Team Philosophy (guest post)

“There are clear advantages to team science… Would this model work for philosophy?”

In the following guest post, Ingrid Robeyns, Chair in Ethics of Institutions at the Ethics Institute of Utrecht University, discusses the benefits and risks of “team philosophy.”

Discussion is welcome—especially from philosophers who have their own labs, or have been part of large collaborative projects—either here or at Crooked Timberwhere a version of this post first appeared.

[detail of installation by the art collective Superflex]

Team Philosophy
by Ingrid Robeyns

As part of a new 5-year project, “Visions for the future,” I’ll be experimenting with and developing the idea of “team philosophy”. But what is team philosophy?

As a first approximation, the idea is to produce philosophical knowledge as a team, rather than as an individual. In many of the empirical sciences, this is standard: people in labs, but also empirical scholars in fields like politics or sociology, often bring together their different types of expertise, or simply divide up the work, and then write a paper together. Can this practice of ‘team science’ shed light on what ‘team philosophy’ could be and what its advantages and limits might be?

There are clear advantages to team science. One is that there are limits to what any one person might know, and limits to the time any one person has for mastering new empirical methods or techniques. Collaboration can be an efficient way of bringing different kinds of specialized knowledge and skills to a project.

Another advantage is that, with a team, more people are truly invested in making the ultimate research as good as possible. Each member of the team has a stake in the research being produced, which should provide an incentive to be genuinely committed to the quality of everyone’s work (in contrast to the brief and sometimes superficial comments one might make on the work of “mere” colleagues who ask for feedback).

Many researchers are fed-up with the excessively competitive nature of academia, so the ability of a team approach to offer a more collaborative model is a further advantage. This was a theme that was prominent in a podcast episode on this topic with professor of comparative politics Carolien van Ham; she also confirmed that team science reduces work pressure, since you do not have to figure out everything yourself, which can be time-consuming (in non-empirical fields, the equivalent might be not feeling you have to read up on all papers and books that might be relevant).

Since I have very little experience with empirical team science (this paper being an exception), I am not sure what the disadvantages are. There seems to me a risk of domination of the full professor/PI if they basically impose team science on the junior staff (which in several countries includes PhD-scholars who are not students but employees). Those PIs might not want to use team philosophy for laudable reasons, but in essence because they have run out of ideas themselves or want publications with as little work as possible.

Another source of conflict is the order of the names on the publication—which apparently is important in some sciences, and where (from what I’ve been told) it is especially those whose names are listed first and last that are granted full credit (when I’ve co-written theoretical papers, we’ve always sticked to the alphabetical order, and, as far as I can recall, with little or no discussion). There may be more disadvantages; I’d love to hear from those of you who are doing this kind of work. One worry I’d have is who decides what questions to pursue, since, by definition, one doesn’t always follow one’s own ideas or hypotheses, but needs to collaborate.

Would this model work for philosophy? At first sight, it doesn’t work, since philosophers see themselves, and see their discipline, as being about ideas and arguments that are generated in someone’s brain, and that do not require empirical analyses outside that brain. Ideas tend to be seen as from someone and hence the locus of knowledge generation is primarily the individual. My own view is that this is not entirely true, since comments on those ideas can have a huge impact on how the scholarship develops—but there is nevertheless some truth to it.

There is a good amount of co-authoring going on in philosophy, but in most cases this is between two people, not a team of, say, four people or more. When two people co-author, it is often also because they have complementary knowledge, or because they like each other’s work and believe that if they were to set out to have scholarly conversations, something interesting might emerge. (To the extent to which one sees group work in philosophy, it is in its more empirical subfields, such as experimental philosophy.)

My hunch is that, in philosophy, we should try to experiment with writing more in larger groups. This could take different forms. It could be for a smaller question, e.g. a critique on a new theory that has been proposed in philosophy. I remember some years ago having a highly energetic lunchtime conversation with a bunch of colleagues, who had all read a particular new book, and we all felt there were some problems with it—but we all had different critiques (which were consistent with each other). Each of us only had a limited point to make, but all the critiques together mounted to something much more interesting. I then proposed that we’d book a room for a couple of days and work out that conversation in a paper. It didn’t happen, but this would have been a great thing to try.

Team philosophy might also work well if the goal is to provide a state of the art of a certain discussion or subfield. Over the last years I’ve been involved in a huge consortium of philosophers based in the Netherlands who work on the ethics of socially disruptive technologies. At some point, I proposed to write a book with the entire consortium, laying out the state of the art of this research (in the end I couldn’t co-author since I was fully immersed in writing my book on limitarianism, but I did provide comments on the entire draft and really enjoyed it). It required a skilled lead-editor, and it required a publisher who is willing to publish unconventional formats, but the result is great, and a nice example of team philosophy.

