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Collaborative Graduate Student

The vast majority of my work is inter- and multidisciplinary (about 10 papers), and this proposal sounds truly misguided. In a proper collaboration, research goals are set out and achieved together - experiments are designed together (not merely by the experimentalists), data analysis is done together (yes, also by philosophers), and so on. Having an approach where a sociologist writes one part and a philosopher another seems quite wrong (and does not seem to be how collaboration works anyways). But then arguing to put one's own discipline on top is something that I would consider as expressing the worst types of leadership skills that the author suggests we develop (partially for the reasons Marcus lists). Overall then, I don't think that this approach would improve collaborations in any way and would endanger many of the ones I have and especially the ones I might have.


A lot of tacit assumptions play a role in anyone prioritizing the research questions that they do decide to prioritize. I wouldn't want to take for granted that philosophers are the best generators of research questions, and I think that collaborations that push us to think of questions in a different way are good for interdisciplinary inquiry (and inquiry in general).

Noah Hahn

What's control-freakish about letting philosophers lead? Good leadership doesn't require a freakish level of control. The danger isn't self-importance, but vainglory. Self-importance doesn't entail vice unless it's inordinate, and Mandi has argued that in this case it's perfectly ordinate. I think her argument is sound, too, not just the "general sentiment" behind it.

If philosophy doesn't lead, someone else will; there is no neutral ground. This is exemplified by our university structure, where the various arts and sciences are cordoned into "departments," construed as basically similar instances of the same kind, rather than as the unique members of various hierarchies that they actually are. But dethroning philosophy in this way just leaves a queen-shaped hole. There will still be a leading set of values -- probably those of the market, which are more tyrannical than queenly, as we know well. Predictably, the institutional worship of capital favors the natural sciences, since those produce information; and information always has more popular appeal than wisdom, since it allows me to bend the world to my will, instead of the other way around.

So the "egalitarian" project begs the question of which science should lead, functionally privileging the natural sciences and market values. A similar point applies to the attempt to ground philosophy's claim to leadership in its contributions to various scientific or technological projects. The "Einstein read Hume" line, for example, seems to tacitly accept that when it matters, the aspirations of the natural sciences trump those of philosophy.

We might remember that the same Plato who wanted philosophers to be in charge defined a philosopher elsewhere as one who knows how to ask questions. This is the practice which Gadamer called "a discipline of questioning and answering." Gadamer's point was that the methods of the natural sciences are not appropriate to the human sciences. So when people complain that the methods of the humanities aren't "reliable" or "truth-apt," what they really seem to mean is that the humanities don't generate nearly universal human consensus on previously undiscovered facts, something that natural science does do. But why think that philosophy should do this? Philosophy's lack of this power is precisely what allows it to be a good leader in principle.

A similar point applies in practice. Philosophy takes up leadership not by styling itself as similar but superior to natural science; if it did, scientists would have a right to be disdainful. Instead, philosophy dives right into the discipline of question and answering that it is uniquely equipped to do, all for the love of wisdom. When I engage physicists in this way, I find them to be friendly and open.

Trystan Goetze

I love this topic, and not just because my first degree was a philosophically informed interdisciplinary studies programme (see http://ki.uwaterloo.ca ). I've been collaborating in some interdisciplinary work in computer ethics and computer science education recently, and I find it highly rewarding, and much more impactful than anything I've done in uni-disciplinary philosophy.

I think it might be helpful to add in some terminology that's becoming more common in interdisciplinary work: to wit, the distinction between multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary research. If I recall correctly, multidisciplinary work just involves researchers from several different disciplines, some of whom may merely be contributing some supplemental perspective, as when ethics is added on as a consideration that is less than central to the main project. Interdisciplinary research, in this framework, is a more substantive collaboration, where the insights of one discipline inform the work contributed by another; no one partner in the project is an "add-on" or supplement, each is essential to the integrated whole. This is where I think a lot of good computer ethics is now: the philosophy isn't just there as a momentary reflection on how some moral theory or principle might apply to the case, but informs how technologies should be conceived and which projects should even be undertaken. Transdisciplinary research takes the integration a step further and creates something that is distinct from the original disciplinary contributors, combining them into a new research discipline. Cognitive science is potentially a case of this, where philosophy, psychology, computer science, neuroscience, and other fields have combined to make a new field of study.

I think there's a place for each of these kinds of research that cross traditional disciplinary boundaries -- which approach to adopt depends on the needs of a particular project. And I think that speaks against the notion that philosophy should *always* assume a lead role. If the project is to create some sophisticated machine learning model, for example, philosophy has a role to play in, for example, the ethical issues that model might present, but the lead arguably should be taken by those trained in computer–scientific and mathematical methods.

Mandi Astola

Nice counterpoints here. Here is maybe a less condescending way to say it: philosophers should take the role of *structuring* interdisciplinary research. Philosophy should inform the translation of descriptive claims to normative claims. Or is that still condescending?

Two points about what collaborative grad student is saying:
- I was not thinking so much about paper writing but more about structuring big interdisciplinary projects that adress an interdisciplinary question, like "What should the press do to adress polarization?" In that question there is a normative question ("should") with various subcomponents (i.e. what is the purpose of the press? Is polarization bad? etc) and there is a descriptive question with various components. I really think that philosophy is the perfect discipline to make sense of these different components. There is not much else philosophy can do than clarify concepts here, right? So why not use philosophy for that.
- I would be interested in hearing how you structure your interdisciplinary (multidisciplinary, transdisciplinary...) collaborations. And especially what is the place of philosophy there. If you are designing an experiment and analysing data, are you still doing philosophy? Is it interdisciplinary in the sense that it includes philosophy? Or are you venturing outside your discipline? How do you see this?


I don’t have much of a negative or positive argument. But I will offer a piece of wisdom. I’m assuming most interdisciplinary work involves an asymmetrical *initial* interaction insofar as one group or person must reach out to the other in the first place. Sometimes, nonphilosophers will reach out to philosophers first. Sometimes, philosophers will reach out to nonphilosophers first.

If the former, philosophers can be more confident that the nonphilosophers will respect and value the input and insights of the philosopher. It’s commonsense that usually when somebody comes to you for advice, they see value in your opinions or expertise and probably has high respect for you.

If the latter, it’s difficult to be as confident compared to the first scenario since the philosopher is going out of her way to seek collaboration with these nonphilosphers. It’s obvious she sees value and respects these academics because of her willingness to get their input. But she can’t be certain whether they feel the same way about her.

But even if they agree to collaborate, there’s still no guarantee that the philosopher and her expertise won’t be treated unfairly. I don’t know how often philosophers are marginalized or disrespected within these collaborations. But given so much hostility against philosophical research from outsiders, it’s wise to be cautious about who philosophers can and should ask to collaborate with.

Do your research on these people before you commit to doing research with them.

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