Spaulding and Kandel on relationship between psychiatry/philosophy

See the following video from the Emerson-Wier Liberal Arts Symposium on the topic of interdisciplinarity at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma.  Spaulding’s remarks begin at 25 minutes, and Kandel’s response begins at 1:33.

There has been a fair amount of discussion recently on Facebook concerning how to frame the dialogue between philosophy and science; I’ve admired Dr. Kandel’s work since before I got into this business, but I find his response to Shannon’s reasonable suggestions disappointing (to put it mildly).  Thoughts?  Strategy?


  1. Felipe De Brigard

    Thank you for posting this, Cameron. And, Shannon, really great comments! As you know, these are issues very close to my heart and, in a sense, they constitute my day-to-day. Unlike Cameron, though, I did not find Eric’s comments disappointing. On the contrary, they seem to me perfectly predictable. In my experience, scientists—i.e., cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists—tend to think of philosophers of mind with whom they interact as belonging to one of two groups: either philosophers who have nothing to contribute to the discipline or as scientists posing as philosophers. Notice how Eric referred to Pat Churchland: “she’s practically a neuroscientist”. The assumption being that her capacity to contribute to the debate stems from she being a neuroscientist rather than she being a philosopher. So philosophers are doomed to fail in this debate, if one’s potential contributions are going to be so evaluated: either you have nothing to contribute, because you don’t know enough psychology/neuroscience, or, if you do contribute, it is because you know enough psychology/neuroscience, and not because you’re a philosopher. I think this is frustrating for philosophers. But I also understand Eric’s frustration. And it is funny that you used the Sellars quote, because it often gets interpreted as philosophers being very pompous, which is exactly how Kandel interpreted it. “You are telling me that I’m not interested in how things hang together because I’m not a philosopher? That I work on local problems only; minutia at best?” The quote sounds pompous because it comes from a philosopher, but of course Sellars wouldn’t have a problem, I think, saying to Kandel that when he’s trying to figure out how everything hangs together, in the broadest possible way, he, also, is doing philosophy. But then, preconceptions about what philosophy is creep up, and he’d say that such a task is his everyday task—or his task during lab meetings—and that he’s never call it philosophy. So a lot of his reaction is, I think, based on what he thinks philosophy (of mind) is, rather than what it actually is. Still, I think he’s right in that there are many philosophers who make proclamations about how science ought to be done, or about how scientists are wrong in saying so-and-so, without really understanding the science. Indeed, some of them even made successful careers out of misunderstanding the underlying science. Finally, there is the (practical) problem of philosophers and scientists speaking different languages. Both philosophy and neuroscience have specific languages, and it is not easy to be able to bridge the linguistic barriers that professionalization has created between them. I have seen many a wonderful paper in philosophy that could easily contribute to a certain debate in, say, evidence in cognitive neuroscience, that I know NO neuroscientist will ever read—in part because they are published in journals that aren’t read by scientists, but also because they are written for philosophers, not for scientists. The same goes, mutatis mutandis, for articles in scientific journals that won’t be read by philosophers. Oh, and one last thing: I think it is obvious that his remarks on Libet equivocate on the use of “decision”. He can’t really mean to say that he made the decision of marrying his wife unconsciously, righ? I mean…

  2. Tad Zawidzki

    Amazing work Shannon! I loved your presentation. So thorough, insightful and clear. And it really got under Kandel’s skin it seems.

    I wish there had been some time for back and forth between you and him. I wonder if you could have pressed him on his categorical denial that philosophy had anything to contribute to psychiatry!!! I would have brought up psychiatry’s track record of ruling, e.g., homosexuality as a disorder. These days, many complain about the applying the medical model to many cases of autism or even deafness. Surely these are philosophical issues. What really bothered me about Kandel is that he seemed to want to quarantine philosophy to areas that the medical and scientific professions are comfortable calling value-laden, like biomedical ethics and the like. But, of course, questions of value run much deeper, affecting fundamental classificatory schemes. It would be interesting to see his response to the following challenge: how can empirical work answer questions about whether or not some behavioral pattern ought to count as a disorder? It seems just obvious that empirical work presupposes certain conceptual distinctions – are these just supposed to be obvious and not up for critical scrutiny? Then you get results like classifying homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder, or, even worse (tying into Kandel’s opening remarks) classifying people on the basis of their race.

