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October 07, 2009


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Patrick S. O'Donnell

I think your assumption about academic research and inquiry (legal and otherwise) becoming increasingly "specialized, diversified, and fragmented" (John Ziman) is a fairly safe one. As Nicholas Rescher has written, "In a complex world, the natural dynamics of the cognitive process exhibit an inherent tropism toward increasing complexity." The natural sciences are exemplary in this regard, as "scientific progress is of a nature that inherently involves an inexorable tendency to complexification in both its cognitive and ideational dimension. [....] [And] the history of science is an endlessly repetitive story of simple theories giving way to more complicated and sophisticated ones."

One obvious irony arises from the fact that our scientific "commitment to simplicity and systematicity [more or less Occam's razor], though methodologically necessary, is ontologically unavailing."

Rescher explains precisely why we should expect a decline in polymathic academic performance:

"The explosive growth of information of itself countervails against its exploitation for the sake of knowledge-enhancement. The problem of coping with the proliferation of printed materials affords a striking example of this phenomenon. One is forced to ever higher levels of aggregation, compression, and abstraction. [....] And this ongoing refinement in the division of cognitive labor that an information explosion necessitates issues in a literal dis-integration of knowledge. The 'progress of knowledge' is marked by an ever-more continuing proliferation of ever more restructured specialties marked by the unavoidable circumstances that any given specialty cell cannot know exactly what is going on even next door---let alone at the significant remove. Our understanding of matters outside one's bailiwick is bound to become superficial. At home base one knows the details, nearby one has an understanding of generalities, but at a greater remove one can be no more than an informed amateur."

Another irony, or perhaps paradox, arises from the fact that the perceived need for transdisciplinary or interdisciplinary work which has received abundant academic lipservice of late, has never in practice been more difficult or unlikely to occur. And the myriad "contexts of application" of our inquiries and research, or the nature of the problems to be addressed or the issues examined, be it in the natural or social sciences, or the legal academy, require interdisciplinary collaboration and insights befitting the corresponding increasing complexity of the various "worlds" we seek to explain and understand. As John Ziman succintly notes, while "academics often expatiate on the virtues of interdisciplinarity....the actual trend is in the opposite direction."

All of this is important if only for the following reason:

"It is next to impossible to get a clear fix on our own ignorance, because in order to know that there is a certain knowable fact we do not know, would would have to know this fact itself, which (by hypothesis) we do not. And it is even difficult to obtain a taxonomy of ignorance. For the realm of ignorance is just as vast, complex, and many-facted as that of knowledge itself. [....] Learned ignorance is a matter of being learned ABOUT our ignorance---of having a well-informed view about the prospects for knowledge and the inevitability of ignorance. It takes a sagacious person to form a reasonably realistic appreciation of the extent and nature of his or her own ignorance---and to know what to do about it."

With that in mind, and apologies to Freud, one project I've undertaken might be described as a nod in the direction of polymathic perversity, namely, the Directed Reading series at Ratio Juris:

Speaking more concretely and directly to the profession, one might look at Rick Hills' "Decalogue for the Interdisciplinary Lawyer:" [Incidentally, and with Joseph Slater, I was irritated by the gratuitous swipe at organized labor, hence I didn't cite the exact title of his post.]


Is "interdisciplinarity" part of the problem? It seems like there's a growing culture of specialization (in the potentially bad sense) within interdisciplinary work. Law & econ folks folks talk their own language, but it's a highly specialized niche within both econ AND law, turning a field that was originally full of foxes into one dominated by hedgehogs (who aren't fully at home in law OR economics, just at the intersection).

Now L&E makes a great whipping boy, but it's not the only example. Take Law & Philosophy. It's great stuff, too, but it's dominated by work at the intersection of (almost exclusively) contemporary moral and political philosophy, but metaphysics and epistemology and other areas of philosophy are important, too (and used to have a larger role in jurisprudence). In the last 50 years or so, much of jurisprudence has gotten so specialized and caught up in very precise distinctions between various subtle claims that there's little room for the philosophy foxes. I don't know many legal philosophers familiar with, e.g., French philosopher Remi Brague's extensive work on law from an historical philosophical perspective.

Today people are trained to be "interdiciplinarians" ... but the pioneers were multi-disciplinarians. They went through training (formally or informally) in two or more areas independently of one another. Law schools have traditionally been a great and natural place to foster such work, because the effects of law transcends disciplines; everyone has a stake in law, not just lawyers. Rhetorically, too, I think it matters what we call the foxes. Multi-disciplinarians, to convince skeptical colleagues of the value of their approach, knew they had to talk in multiple languages (e.g. law AND econ). Today's inter-disciplinarians often get away with talking their pidgin language only insider specialists can understand. Hedgehogs pretending to be foxes???

