Archive for category Transdisciplinarity

“Nothing can be reduced to anything else…”

From Bruno Latour:

I taught at Gray in the French provinces for a year.  At the end of the winter of 1972, on the road from Dijon to gray, I was forced to stop, brought to my senses after an overdose of reductionism.  A Christian loves a God who is capable of reducing the world to himself because he created it.  A Catholic confines the world to the history of the Roman salvation.  An astronomer looks for the origins of the universe by deducing its evolution from the Big Bang.  A mathematician seeks axioms that imply all the others as corollaries and consequences.  A philosopher hopes to find the radical foundation which makes all the rest epiphenomenal.  A Hegelian wishes to squeeze from events something already inherent in them.  A Kantian reduces things to grains of dust and then reassembles them with synthetic a-priori judgments that are as fecund as a mule.  A French engineer attributes potency to calculations, though these come from the practice of an old-boy network.  An administrator never tires of looking for officers, followers, and subjects.  An intellectual strives to make the “simple” practices and opinions of the vulgar explicit and conscious.  A son of the bourgeoisie sees the simple stages of an abstract cycle of wealth in the vine growers, cellarmen, and bookkeepers.  A Westerner never tires of shrinking the evolution of species and empires to Cleopatra’s nose, Achilles’ heel, and Nelson’s blind eye.  A writer tries to recreate daily life and imitate nature.  A painter is obsessed by the desire to render feelings into colors.  A follower of Roland Barthes tries to turn everything not only into texts but into signifiers alone.  A man likes to use the term “he” in place of humanity.  A militant hopes that revolution will wrench the future from the past.  A philosopher sharpens the “epistemological break” to guillotine those who have not yet “found the sure path of a science.”  An alchemist would like to hold the philosopher’s stone in his hand.

To put everything into nothing, to deduce everything from almost nothing, to put into hierarchies, to command and to obey, to be profound or superior, to collect objects and force them into a tiny space, whether they be subjects, signifiers, classes, Gods, axioms—to have for companions, like those of my caste, only the Dragon of Nothingness and the Dragon of Totality.  Tired and weary, suddenly I felt that everything was still left out.  Christian, philosopher, intellectual, bourgeois, male, provincial, and French, I decided to make space and allow the things which I spoke about the room that they needed to “stand at arm’s length.”  I knew nothing, then, of what I am writing now but simply repeated to myself:  “Nothing can be reduced to anything else, nothing can be deduced from anything else, everything may be allied to everything else.”  This was like an exorcism that defeated demons one by one.  It was a wintry sky, and a very  blue.  I no longer needed to prop it up with a cosmology, put it in a picture, render it in writing, measure it in a meteorological article, or place it on a Titan to prevent it falling on my head.  I added it to other skies in other places and reduced none of them to it, and it to none of them.  It “stood at arm’s length,” fled, and established itself where it alone defined its place and its aims, neither knowable nor unknowable.  It and me, them and us, we mutually define ourselves.  And for the first time in my life I saw things unreduced and set free.

From “Irreductions” in The Pasteurization of France, pp, 162-163. [1988]

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Off to Phoenix for Metanexus Conference


Check here for details.

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A reconciliation between science and religion? Again??

Richard Wolin, in an essay entitled, “Reason vs. Faith: The Battle Continues,” reminds us that

In 1802 Georg W.F. Hegel wrote an impassioned treatise on faith and reason, articulating the major philosophical conflict of the day. Among European intellectual circles, the Enlightenment credo, which celebrated the “sovereignty of reason,” had recently triumphed. From that standpoint, human intellect was a self-sufficient measure of the true, the just, and the good. The outlook’s real target, of course, was religion, which the philosophes viewed as the last redoubt of delusion and superstition. Theological claims, they held, could only lead mankind astray. Once the last ramparts of unreason were breached — our mental Bastilles, as it were — sovereign reason would take command and, presumably, human perfection would not be long in coming.

So…how’s that workin’ out for us?

Not as promised, that’s for sure.  Our manifest failings are blamed, by one camp (“believers”), on the desacralization of the world and the death of a sense of the transcendent, or, by another camp (“nonbelievers”), on the persistence of religious “superstitition” in a scientific world.  Wolin cautions that “A genuine and fruitful dialogue between believers and nonbelievers is impossible unless one takes the standpoint of one’s interlocutor seriously,” which is just what he accuses both those who mourn our slide into secularization (e.g., Charles Taylor) and those who can’t wait for religion to finally go away (Dawkins, Dennett) of failing to do.  What would it be like to take these two opposing viewpoints seriously at the same time?  Wolin does not say.

