Some thoughts on ‘team philosophy’

by Ingrid Robeyns on October 21, 2023

In my academic job, I’ve just started a new 5-year project called ‘Visions for the future‘. In the first year of the project, I’ll tackle some methodological questions, including working out the discussion we had here some years ago on normative audits, and the question what ‘synthetic political philosophy’ is (on which Eric also has, and is further developing, views).

For the subsequent 3 years, I want to experiment with, and also develop the idea of ‘team philosophy’ (and I will hire three postdocs to be part of this). But what is ‘team philosophy’?

As a first approximation, the idea is to produce philosophical knowledge as a team, rather than as an individual. In many of the empirical sciences, this is standard: people in labs, but also empirical scholars in fields like politics or sociology, often bring together their different types of expertise, or simply divide up the work, and then write a paper together. Can this practice of ‘team science’ shed light on what ‘team philosophy’ could be and what its advantages and limits might be?

There are clear advantages to team science. One is that it is pretty impossible to know everything, and it might take weeks or months to master a new empirical method or technique; then why not collaborate? Another advantage is that more people are truly invested in making the quality of the ultimate research as high as possible, which should provide incentives to not provide brief (sometimes superficial) comments on the work of colleagues, but be genuinely committed – since one has literally a stake in the research being produced. Another advantage is that many researchers are fed-up with the excessively competitive nature of academia, and prefer a more collaborative model. This was a theme that was prominent in a podcast episode on this topic with the professor of comparative politics Carolien van Ham; she also confirmed that team science reduces work pressure, since you do not have to figure out everything yourself, which can be time-consuming (in non-empirical fields, the equivalent might be not feeling you have to read up on all papers and books that might be relevant).

Since I have very little experience with empirical team science (this paper being an exception), I am not sure what the disadvantages are. There seems to me a risk of domination of the full professor/PI if they basically impose team science on the junior staff (which in several countries includes PhD-scholars who are not students but employees). Those PIs might not want to use team philosophy for laudable reasons, but in essence because they have run out of ideas themselves or want publications with as little work as possible. Another source of conflict is the order of the names on the publication – which apparently is important in some sciences, and where (from what I’ve been told) it is especially those whose names are listed first and last that are granted full credits (when I’ve co-written theoretical papers, we’ve always sticked to the alphabetical order, and, as far as I can recall, with little or no discussion). There may be more disadvantages; I’d love to hear from those of you who are doing this kind of work. One worry I’d have is who decides what questions to pursue, since, by definition, one doesn’t always follow one’s own ideas or hypotheses, but needs to collaborate.

Would this model work for philosophy? At first sight, it doesn’t work, since philosophers see themselves, and see their discipline, as being about ideas and arguments that are generated in someone’s brain, and that do not require empirical analyses outside that brain. Ideas tend to be seen as from someone and hence the locus of knowledge generation is primarily the individual. My own view is that this is not entirely true, since comments on those ideas can have a huge impact on how the scholarship develops – but there is nevertheless some truth to it.

There is a good amount of co-authoring going on in philosophy, but in most cases this is between two people, not a team of, say, four people or more. When two people co-author, it is often also because they have complementary knowledge, or because they like each other’s work and believe that if they were to set out to have scholarly conversations, something interesting might emerge.

My hunch is that, in philosophy, we should try to experiment with writing more in larger groups. This could take different forms. It could be for a smaller question, e.g. a critique on a new theory that has been proposed in philosophy. I remember some years ago having a highly energetic lunchtime conversation with a bunch of colleagues, who had all read a particular new book, and we all felt there were some problems with it – but we all had different critiques (which were consistent with each other). Each of us only had a limited point to make, but all the critiques together mounted to something much more interesting. I then proposed that we’d book a room for a couple of days and work out that conversation in a paper. It didn’t happen, but this would have been a great thing to try.

Team philosophy might also work well if the goal is to provide a state of the art of a certain discussion or subfield. Over the last years I’ve been involved in a huge consortium of philosophers based in the Netherlands who work on the ethics of socially disruptive technologies. At some point, I proposed to write a book with the entire consortium, laying out the state of the art of this research (in the end I couldn’t co-author since I was fully immersed in writing my book on limitarianism, but I did provide comments on the entire draft and really enjoyed it). It required a skilled lead-editor, and it required a publisher who is willing to publish unconventional formats, but the result is great, and a nice example of team philosophy.

