Robert Frodeman’s 2014 Sustainable Knowledge: A Theory of Interdisciplinarity (Palgrave/Macmillan) asserts that the modern university system, created in the late 19th century and developed through the 20th century, was built upon the notion of distinct disciplines which extend knowledge through subject matter specialization. Today, Frodeman argues, the social, epistemological, and technological conditions that supported the disciplinary pursuit of knowledge are coming to an end. Knowledge production has itself become unsustainable: we are drowning in knowledge even as new PhDs cannot find work. Sustainable Knowledge explores these questions through the idiom of sustainability, using examples from environmental inquiry and problem-solving, and offering a new account of what is at stake in talk about ‘interdisciplinarity’. The book develops two positive themes. First, it offers an account of contemporary knowledge production in terms of the concepts of sustainability, disciplinarity, and interdisciplinarity. Second, it reconceives the role of philosophy and the humanities both within the academy and across society. It argues that philosophy and the humanities must reinvent themselves, taking on the Socratic task of providing a historical and philosophical critique of society.
This author-meets-critics panel engages Frodeman’s ideas concerning interdisciplinary research with an eye toward addressing the challenges and opportunities for philosophers of science. In Sustainable Knowledge, Frodeman describes his own work with the US Geological Survey and on science and environmental policy, and he champions ways for philosophers to engage with issues of science policy inside and outside the university. He raises questions about disciplines, professional institutions, socially relevant science, and the function of philosophy in our technoscientific, hyperconnected contemporary world.
The value and need for coordinated multi-disciplinary, cross- and inter-disciplinary research is increasingly recognized. Philosophers working in epistemology and in the philosophy of science have argued that key barriers to successful interdisciplinary science reside in a failure to recognize the way that epistemic values, methodological traditions, and both metaphysical and meta-ethical commitments tend to be both shared within disciplinary traditions, while divergence is observed when different disciplines are compared. As such, interdisciplinary work is often assisted by explicit identification and discussion of these philosophical commitments, even if strict agreement on such commitments may not always be required.
In a related vein, the U.S. National Academy of Science created a new section for sustainability science in its journal PNAS in 2007. Sustainability science was conceptualized as neither applied nor basic curiosity driven research, but as a domain of problem or use inspired research questions that would require significant breakthroughs and advances in understanding to resolve. Sustainability science has also been characterized as science undertaken in response to “wicked problems”: challenges with large social and economic stakes, irreversible consequences, multiple stakeholders, high levels of uncertainty, low tolerance for error and little agreement about the fundamental problem definition. Sustainability science was not necessarily characterized as interdisciplinary in this literature, though contributions to PNAS’s sustainability science section often do have authors from more than one discipline.
Robert Frodeman’s 2014 book Sustainable Knowledge: A Theory of Interdisciplinarity links these two themes through an examination of the institutional setting for science in contemporary research universities, and an examination of how humanities disciplines (and philosophy in particular) must take on the task of challenging the barriers that current institutions pose to genuinely sustainable knowledge production. Frodeman suggests that the role philosophers play in facilitating interdisciplinary conversations must be augmented by critique of the organizational and incentive structures currently being perpetuated in universities and disciplinary organizations. This paper reviews Frodeman’s key claims and links them to the recent literature on sustainability science. It sets the stage for other papers in the panel that engage Frodeman’s work at a critical level.
In his 2014 book Sustainable Knowledge: A theory of interdisciplinarity, Robert Frodeman says that there are two predominant attitudes toward interdisciplinarity: the booster and the skeptic. He is primarily a booster while noting that there are different ways of working between and beyond traditional disciplines. For example, typical multidisciplinary scientific research draws on disciplinary experts to contribute their skills to a larger project without the need for much communication or transformation of their disciplinary orientation. This form of interdisciplinary work is an efficient form of dividing intellectual labor which is best applied to already-familiar types of research problems, and it is not really the object of his interest. Frodeman is much more interested in what some call trans-disciplinary research: research directed at solving some unique and complex real-world problem which requires the forging of brand new research tools and perspectives. He is a booster of this form of interdisciplinarity and examines how philosophers can better engage in it. He is a skeptic, however, about there being a science or a uniform logic of this more complex form of interdisciplinary inquiry. He also points out the irony of how some interdisciplinarians have effectively mimicked the institutional forms of disciplinarity by creating university departments, academic journals, and professional societies.
I, too, am both a booster and a skeptic when it comes to interdisciplinary inquiry. Like Frodeman, I think we are forced into being boosters because some problems require creative input from numerous disciplinary forms of expertise. Frodeman uses sustainability science as a paradigmatic case of these kinds of problems. There are few environmental problems which don’t require the attention of both natural and social scientists—whether related to climate change, species preservation, pollution control, or energy production.
I also consider two specific forms of skepticism and will invite Frodeman to respond to how they fit his proposed framework for sustainable knowledge production. First, I defend disciplines as a site of necessary argumentation concerning rigor. Rigor, according to Frodeman, is too expensive. The challenges we face are urgent and disciplinary rigor costs time and research money to develop. Because it distracts us from the quickest path to solving acute problems, developing disciplinary rigor is a trade-off with fostering interdisciplinary breadth. In contrast, I analyze rigor in terms of standards of evidence, and I argue that developing context-appropriate standards of evidence is a difficult but worthwhile job.
Second, I call attention to the pressure to accelerate the rate of scientific knowledge production. Academic database, search, and bibliometric tools are increasingly automated, and there is a desire to reduce the time that scientific researchers must spend combing through the recent research literature in order to stay current. I argue that there are reasons to think that some friction in the process of research may improve the quality of scientific research at the acceptable cost of slowing it down.
In his 2014 book, Sustainable Knowledge: A Theory of Interdisciplinarity Robert Frodeman goes to great length to show how the philosophy discipline has lost contact with society. Numerous societal problems call for philosophical analysis but what society gets from philosophy are mostly abstract models that simulate highly idealised intuitions, behaviours and situations – to the effect that philosophy has become almost irrelevant. In response to the lack of applicability, the philosophy discipline has branched out into a subfield called applied philosophy. But according to Frodeman, the same tragedy happened once again. The applied philosophy literature is full of insights about practical problems. But there are very few accounts of how a philosopher is supposed to ensure that these insights have an impact on real societal problems and practices. This, according to Frodeman, is deeply rooted in the disciplinary ethos of philosophy: “one has exhausted one’s intellectual task and professional obligation when one deposits a peer-reviewed publication in a reservoir of knowledge” (Frodeman & Briggle 2015). Absent in the academic community is any reflection about how to actually get involved with real stakeholders in particular policy-makers, and how to effectively interject insights into real life situations and conversations. Frodeman sees “the discipline” as the main obstacle. Philosophy, he argues, should never have developed disciplinary features but should instead have kept mobile crossing boundaries between the other sciences and facilitating interdisciplinary dialogue by not belonging to any disciplinary hierarchy itself. In this commentary to Frodeman’s book, I revisit the strategy of dedisciplining philosophy and critically examine what philosophy can do promote ideal theory in a non-ideal world, and how policy-makers are increasingly calling for philosophy – and the humanities in general – to become part of the interdisciplinary conversation.
I will respond to points raised by Paul Thompson and Danielle Lake, Evelyn Brister, and David Budtz Pedersen, discussing how their criticisms and insights engage with my proposed theory of interdisciplinarity. Philosophers of science who focus on practice should consider how they can be field philosophers, working directly on socially relevant science and public policy.