The Hermeneutics of Transdisciplinarity: A Gadamerian Model of Transversal Reasoning
Eric Weislogel has recently argued that the increasing hyper-specialization of higher education is creating a unique challenge for the 21st century: “It’s not that specialization needs to be overcome, it’s that individuals, communities, and civilization in general will need to develop the complementary means by which to appropriate and take the measure of all particular expertise… We must regain our ability, a facility, an adeptness, at taking the whole into our most profound concern.”2 Those of us engaged in the “science and religion dialogue” recognize Weislogel’s challenge as a call for the expansion of transdisciplinary work in the academy. According to Weislogel such an expansion will require the reclamation of transdisciplinary skills, but what are these skills, and how to we go about reclaiming them?
One crucial skill for navigating transdisciplinary spaces in a hyper-specialized world is the skill of interpretation. As knowledge grows exponentially, as scientific disciplines become further fragmented, and as religious traditions continue to complexify, the possibilities for becoming an expert in multiple arenas are diminished proportionally. So while transdisciplinary projects may be part of the antidote for the fragmentation associated with specialization, transdisciplinarity also places ever increasing hermeneutical demands on its participants who are interested in engaging across disciplines. Unfortunately, hermeneutics has not been a primary concern in the “field” of religion and science.3 There has been some specific attention paid to particular questions of interpretation (e.g. the meaning of Genesis 1-3, or the correct interpretation of quantum mechanics), but the general philosophical question of hermeneutics has not found a place of prominence in methodological discussions regarding religion and science.
I hope to begin addressing this deficiency by using the hermeneutical framework of Hans-Georg Gadamer as a critical tool for analyzing J. Wentzel van Huyssteen’s theory of interdisciplinary engagement in theology and science.4 Of particular concern is van Huyssteen’s endorsement of the idea of “transversal rationality” popularized by Calvin Schrag. Transversal reasoning emerges in interdisciplinary dialogue as “a place in time and space where our multiple beliefs and practices, our habits of thought and attitudes, our prejudices and assessments, converge.”5 This is not a naÔve, modernist type of convergence; van Huyssteen explicitly rejects appeals to universal, foundationalist assertions to ground rational discourse. Neither is rationality forced to succumb under the weight of nonfoundationalist relativism. Instead, van Huyssteen follows his “postfoundationalist” project in affirming the radical contextuality characteristic of postmodern thought without concluding that different contexts are necessarily incommensurable. The various “resources of rationality” shared across contextual and disciplinary boundaries both shape the conditions for meaningful, rational discourse and demand engagement in interdisciplinary dialogue. Transversality points to the moments and spaces of convergence within which productive interdisciplinary discourse can occur.
But what does transversality look like in practice? How are transversal opportunities identified in transdisciplinary work? How are potential transversal points of convergence selected for scrutiny and integration into constructive transdisciplinary proposals? What are the hermeneutics of transversality itself? It is not always clear how van Huyssteen envisions the practical application of transversal reasoning. In this paper I hope to bring some clarity to the idea of transversal rationality by interpreting it in light of the philosophical hermeneutics of Hans-Georg Gadamer. Specifically, I explore the potential for using Gadamer’s proposal that understanding occurs through a “fusion of horizons” as a model of transversal reasoning in transdisciplinary work. In the end, I argue that Gadamer’s hermeneutical concept of the “fusion of horizons” provides some useful and illuminating clarifications of the practical dynamics of van Huyssteen’s idea of transversal reasoning. Furthermore, by interpreting van Huyssteen in this Gadamerian fashion, I hope to begin demonstrating the power of hermeneutics for analyzing and illuminating transdisciplinary dynamics more generally.
I begin this paper by discussing the status of hermeneutics in methodological work in science and religion, and argue that more direct and careful attention to hermeneutics is required for improving the productivity of the religion and science dialogue. From there I move to discussing the work of van Huyssteen, first generally and then particularly with respect to transversal rationality, stopping briefly along the way to appreciate the role of hermeneutics in van Huyssteen’s work. I then turn to Gadamer, first summarizing his philosophical hermeneutics and then focusing on his idea of the “fusion of horizons.” It is at this point that I can finally argue that Gadamer’s fusion of horizons is a useful and clarifying model for transversality in motion.
Hermeneutics in Religion and Science
Antje JackelÈn has recently argued that hermeneutics, “the practice and theory of interpretation and understanding,” is a “necessity” for the dialogue between science and religion.6 By this she appears to mean two things: (1) that the disciplines of religion and science, and the dialogue between them are necessarily hermeneutical in that interpretation and understanding are fundamental operations within and across disciplines; and (2) that attention to hermeneutics is necessary in order to have a productive dialogue between religion and science. Hence, “a good dialogue between religion and science should always be more, but never less than hermeneutics.”7 I believe that JackelÈn is eminently correct about the necessity of hermeneutics in both respects, which is why the relative scarcity of hermeneutics in transdisciplinary reflection is so unfortunate. JackelÈn’s own brief attention to this question is provocative and programmatically suggestive,8 but it is an exception in the religion and science arena, where hermeneutics is largely ignored.
Demonstrating that hermeneutical reflection is largely absent in the discussions of religion and science is a challenge because it is essentially an argument from absence. As I cannot make an exhaustive argument in support of my claim, I will instead offer analyses of three notable methodological proposals as suggestive evidence. I begin with Ian Barbour, whose four-fold typology of ways to relate religion and science is now considered a classic treatment in the field.9 While acknowledging its seminal importance, Barbour’s argument for the “four views” of conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration has received considerable critique.10 My intention here is not to add to that criticism, but to merely make the observation that hermeneutics does not make a significant contribution to Barbour’s typology. He discusses specific problems of interpretation (such as the influence of biblical literalism and the various interpretations of quantum mechanics), recognizes the importance of presuppositions in shaping dialogue, and even points to the demise of scientific objectivity in the philosophy of science.11 In many ways his work is all about the different ways we interpret and understand one another across disciplines, yet hermeneutics is never explicitly addressed as a central concern that organizes his typology and cuts across each of his categories.
