Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Philosophy's relation to other disciplines

Harry Brighouse at Crooked Timber has a post referring to an interview with Michele Lamont, who recently completed a book on academic peer review. Lamont has some intriguing remarks about the differences between philosophy and other disciplines, remarks that I think have pedagogical interest:

Philosophy is a problem discipline, and it’s defined as such by program officers. Philosophers do not believe that nonphilosophers are qualified to evaluate their work. Perhaps that comes out of the dominance of analytic philosophy, with its stress on logic and rigor. Philosophers think their discipline is more demanding than other fields. Even its practitioners define the discipline as contentious. They don’t see that as a problem; argument and dispute are the discipline’s defining characteristics.All that conflict makes it difficult to get consensus on the value of a philosophy proposal — or to convince people from other disciplines of its merits. The panels I studied are multidisciplinary. Nonphilosophers are often frustrated with the philosophers. They often discounted what philosophers had to say as misplaced intellectual superiority.

Brighouse comments:
Philosophy seems to be an outlier within the humanities, just as Linguistics is; we have less in common with the other humanities in terms of the concepts and methods that we deploy, and even the subject matter, than they have with one another (I don’t think I could make the case for that claim in a rigourous way, but I’m convinced its true). Some philosophers, furthermore, seem largely uninterested in any other kind of intellectual endeavour, and this just increases the sense of the other humanists that wee are arrogant; worse still, those of us who are interested in other disciplines frequently look to the sciences and social sciences rather than to the rest of the humanities.

I sincerely hope that the arrogance Brighouse and Lamont find among philosophers isn't the norm. Indeed, I like to think that one thing philosophy ought to engender is intellectual humility. And my observation is that philosophy tends to be somewhat more interdisciplinary than many other disciplines. Not having much territory that belongs exclusively to us, we philosophers often have to look to other disciplines to complement our own insights. For instance, it's hard to tell the difference these days between 'pure' philosophy of mind and philosophically motivated cognitive science. With respect to the study of the mind, the interpenetration between philosophy and the empirical sciences is complete. Similarly, though there's still plenty of 'pure' practical ethics or 'pure' political philosophy, a lot of the most interesting work is empirically nuanced too. (I'm thinking of, e.g., so much of the work on global and institutional justice.) Now, this doesn't mean that when philosophers look to other disciplines, they look to the same disciplines. For example, I've often thought that one way to characterize the analytic/Continental distinction is that when analytic philosophers look outside the disipline, they tend to look to the natural sciences, psychology, and the more data-driven social sciences (economics, say), whereas Continental philosophers tend to look to literature, social theory, and the more culturally-oriented social sciences (e.g., anthropology).

Here's the teaching-related thought: Students come to philosophy with some disciplinary background. Even entering freshmen have a working understanding that the methods and objects of investigation vary greatly among history, mathematics, and literature, say. And I suspect that students' early experiences with philosophy are shaped by the place they expect philosophy will occupy in their own mental map of the various disciplines. And this, I think, is a double-edged sword. For while students can find in philosophy something familiar from disciplines that attract them, they will also find in philosophy something to which they are intellectually averse. To put the matter in somewhat stereotypical terms: The computer science major will welcome philosophy's systematicity, emphasis on explicit analysis, and logic, but may not be so enthusiastic about philosophy's openendedness and emphasis on intellectual toleration and empathy. But the English lit major will respond in the opposite way, welcoming the latter and being somewhat put off the former.

Of course, this doesn't imply that philosophy instructors should teach so as to welcome one intellectual orientation: The computer science major and the English lit major both become more cognitively limber by studying philosophy. But it's still worth thinking about student disciplinary expectations and where philosophy fits in. For several years, I've distributed a midquarter feedback survey to my students in my intro to philosophy and intro to ethics courses. One question reads:

This course is (exactly/more or less/not at all) what I expected.

Over the years, the distribution of answers has been about even, 30-40% for each response. This suggests that philosophy, for good or ill, confounds students' mental maps of the disciplines.

I'd be curious to know what teaching challenges this issue presents. I'd also really interested in hearing from people who aren't philosophers about their own experiences studying philosophy and how their reactions were shaped by their disciplinary backgrounds.


