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At the Festival of Philosophy

Over the last 150 years the commanding heights of philosophy have been captured by paid, university-based academics. A feature of this shift has been the growth of conferences – hundreds take place each year, tiny ones and vast ones, some devoted to narrow topics such as the Early Wittgenstein and others covering the whole range of human thought. Opinions are divided about conferences, with some seeing them as a substitute for actually doing philosophy and others regarding them as essential to the exchange of ideas which can spark genuinely creative work. Here we present two very different views of two very different conferences.

Martin Cohen was at the American Philosophical Association Eastern Division Meeting, Boston, December 27-30th, 1999.

The 96th annual festival of pomposity is over. Meeting in the glittering halls of the Marriott Superhotelrestaurant complex in Bosstown, USA, the future of Anglo-American philosophy has been, if not decided, at least sketched out. For it is at meetings like these that the American universities choose their future professors, and with them, determine the shape of philosophy to come.

I went there to partake of the heady brew of lectures, interviews, and meetings and was duly impressed. Impressed by the sheer size and wealth of philosophy in America. Like they say, there, everything’s big. The public libraries are bigger than the British Library. The fruit shops are bigger than Harrods. The philosophy talks are attended by more people than the Queen has corgies….?

Because that’s one of the surprising things, in amongst all this guzzling, back-scratching, good-chumming, there is very little of what we might call philosophy. There was, it is true, a full programme of talks, but these turned out to be very disappointing. More like a rite of passage for postgraduates on their ways to the dusty halls of academe. Not to be takes seriously, and certainly not to be attended if there was a drinking binge on. (And there usually was…)

So the talk I attended, by Philosophy Now’s very own Anja, was sparsely populated, and that despite three other talks having been fitted into the room. The Bosstown chairman swept aside consideration of Daoism and of whether Eastern Philosophy was rational in the Anglo-American sense (and that’s a misnomer, Anglo-American philosophy is just America plus Oxbridge affiliates) with a lofty disdain that I recognised from the whole conference. The fact is, the American philosophers, for all their gestures at inclusivity and alternative values, for their ‘special sessions on Native American philosophy’, represent one of the most conservative and smug forces on the planet. You could see that when you looked in one of the ‘interviewing ballrooms’ in the 2000 room hotel complex. (Special rate for philosophers $99 a night). Here rank after rank of tables were set up, for simultaneous interviewing of the applicants for the associate professorships. Here, smartly suited men (and they were almost entirely interviews by and for men) explained how their in-depth knowledge of at least one respectable ancient text and several even-more-respected contemporary American philosophers was up to scratch, (and incidentally how much they fun they could be in the Biblebelt Liberal University Common Room).

Now there is a place for such people, Lecturers in Complete Nonsense, what Arthur Schopenhauer 150 years ago derided as experts in the effrontery of “serving up sheer nonsense… scribbling together senseless and maddening webs of words, such as had previously only been heard in madhouses”, and there’s no reason why they can’t be paid quite well, as indeed they are in America. (Quine and Davidson set world standards in the subject.) But, out of this banal and yet also sinister farce, which no one I spoke to could defend, other than on grounds of ‘practicality’ (the Americans like to make job interviewing into a lifelong habit), it was immediately evident that this was why philosophy not only in America but all over the world, has moved away from the centre stage, has ceased to speak with authority on almost any topic except those it briefly invents for itself.

Ninety six years of the APA is about the period philosophy has been carried out by professors. Recall, as Bryan Magee did recently, that although universities have been teaching the stuff since the Middle Ages, neither Hobbes nor Descartes, Spinoza nor Leibniz, nor Locke, not yet Berkeley or Hume let alone philosophical enfants terrible like Rousseau or Marx, were academics. As Schopenhauer put it “Very few philosophers have ever been professors of philosophy, and even fewer professors of philosophy have ever been philosophers.”

Events like the annual APA meetings make a mockery of the subject’s pretensions to be home for either ethical, practical or indeed truly philosophical thinking, even as society increasingly calls out for the need of such. For America is about individualism and money, and its philosophers are in the same mould.

Plato thought there would never be peace in the world until either philosophers were kings, or kings were philosophers. Only the latter option is worth holding out for.

© Martin Cohen 2000

Martin Cohen is editor of the Philosopher, and author of 101 Philosophy Problems (Routledge 1999). His new book Political Philosophy: A Clear Guide (Pluto) is due out in the Summer.

Jack Reynolds organised the 6th Australasian Philosophy Postgraduate Conference in Canberra, April 2000.

The Sixth Australasian Philosophy Postgraduate Conference has just taken place at the Australian National University, Canberra. With 30 speakers and two concurrent sessions being run over three very busy days, members of the Australasian postgraduate community (as well as ANU staff), got a rare opportunity to experience some remarkably diverse papers which were not confined to any particular theme.

Among the range of interesting papers presented, the best title award would have to go to ‘The Tradition of Paradox, Alchemy and the Dialectics of Antithesis’ which was just as large and expansive a project as the title suggests. The longest title was ‘Habit, Mastery of a Technique and Undecidability: Merleau-Ponty and Derrida in Conversation’, and one speaker’s Heideggerian exploration of Aboriginal Being seemed particularly relevant given the current Australian controversies over native land rights and the unequal incarceration of the indigenous community. Other papers on abortion, tragedy, anorexia, eco-phenomenology, computational creativity, dispositional essentialism, and even Mills & Boon, helped ensure that the 70-odd people who attended the conference were intrigued. Even the participants who flew in from New Zealand, South Australia, Tasmania, and a few speakers from Queensland who undertook 20-hour bus trips, eventually stopped bemoaning the expanses of this ‘wide, brown land’.

It must be admitted however, that the conference did have a slightly inauspicious beginning. One speaker was forced to pull out 24 hours before the event; there was no time to find a replacement speaker, so a colleague read out his paper. Consequently the traditional end-of-paper question time became more of an open workshop. In the end however, it seemed somewhat apt that an examination of Derrida on ethics should have a certain absence and otherness foregrounded, and also call into question traditional notions of responsibility.

In the battle of the sexes, twelve impressive papers by females suggested that the image of philosophy as being predominantly practised by males might be beginning to be eroded. Curiously enough, the proceedings also had a slight ‘continental’ inclination and it must be recognised that in terms of which papers individuals attended, a certain analytic/continental split prevailed. Even a paper on a figure like Richard Rorty (who claims to efface such a distinction), could not change this situation.

However, the overall success of the proceedings wasn’t entirely due to these formal aspects of the conference, or to the high quality of the papers. Rather, it was the openness and camaraderie that governed the post-paper proceedings: whether that be the lunches that the ANU funded; the collective dinners at some unusual locations; or the various other social excursions. There was a refreshing candour to express views congenially and without pretension, and somehow our ruminations upon irresolvable moral dilemmas became that much more erudite after a few drinks!

© Jack Reynolds 2000

Jack Reynolds organised the conference. He is a PhD candidate in philosophy at the Australian National University in Canberra.

• The conference proceedings will be available online from about late-July, via a link from: http://online.anu.edu.au/philosophy/news.htm

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