the school year and research funding during the summer. Chai recently used that funding to help Professor Wright translate the works of 20th century Taiwanese philosopher Mou Zongsan, who used Kant’s philosophy to develop a modern Confucian concept of the autonomous individual.
“I am kind of a special case,” he says about his selection for the program, which comes at the end of a student’s sophomore year. “Though Asians are very well represented in the sciences and math in academia, they are severely underrepresented in the humanities—even in the social sciences. When I said, ‘I want to be a philosopher,’ I think that was a breath of fresh air for the selection committee.”
Besides the conference in Athens, the budding philosopher’s summer provided other opportunities for enrichment. He spent much of it interning with the Office of International Business Development, a Pennsylvania state agency in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Chai’s work there was supported by Haverford’s John C. Whitehead ’43 Fund in Entrepreneurial Studies, which aids students who want to spend the summer interning in the business and finance worlds.
“I spent 40 percent of my time outside the office, meeting foreign companies and delegations in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh,” he says. “It was very interesting to see how business negotiations were conducted, and it really got me thinking about how I can apply what I learn in academia to the business world. I see business and community development as going hand-in-hand. Attracting more investment into Pennsylvania can bring more jobs and economic development for the local communities. But in order to achieve sustainable growth for all, we need people to think through our policies more critically and creatively. Philosophy provides me with excellent training in that.”
But first there is that philosophy paper, which Chai aims to further develop. Among the suggestions he received from the audience after his presentation in Athens: study the work of philosophers David Hume and Friedrich Nietzsche on personal identity, and take a look at some of the latest developments in neuroscience. “This has encouraged me to think about taking an interdisciplinary approach for my senior thesis,” says Chai, who will be spending his junior year abroad at Oxford University and has plans to continue there his exploration of philosophical concepts of personal identity. “This is a topic I am passionate about,” he says.