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The Second Essential Tension: on Tradition and Innovation in Interdisciplinary Research


In his analysis of “the essential tension between tradition and innovation” Thomas S. Kuhn focused on the apparent paradox that, on the one hand, normal research is a highly convergent activity based upon a settled consensus, but, on the other hand, the ultimate effect of this tradition-bound work has invariably been to change the tradition. Kuhn argued that, on the one hand, without the possibility of divergent thought, fundamental innovation would be precluded. On the other hand, without a strong emphasis on convergent thought, science would become a mess created by continuous theory changes and scientific progress would again be precluded. On Kuhn’s view, both convergent and divergent thought are therefore equally necessary for the progress of science. In this paper, I shall argue that a similar fundamental tension exists between the demands we see for novel insights of an interdisciplinary nature and the need for established intellectual doctrines founded in the classical disciplines. First, I shall revisit Kuhn’s analysis of the essential tension between tradition and innovation. Next, I shall argue that the tension inherent in interdisciplinary research between, on the one hand, intellectual independence and critical scrutiny and, on the other hand, epistemic dependence and trust is a complement to Kuhn’s essential tension within mono-disciplinary science between convergent and divergent thought.

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  1. Kuhn’s version of this mechanism has been analyzed in detail by Hoyningen-Huene (1992). Further developments on cognitive division of labor can be found in the works of, among others, Kitcher (1990), D'Agostino (2008), de Langhe (2010), and de Langhe and Greiff (2010). Analyses of concrete cases of distribution of latent differences in the scientific community can be found in Andersen (2009) and the publications of the Andersen et al. (2006).

  2. As argued by Hoyningen-Huene (1992, p. 235) such latent differences can be caused by different criteria for concept use, different interpretations of values, or differential identification with the reigning views. See also Andersen (2009) for a detailed case study of latent conceptual differences and their importance for the reaction to anomalies.

  3. For overviews of this development, see e.g. Beaver and Rosen (1978); Beaver and Rosen (1979a, b); Thagard (2006); Wray (2002, 2006).

  4. See also Andersen and Wagenknecht (forthcoming) for a detailed analysis of epistemic dependence in interdisciplinary groups.

  5. For a detailed argument, see Andersen (2010) as well as Andersen and Wagenknecht (forthcoming).


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I would like to thank the Danish Council for Independent Research | Humanities for funding for the project “Philosophy of Contemporary Science in Practice” and to Brian Hepburn for valuable comments to an earlier version of this paper.

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Correspondence to Hanne Andersen.

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Andersen, H. The Second Essential Tension: on Tradition and Innovation in Interdisciplinary Research. Topoi 32, 3–8 (2013).

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  • Thomas S. Kuhn
  • Paradigm
  • Incommensurability
  • Scientific community
  • Epistemic dependence
  • Interdisciplinarity