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Thanks, Marcus. This is a really important observation, and it's amazing how often it is lost in certain over-politicized discussions about the state of the discipline. I'm with Socrates: talking to each other is constitutive of the practise of philosophy, and I've always thought that conferences are, as a rule, extremely philosophcially rewarding. I was just having a discussion with a (female) philosopher who said the same thing: conferences keep her going when things are a little bleak.

I simply cannot believe that this quoted assertion is true of most: "I consistently find that I could have learned just as much by staying at home, reading papers from authors’ websites, and Skyping or e-mailing them." If someone really is this uncommon sort of person, that's fine, but I would politely ask that those preferences not be imposed on the rest of us in the name of some (let's be honest) somewhat obscure attempt to promote gender equity.

elisa freschi

I think you and Protevi are both right: most conferences are boring (even if there are good papers, they are mostly read and hardly at all really discussed), but the discussions during the coffee breaks within them are great and encouraging.

This is also why I and other colleagues started organizing "coffee break conferences", i.e. conferences with no papers read but only interesting discussions going on. (In case you are interested, you could read the chapter "Why a further conference?" in this paper: http://www.academia.edu/1529401/Introduction_to_the_Coffee_Break_Conference Further info on the CBCs here: http://asiatica.wikispaces.com/ )


I tend to agree that little learning goes on in conference sessions. After all, I am usually just not that interested in 85% of papers, especially in non-specialist conferences like the APA. And, when I do go, I often find myself disappointed by the quality of papers I force myself to politely sit through.

That being said, I have always thought that there is, or at least ought to be a serious social component to philosophy. I very much enjoy interacting with other philosophers. I enjoy the opportunity to try to find someone to talk about my work, discover someone else's work, and perhaps find a future co-author. I learn about what is "hot" in a field, and I get to talk with people who largely think about things the way I do and find similar topics interesting. When I am in my department I get to do this and talk to the 6 faculty members in my department, 2 of whom annoy me with their incessant political myopia and 2 who are never around.

So while I find the conferences a bit burdensome financially, and a bit dull in terms of what I learn, I find the camaraderie worth pursuing. Philosophers do have a unique way of seeing the world that is often difficult to express alone and it can be difficult if my only outlet of expressing who I am, and telling jokes whose punch line has the word "a priori" in it is done in a class full of freshmen taking a required course.

Sydney Penner

Social custom has it that if there's snow outside, you should complain about it. Likewise, custom has it that if you're at the APA, you should complain about the poor quality of the papers. I've never been inclined to give much credence to either complaint. Snow is often beautiful and many papers at the APA are stimulating and enjoyable.


I second that many APA papers are great; if you're at any APA meeting and you can't find a good, interesting paper, the problem is with you (and let's keep in mind that abstracts and even full texts for many of the papers are online). Smaller conferences aimed at a particular topic are often spectacular (if you're into that topic, that is). APA papers are also papers in early stages of preparation, so they give us a preview of where a field might be heading. And really, I'm not going to sit at home and read 20 random papers because their titles piqued my attention, especially if doing that takes time from grading students' papers and working on the latest R but I can sit through 20 random papers in four days at the APA, and I will get something, if not all that much, out of them. (If nothing else: a renewed motivation to write more papers!)

And the conversations are crucial. It's one thing to e-mail people whose work you like and quite another to run into them at conferences. For one thing, you don't need to have specific questions to ask them to get an audience in person. For another, you can have an actual conversation without feeling like you're almost certainly keeping them from doing something more exciting or pressing than e-mailing you back.

Finally, conferences are my one excuse to go on vacation. Financially burdensome? Not nearly so much so as going on a trip with no purpose! (Though some conference registration fees are a bit excessive; the APA is pretty good in that regard, I think.)

elisa freschi

@Roman, these are all good reasons to have conferences, but to have them in a new way. One can still run into interesting people, have the chance to chat with them and get an idea of the direction where one field is heading without having to fight against lethargy.
One just needs a new concept of conferences AND THERE IS NO REASON FOR NOT TRYING (see my comment above).

Trevor Hedberg

This discussion reminds me of the recent post here regarding an online undergraduate conference: http://philosopherscocoon.typepad.com/blog/2012/10/cfp-online-undergrad-ethics-conference.html

I broadly agree with many of the defenses of conferences that have been presented above, but I do think there are alternatives that ought to be explored. Elisa gestured at one above, and David's post from early October suggests another possibility worth exploring.

My main annoyance with conferences is not the cost or time that they take. Rather, it is that the standard way to present material is simply to read it, often without any handout or other visual aid. I am not an auditory learner and find it difficult to organize, process, and critically evaluate a paper during a 30-minute reading unless I read the paper in advance. But time is not always plentiful enough for me to read papers in advance when they are available, and if I do read them in advance, then the presentation itself is somewhat pointless (since I already know the main claims, general argument, etc.). Thus, I think one way to improve conferences would be to encourage folks to put together genuine philosophical presentations instead of simply reading their paper: I have seen some conference descriptions that explicitly state that papers should be presented rather than read, but such mandates are very rare.

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