I want to engage in a bit of evangelism inspired by a piece in the CHE and a book review I recently read in NDPR. They both got me thinking about my own experiences co-writing philosophy as a grad student and visiting faculty member. Co-authorship is an approach to writing that philosophers don’t do enough of. Nonetheless it has been an important part of my own development as a philosopher, such as it is, and I want to preach on its behalf.
I think of philosophy as a social activity; as more fun and fruitful when done with others. The discipline would be far worse off if we didn’t get together at conferences, share projects, read each others’ work, exchange ideas, and become friends. We don’t just teach using the Socratic method, we also interact that way. We interrogate one another about our intuitions, we instinctively respond with counterexamples, and bounce arguments off those whose skills we trust. Thus, in inception, our work is collaborative. Yet, as compared to many other disciplines, there appears to be far fewer co-authored works in philosophy.
We need to work with different people, scholars from other disciplines - for one. We claim that our discipline is relevant to others - we do bioethics; philosophy of mathematics, law, and mind; military, engineering, computer, and research ethics, political philosophy, aesthetics, etc. While I know enough to write a philosophy article, there is only so much I can master about another field. To be relevant outside philosophy we need to work with their practitioners and scholars (though be forewarned, interdisciplinarity has its price). It used to be said that philosophers learn physics from each other instead of from physicists. If we learn to collaborate we can rid ourselves of such embarrassing stereotypes. There is no reason that philosophers and practitioners of other fields should not be able to attend one anothers’ conferences and take each other seriously. We have all read too much philosophy about other things that reflects either a poor understanding of philosophy or the field under consideration.
I’m not yet at the point where I have written much, but so far I have had three coauthors and I’m now working with others. Each experience co-writing has been rewarding in its own way.
The writing process was different each time and each set of coauthors should see what works best for them. I have heard of coauthors writing a few paragraphs then handing off the paper to the other person to write a few more. I can’t imagine how something like that can work; but, hey, why not? Experiment and discover the best way to divide the work.
I was also lucky (very lucky) to have worked with extremely generous and smart people who have radically different skill sets than I have (and all with names earlier in the alphabet than mine, so I never feel bad about being the last author). I worked with a philosopher who was the chair of my department when I was a graduate student and an adjunct. He knew an enormous amount about the subject going in, guided me through a ton of unfamiliar literature, took me seriously even when my ideas sounded seriously crazy, and agreed to undertake a massive project with me that generated after a number of years first a paper and now more. My co-authors outside philosophy in literature and psychology (and now math) worked with me (in different ways) to hash out ideas that we each had part of. I think neither of us could have done it alone and I am grateful that they all took chances on me.
There is a downside. I work quite hard on scholarship that will net me less credit than work I’d do myself. But I can live with that. I have learned an incredible amount and enjoyed it immensely. (Fair warning: collaboration worked for people like Paul Erdős though not Zachary Ernst. Anyone want a Zelcer-number?)
Of course I still find my own projects very rewarding. Also, some work I co-authored begat offshoots that I undertook on my own (as did my co-authors). I would recommend to anyone that part of your portfolio reflects some co-authorship, not because I think it will make your CV better, but because it will make philosophy more enjoyable for you.