Interdisciplinarity and Progress in Philosophy

My current work on racial inequality and social justice—and to a lesser extent my earlier work—takes me into areas of knowledge outside of what we teach and learn in philosophy classrooms. In the last six years or so I have co-authored multiple works and grant proposals with an economist, sociologist, social psychologist, lawyer, and a historian. I have written with them about economic and racial inequality, inequality of opportunity and school choice, school finance reform, equal protection jurisprudence, and the racial achievement gap in K-12. For me these fruitful research collaborations have been vital to pursuing the main question that now guides my research and writing: How should we frame the racial justice demand to mitigate racial inequality in a world deeply polarized about race matters?…

In trying to carve out a racially realistic response to the question that now engages my philosophical curiosity—a response that is highly sensitive to the ways in which race divides us—I am trying to establish an alternative to the race consciousness championed by the American left and the colorblindness defended by the American right. Doing justice to this question has required venturing outside the disciplinary boundaries of philosophy, seeking knowledge from elsewhere and in collaboration with other scholars laboring on the race problem. Philosophers of science, philosophers of language, and philosophers of mind have long shown us that solving certain philosophical problems requires us to venture into the domains of natural science, linguistics, and cognitive science. It should therefore come as no surprise that addressing problems pertaining to race, racism, and racial inequality require attending to work in social science, history, and law. The works that I find most insightful in political philosophy these days… bring philosophy into conversation with these disciplines in skillful, subtle, and suggestive ways.

That’s Derrick Darby (Michigan) in an interview by Richard Marshall at 3:AM Magazine. On the one hand, it seems clearly true that philosophers should rely on the empirical findings and insights of those working in other disciplines (at the very least insofar as such findings and insights replace philosophical “common sense” about what is the case). On the other hand, I was wondering about Professor Darby’s idea that interdisciplinarity is needed for “solving certain philosophical problems.” (I don’t want to put too much weight on his particular word choice of “solving” here—“make progress on” is less demanding and probably consonant with what he meant.) It sounds right, but it would be great to have a collection of (relatively less controversial) examples of interdisciplinarity-fueled philosophical progress.

P.S. Darby says that he owes his career in philosophy in part to a “beloved professor who kicked my ass in class,” which reminded me of this previous post.


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