Turning to a more recent example, Alan Padgett offers a “mutuality model” that he hopes can lead theology and science “beyond dialogue to collegiality.”12 Padgett seeks an integration of theology and science at the level of “worldviews,” which comprise our understandings “of who we are and of the world we live in, including our system of values and our religious beliefs.”13 Worldviews, according to Padgett, shape interpretations,14 so if theology and science ever hope to get along we must develop a worldview in which both can operate. He is also aware that contemporary philosophy of science has dismantled positivist objectivism,15 and argues that, like science, theology can seek “explanations” of its own sort.16 It is not difficult to see that hermeneutics is lurking behind these elements of Padgett’s proposal, but it is never explicitly addressed as a proper mode of philosophical inquiry in its own right. Consequently, one wonders if Padgett’s appeal to the “broad and flexible”17 concept of a “worldview” without due attention to the hermeneutical question of how context actually shapes understanding lacks sufficient specificity to be ultimately convincing.
Mikael Stenmark offers a substantially more complex “multidimensional” model for relating science and religion that attempts to move beyond the limitations of Barbour’s typology in a way that makes room for the dynamic and evolving nature of that relationship.18 Stenmark outlines four dimensions of science and religion that need to be carefully considered:
- the social dimension (science and religion as social practices performed by people in cooperation within a particular historical and cultural setting);
- the teleological dimension (the goals of scientific and religious practices);
- the epistemological or methodological dimension (the means developed and used to achieve the goals of science and religion); and
- the theological dimension (the beliefs, stories, theories, and the like that the practice of science and religion generates).19
The importance of Stenmark’s contribution should not be underestimated: his multidimensional model helpfully shifts the focus away from merely theoretical considerations to the pragmatic and contextual conditions within which rationality operates and religion and science are practiced. The strength of this approach lies in its explanatory power, yet despite all its practicality the hermeneutical dynamics of religious and scientific practices are never made explicit.
The historical marginalization of hermeneutics in the field of religion and science is most likely rooted in two related factors. The first is that work in religion and science has tended to privilege engagement with the natural sciences over the human and social sciences. This dominance of the natural sciences in transdisciplinary work has waned considerably in recent years, but the natural sciences continue to hold a place of prominence in both academic work and the public consciousness. The second, related factor is that philosophical hermeneutics developed in a context that accepted a sharp distinction between the natural and the human sciences, so much so that hermeneutics and the quest for understanding were concerns isolated to the human sciences whereas natural science was assumed to be about a different sort of enterprise: the methodological search for objective explanations of measurable and testable phenomena. The combination of these two factors have contributed to the conclusion that for transdisciplinary work in religion and science hermeneutics is either irrelevant or isolated to theological-exegetical concerns.
The demise of positivism in post-Kuhnian philosophy of science has led to a new appreciation for the hermeneutical character of all the sciences, including the natural sciences. Joseph Rouse, as one notable example among many, criticizes the positivist confidence in the objectivity and value-neutral character of science by emphasizing the role of power in the scientific process. Science is an inherently practical endeavor, so “we cannot readily separate the epistemological and political dimensions of the sciences: the very practices that account for the growth of scientific knowledge must also be understood in political terms as power relations that traverse the sciences themselves and that have a powerful impact on other practices and institutions and ultimately upon our understanding of ourselves.”20 Rouse’s work points to the deeply hermeneutical character of the natural sciences by emphasizing the political and cultural influences on scientific practice.21
Meanwhile, the tradition of philosophical hermeneutics in thinkers like Heidegger, Gadamer, and Ricoeur has also sparked new reflection on the hermeneutical character of theology beyond mere exegetical issues, particularly in light of postmodern challenges.22 So if it is true that both religion and science are profoundly hermeneutical, then it follows that any attempt to relate religion and science in transdisciplinary work will also be inherently hermeneutical in nature. This confirms one of Antje JackelÈn’s two assertions above: that hermeneutics is a necessary component of religion, science, and the dialogue between them. But what can we make of her second claim? Would attention to hermeneutics improve the quality of transdisciplinary work itself? Why should we pay attention to hermeneutics?
I believe that one only needs to consider how contemporary debates about religion and science are played out in the public arena to conclude that not only is hermeneutics involved in religion and science, but also that attention to hermeneutical dynamics is ultimately necessary for improving the quality of the dialogue itself. The ongoing and frequently heated academic and public debates about evolution, creation, and more recently “intelligent design” are a case in point. The intelligent design movement, or ID, began as a reaction to what it saw as pernicious overreaching by some scientists and philosophers who interpret the theory of evolution in materialist and reductionist terms. Strictly speaking, there is nothing about the theory of evolution that requires the conclusion that God does not exist. It is only through a filter of certain philosophical presuppositions that evolution must be understood as a threat to religious belief, presuppositions which are not by themselves scientific (even if scientists commonly hold them). Apparently, members of the ID movement share these same presuppositions, at least to some degree, given the substance of their reaction. Rather than focus their critique on the ways in which some atheist scientists and philosophers interpret evolution, they instead choose to attack the theory of evolution itself. The scientific evidence, or so ID claims, actually warrants the conclusion that a higher intelligence has been at work in designing the natural world, and this conclusion is more compelling than a comprehensive theory of evolution. The choice to attack scientific materialism in this manner locates the debate squarely within the boundaries of science, because it questions how scientific data should be interpreted by scientists.
Notice how attention to transdisciplinary hermeneutics can help us understand what is really going on in the debates surrounding the ID movement. First, the key issue is inherently hermeneutical: how scientific data is interpreted. Second, this is not the only hermeneutical issue available for debate. The question of how to interpret the theory of evolution itself, if we accept its scientific claims with most scientists, is arguably the better, more productive question to ask. Third, in hermeneutical terms it is clear that certain assumptions or “preunderstandings” shared by both sides are limiting the range of possible solutions to the conflict. Fourth, the choice to locate the debate within scientific disciplinary boundaries helps explain one reason why most scientists have resisted the claim that ID is “good science.” ID’s reaction to the hermeneutically suspect overreaching of scientific materialists has been to engage in its own form of cross-disciplinary overreaching, as if the best way to stop a bully is to become a bully yourself.