I am not so sure that the “battle” is between science and religion or between reason and faith.  The “battle” may stem from how much romanticism informs one’s view, whether that view be “religious” or “secular.”  The “battle” may stem from how little anarchism informs one’s “faith” or one’s “reason.”  That is to say, a non-romantic anarchist might not find a “battle” between faith and reason at all….

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It’s the end of the university as we know (and I feel fine)…

My inbox filled up faster than a grad student at a reception for the guest speaker with emails from correspondents alerting me to this pronouncement by Mark C. Taylor, calling graduate education “the Detroit of higher learning.”  Readers of this blog will find nothing new in Taylor’s bill of particulars:  we produce graduates for whom there are no jobs; we use grad students like indentured servants;  the students rack up huge debts; they’re trained to publish articles for journals that no one reads; there is over-specialization and undergraduate education suffers for it; disciplinarity is no longer the effective model for research and learning, yet the system poses obstacles to collaboration; colleagues in the same departments cannot pass informed judgment on each other’s work (if they can even understand it); departments operate independently from the university as a whole and tenured professors are a law unto themselves (Taylor twits us academics for screaming about regulation and oversight  in the financial industry while viciously opposing it on our own campuses); etc., etc.

So, in the immortal words of Lenin, what is to be done? Taylor proposes:

  1. Revise graduate curricula to be cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural.
  2. Abolish permanent departments, and center inquiry around various “zones of inquiry,” such as “Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water. “
  3. Increase collaboration among institutions, using new technologies for educational delivery.
  4. Transform the traditional dissertation (more on this in a moment).
  5. Expand employment options by broadening training.
  6. Implement mandatory retirement and abolish tenure for faculty.

Recommendations #1 and #3 are no-brainers, and, although the humanities lag behind the natural sciences in this respect, progress in these areas is inevitable.  I particularly like #2.  Check out Taylor’s rationale, for instance, for Water as a critical “zone of inquiry.”  There would be specialties, but departments would be ad hoc rather than self-perpetuating.  All in all, the first three recommendations would dovetail nicely with what we’ve been referring to as transdisciplinarity.

Recommendation #4–to transform the traditional dissertation–means, for Taylor, that students should move away from print and learn to produce “theses” in formats such as html, film, even video games.  (I once had a cartoon of a grad student standing in front of the desk of his advisor, proudly presenting his work:  “I’ve been working on a pop-up dissertation!”  I don’t think that’d count as one of the new formats).  Given the way Jacob Weisberg gushes about the Kindle, maybe Taylor is right.  I guess I will have to work on a video game for solving the riddles of non-reductive physicalism….

Recommendation #5 is somewhat less inspired.  Attending grad school, at least in the humanities, means training to be a grad school professor.  Since there are no grad school professorships to be had any more (your advisor will keep her job until they carry her out on a slab), grad students should get training for other types of work in business and nonprofit organizations.  But it does seem like this suggestion admits a certain defeat.  I wonder if Stanley Fish would approve (although, I am sure he would agree with Taylor that things are going the way Taylor describes).  The humanities, says Fish, are of no use whatsoever…but that is their beauty and most valuable feature.  The same would go for basic research, which gets ever-more crowded out by the demand for utility and profit at University, Inc.  I’m not sure I want to throw in the towel just yet, making grad school (and even undergraduate education) solely about job training.

As for recommendation #6, well, good luck with that!  Faculty members:  all in favor, raise your hand!?  This one is like our current economic crisis.  We will patch it, keep the system on the road as much as possible, bury the dead, and try to move on.  But we will not seriously try to change the financial system.  And we will not seriously try to change the educational system.  It’d take a revolution….