Another case where team philosophy might be needed, is when the questions one is interested in are Big Questions. That’s the case for my new project, which is all about alternative socio-economic systems. Over the years I’ve studied (and published on) some dimensions of some of those proposed alternatives – but there are many of them. Moreover, if one works on such Big Questions such as entire systems, one needs to bring together the expertise of different people; some of us know about systems of the provisioning of care and unpaid work, others about migration or international trade, others about financial systems or technology, still others about labour markets and work, etc etc. And there are very important reasons why political philosophers should look into those questions. If we want to take seriously the challenge that we must come up with answers to these Big Questions, this is almost impossible to do for a single person. In sum, some particular questions can only be answered by collaborating, hence engaging in team philosophy.

Do all the advantages and risks/disadvantages that apply to team science apply to team philosophy?

One advantage that doesn’t seem to apply straightforwardly, is the complementary use of methods – since all of philosophy tends to use, very roughly, the same set of methods (conceptual analysis, argumentation, etc.). Our empirical colleagues talk about being skilled in survey design, or field studies, or lab experiments, or advanced statistical tools as reasons to collaborate; this isn’t (generally) applicable to philosophy. But the equivalent here might be dividing up the huge literature that one needs to read in order to master all that’s relevant to answer certain questions.

One additional risk for philosophy is the dominant practice of awarding much more prestige to single-authored papers, and, in the case of junior philosophers, to think they must prove themselves by having published single-authored papers. I know PhD-supervisors who have given such extensive comments on some draft papers of their PhD-candidates – including passing on original ideas – that, if they had not worked in philosophy but in another field – this would have ended up as a multiple-authored publication. Still, these supervisors did not request co-authorship, since the norms in the discipline of philosophy forbid this: the relevant norm is that “giving comments on the work of a PhD-candidate, no matter how elaborate, is not a reason to request co-authorship”. Moreover, if these PhD-supervisors are caring human beings, they know that they are likely to harm the future labour market prospects of these PhD-candidates if they were to request/impose co-authorship, and hence they will/should not do it.

If one wants to experiment with team philosophy – as I do – I think it is hugely important to be aware of power differences in academia, hence safe relations between PI’s and PhDs/Postdocs on a project, and make sure the interests of those who do not yet have tenured jobs are sufficiently protected. My hunch is that this implies that for PhD-scholars team philosophy is generally problematic, and that for Postdocs, they must have sufficient room to still do their own single-authored work. And if it is the case that the everyday practices of philosophy hinder the particular team philosophy that is needed to answer the Big Questions, then we need to transform the philosophical discipline. Why not just make collaboration in larger groups more common, and value that work more?

Here’s the “tl;dr”: For the academic discipline of philosophy, for the human beings working in that discipline, and for the world in which we are in need of philosophical reflection and analysis, there is much to win with more team philosophy.



Alan White 10.22.23 at 5:31 am

Recently I and two others (Joe Campbell, Kristin Mickelson) co-edited a Wiley/Blackwell Companion on Free Will, the first collaboration of more than two people I’ve done in writing. It was the best most enlightening experience in thinking about that topic due to our Zooming about not just editing chapters, but genuinely working together to produce an introduction to the book that attempted a new approach on a nomenclature that better represented how to presently discuss where we are and where we’ve come from in free will and action theory. Two minds are good–but three definitely better. I suspect there may be an upper limit to how many may profitably be involved, but I can say for sure that three are better than two.


