Sunday, May 14, 2017

[Yasmin_discussions] Consilience

Dear Per Luigi,

Thank you for the art*science conference announcement.

This is a modest footnote on the history of the concept and word "consilience." While Edward Wilson's book Consilience was a wonderful book, the idea is not his. The term predates Wilson by more than a century and a half. The creator was William Whewell, the British philosopher who also coined the term "scientist." You wrote:


3) There is much current discussion these days of initiatives to integrate the arts/design/humanities into science/engineering/medecine - sometimes called "Stem to Steam" in the USA. This is a very old historical discussion on the need for inter/trans-disciplinary problem driven research. [See Ed Wilson's 1998 idea of "consilience" (, which was criticised for its reductive and unifying approach, and Slingerland and Collard 2011 book ( which emphasised that integration of ways of knowing does not imply unification].


The Oxford English Dictionary defines consilience in this way:

Consilience "The fact of 'jumping together' or agreeing; coincidence, concurrence; said of the accordance of two or more inductions drawn from different groups of phenomena." (1840) (Oxford English Dictionary 2013: unpaged)

Oxford English Dictionary. 2013. Oxford English Dictionary. Online edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. URL:

Whewell wrote:

"…cases in which inductions from classes of facts altogether different have thus jumped together, belong only to the best established theories which the history of science contains. And, as I shall have occasion to refer to this particular feature in their evidence, I will take the liberty of describing it by a particular phrase; and will term it the Consilience of Inductions." (Whewell 1840: II, 230)

"Such coincidences, or consiliences… are the test of truth." (Whewell 1847: II, 582)

Whewell, Wiliam. 1840. The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, Founded Upon Their History. In two volumes. London: John W. Parker.

Whewell, Wiliam. 1847. The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, Founded Upon Their History, 2nd edition. In two volumes. London: John W. Parker.

In reviving the term and developing it in a modern context, Wilson wrote:

"…a conviction, far deeper than a mere working proposition, that the world is orderly and can be explained by a small number of natural laws." (Wilson 1999: 4-5)

Wilson, Edward O. 1999. Consilience. The Unity of Knowledge. New York: Vintage Books

While some people did indeed criticize Wilson's position as reductive, I see his perspective as unifying. Wilson has long been controversial, and some of the criticism directed at Consilience was left over from earlier debates on other topics.

In one sense, Wilson is saying that there a hierarchy of natural laws governs what may or may not be possible in many fields. No matter how innovative an engineer may be, there is no way to defeat the laws of thermodynamics, and therefore no way to create a perpetual motion machine.

The interesting questions in science and the arts arise where we generate ideas that involve issues that may or may not depend on more fundamental laws. For example, the economist Nicholas Georgescu-Rogen applied the entropy law to economics — many economists see this as a major intellectual contribution to the field, while others disagree with it. Isaac Asimov made interesting use of the problem in a science fiction novel titled The Gods Themselves in which an exchange of energy between two universes seems to provide free energy in one of them, but does not. In pure fiction, of course, wizards can summon energy by naming it — though the brilliant author Ursula Le Guin places limits on wizardly actions that parallel physical law. In Le Guin's Earthsea series, therefore, wise practitioners of the magic arts do nothing that is not needful.

Physical law requires consilience in our universe — this may not be so in fiction, though writers can play with the concept to interesting effect.

At any rate, consilience is an idea with a long history and many uses.



Ken Friedman, PhD, DSc (hc), FDRS | Editor-in-Chief | 设计 She Ji. The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation | Published by Tongji University in Cooperation with Elsevier | URL:

Chair Professor of Design Innovation Studies | College of Design and Innovation | Tongji University | Shanghai, China ||| University Distinguished Professor | Centre for Design Innovation | Swinburne University of Technology | Melbourne, Australia
Yasmin_discussions mailing list

Yasmin URL:

SBSCRIBE: click on the link to the list you wish to subscribe to. In the page that will appear ("info page"), enter e-mail address, name, and password in the fields found further down the page.
HOW TO UNSUBSCRIBE: on the info page, scroll all the way down and enter your e-mail address in the last field. Enter password if asked. Click on the unsubscribe button on the page that will appear ("options page").
TO ENABLE / DISABLE DIGEST MODE: in the options page, find the "Set Digest Mode" option and set it to either on or off.
If you prefer to read the posts on a blog go to