Book Review: Transdisciplinary Horizons

Russ Volckmann

Russ VolckmannLest you are concerned that this may be another academic treatise and of little practical value, please consider this: How we make meaning in the world governs all of our choices and influences our actions. The reason that work in fields such as integral and transdisciplinarity is so important is that they offer far more powerful ways of making meaning in our lives, our work and our relationships. Let’s face it. The universe is giving us a lot of feedback that the ways we have been accustomed to just aren’t up to snuff. So, maybe it is time to think about these things while keeping the application requirement open for just a bit. But do attend to it. Theory may be fun, for some, but it is in the process of making it real that we bring value to the world and to ourselves. A case in point is Sue MacGregor’s article on poverty in this issue of Integral Leadership Review.

To accompany Sue MacGregor’s transdisciplinary article on poverty with Malta as a case study, I would like to call your attention to earlier discussions of transdisciplinarity in the pages of Integral Leadership Review and the interview with Basarab Nicolescu, ( the Romanian physicist who has lived and taught in Paris for many years and who is the “father” of the transdisciplinarity movement in the world. I think of him as the father, despite the fact that the initial call to transdisciplinarity was issued by Jean Piaget in 1970. Transdisciplinarity is held in the embrace of the interests of Integral Leadership Review because I see it as part of this growing movement across the world to find more holistic ways of discovering, comprehending, and communicating the unity imperative.

Nicolescu’s earlier work, The Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity, provides the door into this important exploration. While there are articles in a variety of online sites related to or embracing transdisciplinarity and in multiple languages, there are few books that help us see how the associated models and ideas can be applied to our thinking and to the world. In 2008, two books were published that take important steps in this direction.

Theory and practice coverThe first, edited by Nicolescu, is Transdisciplinarity: Theory and Practice. (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, Inc.). Alfonso Montouri’s foreword provides a particularly clear exploration of what, exactly, transdisciplinarity is about. He sees it as an emancipatory project that “provides us with a way of thinking and a way of organizing knowledge and informing action that can assist us in tackling the complexity of the world, while at the same time inviting us to come to grips with the role of the inquirer in the process of inquiry.” Isn’t this what integral research advocates? This is a cousin to the notion of Integral Methodological Pluralism that Ken Wilber has so brilliantly articulated.

I have recently been on two dissertation committees where the challenges of subject-object in research have been prominent. These are innovative approaches to engaging phenomenology and structuralism in innovative explorations of leadership. The researcher’s own values and perspectives are as much critical variables in the research as the experiences reported by or observed in the lives of the subjects of the research. I don’t know about you, but I find this exciting. We are finally moving past the limiting chimneys of academic knowledge into building not only research, but practice as well, that embraces all of the phenomena of our doing and being in the world. This is essential if we are to engage evolutionary forces in ways that we value, in generative approaches that offer the potentials of the good, the true and the beautiful in whatever forms these take in a universe we can neither control nor predict with high levels of completeness.

Montouri goes on to outline how transdisciplinarity is nothing less than a new way of thinking that requires:

  1. A focus that is inquiry-driven rather than discipline driven…
  2. A stress on the construction of knowledge through an appreciation of the meta-paradigmatic dimension…
  3. An understanding of the organization of knowledge…[and]
  4. The integration of the knower in the process of inquiry.

He closes by affirming Nicolescu’s “call for transdisciplinarity as a transcultural process, and one that begins to integrate the sacred—where inquiry, inquirer, and the subject of the inquiry all are part of the larger pattern that connects a re-ligio or reconnection of what has been torn asunder.”

Nicolescu opens the discussion from there by outlining the differences among multi-, inter- and trans-disciplinarity and our challenge of harmonizing between inner being and outer knowledge. Transdisciplinarity, he states, “concerns that which is at once between the disciplines, across the different disciplines, and beyond all disciplines. Its goal is the understanding of the present world, of which one of the imperatives is the unity of knowledge.” This involves the observation and understanding of the interaction of several levels of Reality at once. “Two levels of reality are different if, while passing from one to the other, there is a break in the laws and a break in fundamental concepts (like, for example, causality).”

From his postulations, we can see the genesis not only in philosophy, but in quantum sciences in relation to Newtonian physics. They seem to contradict each other in our attempts at comprehending reality, yet both are true. That is, each is a reality based description or way of thinking about phenomena such as causality. Nicolescu’s suggestion is shifting from the excluded middle to the Law of the Included Middle. Where two such seemingly opposing perspectives clash, look for what is in the middle through the use of a logic that is based in “both/and.” He states “The unity of levels of Reality and its complementary zone of nonresistance constitutes what we call the transdisciplinary Object [and]…no level of Reality constitutes a privileged place from which one is able to understand all the other levels of Reality.” Thus, knowledge is simultaneously subject and object. He offers three postulates:

  1. There are, in Nature and in our knowledge of Nature, different levels of Reality and, correspondingly, different levels of perception.
  2. The passage from one level of Reality to another is insured by the logic of the included middle.
  3. The structure of the totality of levels of Reality or perception is a complex structure: every level is what it is because all the levels exist at the same time.