In general, recognizing that people on both sides of science and religion debates are hermeneutical agents coming from different contexts with different commitments and presuppositions can be very productive in both analyzing the contours of these conflicts and in projecting possible resolution strategies. But the importance of hermeneutics for transdisciplinary work is not limited to conflict assessment and resolution. Because all transdisciplinary work is essentially hermeneutical, even the most well-meaning and constructive transdisciplinary proposals must pay careful attention to the hermeneutical dynamics involved. It is one of my primary purposes in this paper to begin demonstrating this claim by painting transversal rationality in a hermeneutical light.
Van Huyssteen and Transversal Rationality
The theme of rationality is a hallmark of J. Wentzel van Huyssteen’s work,23 and in the problem of rationality he finds the important and only key for understanding the domains of theology and science and building interdisciplinary bridges between them.24 He points to a curious co-presence of two contemporary intellectual trends that make rationality a problem: “superior notions of natural scientific rationality and pluralist, postmodern views that radically reject all notions of neutrality and universality.”25 The modernist notion that natural science engages in a superior form of rationality has long proven to be a challenge to theology, which has struggled to carve out a place for itself in this landscape. Fortunately, as we’ve already noted, postmodern philosophy of science has systematically dismantled this positivist ideal, even if the broader culture is still enchanted by its power. But postmodernity is not wholly benevolent, and the postmodern challenge to rationality has proven equally difficult for theology. In particular, postmodern nonfoundationalist epistemology, despite its valid critique of modernist foundationalism, in its extremes can encourage a nihilist relativism that dismantles meaningful rational discourse altogether.
Van Huyssteen proposes that a compelling response to the postmodern critique of foundationalism can be found in a “postfoundationalist” model of rationality that fully acknowledges contextuality, the epistemic role of interpreted experience, and the power of traditions in shaping values.26 At the same time, such a rationality model will not only create space for cross-disciplinary conversation, but will in fact encourage such interdisciplinary reflection as a proper expression of human rationality more generally. Postfoundationalist rationality can effectively split the difference between foundationalism and nonfoundationalism by removing epistemology from the domain of abstract theories regarding the a-contextual justification of propositions (a space shared by both modern and reactionary postmodern epistemologies) and relocating it in practical inquiries into “the way we form our beliefs and how and why we hold on to them in the various domains of our lives.”27 By resituating the problem of rationality within the space of embodied, contextual, communicative practice, van Huyssteen can argue that there are common “resources of rationality” shared across boundaries of discipline, context, and tradition. This means, in my own gloss on van Huyssteen’s proposal, we can find common ground without needing to ground our commonality.
The three shared resources of rationality, or “epistemological overlaps,” that van Huyssteen identifies are the quest for intelligibility, responsible judgment skills, and progressive problem-solving. First, the quest for intelligibility is “a quest for optimal understanding that as a survival strategy is a most important part of out evolutionary heritage”28 This pursuit is not unique to science, but is shared by all the domains within which we form beliefs, make deliberate choices, and act in particular ways. Second, responsible judgment skills take shape within a back-and-forth process of personal judgment and intersubjective accountability. On the one hand, rational reflection is embedded within traditions that shape our living contexts and contextual commitments. On the other hand, our commitments remain incomplete without a self-critical stance in relation to our traditions, which enables a cross-contextual movement as we reach out beyond the boundaries of a particular tradition. It is precisely this back-and-forth postfoundationalist process, van Huyssteen argues, that can successfully split the difference between modernity and postmodernity. Finally, progressive problem-solving is not to be equated with the “faulty, modernist doctrines of progressive knowledge that too easily conflate rationality with progress.”29 Instead, van Huyssteen advocates for a qualified form of intellectual progress that involves the responsible choice of and commitment to theories, models, and even research traditions that are judged to be the most effective problem-solvers within a concrete context.30
The presence of common resources of rationality ensures that interdisciplinary engagement is possible, but it does not yet indicate in what manner such engagement should take place. To begin answering this question van Huyssteen adopts the idea of “transversal rationality” popularized by Calvin Schrag. The metaphor of transversality is borrowed from mathematics (and other disciplines), where it indicates the intersection of a line with another line or surface. Transversal rationality is likewise about the occasional intersection of disciplinary concerns. It is “a lying across, an extending over, a linking together, and an intersecting of various forms of discourse, modes of thought, and action. Transversal reasoning thus emerges as a place in time and space where our multiple beliefs and practices, our habits of thoughts and attitudes, our prejudices and assessments, converge.”31 Such transversal moments of convergence enable us to achieve a “wide reflective equilibrium,” a communal space within which deep personal convictions and responsible interdisciplinary judgments can coexist.32
But what would transversal reasoning look like in practice? Van Huyssteen again appropriates Schrag in outlining three interrelated “moments” of transversal communicative praxis: evaluative critique, engaged articulation, and incursive disclosure. Evaluative critique involves the critical discernment employed in making decisions to connect, modify, or maintain dissensus between discourses across disciplines. Engaged articulation involves rendering an account, providing optimal reasons, and articulating meaning for interdisciplinary positions in a social context. Incursive disclosure refers to the claim that our positions have referential content; they pertain to reality without requiring correspondence.33 These three praxial moments of interdisciplinary rationality serve to paint transversal rationality as a viable alternative to the universal claims of modernity, while still allowing for interdisciplinary dialogue regarding our commitments to and reasons for beliefs about the real world. Yet, we are still far away from a practical explanation of how transversal reasoning is actually applied in interdisciplinary work.
