Philosophical Dialogue as Field Philosophy

Successful collaboration requires effective communication. Differences in professional, disciplinary, or cultural background can create opportunities for innovative collaboration, but they also create challenges to free-flowing communication. What follows is an account of a collaborative effort to develop philosophical tools designed to help meet these challenges—tools that are now in high demand and are being adapted and exported to new contexts. Our effort—the Toolbox Dialogue Initiative (TDI)—originated in the collaboration of scientists and philosophers at the University of Idaho (UI) in 2005, and it has affected thousands of researchers from hundreds of disciplines since then. That philosophy could be used to clarify the communicative problems of interdisciplinary teams is not at all obvious, especially to those who are familiar with the culture of academic philosophy. Perhaps it is less surprising, then, that the relevance of philosophy to interdisciplinary communication was suggested by graduate students outside of philosophy who were engaged in an Integrative Graduate Education and Traineeship (IGERT) project.

The IGERT Program was an effort by the US National Science Foundation to change the culture of graduate education so that students could acquire focused interdisciplinary training. The educational model developed with IGERT support by the UI and the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE) was distinctive in its emphasis on team-based integration (Bosque-Perez et al. 2016). Students pursuing expertise in different agricultural and natural resource disciplines were grouped into teams of four and required to: (a) identify research questions integrating their different disciplinary perspectives that would structure their dissertation work, and (b) produce dissertations that included at least one chapter jointly authored by the team. Experienced interdisciplinary' scientists did what they could to ensure that all the conditions were ripe for success—prior planning, faculty and institutional commitment, financial support, and mentoring resources were organized and made ready for the students.1 But even so, and not surprisingly, the students met with difficulties.

Challenges are manifold when you pursue interdisciplinary research, but one that stood out for the UI-CATIE teams was the difficulty of identifying ways of combining their disciplinary perspectives. In the interdisciplinary literature, this issue is commonly associated with linguistic differences, such as finding that the same term is used differently by representatives of different disciplines (e.g., Bracken and Oughton 2006; Eigenbrode et al. 2007; Donovan et al. 2015). But the source of the difficulty cuts deeper than language. Patterns of terminology reflect deeper commitments, such as foundational beliefs about what makes a research question puzzling, or core values that mark certain research objectives as more desirable. The students needed resources they could use to identify their foundational beliefs and values and coordinate them, effectively mapping the space of conceptual similarity and difference they occupy as scientists (cf Lele and Norgaard 2005). This was, in short, a job for philosophy.

TDI is a philosophically grounded project that grew out of the effort to harness philosophy to address the needs of students in the UI-CATIE IGEKT project. TDI emerged from philosophical consideration of the challenges confronting interdisciplinary' researchers who seek to integrate insights reflecting their disciplinary perspectives. Since 2005, we have investigated and facilitated communication and collaboration in complex projects which generally involve, if not center on, interdisciplinary' academic research. Through structured, dialogue-based workshops designed with participant input, TDI encourages collaborators to articulate implicit aspects of their research and practice worldviews in order to build mutual understanding through collective reflexivity. Understood as a philosophical effort, TDI is a signal example of field philosophy, deploying philosophy to address specific communication problems in concrete contexts and working with a wide range of academic and non-academic partners to build collaborative and communicative capacity.2

Currently based at Michigan State University (MSU), TDI has conducted more than 300 workshops with a wide range of partners, many of whom have been interdisciplinary research teams engaged in complex scientific projects. Recently, TDI has expanded its range of partners to include groups such as development organizations, business forums, and academic centers. This expansion is driven by the recognition that the communication problems we can address by talking about them, in a structured way, are not limited to those that afflict complex research teams.

After describing the origins of TDI, its mechanics as a research and outreach project, and its philosophical context, we present a case study involving Toolbox workshops designed to support organizational strategic planning. A common exercise for complex organizations, strategic planning is a systematic attempt to control the future actions taken by an organization so that it achieves the objectives which constitute its mission. When creating plans for an organization, it is critical to identify the commitments, constraints, and core beliefs and values of those who will engage in future decision-making. TDI has worked on strategic planning with several partner organizations, adapting the Toolbox approach to frame dialogue among affiliated stakeholders to advance means-end deliberation about their future together.

In describing these efforts, we consider the conditions that proved favorable for engaged, successful dialogue as well as those that undermined progress. We also critically discuss the changes made to the Toolbox approach in moving from a research-focused to a planning-focused context. We close by considering a few lessons we have learned by taking philosophy into the field in the form of the Toolbox approach.

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