Larry Solum on Interdisciplinary Ignorance

book23a.jpgLarry Solum (law, Illinois) has a terrific post about interdisciplinary work in law. Unlike the typical simplistic calls for more PhDs in law, Solum’s post delves into the issue of interdisciplinary knowledge in a much deeper way. He argues that legal academics need at least basic competence in normative legal theory, law and economics, empirical legal methods, positive political theory and attitudinalism, and social science and history. He notes that merely having a PhD is unlikely to bring knowledge of this diverse array of fields. Moreover, Solum says, “[i]nterdisciplinary ignorance is a two way street.” Experts in other disciplines also struggle with being interdisciplinary. He concludes: “As a consequence, the legal academy continues to reinforce interdisciplinary ignorance. As a profession, we are failing badly in the training of future legal academics.”

I generally agree with Solum’s post, but I think that one of the difficulties today is that there is so much to know about so many things that it is hard to be the “renaissance” generalist. That said, however, there are wonderful virtues in being a generalist, in being able to combine insights from different fields which are becoming increasingly fractured and insular.

A quick band-aid to the problem is for organize a conference designed as an intensive week-long continuing legal education “seminar,” with each day consisting of training in a given interdisciplinary field. At best, however, there are not enough hours in the day for law professors to gain cutting-edge expertise in such a wide array of fields. Law professors might be able to gain competence in other disciplines, but deep expertise is difficult in multiple disciplines. Maybe the academic of the future will have the assistance of a computer chip integrated into his or her brain, but it will probably take some kind of development like that to allow generalists to be experts in multiple domains. Until that time, however, we’ll probably have to settle for being generalists with only a very basic understanding of other fields. But Solum is right that we can certainly do better.

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8 Responses

  1. Nate Oman says:

    There is one other issue that Larry has not touched on: The strangle hold that Harvard, Yale and a few other fellow travellers have on producing the legal academics who get hired.

    It seems to me that Berkley’s Jurisprudence and Social Policy Ph.D program was designed to provide precisely the kind of transdisciplinary training that Larry is calling for. I actually decided early on that I wanted to be a law professor when I grew up, and I looked very seriously at the JSP program, which a good friend of mine had graduated it. My conclusion was that it was probably the correct model intellectually, but that my chances of actually getting an academic job were better if I went to Harvard and did the tradtional law review-clerkship route, which is what I did.

    So long as hiring committees rely disproporionately on the traditional signals of scholarlly potential rather than looking at intellectual skill set, we’ll have this problem. Furthermore, there is a real sense in which the institutions that could really change things — ie Harvad, Yale, and the other law schools that produce the lions share of professors — have no real incentive to work on solving the problem. After all, their graduates are already getting law prof jobs if they want them.

    Hence, we are stuck with a set of educational institutions and practices that were designed — literally — to fit the jurisprudential world-view of Christopher Columbus Langdell, one of the few universally reviled figures in the intellectual history of the law. No body claims to be a Langdellian any more, yet we all work within Langdell’s institutional system.

  2. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    The dilemma here is that while the need for transdisciplinary knowledge (seeing the big picture, the proverbial forest) is most urgent, it appears incontrovertible that knowldedge domains/fields of inquiry in both the natural and social sciences are more complex than ever, one bit of evidence being the internal fragmentation of disciplinary domains into suf-fields and specialties (Nicholas Rescher has written about this in several books). Disciplinary socialization and professionalization still amount to epistemic specialization, such that very few if any incentives exist to venture outside one’s own discipline. More ambitious and reflective types, and typically perched on the secure branch of tenure, are the ones lamenting this state of affairs, and rightly so. Still, there does not seem to be an easy solution here. Avowedly inter-or transdisciplinary programs risk generating teachers/scholars who are ‘jacks of all trades and masters of none.’

    I’m intimately acquainted with the ins and outs of this dilemma inasmuch as I’ve actively endeavored to educate myself in not a few fields outside of the one I was trained in. Toward that autodidactic end, I’ve been generating bibliographies (see, for instance, and of course only with regard to law, several of my contributions [more forthcoming] to PrawfsBlawg’s ‘canons research’ project) to guide my reading and research, whereupon one soon learns the immense amount of material ‘out there’ that one should master if one is to be fairly conversant in a discipline’s discourse.

