Monday, March 30, 2009

Armchair Sociology 101, part 2: Further Ruminations on The Two Models

(by guest blogger Manuel Vargas)

Belated introduction

Last post was my first post as a guest blogger here at The Splintered Mind, and I realized I neglected to introduce myself. Anyway, I’m Manuel Vargas, and my day job is philosophizing at the University of San Francisco. I mainly publish papers on issues connected to agency, responsibility, moral psychology, and various topics in Latin American philosophy. In my heart of hearts, though, I am an armchair sociologist of philosophy. Since I can’t blog much about that at my usual place of bloggery (the Garden of Forking Paths), I’m doing it here for the next few weeks.

Armchair Sociology 101, part 2: Further Ruminations on The Two Models

In my previous post I discussed two models of philosophical production, a traditional one emphasizing cautious, precise, and highly elaborated ideas, and a newer (to philosophy) model emphasizing novelty as paramount with a somewhat downgraded (but not rejected) emphasis on caution, precision, and conceptual elaboration. For better or for worse, my bet is we’ll see the second, newer model (and variants that lean in that direction) proliferate over the next couple of decades, making up a larger and larger chunk of how philosophy gets done in the English-speaking world. I can think of several reasons, which I mention in the Underblog. My main interest, though, is to think about the consequences of this trajectory if indeed it is the case that this approach will proliferate.

I’m inclined to think that we all benefit from the presence of a mixture of varied strategies in the general philosophical population. However, I wonder whether what we’re likely to see is (1) fragmentation across communities that reflect judgments about these different models, followed by (2) diminished interaction across these communities, followed by (3) greater entrenchment of the newer model across the profession, followed by (4) further fragmentation of subfields developed internal to those fields working on the newer model.

As some of the commentators noted on that earlier post, something like this seems to be what happens in the sciences, and one might think it is simply the general trajectory of fields. But there is also a temptation (also expressed in the comments in the earlier post— go read ‘em!) to think that philosophy should be different, more synoptic, more concerned with how everything hangs together. It is harder to see how you do that if the discipline suffers from field fragmentation of the sort I’m gesturing at.

At any rate, what, if anything follows from all of this? Should awareness of this trajectory affect how we encourage graduate students to think about their own publication strategies? Does the traditional way of doing things need defense? Is so, how? If not, why not?


Kevin said...

With respect to your hypothesized course of events, I am inclined to say that philosophy is, in fact, rather fragmented. Often you will find philosophers of mind having little interest in ethics (and vice versa), while philosophers of science have much contempt for the inconcise, thick descriptions of phenomenology. I suppose one might say that, even granted this fragmentation, there is an overall tendency toward synthesis, even embedded in the logic of philosophy itself; that one can't understand the mind without ethics, nor ethics without the mind, etc.

Yet then there is the question of whether the second method you are talking about will really challenge this logic. Another hypothesis is that fragmentation is inspired by some of the large gaps between the "major" philosophers (later Wittgenstein vs. Russell, for example, or Heidegger vs. Husserl, etc.), which are then compounded by "minor" or "secondary" philosophers (I'm using Randall Collin's nomenclature from his book The Sociology of Philosophies, which I highly recommend). On the other hand, if philosophy becomes a matter of the second method, there will be less systematic gaps and conflicts, with more scattered, interspersed theses that will, at an emergent level, produce more interwoven results. So, a few individuals producing highly systematic work may be more fragmenting than a lot of individuals producing less systematic work that nevertheless maintains a higher overall coherency.


Sean said...

Note: I published this comment first under the old post - but it may apply better here.

With respect to the discussion of "philosophic progress" and fragmentation - I know that other social science fields, there is a tendency towards stagnation/equilibrium in terms of who argues for what, and the potential for advancing the debate. Part of that may be due to tie-ins with political advocacy, but I think some of it is also due to pressure to publish numerous articles. When writing the analysis of results, it is often simpler to fall back on a pre-established paradigm, then it is to really question the "why" of a data set.

How would this tendency apply to philosophy? Perhaps, in some of the philosophy of science/AI fields, not as much - my guess is that progress in the related empirical field will force a rethinking of conceptual models as new tools become available (perhaps this is a bit naive). However, in some of the more "classical" fields of ethics, political philosophy, metaphysics, etc. I can easily see some form of stagnation/polarization.

Some of the reason for the "Authoritative Book" model is that it forces an internal dialectic (and an external one with editing and the conference presentations involved in the ideas). This relates to Justin T.'s comment (in the first post) about "success" as a philosopher. I think a big part of that success is attempting some form of synthesis of well-established arguments, to draw on the strengths of each and tease out what is essential to those strengths. Obviously, that's an old-school mode of thinking - in that it seems to be along the lines of Rawls, Korsgaard, and Kant's methodology.

Lastly - those systematic treatments also strike me as the place in which philosophy is most likely to impact the "real world," because it is there that philosophers are most likely to come up with truly new ideas, and not be lost in the standard academic jockeying for influence (which, I suspect, favors those in the "empirical" or "practical" disciplines). This may be tangential to some, but I do think it is important.

