ISSA 2014 Final Thoughts

The conference ended yesterday, and I believe it lives up to all of the hype. The papers were excellent, and so were the questions in the discussions. Serious people attend this thing, and it is a great time.

There are a lot of advantages to the way this conference is scheduled that other academic conferences should think about. Each panel is arranged to where you know when someone is going to start speaking. This creates a bit of a flurry as after one paper many people get up and leave a room and are replaced with another group of people, but at least it's honest about what people do at conferences and how they actually schedule their time. I appreciated it.

The other great thing was the lag time between panels for coffee and conversation. This is something that is often overlooked in the desire to get as many papers done as possible. But this conference made me think about the need for reflection and conversation about the papers. It's good to digest a bit between courses.

Now some specifics.

Day two's keynote by J. Anthony Blair was as meticulous and clear as van Eemeren's on day 1. Blair gave an overview of the development and the state of informal logic and where it is now. He very rightly pointed out the overemphasis on the study of fallacies by informal logicians, citing a number of other things that informal logicians explore. The reduction of the Canadian school to fallacy theory is convenient, but a misnomer. He also spent a lot of time covering the origins of informal logic, which were pedagogical - how can we teach logic using newspaper op-eds? They, in the spirit of people like Stephen Toulmin, are interested in teaching people the skills to argue in everyday life not in philosophy departments or for formal logic. I think it's quite interesting how Informal logic now is quite removed from this idea in the scholarship, and serves as a heuristic for argumentation criticism and evaluation.

I also saw an amazing paper about the history of Japanese debate where the authors clearly proved that the typical story - that debate in Japan was nonexistent from the 19th century until the end of World War 2 - is not true, and there were vibrant debating societies in Japan from the 1890s all the way through the 1930s. One of the first intercollegiate debates debated the motion on whether Japan should go to war with the United States. Fascinating well researched stuff which throws into question the annoying debate exceptionalism we hear from many debate evangelists and coaches who consider themselves intellectuals.

The third keynote was a perfect example of American argumentation research from the rhetorical perspective. While the first two keynotes were theoretical and sweeping in their nature, mostly interested in the quest to provide a workable theory of argumentation, Jeanne Fahnestock gave three case studies on how argumentation changes based on the genre in which it circulates. Her examples were very good - the case of the "return" of the ivory-billed woodpecker, the bacteria that live on arsenic. the finding of the "hobbit" skeleton, and the preserved dinosaur feathers in amber. These were explored in how they were presented in mass media as well as scientific magazines with the goal of indicating how context is of key importance in constructing rational argument.  A nice American punctuation mark to the highly European-style theoretical approaches of the first two keynotes.

The last day I saw several good papers on the use of rational argument in medical settings, and the connection of argumentation made rationally to patient compliance and perception of the doctor knowing what he or she is doing. Interesting stuff. I also managed to see an interesting panel on Perelman, Olbrects-Tyteca, and the role of the epideictic. However, I believe that American rhetorical theory comes to European scholars through several gatekeepers, and it limits the ability of these scholars to really access a more robust understanding of rhetoric. These papers were quite interesting, but considered epideictic rhetoric from an Aristotelian perspective at the very most. There were a number of good essays over the past 20 years or so that complicate and develop epideictic rhetoric in a manner that would make these sorts of arguments - primarily that the epideictic is essential for argumentation to begin - more persuasive and more robust. However, the other explanation might be more realistic - If Aristotle was good enough for Perelman and Olbrects-Tyteca, well, then it's good enough for me. Devotion to one theorist or one book can certainly make you think there's little value in moving away from it to other sources to make your argument.

The conference was fantastic, and I look forward to the next one in a few years.