The Value of Philosophy in Interdisciplinary Research (guest post by Brian Robinson and Michael O’Rourke)

The Value of Philosophy in Interdisciplinary Research (guest post by Brian Robinson and Michael O’Rourke)


Brian Robinson and Michael O’Rourke, both at Michigan State University, lead The Toolbox Project, an initiative which provides “philosophical yet practical enhancement to cross-disciplinary, collaborative science.” It is a fascinating and innovative use of philosophy to facilitate interdisciplinary research, and has been up and running for over a decade. I asked them to share information about the project with Daily Nous readers in a guest post*. Those interested in learning more should email them.


The Toolbox Project and the Value of Philosophy in Interdisciplinary Research
by Brian Robinson (Michigan State University) and Michael O’Rourke (Michigan State University)

A team of interdisciplinary researchers walk into a bar and try to figure out what to drink. One plots the correlations between price and alcohol by volume. Another interviews the bartender and a dozen customers about their life histories of drinking. A third tries sampling every beer but passes out while muttering about needing a larger sample size. The next morning, no one can agree which beer is best. Someone asks, “What was our hypothesis anyway?” Another replied, “Who needs a hypothesis?” No findings were published.

The point of this anecdote is to convey some of the challenges faced by interdisciplinary researchers and how philosophers can help. The Toolbox Project has been deploying philosophy to enhance the collaborative capacity of interdisciplinary research teams for over a decade now. We consider our work to be a practical demonstration of the value of philosophy as well as a means for engaging in novel philosophical research.

Interdisciplinary research has become an increasingly common means to conduct scientific research. Many pressing problems, like climate change, require examination that relies on the methods and insights of a range of academic disciplines. But interdisciplinary research is challenging. Disagreement on the nature or necessity of a hypothesis, for instance, undermines a group’s capacity to produce publishable research. When the group doesn’t recognize the disagreement, the challenges multiply. They can talk past each other without ever realizing it. Talking past one another is easy when one is used to talking to those with similar academic training, where shared meaning can be taken for granted.

When stepping across disciplinary lines, however, such common ground can’t be taken for granted. Interdisciplinary researchers have differences in epistemological and metaphysical commitments can be daunting to overcome, especially when those commitments are left unarticulated. Even their language is a barrier to collaboration. Besides the fact that they each bring discipline-specific jargon to the group, interdisciplinary scientists often apply different meanings to the same term (e.g., ‘hypothesis’ and ‘triangulation’). These barriers to effective interdisciplinary research are fundamentally philosophical problems; at their core they are metaphysical, epistemological, or axiological issues. In short, interdisciplinary research is a place where philosophy can make a difference.

Those of us at the Toolbox Project are committed to demonstrating the value of philosophy in this locus. We contend that philosophy can enhance the collaborative capacity of interdisciplinary researchers. And our answer to the question about philosophy’s value is not theoretical, but actual. We have now conducted over 170 workshops on five continents over the past eleven years, working with a wide range cross-disciplinary researchers (i.e., multi-, inter-, and trans-disciplinary researchers) and community stakeholders. Recently, for instance, we traveled to Kyoto, Japan to work with several environmental and climate research teams at the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature.

The Toolbox Project is committed to three central theses: (1) philosophy is ubiquitous, (2) by revealing the philosophical assumptions that cross-disciplinary researchers start with, philosophical dialogue can enhance communication between members of a collaborative group, and (3) improved communication will make the group more effective.

By claiming that philosophy is ubiquitous, we mean that matters worthy of philosophical investigation can be found anywhere. Philosophers of science have long known that philosophical issues abound in how scientists understand and engage in scientific endeavors. Part of what we’ve discovered is how capable researchers themselves are at recognizing that fact and how willing they are to discuss philosophical dimensions of their work, at least once they are given a bit of prompting.

The workshops that we conduct with cross-disciplinary researchers provide that prompting. We first give participants a Toolbox instrument, which is a set of philosophical prompts (such as “Scientific claims need not represent objective reality to be useful,” and “Value-neutral scientific research is possible”). They begin by rating their agreement with each prompt as a starting point for subsequent discussion. We then facilitate their philosophical dialogue about these prompts. These dialogues often include discussion of the different meanings of terms in the statements. It is not uncommon for participants to gain both a better understanding of their teammates’ philosophical commitments and their own as well. The goals of this dialogue are mutual understanding and epistemic integration. As cross-disciplinary researchers gain a better understanding of the collaborators’ differing philosophical commitments, they can avoid some of the challenges that commonly beset cross-disciplinary research.

The Toolbox Project originated in an Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship project at the University of Idaho in 2005, and has received support from the US National Science Foundation (SES-0823058, SBE-1338614 & SBE-1338626). Although fundamentally a philosophical project, participants and partners have represented a wide range of disciplines. Currently based at Michigan State University, it involves collaborators at the University of Idaho, Boise State University, Oregon State University, University of Southern Indiana, and University of Alaska-Anchorage. We have found that including such diverse disciplinary perspectives has enhanced the philosophical research and engagement.

The topic of the value of philosophy is important and one that has received increasing attention of late. There are many ways that philosophy has value. Engagement with interdisciplinary researchers has been one way that we have focused on at the Toolbox Project. Not only has this work helped interdisciplinary researchers, it has produced an awareness of the benefit of philosophical dialogue in interdisciplinary contexts and insights into philosophical issues faced by working scientists.

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