Incommensurability, plain difference and communication in interdisciplinary research

Integration and Implementation Insights

Community member post by Vincenzo Politi

Vincenzo Politi (biography)

Where does the term incommensurability come from? What is its relevance to interdisciplinarity? Is it more than plain difference? Does incommensurability need to be reconceptualized for interdisciplinarity?

Incommensurability: its origins and relevance to interdisciplinarity

‘Incommensurability’ is a term that philosophers of science have borrowed from mathematics. Two mathematical magnitudes are said to be incommensurable if their ratio cannot be expressed by a number which is an integer. For example, the radius and the circumference of a circle are incommensurable because their ratio is expressed by the irrational number π.

In philosophy of science, the term is used in a metaphorical sense: two competing scientific theories, paradigms or research projects are said to be incommensurable when there is no common ground for their rational comparison and choice. The effects of incommensurability become visible during debates surrounding scientific revolutions, when the…

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