Patrick S. O'Donnell


Given, loosely speaking, the nature of law, it makes perfectly good sense and it’s perfectly appropriate that law and philosophy would be “dominated by work at the intersection of (almost exclusively) contemporary moral and political philosophy.” It’s certainly arguable, and I happen to think mistaken, AT LEAST SINCE THE RISE OF POSITIVISM, to say that metaphysics and epistemology once played “a larger role in jurisprudence.” In any case, given the subjects typically treated within metaphysics today (e.g., the structure of time, the relation between substances and attributes, the nature of change and identity), as well as the fact that it is decisively descriptivist and modest to a fault in its ambitions, it’s not surprising that it would play little or no role in contemporary philosophy of law or works on “law and philosophy.” The grand metaphysics of old was indispensable, for instance, to the natural law theory of Aquinas, but its immanentist descendant has scarcely little to contribute to natural law theory today. And I doubt epistemology qua epistemology ever played a role even remotely close to the one it does today (as in the work, say, of Larry Laudan, or as it relates to the epistemic authority of science). I suspect that we will find SOCIAL epistemology come to play an ever greater role in legal studies if not legal theory proper, perhaps with some relevance to topics in philosophy of law (I think there are important distinctions between legal theory and philosophy of law although these are often elided by those of a scientistic bent). Now there was of course, historically speaking, epistemology of sorts or epistemology-like topics in jurisprudence but these were typically subsumed within larger subject matters and concerns, for instance, rationalism and empiricism, or even rhetoric. Our relatively modern obsessions with epistemology as such are just that, and hence did not play a larger role in the past than they do today.

What I find intriguing is the uncritical deference to certain pictures of (‘empirical’) science often found among would-be interdisciplinarians or transdisciplinarians in the legal academy today, be it in legal studies, legal theory or philosophy of law. In this they are not unlike many contemporary philosophers who seem to uphold scientific knowledge and rationality as exemplary forms of knowledge and thus fancy themselves underlaborers for the natural and social sciences, or see themselves providing a logical or rational extension of science, or in some sense prefiguring the science of the future (thus what is now philosophy will one day become science, as historically occurred with several branches of philosophy). Much more could be said about this but to the extent the linkages to and deference toward science is uncritical, we’ll witness this or that fashionable theory or field of science holding sway in the legal academy: neo-classical economics, behavioral economics, neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, “situationist” psychology, cognitive psychology, and so on. Such work is “interdisciplinary” in only the crudest sense: it simply involves the importation of the latest scientific fashion so as to stimulate a novel batch of scholarship. To the extent that philosophy is relatively autonomous from science, it’s still able to provide us the requisite critical distance from which we might better assess the strengths and limitations of such work. In the philosophy of mind, for example, such autonomy seems conspicuous by its absence and thus there is undue deference to science (folks like Descombe, Bennett and Hacker, Daniel Robinson, provide exceptions to the rule), especially among those philosophers who are committed, avowedly or not, to some species of naturalism or physicalism with regard to an understanding of consciousness.

While I’m open to both testimony and non-anecdotal evidence that suggest otherwise, I’m quite skeptical as to the claim that there is truly interdisciplinary training taking place in law schools today (again, one of those generalizations which admit of exceptions). (I find it utterly amazing that we still have debates about requiring courses in international and comparative law!) And I think “interdisciplinary” and “multidisciplinary” are synonymous adjectives although perhaps you have some stipulative definition in mind that makes this a distinction with a difference.

Kim Krawiec

Hi Daniel and Patrick – sorry to take a while to respond to these comments – long week, this one. Patrick may be right that “interdisciplinary” and “multidisciplinary” are synonymous, but I think I see what Daniel is driving at. That rather than thinking of ourselves as people versed in two disciplines (say law and also philosophy, just to use the example from the above comment), we become people versed in “law and philosophy,” then not fully fitting into the law or philosophy categories, but creating a new, third specialty. Perhaps it’s just a mechanism for reorienting our own thinking? Those more truly "multidisciplinary" than me will have to opine on that one, but it does seem possible.



You said "I’m quite skeptical as to the claim that there is truly interdisciplinary training taking place in law schools today" -- me too! As Kim suggests, my point was that what proceeds in the name of interdisciplinarity often ultimately leads to hollow specialization, carving out a third-way for itself but still specialized. Or, as you point out, sometimes it "simply involves the importation of the latest scientific fashion so as to stimulate a novel batch of scholarship."

And my semantic point was that, while interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary may by synonyms, the former has lost its original meaning and been co-opted because it's fashionable to say you do that kind of work. (There may be a bigger difference, though, where "multi" would indicate a capacity to do, or history of doing, high-quality work independent of the other discipline.)

Now, I didn't mean to spark a debate about the state of jurisprudence, and I think you might have read a bit much into my comments (e.g. I'm not saying bring back the grand metaphysics of old to reinvigorate natural law... I'm an exclusive positivist). My point was simply, like a lot of interdisciplinary work, legal philosophy risks losing its anchor in the cognate --philosophy-- conceived generally. There's an obvious relevance of political and moral philosophy to jurisprudence, but the growing discussion of very serious philosophy of action in jurisprudence illustrates just how far jurisprudence got from philosophy absent legal considerations. But even 'grand metaphysics' is worthwhile -- for instance, read not just Aquinas, but Maimonides and al-Farabi, and you start to see competing visions of metaphysics, law, and morality, and the ways they intersect, that remain important questions to law today, whether one is a natural lawyer or not. But that's not "law and philosophy" as it's commonly defined.

The more general point is that I think it matters how one comes to do interdisciplinary work. If you try too hard to be creative, it's hollow and forced. Studying disciplines independently gives one a different perspective of the two projects, but an integrated training risks teaching a narrow methodology developed around the intersection of two fields (e.g. some L&E programs). Too many schools try to teach creativity instead of getting together a bunch of interesting people and waiting to see what happens, as they do at the Institute for Advanced Study, and (arguably) like more law schools used to do.

Patrick S. O'Donnell


Thanks for the elaboration and clarification.


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