In my opinion, van Huyssteen’s work on the epistemological and methodological questions surrounding the interdisciplinary engagement of theology and science remains without parallel, but this doesn’t mean that his model of transversal rationality is above criticism. For example, Richard Osmer, speaking as an interdisciplinary, practical theologian, has recently argued that van Huyssteen still needs to articulate and justify the principle of selection that governs the choice to transversally engage particular disciplines, persons, or perspectives.34 Others have expressed their desire to see van Huyssteen’s theory put into practice. Catherine Keller, for example, has issued this challenge:
… would this wise, erudite, and lucid thinker consider accepting the challenge of embodiment? That is, might he write a work in which his abstract methodological dialectic tests itself within the religious experience to which it points – offering a model of this theological thought in practice, perhaps incarnate in an interdisciplinary, postfoundationalist doctrine of creation, or Christ, or faith, or basileia? With his sure compass, this brilliant navigator can risk the “far from equilibrium” perils of scriptural metaphor and theological construction.35
Osmer and Keller both point to a fundamental concern of this paper: however many theoretical merits we might ascribe to the idea of transversal rationality, the practical application of transversal reasoning requires further articulation and demonstration.
Van Huyssteen has recently taken up Keller’s gauntlet by engaging the question of human uniqueness in an interdisciplinary project of some magnitude. The resulting book, born out of his 2004 Gifford lectures on the same topic, is an impressive proposal that is both broad in its attention to a wide array of scientific disciplines and theological proposals, and deep in its engagement with contemporary trends in both arenas.36 Not surprisingly, transversal reasoning takes center stage in this proposal as van Huyssteen puts his theory into practice. In considering the question of human uniqueness in an interdisciplinary fashion, van Huyssteen identifies three disciplinary arguments for transversal intersection: “the epistemological argument from evolutionary biology, the historically diverse and rather fragmented argument from theology, and complex, multileveled scientific arguments from contemporary paleoanthropology.”37 I will later comment on some of these transversal moves, but let us first consider the various ways that van Huyssteen speaks about transversal reasoning in this context. First of all, transversality is a “heuristic device that opens up new ways for crossing boundaries between disciplines, and for identifying those interdisciplinary spaces where the relevance of scientific knowledge can be translated into the domain of Christian theology, and vice versa.”38 Transversality involves “identifying shared concerns and points of agreement,” but it also involves “exposing areas of disagreement and putting into perspective specific divisive issues that need to be discussed.”39 Van Huyssteen also speaks about transversality as a “skill” and a “performative praxis” for moving between disciplines and contexts, for crossing disciplinary and cultural boundaries.40 But this “crossing over” does not locate interdisciplinary work in one camp or another, but rather “within the transversal spaces between disciplines.”41 Finally, one particularly important task of transversal reasoning is the selection of conversation partners:
[In order] to develop a very specific multidisciplinary discourse on a very specific problem, we need to identify the various disciplinary voices that are going to be part of this conversation. And maybe more importantly, we need also to identify the very specific problems and historical/contextual environment of the discipline(s) in which it is embedded.42
The first transversal connection identified by van Huyssteen is found in evolutionary epistemology. Evolutionary epistemology, the study of how human cognition emerged and developed in evolutionary history, is itself an interdisciplinary field because it necessarily pushes beyond biology to questions of culture. Moreover, since human cognition is inextricably rooted in our evolutionary heritage, without being reducible to it, our culturally-diverse forms of rationality share this common source. This also creates a space for interdisciplinary work: “… if our various and diverse cognitive activities are linked together by the evolutionary resources of an embodied human rationality, then evolutionary epistemology succeeds, on an intellectual level, in revealing a space for true interdisciplinary reflection, the kind of epistemic context that would be a safe and friendly space for the ongoing conversation between reasoning strategies as diverse as theology and science.”43 Since religion is a cultural phenomenon likewise rooted in our evolutionary heritage without being reducible to it, van Huyssteen then finds a “minimal transversal connection” between evolutionary epistemology and the plausibility of religious belief in God. Evidently, this is a minimal connection because it does not allow for any strong claims for the existence of God, but it also sets a fairly stringent requirement on the rest of van Huyssteen’s project, which will become apparent as he considers the theological idea of the imago Dei.44
Because evolutionary epistemology stresses the biological origins of human rationality, van Huyssteen understands this fundamental transversal connection as setting transversal selection criteria that can be transported across disciplines.45 In particular, van Huyssteen uses this minimal criterion of embodied human rationality as a warrant for rejecting a large collection of theological views on the image of God that he considers to be overly abstract, esoteric, and baroque. This is one of the more controversial moves van Huyssteen makes in his study, and it deserves greater scrutiny and discussion,46 but here I only want to consider what this says about his transversal method. I believe the most important observation to make here is that different transversal connections made by the interdisciplinarian and the various disciplines at her disposal can themselves be transversally connected and mutually limiting. This is apparently what van Huyssteen means when he says that arguments can transversally intersect.
Van Huyssteen’s Alone in the World? is a monumental achievement that has set a high bar for any future transdisciplinary work in religion and science. In addition to its constructive content, it has also helped flesh out van Huyssteen’s theory of transversal rationality in some important ways. Yet, I contend that further clarification is still required. If controversies over van Huyssteen’s project on human uniqueness are forthcoming, they will most likely be focused on his decisions to engage this discipline over that discipline, this interpretation of a discipline over that interpretation, this theologian over that theologian, etc. They will also likely focus on his selection of transversal moments, and how he connects those transversal moments in an interdisciplinary fashion. It is unlikely that van Huyssteen would want or be able to provide a set of rules for making transversal decisions, but it may be possible to develop a set of hermeneutical principles to guide the transversal interpreter. It is in this way that I see hermeneutics potentially informing and clarifying van Huyssteen’s notion of transversal reasoning, and the parallel I draw with Gadamer is one (but surely not the only) way of exploring that possibility.
