U.S. Intellectual History Blog


This past weekend, I attended the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy Convention in Denver, Colorado.  Founded in 1974 by a group of philosophers interested in the study of the history of American philosophy and continuing work in what they saw as the American philosophical tradition, the SAAP is largely dedicated to Pragmatism and Neo-Pragmatism, though the organization seems deeply pluralistic and most interested in encouraging a kind of plainspoken, vernacular philosophizing pioneered by the Pragmatists.

I came to be giving a paper at the SAAP meeting because SAAP has a conference exchange relationship with S-USIH.  My panel, which concerned historical encounters between Asian and American philosophy.  Amy Kittlestrom, Assistant Professor of History at Sonoma State University, who gave a fascinating paper on nineteenth century American religious liberals and the religions of India.  Larry Hickman, Professor of Philosophy at Southern Illinois University, spoke on the continuing educational legacy of John Dewey in China. And I gave a paper on F.S.C. Northrop’s The Meeting of East and West in the context of American thought in the 1940s.[1]

I want to thank past Presidents and Executive Committees of S-USIH for setting up this exchange relationship, and present S-USIH President Dan Wickberg for asking me to put this panel together. Although I had no prior relationship to SAAP and knew virtually nobody at the conference, I found the association and its members to be enormously welcoming and approachable. Ever session I attended was interesting. SAAP philosophers seem to be fulfilling their goal of doing philosophy in a way that engages with real issues and without unnecessary jargon.  As I wrote on Facebook during the last day of the meeting, had I fallen in among these folks in my youth, I might have ended up a philosopher.

Attending conferences of organizations that one isn’t a part of is a fascinating experience. One discovers not only new ideas, but also new ways of doing things. So I’ll pass on a couple interesting things – among many others – that I heard at the conference, one having to do with conference organizing, the other with Deweyan visions of democracy.

Conference organizing: The SAAP sets up “dining circles” on one night of the conference. They reserve big tables at a series of excellent, moderately priced local restaurants. Conference attendees sign up at registration for slots.  This seems to me an easy and incredibly nice way for a conference to both indicate good local dining options (some of which otherwise might not have had last minute reservations available) and to allow people who don’t otherwise have dinner plans to go to dinner with a group of presumably like-minded folks.  I hope that we consider doing something like this at future S-USIH conferences.

Deweyan Democracy and Face-to-Face interactions: Mark Sanders from University of Carolina-Charlotte gave an interesting paper on Deweyan democracy in the digital age. On of the issues he raised concerned what gets lost when fewer of our interactions take place face-to-face. Dewey was concerned that technologies available in his day might limit face-to-face interactions. This problem, of course, takes on an even greater importance in the age of the internet.  One of the members of the audience (whose name, I’m afraid, I didn’t catch) made a very interesting (and, as he said, admittedly more existential than pragmatic) suggestion about the importance of face-to-face interactions. Anytime we meet face-to-face, there is the possibility of violence. And that possibility limits people’s bad behavior in a way that it doesn’t happen in non-face-to-face interactions.  I thought this was a fascinating suggestion.

[1] I have twice blogged about Northrop and his book in recent months.

One Thought on this Post

  1. Ben: Sounds like an excellent conference! Thanks for reflecting on it here, even in brief.

    Like you, I had an opportunity within the last week to sit with philosophers. In my case it was at a conference of both historians and philosophers of education. Mine did not self-identify pragmatists or neo-pragmatists (though all of yours may not have been in that camp). But my philosophers of education were impressive, like yours, for their ability to avoid analytic speak—though they weren’t afraid to get rigorous about fallacies, distinctions, assumptions, and perceived mistakes in reason. I was most impressed with their ability to code shift at the conference. They didn’t “talk down” to historians, but rather shifted into different sets of references for the philosophers present. The most common touchstone at my event was Rawls. What’s interesting about that is that *they too* seemed surprised at how often Rawls came up.

    Like you I was confronted with new emphases in ideas and methods of thinking through problems. We also had something like “dining circles,” thought Jon Zimmerman and Randall Curren didn’t explicitly denote them as such. But I loved the notion of extending the conference over food and (occasionally) some adult beverages. – TL

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