Hammers and nails
While the Los Angeles Times reports on costs without benefits of high speed rail in California, I’m sitting in a train speeding between Cologne and Frankfurt at 275 km per hour (170 mph) – with internet access (unfortunately not free yet) and a cup of coffee that I just bought from a guy from the restaurant car who walks past every now and then. Will we ever have trains like this in California?
I’ve been in Germany for over two weeks, and today I’m flying home. While here I attended two conferences at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research (ZiF) at Bielefeld University. The second conference was on “The Social Relevance of the Philosophy of Science,” splendidly organized by Martin Carrier and Don Howard. One issue that kept coming up was the “academic division of labor” – that is, how can different disciplines best collaborate in teaching and research, such that their respective viewpoints complement rather than undermine each other?
Bielefeld University is a perfect place to ponder such questions, since it was designed in the late 1960s with the specific goal of promoting interdisciplinary collaboration. As you can see in these pictures, the entire university is in one building. It consists of a large central hall with wings heading off from the center, and towers rising up from the wings. Since all the departments are so close together, it’s easy to visit colleagues from other departments, and people often meet spontaneously in the central hall, which is a bit like an airport with cafes and restaurants, a dining hall, bakery, grocery store, and bank, among other things.
Peter Weingart gave one of the last talks of the conference, reflecting on the way relations between disciplines have changed during his long career in Bielefeld. He opened his remarks by saying that as a sociologist he felt very comfortable among the philosophers at the meeting, which is saying quite a bit given the history of the fields. To make a long story short, interdisciplinary work has become much more common and much easier than in the past. Forty years ago, Peter said, philosophers and sociologists usually either annoyed or ignored each other. Today many scholars believe that the most interesting and socially relevant work requires insights from multiple fields.
But the challenge that kept coming up in our discussions was to identify how different disciplines can best contribute to collaborative work. The point is not that only those with certain qualifications should address certain questions – as if only sociologists should study social structures or only philosophers should study ideas. But on any given topic, so much research has often already been done, that newcomers from other fields may have difficulty to avoid reinventing the wheel.
Moreover, different disciplines have different methods, and if you’re not clear about the limits of your methods, you’ll end up treating the world as though it were designed just for you. As the saying goes, once you have a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Nobody at the conference thought that should be a reason to reject interdisciplinary collaboration, but I think we agreed that doing it well isn’t easy.