Communication and Difference from a Transdisciplinary Perspective

Communication and Difference from a Transdisciplinary Perspective

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“The essence of transdisciplinarity lies in the recognition that there is no privileged cultural space or time which allow the judgment and hierarchization of different complexes of explanation and reality as more correct or more truthful.”
– Ubiratan d’Ambrosio

In a broad sense, communication is to turn common. Social communication processes promote the circulation of senses and guarantee the sharing of different beliefs, values and world views; this sharing sustains social cohesion. This way, these processes play a determinant role in the qualification of culture.

Currently, mass communication means are the main responsible for the flux of information and also for the communication processes which predominantly define public space and qualify common sense. These mass communication means have been one of the most efficient agents in the globalization process, putting in touch and making possible the crossing between different world interpretation systems and different modes of sense, knowledge and representation production, originated in different cultural matrixes. However, these encounters and crossings have frequently led to forms of hegemony and intolerance which promote cultural homogenization. As indicated in discussions about the need of cultural diversity preservation1 and on democratization of communication2, plurality has not been a marking aspect of public spaces occupied by mass communication means. On the contrary, an uneven relationship between emitters and receptors is observed and also an uneven coexistence of different elements, values, and world views, based on logics of exclusion, where determined forms of sense production predominate over other forms, which are marginalized.3 The communication means reflect, reinforce and provoke fragmentation. This imposes great ethical challenges and responsibility on all social actors involved in current communication processes.

The challenge of plural communication in a globalized culture is linked to the discussion of strategies and the implementation of political and economical actions to avoid the concentration and monopoly of communication means. However, it should also be faced through educational strategies and reflections on the dynamic relationships between unity and diversity, identity and difference. Such challenges raise a few questions: how can we guarantee the coexistence, cooperation and authentic fecund dialogue between differences in a globalized culture? How can mutual recognition and respect to the alterity be promoted? How can diversity and plurality be guaranteed? The process of cultural globalization is generated by the expansion of the western culture, mostly through communication activities. Therefore, a great responsibility falls on this culture (especially in the communication field) a regarding these questions. We believe that transdisciplinary research and attitude may constitute a strategic field for reflections and actions on the viability of plural and transcultural common ethics and minimum consensus. These reflections and actions are in their turn central for the discussions on the universality of human rights and construction of peace cultures.

This work shares some explorations in this direction. Through the interchange between the communication field, the philosophical view and the transdisciplinary perspective4, we seek to contribute to the discussion about the predominant means of relationship with the Other constructed by the western culture. We understand that this may be interesting in face of the ethical challenges imposed by the cultural globalization process once that “an etymological exercise shows us that ethics, as well as ethos and ethno, refer to the Other. It is the recognition of the Other which brings the needs of an ethics.” (AMBROSIO, 1997b). To think about ethics it is necessary to reflect on difference, on the different worldviews, and on the viability of an authentic dialogue between them. It also makes necessary the questioning of the modes of relationship with the difference inherited in our culture.


Human beings create differentiated solutions to deal with two basic necessities: survival and transcendence. The various outcomes and developments of these solutions constitute the basic matter of cultures. One of the marking and distinctive traces about a given culture is the mode of sense production and comprehension of the diversity and unity dynamics, or the establishment of identities and differences. In other words, the characteristics of a culture can be assessed through how it relates with the difference.

Western culture, which inherited the Greek and Judaic-Christian traditions, may have been the first culture to consider the difference as a separation and opposition. Both in Israel and in Greece, the identification process was developed through the delimitation of a radical alterity, founder of the world and of world comprehension: The Being is the absolute Other in the Greek experience, while for the Hebrews, the monotheist God is the absolute place of the Other (AMARAL, 1995).

The appearance of the thought matrix (and relationship with the difference) which configured the western culture can be localized in the shift from mythos to logos, in Greece, approximately 2500 years ago.5. The passage from the mythical experience as the predominant mode of relationship with the world to a deliberate tentative of describing, from a rational experience, the universe and human groups, can be understood as a shift from a certain mode of comprehension of unity and diversity dynamics to another.

