Thursday, April 14, 2011

Conference Diary: My Free Dinners with Marxists*

For the first time last week, I visited York University, an enormous modernist compound in the middle of industrial parks north of Toronto, adjacent to a distant, isolated slum. It was for a conference their department of Social and Political Thought organizes every year, and because my friend who attends Osgoode law school lives on campus there (thanks again for use of the couch, Kyle!), I decided I would go. I presented a paper that took some of my ideas about the contingency of existence and a Nietzschean political philosophy into the context of postcolonialism. Normally, my writing wouldn’t be quite so reaching, but going to a department that’s outside philosophy proper, I gave myself some liberty with composition.

I did see some very interesting presentations, including some people who knew a whole hell of a lot about Theodor Adorno, and a lot of Marxists. It’s rare that someone from a philosophy department comes across such a concentration of academics who genuinely seem to believe in political revolution of the global working class. It was refreshing, and I think more traditional philosophy departments could learn something from interacting more regularly with these differently oriented departments and groups.

McMaster University has a lot of guest speakers come to its department to give talks; we have a weekly Friday series during the Fall and Winter semesters just for that reason. For the most part, the guests are people from other universities around southern Ontario – some just commute in for the afternoon – but some come from far flung locations like southern Illinois and North Carolina. In the past year, we’ve hosted a conference on the anniversary of Russell & Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica that drew logic and history of philosophy scholars from all over the world. Our upcoming philosophy of law conference will have delegates with a similar diversity of origin. But going to a place like the Social and Political Thought conference made me realize that despite the diversity of people who visit McMaster, they’re all also kind of the same.

It’s not that every one who visits McMaster has the same answers to philosophical questions. I’ve seen some epic arguments on a variety of topics. But there’s a remarkable amount of common ground on what questions to argue about. In a way, I think this is just about the habits of people anyway. An area of philosophical inquiry is a region of thought that a person – professor, graduate student, general thinker – is comofortable moving in. But beyond simply the comfort of familiarity, a philosophical inquiry is a set of open questions that require continued exploration, literally a lifelong and life-defining project. If you’re interested in developing such a project, you’ll be drawn to people talking about the same types of problems, compatriots with whom you can work to develop the ideas that have come to define your professional existence.

There are no Marxists, critical theorists, Frankfurt School specialists, anti-capitalist revolutionaries, or postcolonialists at our department. So those problems aren’t going to be on their professional radar, and the types of questions they ask won’t come up. In the same way, a lot of the intriguing questions that are asked at McMaster Philosophy will never come up in York Social and Political Thought. I stuck out like a spotlight over there talking about Richard Rorty. If you’re the type of thinker who does good work through focus along developing a specific path, then it won’t matter to you whether other groups of people are interested in other problems. But I find myself thinking that an inquiry can be revitalized, or at least given a healthy shock, by exposure to ways of thinking that diverge from the habits you might be used to. It’s what draws me to interdisciplinary conferences, or gatherings of different sorts of people. Some folks would find that diversity confusing, while I find it challenging. At the same time, I find the inquiry style of a specializer to be boring, and in danger of insularity, while other folks do their best work in that context.

People are built differently, and are better and worse at different tasks.

* Ever since the “My Dinner with André” episode of Community a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been incorporating references to that movie into different conversations I’ve had. I like to think this isn’t sad.

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