Team philosophy might also be valuable in exploring “Big Questions”. That’s the case for my new project, which is all about alternative socio-economic systems. Over the years I’ve studied (and published on) some dimensions of some of those proposed alternatives, but there are many of them. Moreover, if one works on such Big Questions, such as entire systems, one needs to bring together the expertise of different people; some of us know about systems of the provisioning of care and unpaid work, others about migration or international trade, others about financial systems or technology, still others about labor markets and work, etc. And there are very important reasons why political philosophers should look into those questions. If we want to take seriously the challenge that we must come up with answers to these Big Questions, this is almost impossible to do for a single person.

In sum, some particular questions can only be answered by collaborating, hence engaging in team philosophy.

Do all the advantages and risks/disadvantages that apply to team science apply to team philosophy?

One advantage that doesn’t seem to apply straightforwardly, is the complementary use of methods, since nearly all of philosophy tends to use, very roughly, the same set of methods (conceptual analysis, argumentation, etc.). Our empirical colleagues talk about being skilled in survey design, or field studies, or lab experiments, or advanced statistical tools as reasons to collaborate; this isn’t (generally) applicable to philosophy. But the equivalent here might be dividing up the huge literature that one needs to read in order to master all that’s relevant to answer certain questions.

One additional risk for philosophy is the dominant practice of awarding much more prestige to single-authored papers, and, in the case of junior philosophers, to think they must prove themselves by having published single-authored papers. I know PhD-supervisors who have given such extensive comments on some draft papers of their PhD-candidates—including passing on original ideas—that, if they had not worked in philosophy but in another field, the result would have been multiple-authored publications. Still, these supervisors did not request co-authorship, since the norms in the discipline of philosophy forbid this: the relevant norm is that “giving comments on the work of a PhD-candidate, no matter how elaborate, is not a reason to request co-authorship”. Moreover, if these PhD-supervisors are caring human beings, they know that they are likely to harm the future labor market prospects of these PhD-candidates if they were to request/impose co-authorship, and hence they will/should not do it.

If one wants to experiment with team philosophy—as I do—I think it is important to be aware of power differences in academia, and hence do what one can to ensure safe relations between PI’s and PhDs/Postdocs on a project, and make sure the interests of those who do not yet have tenured jobs are sufficiently protected. My hunch is that this implies that for PhD-scholars, team philosophy is generally problematic, and that for Postdocs, they must have sufficient room to still do their own single-authored work. And if it is the case that the everyday practices of philosophy hinder the particular team philosophy that is needed to answer the Big Questions, then we need to transform the philosophical discipline. Why not just make collaboration in larger groups more common, and value that work more?

Here’s the “tl;dr”: For the academic discipline of philosophy, for the human beings working in that discipline, and for the world in which we are in need of philosophical reflection and analysis, there is much to win with more team philosophy.


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1 month ago

My background is in experimental team science and the one thing I miss since my move to philosophy is exactly this type of team research. Some thoughts:
– For experimental or formal philosophers, the division of labour can be quite similar to that in empirical research; likewise for interdisciplinary teams with one or a few philosophers.
– I doubt traditional scholarship should be as isolated as it often is, or at least how it is portrayed. As you mention, the norms of authorship are different across fields and there are indeed excesses from lab science (where ghost and gift authorship have been widespread). Given the trend to make contributions of various authors explicit (in CRediT statements), however, I don’t think this can be a decisive counterargument: team philosophers can adopt the improved practices straightaway.
– The myth of ‘the lone genius’ has been debunked. Also in other fields, such as theoretical physics, many historical advances can be traced to contributions by and interactions of multiple people, even if not all were recognized as authors by the standards of the time. So, I think the norm for philosophers to work alone unnecessarily jeopardizes mental health and sets unrealistic expectations.
– Creativity nearly always depends on novel combinations and frictions of existing ideas, often held by different individuals. (I don’t know if you consider a pair as a team, but you may find inspiration along these lines in Joshua Wolf Shenk’s book Powers of Two.)
In any case, I wish you lots of joy in exploring the ups and downs of team philosophy. I expect you and your team members will thrive!

Reply to  SylviaFysica
1 month ago

The myth of ‘the lone genius’ has been debunked“. No, it hasn’t, but it is fashionable to say so.

Jackson Hawkins
Jackson Hawkins
Reply to  Thomas
1 month ago

Agreed. The fact that we haven’t seen a truly revolutionary figure in a while (or perhaps sometimes these figures only really come into focus with the benefit of historical hindsight?) does not mean that we never shall again.

Last edited 1 month ago by Jackson Hawkins
Henry Lara-Steidel
Henry Lara-Steidel
Reply to  Jackson Hawkins
1 month ago

Can you clarify what would a lone genius look like in philosophy? Thanks.

