Leiter’s criticism of Solum

by Micah on November 12, 2003

Apparently, some of the panelists at the Rawls conference were unhappy with Larry Solum’s coverage. Brian Leiter voices their criticisms and adds some of his own. Leiter’s main concern is

whether it’s fair to presenters to translate their ideas and arguments, and then present them to potentially thousands of students and faculty elsewhere via a blog. It is [fair] if one is consistently on the money, as Solum was in the session on public reason. But it’s unfair, and does a disservice, when the accounts produce the kinds of [negative] reactions from presenters quoted above.

Solum has replied to this criticism in what I think is a thoughtful and, to my mind, persuasive post. Those who take issue with his coverage can certainly write to him about it. I’ve never seen Solum shy away from objections to what he writes, and I have no doubt, as he says in his reply, that he would engage the merits of any serious criticism.

Leiter raises some important questions about the responsibilities of those who blog about public events. Yet, his basic principle seems to be: if you’re not an expert on the subject being discussed, and if you don’t convey what people say in ways that they will happily recognize as representing their views, then you simply shouldn’t blog about what you’ve heard. I think this principle is too demanding, especially when (i) there are open forums for those who spoke to correct perceived mistakes, and (ii) published accounts of their considered statements will be available within a reasonable time.

Accuracy in blogging public events is important, but responsible coverage may include a mix of opinions and observations with which others may disagree. In the case at hand, anyone who read Solum’s posts would have recognized that they were seeing the conference through his eyes. Solum was an enthusiastic participant at the conference, which is part of what made his coverage so great. He told us what was happening, who was talking, generally (and sometimes more specifically) what they were talking about, and, at the same time, he gave us his impressions about all of these things. Furthermore, Solum’s readers know he has written about some of the topics under discussion. (In fact, given his extensive work on public reason, I was somewhat surprised that he wasn’t on one of the panels.) We know he has views about these issues. Indeed, those familiar with the Rawls literature will most likely have spotted remarks that they think are slightly idiosyncratic. But that’s to be expected from anyone commenting on ideas they care about. And one thing that came across loud and clear to all of Solum’s readers is that he cares deeply about the subject of the conference.

As someone who works on topics related to Rawls’s political philosophy, I’m grateful to Solum for giving me a sense of what went on at the conference—even if all the details aren’t quite right. I will certainly follow up by reading the panelists’ papers when they are published by Fordham. In the meantime, however, it helps to know about the sorts of issues that were discussed. Let me also add that if, as a result of Solum’s enthusiasm, Rawls and his students have a few more readers after this conference, so much the better. Whatever misconceptions they have can be cleared up by their encounters with other readers and, hopefully, with the relevant texts.



jdsm 11.12.03 at 11:35 am

On balance I would have to agree with Micah. I can see how it must be frustrating if your views are misrepresented on the Internet and I’m sure Larry Solum didn’t intend to do so. However, the benefit of coverage like Solum’s to Joe Public outweighs the irritation to the speaker.

I think we should also give Solum a break since the challenge of representing views in real time on topics as dense as these, is monumental.


raj 11.12.03 at 12:18 pm

Um, perhaps the conference should publish a proceedings. It could do so on the internet–no paper, saving lots of money. That way, the presenters could have their papers published the way they want them published.

That said, perhaps those objecting to Solum’s comments regarding certain presentations might consider whether their presentations were as clear as they thought they were. Assuming that Solum was trying to synopsize the presentations correctly, perhaps their presentations were not as clear as they might have been.


Kragen Sitaker 11.12.03 at 5:43 pm

People who have not posted their papers on their home pages have no business complaining that someone else’s summary of their presentation is incomplete or inaccurate. The presentations are, after all, public, not private.


Timothy Burke 11.12.03 at 6:32 pm

I file this under the heading of dog bites man (or Leiter bites blogger). Why Leiter feels that somehow blogging is different from the general range of the ways academics represent the work of other academics, I really cannot say. A feeling that one has been misrepresented or misquoted is common, and does not always involve published works to which people wishing to evaluate the claim of misrepresentation may be directed.

Moreover, I would argue that to a certain degree, academic prose now frequently is constructed so as to sustain multiple claims about what the central argument or point of a piece might be, and is festooned with numerous qualifiers designed to protect against various objections both trivial and non-trivial. Ferreting out what the author intends to be the central argument can in fact be a difficult enterprise for this reason, precisely because a certain amount of plausible deniability is often hardwired in, and certain objections preemptively fended off. In some cases, more genuinely, we only discover what our real central arguments are by testing a paper in a conference or workshop: we may be unconsciously undecided about some key points, and present our work in order to come to a decision.

Moreover, I think audiences at a conference are perfectly justified after listening to a paper to say, “The central argument of the paper was X, but I find X a fairly banal argument; the most interesting thing it had to say was actually Y, which was more of a throwaway”. That can actually be a generative, useful response, even if it redirects the conversation (and the impression audiences have of the conversation) away from the author’s own intention. That’s why you *have* audiences at conferences, or why you should: to engender conversation, to see what others make of the work you present.

Leiter seems to think that the purpose of a conference or workshop is the literal transmission of the exact words of an author, and that no interpretation, rethinking, responsiveness, or representation of the papers is warranted. In which case, why have conferences at all? We should just post papers as we complete them on websites and invite the whole world to read *exactly* what we wrote in *exactly* the form we wrote it in.

That’s not what I take to be the meaningful, generative point of academic conversation. The point is, “What do we make of what was said, written or thought by another”? And if that’s the point, we can certainly protest when we think that someone has misrepresented the arguments of another, but that protest is wholly the normal, everyday business of academic knowledge production. No need to make a big production out of it, and especially no need to ask another academic to stop representing the work of others for fear that a misrepresentation might happen. If it happens, contest it. Simple enough.

Leiter feels compelled for some reason to put a great gob of extra icing, sprinkles and candles on top of that rather matter-of-fact and ordinary point. We do not have a right to expect within an academic environment that each of us alone is qualified to represent what we individually have to say, nor a right to protest the representations of others as definitionally and intrinsically inappropriate by the mere fact that they are the representations of others. I can’t think of a faster way to kill off the entirety of academic discourse than that demand.


Tom T. 11.13.03 at 5:02 am

How is Solum different from any attendee at a public event? For that matter, how is Leiter different from any public figure claiming that he was quoted out of context? Certainly, if President Bush or one of his challengers tried to impose a requirement that a reporter could not report on one of his speeches unless the reporter confirmed that her interpretation of his remarks agreed with his own, he would leave himself open to considerable scorn.

Of course, the converse can be true, too. If a reporter can be shown to have skewed her reporting because of ignorance or malice, then presumably the reporter would be subject to criticism. I don’t get the impression that such charges are being raised against Solum here, though.

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