Relatively recently, we’ve started having an occasional in-house one-day faculty colloquium, where staff and grad students give papers on their current work. I’ve just been asked if I’d like to talk to the next one, so I offered to chat about induction in second-order arithmetics (introducing some of the themes from this paper). But the organizer wasn’t sold on the suitability of the idea: a non-expert member of the audience might get to see what the issues are, but “could not him/herself hope to contribute”. So I’m off the hook.
But that response got me thinking. Once upon a time — in my philosophical lifetime, indeed — you could “keep up” over quite a wide front, and so dive in and intelligently discuss issues across quite a range with colleagues and visiting speakers. But really, how possible is that nowadays? Editing a journal made me vividly aware that, with almost any narrow topic, there’s a now serious, sophisticated, well-developed, very clever literature out there, where the moves, counter-moves, counter-counter-moves are analysed and explored many levels deep. So I wonder if there is any way in which the non-expert can seriously hope to “contribute” off the cuff in response to a talk (unless that just means asking intelligent questions for further elucidation). The problem is obvious with the technical philosophy of maths, for example: but isn’t it now actually the same pretty much right across the board? Is the conception of a wide-ranging colloquium with discussions to which the audience generally might hope to “contribute” past it sell-by date? I rather suspect so. Or do younger and more energetic philosophers feel differently?