Van Huyssteen and Hermeneutics
To whatever degree hermeneutics is absent in the field of religion and science, van Huyssteen himself is not guilty of ignoring the hermeneutical dynamics of interdisciplinary work in theology and science. Hermeneutics does make a significant contribution to his treatment, and this can be seen in three key respects. First, van Huyssteen is well aware that the fall of positivism in the natural sciences is in large part due to the crumbling of the standard distinction between the natural and human sciences: the former seeks explanations through objective testing and measurement whereas the latter seeks understanding by interpreting observations. Second, and following on the first, is that both theologians and scientists relate to the world only through interpreted experience. Both scientific disciplines and theological traditions are thoroughly hermeneutical, social practices, and both scientists and theologians are hermeneutical agents whose knowledge and theories are laden with interpretation.47 Third, and again following on the second, van Huyssteen understands his postfoundationalist model of rationality to be fusing epistemology with hermeneutics.48 His pragmatic depiction of rationality as an existential human condition of being in the world implies that epistemology (the way we know things) is ultimately indistinct from hermeneutics (how we interpret things). Since van Huyssteen’s overall project focuses on the epistemological conditions of interdisciplinary rationality, it can then be said with some force that his whole project is also about hermeneutics.
And yet it is still the case that his project remains focused on the epistemological problem of rationality and not on the hermeneutical problem of understanding. Even if these two issues are ultimately indistinct, as van Huyssteen wants to suggest, will we miss something of importance if we fuse them too quickly in the process of our inquiry? Would transdisciplinary work appear differently if we switch our primary viewing lens from epistemology to hermeneutics? I believe the answer to these questions is yes, and it is part of my intent in this paper to test that hypothesis by scrutinizing transversal rationality from an explicitly hermeneutical perspective.
The possibility that an explicit focus on hermeneutics might prove illuminating for transversal reasoning finds some warrant in the work of Calvin Schrag, from whom van Huyssteen first appropriated the idea. The first moment of transversal reasoning, or “praxial critique,” is irreducibly hermeneutical: “Rationality as praxial critique proceeds hand in glove with rationality as interpretation. … [Rationality] is required to forge a response to the hermeneutical demand.”49 The response that Schrag proposes is transversal rationality:
… hermeneutical understanding needs to be delimited by the workings of transversal rationality. The transversal diagonal needs to be grafted onto the hermeneutical circle. Only through this metaphorical shift from the circle of understanding to the diagonal of transversal thinking can the surplus of truths, the polysemy of meanings, and the multiplicity of language games be managed.50
Recall that the moment of praxial, evaluative critique involves the discernment of transversal points of consonance, conflict, or correction across disciplinary boundaries. This discernment, according to Schrag, is a process of interpretation, such that we could be said to be engaging in the practice of “transversal hermeneutics.” In language that sounds downright Gadamerian, Schrag explains that transversality is a solution to the problem of navigating a landscape of potentially conflicting interpretations because it implies we can engage across disciplines “in a manner as to achieve convergence without coincidence.”51
Gadamer’s Philosophical Hermeneutics
The publication of Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method52 (Wahrheit und Methode) in 1960 was a decisive event in the history of philosophical hermeneutics.53 The hermeneutical perspective developed by Heidegger in Being and Time to plumb the ontology of Being was adopted by Gadamer and applied to the more traditional hermeneutical question regarding the shape of understanding in the act of interpretation. In other words, Gadamer sought to uncover the ontology of understanding, to provide a formal description of the conditions required to make understanding possible. His complex argument includes sophisticated philosophical treatments of many important questions, including the nature of aesthetics, theories of historical understanding, and the ontology of language. It is beyond the scope of this essay to cover each of these elements, so we will focus on those most directly related to the task at hand. After a brief summary of Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics, we will turn our attention to focus on his claim that understanding occurs through a “fusion of horizons.”
We begin not with Gadamer, but with the historicist movement of the nineteenth century and the work of Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911). Dilthey was chiefly concerned with defending the legitimacy of the human sciences (Geisteswissenschaften) as autonomous sciences, particularly in light of the strong claims of objectivity made by the natural sciences. His strategy for liberating the human sciences was to seek an unshakable, philosophical foundation that could deliver a method for the human sciences on par with the scientific method of the natural sciences. Of particular concern to Dilthey was the objectivity of historical research, but in order to claim that historical knowledge could be considered scientific knowledge he had to maintain, according to Gadamer, that the historian must “sever one’s bond with life, to attain distance from one’s own history, which alone makes it possible for that history to become an object.”54 The human sciences largely accepted this objectifying impulse of Dilthey’s historicist program.
Gadamer recognizes a fundamental flaw with Dilthey’s approach: Dilthey “was always attempting to legitimate the knowledge of what was historically conditioned as an achievement of objective science, despite the fact that the knower is himself conditioned.”55 Gadamer, following Heidegger, understands that the essential historicity of human beings (the temporality of Dasein) means that history can never be objectified in the “scientific” sense. According to Gadamer, what most distinguishes the human sciences from the natural sciences is hermeneutics, since its “theme and object of research are actually constituted by the motivation of the inquiry.”56 Here is where Dilthey’s quest to find a method for the human sciences becomes especially problematic, because “the important new task of hermeneutics could be performed only if one abandoned the search for a methodology based on a universally valid foundation.”57 Hence, Gadamer’s project in Truth and Method can be understood as a formal description of the hermeneutical conditions involved in the understanding of truth in the absence of a method for the human sciences.
Since we’ve already discussed the fall of positivism in postmodern philosophy of science and the rise of hermeneutical awareness in the natural sciences,58 it is worth pausing at this point to consider the sharp distinction Gadamer makes between the hermeneutical, human sciences and the objective, natural sciences. Joel C. Weinsheimer argues that Gadamer was most surely wrong to make such a sharp distinction, and his rejection of method is itself dependent on this fundamental mistake.59Nevertheless, if we keep in mind the very narrow, rigid, and essentially positivistic understanding of method that Gadamer is working with, we may still follow him in his rejection of such a method in the human sciences and in the processes of understanding in general. At the same time, it is in principle possible to rehabilitate method in light of the hermeneutical character of all human inquiry, but it will necessarily look quite different from a positivist, scientific method. In fact, one way of understanding van Huyssteen’s proposal for an interdisciplinary rationality is as an elaboration of just such a rehabilitated method, although van Huyssteen himself is careful never to claim that he is developing a method.
