Interdisciplinarity and evil – Understanding incommensurability

Community member post by J. Britt Holbrook

J. Britt Holbrook (biography)

Incommensurability is a recognized problem in interdisciplinary research. What is it? How can we understand it? And what can we do about it?

What is it?

Incommensurability is best illustrated by a real example. I once co-taught a class with a colleague from another discipline. Her discipline depends on empirical analysis of data sets, literally on counting things. I, on the other hand, am a philosopher. We don’t count. One day she said to our students, “If you don’t have an empirical element in what you’re doing, it’s not research.” I watched the students start nodding, paused for half a beat, and volunteered, “So, I’ve never done any research in my entire career.” “That’s right!” she replied, immediately, yet hesitating somewhere between a discovery and a joke.

What this exchange reveals goes beyond a mere disagreement about the scope of what counts as research. It’s not that my colleague thought my work was useless; it’s that she failed to understand what we philosophers do that might count as research, given her disciplinary understanding of the term. Despite having taught together for a semester and having worked with each other for years after that, I’m pretty sure she feels much the same way today; she knows I do something worthwhile, even if whatever I do isn’t research.

How can we understand it?

“Literature is not innocent,” proclaimed Georges Bataille (1973) in the preface to Literature and Evil. Bataille describes literature as communication, which takes two forms: normal, everyday communication, which allows us to understand each other with relative ease; and what Bataille calls ‘strong’ communication. The possibility of strong communication arises when normal, everyday communication breaks down. Literature is at its best, for Bataille, when it evokes that feeling of not being able to find the words. Silencing the reader in this way is evil. It violates our ability to understand one another easily. But it also opens up the possibility of deeper communication that goes beyond our everyday understanding. This is why Bataille values the evil in literature – because by doing violence to our normal modes of communication, literature helps us recognize each other as connected beings, rather than as things. Literature’s explorations of evil evoke what Bataille calls ‘hypermorality’, requiring that we treat each other as more than mere means.
Something similar happens in interdisciplinary communication, especially when we encounter incommensurability.

When two scientific theories can be discussed and evaluated according to a shared vocabulary and a shared set of standards, we philosophers call them commensurable. Adherents of one theory can understand adherents of a commensurable theory with no problem, and this allows them to compare the theories directly and select the best one for the job at hand. This situation is analogous to Bataille’s notion of normal, everyday communication – everyone can understand everyone else. When there is no such shared vocabulary, standards, or language between adherents of two theories, we say they are incommensurable. This situation is analogous to Bataille’s notion of strong communication, when understanding breaks down.

Often, though not always, people experience incommensurability between disciplines. My colleague’s continued mystification regarding my research is a good example. That situation actually hearkens back to the original meaning of the term, which is the lack of a common measure that would allow us to compare two different things. She has her notion of research, and I have mine; but she still thinks what I do can’t be research, even if I use the term for my work.

From her perspective, it’s as if I use the term either illegitimately (perhaps in an effort to be taken seriously by those who actually engage in research) or without understanding what the term really means. She sometimes suggests ‘theorizing’ to describe what I do. I myself am not quite sure how ‘theorizing’ about something would be different from researching it. I mean, surely merely counting things can’t count as research! Needless to say, despite years of working together, my colleague and I do not experience what I would call mutual understanding.

That’s not quite it, either, though. I do understand her, and she me, and quite often. We both speak English, and we both engage in research on – I mean, we both examine – similar, or even sometimes the same topics. That’s what brought us together in the first place. Part of what makes our working together fruitful is that she sees things differently from the way I see them. Finding common ground is not a necessary precondition for our collaboration.

What can we do about it?

If we aren’t speaking the same language, if we value different things, if we are inclined to view different areas of the same topic as problems, if we are prone to investigate different aspects of the same issue – if mutual understanding is not required, how is it that we can continue to work together? Is there a method that allows us to carry on?

One way I like to think of what we do is that we find ways of navigating those moments of strong communication. Incommensurability might slow us down, but it often does so in extremely productive ways. We are also constantly on the lookout for opportunities that arise precisely during those times when things aren’t perfectly clear. What allows us to go on exceeds the normal ethics of research and requires a sort of hypermorality of interdisciplinary communication that involves mutual trust and deep respect.

