The need for cosmopolitan ideals

By Irish Research Council

Posted: 12 July, 2016

Boundaries, and the distinct languages of different traditions, play an important role in academia. Without academic specialism the focus required for sustained research could not be undertaken. It takes years of training, and immersion to learn the lingo of one’s particular field. But academia needs critical interpreters, and it needs a bridging language. My academic heroes are people who have traversed the limits of distinct academic traditions. They are interpreters who understand the language and ‘culture’ of multiple research traditions, but they are deeply mindful of the limitations of insular scholarship. My heroes set out to create and to foster progressive, new research cultures. They embody a wise academic cosmopolitanism – an outward looking (one might say) internationalism for ideas.

My academic heroes include Professor Tom Lawson – a philosopher of religion who co-founded the field of cognitive science of religion; Professor Ted Kaptchuk, a doctor of Chinese medicine and acupuncturist who is now Professor at Harvard Medical School and one of the world’s leading experts on the placebo effect; Professors Leda Cosmides, John Tooby and Jerry Barkow, psychologists who pioneered the field of evolutionary psychology; Professors Paul and Patricia Churchland, and Robert McCauley who have argued that findings in cognitive and brain sciences are deeply relevant to answering philosophical problems (but that this does not mean philosophy will run out of questions).

My research to date has aimed to follow (as far as possible) my mentors’ overarching approach to research. My PhD focused on the fields of philosophy of science and philosophy of mind, examining the nature of reductionism in psychology and neuroscience. And my doctoral project took for its focus, the nature of “interdisciplinarity” (there are better and worse ways to conduct interdisciplinary research). In my postdoctoral work I have attempted to implement these insights by applying them to real world problems in the health sciences (including medicine, psychiatry, and psychotherapy).

During my two-year Irish Research Council postdoctoral research in the School of Philosophy at University College Dublin (2013-15) my project bridged psychotherapy, psychotherapy research, and ethics. I examined the role of the placebo effect in psychotherapy and asked: How should we conceive of the placebo effect in psychotherapy? What should therapists inform patients about the nature of placebo effects in psychotherapy, without thereby undermining the placebo effect? These questions brought together philosophy of science, knowledge of psychotherapy research, and healthcare ethics.

My Irish Research Council-funded project fostered a period of intensely productive research opportunities (on an academic, as well as on a personal level). In terms of published outputs it led to eight peer-reviewed articles (in top medical ethics and psychology journals) – three of these were co-authored with colleagues from Harvard Medical School, University of Basel, and University of Zurich. These publications would not have come about if it were not for the travel funding and support of the Irish Research Council and the mentoring and support I received from Dr Christopher Cowley, and Professor Maria Baghramian, as well as the other academics and postdoctoral researchers at UCD.

Undeniably the Irish Research Council Fellowship has allowed me to engage in multidisciplinary work, and to gain the skills necessary for research collaboration. The Fellowship fostered my own deep interests in public engagement and the ethical imperative to leave the cloisters, to communicate research findings to the taxpayers who funded it.

In an era of increasing academic branding, and walled-off expertise, the Irish Research Council and Irish academia’s commitment to the value of authentically cross disciplinary engagement and discussion, as well as cross-faculty publishing, is to be celebrated.

The Council’s ethos – we might call it a sort of cosmopolitanism for ideas – is something all my heroes share. A refusal to be ring-fenced by embedded research communities (important as respecting traditions may be) is essential for the future vitality of university scholarship. It is also vital if we are to solve problems without deciding a priori how those problems are to be solved.

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