fidesquaerens (marta_bee) wrote,

UK conference + travelog

I recently went to Oxford and back to present at a conference, the British Society for the Philosophy of Religion. It was the first conference I ever presented at, and the first conference on this scale that I had ever attended - drawing international participants, and also not just graduate students but a good mix of ph.d. candidates, postdocs, and professors at all levels.

It was a really good experience! For one thing I got to hear the other papers and realize that I can hear someone discuss (for example) various mind/body issues and whether a materialist [= someone who thinks we are our body] can believe in the resurrection, and follow along the various arguments and make a meaningful comment or two afterwards. That is a revelation to me because thisi s the kind of topic I don't feel qualified to research in, because I focus so much on certain historical periods. But I can hold my own in that setting better than I thought I would.

I also got to meet some very nice people from the U.K. and elsewhere and talk about job prospects. There are possibilities I hadn't thought about in the past, like teaching the A-level religious studies course (which apparently includes good portions of ethics, philosophy of religion, critical thinking, etc. - the kind of course I usually teach now to my freshmen). Given that I like working with people who are new to the subject and maybe won't even study it as a major, that actually sounds like a lot of fun. I think I would still much prefer to be a professor (or the British equivalent of the American professor, as I know that's a really rare position in the U.K.!), but especially if I could get on at a good school with students aiming for Oxbridge or similar universities, I think I'd get a lot of satisfaction out of doing A-level teaching.

My talk in particular went very well. I spoke on the ontological argument, in particular on the first half of it where Anselm says that because the fool understands what Anselm means by the word "God," the referent of that word exists in the mind. I had some excellent comments, including some from some well-known scholars in the field, and most of them were complementary or at least acted like there was something in the paper worth taking seriously. I got tipped off to a fascinating line of argument, just what the Latin word argumentum means. According to the sources I'd used it referred to a technical logical concept for an early-medieval translator/philosopher, Boethius. But one of the people eharing my talk said it could mean (and he thought it did mean) a metaphysical concept used by the Stoics, which Anselm was reframing as a Christian concept. Definitely a worthwhile train of thought!

Also had a comment from someone asking whether the fact that God is later described as so great we can't completely understand Him is a problem. That's where the thing with the syllogism comes in. What I was trying to argue is that we have a concept of God that we do understand, and we know on the one hand that this concept connects up with God and (per the second half of the ontological argument) that this concept describes that something that exists as more than just a thought. So without understanding God-the-being completely we have good basis to think God exists in the world. That point relies on the whole ontological argument, which I wasn't really delving into because it's a when-the-king-returns kind of argument, I think. I wanted to look at whether the atheist could reject the idea that when he hears the word God the concept of God is really in his understanding. I think some atheists can, but only if they're prepared to say (and argue for) the idea that the concept of "God" is impossible. The Richard Dawkins mode of atheist - the folks who think the concept is possible but just so unlikely it's on the atheist to prove He exists - have less wiggle-room on this issue.

For the interested: the paper I presented is available here: Conceiving of That-Than-Which-Nothing-Greater-Can-Be-Conceived. I did get a bit off-script and cut out a bit because I was running over time, but if you're interested that should give you some idea of what I said.

That got more deeply philosophical than I meant it to! Sorry. What I was trying to say is a commenter - a really venerable scholar in medieval philosophy, actually - asked me whether these two claims (God is understood by the atheist but God is so great we can't understand him) contradicted each other. And I was able to offer an outline of an answer (b/c the issue is so complicated) that he thought was promising. That made my day. As did all the comments I received afterward, both on the substance and my presentation style. I was definitely sorry about the conference ending and having to come back to New York and get on with the more mundane life of a graduate student. But I'll manage!


While traveling I posted to FB regularly, because some people had asked me to so they'd know I was safe. It actually formed a nice little travelog, so I thought I would post it.

12-Sept at 17:31:

@Newark Int'l waiting for my flight, reading the New Republic, and listening to Three Dog Night. There's some virtue in knowing that everything I need to get done for the next few days is either already done or not going to get done. It has a lovely sabbathy feel to it. No wonder my muse always gets chatty at airports - it's one of the few times our minds aren't pulled in a thousand different directions.

12-Sept at 21:15:

I am safely in Toronto. I don't think I've ever filled out a form that was quite as confusing as the customs form - not because it was badly designed but because since I'm leaving the country inside of three hours, every other question seemed to require an exception.

The food court was surprisingly healthy and affordable. And the exchange rate is still kind. The airport is clean and quiet and the people are friendly. Kind of makes me wish I could stay a bit longer!

Next stop, Heathrow!

12-Sept at 22:27:

[While waiting for my plane I read a blog post by some Arabic-looking woman taken off a plane on suspicions of terrorism. It affected me deeply, and I still want to blog about it properly. But this was my first reaction, throwing up a link to it.]

