Philosophy and the Other Disciplines

by Pauline Shanks Kaurin

Philosophy, perhaps fairly, has a reputation as a discipline that holds itself up as judge and arbiter of the claims and methods of other disciplines. Consider some subfields within philosophy: philosophy of law, philosophy of science and philosophy of religion to name only a few.  These areas involve the philosophical examination of claims, methods and conclusions within these specific areas; we subject to critical analysis and questioning even those things that might be taken as obvious or foundational commitments within these areas. Philosophers do the same in relation to other areas of our society in studying ethics, epistemology, metaphysical and social and political philosophy.  Philosopher Richard Rorty, in his classic Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature notes that this gatekeeper and judge function has for a long time defined (at least in part)what the discipline is and what is means to be a philosopher, “To drop the notion of the philosopher as knowing something about knowing which no one else knows so well would be to drop the notion that his voice always has the overriding claim on the attention of other participants in the conversation.” [1]

Here at PLU I would say that the picture is somewhat different.  Most of our department members teach in and/or are active in nearly every interdisciplinary program on our campus and are leaders in International Honors, Environmental Studies, and Holocaust and Genocide Studies.   Within our department we teach courses that draw on other areas like medicine, business, gender studies, critical race theory and art and bring philosophy into dialogue with those areas and to facilitate critical examination of those areas.  We do not see this work as an add-on to our ‘real’ work in philosophy, but rather as an expression of how we practice and engage in the work of philosophy as a discipline.

This means is that we must have a clear understanding  of and be firmly rooted in our own discipline, its methods, questions and approaches in order to contribute and participate in inter- and multidisciplinary work.  Philosophers bring critical thinking, an obsession with clear definitions and distinctions, a commitment to argument and evidence and a keen interest in the implications of ideas and commitments to any topic that they engage.   While environmental sustainability is a considered commitment in the Environmental Studies Program and for PLU more generally, the philosophers who teach in this program challenge students to think about how we define sustainability, whether and why it ought to be considered a good thing, our relationship with nature and whether there are other ways to approach this relationship and commitment.

Why do we do this? Some find philosophers to be annoying (recall Socrates got himself executed after all!), since we are questioning and challenging many ideas and commitments that others take as settled and intuitive.  We do not do this merely to be annoying, but because we think it is not just important to know, think and act but also to know the grounds and reasons for knowledge, though and action and whether, why and how they are valid and good.  The historical record is replete with the damage done to humans and society from failing to ask hard questions, examine assumptions and critique problematic commitments and courses of action.  It is very difficult to do this from within your own framework, so ‘outsiders’ are necessary to look at things in a different way and with a different set of questions and concerns. Philosophers can be those outsiders.

However, there are challenges when it comes to interdisciplinary work, which is by its nature collaborative and cooperative. Here our philosophers function as both insiders and outsiders; as scholars engaged in teaching and scholarly work within an interdisciplinary area or topic contributing to knowledge and practice in that area, while at the same time informed by and rooted in the discipline of philosophy.  In a time when dialogue and civil discourse are challenging in our public life, PLU is a place where discussions about Big Enough Questions and important issues can happen within the framework of the expertise of our disciplines, but also across and between our disciplines.  This is important because the world and its problems are not confined to one area or discipline; our students need to draw on skills and expertise across areas and disciplines to address these problems and contribute as leaders and citizens.

[1] 302.