  1. On the teaching points above: I can't count how many times students have said that they've never had a class like a philosophy class. The dialectical (or as you have it, openended) nature of philosophical inquiry seems to throw them. Something I've been thinking about, as I prepare to teach ethics this summer, is how to construct the class so that students don't walk away with the impression that since there are lots of differing theories and each has its problems, one view is as good as any other "as long as you can back it up." (I also don't know how many times I've heard ex-college students sum up their impression of philosophy in this way.) The problem that I have with this view is that it's simply shallow.

    So, the new thing I'm going to try is to make my unit on relativism the last unit of the class (rather than one of the first). Hopefully, after several weeks of looking at normative theory and applied issues, they can better appreciate that the complexity of moral issues does not entail relativistic dismissal of ethics, and better appreciate the shallowness of the "as long as you can back it up" view. (And as I have it in my notes, if they're going to be relativists, I want them to be relativists for deep reasons rather than shallow and intellectually lazy reasons.) It's very hard, I think, to get beyond the impression that philosophy is just one damn theory after another, but what I try to emphasize is the idea that doing philosophy well is about cultivating depth of thought, and ethical sensitivity, rather than just being a good debater.

    As far as the relation to other disciplines go, we read everything from Stanley Milgram to Voltaire. Philosophy class should alert students to the fact that philosophical issues arise in many places besides "the canon." If that makes philosophy class hard to locate on the map, so be it.

  2. Perhaps because I teach at a liberal arts college, I try hard to at least mention connections to other disciplines when I teach. At the very least, I try to get a sense of what other disciplines are doing. Though I do not mainly teach ethics, my fellow bloggers do, so here are some examples of things I try to know about in that connection: e.g., what do economists mean by 'preference,' are anthropologists wary of the concept of 'culture,' what do psychologists make of the sociopath's views about morality? In short, I try to give my students a sense that while many different disciplines approach the very same issues, problems and topics, each does so from a more or less distinctive methodology. That allows me to make clear that the subject matter is not exclusive to philosophy while the particular methods we employ are (or might be).

  3. I think we're actually doing something very right if philosophy confounds people's mental maps of the discipline; I think there's an important sense in which philosophy is perpetually pre-disciplinary -- most other disciplines are curricular break-offs from philosophy, coming about only when a great deal of philosophical work has already been done to get them started. (Not that it isn't in some sense also a discipline in its own right; but one of its features is going behind and beyond disciplinary boundaries.) So no matter what people's expectations for the nice disciplinary boundaries may be, philosophy taught well should overturn disciplinary expectations.

    I think the biggest challenge this presents is something like Matthew suggests: students are so confounded by it that they have difficulty getting more than a shallow view of it. I try to compensate for this by giving students some history to keep in mind: the role of philosophy in the development of the university, of our understanding of rights, of science as we know it, of women's education, etc. As I always tell my students, if you wanted a crude but decent first approximation of what philosophy is, you can think of it as the theoretical side of civilization-building. And that seems to help at least some students get a better grasp of things.

    But there are always others, so I'm interested in different ideas people have for handing this sort of challenge, too.

  4. Matthew is trying to ensure his students don't believe that: 'one view is as good as any other "as long as you can back it up."'

    Is this such a bad thing for our students to believe? First, it is a decent heuristic to combat the widespread anxiety some students have that they might not know the 'correct' answer to a question on a philosophy exam. Second, it encourages originality and independence of thought.

    But perhaps that misses Matthew's concern: that this is a "shallow" view. No doubt, the way many of our students hold that view, he is correct. If students think that all philosophical doctrines are as interchangeable as fashion accessories, something has gone wrong. The way I try to address this is to show what the implications are of philosophical views for how we should live, or for how we should conceive of our place in the world. Teaching ethics, in particular, this shouldn't be too hard. E.g. "If you find this argument persuasive, then why are you still eating meat?"

    It can be harder when teaching metaphysics and the like. But not impossible. But I must confess that, I do think there are some areas of philosophy where this "shallow" view is appropriate to hold. Is the statue identical to the lump of clay? Is unrestricted mereological composition true? Doesn't seem to matter to me what view you hold, as long as you are reasonably consistent in how you speak.


If you wish to use your name and don't have a blogger profile, please mark Name/URL in the list below. You can of course opt for Anonymous, but please keep in mind that multiple anonymous comments on a post are difficult to follow. Thanks!