The purpose of an early-career research spotlight post is two-fold. First, the aim is to bring attention to an early-career APA member who is doing some interesting research. Second, the hope is to generate discussion about the spotlighted work. Feel free to ask our spotlighted researcher questions pertaining to the work discussed in the post. Comments must conform to our community guidelines and comment policy.
It brings me great pleasure to spotlight the work of Adrian Currie. Adrian received his Ph.D. from the Australian National University (ANU) under the direction of Kim Sterelny. After graduating in 2014, Adrian took a two-year Eyes High Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Calgary, where he is currently finishing up his post. He works primarily in the philosophy of science and has an absurdly active research program. Adrian has published (or has forthcoming) nine articles since 2014, in such places as the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, Studies of the History & Philosophy of Science Part A, Erkenntnis, European Journal for the Philosophy of Science, and Metaphilosophy. He’s also a contributor to the newly launched blog on philosophy of paleontology aptly titled ‘Extinct‘. I first met Adrian when he arrived in Calgary in 2014, and he’s been a stellar addition to our department since arriving. It brings me great pleasure to be able to spotlight his work.
Justin: Adrian, thanks for agreeing to do this. For starters, in the past year or so, you have coauthored with four different philosophers. So I have a few questions about this. First, how do you approach co-authoring opportunities? Do you converse with someone on a topic then ask to work on it together? Many of us would love to coauthor, so maybe you could give us some insight as to how to get the ball rolling on these opportunities.
Adrian: Well, perhaps the first thing to keep in mind is that philosophy is an extraordinarily collaborative activity: we’re always talking, talking, talking—trying out ideas, arguing, and so forth. By the time a solo-authored piece is published, it has almost always been presented at various conferences, kicked around in conversation, and read by a bunch of people—not to mention having gone through various revisions in light of this and of feedback from referees and editors. To say nothing of the body of philosophical work each new paper is built upon. So, even “solo” philosophical work, in my view, represents a collective effort. Once you see that, it’s not so much of a stretch to start producing joint work.
In terms of how you go about collaborating—or initiating it—in my experience, there aren’t any fixed rules. Collaborations often come about from things just coming up in conversation (again, all that talking, talking, talking), and have ranged from “let’s read something about this topic and see what comes out” to “here’s a specific position: let’s develop that together!” You don’t need to initiate collaborations through initial conversations though: in some circumstances, an email detailing what you’re interested in doing, and why you think the other(s) would be good to work with, will do the trick.
Collaborations work best, I think, with three ingredients: (1) each of you has something specific to bring to the table, but (2) you nonetheless have a largely unified idea of the paper, and (3) you’re both comfortable enough to express ideas and edit each other’s work.
I think the most important thing with collaboration is to leave your ego at the door—these things inevitably involve compromise (but then, publishing solo-authored work does too!). I suppose for me this aspect of collaboration is extraordinarily freeing: the buck for the paper doesn’t just stop with me—I don’t take full responsibility for it—and, in my experience, this allows the writing and publishing process to be much less stressful. Also, the most rewarding experiences I have had as a philosopher have been hashing out details of a paper with my collaborators—I’m really grateful to them.
Justin: Could you share any secrets with us about how to be as productive as you’ve been? You have had lots of early career success—is there a method that works best for you to finish these projects?
Adrian: I think the “secret” to being productive is knowing yourself well: what motivates you, your work habits, etc.…And, annoyingly, I don’t think there is anything much general to say here. For instance, I have a pretty short attention span, and am always hunting for new shiny things to get excited about. This means that switching between projects and papers relatively often, as well as changing the media I use for thinking about them (using PowerPoint as opposed to just writing, for instance) is a really good idea for me. But it might be a complete disaster for you. You need to feel these things out. I can say what works for me though.
First, it’s important have some distance from your work. As I mentioned above, I don’t see my work as mine alone: I see it as the product of a social process involving a whole bunch of people. This means that I’m not overly precious about my ideas, or the shape of my papers: I’m often surprised by what people like in my work, and I often turn out to be just plain wrong about what’s good about it. I’ve found that taking this attitude enables me to worry less about rejection (I’ve just sent this paper out into the world, I think it’s pretty good, but let’s see…), and to be more flexible about the paper’s shape and vision.
Second, find ways of enjoying—and prioritizing—research. I’ve notice that research is often something that my colleagues do last: once the teaching, admin, and so on, is done. In some circumstances that might be all right, but if you’re just starting out or want to build your research profile, you need to convince yourself that research takes precedence over other work. It’s hard to do.
Third: Write, dammit. It doesn’t have to be good. Just write. Oh, and then edit. Like, a lot.
Fourth: Collect paper ideas—even if it’s just the vague idea of an argument, or the shape of an idea. Use conferences, etc., as opportunities to develop these ideas.
Fifth: Prepare to get rejected over, and over, and over again. I’ve had a lot of success getting published so far, but oh wow has this involved a lot of knock-backs. Some have been justified, and some (IMHO) have not been. And sometimes you do have to take a morning off to feel enraged at the injustice of it all. However, if you have a bunch of things in the pipeline, then an individual kick in the teeth isn’t so bad. More importantly, almost every rejection I’ve received has led to a better overall product. Oh, and philosophy is really, really hard, so why expect to get it right the first (or second, or third, or…) time?
