Good Philosophy Presentations

I just returned from the Society for Student Philosophers (SSP) annual conference at UT, Austin. It was a well-run event with good presentations and discussions. I wrote a comment elsewhere about how good presentations involve multi-media elements. At one level, the goal of a good presentation is the same as the goal of a good argument.

(G1) A sound argument is an an argument that is valid and contains only true premises.

Added to G1 is G2 which states:

(G2) An argument is valid if and only if it is necessary that if all the premises are true, then the conclusion is true.

Soundness and validity are basic standards of what makes an argument good. A good philosophy presentation should be held to the same standard. The presenter should state a conclusion, bolster the conclusion with premises that necessarily lead to the conclusion, and make evident the truth of the premises. A further criterion of a good argument is cogency. A.P. Martinich in Philosophical Writing states cogency as:

(G3) A cogent argument is a sound argument that is recognized to be such in virtue of the presentation of its structure and content.

The cogency requirement is a requirement of recognizability: the soundness (and validity) of the argument should be easily recognizable. If adequate evidence for premises is not presented, then even a sound argument can miss the mark of cogency. Evidence for a premise should make it obvious that the premise is true. The structure of the argument must also be apparent. The relations between premises and their tie to the conclusion should be well-articulated. Cogency is a place where many philosophy presentations miss the mark. With this in mind, there are two elements of a good presentation that must be held in tension:

(A1) A philosophy presentation is accurate if it contains a sound argument conveyed with precision.

Accuracy is held in tension with cogency:

(A2) A philosophy presentation is good if and only if it engages an audience with the recognizability of its accuracy.

Both A1 and A2 involve performative elements. All aspects of a presentation should be filtered through A1 and A2. The basic question is, “Does this medium aid in reaching the end of a good argument presented well?” The overall goal is to achieve the right balance between accuracy and cogency. I’ve been wrestling with how to achieve the right balance between A1 and A2 since the conference.

Most students at the conference erred on the side of accuracy to the determent of cogency. Most students read a shorted version of their extended paper. This facilitated achievement of A1, but it left the audience groping for A2. Students who read their paper tended to overwhelm the audience with a complex argument that didn’t make apparent how the evidence presented was supporting the premises. Put simply, too much information was thrown at the audience. This meant that ‘question time’ often involved clarifying questions instead of sharp questions addressing the support (or lack thereof) for the premises.

Overall, I was pleased with my presentation. I was glad I put more time into the slides and allowed that process to inform a tightening of my argument. It also served the end of peaking Scanlon’s interest and led to an interesting debate with him in the break-room over the details of Reflective Equilibrium. When one talks extemporaneously from bullet points (using PowerPoint or an outline in the form of a handout) it can facilitate achieving A2, but it can often do so at the expense of A1. I wish I would have achieved more accuracy by having the premises of my argument on a one-page handout. This would have also achieved a greater recognition of the soundness of my argument (or lack thereof).

Scanlon’s presentation was amazing. He talked extemporaneously off bullet points on an overhead projector. He did this because he’s Scanlon and he has been thinking and presenting for more years than I’ve been alive. But, I think he served as an excellent example of talking simply about a complex subject (rationality and reasons). His talk was engaging because he conveyed his ideas with both accuracy and cogency. The media he used did not get in the way of the ideas he was conveying. However, he could have moved his bullet-points to PowerPoint slides and his presentation would have been more engaging.

All that to say, I’m still wrestling with the best way to hold A1 and A2 in tension, how to achieve the right balance between these two vital elements in a good presentation.

One Comment

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  1. Chris:

    Interesting discussion of presentations. I agree with your point about reading a paper and too much detail. (I have probably been guilty of that myself.) I do have a problem with power-point vs. overhead or handout. My preferred method is handout since I can mark up handouts and I can refer back to sentences in handouts during the discussion. Power-point tends to be the worst method mainly because the little gimmicks people usually use distract from the claims and the argument. I do not want to see bouncing bunnies in the corner, dropping texts, flying bullets, or any of that garbage. Also the power-point setup seems to encourage sentence fragments and it is hard to evaluate these as they are not actual statements. Finally (and this can be a problem with overheads too) powerpoint presentation format can encourage bullett-point mentality which involves fragmentation of knowledge and a failure to recognize how ideas are organically connected. All of this (except for the bouncing bunnies) can be overcome by a good extemporaneous talk, but the medium sometimes is the message. You say that powerpoints are “more engaging” but I wonder whether they are really more engaging or whether people just think they should be more engaging and so they go along with the idea that they are really more engaging. There seems to be a kind of will to conformism in the idea that “of course power point presentations are more engaging.” Anyway I find them soporific.



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