We’d be wasting our time trying to come up with a shared understanding of research. We’re better off just doing it, navigating those difficult stretches and taking advantage of the new insights they often provide once smooth sailing becomes possible again.

What about you? Ever encounter rough patches in interdisciplinarity? Were they due to a lack of shared standards, vocabularies, concepts, methods – to incommensurability, in other words? How did you navigate the rough patches in your interdisciplinary efforts?

Reference:
Bataille, G. (trans. Hamilton, A.). (1973). Literature and Evil. Calder & Boyars: London, United Kingdom.

Biography: J. Britt Holbrook (ORCID: 0000-0002-5804-0692) is Assistant Professor in the Department of Humanities at New Jersey Institute of Technology. He works in three related areas: science and technology policy; the ethics of science, technology, and engineering; and, the philosophy of interdisciplinarity.

23 thoughts on “Interdisciplinarity and evil – Understanding incommensurability

  1. Britt – I’d be grateful if you would comment on Andi Hess’ claim in her blog post that incommensurability is not an issue for the kind of interdisciplinarity done by one person – see https://i2insights.org/2018/02/06/two-types-of-interdisciplinarity/. It seems to depend on whether incommensurability is a property of people or of ideas/theory/pieces of evidence. If the latter, then one person ‘integrating’ two incommensurable ideas has either done something brilliant or has seriously distorted one (or both) of the ideas. Is that right? If so, who is in a position to evaluate which has happened?

    • Indeed! In fact, if the ideas really are incommensurable, it’s not clear what ‘integrating’ them would mean. If integrating means finding common ground, and if that is equivalent to finding a common measure for the two ideas, then it’s logically impossible to integrate incommensurable ideas.

      So, either the ideas were not incommensurable, in which case integration would be possible; or one would need to distort or misinterpret one of the ideas in order to effect the integration; or one would need to admit that the two ideas simply cannot be integrated.

      It’s easier to see who is in a position to judge whether an attempt at integration is successful if we treat adherents of different disciplines as speakers of different languages. This isn’t simply a matter of using different syllables to put labels on the same things in the world. If incommensurability is real — and this is the sort of statement that always got Kuhn in trouble — then we are tempted to say that adherents of different paradigms inhabit different worlds. Of course, that sounds like complete relativism (or perspectivalism), which then led Kuhn to talk about ‘partial’ rather than total incommensurability (or incommensurability on the level of concepts, say, rather than on the level of entire paradigms).

      Let’s stick with this idea for a moment and say it would be the native speakers of the language (the adherents of the paradigm) who are in the best position to say whether someone had used the term/idea correctly or not. This is why I suggested in my comment on Andi’s post that there is a risk involved with individual interdisciplinarity, which is that one might think — mistakenly, according to a native speaker — that one is using the term/idea/concept correctly. If someone from within a discipline tells us that we are misappropriating their tools/concepts/language, I would take that as a really big warning sign, regardless of what method I had followed to do so.

      This is why I really like to talk about interdisciplinary communication rather than the notion of integration. When you have people from multiple disciplines trying to communicate, either they understand each other, or they don’t. That they can go on without difficulty indicates that they do understand each other (weak communication). If they hit a snag somewhere and cannot find the words, they are faced with a choice (first moment of strong communication) — either go back to a point at which they did understand one another and find a work-around (retreat to weak communication) or co-create a new language (or bit of language, a new way of speaking, if folks are worried that it sounds too crazy to invent a whole new language — which would be the second moment of strong communication). Once that’s done, of course, we do understand each other and have got back to weak communication. But we created something new, rather than staying where we were.

      • Britt
        Just so I’m clear on your explanation; it is either/or….either commensurate or incommensurate, or either interdisciplinary or disciplinary? So if its disciplinary its commensurate; if its interdisciplinary its incommensurate and it will continue to be so until it is commensurate…or put another way, until it is no longer an interdisciplinary project. And an interdisciplinary project, regardless of its duration, is a “one off” until it satisfactorily ends or is cancelled. The only other conclusion I can see is that the interdisciplinary becomes a discipline and is no longer interdisciplinary?

