On Missing Academic Conferences

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Before the COVID pandemic, travel to academic conferences and colloquia was a large part of the job of being a professor at a research-focused university. The last few months have given us the opportunity to reflect on the hurly burly of academic travel. We’ve keenly missed many things about those in-person events. Yet there were things we don’t miss very much at all. While academic conferences are still paused, we wanted to make a note about what’s worth our time and not, and then make some resolutions about what we can do better.

The bloom of online conferences since last Spring provides a key point of comparison. The online conference has many of the same problems that beset the in-person conference: the schedules are overfull with interesting papers at conflicting times, presenters go over their allotted times and thereby leave no time for discussion, and the Q&A sessions tend to go off the rails with people asking questions that have more to do with their own views than with the presentation. But we were still pleased that the move online allowed younger scholars the opportunity to shine and get uptake with their work. And we were able still to hear a few presentations that provided some real insight. In these respects, online conferences are much like their in-person counterparts.

But there are differences. A unique feature of in-person conferences lies in the unplanned sociality that they make possible. The in-person setting allows for the possibility of passing some luminary in the hall between sessions, or meeting someone whose work you just read. In fact, it’s a piece of unacknowledged common wisdom that the true value of in-person conferences lies in unstructured time when one is not attending sessions. Read more »

On Straw Men and Their Audiences

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

The straw man fallacy admits of a wide variety of forms, ranging from what we’ve called the weak man, to the burning man, and even to the iron man. What makes all these different forms instances of the same general kind is the dialectical core of the fallacy – the misrepresentation of the argumentative state of play between contesting sides. In most cases, one side is represented as argumentatively worse off than they actually are (though, in cases of iron-manning, one improves an interlocutor’s case). Again, it is this dialectical core that makes straw man fallacies as a class distinct from, say, fallacies of relevance like ad hominem abusive or arguments from pity. In fact, what’s interesting about straw man arguments is that they are, really, arguments about arguments. In other words, when we argue, we can commit particular kinds of fallacies, but unique kinds of fallacies occur when we reason about how we reason. They are fallacies rooted in and made possible by our meta-cognition.

A longstanding, and perhaps obvious, problem with straw man arguments is that when they are presented to the target of the straw-manning, they typically are ineffective. We generally can tell when an interlocutor has misrepresented our view. The straw man directed at you at best can function as a signal that your argument is hard to understand or that your interlocutor is dense, but when a straw man of your view is presented to you it is unlikely to change your mind about how things stand. One wonders, then, how straw man arguments function. Our answer is that straw men arguments do their rhetorical work not on the speaker depicted as made of straw, but rather on an audience of argumentative onlookers, often selected specifically for the argument by the straw-manner. Read more »

Politicizing Tragedy

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Following the gun violence of the last weeks in the US, charges of “politicizing” the tragedies has become a regular staple of political discussion. Indeed, on “Meet the Press” this past Sunday, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott issued a warning against politicizing tragedies: “The first thing I’d say is that we need to take a step back from politicizing every event.” But what is it to politicize an event? What does the charge of “politicizing” a tragedy come to?

Politicizing clearly has a negative connotation – in “politicizing,” one does a wrong. Thus politicizing is what philosophers call a thick term; it both describes and evaluates. In using it, one describes some political advantage inappropriately gotten. Yet, in the case of politicizing, it is not clear where the alleged inappropriateness lies. Why is politicizing problematic?

A brief tour of the usage suggests there are three different conceptions of the wrongness of politicization. These are wrongs of etiquette, deliberation, and personality. We think, though, they all share a similar dialectical function. Read more »