Being Exemplary Knows No Bounds, Composing, 03/05/2014

This weekend, I’m working on a commentary for someone’s paper at the Canadian Philosophical Association at the end of the month. Now, of course, I’m not going to write about that paper on this blog at all. Everything I’m thinking of regarding the content of the paper has to be kept secret until after the conference. I’d only discuss it after the session is complete, and only with my partner’s permission.

Let me explain to you something about the curious way philosophy as a discipline tends to run its conferences. Each session is devoted to the presentation and discussion of a single piece of work. The main speaker gets about 30 minutes for their headlining presentation. Then a commentator delivers about 10 minutes of prepared reply and response before the floor is opened for general questions. 

This year, the CPA is at beautiful Brock University! So
green, and . . . . rectangular. This building is such a fetching
shade of—well, it's beige, isn't it?
My sociologist friends find this a major shift from their usual style, where three or four people with vaguely related topics read a 15-20 minute version of a paper, and occasionally, a commenter raises a series of brief critical questions about all three of them, before opening the floor to general questions. I think I prefer my own discipline’s style, and not just because I’m accustomed to it, although I am quite accustomed to it. The multi-person panel only has unity because its participants wrote papers with maybe only a few common points. The organizers plonked them all in a session and slapped a vague, thematic name on them because they wrote it as individuals, but have to present it together. You can discover more interesting stuff you didn’t know about more easily from seeing it cobbled into a session with a misleadingly ambiguous title, but  the session can become chaotic and everybody ends up confused. In philosophy, the entire session is pre-planned. Coordinators spend weeks before the conference coordinating commentators, and we write our commentaries weeks in advance of the conference. At least I do.

When I do commentaries, I like to think of the major paper for the session as a collaborator of a sort. After all, their paper is the reason for my commentary’s existence. I’ve created a pleasant new piece of philosophy, and I couldn’t have done it without the first contribution of someone else. Philosophy is often a solitary art, which has its benefits, but also its drawbacks. We can sometimes let our research get stuck in its own world, I’ve too often found. And when I write a commentary, I consider it my contribution to a detailed and stimulating professional conversation.

It’s why I always feel so disappointed when I see a commentary that’s purely antagonistic to the paper. Criticism is a key part of philosophical discourse, and it’s for refining existing ideas and developing new ones. Too many times in our discipline, if we can’t think of anything kind to say, we say something mean. I hate that the tendency to critique is too often mistaken for a licence to argumentative aggression. And when I say ‘too often,’ I really just mean, ‘ever.’

So whenever I ask a philosophical question, but especially when I produce a detailed commentary on another person’s paper, I always try to make my point constructive. I introduce a new angle that the paper’s perspective could address. Sometimes I read the point in a different context. Sometimes I introduce an angle or a source that the paper didn’t mention. I always like my commentaries to give someone something they can use to carry their project forward.

The best compliment someone could pay my commentaries is that I gave them an idea for a new paper. When I present papers, I hope my commentators aim to do the same for me. They don't always, but I'd prefer if they did.

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