Will post more in depth about this later, when I have the time and the necessary intellectual difference. But I wanted to call people's attention to this personal account of someone who was arrested on (seemingly baseless) suspicions of terrorism. Well worth a read.

13-Sept at 13:41:

Safe in Oxford. I am unfortunately dead-on-my-feet tired, mainly because I couldn't sleep on the plane. I did watch more episodes of "M*A*S*H" and "The Simpsons" than I have in year.

On the ride to where I'm staying I saw the Eagle and the Child, of Inklings fame. Didn't get a picture, unfortunately. I may go sight-seeing tomorrow and find it again. (Conference doesn't start until late afternoon.)

So far Oxford the town strikes me as a mix of Anderson, SC and Blowing Rock, NC. (Two towns from my childhood.) No offense intended, but given where I live now that's a rather odd vibe. But I think that is just not being settled, and hopefully when things kick off tomorrow things will feel more "normal" to me.

But I do have the internet set up and I have a bed where I can sleep and a suitcase unpacked. These are not small things!

[at this point times switch to British time, I think]

13-Sept at 07:13

Recent conversations got me thinking. The Taoist concept of wu wei (acting naturally/don't get in the way of nature) seems quite compatible with Aristotle's idea that virtue is a character capacity, i.e. flows from who we are. But then when I think about it, the comparison isn't so strong b/c Aristotle says character education + change is possible whereas wu wei seems to say no. Any philosophy-friends know of anyone who looked at this issue? (Or Taoism meets Aristotle, more generally?)

13-Sept at 09:00

There are few things in this world quite as nice as British pub chips, done right. I don't know if it's that I haven't had American French fries in ages, or if they really are this good. American fries is the nearest equivalent, but they're really not quite the same - these are bigger, less seasoned, probably more fatty, and so hot they will burn your mouth if you aren't careful.

It's *al*most enough to make up for the lack of Pepsi products. :-)

14-Sept at 18:15

I presented my paper this afternoon. It was well-received, both by other students about on my level educationally (doctoral students + postdocs etc.) but also by some more established philosophers like Drs. Anthony Kenny and Ian Logan. Got some criticism privately, mainly to do with minor points that didn't quite make it clearly into the condensed paper/presentation. Afterwards had a nice dinner with Dr. Logan and other Oxford profs. It's been a good experience, all round.

[and back to US East Coast time]

16-Sept at 19:14

I am back on the right continent. In North America, I mean - after a week in Oxford I think the Bronx, and even Manhattan, will be a letdown. I'm queuing for security (already went through customs) for my connecting flight out of Toronto. It was actually a near thing as I slept through my alarm this morning and so was two hours late getting out of Oxford. But I still made it to Heathrow. *crosses fingers for no more complications.*

16-Sept at 19:33

Reason #237 why Toronto's Pearson Int'l rocks: bendy straws in the food court. It is ridiculous how happy this simple thing makes me. I love bendy straws, but nowhere I ever shop at New York seems to have them.

17-Sept at 01:59

I did want to let everyone know I made it back to the Bronx safely. Would that I could say the trip was uneventful! Between a flight being rescheduled and then taxiing on the runway for about an hour at Newark, it was about 11:30 pm before I finally got my bags. At that hour I actually trusted the trains more than I did a cab (b/c with trains there are crowds and places to run, whereas with a cab I would have to get into a car alone with some stranger) and so I took first the NJ Transit train and then the NY subways back to the Bronx, and called a cab co. I know once I got here. It actually felt very safe (for those concerned about me living in the big scary city) but DRAINING after a transatlantic flight. Anyway, I am back in my apartment and so can crash.

Unfortunately there are no pictures. I discovered when I was over in England that my new cell phone did not have a SIM card so I couldn't store pictures. I did buy a disposable camera but can't find it in my bag. The people at the college where I was staying promised to mail it to me if it turned up, so maybe I will have some eventually. But really, I didn't take many anyway because I like experiencing what I'm seeing, and not through a camera lens. I feel bad for you guys that I can't share them, but I was not taking them for myself in any case. So I mainly took them to show other people. I'll post them if/when I get them. In the meantime, I at least have the memories.

One thing I didn't mention was some sight-seeing I did on Wednesday morning before the conference started. I went into Oxford proper and did some window-shopping on Oxford High Street, including the map/print shop Sanders of Oxford. What a treat! I also went into the Bodleian library and Christ Church. Aside from being a lot of fun generally, I thought that parts of Christ Church seemed way too familiar, and afterwards I figured out why. Seems parts of Hogwarts scenes in the Harry Potter movies were were filmed at Christ Church. A rather cool, fannish connection.

I ran out of time, though, before I could actually make it into the Eagle and the Child, the Inklings pub. Guess I'll just have to go back! Which I fully intend to - the library has some of the best medieval manuscripts in the world, so I doubt I'll be a stranger...

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Tags: academic, philosophy, travel
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