By J. Britt Holbrook
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?
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.