In a general way, myths are characterized by an experience of harmonization presenting easy mobility between identities and differences, through the complementary relationship of what was later described as ordinary and extraordinary. For the mythical cultures, the most radical difference – the sacred and the real by excellence –, domain of the transcendent, is, in a certain sense, also immanent, because it is an experience which founds and constitutes existence, and is not irreversibly separated from the world, manifesting itself in rather regular irruptions. This complex relationship points towards an experience which moves itself in different levels of reality, with differentiated links between them. The sense and articulation of these levels in a coherent unity is guaranteed by the hierophanies. The other world, different from the ordinary, domain of the reality by excellence, is not totally or radically distant and inaccessible; there is no ontological separation of the various levels of reality. For the mythic worldview, the supernatural is inseparably linked to the natural6

On the other hand, when the worldview founded on logos became predominant in the culture, it was necessary to deal with the multiplicity in a way that the identity of each singular being needed to be marked in opposition to the others. Instead of harmonizing the differences, these were reinforced through the opposite identities, delimitating specific fields which do not mix, separating them ontologically. What happened in what is conventionally referred to as the passage of mythos to logos – or from myth to reason – was an alteration in the relationship between ordinary and extraordinary: their coexistence (even if intermittent) became unsustainable. In this passage, reason needed to protect itself from the ambiguity it observed in myth, defining its place in opposition to the myth. The result was the progressive rejection of the extraordinary and of myth – since then identified as all that is not real or rational (VERNANT, 1980, p. 186) –, the belief in reason’s supremacy, and the development of logics of exclusion and separation in order to comprehend the dynamics of identities and differences.

However, this passage was not abrupt and some elements of the Greek philosophical experience, especially amongst the pre-Socratic thinkers, were still closely related to the mythic relationship with the difference. For these thinkers, the cosmos was explained through a complementary tension between logos (the force that reunites, names, identified with the unity, culture or language) and physis (the force that disperses, identified with multiplicity and nature): logos and physis were, then, the name of “the fundamental tension, a tension which generates thought: that which unites and at the same time opposes and in the same act reunites the one and the multiple, identity and difference” (AMARAL, 1995). Also, the archaic notion of truth as alétheia points to a complex dynamics of identities and differences: alétheia is the movement of the real showing and retracting itself7.

The sophists and the philosophers, in different ways, were the first to experiment the separation of logos and physis: the sophists through a total autonomy of logos in relation to physis and the philosophers through the hierarchy and separation (to be transposed by the operation of truth), as ways of resolving the tension between unity and multiplicity. This led later to the fundamental opposition between man and world, culture (language) and nature, and subject and object. The truth is then associated to objectiveness; it is guaranteed by the separation between logos and physis (the distance between subject and object) and produced by the movement of correspondence between them (the adequacy between what is proposed and what is observed).

Aristotle’s philosophy establishes the basis on which the predominant mode of comprehension of the dynamics of identities and differences in the western culture was later developed. “In moving to quiet the Heraclitean “flux”, with its unity of opposites, Aristotle sets out to erect an impenetrable barrier between a thing and its other in the form of the principle of contradiction, whereby it is argued that A is not not-A” (DONKEL, 2001, p. 2) – this operation of separation fixes the identity. Aristotle’s logics, retaken and re-elaborated several times during western culture history gives shape to the thought tradition that allowed the development and consolidation of science in the XVII and XVIII centuries, as well as the expansion of scientific disciplines and of technology between the XIX and XX centuries, configuring modern societies. According to Ambrosio (AMBROSIO, op. cit.), the model of society dominated by science and technology and a consequent economical, social and political order are intimately related with underlying philosophy that made it possible: the differences between human beings were interpreted as different evolution stages of the specie.

However, the same movement which allowed the expansion of techno-science also provoked questions, ruptures and changes in the world interpretation systems from which it was originated. These changes could be sensed through several “symptoms” which helped to shape contemporary times (or “post-modernity”): the breakage of the fundaments and the “death” of God, the crisis of classical truth (an its substitution by efficacy), the crisis of representation, the several and announced “ends” (end of history, end of philosophy, end of religion), the appearance of human sciences and even the developments of “hard” sciences (quantum physics, complex thought). Such symptoms deserve careful examination which is beyond the scope of this work. These transformations represent an opening for considerations about communication and difference, especially because they provoke a redefinition, nowadays, of the dynamics of identity and difference. The contemporary culture is marked by transformations of the experience, as a result of the social and cultural processes promoted by the new technologies (especially the communicational technologies) which affect the conceptions of reality, truth, subject, time, space, life, culture and nature that have been in force since the birth of the western culture. These changes point to a new dimensioning of the relationship with the alterity, and put in evidence the crisis of a worldview constituted on the experience of disposition of the differences based on opposing and excluding pairs. In face of these changes, new positions and strategies are necessary.


“A truthful dialogue can only be transdisciplinary
if based on bridges which link, in heir most
profound nature, the beings and the things”
– Basarab Nicolescu

We have identified at least two levels of interdependency between communication and knowledge production processes where considerations about identities and differences might be interesting. At a more practical level, where communication processes are responsible for the dissemination and updating of belief systems, it is worth to consider the relationships between the hegemonic modes of communication, the challenges imposed by the necessity of plurality and democratization of communication, and the logics of the relationship with the difference predominating in western culture. The plural and fecund coexistence between differences meets significant barriers in the heritages of the western logics of separation and exclusion, which make rather difficult the establishment of communication as a circular process which presupposes authentic dialogues (with two basic interdependent movements: speech and listening).

