Interdisciplinary Query

by Kieran Healy on May 27, 2005

We’ve been talking a bit about interdisciplinary work at CT recently. My favorite observation about this comes from my colleague Ron Breiger, who said to me in passing once that the trouble with interdisciplinarity is that you need disciplines in order for it to happen. There are no borders without heartlands, so to speak. Anyway, I got an email this afternoon from a friend of mine who is searching for a speaker:

bq. We are trying to think of a keynote speaker who represents the idea of learning and scholarship across institutions. Someone who crosses borders and who combines disciplinary perspectives. It could be a novelist who writes about science; or someone like Stanley Fish or William Buckley Jr, or … Can you think of any compelling polymaths (famous or otherwise) that could represent the notion of cross-domain writing/thinking?

Well, CT smarties? Can you?



rea 05.27.05 at 9:39 pm

Jared Diamond?


Ben Alpers 05.27.05 at 9:39 pm

Noam Chomsky


M. Meilleur 05.27.05 at 9:41 pm

Depends on what the keynote speech is for, but what about James Burke? John McPhee?


Ben Alpers 05.27.05 at 9:44 pm

Though, thinking again, Chomsky is a great example of a polymath, but not a good example of someone who combines disciplinary perspectives (as the linguistics and the politics are quite separate).

So how about Cornel West?


JR 05.27.05 at 9:51 pm


Matt 05.27.05 at 9:55 pm

Peter Galison would be a good choice.


sean 05.27.05 at 10:23 pm

for a novelist who writes about science, try David Foster Wallace, who wrote an excellent book called “Everything And More” about the history of the concept of infinity in mathematics, a subject he is obviously well versed in and even a bit obsessed by. it’s a great book.


Dan Nexon 05.27.05 at 10:38 pm

Ian Hacking
Charles Tilly


Joel Turnipseed 05.27.05 at 11:03 pm

Without any qualifying comments (and they’re there to be made), the following novelists come quickly to mind (one of whom is primarily a scientist, the other four of whom are either trained in science/philosophy & have written intelligently about it && also all four of whom have won MacArthur Fellowships):

Richard Powers
David Foster Wallace
Carl Djerassi
Rebecca Goldstein
Andrea Barrett


robert 05.27.05 at 11:07 pm

Stanley Cavell
Robert Frank
Umberto Eco


John Emerson 05.27.05 at 11:13 pm

Charles Tilly.


Ptochos 05.27.05 at 11:44 pm

Kwame Anthony Appiah


Brian Wood 05.28.05 at 12:17 am

Charlie Munger would be perfect. He has conceptualized mental models called “lattice work” that seeks new ideas from the intersections of different diciplines.


Chris 05.28.05 at 2:57 am

I too had Jared Diamond down as my first choice by a mile. Otherwise is Albert Hirschman still alive?


Jeff Roberts 05.28.05 at 4:22 am

Charles Tilly immediately came to mind for me as well. I would also suggest Andrew Abbott or Roberto Franzosi.


maureen 05.28.05 at 4:50 am

Lisa Jardine or Susan Greenfield


Michael H. 05.28.05 at 6:02 am

Tyler Cowen or Alex Tabarrok.
Lots of economists cross borders – but perhaps in a negative way.
Jared Diamond??? – you must be joking.


lakelobos 05.28.05 at 6:40 am

Naively, I went looking for serious interdisciplinary candidates in the first 13 comments; I was familiar with only a few of the names suggested. What I found is Talibans of the Right and the Left and several serious people that work hard but are not interdisciplinary unless walking and chewing gum is too.

May be the fact that we are governed by a pack of mad dogs is not a coincidence after all.


Dan Nexon 05.28.05 at 7:18 am

Another suggestion Chris Chyba.

Lakelobos: perhaps you could enlighten us as to your understanding of “interdisciplinary”?


pedro 05.28.05 at 8:18 am

How about someone who solved one of the famous Hilbert problems and then went on to become one of the most famous philosophers of our time?


Paul Bloom 05.28.05 at 8:43 am

How about Ian McEwan? He’s a superb novelist who has a lot to say about science and philosophy


Thomas 05.28.05 at 8:49 am

Martha Nussbaum


Peter McB. 05.28.05 at 8:50 am

The ideal candidate (were he not dead) would be Jacob Bronowski — mathematician, biologist, literary critic, TV presenter. He is probably the only published mathematician ever interviewed for a post in Yale’s English Department. In his absence, his daughter, Lisa Jardine, could do.


Tim Harford 05.28.05 at 8:53 am

David Bodanis.


Chris Williams 05.28.05 at 9:12 am

Worryingly enough, I can’t think of anyone. Maybe it’s because I’m a historian, and we don’t tend to travel well. For example, David Starkey is very good on Tudor England, but not especially better than yr average radio pundit when it comes to anything else. I think that I’m left with Michael Ignatieff – not that I agree with him on many things.

Or maybe Melvin Bragg?


Tom 05.28.05 at 9:42 am

Jonathan Lear


Arthur D. Hlavaty 05.28.05 at 10:40 am

Gregory Benford/


Dan Simon 05.28.05 at 11:58 am

The discussion here–along with Kieran’s friend–seems to have conflated two distinctions: between interdisciplinary and “pure” research, and between the public intellectual and the “pure” academic. There are literally many thousands of researchers who have made their livings bringing the knowledge of one field into another, often to very good effect. Thousands of others have published research in multiple disciplines, either because they’ve done work in both, or because their work straddles the two. But what kind of audience would be happy to listen to any one of them–regardless of his or her multiple disciplines–as a keynote speaker?

On the other hand, a public intellectual–someone whose work straddles academia and the public sphere–would typically make a good keynote speaker, since most public intellectuals “do” public speaking as part of their schtick, so to speak. But many public intellectuals are in fact no more interdisciplinary than the average academic, having used their prominence in their one field as a springboard with which to launch a career as a (non-academic) commentator on many.

