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Hammers and nails

June 14, 2012
Bielefeld University, Main Hall. Photo by Mark Brown

Bielefeld University, Main Hall

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.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 18, 2012 10:07 AM

    One serious worry from the philosophers’ side is that we really don’t know what our methods are, or whether we have methods at all. There have been many disciplinary self-conceptions tied up with specific methods (e.g., logical syntax, conceptual analysis, phenomenology), but it seems to me that the discipline has roundly rejected all of them as characterizing the field. Even the idea that philosophers don’t gather data first-hand has gone out the window. If I had to try to sketch our “methods” that philosophers use, I’m not sure what I could say that was useful. Maybe:

    “Philosophers read other philosophers, make arguments, and occasionally use the apparatus of formal logic.”

    On this background, I find it very hard to say much about our qualifications, particular contributions, or the limits of our methods.

    • June 18, 2012 7:32 PM

      Thanks for the comment. Maybe the word “method” sounds rather narrow and technical, and I’d agree that few philosophers today subscribe to a “method” with the aim of reliably producing definitive results of some kind. But most philosophers identify (or could be identified) with one or more “traditions” or “approaches” (Kantian, Marxian, pragmatist, feminist, post-structural, etc.). And every approach has characteristic limits, weaknesses, and blind spots. It’s more difficult to say what common denominator might qualify the various traditions and approaches as all part of some shared endeavor called “philosophy,” but that’s not my main concern. What seems important is being aware of the specific strengths and weaknesses of whichever traditions or approaches one happens to have adopted. And that also goes for the methods of other disciplines. You mention philosophers gathering first-hand data (beyond reading books, which is a kind of data gathering) — and there’s no reason they shouldn’t, but if they do, shouldn’t they consider the relative merits (for their philosophical purposes) of the various empirical research methods that scholars in sociology, anthropology, and other fields have long been working to develop?

      • June 18, 2012 8:17 PM

        I don’t think I disagree with any of that. One should be aware of relevant methods, results, and ideas from other disciplines, for sure. I just think that we’re in a moment where getting philosophers to see themselves as having an approach, much less that approach’s characteristic limits, weaknesses, etc., is particularly challenging. Not that it doesn’t need to be done!

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