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Interdisciplinary Research: New Prospects for Philosophy

What connects philosophers, linguists, and logicians? How do you develop partnerships with dozens of foreign research centres in just six months? Can science exist in isolation from the outside world? Elena Dragalina-Chernaya, Head of the International Laboratory for Logic, Linguistics, and Formal Philosophy, discusses these and other issues.

From a Local Study Group to an International Research Team

My colleagues and I have been working in the Formal Philosophy Research and Study Group (RSG) since 2015. Together with a team of students, we have analyzed dynamic models in logic, analytical metaphysics, and language philosophy. We have also held a number of international conferences. In April 2018, our RSG core team was able to join the International Laboratory for Logic, Linguistics, and Formal Philosophy (thanks to the fact that our project won the HSE University competition in establishing international laboratories).

The International Laboratory has taken our studies to a new level. We now have a lot of research opportunities and some members from abroad in our team. Among them is Bart Geurts, a theoretical linguist and language philosopher (University of Nijmegen, Holland); logician Ahti-Veikko Pietarinen (Finland), who also cooperates with Nazarbaev University and Tallinn University of Technology; and Elia Zardini, a young Italian researcher in logic with a PhD from the University of Saint Andrews, working in Russia and Spain. All of these people are leading experts in their fields who have jumped at the opportunity to work with HSE University.

Another member of our Laboratory is Jorge Luis Mendez Martinez (Mexico), an intern who is completing his thesis. Jorge learned about HSE University thanks to the Coursera platform, where he got interested in some HSE online courses. Jorge is completing his doctoral studies at HSE University while working for our Laboratory. This year, Nemi Pelgrom, a Swedish logician, has joined our Postgraduate Programme in Philosophy. She will be writing her thesis under the supervision of Andrey Rodin, our Senior Research Fellow. Another researcher of our Laboratory — Anastasia Kopylova — has just defended her dissertation cum laude on scholastic logic under my supervision. Hers is the first doctoral dissertation in philosophy to be defended in English at HSE University. The defense was held before an International Dissertation Committee, including Prof. Martin Lenz, Chair of History of Philosophy Department at the University of Groningen.

As you can see, not only do we hire well-known foreign scholars on the international market, but we also educate students for a wide range of careers in research across the globe.

On Selecting and Teaching Students
Our new status as an international laboratory came with new challenges. As a local Research and Study Group, we spent a lot of time and effort on working with students. Now that we are an International Laboratory, we’ve had to focus more on cooperation with bid-name scholars. Consequently, we immediately lost all our students. This was a major challenge, as international laboratories that often evolve out of research and study groups, and local laboratories appear to be no match for their predecessors when it comes to attracting students. Fortunately, this year seven student interns have joined our team thanks to a special programme launched by HSE University. We hope this initiative will continue to grow and expand, and we are delighted to welcome new students to our Laboratory because students are the future of the field.

We select our future interns through open competition. In 2020, we will be seeking new candidates. The main selection criterion will certainly be their interest in research. Students clearly demonstrate their willingness to do research by publishing articles in journals or participating in conferences, summer school programmes, and theoretical workshops. Another important criterion is candidates’ ability to work in a team, as interns will be engaged in collaborating with foreign colleagues and arranging international conferences.

On Merging Disciplines and a Crisis in Philosophy
Philosophy is facing a crisis, as it often has before. The modern trends show that we will only be able to resolve the situation if we cooperate with other branches of the humanities and sciences. Interdisciplinary studies are vital for philosophy unless it wants to turn into a gloomy keeper of sacral values, or even worse, into an intellectual hobby that is an acquired taste. The philosopher is an analyst, critic, and mediator, who is supposed to work in association with other scholars.

It is essential that philosophical logic and formal philosophy cooperate with mathematics, linguistics, and other cognitive disciplines. 

What brings us together? The fact that we all use formal methods, in particular, methods of non-conventional logic, game theory, logical pragmatics, as well as corpus and experimental methods. When applied to solving classical philosophical problems (truth, knowledge, accuracy, normativity, rationality, etc.), exact scientific methods of cognitive disciplines play a key role in both justifying scientific knowledge itself and enabling philosophy to evolve, thereby converting it into a field that follows current advances in science rather than simply reflecting upon its own history.

Our Laboratory provides a venue not only for international cooperation, but also for interdisciplinary interaction, i.e., a venue where mathematicians, philosophers, and linguists can work together using formal methods. We hope to be able to expand this cooperation by involving psychologists and IT specialists as well, which would certainly enrich our research.