Returning to Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics, Gadamer again follows Heidegger in affirming the hermeneutical importance of fore-understandings or “prejudices.” Here we are confronted with another dubious legacy of the idea that science can deliver value-free, objective truth: “the fundamental prejudice of the Enlightenment is the prejudice against prejudice itself.”60 Gadamer attempts to reclaim the meaning of prejudice as a prior judgment that can either be true or false. Prejudices are a fact of life, they cannot be escaped or set aside because they are a fundamental facet of our historicity: “the prejudices of the individual, far more than his judgments, constitute the historical reality of his being.”61 In the words of Grondin:
There can be no question of merely setting aside one’s prejudices; the object is, rather, to recognize and work them out interpretively. Thus Gadamer allies his position with Heidegger’s idea that the very first task of interpretation consists in self-critique: working out one’s own fore-projections so that the subject matter to be understood can affirm its own validity in regard to them. Since the understanding can often be misled by erroneous fore-conceptions, and since this danger can never be wholly avoided, interpreters must endeavor to develop appropriate interpretive initiatives from within their own situation.62
Of crucial importance in this task of self-critique is the foregrounding of our prejudices, which involves becoming aware of our prejudices and suspending their validity.
As part of his attempt to rehabilitate prejudices as conditions of understanding, Gadamer addresses the question of tradition. Like history, tradition is not something capable of being objectified. Rather, we are always within traditions, “it is always a part of us.”63
We judge by legitimate prejudices: the standards and practices that have arisen in the course of history by the community of interpreters who open themselves up to what tradition says. Gadamer warns us not to reify tradition and think it is simply given; moreover, tradition is not to be viewed as a seamless whole, but contains competing traditions which make conflicting claims.64
We are also not wholly determined by our tradition(s). Understanding is a dialectical process involving the confrontation of a person’s self-understanding (shaped by tradition) and that which is encountered; “it is an understanding already placed in history and tradition, and it can understand the past only by broadening its horizon to take in the thing encountered.”65
Notice that Gadamer, again like Heidegger, sees all understanding as self-understanding, which, according to Weinsheimer is Gadamer’s version of the hermeneutical circle. We understand by projecting a predetermined sense of the whole, with certain expectations of the very meaning we seek, guided by our prejudices.66 Furthermore, understanding can be viewed as self-understanding because understanding is less about the interpreter questioning and more about the interpreter being questioned. To understand a text is to understand the question being asked by the text, and this moment of understanding takes place “by our attaining the hermeneutical horizon,” which is the horizon of the question being posed by the text.67 This leads us to Gadamer’s provocative idea that understanding occurs through a “fusion of horizons.”
Gadamer appropriates the metaphor of “horizon” from Husserl’s phenomenological analysis of consciousness. For Husserl, horizon is another way of describing context,68 but for Gadamer a horizon is “the range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point.” The metaphor is powerful because to have a horizon not only implies a limit to our vision, but also that we can expand our horizon to see beyond that limit. Like the idea of context, a horizon both shapes us and can be shaped by us. This is important for hermeneutics because the act of interpretation involves “acquiring the right horizon of inquiry for the questions evoked by the encounter with tradition.”70 Understanding involves reaching for a “superior breadth of vision” so that we can “look beyond what is close at hand.”71 This is accomplished by a process of foregrounding our prejudices, a self-critical bringing to light of the presuppositions that we bring to the task of interpretation. In fact, it is precisely this set of prejudices that constitutes a person’s horizon at a particular moment in time, although our horizons are never static. Our horizons are continually being formed as we continuously test our prejudices against the present, which is merely a function of existing as temporal, historical beings.
Understanding occurs, according to Gadamer, through a “fusion of horizons” (Horizontverschmelzung). Here, Gadamer has in mind the particular dynamics of interpreting classical historical texts. In addition to the horizon constituted by our own present set of prejudices, we also project a different historical horizon for the historical text in question. By “fusion” Gadamer does not mean assimilation or annihilation of one horizon by another. Instead, the process of understanding includes foregrounding, or “consciously bringing out” the discontinuities between the present horizon of the interpreter and the historical horizon of the text (which is itself a projection of the interpreter). Only then can the two horizons be rewoven into the fabric of the tradition from which the horizons first sprang.
Transversal Reasoning as a Fusion of Horizons
There is more than a bit of irony involved in my employing Gadamer’s idea of the “fusion of horizons” to help clarify the practical dynamics of transversal reasoning in van Huyssteen’s interdisciplinary theory, and this is true in three respects. The first two we are already familiar with: (1) Gadamer accepted the strong distinction between the natural and human sciences that van Huyssteen wants to leave behind, and (2) Gadamer spurned developing a practical, hermeneutical method, yet I am proposing that his ideas have pragmatic value for interdisciplinary methodology. However, we’ve seen that when these two issues are considered together they do not in principle prohibit the development of a “method” of sorts that is not bound to a positivist ideal. The second irony is also mitigated in our immediate context by the fact that van Huyssteen is also careful not to claim he is developing a method. Instead, transversal reasoning is a skill, heuristic device, or performative praxis. The third potential irony regards the observation that Gadamer’s concept of “horizon” is arguably itself vague, which could mean that I am merely proposing to employ one vague concept to clarify another vague concept. I am aware of this challenge, and yet I believe that the hermeneutical concept still helps to illuminate practical dynamics of transversality that might otherwise have been missed.