The public intellectual is a bit of a funny beast–kind of like a gourmet burger, as I wrote some time ago. They can be interesting and important, but they shouldn’t be confused with academic scholars, interdisciplinary or otherwise.


DT 05.28.05 at 12:34 pm

Stuart Kauffman? Leading reasearher in complexity theory, which is about as interdisciplinary as it gets (unless you call it a single discipline, in which case, not so much.)

Wolfram–started out in math, then developed Mathematica, then came up with the real theory that explains everything in the universe. (At least, according to him.)

Penros–did some good physics/math stuff, and then branched over into biology and philosophy of mind. (Not sure if anyone takes that second work seriously, though.)


lago 05.28.05 at 12:34 pm

Bruno Latour.


idlehands 05.28.05 at 12:54 pm

Deirdre McCloskey, Sam Bowles, Elliott Sober,


ben wolfson 05.28.05 at 2:40 pm

Richard Posner has written about tons of stuff, but I don’t know how good any of it is.


Jim Lund 05.28.05 at 2:48 pm

Rudy Rucker
Gregory Benford


david 05.28.05 at 2:54 pm

James Lovelock


brennan 05.28.05 at 3:32 pm

Douglas Hofstadter.


J. Ellenberg 05.28.05 at 4:16 pm

Ian Hacking seconded.


nick 05.28.05 at 5:09 pm

This would have been great territory for the late, lamented Roy Porter.

Anyway, from the top o’ my head: Ronald Dworkin. George Steiner. Gerald Edelman. Another nod for Ian Hacking.


pedro 05.28.05 at 6:51 pm

I don’t know how successful he has been, but Fields medalist David Mumford has switched over to neuroscience. As for the philosopher I refered to above–just in case someone’s wondering–, his name is Hilary Putnam.


vivian 05.28.05 at 8:08 pm

Keynote for what gathering would really help us understand whether your friend wants fiery/entertaining or provocative/aggressive or thoughtful/brilliant/clear-thinking or (merely) famous for more than one thing.

If they’re thinking Fish/Buckley then Ignatieff would be a good choice. But “interdisciplinary across institutions” makes it sound like they want an academic’s academic – Tilly, West, Hirschman, Sen, Kauffman, Nussbaum, Hacking, all good choices. Evelyn Fox Keller anyone?

Hilary Putnam is thoughtful, brilliant and clear-speaking, at least in seminars and books. Didn’t know about the Hilbert background though – thanks, Pedro!


fyreflye 05.28.05 at 8:11 pm

Another vote for Douglas Hofstadter; or perhaps his sometime collaborator Daniel Dennett. Stepping away from tenure track academia how about science historian/publisher/science and reason promoter/limitations of human perception authority/SA columnist/tv host Michael Shermer?


Chris Clarke 05.28.05 at 9:09 pm


monboddo 05.28.05 at 9:29 pm

D. N. McCloskey — brilliant economic historian who has smart things to say about rhetoric and, um, boundary-crossing…

Richard Posner is another obvious choice.


spiderman 05.28.05 at 9:47 pm

Ward Churchill?


A Pedant 05.29.05 at 11:40 am

I also admire Putnam but he didn’t ‘solve’ Hilbert’s 10th problem. He contributed to work which established a condition for its being insoluble. In 1970 this condition was found to obtain, as a corollary to Matyasevich’s Theorem, proving that the problem is insoluble.


Jake 05.29.05 at 12:58 pm

As regards Chomsky, it’s been suggested that his linguistic views derive from his political views via Cartesianism. I’m too lazy to go and look up the exact argument now, but as I recall Chomsky decided that his politics required a Cartesian viewpoint, which then became the framework upon which he hung his linguistic postulates — postulates which unfortunately have turned out to be wrong in most cases.

As regards Kieran’s question, Richard Powers, perhaps. And, ironically* enough, this very day I am reading _After Bakhtin_, so I also nominate David Lodge.

*in a Morrisettean sense


Douglass Carmichael 05.29.05 at 8:55 pm

So many of these are fairly old. Always good to give the younger a chance. I might try phillip mirowski, author of machine dreams: how economics became a cyborg science. Wonderful writer, deeply educated, and with a real theme. Very cross boundary.


Walt Pohl 05.30.05 at 1:23 am

A pendant: People frequently include “prove unsolvable” under the rubric of “solve”, particularly in relation to Hilbert’s 10th Problem.


Zackary Sholem Berger 05.30.05 at 9:15 am

I’m surprised no one has yet mentioned Neal Stephenson.


seth edenbaum 05.30.05 at 10:49 am

Clifford Geertz

“William Buckley!?”


bm 05.30.05 at 12:15 pm

donna haraway?
maybe denise caruso, not herself a scientist, but . . .


clew 05.30.05 at 4:24 pm

William Calvin


A. Pedant 05.30.05 at 4:51 pm

Walt: If you claimed to have solved all my problems and when I asked you what you meant you told me that you had discovered that they were insoluble, I think I would have a right to feel pissed off. But my pedantry (or “pendantry” – sorry, but you knew I was pedantic) did not extend to this. My point was that, on either of our definitions of “solve”, Putnam did not do it.


Nicholas Gruen 05.31.05 at 2:58 am

Deirdre McCloskey – she is an economist/economic historian. What else is she?


grace pettigrew 05.31.05 at 6:15 pm

Stephen Boyden (now retired professor ANU) has been holding the banner aloft for interdisciplinary studies since the 1970’s – see here for interview with Frank Fenner


Lesley Smith 06.01.05 at 10:54 am

How about Julie-Thompson-Klein? A major and influential theorist of interdisciplinarity…

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