Specialization and collaboration

Over the past few decades, philosophy -- and philosophy of science in particular -- has become increasingly specialized: we have philosophy of quantum field theory, philosophy of developmental biology, etc. It seems that even the so-called "generalists" in philosophy of science are becoming a more and more self-contained group. (For example, I went to a session entitled "Confirmation" at the last Philosophy of Science Association meeting, and I had a very difficult time understanding what was being discussed, at least in part because there was a lot of specialized jargon and assumptions shared by the experts used without explanation -- though my limited brainpower certainly played its part in my incomprehension.)

In general, I think this trend of specialization is a Good Thing, primarily because it has led to specific results that we might not have found otherwise. (Thus I disagree with Karl Popper's claim: "For the scientist, specialization is a great temptation, but for the philosopher, it is a mortal sin.") But I think specialization also has its costs -- in particular, we tend to bypass answers to bigger questions. The question "What is a scientific explanation?" is replaced by "What is explanation in quantum information theory?" or "What is an evolutionary explanation?" and so on. (I think both of those questions are very interesting and philosophically important ones!) The philosopher of biology is uncomfortable talking about explanation in the physical sciences, and the philosopher of physics feels likewise about explanations of biological phenomena -- and the generalist is busy worrying about 'grue'some predicates, the barometer and the thunderstorm, or the irrelevant conjunction problem to deal with explanations in particular sciences. (I think this may in part explain why philosophy of science survey classes often begin with writings of logical empiricists: they tried to give genuinely general accounts of notions central to science.)

In keeping with the generally naturalist spirit of philosophy of science and this blog, we can ask ourselves: What Would Scientists Do? Scientists these days are hyperspecialized, and publish their hyperspecialized research in increasingly specialized journals. However, they also answer bigger, broader questions as well, via collaboration with scientists outside their specialty. So I wonder whether the time is ripe now for philosophers of science, armed with the insights about their particular sub-disciplines amassed over the last few decades, to begin collaborating to answer some of the bigger questions again. And the collaborations need not end there -- philosophers of science could also collaborate more with folks working within epistemology and metaphysics proper, or other fields.

I imagine many will say that we have overthrown the logical empiricist myth that there is a single thing, explanation, or confirmation, or even science. I am open to the idea that these might be myths. But I think we should check whether this is the case -- and if they are mythical, we can at least gain clarity and specificity about what the differences are between e.g. the explanatory patterns of physics and biology.


Greg Frost-Arnold said...

Kenny -
The percentage of philosophical articles that are co-authored does appear to be on the rise, based on my very limited experience. However, at least in philosophy of science, it appears that these collaborations are between two or more people working in the same field. For example, one of my favorite philosophers, John Earman, has co-authored articles with several different people -- but in most (though not all!) cases, his collaborators have been, like him, folks working on the technical side of (mostly spacetime) physics. And I get the impression that collaboration mostly between members of the same sub-field is the general pattern. (The other main pattern of collaboration seems to be e.g. a philosopher of biology teaming up with a practicing biologist.) I am hoping, rather, for collaboration between philosophers of different special sciences. (I realize and admit that my post is a stone thrown from inside a glass house.)

Carrie Jenkins said...

I agree with your sentiment - and in particular, I think that it would be nice to see philosophers of science and epistemologists interact more (the same goes for epistemologists and philosophers of maths). But it appears that David Papineau doesn't think so. I recently heard him give a paper suggesting that only methodological philosophers of science are doing something worthwhile in the vicinity of epistemology these days, and that mainstream epistemology has lost its way since Gettier. :(
(I had a little rant about it here:

Anonymous said...

From this post, I'm not sure where you come down on the issue of specialization. It seems that you want previously specialized philosophers of science to generalize via collaboration. That's all fine and good in theory, but difficult to obtain in practice.

The problem, I think, is not a question of philosophical principles or issues, but of rhetoric. Philosophers of the particular sciences write for other philosophers of the same science, if not for the scientists themselves, as you aptly note. They are reluctant or have difficulty writing for a broader audience. To do so, they must change emphasis, if not argue entirely differently, since a change in audience necessitates a change in rhetorical strategy. This raises a dilemma. Either the philosopher must remain within the rhetorical domain of her field and remain incomprehensible to outsiders (e.g., you at the conference) or she must alter her rhetoric, thereby lessening the force or significance of her conclusions. This is not necessarily the case. It just commonly happens to be so.

(Perhaps a parallel can be drawn to Snow's distinction between the "Two Cultures." Authors of various stripes have tried to bridge that gap for a long time, basically without success. The rhetorical pressures of shifting audiences stifle meaningful translation.)

Moreover, I do not see how collaboration can overcome the rhetorical problem. It doesn't really matter who is writing, be it one, two, or many. What matters is who the writing is for, i.e., the audience. Philosophy for a general audience will continue to worry about general problems. Philosophy for a specialized domain will continue to address specialized issues.

Greg Frost-Arnold said...


New audiences are created (or at least cobbled together from the fringes of old ones) as well. Specialization in the philosophy of science is a relatively recent phenomenon -- Studies in the History and Philosophy of Modern Physics, Biology and Philosophy, and Philosophy and Economics are all relatively recent creations. Many of the articles published in them would not have been published just 30-40 years ago -- the philosophy journals would consider them too scientific/ technical, and the scientific journals would consider the same article too philosophical.

So these changes can happen, especially when the subdisciplines are not very far apart -- I imagine the last ancestor common to both today's philosophers of biology and philosophers of physics is not so distant that some sort of common ground can be established.

Anonymous said...

While it is true that new audiences are created, the trend is to make them more specialized, rather than less so. There are reasons for this, some less "pure" than others, but that's besides the point.
Don't get me wrong. I also see specialization as a problem that can and should be overcome, but I don't think the solution is to endorse specialization first, then collaboration. I think philosophy, or at least the kind of philosophy we're talking about, has made itself somewhat beholden to the situation "on the ground" in the sciences, and therefore reflects the specialization of the sciences themselves. As long as that's the case, the audience will be dictated by the sciences. I think the solution is to break the link from the start and re-establish philosophy as a legitimate and independent discourse. Philosophers can and should talk about the specific sciences (philosophy of science is a valuable enterprise, and the journals you cite are useful forums), but they should address themselves to other philosophers, rather than the specialized scientist-philosophers that are the present audience. I would like to see common ground established, but I think the problem is the audience, not the subject matter.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that there is also another slightly "heretical" solution-program to this problem - one I agree is a problem. This is that philosophy as a whole should become increasinly scientifically and technologically respectable. It is difficult to do well, but I have long felt that philosophers should not ignore science and technology regardless of their fields. Ethicists should learn from the social sciences and perhaps even from ethology and primatology; epistemologists should certainly know some psychology and sociology (to the extent that field is currently scientific, which is itself a problem); etc. Examples can be multiplied if anyone cares. What then, does this do for the general philosophy of science and technology? Well, it is then the discipline that mediates between the specialized philosophies of S&T and general philosophy, just as the specialized philosophers are generalized scientists after a fashion.

This is not special pleading for science and technology: I think the same is true of those who do aesthetics, philosophy of art or literature and so forth. While it is not my area, I think a parallel argument can be constructed to have those sorts of people mediate between art and general philosophy. Of course, I would also claim that just as the philosopher of technology cannot ignore aesthetics, the aestheticist should also learn some perceptual science or the like. (There are certainly some who have, which is all to the good.)

Shorter: philosophers are human intercultural ambassadors. :)

Keith Douglas