What Our Practice of Philosophy Talks Says about Philosophy


“The main thing is to be aware of how many of the students have only a very narrow background, and the pre-talk is a good opportunity for you to bring them up to speed on the existing literature,” [said a colleague].

“I don’t know any of the existing literature for this talk,” said the visitor, without a hint of embarrassment.

My colleagues earnestly continued to offer advice, not batting an eyelid at this remarkable statement.

This is the wrong response. The visitor had just admitted that he is not competent to give an academic presentation on this topic. He should decline the invitation to speak…

But we tolerate behaviour, such as the visitor’s behaviour described above, that makes a mockery of our aspirations to be a discipline. Can you imagine any other discipline in a university where someone might agree to give a presentation on their research, while happily admitting that they knew none of the existing literature on the topic?

So writes Toby Handfield, associate professor of philosophy at Monash University, in a post at his blog. He thinks that it is not uncommon for talks to evidence “a complete failure engage with the existing literature on a topic” and that this illustrates two tendencies in philosophy which diminish its status as a proper academic discipline:

First, philosophy is “an elaborate parlour game” in which the aim is for clever players to demonstrate their intellect or ingenuity rather than contribute to “an ongoing collective enterprise of accumulating knowledge.” This plays into existing skepticism about whether philosophy makes progress (and if so, what kind), but even if we’re uncertain on that, Handfield asks, “why are we offering prestigious invitations to speak to people who behave as though they have no real contribution to make?”

Second, generally, the aim of philosophy talks appears to be to benefit the speaker, not the audience. The audience will ask questions and raise objections that will improve later versions of the presented work, themselves not learning much about the subject, while the occurrence of the talk enhances “the prestige of the speaker”, reinforcing or raising his or her status. Of this, Handfield says, “I can’t say this is the wrong norm—but it seems to me that it is a terribly inefficient way to help our fellow colleagues. To get feedback on a manuscript, send it to experts in your field. That is the optimal audience for work that is still in development.”

You can read the whole post here.

Philosophy probably has more talks of this kind—call them “unresearched talks”—than other disciplines, but I don’t think they are all that common. I would imagine that unresearched talks are more common the less prestigious the event; such talks are more likely to occur as part of workshops or ordinary conference sessions, rather than in higher-visibility invited slots, plenary talks, and named or otherwise honoring lectures. One upshot of this is that Handfield’s worry about the status enhancement speakers get for giving unresearched talks may apply to fewer cases than he thinks.

It’s also good to be careful when accusing people of being ignorant of the relevant literature, as relevance may, at least at the borders, be a judgment call, or may depend very much on the specifics. (In a talk I once made use of a quote from a well-known figure in the history of philosophy to represent a rather common idea. It was clear that it didn’t matter to the success of my argument that he said it or that it was undisputed that he meant by it what I interpreted it to mean. To complain that I was ignorant of most of the literature that discusses the quote, which I was, would have been largely beside the point.)

It might be useful to distinguish between (a) talks in which it is expected that the speaker will benefit more than the audience because the speaker is inadequately prepared, and (b) talks in which it is expected that the speaker will benefit more than the audience even though the speaker is adequately prepared.

Talks of the first types are disrespectful of the participants and wastes their time. They are also potentially embarrassing for the speaker. No one wants to give a talk only to be told in the ensuing discussion that their thesis has been previously advanced (or refuted) by several other philosophers in several obvious places.

Talks of the second type, though perhaps inefficient in the way Handfield identifies, do not seem on balance problematic (except, perhaps, for rather prestigious lectures). Philosophy talks serve multiple purposes.

The improvement of the work is one, and that can be helped along by experts on the subject but also, sometimes, by smart people with other specializations who raise good questions or share helpful ideas informed by their different areas of research.

Another purpose is to benefit of the audience, and of course it is possible to learn from hearing and discussing a paper even when its author is getting more out of the exchange. Sometimes the benefit to the audience isn’t gaining understanding of the talk’s subject, but being spurred to new, unrelated ideas and arguments. Philosophical thoughts can have unexpected origins.

Still another purpose of philosophy talks is to get philosophers to do philosophy together—for various further reasons: networking, esprit de corps, because it is fun, etc.

But perhaps I am downplaying both the frequency of unresearched talks and the significance of their defects. Readers?

Sculpture by Leonard J. Maasdam

 

 

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Lizard
Lizard
4 years ago

Although I don’t have experience of many different universities, there are a lot of departments at mine which are actually quite envious of our research culture. We have regular talks, regular conferences, work-in-progress sessions. Occasionally someone from another department (English, Politics, History maybe) will come along and say they wished their departments had as much of a research culture as ours. Some of them couldn’t remember the last time their department had hosted a talk of any kind.

I guess it’s not all doom and gloom in philosophy. I’d rather have a lot of talks and the occasional bad talk, than hardly any talks at all.
(This comment has only been partially researched, contributions welcome)Report

arnold
arnold
4 years ago

All of academia (humanity) has always been asking–where did we come from where are we going…
…From out of trees to in a universe…that the universe attracts us–it also provides us with observation…

Philosophy today…the work of being here…Intension versus intention…teach our children well..Report

Jerky McJerkface
Jerky McJerkface
4 years ago

Not to be a Jerky McJerkface, but I think that a lot of men go to talks in order to ask what they think are devastating questions and then to sit back and feel satisfied with themselves.

Additionally, most talks I’ve been to are so focused on some topic that people outside that area just are bored. E.g., I don’t do formal epistemology, and I am always bored at those talks. I bet this is the same for lots of talks. E.g., I once had a colleague who thought history talks were totally a waste of time. He would ask things like, “Okay so you’ve convinced me that Aristotle asserted that p and not that q, but so what? You haven’t explained why that’s philosophically interesting!”

Also additionally, I think that a lot people go to talks given by Big Names mostly out of interest in having gone to a talk by Big Name. I remember a talk given by Rorty that was packed packed packed. It was also an unbelievably boring (and inexplicably lengthy) discussion of his disagreements with Brandon’s take on such-and-such passages in Hegel’s Logic. I’ve been to a few Jeff McMahan talks that were totally excellent in that McMahan sort of way but oh my god they were so unbelievably dull for anyone who doesn’t do philosophy in that fashion. The talks were packed packed packed. The same few people asked really good questions and the rest struggled to get into that McMahan headspace, often taking forever in their questions to formulate thought experiments that, in the end, Thomson or Kamm or someone had dealt with and then McMahan commented on like 10 years ago, etc. (Same story with Kamm talks.) At these talks, people didn’t really care about the content, at least not in the first instance. They cared about being at Prof Muckety Muck’s talk.

Also additionally, I think that a lot of philosophy talks are so narrowly focused on the literature that they are like Rorty’s talk on Brandon on Hegel, but maybe of even less general interest, because, unlike a talk on Hegel – hey he wrote on everything – they are on Väyrynyn’s objection to Kirchin’s objection to Williams (is that a thing?). Those are all good philosophers (ok Bernard Williams was a bit of a sham – are you mad?) and this topic is really interesting to me, and these philosophers’ work really interests me (and 2 of those 3 people are super rad people). But seriously, my phil of science colleagues were gasping for air, to say nothing of the formal epistemologists, who about 5 minutes in had gotten busy updating all their priors regarding anything to do with lunch.

So, I am not sure that the assumption that general interest colloquia are for some sort of high powered well-researched philosophy really checks out. A lot of it is to create a performance space or for collecting the philosophical equivalent of Pokemons. And the talks that are really engaged with the literature are of such narrow interest that I cannot really see why we have general interest colloquia on them. What a weird waste of so much of our time.

Some departments have talks for research groups. These are smaller and often less prestigious but almost always better. Why? Because everyone in the room is interested and well-read, the assumption is that the speaker knows this, and we are not there to collect famous person points.

One last thing, by the way, there was this professor where I got my PhD whose questions always took the form of exhaustive annotated bibliographies. “Interesting paper. You know that Duns Scotus wrote about this issue in Quaestiones Quodlibetales, where he said… and then of course William of Ockham had much to say about that in his dialogues…” and so on ad nauseam. At a certain point, fuck the literature.

In the end I often really enjoy the theater of general colloquia, although the busier my life gets, the less I have time for them.Report

John
John
Reply to  Jerky McJerkface
4 years ago

This comment belongs in the DN Hall of Fame.Report

Ben
Ben
Reply to  Jerky McJerkface
4 years ago

I love general interest colloquia. It’s great to become updated on issues outside my area and to think about things I don’t usually think about. Sometimes the issue is so narrow and assumes so much background information that it’s hard to follow, but usually I gain something and sometimes a lot.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Jerky McJerkface
4 years ago

What, only men? The problem seems more widespread than that!Report

Recent grad
Recent grad
Reply to  Jerky McJerkface
4 years ago

I just want to point out that “Pokemon” is both the singular and the plural.Report

Another Jerk
Another Jerk
Reply to  Jerky McJerkface
4 years ago

I’m a bit surprised that this comment is getting so many upvotes, since it seems to me to display a distressing though increasingly prominent attitude among contemporary philosophers, namely one that regards going to research talks outside of one’s one narrow research interests ‘boring’ and a ‘waste of time.’ Some people, me included, think that what makes philosophy such a uniquely interesting discipline is how wide ranging that it is, and the increasing specialization of the discipline, while having some good effects, largely a Bad Thing.

More specifically, I don’t understand why a talk’s being ‘narrowly focused on a topic’ should be grounds for thinking it boring unless the topic is itself boring, and it’s not being something I work on is not grounds for regarding it as boring since there are lots of interesting topic that I don’t happen to work on. It’s fine if you don’t find formal epistemology interesting, but lots of people do, including lots of people who don’t specialize in that field. And I must say that your colleague sounds insufferable. He attends talks in a field that he knows doesn’t interest him just so that he ask a boorish question at the end of it? Why not just stay home? Or better yet, why not try to make a good-faith effort to see why someone might be interested in what Aristotle had to say about a topic?

I can’t really guess the motives of the people who went to the Rorty and McMahan talks you’re discussing (though apparently you can), but at least one plausible explanation for why they attended is because Rorty and McMahan are both good and interesting philosophers and they hoped to hear a good talk on an interesting topic, perhaps a narrow topic they were antecedently unfamiliar with. You seem to be supposing that just because someone doesn’t work on a given topic themselves, or isn’t deeply engaged with the literature, that they can’t find a talk on that topic interesting or benefit from going. But I don’t see why you would suppose this.

It’s true that many ‘Big Name’ (and non-Big Name) philosophers give bad or boring talks, but I don’t see how that counts as point against having ‘general colloquia.’ For one thing, many talks in ‘research groups’ or ‘working groups’ are just as bad and boring. I, for one, certainly don’t find every talk given in my area interesting. For another, the whole point of having general colloquia like this is so that people can interact with other philosophers outside of their narrow area of interest since some of us continue to labor under the impression that one of our jobs as philosophers is to make our work intelligible to an audience wider than a narrow ‘research group’ of people ensconced in the same literature as us and that another one of our jobs is to be knowledgable about a wide range of topics, including many outside of our area of research.

Indeed, I would say that if one (a) only finds talks in one’s own research specialization interesting and (b) is incapable of giving a talk on one’s own work that is of interest to non-specialists then the real issue is closer to home.

– Another JerkReport

Jerky McJerkface
Jerky McJerkface
Reply to  Another Jerk
4 years ago

McJerkface here (just ask Justin – he’ll confirm) –

I didn’t mean that everyone should specialize. Heck no. But, I did mean that _really serious talks_ in many sub-disciplines are just too technical or too inside-baseball for non-specialists to get a lot out of them.

