Daniel Friedman: How Do We Inquire Together?

Welcome back to our blog series featuring current and former Ethics Center Graduate Fellows! Our goal is to highlight the often under-recognized ethics-related work graduate students are doing across the university, whether it be through their research, advocacy, mentoring, or community building.

Daniel Friedman is a fourth-year graduate student in philosophy. His dissertation explores “shared inquiry” — inquiry humans undertake together. Drawing on both the philosophy of action and epistemology, he is working to create a model that can represent both small-scale, and eventually, large-scale initiatives in the sciences and politics. He
intends to ground his model in everyday life and for it to be responsive to the empirical sciences, which inspired him to pursue an Ethics Center Graduate Fellowship in 2021-2022.

The Center for Ethics in Society spoke with Daniel about his research into understanding and modeling the process of humans intentionally coming together to create knowledge. An edited version of the conversation appears below.


Did you begin your undergraduate studies intending to study philosophy?

Actually, my dad is a physician-scientist, and we moved to the US from Budapest so he could continue his research. I grew up going to his lab, which helped stoke my interest in science. As an undergrad at Johns Hopkins, I thought I might follow in my dad's footsteps and do biomedical science or study theoretical physics because I was fascinated by the big questions they’re trying to answer.

At the same time, I was taking philosophy classes, and when the philosophy department threw a “come meet philosophers” dinner for prospective majors, I went. The faculty members started talking about what their day-to-day lives looked like and what their research was about, and I left the dinner thinking, “Oh, this is what I want to do.”

I ended up being one of the first people to complete Johns Hopkins newly instituted BA/MA program in philosophy, and I earned a second master’s at Brandeis before pursuing my PhD work at Stanford.

Which of philosophy’s big questions are you now investigating at Stanford?  

I'm working on a dissertation that explores shared inquiry — the kind of questioning that humans deliberately undertake together. Shared inquiry often includes engaging in conversation, but it’s a hybrid process that also consists of running experiments and reasoning about potential answers.

To understand shared inquiry, I’m drawing on both the philosophy of action and epistemology to think about intention and ways of knowing, respectively. In the philosophy of action, there's a long-standing tradition that tries to distinguish between the kinds of things you and I can do together from the things that we do merely alongside one another. For example, we could set out to take a walk together;  we turn left and then right, and at a certain point, we decide our walk is finished. In another scenario, you and I could take the same exact steps but as complete strangers. Models in the philosophy of action attempt to illuminate the important distinctions between these two processes.

I’m also trying to determine how we can use epistemic models — the branch of philosophy concerned with knowledge, justification and rationality — to enrich our understanding of the everyday processes by which we learn about the world and answer questions. My hope is to combine insights from the philosophy of action literature with epistemic models to learn how the relationships we form and the ties that bind us together when we're cooperating affect the standards of what counts as good inquiry. Good inquiry, in this context, is more than simply getting things right. Rather, the cooperative features of our activity — taking one another seriously, leaving room for everyone’s evidence to change how we proceed, continuing the inquiry until we have rigorously considered one another's evidence — are bound up with the success of our endeavor.


What would a model of shared inquiry look like and what would be its purpose?  

A lot of the extant models of shared activity focus on basic cases, where small-scale groups are working together, for example, a quartet or even an orchestra. But we have a lacuna in our current model about what characteristics of shared inquiry apply to large-scale cases, which don’t and why the same characteristics don’t always pertain in small cases. So we’re considering how we can tinker with our small-case models to characterize and investigate large-scale scientific endeavors — physicists and engineers at the European Council for Nuclear Research (CERN) trying to determine the fundamental structure of the universe, or The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change working to create global policy on climate change — as shared inquiries.

I’m also trying to articulate how we might develop a model of shared inquiry that illuminates the kind of shared inquiry we do every day, which ranges in scale. From a theoretical point of view, the model would provide us with the building blocks of shared inquiry, show us how these blocks are interrelated, discern the structure that enables such activities to get off the ground and how we should understand it all. Once we have a view of the structure, we will have a better sense of what norms must govern the activity for it to achieve its aims. I want my research to demonstrate that the ways that traditional epistemology understands the kind of evidence necessary for rationality or justification changes when we inquire together.

What about your work on shared inquiry drew you to the Ethics Fellowship? 

Not all philosopher’s models are grounded in everyday life, but I think good philosophy is good, in part, because it's responsive to the empirical sciences. I’m trying to build a model of shared inquiry that is responsive to the existence of some of today’s current challenges, such as group polarization and groupthink.

For example, if the features of the model I describe reveal that our political discourse is a form of shared inquiry — and that is a question — we might need a lot more humility than we currently have when we're talking to political opponents. We might also recognize that in some cases, shared inquiry cannot progress fruitfully when certain kinds of people are excluded from our epistemic community, which could lead to a commitment to eradicating what Miranda Fricker calls epistemic injustice and what Kristie Dotson identifies as testimonial silencing. It would also raise questions such as:How do you avoid harming somebody in their capacity as your co-inquirer? What do you need to do to create spaces in which the kind of conversation necessary for rationally completing shared inquiry can flourish? 

With all of these ethical implications in mind, the Graduate Ethics Fellowship seemed like an excellent opportunity to share this kind of model with folks from all across the university — and it was. I was able to see what kinds of concerns animated people who are intimately familiar with shared inquiry, both theoretically and as a result of everyday experience, concerns which were often different from what animated philosophers about my work in the past. I also learned how I was thinking through conversations about other people's work, which put me in a better position to test some of my model’s empirical limitations.

Overall,  the opportunity to talk with fellows who have different backgrounds made it possible for me to conduct appropriate due diligence on whether the model I'm developing is genuinely responsive to empirical considerations. 


What satisfies you about being a philosopher?

We’re trying to advance big debates, even if in a small piecemeal fashion, as part of a collective project. And the ability to balance the two — to get the fine details sufficiently honed to turn the gears so you can push things along at the big level — is so hard, but when it works, it gives me the most incredible joy.

Donna Hunter is a freelance writer, editor and tutor living in San Francisco. She has a PhD in English from UC Berkeley and was an Advanced Lecturer in Stanford’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric.

More specifically, my work on shared inquiry bleeds into a really rich set of questions about epistemic institutions and massive groups. I feel privileged to be able to explore them.