    The point about philosophy having nothing to contribute to molecular genetics was another glaring howler! It’s far from clear anymore that DNA is the only unit of heredity, or what its precise role in heredity is, given newly discovered epigenetic effects. The whole picture of there being a code for phylogenetic features passed down between generations is itself a philosophical one, used to help interpret and organize data, and guide its collection, but massively underdetermined by the data, as far as I know. And the picture gets even murkier in mind/brain stuff (he seemed to bunt on the free will and consciousness issues).

    Anyways, I know I’m preaching to the choir, but Kandel’s response to Shannon’s excellent presentation seemed petty and a little thin-skinned to me. As though there are some assumptions that just go without saying, and philosophers are wasting time critically examining them… Scientists need to take more philosophy of science, is what I got out of that…

  3. Hi friends. Thanks for your generous words of support. You all raise interesting issues about the often polemical dialectic between philosophers and scientists. Like Cameron, I was surprised by Kandel’s reaction to my comments. Given his public advocacy for the humanities, I figured I’d be preaching to the choir. I wish there had been more opportunity to discuss these issues in more depth in the Q&A. Kandel made several claims that, as Tad points out, it would have been fruitful to press. (The claim that philosophy is totally irrelevant to psychiatry was particularly surprising.)

    For what it’s worth, after the discussion, I remarked to Kandel that I thought there was much more agreement between us than was apparent in the discussion, and he readily agreed.

    Though Kandel interpreted my comments as suggesting that he and other scientists work only on minutiae, I certainly didn’t intend that interpretation. The sociological structure of science rewards a narrow focus (especially for pre-tenure scientists). But this narrow focus is good. It allows us over time to make real progress on scientific problems. Moreover, some scientists do focus on big picture questions. Often these are big names scientists who already have established themselves in their fields (like Kandel). As I remarked in the Q&A, we don’t need a philosopher standing around in every lab asking big picture questions about the lab work. Scientists can and sometimes do play this role themselves by trying to figure out how things hang together and situating their work in terms of the bigger picture. My claim is that philosophers are trained to do this, and thus can be useful to science.

    I think Felipe’s diagnosis of the problem is spot on. Neuroscientists and psychologists interpret philosophers of mind either as trying to do science (and often failing) or as working on irrelevant philosophical issues. (Michael Lynch, in a facebook discussion, also proposed this hypothesis.) This hypothesis explains some scientists’ tendency to regard philosophers whom they respect really as scientists rather than philosophers. (Lawrence Krauss articulated this view in an interview in The Atlantic, arguing that Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell really were mathematician and John Rawls really was a political scientist.) To me, this misunderstanding suggests that we philosophers of mind need to do a better job explaining what we do and why it matters.

  4. I agree wholeheartedly with everything that’s been said here so far (except, perhaps, that disappointment necessarily implies surprise 😉 –any moral psychologists in the house?). But I’m still not sure how we *should* define philosophy–specifically, to scientists–to avoid misunderstandings of the sort espoused by Kandel?

    I think any big-name scientist like Kandel who’s called upon to comment upon political and social issues will have had in the past at least one really sour run-in with a philosopher who deems empirical research flatly relevant to some large class of humanistic questions. Perhaps they’re accused of scientism, of misunderstanding the fact-value divide, of committing a naturalistic fallacy, or of doing violence to ordinary language. Perhaps this philosopher even claims to have a privileged access to some class of truths that the scientist sees as part of her domain (ugh!). This hostile viewpoint then gets labeled in the scientist’s mind as “philosophy”; and so any philosopher who has something useful to say, who engages with scientists on their own terms, must not be a philosopher. And any attempt a philosopher makes to define what philosophers do–take the Sellars quote, for example–then gets interpreted through this dirty lens.

    I guess what I’m looking for is a definition of philosophy that:

    1. Doesn’t easily allow the scientist to subsume philosophy under some prepackaged trope that allows it to be dismissed as empirically irrelevant,
    2. Makes readily apparent that scientists routinely engage in philosophical reflection, though scientific training programs rarely involve explicit training in those forms of reflection and virtually no methodological guidance (and if they do, it will be in a course that could fairly and often is labeled a “philosophical foundations” course), and
    3. Doesn’t throw under the bus the large sections of our profession that are perhaps not saying things that scientists need to think about to do their science. (Many empirically-oriented philosophers will be less concerned about this third goal; I tend to be open-minded here, but even if you disagree, I think it must be admitted that it’s politically counterproductive if we as a profession look like we’re too mired in internal squabbles over what we actually do to offer a consistent message to scientists.)

    I personally like to focus on particular examples to illustrate these points–‘representation’ has been my hobby horse, since one can typically get psychologists and cognitive neuroscientists to admit that the concept both plays a crucial role in their disciplines and that they have no idea what it actually means–but I don’t pretend to know the winning strategy here.

