Tuesday 1 December 2015


I have a couple of PhD vivas this week (and a third where my role is merely chair) and getting home after the first, which had a happy outcome and went well by all the usual standards, I was as bad tempered as, on reflection, I always am. Given that they simply comprise a friendly questioning conversation, why should that be? Perhaps it’s because they are a disturbing parody of an academic conversation.

A fellow philosopher reported on Facebook last year that she had been asked a question at a conference which began: “I want to re-ask an earlier question but more aggressively…” What possible role could aggression have in academia, she wondered. Clearly it shouldn’t have any but I think I can see why it might seem to have one.

On the assumption that asking philosophical questions is a matter of weighing reasons for beliefs, and assuming that we don’t have a general theory of good and bad reasons (logic only goes so far), then one must accord them weight them ‘from within’ for which process a characteristic experience is an inner exclamation of ‘But that’s a terrible reason!’. In polite conversation and said of someone else’s commitment – rather than the abstract possibility of a reason – saying that would sound, and possibly be, aggressive. In academia, between equals it wouldn’t be or even sound so. (There really is no need for aggression in academia.) But because of the power imbalance in a viva such an expression is something to be avoided with a potentially nervous PhD candidate. So part of the stress of the viva is that a commitment to exploring reasons brings with it characteristic experiences of bad reasons (as well as good, but they are easy) which have then constantly to be masked. For two hours.

Second, I take my role in a viva to be primarily exploring the student’s reasons for saying and doing what he or she has in the thesis not simply imposing my views of what he/she ought. It is often a matter of exploring the costs of adopting particular views. Sometimes this leads to agreement on a matter. In other cases, not and the prospect of suggested corrections to the thesis. But in a number of cases, even after some iterations, one doesn’t ground out the issue and, practically in the circumstances, the only thing to do is let the matter drop. A PhD is, after all, merely an academic apprenticeship. But as part of a conversation aimed at getting at the truth, such lacunae are hugely frustrating. So as well as letting the particular issue drop, one has also to hide the frustration of doing this.

On reflection, though, that’s not the best way to describe things. If the conversation were simply ‘aimed at getting at the truth’ then one would usually also offer solutions. That’s what I’d do at a conference or in the pub. Although I sometimes do this in vivas in order to ask a further question, as an end in itself, it is not very helpful as part of an exam. So again there’s an internal tension in this case between the apparent regulative ideal of the conversation – seeking out the truth – and its role as an exam.

I noticed yesterday that my fellow examiner referred in media res to the ‘interesting conversation’ we were all ‘having together’. But it is a weird parody of a conversation leaving no one satisfied.