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

conference-09-triptych-small

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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The Transdisciplinary Imperative

[as seen at Global Spiral…]

The problems we face today – economic collapse, environmental degradation, energy needs -are so broad and complex that they seem intractable.  Plenty of brain-power is being applied to our situation, and there is no shortage of individuals trained at our blue-chip academic institutions on Wall Street , in the halls of government, and in corporate enterprises.  And yet, here we are.  But one might just wonder whether knowledge itself shares some of the blame for these troubles – I mean knowledge divorced from the larger view, divorced from the whole.  Could it be that knowledge without wisdom causes as many problems as it solves?

The economic, moral, political, environmental, technical, intellectual, scientific, and even spiritual challenges we face demand approaches that are suitably rich in resources for tackling them.  We need to learn how to take the full measure of our knowledge, to find out what it is we really know now that we know so many disciplinarily distinct things.  We need to find a way of recapturing a vision of the forest and not just the trees.  The negative consequences for failing to do so are obvious.  Our disciplinary practices inevitably give rise to the fragmentation of knowledge.  This fragmentation of knowledge leads to the fragmentation of the university, which has a significant impact on its mission to educate the next generation.  The fragmented university leads – consciously or unconsciously – to training students (and faculty, too) to compartmentalize their thinking, their reality, and hence their lives.

Our situation demands we respond to the transdisciplinary imperative,an approach to research and teaching that would serve to mitigate the consequences of this fragmentation.

What is a transdisciplinary approach?

The term transdisciplinaritycan be found occasionally in the intellectual landscape.  There have been conferences held, manifestos published, organizations formed, and some good work has been undertaken.  However, the term still lacks specificity and is often applied without sufficient theoretical reflection.  As yet, transdisciplinarity has been unable to bear the weight of the profoundly important idea in names.

Physicist Basarab Nicolescu1 explains that the trans- in transdisciplinary signifies working simultaneously through disciplinary practices, between the disciplines (as in multi- and interdisciplinary endeavors), and beyond the disciplines and the institutions they form and in which they reside, in the hope of approaching something like the unity of knowledge.

Transdisciplinarity depends upon rigorous disciplinary work.  The various academic disciplines – the sciences,broadly construed to include the social and the human sciences along with the natural sciences – form around the practice of making our questions precise, focusing our investigations, and employing analytic techniques in order to come to knowledge.  Transdisciplinarity rejects attempts to address broader questions in ways that ignore the undeniable advances produced by the various disciplines.

Transdisciplinarity also relies on innovative interdisciplinary work.  Many areas of inquiry – and many real-world problems we need to address – can only be pursued in a collaborative manner that utilizes multiple areas of specialized expertise.  Transdisciplinarity rejects attempts at reductionism- the idea that one area of knowledge or expertise can adequately account for the richness of nature and human experience.  It recognizes that successful interdisciplinary efforts often result in the formation of new disciplines, new spheres of specific expertise, with their own canons and methodologies.

Transdisciplinarity demands something more.  Disciplinary and interdisciplinary work, with their overarching emphasis on analysis (breaking ‘reality’ into its constituent ‘parts,’ around which develop methodologies, standards of practice, certifications of expertise, and quite often ‘orthodoxies’) make significant contributions to our knowledge.  But they also exact a price:  the fragmentation of knowledge.  This fragmentation is widely lamented.  Unless universities restore the idea of synthesis as a complement to (not a replacement for) analysis, unless they regain the taste for something like the unity or the symphony of knowledge, unless they embark once again on a quest for wholeness, unless they learn to seek wisdom in addition to knowledge – they will not live up to their name and their mission.

Some may argue that transdisciplinarity is impossible.  It will result either in a homogenous, vague, superficial theory of everythingor it will develop into yet another discipline, another parochial body of knowledge without achieving the goal of a synoptic view.  The transdisciplinary desire for something like a harmony or symphony of knowledge is simply a pipe dream.

One way to think of transdisciplinarity is to see it as a quest for the whole story. Whole stories are impossible, however, if for no other reason than the temporality of stories.  Our story is ongoing, so we can’t write the ending yet.  And while our stories are being written – including the stories from all of the disciplines in the natural, social, and human sciences – there will be the rough and tumble we’ve come to expect in the highly competitive marketplace of ideas.

