Playing Outside Your Wheelhouse

Posted on February 2, 2015 by

Anyone who has been following the Grinworthy Quotes series here on A Philosopher’s Take will likely have noticed that I’ve been reading a fair amount of medieval philosophy recently. Some readers may also be aware that I usually work on philosophy of mathematics, logic and metaphysics. In working on medieval philosophy, and in particular medieval ethics and political philosophy, I have been playing outside my wheelhouse.

For those unfamiliar with the  term, according to my Oxford American dictionary, a wheelhouse is a shelter for the person at the wheel of a boat or ship, which is not at all what I mean in this context. Rather, I think of my wheelhouse as the philosophical space where I am comfortable in virtue of being somewhat of an expert.

I bring this up because I think it is important for us as philosophers (and undoubtably in other disciplines and jobs as well) to work on projects that fall outside of our respective wheelhouses.

Of course, in the current job climate it is difficult, and probably undesirable to be a true polymath, but it is just as bad, in my opinion, to only focus on one narrow sub-discipline. I have a few reasons for thinking this. First, it is likely that you will find a different approach, idea or way of thinking that you will be able to fruitfully apply to your primary research.

Second, there are practical considerations. We all need to have conversations with philosophers outside of our ‘areas’, and it’s nice to be able to engage on common ground, even if that ground doesn’t happen to be in either person’s wheelhouse. Similar considerations apply to talks and conferences. Furthermore, the more areas and debates you are familiar with, the wider variety of classes you will feel comfortable teaching, which will both be helpful on the job market, and help alleviate the boredom caused by teaching Logic I over and over again.

Third, and most importantly, it can be fun. It turns out that I very much enjoy reading medieval philosophy. I also enjoy doing (read ‘writing’) history of philosophy. Searching for quotations from obscure texts, and engaging in textual analysis is very rewarding for me.

Now I’m not suggesting that everyone should run to the bookstore to buy a copy of Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed (I doubt they’ll have it anyway, though it is fun if you can find it). Different people enjoy different things. If you work mainly on problems that have directly to do with people—applied ethics, say—you might find doing some analytic metaphysics refreshing.  If you usually do philosophy of science, you might enjoy taking a break from scientific case studies to try and figure out what you think truth acually is.

So next time you end up taking a class outside of you’re area of expertise, don’t try to wedge your own research into a seminar paper; do something different. Or, if you’re passed the point of doing coursework, next time you see a call for papers for a conference outside of your area that sounds interesting (especially if it’s somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit) try to write 10–15 pages on that topic, you might just find you like it. Even if you don’t, we will all end up doing better philosophy if we sometimes decide to play outside our wheelhouses.