University of Hertfordshire, July 10-12 1998
Considering it is the largest annual gathering of philosophers in Great Britain, The Mind/Aristotelian Society Joint Session is a surprisingly low-key, informal and friendly affair. This is both a source of good-feeling and concern, and which of these competing attitudes prevails over the next couple of years could be very significant for the conference’s future.
First, the good-feeling. Unlike some large conferences, particularly in North America, the delegate is not faced with a hectic schedule; forced to choose between dozens of parallel sessions. There were some tricky choices, with the problem of “tensed time” up against Rousseau, and Kant clashing with reductionism and human behaviour, but in truth the major dilemma for the delegates was whether to go to the final session (Does Ontology Rest on a Mistake?) or watch the World Cup final (our poll suggested that around a third opted for the latter.)
The relatively small number of delegates (around 150) helps the event to retain the personal touch, and contributes to the atmosphere of relaxed informality, as no doubt the late bar licence does. This is a conference where it is as important to have time to chat with colleagues, meet up with publishers and do a bit of networking as it is to keep abreast of matters strictly philosophical.
However, viewed from another angle, these strengths become weaknesses. As the biggest major gathering of general philosophy in the country, surely the conference should be a must-visit for most British-based philosophers? compare it to the American Philosophical Association annual conferences, held in three regions. The combined attendance of these three conferences is around 4,500 people. Even given the much larger US population, you would expect Britain’s annual gathering to have a bit more pulling power.
Perhaps more significant was the lack of ‘stars’ at the session. no-one would argue with the quality of the speakers present, but the majority of the most notable British-based philosophers were notable on this occasion only by their absence.
Many reasons were offered for the turn-out in inter-session conversations. The increasing number of specialist conferences cropping up is thought to be having an effect: a top moral philosopher probably feels it more important to attend the major gathering of moral philosophers than address a general conference. A more temporary difficulty is that the World Congress in Boston in August may have swallowed up many people’s conference budgets this years. And some whispered that the fact that this was the first time the conference was held at a “new” university may have put some people off. It shouldn’t have. The Wall Hall Campus was a wonderful setting and the organisers could not be faulted for their careful planning and friendly attentiveness.
Although it may be unfair to lumber the Joint Session with the responsibility, British philosophy needs an annual. general meeting, if only so that the eyes of the public can fall on it for short while each year. This used to be the unofficial status of the Joint session. It no longer seems to be the case. The question is, which Joint Session do we want in the future: the enjoyable, comfortable gathering excellently exemplified this year, or British philosophy’s AGM? And if the University of Hertfordshire passes on the latter role, who will take it on?