Campus / News / Student Research / April 22, 2010

Philosophy conference takes students west

Term papers are usually read by the writer and the professor, given a grade and then forgotten. Not so for Knox’s senior philosophy majors. This past weekend, nine students who took Philosophy Senior Seminar went to Portland, Oregon to attend a philosophy conference. Over 200 students attended and 100 presented philosophy papers. Three of those papers were from Knox students, a culmination of a term’s worth of work.

Seniors Dan Dyrda, Chris Overton and Jake Whipple each read the papers they had spent the last term researching and writing on a topic of their choosing. After the presentation, the audience had the chance to ask questions and raise points of interest as well as criticism.

“A large part of the conference is the paper, but another large part is the criticism of the paper,” said Overton. “Someone else attending the conference was responsible for dissecting and analyzing my paper.”

Whipple, who wrote a paper addressing various theories of aesthetics, found the question-and-answer session to be one of the most valuable parts of the conference and anticipated it assisting in future elements of his work.

“The themes that I’m interested in are the themes I want to continue this for in graduate work,” he said. “There was a lot brought up that was helpful in terms of where I wanted to expand my ideas.”

Dyrda, whose paper focused on truth claims made in visual arts such as photojournalism and photography, experienced a conflict of communication in his question-and-answer session.

“Unfortunately, the commentary and a lot of the questions that were asked sort of missed the point of my paper,” he said. “I thought I had made it clear that I was specifically addressing art that makes truth claims and not the whole of creative art. People thought I was criticizing Monet or Picasso … while that was not what I was trying to do at all.”

However, Dyrda did appreciate that the conference focused heavily on facilitating discussion.

“The questions and answers were very interesting — I wasn’t the only one defending my paper, other people in the audience who did get my paper would respond to questions,” he said.

Overton also appreciated the general collaboration of the conference’s philosophical community.

“We all went and helped defend each other’s thesis,” he said. “It was really very nice.”

For Dyrda, the most difficult aspect of the concept was not presenting his paper but merely sifting through the large number of topics being presented.

“The most challenging part was definitely deciding what papers to go to,” he said. “There was a lot being offered and just because of the way it was structured, there were a lot of things that sounded interesting happening at the exact same time.”

Overton, whose paper defended Hegel’s interpretation of the philosophy of history, also appreciated the depth of subjects being covered.

“It was very cosmopolitan,” he said. “I think it had representatives from pretty much every branch of philosophy I can think of.”

Whipple, who was attending the conference for a second time, enjoyed the discussion stimulated by such a wide range of philosophical interests.

“It’s nice because it’s sort of an opportunity to commiserate with the same people,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people interested in analytic philosophy in one place before. It was interesting to see the different backgrounds people come from.”

Although the conference’s keynote speaker, Alvin Plantinga, is one of the country’s leading theologicians, both Overton and Dyrda found the highlights of the experience elsewhere.

“The highlight of it for me was just going there — just being able to devote that much time to a subject that everyone was interested in,” said Dyrda. “You don’t really have that opportunity to meet with 200 other devoted philosophy students. That experience in and of itself was pretty incredible.”

“It definitely seemed like a right of passage,” said Overton.

Whipple viewed the experience as one that could be useful for undergraduates in any academic field.

“I think it’d be worthwhile for other departments to look into finding undergraduate conferences for their majors,” he said. “It’s a very valuable experience, especially for those considering doing graduate work[…]I don’t think you can overstate how useful it is.”

Katy Sutcliffe

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