        • Yikes! Sorry if I put things in a confusing way. I will try to be clear. Part of the difficulty is that I am discussing multiple views on the issue of interdisciplinary communication. I’ll try to summarize here; but I work these out in greater detail in my Synthese paper (already linked).

          1) I think there is one view of what’s happening that’s most widely held, which I dub the Habermas-Klein thesis of ID communication. According to the H-K thesis, interdisciplinary communication involves bringing about an agreement on various ideas/concepts/tools/vocabulary/etc. between or among multiple disciplines. This is what I take to be the dominant understanding of what we mean by ‘integration’ — aiming for mutual understanding across disciplines.

          There are differences among adherents of the H-K thesis. Although most believe that bringing about such an agreement is difficult, some suggest that it can be done by following the correct method. I am not attributing this view to Andi Hess, but if we took the notion of individual interdisciplinarity to the extreme, the idea would be that a single individual, following the correct method, would be able to integrate ideas/etc. from various disciplines without needing to engage in any effort to communicate with anyone from those disciplines. This extreme view gives rise to an objection coming from those who think that it ignores the possibility of incommensurability. (I note, for the record, that Julie Klein, for whom the H-K thesis is named, is one who is always careful to emphasize difference — so I also don’t attribute this extreme view to her.)

          2) Those worried that adherents of the H-K thesis run roughshod over incommensurability put forth a different view, which I call the Kuhn-MacIntyre thesis. According to the K-M thesis, different disciplines can be compared to different languages. These languages are incommensurable, which means at least that communication between ‘inhabitants’ of different disciplines is not a matter of one-to-one translation of terms/ideas/concepts/etc. Imagine trying to use Google Translate in lieu of learning to speak another language, and you can see the problem. The idea of ID communication according to the K-M thesis is that one must actually learn the language of another discipline as a second first language. One can then understand it in the only way possible — on its own terms and in its own way.

          3) Both the H-K thesis and the K-M thesis begin the discussion of ID communication with the disciplines and then move on to discuss how communication between adherents of different disciplines is possible (bringing about common understanding or learning the language of the other, according to H-K and K-M, respectively). The third possibility, which I call the Bataille-Lyotard thesis (and which is obviously the philosophy underlying this main blog post), begins with people, rather than with disciplines. I begin with an exchange between my colleague and me, one that reveals very different — and, I think, incommensurable — understandings of what counts as ‘research’. This exchange could very easily have derailed our efforts to teach a class together. I could have reacted by thinking that my colleague didn’t respect me or the work I do. I could have retreated into a defensive position, building a strong case for the value of philosophy. Or I could have gone on the offensive, attacking her disciplinary view of what counts as real research. Or we could have stopped everything until we came to a mutual agreement about what various terms ought to mean. We didn’t really do any of those things. We kept teaching and working together, and it has led to some fruitful activity (including a grant, presentations at conferences, and a co-authored paper). Do we often understand each other perfectly well (weak communication)? Sure. Do we sometimes encounter difficulties understanding each other (strong communication)? Yep. According to the B-L thesis, we have a choice when we run up against a communication breakdown. We can a) go back to where we did understand each other and take another route; or b) we can try to move forward together by co-creating a new route. In reality, there can be some of both, with fits and starts, making wrong choices, and so on. Sort of like any time one is navigating unknown territory. The bottom line for the B-L thesis is not to insist on finding common ground before we can move forward (H-K thesis) or to suggest that we must learn the language of the other as a second first language, or risk misunderstanding (K-M thesis), but rather to say that we will need, if we want to maintain our relationship, to search for and find various ways of moving forward. Those times when we hit a snag are potentially the most fruitful opportunities.

          • Thank you for the clarification Britt. I believe you’ve done a great job of clarifying an important topic. Now if we can solve the other part I reference….but that’s a different conversation. Thank you again for your article.

            • Without trying to claim I answered everything — because I’m sure I didn’t — which part of your comment, specifically, did I leave unaddressed?

              The question of whether incommensurability is only something that happens between (rather than within) disciplines? I think the answer is no, it can happen within, too.