    Of course I persevere regardless, believing some sort of intellectual responsibility prompts one to remove disciplinary blinders (I don’t use this word in a purely pejorative sense, after all, there are good reasons to fit the horse with same) on occasion. But anyone embarking on such a venture should be apprised as to the arduousness of the task that awaits them….

  3. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    erratum corrected: ‘sub-fields’

  4. Frank says:

    I like all that’s been said above. Patrick, thanks for mentioning Rescher, who looks like a real polymath:

    Is there any particular work of his you’d recommend on this problem?

    I’ve always thought of the “fragmentation issue” in terms of Habermas’s complaint about the fragmentation of the lifeworld. Habermas suggested sotto voce that a philosophical perspective may be the best candidate for unifying the diverse fields of knowledge. I think that makes sense, so long as philosophy here is conceived in the broadest sense, and not simply as some subfield like analytic philosophy.

  5. newprof says:

    It’s not clear to me what Solum is saying; either he believes that law professors should somehow turn themselves into experts in several additional fields (which would take years of further graduate education) or he believes that law professors should aim to get a smattering of knowledge in several fields (which is pretty close to the status quo). Either way, I think he underestimates the difficulty of doing really good, truly interdisciplinary work (this observation runs close to Patrick’s). Scholars whose work genuinely spans two fields often spend a great deal of time training in both disciplines (think of economic historians who ought to know a great deal of economics and history, or philosophers of science who have graduate-level training in a scientific field as well as philosophy, or heck, JD/PhDs). And scholars who operate well in more than two fields are almost nonexistent (maybe D. McCloskey?). So legal scholars should be wary of any call to become experts in a multitude of fields; it sounds to me like a recipe for a lot of very bad, shallow interdisciplinary work.

  6. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:


    Thanks for asking, as I welcome an excuse/reason to discuss Rescher. First, permit me to say that his work in the philosophy of science and epistemology (‘cognitive pragmatism’) is quite compelling if not utterly persuasive. Any one of three books would probably suffice for a discussion of the above ‘problem,’ as the treatment is rather repetitive, at least on this topic:

    The Limits of Science (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999 ed.)

    Nature and Understanding: The Metaphysics and Method of Science (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 2000)

    Epistemology: An Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2003).

    I agree with you (and Habermas) about the role of philosophy here for unifying these fields (and, as you suggest, neither ‘analytic’ philosophy [which, after all, is about ‘method’] nor necessarily even ‘scientistic’ philosophy [a la naturalism], will do, but philosophy generously conceived, much like classical Greek philosophy (as understood, say, by a Nussbaum or Hadot; such philosophy does not rule out a religious or spiritual orientation in the sense used by the late Iris Murdoch, by John Cottingham, or by Joel Kupperman). And that philosophy may co-coexist with other ‘unifying’ philosophies (at least that’s the lesson I’ve derived from Michael P. Lynch’s Truth in Context: An Essay on Pluralism and Objectivity, 1998, and Hector Neri-Castaneda’s essay, ‘Philosophy as a Science and as a Worldview,’ in Avner Cohen and Marcelo Dascal, eds., The Institution of Philosophy: A Discipline in Crisis?, 1989: 35-60 [not to mention the rather more obscure Jain theory of knowledge]).

  7. Robert Justin Lipkin says:

    If “basic competence” has significance at all, it is unrealistic to suppose a legal academic should have basic competence in the five categories Larry Solum describes. For example, the first category–normative theory if I recall correctly–Larry states: “This requires a basic grounding in the fundamental concepts of moral and political philosophy, metaethics, and analytic jurisprudence. What does “basic grounding” mean? Is it equivalent to one course in each of these areas? Reading one book in each area? What? I have a Ph.D. in philosophy and spent a large part of my time at Princeton (in courses) and three years after leaving Princeton writing a dissertation roughly in this area. It is simply inconceivable to me that Larry’s five categories can be digested even by very smart people unless “basic grounding” simply means a dilettantish familiarity with a particular area. A familiarity that might be more dangerous than ignorance. Larry’s categories might be viewed as an ideal for a legal academic, but I doubt very much whether it is remotely practicable to suggest that legal academics should be knowledgeable in anything more than a trivial manner in all the areas of normative theory let alone in normative theory and the other four categories.

  8. Miriam Cherry says:

    Dan, It would be great to attend a conference / seminar of the type that you propose here. What can be done to make such a thing (or a mini-version of it) happen? Miriam