Sunday, October 14, 2007

Tevye's Question, the Myth of the Horizontal Organization (Again), Interdisciplinary Work, and Rob Kar's Great Idea

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw

Having just returned from the Midwestern Law and Economics Association conference, and having this morning read Rob Kar's great first post on PrawfsBlawg (what is he going to do for a follow up to that?), I was reminded again of the fundamental question Tevye the Dairyman, the protagonist of The Fiddler on the Roof, raised about interdisciplinary studies.  Tevye, in advising his daughter about the problems of inter-marriage, says "a fish could marry a bird, but where would they live?"

The myth of horizontal organization is that you can keep a business organization dynamic and growing merely by agglomerating value-creating specialties. But if that's the case, it's like fish and birds, and who sees the places where neither of them live? Either everybody is responsible for the gaps between specialties (which means nobody is responsible) or nobody is responsible.

My talk at MLEA dealt in the broadest sense of trying to use algorithmic economic models to map linguistic or moral models.  That is, can you draw legal policy conclusions by trying to cast what the parties mean in a contract into the equations of welfare economics so as to resolve disputes about contract interpretation in an economically efficient way?  While I'd say about 40% of my time on this over the last couple weeks has been devoted to refining the point I was trying to make, the other 60% was devoted to what is essentially translation.  My first attempts, thoughtfully critiqued by colleagues Eric Blumenson and Andy Perlman, were largely cast in terms of the jargon of philosophy of language and cognitive science, and I thought we made great strides in bringing the ideas to a common denominator of relatively plain English (albeit plain English with words I made up).  Nevertheless, I have reason to believe I was not entirely successful (nor unsuccessful) in communicating with the audience. 

On the flip side, there were portions of the conference - mostly those with complex equations - as to which I might as well as been have been listening to a talk in French.  I would have understood enough of the syntax and the occasional words or English cognates to be able to say, with about this level of specificity:  "they are talking, I think, about wine, and either about its price or the tannin levels."

Which brings me back to the subject of Rob Kar's post, about which I have great passion.  He's responding to the response by Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg to the recent convergence of law and evolutionary biology, which they criticized.  Now, again, we have a translation issue, but I read the Leiter/Weisman critique as saying evolutionary biology has yet to show it is capable of shedding light on the "non-plasticity" of behaviors, such that they might be the subject of legal policy.  I interpret non-plasticity as the behavior being fixed, or rigid, or hard-wired, or universal in a particular circumstance, as shown biologically, such that we might have confidence that the generalization in a legal rule is neither under-inclusive or over-inclusive.  I think Rob agrees with that (as do I), but his broader point goes back to how fish and birds, or sub-specialties, might learn to talk to each other, much less live together.

The point is the myth of the horizontal organization.  A new discipline that fits in between the cracks of the old ones needs to adopt its own rigorous standards, but they won't be the standards of any of the contributing disciplines.  I particularly took to heart Rob's inclusion of the philosophy of science and an analogy to meta-ethical thinking in the mix of disciplines that might inform this venture.   Particularly as to the latter, without a good dose of thinking about thinking, the project will never be more than the sum of its parts.

Comparative Professions, Conferences & Symposia, Economics, Lipshaw | Permalink

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