Crane, Victor attend IPA conference

On Friday Nov. 2, and Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012, the Illinois Philosophical Association (IPA) held its annual conference at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Two SIUE philosophy professors were in attendance at the regional conference: Philosophy Department Chair Dr. Judith Crane, as President of the organization and chair for the keynote speaker, and visiting professor Dr. Elizabeth Victor, who delivered commentary.

Dr. Bruce Russell of Wayne University presenting his paper at the IPA conference, with commentator Dr. Sharon Street participating via Skype

Dr. Bruce Russell of Wayne University presenting his paper at the IPA conference, with commentator Dr. Sharon Street participating via Skype

The IPA was first organized in 1957 by a group of philosophers in Illinois who wanted to bring philosophers together every year to share their work. While the officers of the organization must be from Illinois, the organization invites philosophers from universities around the nation to present their papers.

Crane has been a part of the organization since she came to SIUE in 1999. Before being named as President of the IPA, she served as Secretary/Treasurer and as Vice President.

As President, Crane reviews papers submitted and also helps choose the keynote speaker for the conference. This year’s keynote speaker was Dr. Sharon Street from New York University, who, because Hurricane Sandy, could not leave New York. She gave her speech at conference via Skype.

Crane and the other IPA officers were interested in having Street as a keynote speaker because of her unique field of research.

“Sharon Street’s speciality is metaethics, which explains where morality comes from and where normativity comes from, especially in the context of a scientific approach…She does a lot about trying to reconcile evolution with normativity,” Crane explains.

According to Crane, attempting to connect evolution and normativity is currently a “hot topic” among philosophers. Normativity is concerned with what Crane describes as “value-laden” claims, or “the way things ought to be or the way we should behave.”

Evolution, in the context of Street’s research, is concerned with not only the commonly associated biological and physiological changes in humanity over time but also the changing social behaviors of human beings.

Bringing these two concepts together involves asking complex questions like, Does morality come from the way we have been selected to behave on a genetic level and/or a socialized level? Are people simply “wired” to survive or are we socialized to survive?

Keynote speaker Dr. Sharon Street's presentation was projected onto a large screen using Skype from NYU

Keynote speaker Dr. Sharon Street's presentation was projected onto a large screen using Skype from NYU

At the conference, Street presented “Normativity and Water: The Analogy and Its Limits,” addressing these issues. Philosophers who had written about the same topic were invited to share their papers and receive commentary from Street, which Crane feels is a great aspect of this year’s IPA conference.

“You can submit a paper on the topic, and one of best people in the field gets to comment on it,” she says.

Other topics presented at the conference include animal rights, the morality of President Abraham Lincoln, grief and love, free will presented in Plato’s The Republic and mental illness, which was Victor’s area for commentary.

Victor delivered commentary for “Delusions and Downstream Effects” by Dennis Trinkle, a philosophy graduate student from University of Wisconsin-Madison. Trinkle’s paper centers around the psychological concept of upstream causes and downstream effects.

In mental illness, upstream causes are the biological causes for mental illness, like chemical imbalances in one’s brain. Downstream effects are the ways that a person’s mental illness affects his or her life outside of his or her mind, or in the world of work, family, friends, and society in general.

“The traditional interpretation in the medical-biological model is, ‘treat upstream causes, downstream effects go away,’” Victor explains.

Philosopher George Graham believes that downstream effects are not always negative, and if those effects help a person with a mental illness cope with everyday life, then there is no need to treat the upstream cause, or biological factor, of the illness.

“George Graham says that we are often unclear about the upstream causes,” says Victor. “In addition, there may be some times in which the downstream effects are the good things that are coming from these upstream causes.”

In his paper, Trinkle argues against Graham’s theory, stating that traditional psychiatric classification systems should keep upstream causes as the chief source of classifying, judging and treating delusion, a downstream effect of several mental illnesses.

“Trinkle’s saying that classification needs to always only be focused on the upstream causes, not on downstream effects,” says Victor. “Downstream effects…are going to be too subjective, they’re going to be up to individual judgments, and those judgments are always going to be value-laden.”

Victor’s commentary encouraged Trinkle to think on the other side of the argument, that downstream effects can occur due to societal impact rather than simply upstream causes.

“We need to recognize that society constructs us and trains our brains to respond in certain ways, and we need to be very careful with the labels that get put on people,” says Victor. “If we think that it’s always only in the head of particular individuals, we lose the ability to critique the systems that are maybe producing those particular individuals.”

Prior to the conference, Victor had done similar research in the area of women’s mental health, specifically about “how certain mental health labels from the position of social institutions can compound vulnerabilities that are already present in the population,” she says.

She has recently co-authored an article for the Journal for Feminist Approaches to Bioethics about this research.

Victor, being new to SIUE and to Illinois, had not before been associated with the IPA. She was pleased when Dr. Crane had approached her and let her know about the IPA and asked if she wanted to lend her knowledge.

“I was really happy to find another intellectual community in this region,” Victor says.

Crane says that next year’s IPA conference is likely to be held at SIUE, since it will be her last year as President. Each president holds the office for two years, and in his or her second year, he or she delivers an address usually at his or her home university or college.

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