Bringing conversation to the Anthropocene

"A good conversation often displays the intellectual diversity among the people involved—in what they know, but also how they know." Photo: Felipe Cabrera
Aug 2016
24

In his response to the blog post "A bridge from one side only? Discussing the roots of the Anthropocene,” philosopher Zev Trachtenberg says that the key to learning about this geologic epoch lies in good conversations.

However much people disagree about the Anthropocene, they tend to agree on one thing. That shared insight is that the Anthropocene can only be understood in an interdisciplinary way, encompassing ideas from the natural and social sciences and the humanities. That’s why the exchange between Ninad Bondre and Erle Ellis that appeared earlier on this blog is welcome. The two authors represent different positions in the diverse intellectual community that are needed to make progress in understanding, and ultimately responding to, the complex phenomena the Anthropocene involves.

Producing interdisciplinary knowledge is a lofty goal—how is it to be realized? Both Bondre and Ellis offer metaphors that point to slightly different answers. Bondre, drawing on Malm, notes that bridges between disciplinary perspectives must be “two way.” His point is that just as social scientists and humanists draw on results from the natural sciences, natural scientists must take seriously ideas from their social science and humanities colleagues (as, of course, many do). Ellis, for his part, invokes the story of the blind men and the elephant. He implies that representatives of the three approaches must share their necessarily partial perspectives with each other for any of them to get a complete understanding of the Anthropocene as elephant in the room.

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In this response I’d like to suggest a different metaphor for thinking about interdisciplinarity—the metaphor of conversation.

Of course, I don’t look at conversation as only a metaphor—in a literal sense, I frequently gain helpful ideas from outside my own disciplinary training (philosophy) through conversations with colleagues outside my field. And conversation allows me to test whether I am using those ideas properly in my own work.

But I think we can also discover some important lessons for interdisciplinary work by treating conversation metaphorically—as a kind of model for interdisciplinarity. I’ve got three lessons in mind.

Lesson 1: Appreciating complexity

A good conversation often displays the intellectual diversity among the people involved—in what they know, but also how they know. True, conversation certainly can reveal that disparate ways of talking about something can, in effect, be translated from one to the other. But it can also help people explore just how fundamentally different their intellectual approaches might be, even to the point that they may talk about their common topic in terms that have very different meanings.

This kind of intellectual pluralism is suited to the nature of the world. In the words of physicist Carlo Rovelli in his Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, “The world is complex, and we capture it with different languages, each appropriate to the process we are describing. Every complex process can be addressed and understood in different languages and at different levels. These diverse languages intersect, intertwine, and reciprocally enhance one another, like the processes themselves [emphasis added].”

Rovelli refers to languages; I’m referring to ways of speaking. I take his point to be that the inability to convert one way of speaking into another matches the very reality they jointly describe. Dealing with that complex reality—a reality that can’t be captured in a single way of speaking—clearly calls for collaboration between people from different disciplines.

Let me stress that conversation is not the only model here. In particular, where the goal is a practical outcome (a new technology or a policy decision), tighter integration among diverse approaches might be needed. But conversation is a good model for a more “speculative” kind of enquiry, where the goal is to help people with different trainings and outlooks develop their understanding of complex phenomena.

What does this conversation metaphor tell us about how to conduct interdisciplinary work? I believe that reflecting on what makes for a good conversation points to some important attitudes participants should bring to collaborations across fields.

Lesson 2: The importance of openness

Good conversations depend on an attitude of openness to one’s partners. I take openness to be a mixture of curiosity and respect. This is precisely why we can have excellent conversations with strangers as well as with friends, and also why we can have good (maybe even better) conversations with people with whom we disagree.

These kinds of conversations are valuable because they provide an opportunity for us to learn. Learning is facilitated by genuine curiosity about what one’s partners have to say. But there is a moral dimension here, too. Conversations are moral interactions because, ideally, they rely on respect—specifically showing respect for one’s partners by regarding them as making sincere attempts to improve one’s own understanding.

Applying the conversational metaphor suggests that openness is no less important for interdisciplinary work. That means collaborators must want to learn from each other (be curious) and must believe that what each other says is worth listening to (be respectful). Bondre’s reference to a two-way bridge makes a similar point: natural and social scientists (and humanists) alike must find value in their different kinds of contributions.

Lesson 3: Openness means listening

Paradoxically, one best contributes to a conversation by listening. Emphasizing listening over stating one’s own ideas is a great way of acting on the curiosity and respect I just mentioned. That is how we can help make conversations good.

Good here means truly informative; the point of listening is to learn. If I think I already understand your point of view, and either already agree or disagree with it, I don’t really have to listen to you. But even when I do think I already know what you have to say, if I make the effort to listen carefully, I may learn something new.

Effective listening is interactive. Partners in a conversation interact with each other by asking questions in order to more fully understanding each other’s ideas. And they interact with themselves, when they consider whether they need to modify their own positions, in light of what their partners have said.

The lesson for interdisciplinary work is very practical: participants will best contribute to the common goal less by rushing to assert their own positions and more by listening to others (though, of course, someone has to go first!). Ellis’ reference to the blind men and the elephant makes this point: the blind men must listen to each other to gain a fuller picture than each is capable of on his own.

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As an interdisciplinary topic par excellence, the Anthropopcene is perfect for an enquiry modeled on conversation. I’ll conclude by briefly describing a recent experiment in this kind of interdisciplinarity: a series that ran on a blog I administer called Inhabiting the Anthropocene. This “Anthropocene Biosphere Project” took advantage of the blogging  medium to host a conversational examination of the paper that was the basis of Ellis’ original post on this blog. Eleven faculty members from eight departments at the University of Oklahoma contributed posts over a period of 10 weeks, raising questions about Ellis’ use of sources from natural and social sciences; about the policy implications of his views; and about his understanding of human culture, among other topics. But the project  supplemented the blogging with face-to-face interactions—actual conversations—among the participants. The project culminated when Ellis visited the university to meet with participants for a day-long seminar, and to take part with several of them in a panel discussion of his ideas.

The blog serves as a trace of our rich interactions. It does not present an interdisciplinary resolution—a hybrid but unified outlook on the Anthropocene. Rather, it presents a juxtaposition of outlooks, assembled in the spirit of the lessons discussed above. This conversational spirit, I believe, keeps open both lanes on Bondre’s bridge, and helps Ellis’ blind men share their partial insights. Thinking of our interdisciplinary interaction as a conversation helps readers not only to observe directly the Anthropocene’s conceptual complexity, but more importantly to appreciate it.
 

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