Henry Lara-Steidel
Henry Lara-Steidel
Reply to  Thomas
1 month ago

Can you clarify what would count as a lone genius in philosophy? Thanks.

Preston Stovall
Preston Stovall
1 month ago

Thanks for this post — these are things worth thinking about. I’ve been in the Czech Republic since 2017, and one thing that’s strikingly different about the philosophical ecosystem in Europe, as against the North American model (although this seems to be changing), is the need for grant funding to support projects with multiple researchers pursuing a common topic, or using common methods. It’s not hard to find philosophers in Europe supporting themselves primarily through this kind of funding. The collaborative aspect of these “team philosophy” projects is indeed rewarding, not least because of the galvanizing effect of feeling oneself part of a collective effort. But the worry about publication allocations is spot-on, and compounded by the extent to which this model of philosophy prioritizes “publication outputs” (a noxious term that one gradually becomes more-or-less desensitized to).

At the same time, I wonder whether philosophy isn’t already more of a “team philosophy” project than we realize. Think about programs like MIT, Rutgers, or Pitt, each of which has a characteristic (which is not to say universally shared) approach toward certain issues in philosophy — or consider UCLA of the late 1960s and early ’70s, which at the time was home to Rudolph Carnap, Alonzo Church, Keith Donnellan, Donald Kalish, Hans Kamp, David Kaplan, David Lewis, Richard Montague, and Barbara Partee. Montague’s use of Church’s simple theory of types allowed philosophers and linguists to use Carnap’s “intensional” (possible-world) semantics to interpret expressions with natural language grammar; people like Kaplan, Lewis, and Partee then began to put such frameworks to use. Together with approaches like Lewis lays out in “General Semantics”, this fostered research programs in the philosophy of language, metaphysics, and linguistics that spread out to dominate the fields of philosophy and linguistics in the 1980s and ’90s (think of Armstrong’s, Lewis’, or Stalnaker’s approaches in philosophy, or the work of figures like Heim, Kratzer, or Partee in linguistics).

I don’t know of any explicit funding sources that supported, collectively, the philosophers and linguists at UCLA during this time, but it doesn’t stretch credulity to think of them as working together on a team. And one wonders what the field would look like today if, during the same period possible-world interpretations of language were solidifying at UCLA, the University of Pittsburgh — which at that time was hiring philosophers like Wilfrid Sellars and Nuel Belnap — had managed to hire a few more broadly syntactic and proof-theoretic philosophers and linguists such as Noam Chomsky, Michael Dummett, and Dag Prawitz, who then took up a corresponding effort in team philosophy. 

At any rate, if this sort of collective work is already ongoing at departments today, as I suspect it is, then perhaps it wouldn’t be too difficult to follow Robeyns’ lead and find ways to leverage it into explicit projects in team philosophy.

Jackson Hawkins
Jackson Hawkins
1 month ago

My father is a professor of Engineering, which makes for some interesting inter-disciplinary encounters in our conversations. One of the things he finds baffling about Philosophy as a discipline (and the Humanities in general) is the fact that publication authorship is usually limited to one or maybe two individuals. Stereotypes notwithstanding, the “hard” sciences are far more collaborative than the humanities, at least as far as research goes. In my opinion, a salient advantage of “team research” is that it allows students the opportunity to attach their names to a paper, without bearing the often onerous weight of full responsibility.

Alex Mayhew
Alex Mayhew
1 month ago

A particular model that might be of use is the Adversarial Collaboration. I have done a little work in the Social Justice of Aging and I find I do not get very much traction. I would love to work with someone who thinks I am working in the wrong direction so we can figure out some cruxes.

1 month ago

I work in bioethics and a lot of papers have multiple authors. Single authored papers may be a minority, at least from the impressions I’m getting from stuff coming out in the last 3 years. Let me address some of the points.

1. Concern with authorship order as such is not just a peculiarity of the hard sciences, it is a result of criteria set by tenure committees. The particular idiosyncracies of giving priority to first, last and corresponding author is more conventional. Tenure committees in the science count those positions more. In the philosophy department here, the tenure committee counts first and second author the most and other positions count for less.

2. My experience with multiple authorship is that there are basically 3 models. The first model is one where there is a single lead writer, usually a junior scholar. Other authors provide comments and suggestions but the vast majority of the work is done by one person. One way that this just differs from single authored papers you have sent to your colleagues is that there is real impetus to ensure that all co authors are on board with the paper. My personal experience with this is that this has ended up moderating some of my excesses. The paper becomes tighter, even if less ambitious. Their status as co authors makes it is harder to dismiss comments.