              The question of whether interdisciplinarity is a series of one-offs until it becomes a discipline? That’s a really interesting question I’d be happy to explore further.

              Or something else?

              • I started writing a lengthy reply, but it occurred to me that I may be interrupting the discussion and distracting it from where it originally began. The part about the one-offs is another topic I think is a link to the idea of commensurability, but if you are interested, I would like to send you and Dr. Bammer some thoughts on the subject off line rather than clutter up this forum.

                • Do please continue the conversation here – but please start a new thread. That way anyone who wants to skip it can easily, and anyone interested can follow and join in.

                  I am very grateful to Britt for his expansive answers and for writing the post in the first place.

                  Incommensurability is such a core concept for interdisciplinarity – and in fact any research that crosses disciplines – and it is very useful to have that highlighted here.

  2. I enjoyed your story and analysis, Britt. I agree that irrespective of temporary communication breakdowns it is good to continue trusting and working together. Yet I wonder if we have that trust because we can assume that our incommensurability will prove to be temporary as well, as we can develop a better mutual understanding and indeed construct a common ground – though dissensus may continue. In your example, it may be that you and your colleague come to understand each other’s research methods & results, even if your evaluations of each other’s research still diverge. More philosophically put: how do you think we should navigate with someone’s ‘disciplinary private language argument’ if not by finding some common ground?

    • Good question, Machiel!

      If you want to call co-creation of a new language ‘finding common ground’, then I’m ok with that.

      But that then seems to cause problems for the sort of ‘individual’ approach to interdisciplinarity outlined by Andi Hess (https://i2insights.org/2018/02/06/two-types-of-interdisciplinarity/). It was actually Andi’s post that prompted me to reengage my thinking on this. One problem is that, as an individual, you aren’t co-creating anything. Another problem is that you might be using language from disciplines that natives of that discipline would see as a misinterpretation.

      So, one way out would be to learn their disciplinary language to the point of fluency. Those who find this approach attractive also sometimes think you can’t really be interdisciplinary unless you have multiple PhDs. Others are content to learn to ‘talk the talk’ of the second discipline without being able to ‘walk the walk’. This is the approach of those who advocate interactional expertise. It’s important to note that disciplines do provide a common ground for their adherents, so it’s not as if there is a private language. It’s a public language restricted to experts. But it’s possible to learn it.

      Another approach would be to have folks from different disciplines risk their disciplinary identities, let go of their appeals to expertise, and try to create a new language together. If someone who’s engaged in that attempt clings to their own way of seeing things (their disciplinary perspective), it cuts off the possibility of co-creation.

  3. Thank-you for this great example of incommensurability. It points out the necessity of making the effort to work together, despite such an experience. Attitude is everything; people have to to be able to see the benefits. Some researchers just don’t want to make the effort to “navigate those difficult stretches”, and other are stimulated by this. And to successfully do that navigation still requires establishing some kind of common ground, even if epistemological differences may persist. I do know that over the years, attitude towards that effort has become one of the ways I measure my potential collaborators. 😉

    • Thanks, Kristine. I suppose a lot rides on what we mean when we speak about ‘common ground’. I think I have a foundation of mutual trust and respect that allows me to work with my colleague from another discipline, even if she doesn’t understand what I do as research.

      So, do we have common ground? Mutual understanding? Or would it be more accurate simply to say that we continue to move forward, even if we don’t understand each other?

      I get that a major concern for anyone who prefers the latter is that it appears as if there are no rules. This then leads many disciplinarians to think that interdisciplinarity is not rigorous or respectable. But I don’t think that interdisciplinarians need to be so defensive that they turn into disciplinarians, especially if that means they end up missing what I take to be a major concern for interdisciplinarity — the partiality of claims to expertise and the sort of intellectual totalitarianism that accompany such claims.

      • Hmm, how can we “continue to move forward” if we don’t have shared understanding? To put it in the terms of Christian Campolo, I think “moving forward” means “coordinated action.” And that seems to require shared understanding. How can we coordinate if we don’t share an understanding of something, anything?

        • Thanks for your question, Bethany!