Jenneke Evers 10.22.23 at 3:42 pm

Some thoughts.
(1) I think the advantages are clear in many contexts, especially where it concerns interdisciplinary scholarship and more empirical work. (Where empirical work is not necessarily distinct from doing philosophy, but may simply be a method for more applied philosophical work – which in turn can sharpen conceptual analyses.) With regard to interdisciplinarity, I’d say that it’s not just a matter of dividing the work in terms of methods or literature – but also to sharpen the analysis, to be able to discuss the same topic from different perspectives, to finetune, to debate, to in the end have a better understanding of the subject. In that sense team science/philosophy would also do justice to the collective effort that research in the end often is.
(2) Relatedly, while team science often has a lab, or a shared place, philosophy often has not. Networks like 4TU might come closest to this, but there isn’t one space to ‘do’ team philosophy. This might not matter if you want to do team philosophy ‘only’ within your own department or for one particular project, but it does limit collaborations outside of this. For example, I have very fond memories of an interdisciplinary Lorentz workshop I participated in years ago. While the Lorentz center has many beta-oriented workshops, it actually works perfectly for other fields as well, and it does a great job in providing the spatial facilities to team science/philosophy/scholarship. We should have more of these places and opportunities if we also want to do team philosophy with people outside our department/institution.
(3) The risks for PhD candidates in philosophy might diminish if team philosophy becomes more of a regular practice (although, for now, that’s probably wishful thinking). But the question is: which labour market prospects are harmed? If the PhD candidate decides to look outside of academia for a career, co-authoring and team philosophy might actually be seen as an advantage. I also think that co-authoring and team philosophy in the end have a positive influence on getting a dissertation finished :).
(4) Regardless of consequences for an academic career, I think power differences are the true risk. However, I think if PIs would violate any relations with PhDs/Postdocs, they would also already do so without any team philosophy. Those risks are probably much more inherent to how academia nowadays is organized (competition) than to team philosophy (collaboration). But I might be wrong.


KT2 10.22.23 at 10:09 pm

I come from a data and IT background, so here is my nail.

Team Philosophy – the worthy goals as described in the OP, seem to need a coordination method, as …”… the equivalent here might be dividing up the huge literature that one needs to read in order to master all that’s relevant to answer certain questions.” (IR)

Although the “Dining philosophers problem” is via “… computer science, the dining philosophers problem is an example problem often used in concurrent algorithm design to illustrate synchronization issues and techniques for resolving them.” (Wikipedia), I see little disadvantages applying it to your project.

Since your part of the project Ingrid is “Robeyns will conduct research into visions for a better society in the future” with Sen’s Capability Approach, it seems a hard information process for the project may come in handy.  And allow a sub grant to be awarded to incorporate information technology as a precursor to ML, and or that overused phrase – AI. Here is a search of Arxiv lite. The papers authors, I believe, would love to be oarricipanta, and run a concurrent project on your 5yr project. And I also believe funding may be secured separately fir a hard process investigation…

While you conduct this program of Team Philosophy, for me, I’d appreciate to see a paper on the project,  applying  “Dining philosophers problem” or similar, to Team Philosophy as a guide for future Team Philosophy projects. .

“Dining philosophers problem
… [graphic]
“The problem is how to design a regimen (a concurrent algorithm) such that no philosopher will starve; i.e., each can forever continue to alternate between eating and thinking, assuming that no philosopher can know when others may want to eat or think (an issue of incomplete information).

Which leads to “no philosopher can know when others may want to eat or think (an issue of incomplete information).”.

“Shared information bias”

“Harmful consequences related to poor decision-making can arise when the group does not have access to unshared information (hidden profiles) in order to make a well-informed decision.[1][3]”
“Avoidance strategies

“Hidden profile”
“However, no group member can detect this best solution on the basis of her or his individual information prior to discussion; it can only be found by pooling the unshared information during group discussion.[3]

“Naïve Groups Can Solve the Hidden-Profile Problem”
Torsten Reimer, Andrea Reimer,Verlin B. Hinsz
Human Communication Research, Volume 36, Issue 3, 1 July 2010, Pages 443–467

And an incoming and outgoing survey of the group. I see a PhD on the surveys conducted.
“Philosophers on Philosophy: The 2020 PhilPapers Survey
Bourget, D. & Chalmers, D. J., (2023) “Philosophers on Philosophy: The 2020 PhilPapers Survey”, Philosophers’ Imprint 23: 11.

Can’t wait to see the Team Philosophy outputs. I hope by introducing a hard methodology which surfaces and manages  “the huge literature that one needs to read in order to master all that’s relevant to answer certain questions.” (IR), hidden information / profiles, biases or coordination problems, Team Philosophy may become a rapid response Team, able to be deployed to counter misinformation and the news cycle. Or even get a step ahead. I wish!
My 2c. Thanks.


