Why is it a lab?

10 July 2019 by Charles cpencepermalink

As I’ve been doing more PR for the lab online, a few people have been confused by the fact that I call the group a lab in the first place. What do you mean, a philosophy lab? Does that make any sense at all?

On the one hand, I have a pretty simple answer: I’m borrowing from the way that our scientist colleagues organize their research groups, and I think they both have a lot more history doing it, and are a lot better at it than philosophers are! But that’s not all, and I wanted to write something here to say why.

This choice really does reflect something deeper about my approach to the field, and the kind of picture of academia that I want to cultivate – not just in the people that come work with us, but in the field as a whole. In particular, I see the “lab arrangement” as arising naturally from a few commitments that I think are really important to the way I understand philosophy and history of science.

First of all, I’m a long-time believer in the necessity of integrating history and philosophy of science, as anyone who reads my papers will surely know. Philosophers of science very often don’t realize that the very questions that form the subject matter of our discipline are themselves historically contextual – that is, they are themselves historical objects that arose as a result of various kinds of pressures from both philosophy itself and from the construction of the sciences that we study. If we don’t understand why it is that these questions are questions in the first place, we’ll tend to either answer them badly, or simply recapitulate answers to them and debates surrounding them that have occurred throughout the history of science. (And the biologists themselves are often very sophisticated interlocutors on these subjects!)

Similarly, the same can be said about the relationship between the philosophy of biology and biology itself, when we set our sights on contemporary topics. Much great work in philosophy of biology isn’t in inventing novel solutions to philosophical problems – it lies in figuring out how it is that the kinds of answers that biologists are already deploying in their everyday practice are in fact responsive to the sorts of questions that philosophers are interested in. That requires that we be in touch with contemporary biology, and often parts of the field that philosophers haven’t often considered – not just our hand-selected collection of philosophers’ favorite examples.

And I can keep extending our scope here – because many of the most fruitful approaches to the philosophy and history of biology, in my view, are those that put us in dialogue with an even broader public. To take the example most important in my own work, I’m firmly convinced that many of the methods of philosophers of science will be improved by connecting to the analytic work of our colleagues using digital methods in departments of literature, English, and library science, among others. Other colleagues have engaged fruitfully with theoretical computer scientists, electrical engineers, and scholars in media studies and communication.

Now, how can we possibly expect to do all of that? How can we keep pace with our own fields in the twenty-first century, much less all of these other, allied areas of research? Here’s where we get back to collaborative structure. One person can’t, of course, come close to working in this many areas. This means that philosophers are going to have to get better at organizing and structuring teams – and teams that contain a wide array of different perspectives and skill sets. (I’m excited to be talking with a number of colleagues on exactly these issues in recent days – in particular, Thomas Pradeu at Bordeaux and Pablo Ruiz de Olano at the Max Planck.)

Again, here we come back to the simplistic answer to why I call the Pence Lab a “lab” in the first place. Scientists are already doing this, and they’re doing it much more effectively than philosophers are. Simple techniques of mentoring, group meetings, journal clubs, regular communication, project and time management – these all have to become collaborative, public, group activities, in much the way they are in a well-functioning group in the sciences. Part of the point of doing all of that is enabling people to reach outside their personal research silos, to cultivate real collaborative work, and to try to build a common direction and a genuine research program. These modes of research need to be cultivated and supported to flourish. That’s not a pattern of work that philosophers are often used to, but I think it needs to become one.

And lastly, there’s a critical interpersonal angle here, too, that’s drawn out a bit by this last comment. Philosophy is too often a lonely enterprise, especially early in one’s career. Science lab groups – and ours, I hope – are ways in which we can foster a kind of belonging and community that are too often missing in philosophy. As a group member, you’re not just a free-floating researcher. You’re a member of a team, that’s at least in part pulling in the same direction, engaged in a common enterprise. I know that I do my best work when I’m integrated into that sort of group, and I think it’s something we should really encourage.