Reflecting on the Central APA in Denver, I have to admit that one of the best parts of philosophy conferences is being corrected. This came up as follows: I indirectly pointed out to a speaker that their interpretation of an author’s notion of diagram should also be extended to natural deduction proofs. They thanked me after the talk for pointing out “a blind spot in their paper” that they wanted to think more about.
That got me thinking about the many times that I had been corrected at conferences. I confess that constructive criticism that improves my argument, or my presentation of it, is one of the most pleasurable experiences to come out of conferences (or the peer–review process). It really makes attending conferences entirely worthwhile.
The pleasant feeling of being corrected is perhaps best encapsulated in Socrates’ words to Theaetetus at the end of Plato’s Theaetetus (link). Their search for a definition of knowledge has apparently come up empty-handed. But Socrates makes clear that there has been some definite philosophical improvement by the elimination of ignorance:
SOCRATES: …And so, Theaetetus, knowledge is neither sensation nor true opinion, nor yet definition and explanation accompanying and added to true opinion?
THEAETETUS: I suppose not.
SOCRATES: And are you still in labour and travail, my dear friend, or have you brought all that you have to say about knowledge to the birth?
THEAETETUS: I am sure, Socrates, that you have elicited from me a good deal more than ever was in me.
SOCRATES: And does not my art show that you have brought forth wind, and that the offspring of your brain are not worth bringing up?
THEAETETUS: Very true.
SOCRATES: But if, Theaetetus, you should ever conceive afresh, you will be all the better for the present investigation, and if not, you will be soberer and humbler and gentler to other men, and will be too modest to fancy that you know what you do not know.
Much the same could be said of the experience of being corrected at conferences. We are all like Socratic midwives to one another, helping each other to “birth” philosophical ideas.
This makes Socrates’ goodbye to Theaetetus all the more applicable to my colleagues in academic philosophy:
SOCRATES: To-morrow morning, Theodorus, I shall hope to see you again at this place.
And indeed, I will hope to see you, my fellow philosopher, again at the next conference.