Several years ago I was conversing with some other philosophers about philosophy presentations. One of them described his frustration at having attended an interdisciplinary conference where the question and answer periods following the talks were unproductive. His complaint specifically focused on the fact that each person who asked a question first thanked the speaker and expressed appreciation for the talk. This time-wasting insincerity and empty formalism, he concluded, owed to the conference including participants from other disciplines, disciplines that, he implied, lack philosophy’s capacity to cut through vain cant. A basic, free-floating appreciation for the talk should go without saying – after all, the audience had sat through it. Anything more just wasted time better spent in critique of the work.
I have no idea how prevalent such sentiments about ceremonial gratitude are in the profession, but have since noticed that, in my own experience at least, it is uncommon to hear presenters thanked by those participating in Q & A sessions. Indeed, I was once part of an interdisciplinary group and went in behaving “like a philosopher” only to realize I was the rudest person present. Where others in my group habitually thanked speakers, I did not and it never dawned on me to do so, as hearing and expressing such gratitude was not part of my professional experiences.
Insofar as philosophy Q & A sessions omit the niceties, I think this a shame. Moreover, I suspect that this omission subtly influences the tone of such sessions, making them more likely to be agonistic and pugilistic. So I’d like to suggest that we decline to treat expressions of gratitude as insincere cant or time-wasting and make such expressions habitual elements of responding to others’ work.
It’s likely that most who fail to thank at philosophy talks neglect this out of habituation, but that the discipline’s practices habituate us to such neglect is a problem. I think there are multiple good reasons for engaging in ceremonial expressions of gratitude, but let me focus on tone.
Expressing gratitude as the lead in one’s response to another’s work can set tone for all that follows, inclining the one asking a question to be tempered in what follows. It is more difficult to be ungenerous and aggressive where one has enacted a courtesy first, I suspect.
Likewise, one expression of gratitude can influence subsequent questioners – one person’s expression of appreciation may give pause to subsequent questioners’ impulse (should they feel it) to go for the presenter’s jugular. We’re more likely to have humility about our own critical responses if we see that others are not merely critical but also appreciative.
Gratitude can likewise increase what the audience may receive from the presenter, polite appreciation making it more likely that she will offer the full range of her insights, including those often valuable yet assailable ideas that cannot be expressed from a defensive crouch. We may hear better and more if we first convey appreciation. (The idea that our tone in engaging a presenter does not influence what we receive from her strikes me as crushingly naïve.)
Expressing thanks for a talk, perhaps most basically, acknowledges and reinforces that, whatever a talk’s failings, the practice in which the talk participates (extending our scholarship to each other in hopes of shared dialogue and insight) is philosophy’s lifeblood. That is, ceremonial gratitude can protect nobler understandings of our activities.
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