If your philosopher is in academia, she/he will have to attend philosophy talks at some time in their career. As a spouse/partner/friend/sibling/parent of a philosopher, it is important to understand what these strange events are like and how they are important to your philosopher’s career and/or well-being.
Philosophy talks are usually run by philosophy departments. They are sometimes called colloquia, which is a fancy way of saying “academic talk.” These are different than philosophy conferences in that the event is usually only one talk by one speaker, rather than many different talks by many different speakers. Conferences are interesting events in your philosophers’ lives, though, so I will compose a different post about them at some other time.
Philosophy talks usually follow this format.
First, someone in the hosting department introduces the speaker. They might try to be witty here if they know the speaker, but the joke usually fails because they either try too hard or hit upon some inside joke from within the speaker’s branch of philosophy. I like this part because it’s usually pretty awkward.
After the introductions, the speaker will usually read a paper they have written or give a presentation on a topic they are familiar with. If they present a paper, it is super-technical and boring for almost everyone who does not do their type of philosophy. Presentations are usually less technical and more interesting than paper readings. On some rare occasions, philosophers giving presentations may even create a dorky, fun PowerPoint. You can see philosophers groan inwardly when a speaker pulls out a paper to read.
This is the best time to watch people attending the talk, especially when someone in the room drops something accidentally, or shifts position too quickly—all eyes and heads instantly focus on the offender as if it was the most interesting thing to happen since the Berlin wall was torn down. During the talk, philosophers may make funny thinking-faces and/or take weird positions with their heads, as these, of course, help them think better.
When the talk is finished, the moderator will open the floor for questions. I’ve discovered that, for a non-philosopher, it is best to not pay attention at all during the talk and wait for the questions (more accurately, I usually start off trying hard to focus and understand at the beginning of the talk, then I soon drift off and start watching people). A few people know what is going on in the speaker’s paper and when they ask the speaker questions, you might finally understand what in the world was going on. My philosopher has admitted to me on several occasions that he also has a hard time understanding some of the papers until they get to the questions.
There are several types of question-askers at philosophy talks. Even if you don’t understand much about philosophy, it is well worth attending at least one talk, just to see these questioners in action. Feel free to ask your philosopher to point out these offenders before the talk even begins so you can keep an eye on how other people in the department react when they ask their questions. Here are a few of my favorites:
1. The stranger
This person is usually someone not from the philosophy department and not connected with anyone in the department. They will ask a completely bizarre and unrelated question, which makes all of the philosophers give each other looks that betray such thoughts as, “another crazy one,” or “did she/he just ask what I thought they asked?” or “what a fool.” These looks are very funny, though I usually feel really sorry for the stranger and wish they did not feel the compulsion to ask a question. Speakers do not really know how to handle the stranger’s questions, as they do not know if this stranger is really a stranger or a batty member of the department. Speakers will usually either get defensive or try to politely move on—especially if the stranger tries to “clarify” (i.e. get more confused) their question—to avoid more bad looks from the philosophers actually in the department.
2. The storyteller
This person is usually a member of the philosophy department. At every philosophy talk, they feel the need to ask a question only after telling a very long and sometimes unrelated story. When they start to speak, there is usually lots of eye-rolling. I find the storyteller delightful, though the bad feelings floating around in the room while the storyteller is storytelling are usually pretty oppressive.
3. The person who relates everything back to their philosophy subject
This person is a member of the philosophy department. Now, most philosophers feel most comfortable when they can relate things back to the type of philosophy where they are most comfortable, but this can be done very inappropriately. Kantians, bless their hearts, do this more often than most philosophers. Look for more eye-rolling during these questions.
4. The person who begins their question with the phrase, “This was a great talk. Thank you for sharing it with us.”
Philosophers don’t like this kind of question-asker at all. The speaker does not know, of course, that this philosopher pays this little compliment to every speaker. The department does know, though, and views it as either a cheap way for this philosopher to suck up to the speaker or a sign of an un-genuine character. What speakers really want other philosophers to do after the talk is to ask them a penetrating question that shows that the philosophers thought the talk was worth asking hard questions of and that they were paying careful attention. Filling a question with cheap compliments makes the speaker feel like they did not really do a good job.
After questions, there may be some mingling—especially if there are snacks at this talk—and you may even get to see some intoxication.
Your philosopher will have to attend these philosophy talks for mainly professional reasons. Some philosophers do attend philosophy talks because they actually love philosophy, but they are in the minority. Grad students attend to learn things, see how professional philosophers perform, and show the faculty (who might attend their dissertation defense) that they are devoted philosophers. Faculty attend philosophy talks to learn things, find things to criticize other professional philosophers about, and show their co-workers that they are dedicated philosophers (for those on the track to tenure).
Philosophers, feel free to comment with other types of question-askers that I’ve missed or misrepresented.