Orly Shenker

by Elena Castellani | 31 August 2020

Orly Shenker is Eleanor Roosevelt Chair in History and Philosophy of Science at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem where she is the Director of Sidney M. Edelstein Centre for History and Philosophy of Science, Technology and Medicine. She is president of The Pond: Network of Philosophy of Science around the Mediterranean that aims to promote academic collaboration and friendship in the region, and editor-in-chief of the new Springer series Jerusalem Studies in Philosophy and History of Science, that sets out to present research activities in Israel and the region and especially the fruits of collaborations between Israeli, regional and visiting scholars.

She is a philosopher of physics, of science, and of the mind, and is working on establishing reductive type-identity physicalism as the best metaphysical position concerning the mind and its relation to matter, as well as the relations of all the special sciences and physics. As part of this project she developed (in collaboration with Meir Hemmo) Flat Physicalism, a reductive type-identity physicalist theory, which builds on insights taken from the philosophical foundations of statistical mechanics, as described in her The Road to Maxwell's Demon (Cambridge University Press 2012, with Hemmo). A major result in that book is that Maxwell's Demon – the famous perpetuum mobile of the second kind – is compatible with fundamental physics as we know it; and a major result of Flat Physicalism is that functionalism (as featuring in computational neuroscience and elsewhere), with its commitment to multiple realizability of the mental by the physical, is the contemporary version of good old psychophysical dualism.

Three Minute Interview

What's good, what's bad, and what can still improve for underrepresented groups in philosophy? One way to approach this question is to look at the way in which public policy, such as the public funding of universities, affects the way in which we do our research, and at the differences between its effect on members of the academic centre versus those of the academic periphery.

For example, the seemingly dreary subject of the criteria for public funding of universities recently became the focus of hot debates in the press in Israel. Why should the general public be interested in this subject? The reason is that this funding has become a tool for implementing highly controversial political agendas, to which there is much opposition, both in academia and among the general public. Today, however, I would like to focus on a criterion for public university funding that has stirred debates mainly within academic circles: The number of publications by the members of the university, that appear in a certain list of journals that are taken to be the most influential in their fields. Naturally, this criterion leads universities to encourage their members to make efforts to publish in these journals, for example by giving such publications extra weight in promotions. This criterion for funding has the advantage of providing a uniform and transparent way to assess the quantity as well as the quality of the research carried out in institutions or by individuals. It also has the desirable effect of encouraging academics to expose their work to their peers at international academic centres, thus strengthening the ties in the international academic communities. 

However, to publish in these influential journals, academics from the periphery need to adjust their language, style, and agenda to those of the academic centres, and this has effects that are not always beneficial to research. First, the languages of these journals and their characteristic styles of writing, are part of the cultures of the places in which the academic centres reside, and are native to those raised in those places and centres; but for those at the academic peripheries acquiring these competencies require huge extra efforts, that are (naturally) at the expense of the energy dedicated to the research itself.

Another problem is that even if one gains the required skills of expression, when writing in a foreign language the pace as well as the depth of thinking may be impaired. These difficulties are partly solved by opting for writing in one’s native language and translating the paper to the journal’s language. However, a danger not eradicated in this way is that in the translation, especially if it has to fit the culturally influenced style of these journals, one is likely to lose one’s unique voice. In the humanities, even in analytic philosophy, this is of great importance and has considerable influence on the acceptance of one’s ideas.

The need to publish in these journals also encourages writing within the research agenda that is dominant, at that time, in the academic centres. That pressure, I think, works against an important advantage of doing research in the academic periphery. Ideas that fall outside of the mainstream, especially but not exclusively from young researchers, are vulnerable at their budding stage, and the sharp criticism by eloquent supporters of the mainstream, that dominate the academic centres, may crush them. Sometimes this crushing is simply preventing mistakes. Other times, distance from the centres may provide an environment that does not inhibit or restrain the tentative development of new ideas and gives them a chance to become ripe strong alternatives before they face the opposing forces. Of course, a supportive environment can be created anywhere, and vice versa: the pressure to publish in the influential journals can have its effect on research agendas everywhere.

There is a lot more to be said about the influence of the publications’ criteria on research, for example the fact that the centrality of these journals is increased by the very demand to publish in them. Also relevant are their high purchase price, and the price for publication in open access journals, both of which are detrimental to research by those with limited means. But I will not expand on these matters in this short interview.

Instead, let me end these reflections on public academic policy by considering another, related topic, that has been recently under debate in Israel, namely, the language of instruction. Modern Hebrew is a new language that has its roots in the ancient version. Its grammar and vocabulary are such that translating into Hebrew some of the major philosophical problems that are naturally tied to Latinate languages can be awkward – a fact that could suggest new lines of philosophical thinking. However, since the academic community of Hebrew readers is extremely small, academics in Israel write, correspond, and even speak in English, and students are expected to read everything in English starting from their first year at university. Recently, aiming to attract academics at all levels from around the world, several institutes – including the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (founded in 1925) – have begun to teach in English in increasing numbers of courses. If this process is expanded to cover undergraduate courses, it may deprive young students of the advantage of thinking in their native tongue when first encountering philosophical problems. 

So what’s good, what’s bad, and what can still improve for the academic periphery, in the areas I discussed here? It is hard to be at the academic periphery because of the huge extra effort required in order to achieve the same results as those of members of the academic centres, but the price is worth it if one manages to avoid internalizing the gaze of the centre, thus opening the way to different ways of thinking and enjoying greater intellectual freedom.

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