Transcending 42 Disciplines
In an age of too much specialization, it is time for
more interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary thinking,
for the sake of wisdom and the well-being of the world.
If you visit a university in almost any part of the world you will find that the members of the faculty are divided into different disciplines and that they are housed in different buildings or portions of buildings. You will find the science building and the music building and the psychology building and the business building. The poets and painters will be in one location, and the physicists and accountants in others.
Why are they geographically separated? The idea is that, as divided in this way, people specializing in a disciplines can work together on common projects to help contribute to a particular kind of knowledge that is important to them and to the students they teach. Of course they do not want to believe that this kind of knowledge is important only for them and their students. They may add that different and highly specialized forms of knowledge serve the common good of the world, adding to the stockpile of knowledge.
Some may even say that their particular disciplines -- science or business administration, for example -- are more valuable than other disciplines because they (the disciplines at issue) offer greater truth than others, or because they (the disciplines at issue) have more practical value. For example, some natural scientists may believe that biology, physics, and chemistry offer more truth than, say, music or theatre arts. And some economists and engineers may believe that their disciplines are of more practical value than, say, philosophy or religious studies.
In the back of their minds they will have a vision of the good society which will reflect their own assumptions, perhaps shared by others, of what a good society is, but normally this vision is not considered philosophically. For example, they may assume that a good society is economically prosperous, or egalitarian, or spiritually sensitive, or respectful of individual rights. But normally, unless they specialize in philosophy, these assumptions are left in the background.
Forty Two Disciplines
How many disciplines are there? If you turn to Wikipedia for your answer, you will discover that there are at least forty two of them. The fields on the list may or may not be 'disciplines' in a strict sense; they may instead be departments. The problem is complexified by the fact that people disagree on what a 'discipline' is. In any case, the items on the list are worth listing in order to see the variety: history; linguistics; literature; performing arts; philosophy; religion; visual arts; anthropology; archeology; area studies; cultural and ethnic studies; economics; gender and sexual studies; geography; political science; psychology; sociology; space sciences; earth sciences; life sciences (biology); chemistry; physics; computer sciences; logic; mathematics; statistics; system science; agriculture; architecture and design; business; divinity; education; engineering; environmental studies and forestry; family and consumer science; health care science; human physical performance and recreation; journalism, media studies, and communication; law; library and museum studies; military sciences; public administration; social work; and transportation. In the Wikipedia entry these forty two disciplines are divided into five general areas: humanities, social science, natural sciences, formal sciences, and professional and applied sciences.
The Rise of the STEM disciplines
Given these forty two disciplines or departments -- and I'll use the term 'discipline' as shorthand for the two -- three observations are in order.
First, not all universities can have all of these disciplines. For financial and administrative reasons, decisions must be made concerning which disciplines can and should be represented on any given university campus. Second, the forty two disciplines yield different kinds of knowledge: qualitative and quantitative, pure and applied, theoretical and practical. Some argue that a few of the disciplines – divinity, for example – do not really produce any knowledge at all. Third, almost everybody ranks the disciplines in terms of importance to society as a whole if not also their cognitive value. In our time, the natural and social sciences are seen as more important than the humanities, at least by governmental officials and policy makers who finance education.
More specifically, all over the world, people are saying that the STEM disciplines -- science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – are more important than the others. Corresponding to the rise of the STEM disciplines is a devaluing of the humanities. Informally if not formally, a ladder of prestige has emerged in the minds of many officials and policy makers. The natural sciences and mathematics are at the top, the social sciences are in the middle, and the humanities are at the bottom.
Why are the natural sciences and mathematics at the top of the ladder? The natural sciences and mathematics are deemed important, not simply because they give rise to knowledge but also because they can be applied in very practical ways through technology and engineering. Hence the rise of the STEM disciplines. The idea is that they, more than other disciplines, give rise to productive knowledge.
Eight Forms of Intelligence
What is productive knowledge? Generally speaking, productive knowledge is simply knowledge that contributes to the well-being of individuals and society. Given this meaning, knowledge arising out of any given discipline is productive. But those who rank often assume something much more specific. For them productive knowledge has three properties: (1) It is quantitative not qualitative; (2) It is evidence-based not speculative; and (3) It can help people get jobs, perform economically productive tasks, make money, and contribute to an economically prosperous society.
Philosophers and others know that productive knowledge, thus defined, limits knowledge to a very small domain of life. Indeed process philosophers and others propose (1) that qualitative knowledge is just as important as quantitative knowledge, (2) that when it comes to “evidence” there are many forms and kinds of experience that are evidentiary, of which detached sense perception is but one, and (3) that there are many kinds of understanding that are productive of a satisfying life in service to the world.