          If you are asking about how my colleague and I continue to move forward, we keep doing things together. We started by co-teaching a class. We are co-authoring a paper. And we have given some presentations together and have been accepted to do so at another conference. As I said in the initial post, we understand each other most of the time on most things.

          The fact is that we don’t need to understand everything together the same way all the time in order to continue to move forward. I’m just reporting on a state of affairs in the world. She doesn’t think I do research, and yet we continue to engage in research (according to me) together.

          If you’re asking in general, I would say that we don’t need perfect coordination in order to move forward. We can muddle through and still continue moving (what I called navigating in the blog post). We can try to find some rules together. All the rules don’t have to be laid out ahead of time. Indeed, that’s part of research (and teaching, for that matter) for me.

          I’ve recently begun working with a colleague in the theater program at my university on improv in order to figure things out a bit more. He recently introduced me to a game he called ‘convergence’, but that looks very much like what’s described as ‘mind meld’ (here’s a very short video demonstrating the game: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JAzqvPjBQLE).

          If you watch the video, there are certain rules for who says what when and what the group is aiming for — saying the same word at the same time. But that’s it. The rest of it is trying to figure out how to get to that word. I guess we could describe it as coordinated action; but it’s at most loosely coordinated. It’s quite difficult, in fact. Watch this video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mlrVFZv2epw) to see how long it takes these two friends to manage it.

          Note that the whole game is a series of failures, until it (sometimes) results in a single success.

          I think interdisciplinary communication is like this, only even more difficult.

          • Britt, your improv example is really compelling and I’m still thinking about it. Something definitely right there.

            Meanwhile, I am wondering if your example with your colleague is actually an example of incommensurability. Certainly, you disagree on the meaning of the same term, “research.” But it seems your conceptual schemes are quite compatible. It seems you both share the scheme that Valuable Scholarship = Theorizing + Measuring Things. Your colleague calls Measuring Things = “Research,” but you call Theorizing & Valuable Scholarship “Research.” Just because you use the same syllables to refer to different things doesn’t mean your underlying conceptual schemes are incommensurable, just your linguistic labels. And I suspect that it is because of your shared conceptual scheme that you are able to continue doing scholarship together.

            • Well, I discuss these issues in much greater detail in my article on this topic (https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11229-012-0179-7). What you’re expressing — the view that in order to be able to communicate, people must share the same conceptual scheme — is essentially the view proposed by Donald Davidson in his classic “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme.” According to Davidson, communication across different languages is a matter of translation (‘Schnee ist weiß’ is true if, and only if, snow is white). Kuhn rejects this view, calling on a distinction between translation and interpretation and suggesting that what really exists between paradigms is most often what he calls ‘partial incommensurability’. This allows us to communicate through interpretation, which is fuzzier and involves judgment and stuff. But we can do it. Others suggest Kuhn is not really entitled to invoke partial incommensurability at all, since his views about the primacy of paradigms entail complete incommensurability. This is what leads MacIntyre to suggest learning the language of another discipline (although he talks about traditions) as a second first language.

              Although all of this conceptual wrangling is fun — and arguably the stuff of which philosophy is made — I’m not sure it’s necessary. Let’s come back to my colleague and me. There are often times we understand each other quite well, maybe fully, but in any case well-enough to continue having a conversation. But there are definitely times when we don’t. According to what I call in my paper the Bataille-Lyotard thesis, these moments of not being able to find the words are opportunities to go beyond our disciplinary identities and risk inventing a new language that allows us to move forward. Now, can we avoid doing that and simply pass over these moments? I think we can at least work around them. My colleague and I don’t discuss what counts as research, for instance. It came up in class that day, and sometimes one of us might bring it up as a joke. But we don’t — at least, I don’t — feel the need to sit down together and hash out the ‘real’ definition of research. In order to continue working together, I don’t need to make sure that she acknowledges what I do as ‘real’ research. I just have to trust that, even if she doesn’t get it, she still sees some value in what I do.

              There’s a level of pragmatism I find attractive in the Bataille-Lyotard thesis. We don’t need to stop working together while we understand each other (weak communication). When we encounter a moment of strong communication — not being able to find the words — we can either take that as an opportunity for invention or go around it by returning to the last place we did understand each other and try a different route. This sort of ‘navigation’ is precisely what I see in improv.