Maybe casual philology so soaks your department’s atmosphere that the 2 prime hours during the work week listening to someone make sense of the contrast of the οὖν in Codex Coislinianus 386 vs. the ον in the same place in Codex Vaticanus 260 – and how much deciding which is correct affects our understanding of how to make sense of whether tastebuds *literally* receive form without matter or whether that is just a manner of speaking – are 2 hours very well spent. But most people, even if they cared, probably can’t really follow the ins and outs of this controversy without having sat with On the Soul, and then in both the English and the Greek. If they pretend they can so well that they have convinced themselves that they can now go blow for blow with Sorabji, well then good for them!

My point here is really that a lot of high level stuff that is really good is actually tough to track for those of us who don’t have a background in it. And, for those of us who lack that background because we actually, ahem, don’t give really an owl’s fart about that topic (that’s me and technical formal epistemology, in case you were wondering), then spending a few hours in a colloquium on that topic is just an opportunity to practice drawing cartoon cats and people’s faces (good noses are hard to draw).

I get it: great talks should be understandable for all. And that’s true! But, great talks are rare – they are on that thin right tail of the normal distribution of talks.

Anyway, as I said, I like the theater of a good general colloquium. It can be lots of fun and each department can put on its charming public face, with loud laughing and genial backslapping and so on. And then we can all dig in to a meaty talk and feel good about ourselves. But, in the end, there’s not much time and each of us have lots of work to do and families we love. I think I’ll choose the small talk nearish to my area.

Sorry to have come back around… Someone’s giving a really good talk about how the in-virtue-of relation can help us make sense of Raz’s exclusionary reasons and it turned out that I had a few minutes to kill.Report

Hal
Hal
4 years ago

I’ve never been to a talk where the speaker announced or openly displayed ignorance of relevant literature. Only once did I hear a speaker announce that he wouldn’t engage with any literature in his field (philosophy of mind) after 1980 because he thinks it’s all complete rubbish – thus implying he knew the literature, however. Since this announcement contains a contestable philosophical thesis, I guess it was legit, even if quite strong a claim.Report

some person or other
some person or other
4 years ago

While I admit it’s non-ideal to know nothing about the literature related to what you are talking about… I don’t think the argument “can you think of other disciplines where this would possibly be acceptable” is successful. At least two reasons: (a) yes. I’ve been to many artist talks (there are, in fact, art departments at universities) in which other artists are largely not discussed and at which it would not be a matter of shame if someone asked a question about some other artist (not the speaker) and the speaker didn’t know much about that artist’s work. Also, I think in many cases in mathematics there is no need to “know the literature”. All you need to know is that no one has proved the thing you are trying to prove yet, and you need some tools (both conceptual and formal) to work with. You need to *think* about the problem, and try to come up with an answer to it (or maybe you need to come up with the question/problem in the first place, what I said still applies). (b), Related to (a): Thinking about arguments/questions/objections/theories doesn’t seem to me to require being informed about the background literature. Often, it seems to me, quite the opposite is true: the philosophers who know the least about some area of philosophy will ask some of the best questions (they also probably ask some of the worst questions, but…). If philosophy has anything to do with either art or mathematics–and I think these are the two disciplines it is closest to–I don’t see why we should be required to know the background literature to come up with and defend a view/put forward a theory. I do think we shouldn’t *completely* re-invent the wheel; but I actually don’t think genuine wheel duplication happens that much (or when it does, it is about some small narrow point, which, who cares). I think people sometimes come up with different versions of theories that may have been advanced before, and sometimes that is helpful (and if it is *too* close they will find out fairly quickly!). Just my two cents: I don’t think this is much of a problem. I think at least some of the time knowing too much background literature often causes people to come up with less interesting, exciting, compelling, big-picture, bold, new ideas than when people approach a problem without learning about every single little thing that someone said.Report

Hal
Hal
Reply to  some person or other
4 years ago

Current research problems in mathematics are so hard that it is very unlikely that anyone could come up with a solution without drawing from the literature. But then, of course, if you give a talk about your new proof you’ll have to mention the literature you have put to a productive use. And this is as it should be: Mention those parts of the literature which have actually contributed to your own work. Don’t discuss literature for the sake of discussing literature.Report

David Boonin
David Boonin
4 years ago

I’ve been to a lot of talks. This hasn’t been an issue in my experience. I was curious to see what others thought about this so I clicked on Handfield’s post, but it seems that he doesn’t engage with any of the literature on this subject.Report

Nate S
Nate S
Reply to  David Boonin
4 years ago

Aren’t you going to pick up the mic you just dropped?Report

Rick
Rick
4 years ago

I have never seen anything like this happen.

