Archive for September, 2008

Wholeness Manifesto–Preamble…

A specter is haunting Academia -the specter of the Whole.  All the powers of Academia have entered into an unholy alliance to exorcise this specter:  Disciplinarity and Specialization, Professionalization and Commercialization, Institutionalization and Governmentality.

Where is the party in opposition that has not been decried as proponents of New Age holism, cheap integralism, or homogenized sophism?  Where is the opposition that has not hurled back the branding reproach of “homogenizer,” against the more advanced opposition parties, as well as against its reactionary adversaries.

Two things result from this fact:

  1. The Whole is already acknowledged by all Academic powers to be itself a power.
  2. It is high time that seekers of wisdom and wholeness should openly, in the face of the entire fragmented and broken world, publish their views, their aims, their tendencies, and meet this nursery tale of the Specter of the Whole with a manifesto of the party (which cannot be one) itself.

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Transdisciplinarity: Declaration of Independents (or, better, Interdependents)!

We’re coming to the end of the presidential election season here in the U.S.  As usual, the race is a close one and will very likely be decided by independent voters.  In fact, “independent” is the nation’s largest “political party”—more registered voters identify themselves as independent than either Republican or Democrat.  According to a recent Pew Research Center poll of registered voters, 27% identified themselves Republican, and 36% identified themselves as Democrats.  That means 37% of registered voters consider themselves independents!  (Not to mention those voters who registered in one of the two major parties but still vote independently.)

Back in January of this year, Stanley Fish lamented this state of affairs in his always-provocative New York Times blog, Think Again (“Against Independent Voters”).  In that piece, Fish, Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor and a professor of law at Florida International University, and dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, complained that the idea that independent voters are (or are even seen to be) smarter, more reflective, more serious voters than party partisans is all wrong.  He writes:

The assumption is that if we were all independent voters, the political process would be in much better shape.

This seems to me to be a dubious proposition, especially if the word “political” in the phrase “political process” is taken seriously. Those who yearn for government without politics always invoke abstract truths and moral visions (the good life, the fair society, the just commonwealth) with which no one is likely to disagree because they have no content. But sooner rather than later someone gives these abstractions content, and when that happens, definitional disputes break out immediately, and after definitional disputes come real disputes, the taking of sides, the applying of labels (both the self-identifying kind and the accusing kind) and, pretty soon, the demonization of the other. In short, politics, which is what independent voters hate.

Not so.  At least it is not so in my case nor in the case of any of the independents I talk politics with.  We tend to think that it’s the parties that quash politics, not the other way around.  Parties hate politics.  Look at the punishments meted out by the national parties to non-compliant states that move their primary dates to be “more competitive”–in other words, to have more of a role in the politics of selecting a nominee for their party.  Look at the energetic efforts at re-districting that go on in order to reduce competition in local politics.  Look at the strong-arm tactics parties use to get “difficult” candidates out of the race before, heaven forbid, someone votes for them.  Look at the censorship that goes on every four years during the national conventions, quashing participation by party members with dissenting points of view on this or that issue.

When Fish’s piece was published, I had a lot more to say about it.  The point I’d like to make here is that there seems to me an analogy between the way Fish looks at independents in politics and the way many academics, administrators and faculty alike, tend to look at research and learning.  Academia functions in a sort of a party system.  It is not a two party system—in fact, there are hundreds and hundreds (at least!) of parties—namely, the disciplines, sub-disciplines, and sub-sub-disciplines that make up the academic institutional landscape.  And it might be that those of us advocating for transdisciplinarity might be viewed in a similar way as Fish views independent voters.

Let me paraphrase Fish, substituting transdisciplinary ideas for independent political ones:

“Those who yearn for academia without the stranglehold of disciplines always invoke abstract truths and moral visions (wisdom, the whole, wholeness, integral knowledge, the unity or “symphony” of knowledge, synthesis, metaphysical vision, etc.) with which no one is likely to disagree because they have no content. But sooner rather than later someone gives these abstractions content, and when that happens, definitional disputes break out immediately, and after definitional disputes come real disputes, the taking of sides, the applying of labels (both the self-identifying kind and the accusing kind) and, pretty soon, the demonization of the other. In short, discipline, which is what transdisciplinary proponents hate.”

The honest transdisciplinarian ought to feel the twinge of recognition in these charges—and the situation might even be worse.  In fact, I think there are factions who do disagree with these aims, not only because they may “have no content” but also because they may be dangerous ideas.  Certainly, it sets a challenge:  what do wisdom, wholeness, synthesis, and the unity of knowledge really mean?  Would pursuit of these aims blur disciplinary distinctions, homogenize our knowledge into a “least-common-denominator” gruel, leaving us without sharp distinctions and clear ideas?

Just as Fish presents a caricature of the independent voter, this academic paraphrase gives us only a caricature of what transdisciplinarity is all about.  Yes, there may be independent voters guilty as charged by Fish, and we at Metanexus have run into more than our fair share of ten-page “theories of everything” that are supposed to answer all of humanity’s questions once and for all (but are nothing but nonsense).  But the transdisciplinarians I know from all around the world love to engage in definitional disputes.  They do “take sides”—just not along established disciplinary lines.  Watching the television ads this election cycle (any election cycle) provides enough evidence that in politics the two parties demonize each other, and independents do tend to hate that.  But in academia, the same thing happens.  Witness the absurd and embarrassing battles between “Continental” and “Analytic” philosophy, or how pro- and anti-string-theorists will write about each other.  Not to mention the now tedious “battle between science and religion” that goes on in the popular press (but that generally—at least at that level—exhibits very little in the way of thought or insight).  Academic politics can be brutal!  But not necessarily just in cases where, as Henry Kissinger was purported to have said, “so little is at stake,” but also when so much is at stake—namely, the truth about how things are.

