Stop Reading Philosophy!

IMG_3133By Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Conference season is drawing near for many academics. In our discipline, Philosophy, already the regional conferences are in full swing, and the American Philosophical Association will have its large Eastern Division meeting in early January. This has got us thinking about these conferences and the many papers that will be presented at them. The trouble, as we see it, is that the paper sessions are so often disappointing, and so frequently less fruitful than they otherwise might be.

It's not that the papers chosen for presentation are poorly written or intellectually inept. To the contrary, the content and even the style of the writing of the papers tends to be of very high quality. What makes conference sessions in Philosophy so frequently disappointing is that, for reasons we cannot fully grasp, the disciplinary norm still heavily favors reading one's paper to one's audience. That's right: At professional Philosophy conferences, it is most common for speakers to read to their audiences. Conference presentations tend to last 20-30 minutes; then there is often a second speaker who offers a critical comment on the first presenter's paper, and the commentary often runs for another 10-15 minutes. And sometimes there is yet a third recitation — the first presenter is given the opportunity to respond briefly to the commentator's critical remarks, and this, too, is often read from a prepared text. Then, with what time is left, the floor is open for questions from the audience. And even when a speaker elects to present her work using presentation technology, still the dominant tendency is to simply read from the projected slides.

Many Philosophy conferences run for two to three days. Imagine three full days of being read to in this way. Even under the best circumstances — with dynamic readers and exciting content — it's simply exhausting.

That philosophers should be in the habit of reading their papers out loud to each other at professional meetings strikes us as bizarre. Notice how the disciplinary norm differs when it comes to pedagogy. These days, it's almost unheard of for a professor of Philosophy to read her lectures to her students. It is far more common to speak extemporaneously from notes, which forces the instructor to devise fresh formulations and to think on her feet. After all, we are educators, and in our classes we often present to our students highly detailed and challenging ideas. And when teaching material in our own research areas, we commonly take ourselves to have no need for a prefabricated script. Moreover, as almost everyone in the profession will readily admit, the really exciting exchanges at Philosophy conferences occur in the informal setting of the conference reception, or, even more frequently, the hotel bar. Why, then, should we persist in reading to each other in the official conference sessions? Why not adopt a new practice of talking to the audience?

One clear reason presents itself immediately: Most professional Philosophy conferences are highly selective. There are many more paper submissions than program slots, and so conference organizers must choose on the basis of written papers submitted for blind review. Once a paper is selected for presentation, it makes sense to expect that the author will read it verbatim at the conference; one might even say that since the paper was selected for the conference, the paper should be presented. A related consideration follows fast on the heels of the first. As we noted above, conference presentations are frequently followed by a critical response, and, again, it makes sense that the main speaker should stick to her text in order to ensure that respondent's remarks are apt. And this calls to mind a third reason why reading might be preferred: Conference schedules are tight, and the norm of reading from a text is generally thought to be a way to keep speakers within their allotted time.

But these logistical considerations are easily countered. Speakers whose work is accepted for presentation are of course required to present the very paper that had been submitted for consideration and was selected for the program. One can present a paper without reading it. And this means that a respondent can also present, but not read, her critical comments. Additionally, it is not uncommon for speakers who read to go over their allotted presentation time. This is precisely why most conference sessions feature a session chair whose main duty is to keep time! All that is required is a good-faith effort to stay precisely on topic without actually reading from a script, while attending carefully to the clock.

Our suspicion, however, is that reading is heavily favored for a different kind of reason than the merely logistical. Philosophy is rightly a discipline that calls for a high degree of verbal precision. In many contexts, even a minute semantic lapse – a misplaced “not” or “only,” for example – can yield a momentous philosophical error. Reading one's paper verbatim is thought to be a guard against imprecision, and thus a way of protecting oneself from criticism and misunderstanding.

But the need for precision hardly carries the day for the reading norm. Presenters can talk through their research with a visual aid, such as a handout, and thereby avoid the problem of misstating a critical sentence. Similarly, those whose work relies heavily on quotations from others' texts can also use handouts to ensure that the quotations are accurately rendered. It seems, then, that the requisite degree of precision can be achieved without reading.

This leads us to another consideration that may drive the reading norm: Anxiety. There is a lot of pressure to perform well at professional conferences, and this pressure is naturally punctuated when it comes to younger academics and those new to the profession. And so a reading from a text is preferred to talking from notes as a plan for avoiding the nightmare scenarios, such as freezing up, getting lost, forgetting one's point, and so on. Good talks are much better than even well-read papers, but disorganized and meandering talks are far worse than poorly-read papers.

We understand and sympathize with this point. So here is our proposal. Presenters, as a rule, should talk through their papers rather than read their texts. To do this effectively, they should practice their presentations prior to the meeting to ensure good time keeping; if necessary they may work from a handout that includes the technical bits and key quotations. But we also insist on a corresponding commitment on the part of the audience: Any presenter who talks rather than reads should be afforded a degree of charity fitting for oral communication. As a profession, we should allow one another some slack, even when talking amongst ourselves, when it comes to the verbal placement of “nots” and “onlys.” And – who knows? – maybe this slight change in the way we talk to each other in professional contexts about our central research may also help us to be better at communicating complex philosophical ideas to those outside of our profession.