The Difficulties and Rewards of Multi-Disciplinary Thinking, Jamming, 18/09/2013

My friend Iain Coleman was good enough yesterday to offer a correction to my account of special relativity’s implications for the nature of time yesterday. The theory’s destabilization of traditional conceptions of past, present, and future have their cause in the concept of interval between events that was a radical change from what was acceptable before. 

Basically, in special relativity, the interval between events never changes with the relative motion of a frame of reference. Because the interval never changes, the actual distance between them in space and time can change. The flexibility of the time coordinate of an event results in changes to what events may be considered past, present or simultaneous, and future as you jump from one frame of reference to another. I de-emphasized this because I wanted to concentrate on the moral concern awakened by the peculiar new brand of determinism that the block conception of time implies. Making the jump in quite that way was a mistake.*

* So far, that counts as my second on the blog so far, which is pretty good for 11 weeks in.

But if I can gain a benefit from that screw-up, at least it indicates the genuine difficulty that a multi-disciplinary research program faces. Almost all my peer-reviewed publications (as of this summer, seven since the start of 2010) are in interdisciplinary journals. One of my specializations is in environmental ethics; I’m preparing a book-length project to shop for publication this year. Not only does this field draw from many different disciplines in the sciences and humanities, but the premier journal of environmental ethics, the eponymous Environmental Ethics, is multi-disciplinary. The majority of its articles come from philosophy, but they also publish sociology, literary and film studies, less formalized ecology, and some history. 

Yet at times, I have been told that interdisciplinary journals are not a truly prestigious publication, not something where the best work is to be found.** This would include Environmental Ethics, the leading journal in that field, and a journal that truly deserves all the praise it can get. This journal has published my work, they’re considering another of my essays, and I’m proud to call myself (I hope, if this peer-review goes well) a regular contributor. Though in the spirit of friendly critique, I will venture to say that their website is a little Geocities. 

** Now, this isn’t the only advice I’ve received about reading philosophy. But it does remind one that not all advice is of equal quality.

Of course, if you remember my post from the end of August about the growing problem of philosophy’s institutional insularity, you’ll understand that I can’t really put much stock in this kind of advice. It grates against so many of my ideals of what makes exemplary philosophy, the kind of books and essays that aim to be remembered when historians write the history of the discipline. We should all aim to write this way, but too often we all-too-dutifully follow the advice to stick to the mainstream of our field. Robert Frodeman has written a short essay criticizing the unfortunate insularity of my discipline at the open-access review section of Social Epistemology, another publication of which I’m proud to be a regular contributor. It’s a wonderful and punchy essay, discussing the problem the discipline of philosophy faces when we turn away from the problems of other disciplines and the wider public to concentrate on our own prestige and traditions. Are we keeping a tradition truly alive when we only write books to ourselves? 
Did he wonder if, one day, his work
would inspire drunk Russians to shoot
each other?

What made the news today was a report of an argument between two Russian men at a bar. The discussion eventually became so passionate that one of the men shot the other with rubber bullets. They were arguing about Immanuel Kant. I doubt these people are seeking tenure.

So maybe start small. I'm just one person, after all, and can't change an entire discipline from this chair. When I’m presenting my work at conferences (some of which have been interdisciplinary), I’m regarded as a peer whose research is worth considering on the same level as everyone else on the program. And my approach, drawing material for philosophical argument from a variety of different disciplines, gets the greatest approval possible from an audience of philosophers. They tell me my work and my ideas are very interesting, that I’ve given people a lot to think about. And if a philosopher can’t provoke interesting thoughts, he should really think about a career change. 


  1. Nicholas Christakis is talking about such matters in ways that may interest you:

    As for your initial discussion of relativity, this is not penetrating my skull, but I applaud your breadth of knowledge. I do question the value of going in that direction, however, since there is a danger is switching from one appeal to authority (the professional philosophers' typical appeal to their own authority over their arcanum of how minds work, how reasoning should proceed) to another (physicists' typical appeal to their authority over physical matter and the essence of all things).

    It occurs to me that interdisciplinary thinking needs to be very wary of holding up one discipline as having special access to knowledge. All disciplines provide special access to their categories of disciplinary focus; but the point of interdisciplinary work seems to be the possibility of reassessing disciplinary focuses, categorization processes and the like. Heuristically, there's a lot of energy that can be drawn from these sorts of analogies, but I guess I'm lost as to their actual relevant to human experience in the world.

    PS Shall we wager on what Kant argument provoked such outrage? It must surely be the question of whether the categories of the understanding are fixed across all cultures are vary according to early childhood development.

    1. I definitely see where you're coming from on the interdisciplinarity problem, and philosophy tends to suffer from this hubris more than other disciplines. I think it's because there are so many sub-disciplines that are basically "Philosophy of X." Because we work on identifying and reasoning from the central concepts of a discipline, we're in greater danger than other reflective disciplines (like sociology) of bossing around the target discipline instead of entering a genuinely productive dialogue.

      Bruno Latour once gave a talk at the London School of Economics, which completely and deservedly bombed because his argument was that scientists had no idea what they actually did, and that only philosophy could tell them that. I know a professor at University of Waterloo, Kate Plaisance, who works on philosophy of genetics, and in order to be taken seriously in their community, effectively had to become an expert-level geneticist herself. My idea lies somewhere between these two: we can have the broad knowledge to be able to contribute to philosophical discourse, while also engaging with the scientific disciplines we study. Essentially, I study other disciplines to adapt their insights and concepts to my own projects, and I write philosophy that is relevant to the sciences in a way that I hope a scientist would consider my ideas in the course of her own work.