[Translate to Englisch:] Portrait von Prof. Dr. Jan C. Schmidt
More than a mere buzzword

Physicist and philosopher Jan Cornelius Schmidt on interdisciplinarity as the key to the pressing issues of our times

An interview by Kilian Kirchgeßner, 2.6.2022

impact: Professor Schmidt, does it bother you that interdisciplinarity is often seen as a mere buzzword?

Professor Jan C. Schmidt: No, quite the opposite: It’s very exciting to take this concept, reflect on it and also accentuate it. There is nothing more boring than purely intra-scientific or inner-academic  concepts – although they often stand for exciting topics, they lack societal impact.

impact: What relevance does “interdisciplinarity” have? Is there any impact on science or society at large?

Schmidt: Just consider the pandemic, the climate crisis or the urgent problems in energy systems: these are prime examples of topics that can only be solved in an interdisciplinary way. Against this backdrop, the concept of interdisciplinarity can serve to initiate and stimulate discussions about which topics we researchers want to explore for society at large. And about what we want and need to know in order to prepare our society for a good – and indeed sustainable – future.

impact: You have an academic background in both the natural sciences and the humanities. What did you originally study at university?

Schmidt: I originally studied physics. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, physics was considered the leading fundamental science. But all efforts to think beyond physics had little chance at universities at that time. Physics was very narrowly defined and determined by the curriculum. But that was exactly what made me curious, and therefore I also studied philosophy. I wanted to really understand what nature is and what we can say about it. My motivation here was also greatly influenced by the environmental issues and the related debate in the 1980s, where several catastrophes – from Chernobyl to the Sandoz accident, from the hole in the ozone layer to forest dieback – substantially questioned the belief that scientific and technical progress are also automatically social progress.

impact: There is a wide arc from physics to philosophy, also in terms of content. Does interdisciplinarity always have to bridge such a vast distance?

Schmidt: There is an important distinction, namely, that between small and big interdisciplinarity. Small interdisciplinarity is, for example, that between physics and mathematics or between computer science and biology. But for me, big interdisciplinarity is particularly important. For centuries, we have had a functional differentiation in science and academia that has been very successful – but it has forgotten to take a holistic or integrative view. This has an adverse effect not only on fundamental knowledge goals but also on organisational challenges and solutions to complex problems. Environmental and sustainability issues, the unintended side effects of technologies, the ecological and economic dimensions of new value chains – all this requires a broad thematic and at the same time critical approach, and this is precisely what big interdisciplinarity pursues when it is practised properly.

impact: But nobody really continues to doubt, do they, that the major problems and grand challenges facing us today can only be solved by putting our heads together across disciplinary boundaries?

Schmidt: No, and that’s something which also strikes me: the extent to which environmental issues and the sustainability crisis have taken root across society at large in the past ten years and how much inter- and transdisciplinarity have become en vogue in science – I wouldn’t have expected that. Incidentally, there are both positive, but also negative sides to this boom. The positive side is that funding policy for science has become increasingly geared towards it, in Germany as well as in the European context. In the past, interdisciplinary projects often failed because they didn’t fit into the academic silos. And a push to change universities has emerged – a positive development that we must reinforce and support.

impact: And what are the negative consequences?

Schmidt: People have frequently lost sight of the tradition of interdisciplinarity: the critical – also self-critical! – tradition, namely of questioning how research is conducted and which questions are addressed. And also how nature and societal relations to nature are seen and ought to be seen. Instead, a truncated, instrumental understanding of interdisciplinarity has crystallised that is above all concerned with delivering supposedly quick solutions to problems. Of course, it’s important to tackle the urgent problems. But the original meaning of interdisciplinarity is being overlooked in the process: the critique and self-critique of scientific expertise, of guiding rationalities, of views of nature as an external resource purely at the disposal of humans. Our sustainability crisis is, after all, a fundamental cultural crisis and thus also a crisis of scientific and academic culture. You cannot solve problems with the same rationality with which they arose. Science and academia must open up further, break out of their silo thinking – the boundary between science and society must become more permeable. Originally, the term interdisciplinarity in the 1970s was based on the assumption – let’s remember – that there was not only a sector-based environmental crisis, but that we were also dealing with a cultural and social crisis.

impact: That sounds like noble objectives. What specific role can your department in Darmstadt play in implementing it?

Schmidt: In general, universities of applied sciences, such as h_da, have an advantage compared to classic universities because they haven’t isolated themselves so much from society and are not so caught up in silo thinking as others. Their overall orientation has always included a strong transfer component. Today, we also talk about third mission, the additional task of universities towards society, for example in sustainability transformation.

impact: Please feel free to be a little more specific. What are you doing in your field of research, in philosophy of science and philosophy of technology?

Schmidt: I always have societal and academic practice in mind. In the past 20 years, we have been substantially involved in ‘technology and society’ projects, in nanotechnology, in the field of synthetic biology and today also in artificial intelligence and machine learning, where work is being conducted everywhere in an inter- and transdisciplinary way, and these processes have to be organised. I’m currently also involved in the project “System Innovation for Sustainable Development”, for which colleagues in my faculty have raised considerable funding in cooperation with other faculties. In this project, we’re promoting sustainable development throughout the whole region together with stakeholders. When the concept of inter- and transdisciplinarity came up in the initial phase, we offered training measures to promote these ideas and make collaboration easier in practice.

impact: Is regionality a key to turning this big concept of interdisciplinarity into concrete practice?