In addition to these apparent ironies, there are also compelling reasons for putting Gadamer and van Huyssteen into conversation. First, they are both committed to forms of realism. William Hathaway argues that Gadamer, in contrast to other antirealists in philosophical hermeneutics like Derrida and Rorty, is himself a realist, which makes his work fruitful for articulating a cross-disciplinary integration of psychology and Christianity at the level of interpretive understanding.72 Van Huyssteen is also a realist,73 and the critical realism he espouses is presupposed in his interdisciplinary work. Second, both Gadamer and van Huyssteen are interested in the formal conditions necessary for understanding. Gadamer’s proposal is essentially a formal description of the ontology of understanding in general, whereas van Huyssteen’s theoretical work focuses on the formal conditions necessary for interdisciplinary understanding. Finally, both thinkers share a certain degree of optimism regarding the possibility of achieving understanding. In fact, both Gadamer and van Huyssteen have been criticized for such optimism.74 These three similarities between Gadamer and van Huyssteen point to a profound connection between their projects: both are interested in clarifying how contextually-situated individuals can still reach out across contextual, spacio-temporal boundaries to achieve real understanding. It should therefore not surprise us to find that Gadamer’s hermeneutical theories have explanatory potential for interpreting van Huyssteen’s interdisciplinary proposal.
Our Gadamerian analysis of transversal reasoning will focus on identifying the various hermeneutical horizons at play in transdisciplinary efforts, and how the locations on these horizons where “fusion” occurs coincide with transversal moments. The first challenge facing us it to determine to what we are referring in claiming that transversal reasoning can be understood as a fusion of horizons. What would be the horizons involved in such a fusion? Let’s try a few ideas on for size. One possibility is that the “horizon of religion” is being fused to the “horizon of science,” or vice versa. This appears prima facie plausible, especially in light of the “science and religion dialogue” we talk so much about. After all, aren’t most of us hopeful that some day we will be able to really understand one another? Unfortunately, this is neither what van Huyssteen means by transversal reasoning nor is it a faithful application of Gadamer’s idea. The social phenomena we refer to as “religion” and “science” are simply too broad and diverse to ever qualify for a transdisciplinary relationship that transcends specific, concrete transversal moments found between specific scientific disciplines and religious traditions. Furthermore, although Gadamer can speak meaningfully about the “horizon of the text,” for Gadamer, horizons don’t exist abstracted apart from the minds of interpreters. The horizon of the text is certainly a function of its actual content, and the text “questions” the interpreter in the act of understanding, but this horizon it is still a projection of the interpreter and therefore does not exist in abstraction from the interpreter’s own embodied thoughts. Similarly, religion and science do not possess their own horizons in the Gadamerian sense.
The same problem exists for the possibility that transversal reasoning involves the fusing of the horizons of one or more scientific disciplines with the horizons of one or more religious traditions. Although van Huyssteen is eminently correct in asserting that transdisciplinary work must be focused on particular disciplines and traditions,75 it is still the case that disciplines/traditions do not possess horizons abstracted apart from the individuals who work in those disciplines/traditions. This opens up a third possibility, which is that transversal reasoning involves the fusing of multiple horizons constituted by the disciplinary presuppositions of one or more scientists and one or more theologians. This option has the advantage of locating horizons in the prejudices of individual interpreters, but we must again ask ourselves if this is faithful to Gadamer’s proposal. Although it is true that interpretation is required in any social interaction, and that human-to-human encounters require acts of understanding for any kind of communication, this is simply not the situation Gadamer had in mind when he proposed that understanding occurs through a fusion of horizons. It is possible (and perhaps ultimately preferable) that Gadamer’s theory could be amended to include the hermeneutics of personal encounter, but without such an emendation we cannot apply it to our situation in good faith.
Besides, this is not really what transdisciplinary work looks like in practice. This observation reveals a limitation inherent in the language we often use to discuss the transdisciplinary dynamics at work in religion and science. The dominance of metaphors that paint what occurs in religion and science in terms of a “dialogue” may actually be misleading and inattentive to the actual practice of transdisciplinary projects. While it is true that actual conversations and real dialogue between scientists and theologians do frequently occur (and sometimes get published), the vast majority of transdisciplinary work is undertaken by individual theorists who draw upon specific work in both religion and science in developing constructive proposals (van Huyssteen’s Alone in the World? is a case in point). Such persons will likely identify more strongly with either a religious tradition or scientific discipline as their “home discipline,” but it is only in this narrow sense that it can be said that they are engaged in a “dialogue” of sorts between their home discipline and the other disciplines/traditions with which they are theoretically engaged.76
Acknowledging the limitations of dialogical metaphors and properly characterizing the nature of transdisciplinary work should help us pinpoint the specific sense in which transversal reasoning may be understood to be a fusion of horizons. Recall that transversality first involves a moment of evaluative critique, during which the transdisciplinarian identifies potential transversal moments and decides to connect, modify, or maintain dissensus across disciplinary boundaries. We saw in van Huyssteen’s own work that this step takes practical shape as the transdisciplinarian chooses to accept the perspectives of some thinkers and reject those of others, based on conformity to transdisciplinary criteria. In van Huyssteen’s case, we also saw that not only scientific theories require such critical discernment and selection but theological perspectives as well. In effect, then, transversal reasoning takes shape as an individual transdisciplinarian surveys the wide array of scientific and theological viewpoints potentially relevant to her concerns and then selects particular views and theories deemed worthy of appropriation and integration into her transdisciplinary proposal. As such, it is the horizon of the transdisciplinarian – the transversal interpreter – that is paramount, and each transversal moment is a fusion of that horizon and the projected horizon of a particular theological construction or scientific idea.
