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Interdisciplinarity in HPS

A strange concurrence of three separate events (now more than a year ago, but such is life in the pandemic) has caused me to spend lots of time lately thinking about the nature of interdisciplinarity – and, in particular, what kind of career interactions we should want to encourage between biologists and philosophers and historians of biology.

Let me start with the background, then. First, and most mercenary, I’ve been working to adapt to my new European environment by preparing a whole host of project-based grants for various kinds of funding bodies. It’s been clear to me for several of them – none of which have succeeded yet, which is perhaps itself an interesting data point – that the kind of team that I wanted to build would crucially involve at least one biologist. But that immediately throws one into a thicket of practical problems.

Who would be the right kind of postdoctoral fellow for such a position? How would they receive appropriate credit for the kind of work that they did? Could they keep publishing in a biology journal, even while working in an HPS group? Would they want to? Would such a postdoc be an appropriate transitional career to jobs other than “major lab PI,” or would it simply be a dead-end, career-wise? I’m worried about hiring someone for such a position without having well conceived answers to all of these questions.

Second, just as I was putting together one of these projects, I began talking to an old friend, Pablo Ruiz de Olano, who’s now working as a researcher in Alexander Blum’s group at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, in one of the only projects anywhere in the Max Planck system to successfully integrate working physicists (from the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics) into a team containing historians and philosophers of physics. Pablo was interested in pursuing the idea – which I do think is pretty commonly expressed – that philosophers of biology have been unusually successful in making our work appreciable and readable for practicing biologists. Of course, some obvious examples come to mind: Sober’s 1984 book The Nature of Selection is cited all the time in biological works, and Samir Okasha’s book on multi-level selection has experienced some of the same sort of impact. So far so good, but how to explain this kind of crossover, and in what senses could it generalize?

Lastly, in the context of another project – on the “complexity studies” literature, which sadly just collapsed under the weight of a failed empirical analysis (such is the risk of working in digital humanities) – I’d begun to read some of the theoretical work that has been done on the nature of interdisciplinarity itself.

The combination of these three influences has led to a few badly formed thoughts about this, which I’m hoping to flesh out here in a blog post for posterity, only because I’m pretty sure that I’ll forget all of this later on if I don’t.

What is Interdisciplinarity, Anyway?

If you know my work at all, you won’t be surprised to learn that my initial instinct upon coming up against a problem like this was to try to find a theoretical approach to the notion of interdisciplinarity that could ground the kind of exchange that I’d like to cultivate between working biologists and philosophers and historians of biology.

On a tip from Thomas Reydon, who’s been looking at interdisciplinary borrowings of Darwinian theory in disciplines like economics and management, I started from the work of Reynate Mayntz, in particular her 1992 book chapter, “The influence of natural science theories on contemporary social science."1 Mayntz starts off by setting aside a few kinds of interdisciplinarity that, I think, don’t capture the kind of thing that I’m looking for.

First are what she calls cases of reductionist extension – typified by things like the founding of biochemistry or sociobiology. In these cases, one science simply extends its toolset into the domain of another, pre-existing science. The part of biology that was dedicated to the study of the properties of organic molecules was simply taken over by the methods of chemists, who in the process founded a novel field. A model of colonization, rather than collaboration.

Second is what she refers to as joint ventures – which are “cases of genuine interdisciplinary collaboration.” Some instances of this phenomenon, such as in studies of the brain (where computer scientists, psychologists, neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, etc. all work together on the same set of problems) may be genuinely useful as methods to solve problems. But, as Mayntz notes, such work “does not necessarily stimulate the internal development of the participating disciplines in the same way and to the same extent as transfer efforts do” (p. 28).

I think this insight is really key, in fact. We don’t just want HPS folks to sit in the same room as biologists and listen to one another talk (although this can be extremely beneficial, as anyone from either group who’s attended a conference from the other can attest!). Rather, what we want is to produce changes in philosophical, historical, and biological practice as a result of these collaborations. We want to fashion new forms of better-informed philosophy and science.