Moreover, the contention that talks are not for getting feedback, but for sharing finished research, strikes me as peculiar. First, because we already have a mechanism for sharing polished research—publishing. Second, because in this discipline we judge and hire based largely on research output: talks, publications, and supportive letters which are essentially predicated on one’s ability to network with, and impress, prominent members of the discipline. “Don’t give a talk until there is nothing to improve in the project because talks aren’t for getting feedback” is a bizarre norm which essentially requires young scholars to produce publication-quality work in isolated bubbles. And at that point, why bother with the talk? Third, because specialists on the very specific issue at stake are not always prevalent, not always able to give feedback in a timely fashion to a total stranger they’ve never seen before, and not always open to the merits of a different view. Giving a talk on unfinished work is a great way to figure out what a more general audience will take away, what will confuse them, and so forth. I know what my adviser finds difficult about my work; I don’t know (without presenting) what others will find difficult.

Now, if the post is solely about *invited* talks, OK, that seems like more of a fair point. But then it just sounds like Handfield’s department is bad at choosing who they invite. Only twice have I seen invited talks at my department where the speakers seemed obviously unprepared for serious questions, and I suspect it was a factor of their sub-discipline, not their knowledge of the particular literature to which their talk responded.Report

Adam
Adam
4 years ago

One data point: during grad school we (the grad students) had an annual mini-conference which featured an invited speaker and talks by students. One year we hosted a medium-famous American philosopher who kicked our conference off on Saturday morning by giving a talk on concepts. He began: “So this is a talk on concepts. I don’t really know anything about concepts, and I haven’t done any research on them. But I figure, if you can’t give a half-baked, poorly researched talk at a graduate conference, where can you give it?”

Chuckles all around. But during the talk it became clear that this was not a facetious self-deprecating introduction—our invited speaker really did give a half-baked, poorly researched talk. (And this at a university where certain groundbreaking work on concepts had been done by a famous faculty member nearly three decades prior.) I was angry, and so were many other students, but what could we do. Q&A with this speaker revealed he had absolutely zero shame about his ignorance and lack of preparation.Report

Ken
Ken
Reply to  Adam
4 years ago

It’s not merely an academic failure on the speaker’s part, it’s a moral failure as well. He’s basically telling the graduate students that they aren’t actual members of the profession, that they don’t matter and that they can be subject to subpar work, and he’s proud of treating others that way. What an ass.Report

Adam
Adam
Reply to  Ken
4 years ago

That’s *exactly* how we felt.Report

Ken
Ken
4 years ago

Might this be a regional difference? As a North American philosopher I’ve *never* experienced this in the hundreds of talks I’ve attended. (It’s worth noting that the one named commentator who reports the same also works in NA). But North America has different norms for conferences than Australasia. In particular, I have been reliably told (by former organizers) that the AAP does not referee papers and just accepts any abstracts submitted to be presented at the conference. Such practices would remove one of the most effective safeguards against the problem that Handfield points to.Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Ken
4 years ago

The AAP and the Society for Exact Philosophy are two conferences I’ve been to on several occasions that do basically zero refereeing. Nevertheless, both of them manage to have generally quite high quality talks. There are usually some very low-quality talks at the AAP, but the SEP is niche enough that this doesn’t usually happen. In any case, it seems like a quite separate question from how people in a given region behave when giving invited departmental talks, since one usually doesn’t invite people who have usually given bad talks at major public conferences like the AAP.Report