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For example, one group of scientists may prefer a theory which is more accurate and consistent, while another group of scientists may prefer a theory which seems to be more fruitful for future research. Incommensurability can also have cognitive or perceptual aspects: different specialists may literally see, and therefore conceptualise, the same problem in different ways. It makes little sense to speak of incommensurability in absolute and a-historical terms. Rather, incommensurability should be invoked when different disciplines converge towards the same domain.

In these cases, mere difference can become incompatibility and competition, that is incommensurability. Moreover, incommensurability is not only a linguistic problem preventing successful communication.

Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities

References : Holbrook, J. What is interdisciplinary communication? Reflections on the very idea of disciplinary integration. Synthese , : — Politi, V. Specialisation, interdisciplinarity, and incommensurability. International Studies in the Philosophy of Science , 31 : — He works on philosophical issues concerning scientific change and on the ethics of science.

Thank you very much for this article and this attempt to debunk the metaphoric vagueness of so many concepts that are used in the context of interdisciplinarity.

Understanding Evil

Plenty of other concepts can be analyzed like that: something complicated does not necessarily means something complex; integration of scientific elements from another discipline does not mean that you understand completely these elements; interactions does not mean symmetrical interactions, and so on. ID is familiar with such grandiloquent concepts. In my opinion, it is because ID is a general conception of science linked to an institutional conception, and not an attempt to describe actual or even potential science.

Compared to the multiplicity of situations in science to which ID can be ascribed from the creation of new disciplines, such as genomics, to the basic scientific interest stemming from the listening of a conference of an exogenous discipline , ID seems in the same time too general to distinguish what can be and cannot be counted as ID. This comment follows your general idea : there is plenty of work to do to understand and describe the multifarious interactions in science. But we have to be very careful using general concepts that have been developed as institutional incentives in that respect, ID can be compared with key words such as Innovation ; Nano-technology; Big Data, etc.

The purpose of your article seems to be associated with this approach: once you have let aside this general idea of incommensurability, it becomes possible to analyze real problems of interactions in science: is it possible to use the scientific materials from another discipline without having a background knowledge?

An Interdisciplinary Approach

Is it different to borrow a theory, a concept, a method, data, problems form another disciplines? What is the difference between understanding scientific elements and being able to use them in an appropriate context? An so on…. You put things very well indeed. If you want, check the article on which this post is based Politi, V. International Studies in the Philosophy of Science, — Can you please define each of these terms from your perspective?

You claim that, in principle, everything can be integrated via metaphors. I subscribe to the view for which science is a problem-solving activity. In my view, integration results in a whole which exceeds the sum of its parts, and it does so in order to solve some problems scientifically. I am not sure whether establishing analogies and similitudes via metaphors leads to this sort of result. The construction of metaphors may help in the first stages of ID, but it is not in itself sufficient to guarantee its success.

Furthermore, I feel that the role of metaphors in ID risks to be somehow overstated.

In any case, your point is very interesting and I hope that others will express their views on this issue too. First of all, while incommensurability is the source of disagreement, not every disagreement is caused by incommensurability. Disagreement and dissent are endemic in the scientific practice, even among scientists practicing from within the same paradigm or with the same perspective. Similarly, while incommensurability can express itself through communication problems, not every communication problem is underlied by incommensurability. Sometimes, miscommunication is caused by vagueness or ambiguity, and all it takes to have a successful communication is a bit of clarification.

I do hope my reply clarifies these concepts and thanks a lot again for your contribution to the discussion!


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The main reason I lean towards this all-is-different conclusion is because, in the end, we can integrate anything using metaphor. What do others think? Commensurability or incommensurability is not threatening anymore when one considers the following. Choose for a length and construct a square. What happens is that you have a square with a length of the diagonal incommensurable with the length that you did choose if you choose for the length as unity, you get a length of the diagonal of the root of 2, incommensurable with 1.

What is the difference? You choose a length, you construct something in reality and you get also a length that you cannot choose but that happens in reality. For sure you can choose to use the length of the diagonal to construct a new square. What do you get? A length of the diagonal of the new square incommensurable with what you could choose. There is no difference with interdisciplinary work: all stakeholders choose something and get also something different that could not be chosen by that stakeholder.

The essence is that all stakeholders construct something together in reality and that they accept that also something different will happen that is incommensurable with what they would have chosen. I find this to be a highly problematic post and will only scratch the surface of my concerns in an effort to send readers to more informative sources on this topic. Incommensurability entered the philosophy of science literature through Fleck, Feyerabend, and then, most famously Kuhn For none of them was the sense of the term related to mathematics; for Kuhn, in fact, he chose the term to try to speak to the idea of Gestalt switch — in the sense that to understand a scientific idea as it moves from one paradigm to the next, one must accomplish something like a Gestalt switch to follow it.

In fact, pace Dr. Politi, all three of those thinkers saw incommensurability as operating in a historical and never an ahistorical mathematical context. What Kuhn was pointing out was that the practices cognitive, conceptual, theoretical, physical, technological, and methodological, etc. So when two very different disciplines or successive disciplines separated by a scientific revolution use terms or expressions or ideas that make sense within their approach they are very likely not to make the same sense and sometimes show up as nonsense in other disciplines.

Research resources for understanding and acting on complex real-world problems

This always needs to be paid attention to in ID situations; it may not always be a problem and it may not necessarily appear to be a problem when in fact it is causing mis or impoverished or sloppy understanding and so less than rigorous science , but it can never be resolved by thinking you can stand in some neutral position and translate from one discipline to another because you are standing somewhere too. Incommensurability is a very complicated issue that is important for anyone interested in ID, and I encourage those who are to wade deeply into the writings of Fleck, Feyerabend, and Kuhn to try to get a handle on the issues they were trying to address when they coined this term.

Thank you for expressing your concerns, which will allow me to specify my position a bit better. In the Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn spoke about the Gestalt switch to explain what goes on during a change of paradigm; he got all these ideas from the works in experimental psychology of Bruner and Postman. It must also be considered the fact that, soon after Structure, Kuhn abandoned the talk about Gestalt switches, because he was interested in the dynamics of the community of scientists, not in the psychology of the individual; he did not abandon the talk on incommensurability however.

Having clarified these things, it is also necessary to specify that my post makes references to different things, but this does not mean that it aims at explaining all of them in depth. In my post, I speak about:.


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