‘Scalability’ is a concept used in engineering to evaluate the ability of a process to accommodate increased work demands through expansion, while remaining functionally the same. Over the past few days at the New Practice of Philosophy conference here at UNT, there has been a stimulating comparison and contrast between a variety of philosophical models of interdisciplinarity: I came away with the idea that scale and philosophy might be inversely proportional.
The model of ‘engaged philosophy‘ presented by Pamela Lyons was a great example of employing unstructured dialog to get participants to question their disciplinary assumptions (in this case, in cognitive science). Paul Thompson and Kyle Whyte from MSU also promoted a variant on this approach. To my mind, both seemed Socratic, philosophically fruitful, and at ease in an interdisciplinary context. Yet Lyon emphasized that there was no deliverable output from their meeting.
While Thompson mentioned Open Space as a valuable tool for organizing philosophically engaged conferences, the pressure for a quick academic output is overwhelming and bears more than a passing resemblance to the pressure driving the pursuit of short-term profits in the private sector.
What, then, to do about relevant insights beneficial to the public, especially those which are not immediately deliverable or relevant to a discussion that may have become extremely dysfunctional? Only limited funding will be made available for the slow-burning production of such insights.
In contradistinction to this approach, the ‘Toolbox Project‘, discussed by Michael O’Rourke and Stephen Crowley, seems specifically designed to produce deliverable outputs, while also being an output itself. There’s an undeniable strength in this; their aim, to get participants in interdisciplinary projects to question their foundational assumptions, was similar to the proponents of ‘engaged philosophy.’
But their approach seemed best designed to interact with collaborative engineering projects – the toolbox itself resembles a social engineering tool to promote philosophical reflection. This looks scalable, as it can be dispersed widely and modified as needed in small ways. It has a clear output – there are concrete answers given. But I am skeptical as to whether the toolbox can accommodate the kind of deep ontological questioning practiced in engaged philosophy.