Via Scott Martens, I saw that the Chronicle of Higher Education has published an article on the differences between philosophy in Britain and North America.
One of the big differences is the attitude towards interdisciplinary work. Scott highlighted the following quote, which was pretty striking.
In Britain, there is more skepticism about the value of interdisciplinary work, notes Tim Crane, the country’s leading philosopher of mind. “A lot of what counts as interdisciplinary work in philosophy of mind,” he says, “is actually philosophical speculation backed up with certain, probably out-of-date, Scientific American-style summaries of research in psychology or neuroscience, which tend to support the philosophical preconceptions of the authors.”
That’s not exactly what I’d call “noting” the existence of skepticism.
It’s also pretty misleading in a way. Most of the best recent work I’ve seen in philosophy of physics and philosophy of biology seems to rest on a pretty thorough understanding of the relevant fields. And my impression is that this generalises fairly widely (though maybe not to philosophy of mind). Sometimes philosophers of X will end up having more productive conversations with other specialists in X than with other philosophers, because they rely so heavily on specialised knowledge of their field. Even if Tim’s right about philosophy of mind, it isn’t a reasonable characterisation of interdisciplinary work in general.
The article ended with a long discussion about the role of academics in public life, again noting difference between Britain and America.
There are two broad models of how such engagement might best be achieved: what I call the participatory and the contributory. In the participatory model, academics engage in real-world problems by becoming members of the institutions that are directly involved with those problems. In the contributory model, academics remain in academe, but issue documents, books, and papers that are supposed to contribute to public life.
In Britain the participatory model is dominant, while in America it’s the contributory model. Americans write articles for Philosophy and Public Affairs, British philosophers get involved with political groups and influence things directly.
So that got me thinking, is spouting off ideas on a blog a contributory or participatory mode of engagement? Brian’s hypothesis: if it has a comments board it’s participatory, if not it’s contributory.
Quite by coincidence, an ad for the book on which this article was (I think) based arrived in my mailbox today. So I (think I) can fill in one of the gaps in the article. The author, Julian Baggini, says
I’ve recently taken such a picture, interviewing, with a colleague, 16 of the best British-based philosophers in the generation that will soon lead their discipline.
That made me think, well who are these 16 greats? The ad for the book says it contains interviews with
Simon Blackburn, Helena Cronin, Don Cupitt, Richard Dawkins, Michael Dummett, Stuart Hampshire, John Harris, Ted Honderich, Mary Midgley, Ray Monk, Hilary Putnam, Jonathan Rée, Janet Radcliffe Richards, Roger Scruton, John Searle, Peter Singer, Alan Sokal, Russell Stannard, Richard Swinburne, Peter Vardy, Edward O Wilson, Mary Warnock.
This is odd since (a) there’s 22 names there, (b) not all of them are British or philosophers, (c ) there’s hardly a person on that list under 60 and (d) Tim Crane is not on the list, when the impression from the earlier quote was that he was one of the interviewees. (And I’d find it hard to believe that he wouldn’t be one of the “16 of the best British-based philosophers in the generation that will soon lead their discipline.”) Maybe the super 16 are interviewed as well as the 22 luminaries listed above. Does anyone have the book in question so we can find out?
By the way, if you head over to Scott’s site, you should check his post explaining his carefully considered and well earned aversion to Noam Chomsky.