Although going to conferences in one’s own subject should be good for one’s morale, I seem too often to slip into a kind of ennui.
It is not as bad as experience of conferences in other areas although I suspect the worst case is an area only marginally distinct. I get bored in large straight psychiatry conferences which are mainly opportunities for quick overviews of the latest drug research and there’s no culture of questioning the speaker. But I was positively disturbed by a conference on reasons at St Andrews a few years ago.
Thinking that ‘reasons’ cropped up in familiar phrases such as ‘space of reasons’ and that I at least understood the outlines of debates about particularism concerning moral reasons, I assumed I’d understand the conference. Not at all. It turned out that there was a debate just to one side of the philosophy I know about which seemed to concern the correct representation of reasons, or the holding of reasons by an agent, and clearly involved some fine technical work and innovation. But I could not work out what problem such representations were supposed to ease. Even surrounding myself with PhD students working in the area and paying in beer for their post-session explanations I remained queasily at sea through out.
But even in areas where I do feel at least a little at home, initial enthusiasm tends to dissipate. I think the reason is predictable. There are always people who have read more, are more gifted, have thought longer about the issues, and some who are sufficiently motivated that they will talk of nothing else at all for the three or four days of the conference without let up. In the face of that, my own enthusiasms rarely seems enough.
But I think I’ve discovered the solution at the INPP conference. By equipping myself with a companion who was, by background discipline, a genuine outsider at the conference (although clearly interested in, and on top of, the issues discussed) the contrast helped slow down my own gradually growing sense of alienation. I must organise a more regular arrangement with academics in quite different areas, to attend respective conferences, akin to the pairings between politicians of opposing parties in the British parliament.