Arbitrary Boundaries in Academia

I’ve been thinking a bit about the arbitrariness of the boundaries around philosophy. This is part of my general concern with trying to think historically (or sociologically) about contemporary philosophy.

I think it’s beyond dispute that there are, as a matter of fact, some boundaries. For instance, work in sports analytics isn’t part of philosophy. I wouldn’t publish a straightforward study in sports analytics in a philosophy journal, and I wouldn’t hire someone to an open philosophy position if all their work was in sports analytics. And I think just about everyone in the profession shares these dispositions.

In saying all this, there are a number of things I’m not saying.

1. I’m not saying that philosophy is irrelevant to sports analytics. Indeed, some of the biggest debates in sports analytics have been influenced by familiar epistemological arguments.
2. I’m not saying that sports analytics is irrelevant to philosophy. If someone wanted to use a case study from recent debates in sports analytics to make a point in social epistemology, that could be great philosophy. (I’m sort of tempted to write such a paper myself.) But something can be relevant to philosophy without being philosophy. (As a corrollary to that, I’m not saying that there couldn’t be any point to a course on sports analytics in a philosophy department. Perhaps if it was a great case study, more philosophers would need to learn the background to the case.)
3. I’m not saying there could not be something like philosophy of sports analytics. I don’t know what such a thing would be – it feels like it reduces to familiar applied epistemology – but someone could try it.
4. I’m not saying work in sports analytics is no good. Indeed, I think some of it is great.
5. I’m not saying sports analytics doesn’t belong in the academy. As a matter of fact, there isn’t anywhere it happily lives. But if David Romer and others succeed in making it part of economics, or Brayden King makes it part of management studies, I’ll be really happy.
6. And I’m not saying there is some special thing that philosophy timelessly or essentially is that excludes sports analytics. Indeed, the rest of this post is going to be sort of an argument against this view.

But even with all those negative points made, I think it is still pretty clear that philosophy as it is currently constituted does actually exclude sports analytics.

That’s all background to a couple of questions I would be interested in hearing people’s thoughts about.

1. What are the most closely related pairs of fields you know about such that one of the pair is in philosophy (in the above sense), and the other is not?
2. What fields are most distant from philosophy as it is currently practiced, but you think could easily have been in philosophy in a different history?

My answers are below the fold.

For 1, I have two answers:

  • Decision theory (in) – Game theory (out)
  • Semantics (in) – Syntax (out)

Of course both game theory and syntax are relevant to philosophy, and are influenced by things that are parts of philosophy. But I don’t see many people in philosophy journals, philosophy departments, or philosophy conferences, doing straight up work in those fields.

I’ve taught game theory, but hardly made any original contributions to it. Robert Stalnaker has made a number of contributions to game theory – in fact he has four great papers on it. But only one of those was published in anything like a philosophy journal – and that was in Theory & Decision, which publishes a lot of work by non-philosophers. There are a lot of philosophers who use game theory, in philosophy of biology, political philosophy, even philosophy of language, but not many who are making straightforward contributions to it.

It’s actually a bit of a mystery to me how we got to this state. When I read, for example, Cho and Kreps’s work on the appropriate solution concepts to use in analysing signalling games, it reads just like philosophy to me. And so do many of the several thousand papers that built on it. It’s true the paper was published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, but lots of the foundational papers in decision theory were published in economics or statistics journals, and they had plenty of uptake in philosophy despite that. (And of Keynes’s 1937 QJE paper gets a lot of uptake in philosophy, so even that journal gets discussed.) But not so for game theory papers, even ones that launched research fields that really resemble philosophical work. It seems like a completely arbitrary division, but here we are.

I won’t go over the point at the same length, but I think the same is true of syntax and semantics. Loads of philosophers (including me!) do work in semantics. And much of that work is inspired, or guided, by work in syntax. But very few philosophers (at least to my knowledge) have made contributions to syntax, or have written papers that would happily appear in a syntax journal.

To be fair, that last paragraph does rest on a somewhat arbitrary drawing of the syntax/semantics boundary. We could draw that boudnary so that Jason Stanley’s work on unarticulated constituents, or Delia Graff Fara’s work on analysing names and descriptions as predicates as contributions to syntax. I don’t think there’s any sharp line, or natural joint around here. But I do think that as you go along the continuum between clearly semantic work, and clearly syntactic work, the representation of philosophers drops dramatically.

These are meant to be dated observations. Perhaps in five or ten years time, the world will look very different. And perhaps I’m wrong that the boundaries here are arbitrary; maybe there is a good reason why we philosophers should be interested in decision theory but not game theory, or the meaning of ‘the’ but not the conditions of well-formedness for questions in various languages. But they seem like pretty arbitrary distinctions to me.

Question two is harder, but here’s my wildly uninformed guess: Shakespeare. I think it’s easy to imagine a world where historians of ideas were very interested in Shakespeare’s implicit theory of mind, and theory of virtue, and on how this influenced other writers on these topics, especially English-language writers. And in that world, we might see much more discussion of Shakespeare as part of the discussion of the bridge between medieval and early modern philosophy. (Of course, this would require more discussion of this bridge than some departments are prepared to engage in, but that’s another matter.) But as easy as this world is to imagine, it’s not our world.

So, what do you think? Where, if any, are there sharp but arbitrary boundaries drawn around the discipline? And what accidents of history have left us as a profession far removed from fields of study we might otherwise have been in greater contact with?

UPDATE AND CORRECTION: Klaas Kraay pointed out that I’m wrong about how far removed from academic philosophy the study of Shakespeare is. In fact, there is an upcoming conference on Shakespeare: The Philosopher. I didn’t expect to be so dramatically wrong about that answer!

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