Michael Metzler said...

Wonderful topic. I'll opt to try to disagree here, though. I had hoped that what I saw over the last decade was a new form of interdisciplinary dialog: arts, literature, cognitive science, brain sciences, philosophy of mind, philosophy of law, emotion, metaphor, narrative, etc. We see philosophers wanting to be scientists, and with the new brain science, scientists who want to be philosophers - or need to be. This is all good on my view. And we are still in the Dennett age, aren't we? Am I wrong about this? As for philosophy becoming relevant: aren't we at a point where this is necessary for the very survival of the philosophical craft? The difference between Utilitarianism and Command theory, or disputes over the definition of 'knowledge', or the soundness of Aquinas' five ways - no matter the flashiness of the new clothes - no longer strike me as doing philosophy so much as doing the history of philosophy. I have intuitions - perhaps wishful thinking - that there is fertile ground for another enlightenment for the modern day philosopher, evidenced by this blog and this post. But I am viewing all this somewhat from the outside. No doubt, publishing and political pressures within a traditional philosophy department hinder whatever emerging intellectual movement I could possibly be referring to.

Michael Metzler

Anibal said...

I´m intrigued about the future prospects of philosophy education and methodology.

With the increasing rise of the "scientific culture" what philosophy students should learn: statistics, biology, scientific methodology...

Whalt will be the the role of philosophy. A mere interpretative discipline which tight altogheter the results of others more substantive areas of research... a mere history of intelectual and sicentific ideas.

I´m one of those who opines that philosophy=science, but in reality there is true gap.

Neil said...

While we are indeed seeing new kinds of interdisciplinarity within philosophy, it is a fragmented interdisciplinarity. I have a friend working in phil of mind. He publishes as much in cog sci journals as philosophy journals. His university was supposed to encourage interdisciplinarity, but he was told his collaborations with cognitive scientists didn't count as interdisciplinary: interdisciplinarity had to be within humanities or it wasn't interdisciplinary. The point is that he, like many other people in phil mind (and for that matter moral psychology, action theory, phil sci, and even metaphysics) would not think they have anything to gain from collaboration with historians or literature professors. We are also seeing a fragmentation within disciplines, with it become increasingly difficult for specialists in one area of philosophy to understand debates in other specialities. Both fragmentations are the product of strands of philosophy modelling themselves on sciences, with the unit of production being the paper, not the book, and work on very local questions encouraged. The synoptic is left behind. Is this a bad thing? Well as I see it, you have a choice: you can spout banalities about the Big Questions, or make genuine progress on relatively small questions.

Michael Metzler said...


Are you familiar with Patrick Hogan? He is a English/literature, but has been applying this to work in cognitive science (The Mind and its Stories, Cambridge, and Cognitive Science, Literature, and the Arts)


Neil said...

Michael, no I was unaware of Hogan. I attended a conference a couple of years ago on humanities and neuroscience, where there were several people thinking about literature and the arts in the light of cog sci. It was interesting, but the work I saw did not illuminate philosophical concerns with the nature of the mind (indeed, most of it did not illuminate anything: what I saw was people using a fashionable vocabulary to express claims they might have made using an existing vocabulary. Substituting "the firing of mirror neurons" for "empathy" is at best unhelpful, and at worse simply false).

Justin said...

I rather like an old post by Brian Weatherson, arguing that it's in the nature of philosophy for periods of specialization to be unstable. Part of his argument works via incentives: specialization produces "philosophical $50 bills lying on the sidewalk" --arguments that trade on familiarity with multiple areas of philosophy, arguments that will therefore be overlooked by specialists.

He also has a nice point that the boundaries of philosophy are quite unstable over time, which has an impact on specialization.

Michael Metzler said...


I think Hogan gives a fresh alternative to what you might have experienced elsewhere - although I am sure his attempt is as frail, as it must be at this stage of the game. This is one of the most fascinating issues to me: we need imperial rigor, and yet at the same time cannot carve off everything that is important in literature and the arts at the outset. This is like the practical side to the consciousness/physical tension it seems. The tools of the scientist are easily enough picked up with some labor (at least to enter an interdisciplinary discussion), but this is not necessarily so for the broader humanities (hence, perhaps, the importance of someone like Hogan, who originally comes from the literature side).


Mariana Soffer said...

I agree on your opinion of which side and how is philosophical research going to evolve.
I think in philosophy is and will happend the same than in the other disciplines such as antropology.
What is very strong nowadays, is the blurring of limits between classifications of fields and topics; Research about new fields that are the union of two different and apparently distant topics; The way researchers are relating and influencing eachother (given the access to internet) and the amount of information available.

Manuel Vargas said...

Wow- thanks everyone for all the really thoughtful responses. I'm on the road right now so I can't follow up in quite the way I'd like, but thanks in particular for reminding me of that old Weatherson post. I do think there are various pressures to reconfiguration and synthesis that re-shape what might otherwise be a relentless pattern of fragmentation.