That’s the domain of what Mayntz calls borrowing, or “the transfer of methods, concepts, and theoretical models of another discipline” (p. 28). But – given her aim of exploring cases of borrowing between the natural and the social sciences – Mayntz focuses in here on something that (while extremely important in other cases) won’t really be helpful in our efforts to understand the case of HPS. “Theory transfer,” she writes, “in a strict sense presupposes – and assumes – isomorphism between the empirical phenomena to be described and explained…. Two substantive theories with an identical formal structure can thus be considered two different empirical applications of one underlying formal theory” (p. 30). But this approach clearly won’t cut it for our purposes; there are no isomorphisms to be found in the history and philosophy of biology.

A few more tantalizing clues along the way came from a paper by Jan Schmidt, which notes in passing that interdisciplinary work might be useful to questions of problem framing and problem perception – shifting, that is, to problems that are themselves defined outside the structures of single disciplines.2 And a very exhaustive taxonomy by Julie Klein3 includes the mention (citing, in turn, Boden) that in cases like the relationship between cognitive neuroscience and the philosophy of cognitive science, “individuals may find their original disciplinary methods and theoretical concepts modified as a result of cooperation, fostering new conceptual categories and methodological unification” (p. 20). Still, though, just promising leads, no complete theories.4 We’re thus left without any clear theoretical framework (at least that I know of – let me know if I’ve missed one!) in which to approach the kinds of questions of interdisciplinarity raised by the connections between HPS and the sciences.

A Way Forward

I won’t, therefore, claim to have any particularly clear answers for how we can move forward from here. More theoretical work on interdisciplinarity would clearly be a welcome development. But I want to pick up on a point that Pablo made in the Q&A period after I delivered some of this material as a talk. Perhaps, he argued, we should take a suitably pragmatic approach to the question – starting not from theory to understand how these exchanges might work, but rather from practice.

To that end, we might think about getting clearer on a cluster of practical barriers to producing this kind of work, barriers that we could then use to generalize about how we might make such work more readily possible.

  1. How does cross-disciplinary communication work? (Sub-problems of this problem: How can we recruit people interested in these questions? How can we publicize our work so that it gets read by the relevant publics?)
  2. How do interdisciplinary products work? (Sub-problems of this problem: How can we publish articles in these fields? How can we get credit for datasets and other non-standard outputs in such projects? How can we be sure that research credit is dispensed fairly and equitably across fields with different procedures or standards for doing so?)
  3. How do interdisciplinary careers work? (Sub-problems of this problem: What are the future career paths for people who work in these areas? Should we encourage such work at the doctoral level? At the post-doctoral level? How can we keep doing interdisciplinary work from being a career killer?)

Perhaps, then, it is a coherent set of answers to these nagging practical questions with which I began in which we’ll really find a way to treat interdisciplinarity in HPS. At least, that’s where I’m planning to focus my efforts. Find me on social media if you have thoughts!

  1. Mayntz, Renate. 1992. β€œThe Influence of Natural Science Theories on Contemporary Social Science.” In European Social Science in Transition: Assessment and Outlook, edited by Meinolf Dierkes and Bernd Biervert, 27–79. Frankfurt: Campus Verlag. Unfortunately pretty hard to find in print; send me an e-mail if you’d like a PDF copy! ↩︎

  2. Schmidt, Jan C. 2008. “Towards a Philosophy of Interdisciplinarity: An Attempt to Provide a Classification and Clarification.” Poiesis & Praxis 5: 53–69. ↩︎

  3. Klein, Julie Thompson. 2010. “A Taxonomy of Interdisciplinarity.” In The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity, edited by Robert Frodeman, Julie Thompson Klein, Carl Mitcham, and J. Britt Holbrook, 15–30. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ↩︎

  4. A new paper by Rens Bod et al., which conceptualizes interdisciplinary work in terms of the “flow of cognitive goods,” is promising as a framework, but I worry that it has, in turn, moved too far in the opposite direction – providing a notion of “cognitive goods” that is so general as to only give us minimal theoretical leverage on the problem. See Bod, Rens, Jeroen van Dongen, Sjang L. ten Hagen, Bart Karstens, and Emma Mojet. 2019. “The Flow of Cognitive Goods: A Historiographical Framework for the Study of Epistemic Transfer.” Isis 110 (3): 483–96. ↩︎