The Graduate Forum

an interdisciplinary forum at New York University 

November 17, 2010
Presenter: Dean Chapman
Respondent: Max Liboiron
“Now that we've found truth”

The Graduate Forum: A Nuancing Machine?

I'm new to the Graduate Forum, so I am particularly interested in how cross-disciplinary or interdisciplinary discussion works on the ground; what it looks like, sounds like, and listens like. While Dean Chapman's presentation, "Now that we've found truth" on Nov 17th, 2010, concerned the relationship of the intellectual, tolerance, and the obligation to truth, as the discussion progressed I became interested in how dialogue happened. Sometimes the form of the discussion-- how we communicated-- and the content of the discussion were nearly analogous.

Dean began with some definitions to get us all on the same page, including a "definition" of toleration, where “the tolerator’s belief that some practice is morally wrong, together with her non-interference in that practice." We then spent the next half hour relating this idea of toleration to cases we were all familiar with. Each context changed what the words in the definition might mean. In short, we zoned in on one issue, one sentence really, and workshopped it through examples. Tolerance, initially seen as something virtuous and empathetic in one definition, looked like something arrogant and even violent in another. While we didn't "solve" the problem of tolerance, we expanded what the terms of tolerance could and maybe ought to mean.

We then turned the conversation to the role of the intellectual and whether or how we had an obligation to truth. Again, we focused in on this one idea, this one sentence, and we began to nuance it. We used our disciplines as analytical frameworks; law had nothing to do with truth, unlike science, said the lawyer. No, said the scientists, science had nothing to do with truth in itself, and was mainly adherence to and the refining of a model of inquiry. Social science, said the social scientists, found its truth in contexts and so truth was always contextual. We began a discussion of our different discipline's methods of truthing (or lack thereof). People used their own research projects and teaching as case studies to describe different truthing methodologies.

This meta-disciplinary discussion dovetailed with a question that came up in Dean's presentation: how do you communicate with someone with a completely different point of view from your own, especially of that point of view was antithetical to your own? He called this the paradox of the skeptic, but the same problem could occur between two people or groups from very different backgrounds. Our own discussion informed by very different disciplines navigating a version of that very dilemma.

This is not to say that our cross-disciplinary discussion was an ideal form of communication. It is only to say that the method of discussion was to use examples as analytical tools to nuance ideas. The conversation last night was remarkably accessible and no one person or discipline dominated the conversations, but some people spoke more than others, and at least one Forum member said nothing at all. Perhaps some people felt alienated. Perhaps speaking was not as important as listening. I don’t know. This unevenness and not knowing, I suspect, is part of inter- or cross-disciplinary discussions, and any meeting where there are people from significantly different backgrounds. This is not to say that this is a problem, per se, but perhaps an artifact of cross-disciplinary discussions. It’s something to keep on the table.

When Dean and I met, we discussed the relationship between the intellectual and tolerance perhaps as something like self-reflexivity-- "going meta" in Dean's terms, and "questioning the ground you stand on" in my own. As well as talking about this reflexivity, I think we also practiced it last night, as a group, about our disciplines and our efforts to speak across disciplines. I certainly had a clearer idea of my own discipline and how it was different from others by the end of the night.











New York University

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences