Tuesday, July 1, 2008

"Interdisciplinary" Conferences

I just declined an invitation to participate in an "interdisciplinary" conference. I did so because I vowed to myself some years ago never to bother with anything describing itself as "interdisciplinary." This vow was brought on by an exhausting exchange I had at such a conference. During the Q&A, an audience member posed a question to me that was objectively incoherent-- a string of words with a vocal inflection at the end. In the posing of this question, the audience member repeatedly used the word "theory" and the word "metaphysics" interchangeably. In trying to respond to the (alleged) question, I began by noting, "You seem to treat the words 'metaphysics' and 'theory' as synonyms." The audience member interrupted at this point, saying "No I don't." So I replied, "Well, you use them interchangeably." With a tone of confident vindication, the audience member responded, "Yes... I do." My response that interchangeability is at least a symptom of synonymy, if not a criterion for it, was met with a blank, but nevertheless confident, stare.

I later discovered that this audience member was a very distinguished professor of English. I concluded that "interdisciplinary" simply means something like people with no philosophical training bullshitting about philosophy.

11 comments:

729 said...

Now that's a funny story!

Perhaps, a reason you can't seem to get the most out of the interdisciplinary conference experience is that you've been thinking all along that that they are academic in nature. 'Interdisciplinary Conference' is synonymous with 'Revival Meeting'. ('Paper' = 'Testimony', 'Theory' = 'Gospel', 'Argument' = 'Doctrinal Dispute' and so on...)

It's an honest mistake. Philosophers get very confused around all the holy rollers, having been immunized against glossolalia. Halleluiah!

Santa said...

There has to be a way for professional philosophers to engage those who are not professional philosophers. Perhaps an interdisciplinary conference is not the most ideal forum.

However as keepers of truth, professional philosophers are behooved to find some way to enter meaningful dialogue with those non-professionals.

Without engaging the other fields or general populace, at best, the pro philosophers come off behaving like Socrates when talking about the world of forms- remote, abstract, and seeming to distance himself from his fellow men's experience. At worst, the pro philosophers appear as intellectual snobs that are only interested in riposting their opposing school in the field or circle jerking their brethren.

Pro philosophers have a lot more to offer society in general and the general populace appear to be starving for it. Otherwise pseudo-philospher hacks who are wolves in sheeps clothing would not get so much face time in the media and the general public's attention.

So while it may be work to get the non-prfessional to keep their ideas clear, the reward for society as a whole in the pro philosopher doing that work is great as it helps public discourse become that much more coherent.

Spiros said...

729:

I once attended an "interdisciplinary" event that included philosophers and religious studies people. You simply wouldn't believe the bullshit. I wish I had video...

Spiros said...

Santa,

I'm all for public philosophy (if done properly). But the philosophy should be left to the philosophers, not to the sociologists and comp litters who have heard that Rorty showed that all philosophy prior to Wittgenstein is one big, simple mistake, and so proceed as if the slate is clean for their crap.

729 said...

Sprios: I would very much believe it.

You know my situation. I created and now run an interdisciplinary program, so I know. I know. I do everything I can to make disciplinary methodologies explicit and central in my program. What I do, as director, is pretty interesting. I do not encourage faculty affiliates to teach outside their home disciplines. I designed the program to be interdisciplinary *for students* (for the students to learn how distinct disciplines and their methods approach the same topic), instead of creating hodgepodge courses. Combined methods courses *require* team-teaching. I always have to keep in mind that I am dealing with colleagues, and most are tenured, published, and not people who will defer to me because I am a philosopher. It really is no business of mine to review the content of their research or courses as a philosopher--those reviews and approvals are the responsibility of their dept. curriculum committees. and the college curriculum committee. My program committee decides about matters of cohesion of approved courses with the program objectives. My model is something I hope adds a certain clarity to the local interdisciplinary phenomena that I am responsible for, but conference experiences are very over-the-top. I have to stand back and watch the wheels.

Santa said...

Spiros: I definitely see your point in that instance and agree. What then is the strategy for steering the sociologists, psychologists, and comp litters towards wisdom, the good, logical discourse, or truth? There must be some way to expose to these people in a compelling way that the Rorty path is crap.

Spiros said...

Santa:

Probably the best way to steer them towards truth would be to shut down their departments.

Santa said...

Spiros: Holy crap! That was awesome and unexpected.

Spiros said...

Santa:

Well... I try.

Anonymous said...

So yes, English (or Literature) or whatever they are choosing to call it these days (sometimes schools will have both depts, as at Duke) has experienced a massive downhill slide over the past, say, three decades. And English departments and their nonsense affiliates do seem to be major proponents of "interdisciplinary studies" projects. And, I fully agree that 90% or what is marketed at ID is a cover for intellectual shoddiness.

But we shouldn't sell ourselves OR the rest of the academy short. We should remember that tons of quality ID work does happen between philosophers and (for example) legal scholars, poly sci professors, linguists, computer scientists, biologists, physicists, nueroscientists, psychologists, and others. In my own area of interest, early modern philosophy, many intellectual historians have made useful contributions and have provided an interdisciplinary thrust.

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