May 31, 2018

· Sociology · Philosophy

Recently Tyler Cowen asked whether there has been progress in Philosophy. Agnes Callard wrote a thoughtful reply, saying amongst other things:

We don’t demand progress in the fields of fashion or literature, because these things please us. Philosophy, by contrast, is bitter, and we want to know what good it will do us, and when, finally, it will be over. It is not pleasant to be told that maybe you don’t know who you are, or how to treat your friends, or how to be happy. It’s not pleasant to have it pointed out to you that maybe nothing you have ever done matters, or that, for all you know, there is nothing out there at all.

So one way to hear the questioner is as asking:

“When will philosophy finally go away? When will they stop raising questions about whether my own will is free, or saying that I can’t tell whether I’m leading my life or it’s leading me? When will they stop telling me that I need to read this or that book in order to be fully human? When will they leave me alone?”

The answer is: never.

In the background of this exchange is an ongoing discussion in philosophy about whether the field is making progress, as exemplified in recent papers by Dave Chalmers (”Why isn’t there more progress in Philosophy?”) and Herman Cappelen (”Disagreement in Philosophy: an optimistic perspective”). Disciplines—including my own—periodically have debates about whether they are making as much progress as they once did, or as they should be making. There’s a strong connection between what those debates look like and the degree of “disciplinarity” in a given area.

Academic disciplines are often characterized by fairly high levels of routine disagreement. What matters is the extent to which these disagreements challenge the real basis of the field as a whole. That is, whether they really undercut or threaten to reformulate its particular method of inquiry. This can be hard to assess in real time, especially in fields where claims about intitating some paradigm shift or fundamenal reorientation are themselves something of a routine occurence. To be successful as a going concern, a discipline must have pragmatic agreement on method. Being able to broadly agree on how to evaluate contributions is what allows disciplines to tolerate (and enjoy) substantial, persistent disagreement about this or that “big question” or “core problem”. Thus, you are unlikely to convince your fellow Psychologists of something important (something that’s important to them, I mean) without some fake data good experimental evidence. Similarly, Economists may not pay attention to you if you do not proceed according to some (to them) widely-shared rules of ritualized mathematics model-building supplemented by some nonsense about incentives empirical evidence. Professional Historians will be less likely to take you seriously if your claims are not built on an elegant prose style a demonstrated mastery of a relevant archive. Sociologists may remain unconvinced of your claims if you do not blame neoliberalism blame neoliberalism.

Persistent but productive disagreement is made possible by shared methodological standards. These are usually institutionalized in the requirements of graduate training and expressed in the expectations of peers in gatekeeping roles, as reviewers and editors, or just as everyday interlocutors. When those standards are stable, then over time substantive debates will likely show a steady pattern of revving up and winding down. Perhaps a problem finds a good consensus answer or, probably more often than that, people mine out the topic, get tired or bored, and move on to something else. Or those people get old and are replaced by a new cohort of researchers who care about new things. When a field starts to seriously, persistently, fundamentally disagree about its own methods of inquiry, however, it may become an organizationally weaker discipline. At the limit, conflict over method may be truly destructive of the field as a whole. Sometimes new fields are born in this way. Sometimes, some kind of detente is reached where segments of the discipline become widely separated by substantive and methodological differences that, in turn, are reflected in the distribution of personnel within the field. (Anthropology is like this; to a lesser extent so is Sociology). Sometimes, “big picture” or “core” theoretical disputes are discouraged de facto by way of a focus on a more minimal set of shared methods across a very wide range of substantive but non-conflicting applications. (History avoided the “theory wars” in more or less this way.) At other times, a nominal discipline may limp along with little in the way of real collective discussion or debate, because both topics and training break down to the point where its members can mange neither substantive overlap nor methodological agreement.

Worries about the persistence of disciplinary disagreements are often linked to fears that a field is not making “progress” in some sense. These concerns are usually expressed in terms of anxieties about the growth of knowledge, but are almost always rooted in advocacy for some particular methodological approach that is seen as likely to make progress possible, if only we could agree to train people in it. Successfully pulling off that fusion of topic area and method is what makes “disciplinarity” a real thing. It’s what prevents the Chemists from showing up in the French department (and vice versa) to let everyone there know they’re doing it wrong. In this sense, academic disciplines are a kind of ongoing, semi-public, semi-exclusive conversation. The exclusivity comes not just through the subject matter, but from the relative effectiveness of socialization into standards of evaluation and relevance. This begins at the undergraduate level but is formed most strongly during graduate training. Disciplines fail or break down in the same way that conversations fail or break down: for lack of conversation partners, for lack of interest in a topic, or for chronic lack of agreement on what counts as a useful contribution. While some kinds of failure just lead to embarrassing lulls, the latter sort of failure is potentially destructive of the conversation itself.

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