The surprise hit of the day was a talk by David Levy, the author of Scrolling Forward, on the contemporary technology-encouraged mismatch between what the Scholastics called ratio and intellectus. The first can be translated as reasoning and analysis, while the latter is more akin to reflection and philosophizing. Levy argues that we have the best tools for ratio ever developed, but our tools– technological, social, institutional– for cultivating intellectus are sorely wanting.
This resonated with the crowd, which probably to a person felt themselves overcommitted and overextended. No one I know in academia says they have the time to do the sort of deep thinking that academics are supposed to do. One person even confessed that they go to conferences not so much to network with people, meet friends, hear papers, etc., but also to get some time for solitude and contemplation.
This seems paradoxical, but it nicely describes some of my own motivation for going to conferences. Yes, conference is a chance to engage with subjects that occupy you deeply, and to meet people with whom you might one day do some things. But is also offers the opportunity– maybe later in the day, or after the banquet– enter a little bubble of solitude built out of the unfamiliarity of place and separation from family and everyday acquaintances. For me, going to a conference that largely consists of academics is a chance to do some of both: to spend time with new people, but who represent a major break– more in the “recreational” sense of break than “rupture” sense– from my normal life.
The other reason I go to events like this is that, more than any other single catalyst, these are places where I have little conceptual breakthroughs on projects I’ve been working on. In the course of putting together my own talk, responding to comments to it, and listening to other papers, I figured out ways to greatly strengthen a couple pieces I’ve been working on– pieces that I’ve been working on, off an on, for the better part of a year (or maybe more now). For some reason, even as short a trip as one to Santa Clara can stimulate new ideas, so long as it brings me into contact with a new mix of people.