Conferences pulse with new blood

July 25, 2003

Alison Goddard reports on revelations and revels at the annual meeting of British philosophers in Belfast

One in four British philosophers attended the philosophy conferences in Belfast, with numbers topped up by visitors from the US and continental Europe. Organisers estimated that some 300 philosophers attended three conferences that ran back-to-back at Queen's University.

Many of the delegates were PhD candidates or in their first academic jobs. And they showed dedication: after dinner in Belfast City Hall, where one delegate memorably remarked that the wine was flowing like beer, they trooped back to classrooms for presentations lasting from 8pm until 9.30pm.

The organisers hope the conferences will inject some lifeblood into the philosophy department that hosted them. A relatively weak performance in the 2001 research assessment exercise - the department gained a 3a grade corresponding to national levels of excellence in three-quarters of the work submitted - had left it vulnerable. The department was threatened with closure when the classics and ancient history department was axed last summer.

The conference programme - the highlight of which was a contribution by former Reith lecturer Onora O'Neill - was highbrow and varied but, despite no lack of philosophical ideas to debate, the gossip at the conference dinner was personal: there was talk of a philosopher being undone by a Sunday newspaper.

Sure enough, the Mail on Sunday duly reported that Peter Smith had resigned as a fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, amid allegations that he had had sex with a series of call girls in his tutorial rooms. The newspaper alleged that he enjoyed free sex with prostitutes from an internet-based agency in return for reviews of their love-making abilities and preferences for a linked website.

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