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The 1993 Joint Session

Some personal impressions by Our Special Correspondent.

The Joint Session of the Aristotelian Society and the Mind Association is Britain’s only big, allpurpose annual philosophy conference. Each July it is held at a different university and this year was Birmingham’s turn. The conference opened on the Friday afternoon with an inaugural address by Professor Leon Pompa. Five minutes before his talk was due to begin, I was still hopelessly lost in the Birmingham suburbs, piloting my car in ever-decreasing circles through a baffling network of leafy winding avenues and wondering whether just to give up, when I suddenly realised that the tower block I was passing for the third time was in fact the place I was looking for. I charged into the building past various registration desks to discover that things were running late, so I was able after all to hear Professor Pompa expounding on the Possibility of Historical Knowledge.

We know about all sorts of events about the historical past (such as the Battle of Waterloo, say), yet we can’t personally remember these events or witness them happening. According to Pompa, it is usually assumed that we must therefore know about them largely through historical records, and inferences based on those records and through our knowledge of how humans normally behave. But, says Pompa, this isn’t enough, for understanding the records depends on interpreting the language in which they are written, and any language has an infinity of possible interpretations. Even words in English from two hundred years ago have different connotations to the same words today. Therefore, says Pompa, our knowledge must be filled out by some traditional interpretation passed on from generation to generation from the time in which the events in question took place.

On the Saturday morning there was a choice of entertainments, as two symposia were taking place at the same time. In the one I chose to attend, Timothy Smiley and Graham Priest debated whether two contradictory statements could both be true at the same time.

In the early afternoon there was nothing scheduled, which gave everyone a chance to mill about talking to one another and looking at the bookstalls set up by the various philosophy publishing companies (Philosophy Now had a stall too, naturally). Later in the afternoon, a variety of papers were presented by postgraduate students. These included one on ‘tropes’, by Chris Daly of Cambridge. Apparently, tropes are an alternative to ‘universals’ as a way of ascribing properties to objects. For instance, if you have three red rabbits, you can either say that there is a universal property (‘redness’) that is shared by all the rabbits, or you can say that rabbit A has a trope of being red, rabbit B has a trope of being red and so on, and that these tropes are identical to one another. The advantages and disadvantages of tropes as a way of looking at properties were listed. However, in a question from the floor, Julius Tomin pointed out that we can only talk about tropes at all because they have something in common – in other words they themselves can only be understood in terms of universals. (Dr. Tomin is a famous character at the Joint Sessions – he’s the former Czech dissident who at one time was sponsored to lecture on ancient Greek philosophy in a pub in Swindon).

Sean Hall spoke fluently and well about brain transplants and the implications they would have for our ideas of personal identity.

Stephen Mumford of Leeds talked about dispositional properties (the solubility of sugar and the fragility of bone china are both examples of dispositional properties).

Tom Stoneham discussed those cases where someone might believe something (call it ‘P’) and at the same time believe that they did not believe P. He asked if we can be wrong when we think we believe something.

In the evening, Ruth Millikan and Andrew Woodfield were the speakers in a debate about how we acquire knowledge of the world around us. This was notable for the persistence of the questions from the floor, mainly from Hugh Mellor.

On the Sunday there were again two symposia taking place simultaneously. As a change from all the modern philosophy, I attended the one on ancient Greek philosophy. It appears that sometime between 50BC and 150AD, an individual whose name is lost wrote a commentary on one of Plato’s dialogues, the Theaetetus. This commentary has survived intact, and is known simply as Berlin Papyrus 9782. David Sedley argued that this document deserves much more attention that it has had so far, because it is the work of someone who was a ‘card-carrying Platonist’. As the unknown author was steeped in the assumptions of the Platonist way of thinking,he might well have been able to appreciate subtleties in Plato’s work that modern scholars would simply miss. Sedley backed up this claim with detailed examples of the anonymous author’s surprising way of looking at the dialogue.

In the afternoon, Mark Platts and Robert Black each gave a lively and even witty talk on ‘Philosophical Scepticism about Moral Obligation’.

The closing session, on Sunday evening, featured a highly technical debate on mathematical logic, whose participants included two of the world’s leading figures in the field, George Boolos and Michael Dummett. The discussion revolved around Basic Law 5, one of the laws of logic formulated (or discovered?) by Gottlob Frege at the end of the 19th Century. Apparently this law has been giving logicians a headache for years, as it is thought to contradict all Frege’s other laws. Much of the detail of the debate sadly went over my head, although being in the front row I was able to derive some harmless amusement from the pantomime of exaggeratedly outraged expressions that Boolos and Dummett adopted in turn as each sat listening to the other’s criticism of his work. Anyone who has seen Newman and Baddiel will get the general picture. There was a lively question and answer session at the end, which showed that some at least of the audience had been following; however, most people in the bar afterwards seemed to have found the debate as incomprehensible as I had (which I’m sorry to say I found rather comforting).

200 people attended the Joint Session, the vast majority of them being philosophy lecturers and professors from UK university philosophy departments, with a sprinkling of students and others. Most of the debates would be beyond the reach of a beginner, though often more because of the amount of jargon used than because of the intrinsic difficulty of the subject matter (incidentally, did you know that the word for someone who takes part in a symposium is ‘symposiast’?). Additionally, many of the speakers in debates assume that the audience is familiar with the very latest books, papers, trends of thought and so on. And many of them are! This is mainly an event for professional academics, but for interested outsiders such as myself it provides a useful picture of what is currently happening at the cutting edge of British philosophy. On the evidence of this Joint Session, the most active areas at present are logic, philosophy of mind and the interaction between the two.

As a first time visitor I was very struck by the friendly atmosphere, having expected a much more formal and intimidating event (never mind, I’ll save the tuxedo for another occasion). I met one person who claimed that although he attended the Joint Session nearly every year, he didn’t go to many of the actual debates – he was there for the atmosphere, the conversations over coffee and the chance to get together with a large number of friends from around the country. I can understand that, although its a bit of an expensive way to spend a weekend. The food was good, while the accommodation was of the bogstandard student hall of residence type, but conveniently situated within easy staggering distance of the conference rooms and the bar. The last evening of the conference was rounded off with a spontaneous gathering on a bridge over a small river running through the university grounds. One inebriated reveller gave us all a brief moment of anxiety by walking unsteadily along the parapet of the bridge, though the point he was undoubtedly trying to make remained obscure. Overall, the conference passed off peacefully, with little hooliganism, no injuries and none of the scenes of violent disorder that might be expected when a large collection of argumentative individualists spend two days closeted in a building with a well-stocked bar.

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