Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Philosophers' Rally, Cracow 2009 (Poland)

After having spent an intensive weekend in Cracow, I'm on a plane back to Brussells (well, actually, after I just got on it, all passengers were asked to disembark and identify their own luggage because we had one suitcase extra that didn’t seem to belong to anyone…) Anyway, although I was slightly frustrated with the previous large philosophical conference in Poland I went to (see more details here), I was quite delighted to attend this one (also, I like the fact that I could catch up with some of the Gdańsk students, who decided to take the trip and participate). Hence a few general comments about what Philosophers' Rally is and about philosophy in Poland in general.

As far as I know, there are two fairly regular, large and general philosophical events in Poland. One is the Philosophical Congress (the 2008 edition took place last September in Warsaw). In a way, it’s similar to large general conferences like CPA in Canada or APA in the States. What’s similar is a huge number of participants, and a wide spectrum of topics being discussed. What’s different about PC? Acceptance is based on semi-blind review of abstracts only (I’m quite positive the rejection rate is WAY lower, and what their review procedure is remains quite unclear to me), there are no pre-prepared comments after the talks, and there are no jobs interviews (philosophy job market in Poland is a topic for a whole different story). It’s usually organized by notable members of Polish philosophical community and most of the participants are faculty members from around the country (I recall, there were around 20 parallel sessions and chairs didn’t always pay attention to timing, so navigating between talks you wanted to make to was quite a complex task).

The other one is Philosophers’ Rally. It is more like a graduate conference (only, it’s really nation-wide). Apart from a bunch of invited speakers, who are faculty members, most of the participants are undergraduates, graduates and young PhDs. Most of the organizers are young and dynamic people. Acceptance is based on abstracts (I recall from a conversation with one of the organizers that the rejection ratio was around 20% and that the abstracts were sent for review to faculty members deemed competent in their respective fields; I think there were around 120 talks this year). [note: PR was on hiatus for a few years, and this is the first time it took place after its revival; also, it’s the first time they did require abstracts and did the reviewing; I think it’s a big step forward.]

From my observation, the atmosphere at a Polish philosophical conference can get quite weird (this doesn’t apply, or almost doesn’t apply to logic conferences in Poland though). The reason is, some philosophers behave as if they treated a conference like a rap battle (a lame one, too): you gotta get there, make noise, diss everyone else and show how smart you are. This on one hand leads to ad personam arguments and unjustified condescending remarks - you can actually sometimes hear a prof. telling a student something to the effect that they are wrong because they’re students, or arguments like “only an idiot would believe this”; also, certain groups whose members admire only each other (borrowing the phrase from Geach ;)) can be observed. An interesting phenomenon is that sometimes when a prof is considered important, some of their students will often follow them around, listening to what they have to say with awe even if it’s rude or utter crap, and imitating their style… weird stuff, I must say. On the other hand, this makes people take critical comments more personally, even if the comments are given with no vicious attitude and in good faith. Long story short: people often don’t make a distinction between persons and their views, and the overall culture of discussion leaves something to wish for.

Another thing which makes Polish philosophy quite different from what you usually see at an English-speaking University is the high level of continental deliberations. Approximately ½ or 2/3 of the conference topics were related to something that I don’t feel competent to describe.

Yet another observation: many of the talks, even if they are really clear and well-organized, are not devoted to making a point, claiming something, or arguing for or against anything. Rather, they focus on saying things like “A famous philosopher X said Y about Z”, or “A famous philosopher X said Y about Z, but another well-known philosopher V disagreed, but I won’t try to evaluate their arguments, I’m only presenting their views”. Although not too creative, this kind of work is useful in Poland, where accessibility to current literature (esp. books, for most of the universities have access to main journal databases) is slightly restricted for technical and pecuniary reasons. Also, if an undergraduate or a master’s student can do a good job presenting/comparing other people’s view, it’s a good exercise for them anyway.

Having said all this, I must stress that there are many young and intelligent Polish philosophers (some of them even undergraduates), who are doing sensible work on interesting topics. For instance:

Magda Kamińska (from Gdansk, yay!) presented the knowability paradox, described Williamson’s response to it, presented a few counterintuitive weakened paradoxes that you can run even if you switch to intuitionistic logic, and argued that a re-construal of non-omniscience claims in intuitionstic logic is not a successful strategy for dealing with the problem because it violates very basic intuitions that we have about quantification in natural language.
Bartosz Wcisło mounted a few arguments to the effect that the modality involved in the knowability paradox is uninteresting: that some Fitch-style unknowable sentences at a certain time may become knowable at a later time if you juggle around with temporary indices, and that in certain context sentences that are effectively decidable may come out Fitch-style unknowable. I don’t think the arguments worked, but fairly technical details were involved, and they are quite clever – it takes a while to figure out why this doesn’t fly.
• One of my favorites was Marta Ewa Romaneczko’s discussion of psychoanalysis. It is often claimed that it’s highly unfalsifiable and unscientific. Romaneczko in a clear and engaging manner argued to the contrary: that given certain fairly sensible approach to inter-theoretical falsification, falsifiability is available for many psychoanalytical claims, and that in fact there have been claims in the history of psychoanalysis that have been considered falsified and withdrawn when faced with data.

Many other familiar topics have been also discussed: metaphysical issues surrounding counting objects and constitution (Łukasz Krawiranda), availability of contingent identity with rigid designators (Błażej Skrzypulec), criteria of identity (Adam Andrzejewski), the relation between predicates and properties (Krzystof Posłajko, who also asked a wonderful question about deduction theorems in paraconsistent logics in my workshop), Frege’s notion of truth (Tomasz Pawlik), counterfactuals as the source of modal knowledge (Katarzyna Kuś), technical issues pertaining to probabilistic reasoning about causality (Leszek Wroński), empty names and their behavior within the framework of causal theory of reference (Rafał Ciok), the epistemology of thought experiments (Katarzyna Kobos), the physical acceptability (or its lack) of Lewis’ modal realism (Krzysztof Adamek), neo-Ryleanism about knowing-how (Bolesław Czarnecki), game-theoretic analysis of Kant’s imperative (Piotr Wilkin), Kai Nielsen’s critism of Malcom’s variant of the Ontological Argument (Jak Cieślar), semantic space hypothesis and AI programming (Krzysztof Hanusz), biological plausibility of Chomsky’s concept of linguistic competence (Piotr Wołkowski), a criticism of Dennett’s heterophenomenology from a Peircean perspective (Adrianna Smurzyńska), the question of intentionality of emotions (Paweł Bankiewicz) and the relation between epiphenomenalism and Davidson’s anomalism (Jarosław Ziółkowski).

Overall, despite certain particularities of Polish philosophical discourse (which were quite rare at Philosophers' Rally anyway), I’m quite optimistic: many young philosophers work hard on things currently discussed in the English-speaking world.

Another thing worth mentioning: apart from a few really minor glitches (which happen everywhere), the conference was really well-organized, and in this respect it stands second to none of those conferences that I’ve seen anywhere else (in fact, there even was an English-speaking section!). I would like to express my gratitude to the organizers: thanks guys for having me!

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