In the western culture, listening, dialogue and communication are greatly limited. Rarely, the Other is invited to speak. When that happens, the emphasis is not in listening to the difference but rather in the construction of a speech that is the representation of the difference. Anthropology and Psychiatry are two of the most significant areas of contact with the Other in the western culture. For McGrane (McGRANE, 1989, p. 127), these two field are monologues about the Other, based on power, rather than true dialogues with the Other – Anthropology talks about the Other and not, with few exceptions, to the Other. There is no listening, only speeches derived from representations built from a “neutral”, “secure”, “rational” and “outside” observation. McGrane quotes Todorov in this matter: “only by speaking to the Other – not giving orders but engaging in dialogue – that I can acknowledge him as subject, comparable to what I am myself” (idem). And proceeds: “anthropology never listened to the voices of “alien cultures”, it never learned from them, rather it studied them; in fact studying them, making sense of them, making a science about them, has been the modern method of not listening, of avoiding listening, to them” (idem). The western culture could not apprehend, for example, the complexity of the experience of primitive cultures or the relationship of a human being who is marked by the immediate experience of the sacred with the natural world, because ethnocentrism has reduced this relationship to the idea of animism as a “primitive”, unfunded believe, constructed from the ignorance about the scientific laws of nature, which were considered as the real and only truth. What happened was the projection of the western believes and a difficulty to become open to learn about this other experience of life and nature – in which the objects of the natural world possess a living character which surpasses the relationship established at the level of separation of subject and object.

The difficulty in establishing communication as a circular process is made concrete in the configuration of the predominant communication processes today (the so called mass communication), result of the hegemonic political, social and economic order. Mass “communication” is characterized more by a one way flux of information, with no possibilities of interaction or dialogue, than by circular sharing or exchanging. Few are those who control the means of expression; most of the social groups and cultures are not truly allowed to speak but are “obliged” to consume media products. In the construction of the speeches and narratives which predominantly qualify the culture through mass communication means, there is no space for the Other although despite it being directly and deeply affected by these speeches.

At another level, epistemological, we recognize the potentiality of communication as a fertile field for the overcoming of the impasses created by the western modes of knowledge production, through the revision of Aristotle’s logics. This potentiality can be thought from some particularities of the field which provoke an opening: firstly, it’s rather recent development (second half of the XX century), marked by contributions from different disciplines and by the influence of non-scientific approaches (such as the philosophical perspective and the interfaces with arts)8; and, secondly, there is a difficulty in applying to communication the model of knowledge production based on the separation of a subject which knows and an object to be known, because, as well as being included in social or human sciences, communication is an inseparable aspect of knowledge production itself. Communication is related not only with the diffusion and sharing of produced knowledge but also with the neglected relationship between subject and object. These particularities provoke and over passing of the disciplinary approach and approximate communication to the transdisciplinary perspective. Communication can be understood, in a certain way, as the relational space, a space between the extremes fixed by western culture as identities and differences, as a third term which needs to be recognized and welcomed. This way, it constitutes a strategic field for the exercise of transdisciplinarity.

Conclusions: transdisciplinarity, communication and the sacred

In face of the opening created by the redefinition of the relationship with the difference in the contemporary culture, it is necessary to explore new ways of thinking which put in question the hegemony of objectivity, the separation of subject and object, and that indicate paths to overcome the disciplinary perspective, which tends to reduce the complexity of reality to that which is measurable or ordinary. This direction is that of the expansion of alterity, contrary to its objective reduction. Instead of producing sense by the capture of the object by the subject (as in the classical notion of truth) or by the use and control of the object by the subject (as in the technological efficacy), it is necessary to produce sense by an ethical commitment with the differences. Transdisciplinarity is a world apprehension exercise which proposes the opening to the Other.

Michel Random points as the first transdisciplinary principle “the exchange, the opening, the communication, the generosity of intelligence and of the heart”, for a shared knowledge (RANDOM, 2000, p, 10). Transdisciplinarity is born from the need of overcoming the fragmentation of knowledge and creating bridges between different domains of knowledge. Differently from multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity, it proposes not only the dialogue between scientific disciplines but an open, tolerant and listening attitude, to make possible an authentic dialogue between science and other sense production forms – such as humanities, arts and, especially, interior experience.9

The fragmentation of knowledge can be seen as the result of the development of the logics of separation and exclusion fixing identities and differences and of the comprehension of reason as the best way (or the only truly valid way) of understanding the world – what provokes the enclosure of sciences within themselves. The social order resulting from the belief in reason supremacy makes difficult any dialogue between the differences.

