Talk at the Polish Philosophical Congress

Posted on September 19, 2008


All this week the VIIIth Polish Philosophical Congress has been taking place here in Warsaw. These Congresses are meant to be the absolute pinnacle of Polish Philosophy. Thus far, they have tended to occur much less often than the Olympic Games, as can be realised when I add that the first Congress took place in 1923. The talk that I submitted for this Congress was a much-altered Polish-language version of the “Superstition as Science” talk I gave in Trondheim in January.  As one of the organisers stated, the aim of the congress was to give an opportunity for some of the younger Polish philosophers to listen to talks by some of their foremost older colleagues. Befitting this kind of event, the philosophical discussions were accompanied by numerous concerts and there was an Honorary Committee made up of five university Rectors along with the President of the Polish Academy of Science. The event is to finish tomorrow with the ceremonial laying of wreaths upon the graves of great Polish philosophers. To lend further gravitas to the event, the whole thing has been taking place under the Honorary Patronage of His Excellency, The President of the Republic of Poland, Mr. Lech Kaczynski (here in a photo next to his brother, the previous Prime Minister of Poland) – he’s the petulant looking one.

I was scheduled to give my talk at about five this evening. However, when I arrived I spotted a large notice, scribbled upon a door to one of the other meeting rooms, that my session had been moved to after six. This meant that instead of being in the very last session, it was to take place at the same as a number of round-table discussions that were supposed to be closing the event. At first I thought that for some reason the room I was to talk in was unavailable, forcing the organisers to move it till later. After all, it is hardly good manners to move a talk without so much as contacting the speaker. And it is doubly inconsiderate to schedule a talk so that it conflicts with plenary sessions. Still, having organised a number of conferences I know that these kinds of things do sometimes happen so one must be understanding.

I was further surprised when I found out that the room I was to talk in was available and there was nothing which would make it impossible for my talk to go ahead as originally scheduled. Given that I knew that many people would want to go to the round-table discussions I told everyone I knew that I would go ahead and give my talk at the originally scheduled time and then simply repeat it at the new time. When time came, a small band of us gathered together and, finding that the audio-visual equipment was missing from the room, squeezed round my laptop, upon which I then showed my PowerPoint slides. The talk was fun to give and a number of the questions afterwards were thought-provoking. Having finished my unofficial talk I had a few minutes till the newly scheduled official time so I made my way to the room I was to talk in. Outside the door I was met by the professor who was in charge of the section in which my talk was scheduled. He informed me that the previous speaker had not come so everyone had left some time earlier. However, he informed me that, if I wished, I could present the talk to him. In truth, I did not treat this proposal altogether seriously and declined his invitation. Given the choice, I preferred to go to one of the round-table discussions that were beginning at this point.

And I am glad that I did as it allowed me to gain some perspective upon my personal misadventure. The topic of the round-table discussion was varieties of externalism, the speakers ranged across the spectrum of views and presented their positions ably and in an engaging manner. What was much more interesting, in a way, were the questions from the floor. Many of these were of the form – I don’t know or understand this stuff but I know that it is false. As such they were perhaps a little less trenchant but, actually, much the same as the objections raised to naturalism in general after the previous day’s round-table discussion. One particular objection raised against naturalism was especially remarkable. The claim was made that naturalism is useless as it has not solved any philosophical problems. Given that many traditional philosophers proudly talk about the field as writing footnotes to Aristotle this seems a little too tu quoque for comfort. What is more, I think it is actually false. Unlike traditional philosophy, naturalist philosophy is a progressive research programme, one example of a problem that it has dealt with being the old philosophical riddle of scepticism. That traditional philosophers refuse to agree is another matter. Such disagreement would be understandable were it based upon knowledge of the approach yet here were numerous thinkers who seemed proudly ignorant of the last few decades of work in their own field.

Some time ago Werner Callebaut told me that I should stop trying to convince traditional philosophers that naturalist philosophy is the correct way to go and, instead, should just go ahead and do it. As I have found on numerous occassions, his advice is spot on. One should do one’s own work and let the next generation of philosophers choose with their feet which approach is leading to interesting, novel insights and which is just busy polishing the museum pieces. And, in this respect, the congress was a pleasure for me, given that I had the opportunity to attend a number of interesting talks by promising younger philosophers who are open to naturalist approaches.

Yesterday at the KLI began a workshop on evolutionary-developmental biology. It does not have any honorary patrons but it does have a group of biologists, philosophers and scientists from other fields who are enthusiastic about what they can learn from each other.