09/13/2012 05:33 pm ET Updated Nov 13, 2012

The West: Its Legacy and Future

A report on the Telos in Europe conference

An uncannily warm light fills L'Aquila's 13th century Basilica Santa Maria di Collemaggio. As one approaches the altar, it becomes clear the illumination falls in from the open sky. The roof and dome collapsed in L'Aquila's catastrophic 2009 6.3 earthquake. While the church is still undergoing repair, much of the edifice appears intact, newly reinforced by concrete and already restored in many parts. In fact, it attests to the continued vitality of this ancient European city as it slowly rebuilds amid various economic, legal and bureaucratic struggles.

L'Aquila and its historic buildings offer a unique place to debate the problems of Europe and the West, as the latter have also endured their share of continuing crises and efforts to rebuild. From Sept 7-10, 2012, some 50 philosophers, historians, literature scholars, social theorists, European Parliament members gathered to debate the fate of The West: Its Legacy and Future in the inaugural conference in L'Aquila hosted by the Telos Institute and the independent publisher Telos Press, which publishes the eponymous journal of politics and thought.

Telos Press publisher, Mary Piccone, widow of founder Paul Piccone, organized the conference in her late husband's birthplace to debate the concept of the West, while also supporting the city's rebirth. For the participants and the 45 year-old journal, Telos, which is one of the few independent scholarly journals that bridges academic and public discussion, the conference proved as much an opportunity for public discussion as a cultural encounter with one of Europe's most beautiful landscapes and cuisines -- Ms. Piccone, who also goes by the name, Maria Filice, is the author of a cookbook, Breaking Bread in L'Aquila, the proceeds of which have been supporting the city's relief fund.

At a time when Europe's future seems uncertain, threatened as it is by the seemingly intractable crisis of the Euro, and the very idea of the "West" as a distinct cultural tradition has become highly contested, conference participants were eager to explore competing interpretations of the European legacy and to chart potential futures. Without a doubt, the legacy of European colonialism remained ever present, as did questions about multiculturalism.

Panels included discussions on the origins and prospects of the West, on its internal divisions and differences, and the profound problems of liberty, equality and security, especially with respect to last summer's tragedy in Norway: two separate contributors discussed the murderer and right-wing terrorist Anders Breivik, whose conviction was only recently announced.

Jens-Martin Eriksen and Frederik Stjernfelt, authors of the provocative study of multiculturalism, The Democratic Contradictions Of Multiculturalism, newly published in English by Telos Press also presented: Eriksen on the book's thesis and discussing Breivik's manifesto and Stjernfelt on "The Plurality of Western Values." Read an interview with the authors in the Huffington Post books section here.

A plenary panel on the fate of the European Union highlighted the urgency of conference theme. Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo, who is also a member of the European Parliament, spoke on the conceptual and political struggles of the EU. Responding to Vattimo's talk, a panel including Simon Glendinning, Adrian Pabst, Richard Sakwa, and Wodek Szemberg , as well as Leonidas Donskis from Lithuania, also a member of the European Parliament, attempted to sort through the various challenges, especially Europe's debt crisis, which continues to threaten the Europe's hopes for cultural and political unity.

As participants debated the future of the idea of the West and of Europe in particular, David Pan from the University of California at Irvine and a long associate of Telos, asked provocatively, "Why is anyone defending the EU in the first place?"

Adrian Pabst from the University of Kent provided a stalwart answer: the EU represents the democratic ideals of the West: namely the protection of citizens, the promise of education, rule of law and equality before the law, public debate and international cooperation -- in sum, the very same ideals Pericles proffered the Athenians and European liberals continue to defend today. NYU Professor Marcia Pally argued that whether or not the EU lives up to these ideals in practice, it should be assessed as a work in progress, and that from the perspective of history, most political unions encounter growing pains or worse, for example the near collapse of the United States in its first century.

In addition to the problem of unity, European or otherwise, participants also explored identity itself as continually in development and not necessarily in contradiction to difference and diversity. Papers from Simon Glendinning, from the London School of Economics, and Chantal Bax, of the University of Amsterdam took the discussion in such directions as well.

On the last day of the conference, participants joined Mary Piccone in the Basilica for a mass in honor of her late husband, who had spent his childhood in L'Aquila, before his family emigrated to Rochester, N.Y.. The scene which transpired there, with longtime and newer Telos editorial board members, new contributors from all over the world and even graduate students who are now writing dissertations on the history of the journal, would have suited Paul Piccone just fine -- an intellectual community steeped in multiple and distinct traditions, engaged in debates old and new about the West.