Justin: That was helpful; I may need to spend more time on the third one! Especially the editing. Now, on to more content-related questions about your research. Do you have an argument that you have given in print that you are particularly convinced of, or that you can see yourself defending further in the future? If there are multiple arguments, just go with the one that gets you most excited.
Adrian: I’m pretty excited by the central idea of a recent paper I have in Erkenntnis (here), but not so much because I’m convinced of it (this switches depending on my mood), but because I think it leads to some interesting questions. In brief, the paper is concerned with the metaphysical status of scientific categories like “species.” There’s a debate in philosophy of biology about whether, given that there are a range of different (and apparently legitimate) species concepts, we should admit the existence of “species,” as in the ontological category. There is a set of arguments (Marc Ereshefsky’s being the most prominent) claiming that we should not believe in the general category (they do believe that, say, Callithrix pygmaea and other particular species taxa exist: they just deny there is a unitary category). What’s important about these arguments is that they involve a kind of “naturalist” move: their negative ontological claim is drawn from scientific practice.
I respond with a kind of parity-of-reasoning argument. Paleontologists frequently distinguish between different kinds of taxa, but in doing so they don’t appeal to some species concept or other. Rather, they do so by arguing that the differences between specimens are more likely to be due to without-species process than within-species processes. For instance, where Triceratops and Torosaurus were previously taken to be different taxa—that is, their differences were thought to be due to their having separate evolutionary histories—it has recently been suggested that Torosaurus are in fact mature Triceratops. This doesn’t involve a particular conception of “species,” so far as I can tell. Moreover, paleontologists frequently argue about the evolutionary nature of species—about species selection, for instance. Here, it doesn’t look as though they’re concerned with any particular taxa: it looks as though they’re talking about species. So, if we think our ontology should be led by legitimate scientific practice, and paleontology is legitimate, it looks as if we have grounds for thinking that the species category exists even though it is disunified.
This leads us to ask a bunch of questions: What on earth might such a category be like? If paleontologists don’t use species concepts, what do they use? Indeed, we might want to take the argument to be a reductio against the idea that we can draw our ontology from legitimate scientific practice in the first place…
Justin: In your 2014 essay published in Synthese, “Narratives, Mechanisms and Progress in Historical Science,” you argue that historical scientists use simple or complex explanations, and that deciding between the two is not and should not be done on pragmatic grounds, at least not all of the time. You do a nice job using cases where pragmatic considerations do not do the work. Now, if I understood your position, you seem to argue against a purely mechanistic model of scientific explanation in favor of a pluralistic model. But how do we know when to use which model? This is beyond the scope of your original paper, but I’m curious to hear more from you on how we might approach choosing our model of explanation.
Adrian: I think coming to grips with scientific explanation is a really, really tricky philosophical issue. In part, this is because the philosophical tendency to systematize clashes with the context sensitivity of explanatory adequacy. In that paper, I’m concerned with establishing that complex, detailed, “narrative” explanations are (1) legitimate, (2) distinct (from, say, mechanistic explanation), and (3) not always provided on pragmatic grounds alone. Your question is picking up on that third point: what governs the applicability of some explanatory form or another? Often—perhaps a lot of the time—this is sensitive to our interests, and I think contrastive accounts of explanation do a pretty good job of capturing this. However, sometimes you just can’t have the explanation you want. In some circumstances, however much I want a nice, unified, clean explanation of some phenomenon, the world doesn’t cooperate. Sometimes complex, messy targets demand complex, messy explanations. So, how do we pick an explanatory form? Often our interests do the work for us: the kind of explanation we are after (moreover, what we want to do with the explanation) determines the appropriate form. Sometimes, by contrast, the world—the nature of the target—tells us. I’m inclined to think that, at least in a scientific context, the answer is empirical and discovered throughout an investigation—I argue that historical investigation often proceeds by putting forward a bunch of simple, unified explanations that are subsequently knitted together into integrated complex investigations—however, I hope it’s obvious that I do not yet have anything particularly systematic to say about this…
Justin: Gotcha. It sounds as though what you have said may give rise to something more systematic in the future, though, once you see how it all ties together (if it does). Okay, so, I hear you are working on a book. Would you care to share any of the details about the book and its main argument(s), in a short paragraph or two?
Adrian: The book is based on a pretty simple puzzle. When philosophers and scientists talk about the evidence we have to draw on about the past, they tend to emphasize how impoverished that evidence is: the past’s signal decays over time. However, we know a lot about the deep past—historical science has progressed significantly over the past thirty years. So, how come we’ve had so much success despite such crappy evidence? My answer to this is simply that we’re wrong about how crappy the evidence is: we underestimate our epistemic situation vis-à-vis the past. There’s a lot to say here (hence the book!), but perhaps one main factor to highlight is that people have tended to think about historical reconstruction in fairly simple, monist terms: we attempt to isolate the method of historical science. But I think this is a big mistake: these sciences are at base opportunistic—”methodologically omnivorous”—and it is this opportunism that explains their success.
Justin: Well, Adrian, thanks for taking the time to chat with me about your work. Folks, feel free to chime in and ask questions about any of the work we discussed here, or other works of Adrian’s you’ve been itching to discuss with him.
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