An expanding mind
Passionate philosophy professor wants to better UB's department
Dr. Kah Kyung Cho can speak four languages and has scholastic experience in three countries across three continents, and he wants to change the nature of philosophical study at UB.
Cho, a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of philosophy, started teaching at UB in 1970 and has been teaching undergraduate students ever since. After beginning his journey in the field of philosophy at Heidelberg University in Germany, Cho returned home to Koreawhere he taught at Seoul National University.Cho then volunteered to come to America as a teacher, expanding his journey of scholasticism across the globe.
Just like philosopher Rene Descartes, a French philosopher known as the father of modern philosophy, Cho believes in the relationship between nature and man.
"Nature is supposed to be used by humans for sustainability and is a cycle," Cho said. "Humans use water to grow trees and then cut the trees down to make wood for a fire to keep warm. We have to treat nature as a pal."
One of Cho's favorite quotes comes from the teachings of Lao Tzu regarding the ideals of phenomenology, the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first person point of view, according to plato.stanford.edu. He interprets it in his own words.
"There is nothing as high as water. Water is the most virtuous. Virtue is an old reference to human morality. Why? Because it benefits all creatures indiscriminately," Cho said. "Saints and sinners are equally treated by water. They are thirsty, they have to wash and water gives itself freely. When they are both done, water retreats to the lowest surface of the ground and makes itself inconspicuous and humble, never claiming any credit for anything it's been doing."
Cho has a passion for discussing these basic philosophical ideas. When asked, he goes into great detail about the differing opinions in research. American philosophy is more focused on analytics and language; it has a much shorter history compared to European philosophy, which has been around for thousands of years, according to Cho.
At the end of the Fulbright program - the international educational exchange program that brought Cho to America - Cho was mandated to return to Korea to teach for two years. Dr. Marvin Farbar, UB's forerunner of philosophy and phenomenological research at the time, sought to find a way for Cho to continue his research at the university.
In the Fulbright program, Korea and the local government had a contract, according to Cho. The contract stated if he taught in America, he would have to teach twice that amount of time back in Korea.
Since Cho had stayed two years in the United States, he would be released from teaching in Korea after four years. Farbar was adamant Cho stay in America because Farbar was thinking about retiring and wanted Cho to continue his research, according to Cho.
"I told Dr. Farbar that I had to go back to Seoul National University to complete my program, but he convinced me to stay at UB and follow in his footsteps," Cho said.
Farbar passed away in 1980 and Cho was there to pick up where he left off.
Because of Cho's many travels and experiences within the art of philosophy, he can speak and write in four different languages: English, Korean, Japanese and German. He thus has the ability to project all of his scholarly research to a much broader audience.
Travel has also made Cho more versatile in his teaching and research, he said.
"I grew up bilingual from the beginning," Cho said. "Having a second language will make you more adaptable. I speak in German. I give lectures in German. I write in German."
Cho believes there is a lack of scholastic philosophy foundation in other parts of the world, which makes him more prominent and instrumental in those philosophy departments; he helps places such as Seoul, Korea and China.
Rasmus Larsen, a graduate student in philosophy, believes Cho not only has noble ideals but a specific style of teaching as well.
"He always smiles when you meet him in early office hours," Larsen said. "I feel that you can ask him for anything and still maintain total confidentiality."
Larsen also credits Cho for connecting and linking together philosophy schools around the world.
"He's responsible for building bridges between Asian and Western thought - maybe one of the biggest philosophical challenges that still remains in academia today," Larsen said.
Cho has been instrumental in furthering the research of phenomenology, and he has published works in this field of philosophy in Korean, Japanese, German and English.
"He can walk into a lecture room, sit down, and give a talk without any notes or apparent structure," Larsen said. "Normally, this would end in a massive failure, but for Cho, this is not the case. When the semester comes to an end, you start realizing that you have been inducted indirectly with a much richer and abstract approach to the philosophy he teaches."
At one point in the early 1980s, the UB's philosophy staff once consisted of 41 different academic minds, according to Cho. However, due to a lack of funding, the faculty is down to 22. At its lowest point, the staff was made up of 13.
The low numbers are something Cho believes will slowly start to increase.
Cho has spent countless years studying philosophy - with a focus on phenomenology - and continues to give appreciation to the teachings of some of the world's great philosophers - both old and new.
Cho explained that even though philosophy is growing at UB, it is still hard to find a job with this discipline. A former student of his wrote a dissertation, and it was published; yet, he still could not find a job.
"He taught for three years in Chicago while someone was on a leave of absence and after wrote 12 different colleges, and only two responded," Cho said. "One that was considering him wanted him to teach everything from introduction to philosophy to much higher level courses."
Cho has published many philosophical works such as Phenomenology as an Idea of Bridging Cultural Divide, in 2009 and Phenomenology in Korea,in 2001.
Despite the difficulty in finding steady employment, Cho is optimistic the department will gain back its once vast staff and that UB will be one of the largest magnets for philosophical research.