Interdisciplinarity and Marginalization in Philosophy


When asked whether some of the work in experimental philosophy would be better characterized as psychology, Joshua Knobe (Yale) tells Pendaran Roberts (Warwick):

First off, it should be emphasised that analogous issues arise for just about any area of philosophy that pursues interdisciplinary research. 

Some philosophers spend a lot of their time proving theorems, and one could ask whether the research they do should just be labelled ‘mathematics.’ Similarly, some philosophers focus on interpreting texts from Greek and Latin antiquity, and one could ask whether the research they do should be labelled ‘classics.’ Much the same could be said of work in everything from philosophy of language to philosophy of physics. 

In thinking about this question, it might be helpful to distinguish the genuine intellectual issues from the purely administrative issues. For example, difficult questions arise about how to interpret certain passages in the works of Seneca, but these questions do not come conveniently labelled as either ‘philosophy questions’ or ‘classics questions.’ Thus, when we are really trying to get at the truth about how to interpret these passages, the best approach is probably to ignore these disciplinary distinctions and simply go after the relevant questions with all the methods at our disposal. However, because the university is divided up into separate departments, there will sometimes be a purely administrative pressure to step back for a moment from this quest for truth and think instead about which kind of research belongs in which department. This is certainly a reasonable question to ask, but one shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that it sheds any light on the deeper intellectual issues.

Roberts asks a number of excellent questions, including this one:

It is sometimes said that although people speak as if they endorse interdisciplinary research, the reality is that this research is not reinforced. For example, the research often cannot be published in the mainstream journals for one’s field, but less mainstream journals are not respected as much by one’s peers. Do you agree that interdisciplinary research is not reinforced adequately by the system in which we work?

Knobe’s answer gets at how the reality of the numbers doesn’t match up with people’s feelings about how their work is valued by the profession:

I agree that philosophers doing interdisciplinary research often feel unsupported or even marginalised. Yet, when you take a look at the actual composition of our field, it may begin to seem a little bit puzzling that people should feel this way. A little while ago, I actually did a quantitative study of papers in philosophy journals that engage with questions about the mind (Knobe, 2015). First, I looked at a sample of highly cited papers about the mind from the end of the twentieth century. Of those, 62% were purely a priori, not discussing any results of empirical studies. Then I looked at a sample of highly cited papers from the past five years. Of those, only 12% were purely a priori. All of the rest discussed results from empirical studies.

Now, I could easily imagine how people who are still working in purely a priori philosophy of mind might feel unsupported or marginalised. I can empathise with this feeling and can understand how it might be difficult to pursue that sort of research in today’s philosophical environment. What seems puzzling, however, is that it is often the very people doing more empirical work on the mind who seem to feel most marginalised. How can they feel this way, one might ask, when the whole field is so clearly going in their direction?

A similar pattern can be observed in philosophy of language. There has been a huge surge of work in formal semantics that is deeply influenced by empirical linguistics. One might therefore expect that those philosophers of language who want to completely ignore all of this empirical research would feel a bit disconnected from the mainstream. Yet, oddly enough, I often see precisely the opposite. It is the philosophers who are most closely connected with empirical linguistics who most often describe themselves as marginalised. 

What we are witnessing here is a deeply puzzling sociological phenomenon, one in which the very people who seem clearly to be controlling the directions of their fields have been made to feel peripheral to those fields. I don’t feel that I have a very good understanding of how this has happened. It certainly doesn’t seem to be a matter of more tangible rewards, such as publications or jobs. (Philosophers pursuing interdisciplinary research have done fantastically well on those dimensions.) Rather, it seems to be a matter of a more nebulous sense people have that certain research programmes constitute the ‘core’ of our discipline. 

The whole interview is in The Warwick Research Journal (also downloadable here). Thanks to Pendaran Roberts for sending this along.

Piet Mondrian, "Lozenge Composition with Red, Gray, Blue, Yellow, and Black"

Piet Mondrian, “Lozenge Composition with Red, Gray, Blue, Yellow, and Black”

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Carnap
Carnap
4 years ago

I think Knobe, as usual, is pretty insightful when noting that the people who claim to feel marginalized are the ones whose work is currently associated with the usual trappings of success – jobs, conference invitations, publications in prestigious journals, and citations. I wonder if the reason they “feel peripheral” is because *they* really believe (perhaps correctly) that they are not doing work at the core of philosophy. Compare – a musician whose recordings and concerts are popular and bring happiness to many people but who believes (perhaps correctly) that their contributions to music are less significant than those of less popular musicians (think Kenny G. vs. Coleman Hawkins). They might feel, in a certain way, peripheral.Report

Evan Westra
Evan Westra
4 years ago

I think the feeling of marginalization that you get as an interdisciplinary philosopher is really a result of over-specialization. It’s not that empirically-informed philosophy is marginalized – it’s that being empirically-informed nowadays means being really specialized and writing about increasingly technical issues from other fields. But since many of us are working on *different* empirical issues, it gets increasingly hard to understand one another, and you have a smaller and smaller set of peers who will appreciate your work. This means that any given person working in empirically-informed philosophy is now going to feel like most other philosophers don’t understand/appreciate what she does, and she’ll be right. The cost of getting up to speed in a given science and developing real empirical expertise is that other philosophers won’t necessarily know what you’re talking about anymore. It comes with the territory. I suppose the solution is to get better at making one’s work widely accessible and interesting.Report

Florian Cova
Florian Cova
4 years ago

There might be a simple explanation for Knobe’s data. When he looks at “highly cited papers from the past five years” and sees that “only 12% were purely a priori”, there is nothing that says that these citations come mostly from philosophers. Indeed, because they are empirically informed, they can also be cited by practicians of empirical disciplines.

If you look at the most cited philosophy journals according to Google Scholar, you will see that Synthese, Philosophical Psychology, Mind & Language and The Review of Philosophy and Psychology are among the most cited. Clearly, it is not because they are perceived by philosophers as the best venues (these results conflict with polls such as Leiter’s). It is simply because papers in these venues are, by their very nature, much more likely to be cited by non-philosophers (and by practicians of disciplines that turn out to have much higher citation rates).

So, it seems to me that there is nothing paradoxical in accepting both propositions at the same time:
1) People who do interdisciplinary research are most cited (because they attract the attention of people outside philosophy)
2) People who do interdisciplinary research feel marginalized (because their work is not very valued by philosophers)Report

some person or other
some person or other
Reply to  Florian Cova
4 years ago

(Oops, was writing my comment while you wrote this!)Report

Florian Cova
Florian Cova
Reply to  some person or other
4 years ago

Ah ah. No problem. It just shows that this seems a reasonable hypothesis.

As to your alternate hypothesis: it might be the case that everyone feels more or less marginalized (I don’t know). However, it seems to me that people doing interdisciplinary research have to put up with something other philosophers don’t. I don’t think most philosophers have to answer questions such as “how is that philosophy?” or “what is the philosophical relevance of your work?”. I am sure such questions would appear completely out of place after an a priori epistemology talk, but (in my personal experience) they are quite frequent after interdisciplinary research talk, and most of the audience seems to judge them acceptable in this context. This goes to show that interdisciplinary research has to earn its legitimacy as philosophy (independently of its own merit), while other types of inquiries seem to have this legitimacy by default. So, even if everyone feels marginalized, I would say that the marginalization of interdisciplinary research is of a different kind. People might feel marginalized because their area is not considered core or central to philosophy (I get it is a general feeling in aesthetics, for example). People in interdisciplinary research might feel marginalized because they feel that their area is not considered as philosophy simpliciter.Report

Promqueen
Promqueen
Reply to  Florian Cova
4 years ago

Your explanation seems precisely right to me. I do interdisciplinary work and have (on many occasions) been asked ‘how is this philosophy’ or something along those lines. Even students in my classes talk about how they are different from the ‘real’ philosophy classes: by which they mean more traditional lemmy type stuff, but even more highly theoretical (a prior type) normative stuff. We spend a lot of time focusing on making sense of the empirical and this leads students to believe it is less philosophical and more something else but no one really knows what exactly.

I don’t claim to know whether the type of interdisciplinary stuff I do is marginalized in philosophy (though, the places where my work is likely to appear are less ‘prestigious’ than other venues and the literature I cite tend to come predominantly from non-philosophy venues). It does feel marginalizing though, to constantly have to give an account of why you deserve a place at the table and why you are, in fact, sitting at the same table already to peers, potential hiring committees, and students.Report

