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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Ryan Muldoon
7 years ago

At the very least, a number of areas of philosophy are pretty obviously improved by engaging with other disciplines. Philosophy of science has pretty clearly absorbed this lesson for a while now – the philosophy of the special sciences is far more engaged with the scientific literature than it used to be, and this engagement has revealed a whole host of really cool and important problems for philosophy.

Likewise, political philosophy has a lot to gain from engaging with the social sciences. Social systems are quite complex, and we’re kidding ourselves if we can think of all the normatively-relevant issues of living together in society by sitting back in our armchairs. Darby is completely right on this point. To me, this is what makes the growth of PPE so exciting – it’s an enormous opportunity for better engagement with social science, with intellectual gains for all. As one example, look at Anderson’s _The Imperative of Integration_ – that’s a wonderful piece of philosophy that would be impossible without careful engagement with the social sciences. There are many more, of course.

Insofar as we want to make philosophical progress in areas that engage with practical problems that we experience in the world, we need the input from the sciences to orient what we’re doing. It’s important to know if, for instance, a philosophical position required something that economics tells us is unstable or essentially impossible. Likewise, philosophy of science improves when it actually pays attention to what scientists do, rather than what philosophers assume they do. Etc.

Alex Howe
Alex Howe
7 years ago

I don’t know that have anything substantive to contribute beyond Ryan’s words, but I’ll take a shot. My own dissertation work concerns the (Donaldson & Kymlicka-spawned) idea of citizenship for animals. I have benefited significantly from my own experience with accountably politically representing a disenfranchised population resulting my years involved in grad student leadership. I also would have been dead in the water without engaging with voter turnout data, laws surrounding cognitive disabilities and voting, disability rights advocacy work, pouring over legislation like the Animal Welfare Act, Humane Slaughter Act, understanding the organizational structure of the enforcing agencies, and living in a state with a Republican supermajority (Missouri).

One point I will flag for those interested in interdisciplinary work: As a young scholar and grad student, I struggle daily with feelings of self-doubt and insecurity that my work “isn’t real philosophy.”

Peter Fosl
7 years ago

We at Cogent recently put together a collection of work about and exhibiting interdisciplinarity, mich of it involving philosophy. I think you’ll find some interesting examples there.

the Onion Man
the Onion Man
7 years ago

Darby is trying to square a circle. It cannot be done.

If race consciousness is acceptable for non-whites, it is acceptable for whites.

If race consciousness is not acceptable for whites, it is not acceptable for anyone.

There is no middle ground or “third way” between race consciousness and colorblindness. You can shout at whites that whiteness is a “social construct” until you’re blue in the face, it won’t change the fact of phenotypic “family resemblances” (ha!) or the racial distribution of IQ in the United States.

Marcus Arvan
7 years ago

Just here to also agree with Ryan and add that I think moral philosophy and action-theory stand to benefit as well from the rapidly emerging science of human motivation and moral cognition. In addition to all of the X-phi work out there in these areas, there is a lot of fascinating work on empirical psychology favoring an interacting dual-process model of practical reasoning (viz. independent habit and self-regulation circuits), as well as the centrality of mental time-travel to moral cognition and motivation–work which has also been demonstrated in experimental contexts to improve moral and prudential behavior, and which also relates to L.A. Paul’s work on transformative experience, emerging philosophical debates on diachronic rationality, etc.