  5. Great presentation, Shannon. And I think you hit the nail on the head above when you said:

    “Scientists can and sometimes do play this role themselves by trying to figure out how things hang together and situating their work in terms of the bigger picture. My claim is that philosophers are trained to do this, and thus can be useful to science.” When scientists try to do high-level theory (i.e. philosophy, though perhaps not all philosophy is like this), they’re more likely to suck at it through lack of training. This is especially true when the high-level theory touches on traditional philosophical issues, where the scientist not only lacks the training but also, typically, familiarity with the relevant history. As Felipe mentioned, Kandel amply illustrated Shannon’s point in his naïve treatment of the Libet experiments. (Shannon, you showed great forbearance in declining to point this out when you had the opportunity in the Q&A. No doubt you wanted to!)

    In my experience, when talking to scientists about how philosophy can help, it sometimes works just to describe our contribution as high-level theory (and not under the label of “conceptual analysis”). (“You know those times when you’re looking at the big picture, and you’re not really sure what questions are the ones to ask? That’s philosophy. And that’s what chemistry and psychology were in their entirety before they separated off as a discipline. But even though they’ve separated off, there are still high-level theoretical questions where we don’t yet know our way about, especially in psychology.”)

    But I’ve found the only sure-fire way is to actually work with scientists, as Shannon has done, and help them spot the places where their lack of training was leading them astray. Then the penny really drops. (It doesn’t tend to help to point out similar mistakes outside their area, since they figure the scientists in question just weren’t up to snuff!)

  6. Thanks, Dan. Given the setting, I was not sure how much to challenge Kandel’s comments. He was the guest of honor, after all… But, you’re right that it was difficult not to comment on the discussion of Libet’s experiments. I was hoping that attentive audience members would recognize that he was perfectly demonstrating my point about the relevance of philosophy.

    I think you’re right that the best way to communicate the usefulness of philosophy to science simply is to work with scientists. That requires that at least some scientists are receptive to philosophy. Fortunately in my own area of research there are plenty of receptive scientists. For areas that tend not to be so friendly to philosophers, this is more difficult.

  7. Cameron: A general conception of philosophy may be useful in selling philosophy to scientists, especially if it is presented in conjunction with good examples of fruitful interdisciplinary interaction (like representation, in your case). I like your three conditions on a definition of philosophy, but I prefer not to be *too* strict about the definition of philosophy. Probably there aren’t necessary and sufficient conditions for philosophy.

    My own view is that the following characteristics are typical of philosophy: conceptual analysis, mapping how the pieces of a puzzle fit together, and focus on big picture questions. Perhaps this is one way to flesh out Dan’s notion of “high-level theory.”

    This conception of philosophy doesn’t cast out large segments of philosophy, nor does it imply that scientists never do philosophy. It allows that some areas of philosophy may not be relevant to a particular (or any!) area of science, but it’s also consistent with the idea that philosophy is relevant to science when scientific and philosophical questions overlap. It’s a very *broad* conception of philosophy, but I think that’s necessary.

    • Yes, this all sounds quite promising; I very much like the approach of identifying philosophy by a cluster of characteristics rather than a strict definition, or even a vague metaphor of the sort we’ve relied upon in the past (e.g. “handmaiden of the sciences”). I still think there’s quite a bit of tightening to be done, though; I think scientists are going to be (rightly) unconvinced that philosophers are better at big picture questions and conceptual analysis in the absence of compelling evidence.

      Kandel seemed to think that an argument could be made from a complete lack of specific cases where philosophy had made useful contributions to scientific investigation. This is simply wrong, but I think what’s needed is a substantial inventory of cases where philosophers have made some useful contribution by engaging in characteristically philosophical reflection. Certainly there are some cases of rather direct contribution–for example, Dennett’s role in the research on vervet monkey calls, or Fodor’s work on modularity in cognitive psychology–but I suspect the typical influence will be more indirect and require some interpretation.

      But I think perhaps I should have added a fourth constraint–whatever features we put in that cluster characteristic of philosophical reflection, we need to be able to make a convincing case that the types of training philosophers actually receive in graduate school do in fact engender better performance in those skills or abilities than the types of training scientists receive in graduate school. And while you’re right that such a case should be made within a big tent approach to philosophy, it has to offer specifics and be empirically convincing–i.e. based on an accurate sociology of philosophy, and cognitive science of learning and expertise–for scientists to be (rightly) convinced by it.

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