Nevertheless, we give up seeking the whole story at our peril, even if it is impossible.  We need to think of the whole storyas a regulative idea, one at which we aim despite knowing that we cannot attain it.

During our recent election season, Stanley Fish issued a harsh rebuke to independent voters in his always-provocative New York Times blog, Think Again.2 Fish thinks independent voters are a bad idea because they deny the importance of political parties, their platforms,  and the vigorous arguments they produce.  Independent voters, argue Fish, want us all to just get along.  An analogy can be made between Fish’s view of 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 of parties, namely the disciplines and sub-disciplines that make up the university.  Those of us advocating for transdisciplinarity might  appear to deny the value and importance of the academic disciplines (the parties) in favor of homogenization.

Let me paraphrase an excerpt from Fish’s piece, substituting transdisciplinary ideas for the independent political ones he’s criticizing, to give an idea of the criticism:

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 symphonyof 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.

An honest transdisciplinarian ought to feel the force of these charges.  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-denominatorgruel, leaving us without sharp distinctions and clear ideas?

True, I have encountered ten-page theories of everythingthat are supposed to synthesize all knowledge and answer all of humanity’s questions once and for all.  These efforts are nothing but nonsense.  But genuine transdisciplinarians move much more slowly and carefully.  They love to engage in definitional disputes.  They do take sides- just not always along established disciplinary lines.  Transdisciplinarians are the least likely to demonizetheir colleagues with whom they have disagreements and are unlikely to be summarily dismissive of groundbreaking or nonstandardendeavors.  They are most likely to be open to collaboration and fruitful dialogue.  They are least likely to get caught up in academic turf warsand most likely to reap the benefits and pleasures of intellectual community, even as they vigorously debate their way towards understanding.  They are also, alas, least likely to be awarded tenure and promotion.  We simply lack the measures for evaluating their work.

Nevertheless just as independent voters consistently decide the outcome of presidential elections, which are admittedly of some importance, transdisciplinarians  will likely determine the outcomeof our common quest for wisdom – which is of paramount importance.  Transdisciplinarians tend to be independent-minded scholars and researchers, no doubt, but it is more accurate to say they are interdependent minded, rigorously trained participants in their own fields but cognizant of the fact that the pursuit of the whole requires the work of all of us – from every discipline, every sphere of expertise, and every sort of academic, religious, civic, and cultural institution.  Transdisciplinarians know they have to undertake the hard intellectual work 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.  They don’t see this as a new job or another job; they see it as a regular part of their dayjob – a part for which they are not commonly rewarded.

We need to realize that if transdisciplinarity means training generalists,that does not imply an education in superficiality.  As Alasdair MacIntyre reminds us, superficiality should be as unacceptable to the educated generalist as it is to the specialist.  And a sense of complexity is perhaps even more important for generalists than for specialists3 who frequently gain their specialized knowledge by means of cordoning off small sectors of reality, i.e., by simplifying matters.

Some see no distinction between transdisciplinarity and interdisciplinary work.  But the latter inexorably leads to the creation of new disciplines and new fields of knowledge.  Transdisciplinarity, on the other hand, is not seeking to create another new academic discipline.  Instead, it promotes approaches to profound questions that do not fit neatly into any particular disciplinary boundary or perhaps even easily within the borders of the institutions that have traditionally legislated those boundaries.  One key feature of transdisciplinarity is that it contains an explicit moral component.  This moral aspect raises issues that must be addressed regarding defining and pursuing – as well as containing – transdisciplinarity.  Systematic reflection about how to do this is part of the endeavor, and it is to be hoped that much more of our collective time will be devoted to it.  It is likely that we will develop new or expanded fields of transdisciplinary studies. We will likely articulate new methodologies , practices, and standards appropriate to transdisciplinarity that are analogous to – but not identical with – those in established disciplines. But to paraphrase Aristotle, the ultimate goal is not to know about transdisciplinarity, i.e., to turn it into one more discipline among others, to have only an intellectual understanding of it.  The important thing is to learn to adopt, wherever appropriate, transdisciplinary approaches to research and teaching that can help to meet the challenges that lie before us – educational and otherwise.

