“Not Really A Philosopher”

“Not Really A Philosopher”

Chris Eliasmith holds a Canada Research Chair in theoretical neuroscience at the University of Waterloo. He has a joint appointment in philosophy and systems design engineering. He also holds an appointment in computer science there. Over at the Ideas Can blog he discusses the challenges of interdisciplinary work. He says:

Not really a philosopher. And not really an engineer… or a neuroscientist, computer scientist, or psychologist.  Instead, I am someone really interested in how the brain works—all of it, at all levels of description.  Brain function is tackled by many disciplines, and there is no good reason to think that only one discipline has all the answers.  So, to me, disciplines are just a structure set up to help govern and categorize academia.

His research group recently won the Polayni Award from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). He continues:

In my acceptance speech, I noted that I was likely the first philosopher to win the award.  But really, that was a way of pointing out that NSERC had chosen not a discipline, but a result.  If anything, what surprised and impressed me the most about getting the award was how the panel ignored disciplinary boundaries.  For much of my career, that has definitely not been the case. 
More typically, publishing, teaching, and doing research across disciplines causes administrative headaches: multiple deans and chairs to convince to support your work; not belonging to a specific faculty; evaluators counting various contributions very differently.  In this era of big, complex research problems, it seems that multidisciplinary research should be encouraged, if not become the norm.  Universities can organize research along challenges, not disciplines: global warming; digital media; brain studies; human environments.

In the case of brain studies, such a structure would more easily allow philosophical insights to guide neuroscientific research; engineering methods to help explain biological phenomena; and psychological surprises to be examined through the lens of computer science.  Ultimately, our best theories will draw on all of these contributions. I am certain the same could be said for making progress on any of the greatest challenges we face as a society.

Drawing on many sources of knowledge to solve a difficult problem seems too obvious a strategy to mention.  Nevertheless, it needs saying because it strains against standard institutional structures.  My faculty appointment has been a ‘special case’ from the beginning. Perhaps giving multidisciplinary research the structures it can thrive under will allow special cases to become the norm.

The whole post is here. Discussion of the rewards and difficulties of interdisciplinary work, its relation to the profession of philosophy, and related subjects, is welcome.

(image: detail of “Bombing Babylon” by Julie Mehretu)

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Fritz McDonald
8 years ago

Professor Eliasmith’s blog post raises some issues about administration. I think these are important issues.

I think the biggest issues are raised in matters like faculty hiring and promotion. At my university, faculty hiring in the philosophy department is typically decided on by the philosophy faculty. The administration needs to sign off, but for the most part that is a formality. Decisions on tenure and promotion in philosophy are also handled first and primarily by the philosophy faculty. Once again, the ultimate decision is up to administrators, and college- and university- level committees weigh in, but neither our administrators nor the committees have overturned any of the philosophy department’s tenure and promotion decisions.

A structure like this is a good one, and one I think that is worth defending. The people who weigh in on whom to hire and whom to promote should have the relevant sort of disciplinary knowledge to make informed judgments. Of course, not all philosophy faculty are well-versed in the many different subfields of philosophy, so even within a philosophy faculty, judgments might not be perfect. Were my university to hire a real formal logician, or an expert in 20th century continental philosophy, I would probably not know much, if at all, about how to decide whether to hire such a person based on her research. However, I think it is best for philosophers to decide on whether to hire or promote philosophers.

I respect my colleagues in art, music, sociology, psychology, economics, physics, etc. etc. However, I do not think they would be truly competent to serve on a departmental hiring or promotion committee for a position in philosophy.

There are committees at our college and university level that do make decisions on promotions. They generally tend to defer to departmental decisions, except in extraordinary cases where a faculty member is not making sufficient contributions. They also tend to put a lot of weight on external letters, letters on research that are generally written by experts in philosophy. I am even a bit skeptical about the ability of committees like this to judge the works of their colleagues in different departments.

I do think interdisciplinary work is important and it should be supported. (I do some work on philosophy and linguistics myself!) I wish, for example, that my university would hire someone in cognitive science. Administrations need to be creative when dealing with these situations. In situations like this, departmental structures probably serve a university poorly. In an area like, say, cognitive science, I think well-informed faculty at the school should probably form ad hoc committees to make hiring decisions, and the same ad hoc committees ought to be retained to make hiring and promotion decisions. This would be a bit more complicated, but I think it would serve the relevant purpose. Still: I think the decisions on whom to appoint to these ad hoc committees is best made by well-informed faculty rather than administrators. Also, individuals at a university who do not have expertise on the relevant interdisciplinary field should not serve on such committees.