Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Thanks, but I can read the paper myself.

You've decided to walk over to the philosophy department at your university to hear a talk by a distinguished visitor. As a faculty member working in cognitive science you are excited by the prospect of interdisciplinary collaboration, and you've heard about some interesting work being done over in the philosophy department. You did a philosophy minor in college, but you've never attended a talk by a professional philosopher. You walk over to the building that houses the philosophy department and then climb the stairs to the room where the talk is being held. The room is packed, and you struggle to find a seat. Finally, the speaker makes his way to the front of the room. He clears his throat, takes a sip of water and then ... wait for it ... wait for it ... starts to read his paper out loud. You wonder why you bothered schlepping over to the other side of campus just to hear some guy read his paper, a paper that you could have read yourself at a more convenient time.

Whenever I mention this tradition to academics in other fields (e.g. computer science, mathematics), they seem amazed that this sort of thing is allowed (as if one could expect most states to have laws against it). Now, I don't think the philosophical community is under any obligation to explain its traditions to colleagues in other fields, but why is reading the paper OK (or even preferable) when it comes to giving a talk in a philosophy department? I think it is easy to appreciate how the practice seems odd, or even suspicious, to colleagues in mathematics or the sciences. What can be said in support of this practice in light of these sorts of reactions?

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