Tuesday, June 3, 2014

10th Annual International Conference on Philosophy

Having just returned from the 9th Annual International Conference on Philosophy, run by ATINER (the Athens Institute for Education and Research), I see that information about next year's conference is already available. Regular readers of this blog might not be interested, but I'd like to provide a kind of review for anyone who searches online for information about these conferences. The news is both good and bad.

Apart from the fact that this is a conference in Athens, a very desirable place to visit for philosophers, the best news is that the conference itself is pretty good. It is a genuinely international event, with speakers from India, China, Australia, Europe, and the United States, for instance. If you're interested in comparative or world philosophy then this is a good event to attend. The quality of the papers is not uniformly high, and it doesn't help when a paper is delivered by someone for whom English is a second language who is so nervous that they talk rapidly, but most of the sessions I attended were either straightforwardly good or at least interesting because of what they showed about how philosophy is done in other places. The presenters were a nice mix of senior people, junior academics, and graduate students. Ilse Somavilla was there, for instance, so it was by no means all nobodies. I got at least as much out of this conference as I did from the last APA meeting I attended, where I found that there were very few papers on areas I work in and that papers in other areas assumed too much knowledge for me to be able to follow the argument properly. It's also a relatively small conference (with about sixty participants) and has an extensive social program, so there is a lot of opportunity to trade ideas outside of the formal conference sessions.

On the downside, this social program is not cheap, and a common topic of conversation was how expensive everything was. Most expensive of all was the hotel, for which I paid 150 euros a night through ATINER. I'm pretty sure I could have either paid much less or got a much better room if I had made my reservation directly with the hotel. So my first tip is to either stay elsewhere or else book your room yourself, not through ATINER. (They don't tell you where the hotel is until about a week before the conference begins, though, so this is risky. You could find yourself struggling to find a room in the right part of town. Having said that, making one's own arrangements seemed to work out just fine for a number of people at this year's conference.)

Next I'll go through the social program event by event and give my opinion on the quality and value you can expect:

Monday 25 May 2015: 21:00-23:00 Greek Night Entertainment. Tickets cost 60 euro each. 

In 2014 tickets cost 30 euros each for what appears to be exactly the same menu, location, etc. The food was not as good as you might expect for that price (and certainly not for twice that price), the view of the Acropolis far less impressive than I was expecting (because it is much farther away than it appears in the picture on the conference website), and the meal is not designed for vegetarians, but I thought this was (just about) worth doing. There is live Greek music throughout the meal, the company was good (although I ended up sitting with people from another, non-philosophy ATINER conference, which was not what I expected), and I was twice persuaded to join in the traditional Greek dancing, which was funny. If that sounds like a good time to you and you have 60 euros to spare, then go for it. Otherwise I would give this a miss. Bear in mind that you can get a better meal for less with a view of the Acropolis elsewhere. See here for some ideas.      

Tuesday 26 May 2015
18:30-20:30 Athens Sightseeing: Old and New-An Educational Urban Walk  

I made the mistake of assuming that a walk for philosophers would include the agora and Socrates' prison cell. Wrong. The walk is designed for participants in all ATINER conferences (engineers, accountants, and psychologists as well as philosophers when I went) and our guide (a sociologist) made no reference to philosophy that I can remember. He was good, but no better than I would expect any good tour guide to be. I enjoyed the walk, but I'm not convinced it's worth the price. Bear in mind that it includes the cost of a ticket to the Acropolis (12 euros), but also bear in mind that there is this free alternative (which I haven't tried and can't vouch for, and which is not conveniently scheduled after the conference sessions are over).   

Tuesday 26 May 2015: 21:00-22:00 Social Dinner

I didn't go to this, but it doesn't sound like a good deal. Your call.

Wednesday 27 May 2015: 07:30-20:30 Cruise to Aegean Islands

The reviews I read of a similar cruise before I went almost made me regret signing up for this. It's boring, they said. You don't get to spend any time on the islands, they said. The trip takes you to three islands--Hydra, Poros, and Aigina--and you do get to spend time on each one. We had about an hour on Hydra, supposedly the third most beautiful island in the world according to Condé Nast (it looks like it comes 11th here), although it was cloudy when I was there. Still very nice. Just enough time on Poros to climb up a hill for the views and photo ops. Then two hours on Aigina, which I used to go on the optional extra bus trip to the Temple of Aphaea and a disappointing church (built in the 1990s, I think, so not much historical interest there). If you don't pay the 25 euros for this trip you have two hours at the beach. The rest of the time on the boat you can get soaked by the waves if it's choppy and you sit in the wrong place (check), or sunburn (check), or listen to live Greek music (some of the time) and watch traditional Greek dancing (some of the time), or drink in the bar, or look at the sea. We didn't see any dolphins but I think people often do. Not cheap, but not bad.        

Thursday 28 May 2015: 08:00-19:30 Delphi Visit

This was wonderful. Partly because Delphi is so great and partly because our tour guide was so good. She also recommended a trip to Sounion as a must, and I trust her judgment. Apparently Heidegger liked it too. I didn't get the chance to go there, but I would seriously consider skipping the cruise to the Aegean islands and going to Sounion instead if you don't have the time and money to do both.     

You should make time to see the ancient agora where Socrates' prison cell is, and consider making visits to the sites of Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum. The Acropolis, of course, is also a must. And so is the National Archaeological Museum

Athens is a funny place, a bit like a poor person's Rome. Not that poverty is funny, but it's a peculiar city. There are heavily armed police in groups dotted about the city, wearing riot armor and carrying machine guns. There are also posters and graffiti promoting both anarchy and Marxism. The hammer and sickle sign seems to be a vote-winner here, which is a far cry from the US of A where I live. And there are homeless people and beggars, just as you might expect in any big city but not like the homeless people and beggars you would see elsewhere. I saw a young man who looked as though he had just left work at the office climb into a sleeping bag and lie down on the sidewalk. I saw multiple people with missing limbs or horrifying skin conditions showing off their injuries to try to gain sympathy and cash from passersby. It's as if the country is poised right outside the door to the Third World, or revolution, or fascism, or some combination of the three. 

On the other hand, mostly what I saw was very normal-looking people going to work or being tourists and consumers. There are excellent bakeries, coffee shops, and restaurants all over the place. There aren't as many antiquities as there are in Rome, and the rest of the architecture isn't as charming as it is in Rome. It's mostly pretty charmless in fact. But the Acropolis is right there over much of what you see, it's very sunny, I had no trouble at all with any crime, you can walk almost everywhere in the city, and there's more than enough to see to keep you busy for days.      

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