The Republic will not be televised

Inter-university conference takes philosophy out of the classroom and into the public sphere

Although only in its second year, Philopolis – a bilingual philosophy conference with open attendance – is certainly making its mark. The conference, held at McGill and UQAM last month, featured a wide range of topics covered by speakers with an even wider range of experience; over the course of the weekend, it became clear that the discussions taking place were almost as important as the lectures themselves.

The aim of Philopolis is twofold, explained Susan-Judith Hoffmann, a professor of philosophy at McGill who gave a presentation entitled “The Philosophy of the Natural Sciences.” First, it aims to “make philosophy part of a larger academic conversation, and to demonstrate that philosophy is an important voice in its own right.” Secondly, organizers set out “to make philosophy accessible to the general public and to give it a role in shaping public life.”

The jargon typical of average lectures was avoided by gearing the presentations toward inexperienced but interested listeners. The 100 speakers, giving 80 presentations, did not oversimplify, though. Professors and students alike offered their input on topics as diverse as “The emotional education of reality TV,” “The paradox of free will,” and “Turning the wheel of Dharma: a really short introduction to Buddhism.”

“For philosophers,” said the president of the Philosophy Students Association, David Brooke Struck, “Philopolis presents a great opportunity to see how much our discipline has in common and to share with others, and how beneficial this can be to philosophical development. For non-philosophers, it presents an opportunity to step back from the book or the microscope and recognize the application of one’s interests to a broader intellectual landscape.”

The importance of stepping back was Philopolis’s underlying theme. Focussing too specifically on issues such as the mind/body gap risks ignoring crucial fragments of debate, and stepping back to find coherence in the whole helps recover them. Philosophy is commonly misunderstood as being an isolated and irrelevant subject, lagging behind science and far too broad to solve anything. Philopolis demonstrated that high-calibre philosophy can successfully be presented to the public as relevant and practical, and furthermore, in step with science. “Philosophy attempts to express and understand not only what it means to be human, but also what it means to do the things humans do,” said U1 student Emma Ryman, who gave a presentation on “Plato’s Underworld.” “For any human activity, there is a philosophy behind it,” she explained.

Many of the presentations included art, music, film, or computers. “Lecture and Demo: Chaotic Music and Fractal Art: A Glimpse into the Neurophysicality of Aesthetics,” for example, featured all of the above. There were also live demonstrations. “The Improvisation of Philosophy” included an improvised performance, and McGill’s TNC Theatre presented absurdist philosophy through a production of The Bald Soprano.

While this was only Philopolis’s second year, the quality of its organization was on par with longer-running series at McGill. On a practical level, Struck evidently did a superb job of arranging the event; so did the numerous volunteers, mostly McGill students. The schedule was easy to follow and the presentations were punctual. There was even free fruit. Naturally, though, there is room for improvement – attendance was limited, and mostly comprised of philosophy students. Next year, Philopolis will hopefully receive more presentations by non-philosophers, and a less homogenous audience. Judging by its success this year, this is bound to happen.