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The sound of one hand typing…

According to a metaphor offered by Jacques Maritain, it is either the sound of the poverty of “scientism” on the one hand or the vacuity of “ideosophy” (the unwarranted allegiance to rationalistic categories themselves instead of to the world they are meant to disclose) on the other hand.  Maritain counsels:

What will also be needed…is an uncanny sense of the requirments of that ‘subtle and delicate’ art which consists in distinguishing in order to unite. […] I will simply note that the sciences of nature, all of them, have a hold on the real insofar only as it can be observed (or within the limits of the observable).  [The natural sciences] are all, therefore, equally dependent upon an intellection of an ’empiriological’ order….  They are ‘sciences of phenomena.’  The philosophy of nature, by contrast, is dependent upon a type of intellection which, through the observable, or through signs apprehended in experience, attains the real in its very being, and must be called an intellection of an ontological order (the most natural kind of intellection, to tell the truth; the other kind requires a more particular sort of mental training and discipline).  The functioning of thought, and the conceptual vocabulary, then, are typically different in the sciences of nature and in the philosophy of nature.  The error of antiquity was to believe that the functioning of thought and the conceptual lexicon proper to the philosophy of nature extended to the sciences of nature.  The error of certain modern scientists, insofar as they are in serach of a philosophy, is to believe that the kind of thinking and conceptual vocabulary proper to the sciences of nature can serve to build a philosophy of nature.  We are faced here with two different keyboards.  […] It is first and foremost through such an awareness [of this distinction] […] that […] a philosophy of nature [could be] entirely renewed…. In the team which will work as such a renewal, each man must be able to use (with relative ease) two typewriters, one equipped with a certain keyboard, the other with a quite different keyboard–one that his discipline has made familiar to him, and the other which, as a man of good will, he will have to learn how to use rather late in the day.  The philosophers should know how to use, at least as amateurs, the machine equipped with the scientific keyboard, and the scientists the one equipped with the philosophic keyboard.  May the angels of true knowledge be there to help them!

But what about a theological keyboard (if there really is such a thing)?  Do we actually need three typewriters?  If so, we’ll definitely need each other to act as the “team” Maritain is envisioning.  I am not so sure the “unity of knowledge” is something I can have, but it may be something we can have.

If only our angels would lend us a hand….

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“Some of us should venture to embark on a synthesis…”

I couldn’t agree more!  A colleague sent me this gem from Erwin Schr0edinger (1887-1961), pioneer of quantum mechanics and Nobel Prize winner:

We have inherited from our forefathers the keen longing for unified, all-embracing knowledge.  The very name given to the highest institutions of learning remind us, that from antiquity and throughout many centuries, the universal aspect has been the only one to be given full credit. But the spread, both in width and depth, of the multifarious branches of knowledge by during the last hundred odd years has confronted us with a queer dilemma.

We feel clearly that we are only now beginning to require reliable material for welding together the sum total of all that is known into a whole; but, on the other hand, it has become next to impossible for a single mind to fully command more than a small specialized portion of it. I can see no other escape from this dilemma (lest our true aim be lost for ever) than that some of us should venture to embark on a synthesis of facts and theories, albeit with second-hand and incomplete knowledge of some of them – and at the risk of making fools of ourselves.

From preface to “What is Life?” 1944
Based on a series of lectures given in Dublin in 1943

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I came here (to the University) for an argument…

…or rather for a disputation.  It may be a necessary ingredient for transdisciplinarity and something like the unity of knowledge.  Here’s Josef Pieper:

In the medieval university it was no more possible that it is today to achieve universality of knowledge and present things in such a way that students, or even teachers, obtained a truly “integral view.”  In this sense, the medieval university, just like our own universities, was not a place for studium generale.  But there was a difference:  the medieval university had the disputatio, and through it universality was achieved!  Hence we may validly ask whether the disappearance of disciplined debate carried out within the framework of the university between individuals and among the faculties may not be the true reason for the much-lamented loss of even a sketchy integral view.  It should be clear that I am not speaking here of converse among specialists and on a subject interesting only to specialists.  I mean converse on the subjects of “man in general.”  On these subjects, of course, the separate disciplines are constantly raising new questions and offering new material for discussion.  I know that for a debate of this nature several prerequisites are needed which were obviously present in the medieval university and which seem lacking today–for example, the common language and the relatively unitary philosophical and theological world view.  But perhaps it would not be altogether utopian to attempt to rebuild our academies on the basis of those very principles which were the foundation stones of the Occidental university–one of which is certainly the spirit of disputation.

[Guide to St. Thomas, 87-88]

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