“I suspect I’m not alone among philosophers in finding colloquia almost universally frustrating: the speakers are more interesting than the conventional talk allows them to be…”
The following is a guest post by Kieran Setiya, Professor of Philosophy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It is part of the series of weekly guest posts by different authors at Daily Nous this summer.
The Philosophy Special
by Kieran Setiya
My colleague Steve Yablo once described teaching as “standup with low expectations.” He had in mind, I think, the undergraduate lecture. It has the form of the comedy special or Edinburgh show: holding the attention of an audience for 50 minutes with nothing but words. Anticipating boredom, students can be grateful for the feeblest of dad jokes. Steve is much funnier than that—as though a standup comedian had the philosophical firepower of Bertrand Russell.
It’s not just philosophers who see a connection here; it happens the other way around. In a 2015 interview, the fabulous Moshe Kasher was asked what he would have been if he hadn’t been a comedian. “I wanted to be, at one point, an academic,” he replied. “But I started to realize … what I wanted was the part where you teach, and that’s just comedy.”
Now, it isn’t comedy, exactly, but they do have things in common: not just the battle for attention, but the balance of ideas and entertainment, the power of crowdwork or audience interaction, the moments of improv. Of course, there are differences, too: there’s a curriculum to cover when you teach, with new material each class, and standups rarely use handouts—though they sometime use slides.
In some ways closer to the standup special is the colloquium talk: the same material, practiced in advance and delivered to different audiences, roughly an hour in length. But as a rule, few colloquia are very much fun.
There are exceptions. In his Presidential Address to the APA in 1985, Rogers Albritton packed in an awful lot of zingers:
No doubt we’re free as birds. … But how free are birds?
Feed line, punch line, then a topper:
Let no bird preen itself on its freedom. There are cages. There are tamers of birds.
There are plenty more like this: Albritton is a Borscht Belt Wittgenstein. Some of his best arguments are jokes:
I don’t see (do you?) that my freedom of will would be reduced at all if you chained me up. You would of course deprive me of considerable freedom of movement if you did that; you would thereby diminish my already unimpressive capacity to do what I will. But I don’t see that my will would be any the less free. … Suppose I am chained up so that I can’t walk. … Do I have reason to think not only, “They’ve chained me up!” but, “Good God, they’ve been tampering with my will!”?
Albritton is an exception to the rule, then; Yablo is, too. (Feel free to mention others in the comments.)
Perhaps it’s appropriate that the colloquium talk is not a standup set, and is not primarily about fun. After all, the common form does not imply a common purpose. One is meant to inform or convince, the other to entertain.
Yet there’s no inherent conflict between informing or convincing and entertaining. Some standups give what are, in effect, comedic lectures—I am thinking of Mark Watson and Josie Long, or more recently, Hasan Minhaj and Hannah Gadsby.
And there’s a sharp contrast in how far professional standups adapt themselves to the form—how far they think about what it can do and how to do it well—and how far professional philosophers think about the form of the philosophy colloquium. When we do not simply read a paper, we extemporize on a handout or slides that summarize our main points; there is little comedy, or suspense.
Comics sometimes talk about the form of what they are doing as they’re doing it. My hero Stewart Lee is a master of this:
Now this show is called “Carpet Remnant World.” … It was supposed to be about idealized notions of society and how we behave as collective groups… But I’ve been a bit busy with one thing or another. It’s not really worked. So, but what I will do is about five minutes from the end … at about 10:00 … I will repeat the phrase “Carpet Remnant World” over some music and that will give the illusion of structure.
And big laughs down here, for that, people down here. The people who bought tickets first, they’ve seen me before. They’re going, “Of course there’ll be content and structure. We’ve seen him before. This is a comedic double bluff. Ha-ha,” right? But up there, there’s a lot of people they don’t really know what they’ve come to … and they’ve been whispering all through it up there, in the top bit there. Like, “Is this who you wanted to see? It seems like an aggressive lecture.”
When philosophers talk about the form of the colloquium, we often conclude, plausibly enough, that it’s discrepant with its purpose: an hour-long monologue is not the best way to communicate an intricate line of thought. There is a strong case to be made for a read-ahead format in which the reasoning is put in writing.
I suspect I’m not alone among philosophers in finding colloquia almost universally frustrating: the speakers are more interesting than the conventional talk allows them to be. I tend to be impatient for the Q&A, a form much better suited to its purpose—like a roomful of hecklers, but they have to raise their hands, and the speaker has to invite the heckle. Even better, I think, is the conversation at the after-colloquium dinner, when more informal questions can be asked. (It was partly missing this under lockdown that inspired me to start a podcast.)
So the situation is not good. What can we do to improve it? There are two questions here. First, what other formats should we try? We rarely have panel discussions in philosophy, but they can be freewheeling and fun. We rarely have one-on-one debates, or structured Q&A, like a talk show, in which one philosopher interviews another before opening things up to the audience. Why not experiment with these formats, among others?
The other question is what to do with the colloquium talk if we hold its format fixed. What philosophical projects are best suited to the hour-long special? Should colloquium speakers tell more jokes? Should they do more crowdwork? Should they err towards the sorts of claims and arguments they wouldn’t make in print—taking advantage of the intimacy of the venue, as a comic might try new material in a club?
What would it be for philosophers to think of the colloquium as intellectual performance art?