On Research Scope and Current Studies
Today, our key objective is to study rational agency, i.e., the rational activity of people and social groups in various spheres of life. We are building formal models of agency and, in particular, we are studying collective and individual knowledge and mechanisms of creating collective and individual responsibilities. We want to know what rationality and responsibility are, how knowledge differs from opinions, and how we can verify and correct the process of reasoning and proving, primarily, in logic and mathematics.

Rational agency reveals and manifests itself in language, which is why we also need to employ linguistic methods in our research. While philosophers and mathematicians deal first and foremost with platonic ‘fields’ of abstract notions, linguists conduct practical studies. For instance, linguists can carry out a public survey to learn how Russian sign language conveys negation—an important category in logic. They can interview people to understand why agents, however reasonable they may be, have the ‘irrational’ tendency to point out the colour of an object when there is no need to do so (e.g., they may say ‘Take the blue cup’ even if they can see no cups of other colours).

We are going to deepen our experimental research of cognitive distortions, which question the normativity of logic in terms of logical reasoning and categorization. Unlike ideal agents postulated by classical logic, real people tend to be guided by context and cultural stereotypes, thereby demonstrating, in particular, their desire to avoid the destabilization of their own believes at all costs, as well as their egocentrism, which manifests itself in the different standards they apply to their own and other people’s opinions. It will not be possible to develop realistic models of social influence and rational modification of beliefs unless we bring together the conceptual tools and methods of logic, linguistics, and behavioral sciences.

On Partnerships with Foreign Colleagues and the Danger of Isolation
Although we have existed for only six months, we have already managed to establish mutually beneficial partnerships with world-renowned scientific centres. Researchers of our Laboratory have completed internships and given talks at scientific centres in Groningen, Oxford, Munich, Lisbon, Brussels, Paris, Turku, Barcelona, Prague, Leeds, Tuebingen, Hamburg, Toulon, Oslo, Krakow, Tallinn, and other cities. We have established a partnership with the Centre of Logic, Epistemology, and History of Science of the University of Campinas (CLE, UNICAMP, Brazil). Itala d’Ottoviano, Director of CLE, took part in this year’s annual conference ‘Formal Philosophy’, and gave a course of lectures at HSE University. She invited our research fellow Denis Fedyanin to visit UNICAMP, where he spoke at the Big Data conference on ethics and epistemology. Itala d’Ottoviano praised the high quality of students’ poster presentations, and she is planning to invite our students to the Logic Summer School in Brazil. Vladimir Vasyukov, our leading research fellow and Corresponding Member of the Brazilian Academy of Philosophy, is slated to deliver an address at the conference in Rio-de-Janeiro, and this will continue to build up our cooperation with Brazilian logicians.

In October this year, we held the 19th Trends in Logic Conference together with Studia LogicaJournal. Meetings of this conference series have previously been held in Poland, Belgium, Argentina, Germany, the USA, the Netherlands, Brazil, Italy, and China. This was the first time Russia hosted this major event in logic.

We are planning to expand the current global network of professional contacts not only by establishing partnerships with European and Northern American countries, but also with BRICS countries (apart from Brazil, we are also thinking of China). I think this network is not so much our achievement as an essential condition for our productive work.

Science cannot exist in isolation, devoid of international links and collaborative opportunities

It would be unreasonable to try to put geographical constraints on science. This would also be fraught with unnecessary expenses. Fortunately, this attempt would be self-defeating anyway in the modern world of global information technologies.

On the Future and the Distant Future
Our Laboratory is the first Russian interdisciplinary centre of research that employs formal philosophical methods. We hope it will soon evolve into a globally known platform for academic cooperation among philosophers, linguists, and mathematicians.

Next year, we will continue our routine (and innovative!) work. We will organize conferences, workshops, and schools. For instance, we are going to organize the annual Formal Philosophy Conference, which will focus on problems of formal epistemology and epistemic logic. We are planning to invite our colleagues, in particular, our partners from Dutch universities, to take part in the conference. We will also continue our tradition of holding an international workshop on semantics and pragmatics together with the School of Linguistics. This workshop will be the third of its kind.

We cannot imagine a future without our students. Our Laboratory is looking forward to serving as the home base for the new interdisciplinary master’s programme ‘Logic, Philosophy and Cognitive Sciences’. The programme is expected to be launched in 2021 under the academic supervision of our Deputy Head Vitaliy Dolgorukov. This master’s programme, along with special courses in Logic and Analytical Philosophy in the bachelor’s programme ‘Philosophy’, will enable us to carve out a unique niche in the Russian education market and meet the demand for education that combines knowledge in fundamental philosophy and research skills in cognitive sciences.