              • Britt, thanks for bringing up your 2013 Synthese paper. I often refer to it. I think my comment was misunderstood a bit. While I lean towards agreeing with Davidson we need to share conceptual schemes to communicate, I lean away from then concluding that translation is all that’s needed. In fact, I do think interpretation is what makes conceptual schemes come into contact with each other–maybe overlap even, just enough for the sake of the immediate conversation.

                You mentioned in your comment, “I just have to trust that, even if she doesn’t get it, she still sees some value in what I do.” This is what I was trying to say and I think shows you and she share a conceptual scheme, something like “Valuable Scholarship = Theorizing + Counting Things.” Notice the word research isn’t in there at all because it doesn’t matter; what matters is, as you say, you both see each other’s work as falling into the category of “Valuable Scholarship.” Whether or not you even have a word/words to describe “Valuable Scholarship” to each other in fact seems immaterial. So long as you two actually do value each other’s work, particular terminology about it doesn’t help or interfere with your collaboration. It seems that people can share conceptual schemes WITHOUT sharing any words (i.e., no need for translation OR invention of a new language).

                I think, then, this points to the fact that scholars have become too obsessed with “finding the right words,” or believing that effective communication depends essentially or perhaps solely upon shared words. Words are simply one means of coming to share conceptual schemes. There are many, many other means, too. In fact, it seems that one reason improv works is because the players rely almost exclusively upon non-linguistic means, such as body language, tone, facial expressions, etc. In fact, even when language does carry the meaning back and forth, it is probably not the individual words that matter so much as their attending structures such as prosody, clause construction and arrangement, nominalizations vs. verbings, etc. (And if this is true, then we need discourse analysis NOT thematic analysis to understand collaborator communication. Language efficacy depends on underlying structures more than superficial labels.)

                • Cool. You know, I think it would be interesting to try bringing Polanyi in, with his idea of tacit knowledge. I’m not the best person to do that, but I do think it’s relevant.

  4. Good article. I have previously been concerned with “incommensurability” as a paradigm or border crossing problem as it related to whether the research being done is inter-, cross-, trans- or others, not so much as a linguistic challenge. But I agree with your point; it is another challenge to crossing boundaries in research. You didn’t mention if you and your colleague created any syllabi or curricula from your collaboration. How do you see the linguistic incommensurability manifesting with students enrolled in a “xxxx-disciplinary” curriculum, such as Interdisciplinary Studies (IDS) or Liberal Studies (LS)?

    • Let me be a bit provocative in answering your question, Larry. I think the possibility — or maybe the inevitability — of incommensurability is something that’s often downplayed by people who tend toward disciplining interdisciplinarity. It sometimes seems as if experts in interdisciplinarity should always be able to find common ground by following the prescribed method. But that forces everything into Bataille’s ‘weak’ communication and cuts off the possibility of ‘strong’ communication. In not allowing the ‘evil’ of not being able to find common ground into the discussion, such an approach is intellectually totalitarian.

      Of course, there are (academic) political reasons for the push toward disciplining interdisciplinarity. The way the academy works is to cordon off little areas of expertise, and anyone who doesn’t follow suit is open to the charge of dilettantism. These are real concerns.

      But is the larger worry of interdisciplinarity (I am avoiding IDS, since I am not asking about a discipline) that, in order to get to the truth, we need to draw on multiple disciplines? Or is it that the claim to expertise — to have a grasp of the truth — is itself problematic? Maybe it’s a question of emphasis. But to the extent that interdisciplinarity claims expertise, it runs the risk of downplaying the dangers of intellectual totalitarianism.

  5. Respect and trust are personal and subjective but resesrch, we beleive, must be objective. How could the researchers get to a mutual unerstanding on these different platforms?

    • Thanks for your comment, Mohammad.

      I guess I would say that mutual respect and trust between individuals are interpersonal, rather than personal. They may be subjective, but there’s a universality to them in that we expect everyone (speaking normatively, not as a prediction) to engage in them.

      What do you mean when you suggest that research must be objective?

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