Florian Cova
Florian Cova
Reply to  Promqueen
4 years ago

Yeah. I see exactly what you mean. It is just tiring to have to justify your existence over and over again.Report

beauvoir's baby
beauvoir's baby
Reply to  Florian Cova
4 years ago

I really wish people would drop the phrase “having to justify my existence”. It’s pure rhetoric, conflating practical and normative questions with ontological ones. It’s just shifting the goal posts to avoid justifying practical and normative questions. No one doubts you exist, they just wonder how best to classify your practice. Report

beauvoir's baby
beauvoir's baby
Reply to  Florian Cova
4 years ago

Sorry if my above comment came off as rude. I should have been less abrupt. But I am as tired of people saying “it’s tiring having to justify my existence” as you are tired of having to classify and defend your practice. Report

some person or other
some person or other
4 years ago

I have yet to encounter any groups of either people who work on a particular sub-discipline of philosophy or people with a somewhat united methodological stance, members of which don’t feel marginalized. So I’ve become less inclined to think that we should take these kinds of claims seriously in general (I mean, we should take them seriously as expressions of people’s feelings, but it just doesn’t seem like they could all be right about the marginalization–assuming that the relevant contrast class is ‘other philosophers).

That being said, I’m not sure whether Knobe’s study looked at citations generally, or only citations in papers published in philosophy journals. If the former, one explanation could be that papers that engage with empirical work are more likely to be cited by academics outside of philosophy (and in most of the fields that philosophers tend to collaborate w/ others in, people simply cite way more). So it could be that even though these papers get more attention all things considered, they aren’t actually getting more attention from philosophers.

Of course, this is just a random theory and is totally speculative. Just thinking out loud. But one thing to note is that this kind of thing does affect hiring (though I have no idea how much)–I know of a bunch of cases where, due to pressure to interdisciplinize from administrations, or for other reasons, search committees end up having linguists, psychologists, biologists, etc. on them, and one can only assume that this at least has some impact on who gets interviewed/hired.

All this is just to say perhaps despite the numbers it could still be that empirically-informed philosophers are marginalized within philosophy, but perhaps their being de-marginalized outside of philosophy might explain, or partly explain, the numbers.

(I actually think this is probably not the right explanation and that the right explanation is some combination of (i) everyone feeling marginalized and (ii) perceived (and probably, in terms of attitudes of senior/important people, genuine) marginalization being slow to catch up with actual trends in citation, hiring, conferences, etc.)

Report

wesbuc
4 years ago

Can anyone share hard evidence about interdisciplinary research and the entry level permanent philosophy job market? In other fields it has been shown to associate with less funding success (www.nature.com/articles/nature18315) though the question of early career salary appears more complex (http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13504851.2014.922664).

To add another puzzling piece of evidence, philosophers explicitly judge that empirical science is central to philosophical inquiry, and in some cases at least, that its centrality depends on integration with science (http://john.turri.org/research/perceptions.pdf).
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Eric Garcia
Eric Garcia
4 years ago

If Philosophers who are either more influential or have more administrative power in the discipline are, largely, not interdisciplinary philosophers, then it makes sense that newer interdisciplinary folks feel marginalized even though they are the majority THESE days. It seems marginalization and being the majority can go together if certain historical facts obtain.Report

Preston
Preston
Reply to  Eric Garcia
4 years ago

Yes, I had a similar thought. It could be that there is a generational effect going on here, where younger philosophers are more likely to be engaging in interdisciplinary, empirically informed work. I am not sure that that’s true (it’s an empirical question!), but it wouldn’t surprise me. And it would also explain feelings of marginalization.Report

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
4 years ago

How about the hypothesis that feelings of marginalization are a lagging indicator, i.e. they reflect what was the case some years before they’re felt rather than what is the case now? Feelings of centrality may likewise be a lagging indicator.

I’ve absolutely heard a priori work dismissed for not being empirically informed; the charge isn’t that it’s not philosophy, but that it’s not properly done philosophy. We philosophers can dismiss others’ work for many reasons and in many different directions.Report

interdisciplinary philosopher
interdisciplinary philosopher
4 years ago

How about the thought that the allegedly small percentage of philosophers who do purely a priori style philosophy are still the philosophers that constitute the clubbish elite of the profession, and are thus in the position of power to decide what philosophy really ‘is’. This then elicits the feeling of marginalization of all the philosophers who think purely a priori style philosophy is not what they want to do.Report

David Smith
4 years ago

I like to call what I do (ironically) “impure philosophy.”Report

DoubleA
DoubleA
4 years ago

It might be the nature of criticism they receive. People doing a priori philosophy may get criticized for not using empirical data, but the form of the criticism is not “is this not philosophy.” Report