Suppose you’ve been given a sizeable pot of money to fund an annual lecture. Leaving the question of topics aside, who do you invite? Who are the best speakers in academia today? Is there someone you’ve heard speak who you think is underrated—as an academic, or as a public speaker? Now imagine you had to publish the speaker’s talk. Does that change things for you? Or is your top choice still the same?
There are lots of people we enjoy reading whom we’ve never heard speak—especially when they’re from fields in which we don’t attend conferences. I thought it might be helpful to get comments from those outside my immediate fields (which are law, political theory and philosophy), though I’d certainly be interested in reactions within those disciplines as well.
I think the most impressive academic speaker I’ve heard is Ronald Dworkin. (Will Brian Leiter ever forgive me?) His Hart Memorial Lecture in 2001 (for which I couldn’t find a link) was probably the single best academic presentation I’ve seen. He gave the lecture without notes. By itself, that wouldn’t be anything all that extraordinary. But I’d read the manuscript that the speech was based on, and it was as if Dworkin had a teleprompter in his mind. You might have thought he’d delivered it from memory, except that it was clear he was just moving through his ideas systematically. I’ve heard a lot of excellent talks over the last few years, but none that stands out as much as that one.