Contributing off the cuff?

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?

2 thoughts on “Contributing off the cuff?”

  1. I think it is possible for a non-expert to contribute to a philosophical colloquium. I’m a “younger and more energetic philosopher”, albeit by autodidaction, and so perhaps I would think this way. My reason for thinking this is that it is possible that someone who is not deeply absorbed in a particular branch of philosophy on a daily basis can bring a fresh perspective to the subject. But it depends on the person’s philosophical aptitude, and the branch of philosophy concerned. Aristotelian logic, for instance, I think is not so difficult that an intelligent non-expert can’t bring themselves up to speed, but modern logic is perhaps too complicated and specialised for this. Certain subjects like aesthetics can be pretty insular, perhaps because they are less popular, and would probably benefit from the freshness of an intelligent, if naive, non-expert.

  2. Kati Farkas, our head of department at CEU, always pushes the grad students to ask questions at colloquia (actually, we have the first question). It’s supposed to be a good drill, in that it makes us think harder and faster, and pay more attention to the talk. But I’m not sure there is any real benefit for the lecturer, who usually has to gently explain some basic issues surrounding the topic of the talk.

    Last year, for instance, we’ve had talks ranging from the foundations of math (Hale and Lynnebo) to the philosophy of art, and I guess no one in the department (the profs included) could claim to understand all the topics. Sure, there were discussions each and every time, some even interesting, but I very much doubt it that the audience managed to “contribute” in reasonably similar manner to all of them. Of course, we just have to wait and read the acknowledgements in the published papers to see whether I’m right or not :)

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