Transdisciplinarity, which “deals with what is at the same time between disciplines, through disciplines and beyond any discipline” (NICOLESCU, 1999, p.), leads to a revision of the models of knowledge production and organization, and to the revision of the logics which determine the comprehension of the dynamics of identities and differences in the western culture. This revision is empowered by the three pillars that determine the transdisciplinary research methodology, as pointed out by Basarab Nicolescu (NICOLESCU, 1997): the recognition of different levels of reality, the logics of the included third and complexity. We understand that these three pillars are interdependent, since the logics of the included third is only possible if different levels of reality are considered and recognized; and both the recognition and inclusion of the third term are sustained by complex thought. Therefore, the recognition of different reality levels, the logics of the included third and complexity have much to contribute to the reflections about communication and plurality, exactly because they enrich, from a new referential, the analysis and questioning of the modes of relationship with the difference10.

The revision of the separation logics is an urgent task. Its outcomes are very well known, in the several cultural, political, social and environmental crises. This way, it is worth to think the role of communication in the construction of a culture where plurality is viable and the transdisciplinary dialogue becomes effective, beyond the “walls” of exclusions. This dialogue presupposes the availability for questioning one’s own position, an opening for learning with the Other. The applications of transdiscilpinary methodologies in communication researches, as well as the trandisciplinary formation of communication agents, making them apt to dialogue, are important steps in this direction.

The challenge of transdisciplinarity dialogue and of plurality can be reached mainly by listening and learning from the relationship with the difference patterns observed in what we call the immediate experience of the sacred, which is an existential and fundamental experience not mediated by discourses or conceptions derived from a logical and rational worldview. It is the matter of mythos and mystic. As we have pointed out, in this experience, identities and differences are not irreversibly separated or opposed. To listen and to learn from this experience requires an open attitude. Otherwise, the complexity of these patterns of relationship with the differences would be seen as paradoxical, hardly comprehensible to the rational thinking.


Bibliographic References

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1 A reference document is the Universal Declaration of UNESCO about cultural diversity. This declaration considers that “Although the globalization process, facilitated by the quick evolution of new communication and information technologies, constitutes a challenge for cultural diversity, it creates possibilities of a renewed dialogue between cultures and civilizations”.

2 See, for example: UNESCO, 1983; MORAES, 2003; and, e We believe that the transdisciplinary perspective has much to contribute to these questions – usually treated from the point of view of public communication policies –, especially for giving rise to considerations about the modes of relationship with the difference, about plurality and cultural diversity in mass communication means.

3 Several studies seek to explain, from different theoretical referential, the characteristics of production and management of mediated information fluxes which implicate in this unevenness. Some examples are found in WOLF, 1999 – especially in the second part.

4 Communication field because it is from it that these questions present themselves; philosophical view because it helps us understanding the thought systems which are the basis of, and make possible, the interpretations of relationships between identities and differences present in the public space qualified by current communication practices; and transdisciplinary perspective because it proposes the revision of logics and thought systems which are inadequate in face of the great current challenges.

5 Several interesting works discuss the conditions implied in this passage. We will not discuss them here. See, for example, BUXTON, 1999; ELIADE, 1994; e VERNANT, 1980.

6 In general terms, the myth is the updating of “(…) a paradoxical state in which the opposites coexist without confrontation and where multiplicities compose the aspects of mysterious Unity. After all, It was the desire to recover this Unity that obliged man to conceive the opposites as complementary aspects of the same reality. It was from these existential experiences, triggered by the necessity of transcending the contraries, that the first theological and philosophical speculations were articulated. Before becoming philosophical concepts by excellence, the One, the Unity and Totality constituted nostalgias revealed in the myths and beliefs and were emphasized in the rites and mystical techniques.” (ELIADE, 1991).

7 In respect to the relationships between truth and “forgetting”, Detienne writes: “There isn’t though Alétheia (+) in one side and Léthe (-) in the other, but between these two poles an intermediary zone is developed in which Alétheia is progressively dislocated in the direction of Léthe, and the other way around. The ‘negative’ is not then separated from the Being; it is an outcome of the ‘truth’, its inseparable shadow.” (DETIENNE, 1988).

8 For the development and characteristics of study fields in communication, see, for example, WOLF, op.cit; MATTELART, 1999; and LOPES (org.), 2003.

9 According to Article 5 of the Transdisciplinarity Letter, adopted by the participants of the First World Transdisciplinary Congress, in Arrábida, Portugal, 1994 (NICOLESCU, 1999, p. 161).

10 For Edgar Morin, for example, (MORIN, 1998), “complex thinking is directed by the principle of distinction, but not exclusion, of subject and object”.