In a recent article, Alasdair MacIntyre complained that the trouble with Catholic universities is that they all want to be like Duke, and that the trouble with that is not that Duke is not a Catholic university.  It is that Duke is no longer a university at all.  The same could be said for most of our institutions of higher education.  Some celebrate the multiversityas a true expression of the diversity of our ways of being and knowing, but it would be a rare institutional mission statement that trumpeted this view.  Instead, they almost always talk about education for the whole person – the antithesis of the fragmentation generated by the multiversity. We need, in the words of Vartan Gregorian4, to reform higher education to reconstruct the unity and value of knowledge. Or, to put this more pointedly, we must restore the quest for wisdom to the core of the meaning of the university.  And wisdom is transdisciplinary. It is not contained or containable within any single academic specialization or any combination of them, nor is it acquired solely in the pursuit of academic work as we’ve come to know it.  But we have divorced the university from the quest for wisdom by our specific set of academic practices.

The 7% Solution

The call for transdisciplinarity is not as a replacement for or alternative to rigorous disciplinary and interdisciplinary work.  Rather, it is for a necessary but generally missing complement to standard academic practices.  It is an argument for the necessity to devote some portion of our time, effort, and resources to transdisciplinary work.  Let’s say, seven percent.  It could be slightly less but probably not much more.  Here is the challenge:  Could you take three and a half minutes out of each 50 minute class period (or, say, the final week of the semester) to consider how your subject hangs together with other fields of endeavor?  Could you consider devoting a 20 page epilogue to your next 300 page book to discuss how your work might be informative or even transformative for those working in other fields?  Could you set aside some small portion of the time you spend providing service to your institution to engage in interdisciplinary discussion on transdisciplinary questions (and include persons working outside your institution when you do)?  Or, should these modest proposals seem impossible for some reason I am unable to imagine, might you find just seven one-hundredths more of yourself to explore the potential of transdisciplinary approaches, for the sake of your students, your colleagues, your institution, and your community – not to mention for your own sake?

And what if we were to begin to evaluate our work based on its contribution to transdisciplinarity, to intellectual community, and the university’s mission?  What if research were two-pronged – looking down and in, it proceeded like almost all research today, in an atomistic, analytic manner; but also looking up and out, trying always to connect its work with the research of others, with the university mission, with the education of the whole person, and with the well-being of society at large?  What if research had to justify itself (appropriately understood and in the proper measure) on both prongs?  What if teaching were evaluated in the same way?  And service? What if we were to take this two-pronged approach, to promote both analysis and synthesis, to find integral approaches to off-set the deleterious effects of hyperspecialization?

Transdisciplinarity recognizes  that deep in the heart of each person is a desire for something like the whole story of the whole cosmos in order that they might be whole persons living in whole communities with a profound regard for the whole of nature and reality.  In other words, we all seek wisdom (however unpracticed we may be at it).  It is the pursuit of this vision that constitutes the transdisciplinary imperative.  Transdisciplinarity is not some optional sidelight to research, education, and policy making.  It is not some frivolous ivory-tower pastime.  It is imperative that we learn how to think and research and teach in this way if we are to have the opportunity for a better future, one more just, more safe, more convivial, more wise.

 

 

 

Endnotes

1 Basarab Nicolescu, Transdisciplinarity as Methodological Framework for Going Beyond the Science-Religion Debate, The Global Spiral, Volume 8, Issue 3, http://www.metanexus.net/magazine/tabid/68/id/10013/Default.aspx. Cf. Basarab Nicolescu, La transdisciplinarité, manifeste, Monaco, Le Rocher, “Transdisciplinarité” Series, 1996. English translation: Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity. New York: SUNY Press, 2002, translation from the French by Karen-Claire Voss.

2 Stanley Fish, Against Independent Voters, New York Times, January 20, 2008, http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/01/20/against-independent-voters/.

3 Alasdair C. MacIntyre, The End of Education: The Fragmentation of the American University, The Global Spiral, Volume 8, Issue 1, http://www.metanexus.net/Magazine/tabid/68/id/9834/Default.aspx.

4 Vartan Gregorian, Colleges Must Reconstruct the Unity of Knowledge, Chronicle of Higher Education, June 4, 2004. Available online at: http://www.carnegie.org/sub/pubs/colleges.html.

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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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