Schmidt: It’s by all means one of the possibilities. We call it “stakeholder involvement”, meaning that it’s about bringing local actors on board in order to achieve specific objectives. For example, if roofs are to be grassed or planted, if an urban gardening project is to be launched, if valuable building materials are to be salvaged from demolished buildings and used again – regionality offers tremendous potential for all these topics.

impact: It sounds as if there is also a “but”.

Schmidt: That’s correct. Because stakeholder involvement, this regionality, is just one aspect. Interdisciplinarity is at the same time about overarching issues for which other, supra-regional stakeholders have to be brought on board so that sustainability problems do not arise in the first place. Questions about energy production, about the use of rare earths or even very specifically about materials that we can use to make particularly efficient rotor blades for wind turbines – these are important, and the regional framework is frequently insufficient. And if you want to prevent sustainability problems from arising in the first place, you have to actively shape science and technology because it is these which have helped to create many of the problems in the past – think of nuclear energy, the chemicals industry or the mobility sector.

impact: In your book, which has just been published, you also classify interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity…

Schmidt: ….and that’s an important aspect for me. One of the main chapters is concerned with how we cognitively contrive and constitute nature and humans’ relations to nature: Do we see nature as a machine that can be fully repaired? Or do we assume that nature has an intrinsic value, an inherent dignity? These fundamental natural philosophy questions played a major role in the original discussion on sustainability and the environment, and I still find them significant. As early as 1979, Hans Jonas, one of the great biophilosophers and environmental ethicists of the 20th century, emphasised in his book “The Imperative of Responsibility” that we need to develop new societal relations to nature. It was clear back then that we must develop a completely different concept of nature than often appears today. To me, this fundamental transformation in society’s view of nature and the environment seems more crucial than ever.

impact: Namely?

Schmidt: We focus too one-sidedly on efficiency revolutions and neglect sufficiency revolutions. We assume that we can solve pressing issues by developing more efficient technologies and through corresponding economic growth. If, by contrast, we speak of sufficiency revolutions, it becomes clear that the sustainability crisis is a cultural crisis. In the past, there was the slogan “Living well instead of having much” – and it’s precisely this aspect that we often overlook. This is where I see great potential for sustainability.

impact: In the academic community, interdisciplinarity has managed to progress from an outsider topic to the heart of the debate. What happens next as far as this topic is concerned, what is your prediction?

Schmidt: Uwe Schneidewind, the former president of the Wuppertal Institute, once spoke of a “climate change at universities”, and he meant this in a dual sense: in terms of content with a view to the topic of climate, but also with regard to the question of how we organise science and education, namely, how academic culture develops. In Germany, we are still heavily guided by the principle of disciplinary subjects and faculty cultures and not geared towards the horizon of societal problems. I assume that universities, including the universities of applied sciences, will change even more, indeed that they will have to, because the challenging problems of climate change, sustainability and energy continue to make inroads and are exerting a lot of pressure on society. We can and must avail ourselves of both the challenges as well as the opportunities. Purely technology-based thinking falls short here, as does purely social scientific thinking. Instead, we need to realign and revise the cultural foundations of academia, of science and education, of economy and society – and that brings us to the very heart of big interdisciplinarity.

About inter- and transdisciplinarity

Distinguishing between different types of interdisciplinarity has become common practice: we talk of strong or big interdisciplinarity when natural sciences and engineering sciences collaborate with social sciences or humanities. Weak or small interdisciplinarity is when, for example, physicists work together with computer scientists, or materials scientists with biotechnologists.

Interdisciplinarity is further defined by connecting elements or integrated activities: when scientists explore a topic together – be it nano-objects or questions about the cosmos – we speak of object-oriented interdisciplinarity. If methods are transferred between disciplines (such as in bionics, where technology learns from biological solutions) or if joint methods are developed, this is called method-oriented interdisciplinarity. Common theories, such as theories of self-organisation, complexity and chaos, which are central, for example, to artificial intelligence and machine learning, see to the greatest level of integration. In these cases, we speak of theory-oriented interdisciplinarity.

If, beyond that, it is a question of social and ethical challenges such as climate change or the transformation of the energy system, integration lies in developing a common understanding of problems and solutions – this is then known as problem-oriented interdisciplinarity. Occasionally, we also speak here of transdisciplinarity, especially when non-academic stakeholders from practice are involved, be it from business, politics or civil society. This makes it clear that problem-oriented interdisciplinarity plays a special role, which is increasingly opening up research and teaching towards society.


Further reading: Schmidt, J. (2021). Philosophy of Interdisciplinarity: Studies in Science, Society and Sustainability. Routledge, London. 



Michaela Kawall
University Communication 
Tel.:  +49.6151.16-38503
Email: michaela.kawall@h-da.de

About Jan Cornelius Schmidt

Jan Cornelius Schmidt holds a doctoral degree in physics and a postdoctoral degree (Habilitation) in philosophy. He teaches philosophy of science, philosophy of technology, technology assessment and sustainability ethics at Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences. After studying physics, he first joined the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy and then worked at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Technological Research at the Technical University of Darmstadt, after which he went to the Georgia Institute of Technology in the USA as an associate professor. He has held visiting professorships in Jena, Klagenfurt and Vienna. His new book, Philosophy of Interdisciplinarity. Studies in Science, Society and Sustainability”, has just been published.