APA Conference

The American Philosophical Association’s 86th Annual Pacific Division Meeting is coming up in April. I’ve volunteered to chair a session on “scientific modeling,” during which Alistair Isaac will present a paper arguing that there is no conflict between a pragmatic theory of scientific modeling and scientific realism. David Stump will be the commentator. It should be an interesting discussion!

The APA was founded in 1900, and is now one of the largest associations of philosophers in the world. It hosts three annual conferences in the US, and according to its website it is “not devoted to a particular school or philosophical approach.” This is a refreshing assertion, since for a long time the APA seemed to be dominated by analytic philosophers; and especially well-known analytic philosophers from major universities. This led many of us, for quite a while, to become disillusioned with the organization and to give up any interest in participating in its meetings. The history of this disillusionment is chronicled in the essay “The Pluaralist Rebellion in the American Philosophical Association,” by Bruce Wilshire, which appears in his book Fashionable Nihilism: A Critique of Analytic Philosophy (SUNY Press, 2002).

The very first philosophy conference I ever attended was an APA meeting in San Francisco during the 1980’s when I was studying for my Master’s Degree. I remember that we students were offered free admission to the conference if we agreed to work in the book room, where publishers advertised their latest offerings and gave away examination copies. I can’t remember which publisher I was manning a table for, but I do remember my sense of excitement about being in the presence of so many real, professional philosophers! I imagined that there would all sorts of interesting, strange and unusual characters arguing about the nature of reality and debating the meaning of Truth. My idealism about professional philosophy, however, was soon brought right down to earth.

Is he the security guard, or a budding philosopher without a suit and tie?

My first suspicion that professional philosophers were more conventional that I had imagined was when I first walked through the various conference rooms where talks were being held. Most of the attendees were white men in suits. Now, it’s not that I have anything against white men in suits, mind you. When I put on a suit, that is exactly what I am. It was just that I was expecting more diversity in the crowd. Where was the guy who looked like the scruffy Socrates, or the crazy Diogenes? Where was the fellow with the ample mustache, like Nietzsche? Where was the intense looking bald fellow who looked like Foucault? As a 20-something graduate student with a buzz cut, dressed in a black leather jacket, jeans and combat boots, I stood out like a sore thumb. In fact, at one point a philosopher in a suit approached me and asked in all seriousness, “Are you the security guard?”

My second suspicion came when I perused the list of talks. There was nothing about nihilism or anarchy. There were no presentations about existentialism or Heidegger. In fact, I was unable to even understand what most of the talks were about, since they were couched in such technical and obscure language. As it turned out, I did attend some very interesting sessions having to do with logic, the philosophy of language and epistemology, but I had also hoped to hear presentations on more of the topics that first drew me into the study of philosophy; topics concerning the meaning of life, the nature of God, nihilism, etc. At that time, such things were not on the menu.

I continued to attend the APA meetings and to retain my membership in the organization, but it was really just a formality. After I earned my Ph.D. and started to teach, membership in the APA was part of what what was expected, and it kept me in the loop about who was important and who was active in the field. At various points over the years, I even tried to take part in the association by volunteering to act as a chair or a commentator on papers. I was once approached by a colleague who tried to propose a session on nihilism for one of the division meetings. For a long time, nothing ever came of these things, and I had the feeling that the APA and its officers did not share my own concerns. It was not an organization that represented my interests.

It was only around 2005 that things seemed to start to change. It was then that I started to see more topics listed in the Proceedings of the APA that really sparked my interest and enthusiasm, and there were more indications that the APA was trying to reach out to those philosophers who had come to feel alienated from the organization. I recall a statement from the main office insisting that philosophy should be treated as an international discipline and not just an American analytic discipline. More and more attention seemed to be given to continental philosophy at the division meetings, and I now see that even the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP) is encouraging its members to be more active in the APA.

So, all of this is a happy development. The diversity of topics and approaches to philosophy that are represented at the upcoming APA Pacific Division conference look interesting and exciting, and I am once again hopeful that this will be a fun, inspiring and thought provoking event!

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