9/14/2005

Specialization and collaboration, again

Yesterday Paul Hoyningen-Huene presented a talk entitled "What is Science?" at the Center for Philosophy of Science here. He intends the question in his title to be taken in a very general way, so his target is one of those Big Questions that, in my last post, I bemoaned as a dying breed in our climate of increasing specialization.

Prof. Hoyningen-Huene pointed out a discouraging fact for anyone who wants to attempt an answer to the Big Questions in the philosophy of science and simultaneously remain reasonably close to actual scientific practice: according to Thomson ISI (the citation management company), there are 170 categories of natural science, 54 in the social sciences, and 15 in the formal sciences -- not including subdisciplines, which can vary widely. So if someone makes a general claim about science or scientific practice, and wants to check that claim thoroughly, then 239 different categories of scientific activity -- most of them complex and varigated -- must be checked.

I feel pulled in two directions by the existence of these 239 categories. On the one hand, it seems that collaboration is the only means to make headway on the Big Questions. On the (not-quite-mutually-exclusive) other, it seems likely that the Big Questions just won't admit of anything approximating a (reasonably) general answer. (Hoyningen-Huene's strategy is to describe several examples drawn from across several scientific disciplines that support his thesis, and assert that these examples are paradigmatic.)

Finally, Kieran Setiya has also recently posted about specialization in philosophy over on his blog, Ideas of Imperfection. Since he's much smarter than I am, I recommend you read his post.

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