Despite the growing rift between the technoscientific and spiritual cultures in the world during the last couple of centuries in particular, a reintegration is now underway. He states, somewhat ominously, “As scientists…we have great responsibility to circumvent the disintegration of the spiritual culture resulting from the unbridled development of technoscience, whose probable outcome will be the disappearance of our human species.” Transdisciplinarity offers an approach and an opportunity for a dialogue between the two and brings together a new vision for academic, cultural, religious, and spiritual traditions. “Experience of the sacred is the source of a transcultural attitude.”

The themes in this volume range from education, poetry and science, philosophy, history, the wisdom traditions and transdisciplinarity as a path to peace. I am going to report on the latter and leave the rest to you.

Drawing an approach that was very popular in public radio in Italy during the early 1970s, Antonella Verdiani has constructed an imagined interview with Archibald McLeish, American poet, playwright, Director of the Library of Congress, and author of these words from the preamble to the Constitution of UNESCO:

“Since war begins in the minds of men, it is the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.” The stated purpose of the interview is to explore ways to develop a culture of peace “to replace the logic of war, which prevails on our planet.”

One of the elements of the discussion is around transdisciplinarity: “…there is a strong relationship between poetry and transdisciplinarity. Because the purpose, or rather the role, of transgression, which is specific for a poet, is also suitable to transdisciplinarity,” states Verdiani in this imaginary conversation. McLeish notes that transgression was a necessary condition to give life to UNESCO and the potentials for peace.

UNESCO has been concerned with transdisciplinarity as applied to higher education and its relationship with peace or, “the culture of peace.” She shares with McLeish some elements of a Declaration of UNESCO that results in some optimism for McLeish:

Peace is reverence for life.
Peace is the most precious possession of humanity.
Peace is more than the end of armed conflict.
Peace is a mode of behavior.
Peace is a deep-rooted commitment to the principles of liberty, justice, equality, and solidarity among all human beings.
Peace is also a harmonious partnership of humankind with the environment.
Today, on the eve of the twenty-first century, peace is within our reach.

In applying transdisciplinarity in UNESCO programs, they found that holistic education awakens and develops reason, intuition, sensation, as well as sentiment. Despite such progress, it has not resulted in progress in governments. McLeish urges experimentation and experience. Learning to do includes learning to know oneself, one’s creative potential and the value of differences. He concludes by offering this poem as encouragement:

Theory of Poetry

Know the world by heart
Or never know it!
Let the pedant stand apart—
Nothing he can name will show it:
Also him of intellectual art.
None know it
Till they know the world by heart
Take heart then, poet

vision of transdisciplinarityFrederic Darbellay, Moira Cockell, Jerome Billotte, Francis Waldvogel, Eds. A Vision of Transdisciplinarity: Laying Foundations for a World Knowledge Dialogue (Boca Raton, FL: Taylor and Francis Group, 2008) provides an additional set of materials related to brain science; complexity theory; exchanges related to paleontology, anthropology, genetics and linguistics; and academia, particularly in governance and dialogue across disciplines. In his Foreword, Andre Hurst states, “Asking the ultimate questions, giving the ultimate answers through various theories of everything has often been considered the major occupation of our species…” Unlike interdisciplinary explorations, this volume “aims at trying to elucidate a new way of exploring all our different forms of knowledge…in order to find methods and ways of expressing them that could help them to advance in harmony one or several steps further.”

The strategy in this First World Knowledge Dialogue is a dialogue among participants and an invitation to participate. In a second very brief foreword, Dame Julia Higgins in which she outlines the rules for the “debate:”

  • Listen
  • Explain yourself clearly
  • Leave your prejudices at the door
  • Avoid jargon
  • Be uncritical of others’ ideas
  • Be unafraid, and
  • Enjoy the intellectual adventure

All of this is by way of introduction to The Introduction by the editors.

They begin by suggesting that unification and understanding between the natural/technical and human social sciences can never be achieved. It is dynamic and offers a wonderful opportunity for discourse to uncover the path to understanding and mutual respect among disciplines. This work is clearly far more about bringing a complexity perspective than transdisciplinarity as it is understood in the first set of writings explored here. I am not going to go into further exploration of the specifics of these presentations. Rather than seeking a bridging, images of crossed transactions prevail. I do offer them as examples of exchanges among disciplines that open many potential doors for further exploration.