Howard Gardner at Harvard University has identified eight forms of productive intelligence: verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, visual-spatial, musical-rhythmic, bodily-kinesthetic, naturalistic, intrapersonal (self-awareness), and interpersonal (empathic). He believes that all eight are important in order for people to be whole people, and that society as a whole ought to give them equal weight. There is no real need to say that people who are gifted in mathematics have more productive knowledge than, say, people who are gifted in empathy. Indeed, in many circumstances, empathy is much more important than mathematics.
We Whiteheadians agree. We believe that there are at least eight valuable ways of knowing, of which verbal-linguistic and mathematical-logical are but two. Still, we know that we live in an age where verbal-linguistic and mathematical-logical knowing is prioritized over the others, not only in the United States and other Western nations, but also in China. We see this prioritization as the legacy of western modernity. And we celebrate the wisdom of constructive postmodernism because, in reclaiming the wisdom of classical Chinese traditions (arts, poetry, traditional Chinese medicine, Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism) it simultaneously reclaims other ways of knowing which, all things considered, contribute to the well-being of individuals and society.
Still, we know that the battle to reclaim these other ways of knowing is uphill in an age infatuated with the STEM disciplines. Thus we find ourselves hopeful that two movements are emerging in the modern university which seem to be rising in importance: interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity.
Interdisciplinarity and Transdisciplinarity
These two terms can be defined in different ways. Interdisciplinarity is ordinarily used to describe a state of affairs in which people from different academic disciplines approach a single subject – sustainable community, for example – and bring the methods and insights of their own disciplines to the subject at issue. As they approach the topic at hand, they realize that they have something to learn from one another and that the topic as a whole cannot be successfully understood without the wisdom of the other disciplines. In understanding a sustainable community, there is knowledge to be gained from a biologist but also from an anthropologist, from an economist but also a philosopher. A certain kind of creative transformation occurs in the minds of the intellectuals as they approach the topic. They are humbled in presumptions concerning the supremacy of their own discipline and they learn from others.
Transdisciplinarity goes a step further. It brings with it (1) an appreciation of multiple ways of knowing, such as are identified in the eight forms of intelligence named above; (2) a skepticism that the existing methodologies of the inherited disciplines are quite up to the task; and (3) a desire to think outside the box – that is, outside the parameters – of the disciplines themselves. There is a freedom and freshness to transdisciplinarity that transcends interdisciplinarity. It is less like a mere combination of disciplines and more like say, a jazz concert, in which people are playing their instruments but also trying new sounds.
Some would propose something still further about transdisciplinarity. They would say that it inevitably and rightly becomes more philosophical in tone, because it is willing to question basic assumptions concerning the nature of reality and explore new and integrative worldviews, such as are found in the philosophy of Whitehead. In short, it moves in the direction of new paradigm thinking.
Those of us in the Whiteheadian tradition celebrate both interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity. We think that the age of intellectual fragmentation has now taken its toll, and the there is a rather deep need in society and in academia for creative thinkers who are willing to take intellectual risks and explore more imaginative ways of understanding the world. We find ourselves inspired by scientists who turn to music for inspiration, by theologians who turn to art for inspiration, by economists who turn to anthropology. We favor a blending of boundaries for the sake of bold and creative thinking.
Toward what end? On the one hand, for intellectual understanding itself. If reality as a whole is as interconnected as we think, then understanding is now advanced, not by creating connections that did not exist beforehand, but rather by recognizing connections that have always existed, but which have been hidden from overly defined disciplinary boundaries. On the other hand, we favor interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary thinking for more practical purposes. The very dichotomy between theory and practice is, for us, a false one. Interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary thinking find their homes when they address practical issues of human and ecological well-being. Poets and engineers, philosophers and musicians, can work together to imagine and implement modes of human dwelling which are participatory, creative, compassionate, equitable, and ecologically wise. In China, these modes of dwelling are an important feature of what the government calls Ecological Civilization. Such a civilization recognizes that the earth itself is not an issue among issues but also a context for all issues, because it is the very web of life. The future of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary thinking lies, not only in the pleasures of exploring alternative ways of understanding reality, but in the creative work of building Ecological Civilizations. No discipline has a monopoly in this. The STEM disciplines have a very important role to play, but philosophy and theology, music and theatre art, culture and agriculture – all are important. In order to move in this direction, isolated disciplinarity must itself be critiqued, not for the sake of rebellion but for the sake of genuine wisdom. It is not enough to have a stockpile of knowledge. We need a wellspring of wisdom.