But the transdisciplinarians I know are the least likely to “demonize” their colleagues with whom they have disagreements.  They are most likely to be open to genuine collaboration and fruitful dialogue.  They are least likely to get caught up in academic “turf wars” and most likely to reap the benefits (and the pleasures) of intellectual (and spiritual) community.

And just like the independent voters will likely decide the outcome of the next presidential election, which is, I suppose, of some importance, it will be the transdisciplinarians who will determine the “outcome” of our common quest for knowledge and wisdom—which is of paramount importance.  Transdisciplinarians are independent minded scholars and researchers, no doubt.  But it is more accurate to say that they are interdependent minded, rigorously trained participants in their own spheres of expertise but cognizant of the fact that the pursuit of the whole requires the work of all of us—from every discipline, from every sphere of authority and expertise, and from every sort of academic, religious, civic, and cultural institution.  Transdisciplinarians know they have to undertake the hard intellectual and spiritual work (but no less enjoyable and enriching for all of that) to discover (or re-discover) for themselves and future generations “how things hang together,” how to rightly pursue the unity of knowledge, and how to seek wisdom.

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On transdisciplinarity

What is transdisciplinarity? Those of us who are interested in finding solutions to (or at least ways of coping with) thefragmentationof knowledge (and thus the university, and thus the human person, and thus our communities, and thus our world) had better get working on this question in earnest.   Here’s some advice from D. M. Armstrong, who is thinking about Socrates’ and G. E. Moore’s “Paradox of Analysis.”   The problem, according to them, is this:

If we ask what sort of thing an X is (a right act, a law of nature…) then either we know what an X is, or we do not.   If we know, then there is no need to ask the question.   If we do not know, then there is no way to begin the investigation.   The enquiry is either pointless or impossible.

Armstrong answers by saying,

The orthodox, and I think correct, solution of this puzzle is that we do not start with blank ignorance of what an X is.   Instead, we start with an unreflective, unselfconscious or merely practical grasp of the thing.  The philosophical object is to pass from this to an articulate, explicit and reasoned grasp of what an X is.  We do not go from black night to daylight, but from twilight to daylight.

But first we’ve got to make sure there is at least some twilight.  Armstrong again:

In such investigations it is a great advantage, to say the least, if we can securely identify instances of X.  Given such paradigms, we can to some extent tie the enquiry down.  An account of what it is to be an X is suggested by a philosopher.  If we can be sure that a is an X, then we can use other things which we know or believe about a to check the proposed account of X.  But without paradigms the whole business of testing the proposal becomes very much more difficult.

I think a problem for transdisciplinarity is that we are not sure what paradigm cases of transdisciplinary work look like, and so we are unsure how to explicate the methodology (or methodologies) that will reap the benefits of transdisciplinary approaches to research and education.  We may need to triangulate in on a clearer understanding of transdisciplinarity by working back and forth from cases and examples to the “principles” and “theories” we use to explain or “judge” the cases and examples.  As at the ancient Greek-style racetrack that Aristotle refers to in his Nicomachean Ethics, sometimes we run towards the judges and sometimes we run starting out from the judges.

Among the most important “judges”–those working to define the idea of transdisciplinarity–is the group at the International Center for Transdisciplinary Research (CIRET).  You can read the Charter of Transdisciplinarity or an excerpt from physicist and CIRET founder Basarab Nicolescu‘s Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity (SUNY Press, 2002).  At CIRET, there is also a statement of the “moral project” of transdisciplinarity.  A key feature of transdisciplinarity is that it does contain a moral component, which claim itself raises issues for defining and pursuing transdisciplinarity.

But as much as we need the guidance and direction of manifestos, vision statements, and moral imperatives, we need to see the concrete examples of transdisciplinary work bearing fruit.  I believe there are such examples, but the work done under this banner tends to run on “intuition” and “feel”–not necessarily a bad way to go, mind you, but we need to be able to codify to the extent possible how solid transdisciplinary work gets done.  We need to run towards the “first principles” of transdisciplinarity in order to then set out running from them towards profound questions and significant challenges.

Because, to paraphrase Aristotle again, the ultimate point is not to know about transdisciplinarity; it is to research, to teach, and to formulate policies by applying transdisciplinary approaches.


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How to teach the teachers to teach us…?

From Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind (1949):

I, too, believe that humanity is still far from that stage of maturity needed for the realization of its aspirations, for the construction, that is, of a harmonious and peaceful society and the elimination of wars.  Men are not yet ready to shape their own destinies; to control and direct world events, of which–instead–they become the victims.

But although education is recognized as one of the ways of raising mankind, it is nevertheless, still and only, thought of as an education of the mind.  This it is proposed to train on the same lines as of old, without trying to draw upon any new vitalizing and constructive forces.

I do not doubt that philosophy and religion can bring to the task an immense contribution, but how numerous are the philosophers in this ultr-civilized world!  How many have there not been in the past, and how many will there not be in the future?  Noble ideals and high standards we have always had.  They form a great part of what we teach.  Yet warfare and strife show no signs of abating.  And if education is always to be conceived along the same antiquated lines of a mere transmission of knowledge, there is little to be hoped from it in the bettering of man’s future.  For what is the use of transmitting knowledge if the individual’s total development lags behind?  Instead, we must take into account a psychic entity, a social personality, a new world force, innumerable in the totality of its membership, which is at present hidden and ignored.  If help and salvation are to come, they can only come from the children, for the children are the makers of men.

I am not knowledgeable about the “Montessori method,” but there is something unarguable in what she is proposing.  The question is this:  how will help and salvation come from the children?  Who will teach them to teach us?  How will the children learn how to teach us?

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