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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