Trader Joe 10.23.23 at 1:07 pm

My two cents on team research/writing collaboration:

In the end, no matter how good all the individuals are, the team will only succeed if actual team chemistry is created. I don’t know how to define team chemistry in any empirical way but its the reason some teams become more than the sum of their parts and others barely manage to equal the sum of their parts. It has more to do with a creative blend of personalities (both work and social) as well as both soft and hard leadership dynamics. Said shorter good teams can do amazing things, bad teams can actually be destructive. Most teams produce good to average work.
The greatest single risk in these collaborations is what I’ll call compromising to superior mediocrity. Its when everyone insists on putting in their little points and rather than making the whole better it turns it into mush. I can’t claim to know what this would look like in a philosophy context – but I’m sure we’ve all read papers or examined work where we felt like a team just threw the kitchen sink at it and while there is incredible volume, there isn’t a binding whole to the totality of the work.
The greatest single opportunity is to actually find some clever connection between apparently un-related disciplines that combined together creates a motivating thesis that can be explored. This may be more luck than skill, who knows. But the best collabs I’ve seen tend to take seemingly unrelated ideas and run with them to what is often a surprising or at least thought provoking conclusion.

Good luck. Its a very worthy effort, but in my opinion one that’s easier imagined than executed.


John Q 10.25.23 at 5:03 am

The subculture of conomic theory, is very similar to that of analytic philosophy in lots of ways, but the norm of sole authorship is different.

C0-authorship is the norm in economics, even for purely theoretical work. Two is the modal number of authors, also median and close to mean. One and three are about equally common, and more than three is rare. Alphabetic order is standard (though with one long-running co-author, we adopted the rule that the corresponding author went first).

Norms within economics reinforce this: studies typically show that each author on a two-author paper gets about 70 per cent of the credit (as measured by pay, tenure etc) as the sole author of a similar quality paper*. And the ideas in the paper are assumed to be the joint product of discussions between the authors. I imagine in philosopher, with a strong norm of sole authorship, the corresponding number would be less than 0.5.

There’s a bit more differentiation in empirical economics, where one person might be doing the econometrics, another the data and another the theory, but it would still be odd to use the word team to describe this.

“Teams” to me means something quite different, closer to a sporting team with a large number of players and distinct roles. That would typically involve cross-disciplinary groups doing grant-funded projects with a very goal-oriented focus. The output typically has low academic status for the economists involved.

  • This is one of many things that disadvantages women in economics. Women tend to do more sole-authored work (I haven’t seen a clear explanation of this), and therefore end up getting less credit than two-man partnerships.

engels 10.25.23 at 9:52 am

I think there’s a potential discussion about the meaning of the term “team”. I suppose the cabinet is a team (“Rishi’s top team” led by “the boss”) but what about the Supreme Court? An orchestra? Your family? It’s not limited to people as I regularly hear of brands “teaming up” with each other. It seems to involve both solidarity (team playing) and competitiveness, and an interesting ambiguity about hierarchy: does a team have to have a leader? The image seems to be of a group of individuals coordinating their activity voluntarily and intuitively as in a game of football but that seems implausible in many of the contexts in which it is used. Team activity may still be anomalous in philosophy and a few other niches (belle lettres?) but in wider productive life seems to have driven out other ways of organising human effort: when and why did this happen?


engels 10.25.23 at 9:58 am

“No one now believes the hermit with his gown and dish talking to God (who’s gone too)”—Philip Larkin


David Ludwig 10.30.23 at 6:44 pm

Love this post, Ingrid! We’ve been trying to get serious about “team philosophy” in our GEOS project, and there have been quite a few lessons about its opportunities but also difficulties in practice. Distributing conceptual and other philosophical tasks has a different logic than distributing empirical tasks of data collection & analysis. It is often more tricky to be honest and my experience with team science is that the conceptual/theory parts of co-authored empirical papers are still largely written by one or two core members such as the first author + PI. Doesn’t mean that proper team philosophy is not possible but it requires quite a bit of disruption of established philosophical work routines. The closest we’ve come in our project are these two papers you may find interesting as cases of team philosophy approaches:

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