Philosophy and empirical research have a somewhat uneasy relationship. To proceed, scientific research doesn’t need philosophy. It sets its own rules, designs its experiments and studies, refines its methods, interprets its results, and secures its continuation. Philosophers of science trying to formulate rules or laws and to prescribe methods are routinely ignored and sometimes met with scorn. They are simply not needed.
Philosophy itself, on the other hand, doesn’t really engage in research (I know that a lot of colleagues would disagree). Its job is not to find out how things stand but to critically assess concepts and ways of thinking about them and suggest new ones. Of course it cannot do this without paying heed to what others say and do, how other disciplines deal with the world and what they find out about it. But concepts are not discovered. In guiding our relation to the world from basic perception to systematic research, they are presupposed and usually resistant to change. If the philosophical proposal of a new or modified concept does succeed, it can radically transform our perception of the world and how we deal with it.
Usually philosophical interventions aren’t quite as radical. At an institute dedicated to empirical research, the philosopher is well advised to be modest. His task will mainly be to ask questions, not assuming a superior point of view in order to judge right or wrong but infiltrating practices and discussions, as it were, looking at them from the inside and confronting this inside with other perspectives.
The problem is that philosophical questioning runs counter to everything the everyday practice of research takes for granted. It interrupts standard procedures and delays them. It questions presuppositions, methods, and interpretations. And what is worst, it doesn’t do so in order to improve, refine or alleviate research procedures – at least not primarily. In a way, the philosopher has a similar position to an artist in residence but without the playful attitude that presents interesting ways of looking at things or produces weird stuff that might inspire the scientists and can be safely ignored if it doesn’t.
Luckily this particular professional disrupter is a human being with his own agenda that is open to discussion just like everybody else’s. Unlike the philosopher of science he engages in the field himself because aesthetics is not an exclusively or even primarily empirical endeavor but also a philosophical one. So the philosopher may have a bone to pick with some of the research questions, theses and convictions of his colleagues – and vice versa.
Why not start with what the institute’s website propagates as its central question? In addition to asking who likes what and why I’d like to propose a different set of questions that can be posed to the listeners as well as to the researchers themselves: How does your practice work? Why do you engage in it? What are its contexts and consequences? And what does all this mean?