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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