The second model involves 2 lead authors and other co authors have a more advisory role. How that had happened is if one person writes an initial early stage draft and another author provides edits so extensive that they constitute a rewrite of some paragraphs or sections. But the original authors contribution is still visible. These are the cases where it is not even metaphorically clear who is responsible for what.

The third model is one in which different co authors each have a part that they contribute and the lead author’s role is to stitch them together. This is the worst model as collegiality actually works against the paper being good. Each person has their own concerns and this colours their sections. Cutting down or rewriting any given section then reduces our even eliminates that author’s contribution and if not handled well can result in resentment. The result is a paper with very little internal cohesion.

3. The above comments about the models of team authorship were made with the assumption that all co authors are philosophers. The third model is inferior when there is some disciplinary unity.

If your co authors are lawyers or other members of the humanities you end up defaulting to the third model. Philosophers know little about the law/history etc and cannot provide a legal/historical analysis. Likewise lawyers (not philosophers working in law departments or lawyers who also picked up philosophy) know little about philosophy and so cannot evaluate philosophical arguments.

If your co authors are doctors, scientists etc you default to the first model (or maybe even something closer to sole authority) because their role is often to provide empirical data and ensure that you don’t mangle the science.

Reply to  Murali
1 month ago

Authority -> authorship

Rose Trappes
Rose Trappes
1 month ago

I’d be interested if there was any data out there about multi-authored publications in philosophy generally, as well as in different areas of philosophy/global regions, and how that’s changed over time (and especially in the 5 years since this post I feel like multi-author publications are actually not uncommon these days in philosophy of science, even the non-empirical stuff. And for many early career scholars in the European context, we’re working on other people’s funded projects which generally means co-authorship (often in teams >2 authors) is part of what we’re employed to do.

One conversation philosophers definitely need to learn to have is about the order of authors. We don’t yet have consensus on our own disciplinary standards about what authorship ordering means. But I’ll second Murali that first authorship generally carries more weight for job committees, grants, awards, etc., even in philosophy. You can share first authorship between two or more people, but it often gets lost in publication lists.

Without our own disciplinary standards, teams will have to negotiate the order themselves. As awkward as it can be, you’ve got to do this explicitly and at regular points throughout the process to avoid meltdowns and misgivings. I’ll also note that alphabetical authorship often can’t be the default in teams that publish multiple times together, as the first author in the alphabet will ultimately get more recognition (A et al.).

Jef Delvaux
1 month ago

Some miscellaneous observations:

Manfred Kuehn, in his biography of Kant, suggests (if I recall correctly) that the Critique of Pure Reason was very much a work of collaboration with his intellectual surroundings.

Adorno and Horkheimer, in the preface of the Dialectic of Enlightenment, write that no sentence was written without approval and/or being edited by the other party.

I can’t find the piece right now, but I remember reading (a long time ago, perhaps a Twitter thread?) a piece by Rani Lill Anjum, in which she discussed the hardship of getting a journal to recognise that she and her co-author, Stephen Mumford, had equally contributed, and that neither one could claim to be the first author.

These examples are all about co-authoring a joint project, but I would think that ‘philosophical teamwork’ comes in a variety of ways.

Reading groups can be an enormous resource generated by a community. And so can social media. For some reason a bunch of senior scholars are rather active in the Facebook groups of their field, and I have seen so much productive interaction between philosophers of all sorts of stripes, reconstructing arguments. I have often felt grateful to have been able to read along in these groups. In some ways I think of these social media spaces as salons where everyone happens to write for everyone’s benefit.

When a professor organises a conference, staff that sends out invitations, picks up people at the airport, books hotels, attendees ask questions, that get acknowledged when the conference proceedings get published, if you read the preface, you see the RAs being thanked for proofreading and streamlining the references, the publisher gets it to libraries, and bookshops, etc. I am aware that not all of those steps are philosophical per se, but since you can’t do a lot of philosophy without those mundane intermediary steps, it strikes me as odd not to include them, when we think of joint philosophical labour.
Also think of the colloboration that gigantic encyclopedic projects require. The heyday of the Enlightenment comes to mind, and closer to our own times the SEP, IEP, etc.

I think we’ll find a lot of communal interdisciplinary work when we start looking at professional digital editions of works. The Bonner Kant-Korpus comes to mind.

On a final note:

I recently co-authored a paper with a friend and the entire process was so ridiculously satisfying. My neurodivergent self has all sorts of problems with getting things done that it felt so empowering to know that there is someone on the other end with whom I was seeing this through.
I thought I had found a way of producing work that I could replicate going forward, but when other people told me that hat really counts are single-authored papers, I felt rather disillusioned. Perhaps I am alone in this, but I can imagine that for (some) neurodivergent folks the benefits of co-authoring might be much more impactful.