When understood in this way, the intuitive parallels between a fusion of horizons and a transversal connection should be clear. Both cases involve a person who intentionally moves out of himself to seek points of contact with a potentially distant object(s) of inquiry which in turn will hopefully leads to experiences of understanding. But how does this help us? In what ways is our hermeneutical interpretation of transversality a useful model for transdisciplinary practice? There are at least four points in favor of our Gadamerian model of transversal reasoning:
(1) The exercise of clarifying the interpretive horizons at play in the transversal moment highlighted in an especially forceful way the fact that transdisciplinarians are essentially hermeneutical agents, capable of achieving understanding across disciplinary boundaries only through acts of interpretation. This confirms an earlier observation about the inherently hermeneutical nature of interdisciplinary work, and it again emphasizes that conflict assessment and resolution should be focused hermeneutically and not only theoretically. In fact, Gadamer has been used in other contexts to suggest conflict resolution techniques that focus on finding mutual understanding.77
(2) A fundamental task involved in the fusion of horizons is the foregrounding of prejudices by the interpreter, and this should be an important guiding principle for the transdisciplinarian involved in transversal reasoning. Van Huyssteen himself would applaud such an impulse, given his repeated emphasis on the self-critical stance required for productive interdisciplinary work conducted in a postfoundationalist mode.78 A self-awareness of our prejudices involves conscious reflection on how we have been profoundly shaped by the living traditions within which we stand. One way that van Huyssteen could improve his theory of transversal reasoning would be to describe how responsible transversal decisions are made in light of personal prejudices brought to the table. This would undoubtedly be challenging, both to describe and to execute, but is only through the difficult process of foregrounding prejudices that transversal, interdisciplinary work can avoid what could be called the “demagoguery of the transdisciplinarian.”
(3) Gadamer’s work reminds us that transdisciplinarians have a stake in the interdisciplinary task, because all understanding is also self-understanding. The transdisciplinary mood of questioning subject matter is all too familiar to those of us doing transdisciplinary work, but how often do we reflect on the ways that we ourselves are being questioned by the things being questioned? This observation can help humanize transdisciplinary work in religion and science by emphasizing that transversal moments are also potential moments of transformation.
(4) A transversal fusion of horizons involves an expansion of vision and a projection of interpretive possibilities, which points to the constructive potential of transdisciplinary work. Conscious reflection on as-of-yet unacknowledged transversal opportunities has the potential to enrich the science and religion dialogue by encouraging novel and fruitful transdisciplinary proposals. At the same time, if we take Gadamer seriously we will see that the search for novelty is not free to go in any direction it chooses, but is always rooted in the object of inquiry and the demands it makes of us. This should remind us that our transdisciplinary proposals must remain faithful to the integrity of the various disciplines with which we are making transversal connections.
We began this journey by noting that transdisciplinary work is both needed for and complicated by the increasing hyper-specialization of the academy. Hermeneutics, as we’ve begun to demonstrate in this essay, will be a crucial skill for thriving in such a milieu. I am not the first person to see potential in Gadamer’s “fusion of horizons” for enriching the dialogue between religion and science. Ursula King, for example, argues thus:
A “fusion of horizons” will lead to larger horizons, to new views and shared understanding. This fusion is also important for the dialogue between science and religion, and it is likely to be far more creative and holistic than advocating a strongly adversarial stance between these universes of discourse and knowing. … Fusing and expanding the horizons of both science and religion through creative dialogue from many perspectives could be of immense benefit for humankind.79
King’s vision of a productive religion and science dialogue is enticing, but it cannot be realized until hermeneutics becomes a central question and concern for transdisciplinary work.
My specific argument in this essay was that Gadamer’s hermeneutical notion that understanding occurs through a fusion of horizons provides a useful and clarifying model of van Huyssteen’s theory of interdisciplinary, transversal rationality. Although I was careful to demonstrate the ways in which van Huyssteen is aware of and attentive to various hermeneutical dimensions of transdisciplinary work, and in this regard somewhat unique among pundits of religion and science dynamics, I recognize that my argument may also bring certain aspects of van Huyssteen’s project into critical focus. Most generally, the practical dynamics of transversal reasoning require further explication and clarification. More specifically, the observation that postmodern philosophy of science has effectively blurred the distinction between epistemology and hermeneutics requires more sustained and careful scrutiny. I want to argue that hermeneutics brings an alternative and illuminating perspective to the question of how religion and science can relate in a transdisciplinary fashion, a perspective perhaps otherwise missed if epistemology and rationality constitute the sole framework within which this question is asked. But if epistemology and hermeneutics are ultimately indistinct, or at least indistinguishable, how can I make such a claim? Or have postmodern philosophers of science, and van Huyssteen in turn, been too hasty in bringing epistemology and hermeneutics into convergence? What are the important distinctions, if any, between hermeneutics and epistemology, and can we advocate for such distinctions and still support a pragmatic, embodied approach to epistemology? These are a few of the challenging philosophical questions prompted by this project, questions worthy of further reflection.
2 “What Really Is the ‘Science and Religion Dialogue’ All About?” April 19, 2006. https://www.metanexus.net/magazine/tabid/68/id/9484/Default.aspx
3 By ‘field’ I mean the growing group of academics and body of literature treating the questions of how science and religion have related in the past, do relate in the present, and should relate in the future.
4 Van Huyssteen consistently uses the term “interdisciplinary” instead of “transdisciplinary” and situates the dialogue between “theology and science” rather than “religion and science.” I will use the former terminology when referring to van Huyssteen’s work (or other’s who use similar terms), and the latter terminology when speaking more generally.
10 Including from van Huyssteen: “Ian Barbour’s well-known, and helpful, fourfold taxonomy for relating religion and science … may now be too generic, too universal, as categories that intend to catch the complexity of the ongoing exchange between these two dominant forces in our culture.” Duet or Duel? Theology and Science in a Postmodern World (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1998), 3.
23 For a brief summary of van Huyssteen’s career and how the theme of rationality pervades and structures his work, see my essay: “The Evolution of van Huyssteen’s Model of Rationality,” in The Evolution of Rationality: Interdisciplinary Essays in Honor of J. Wentzel van Huyssteen, ed. F. LeRon Shults (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006): 1-16.
34 Richard Robert Osmer, “Toward a Transversal Model of Interdisciplinary Thinking in Practical Theology,” in The Evolution of Rationality: Interdisciplinary Essays in Honor of J. Wentzel van Huyssteen, ed. F. LeRon Shults (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), 342-45.
46 Personally, I see a potential conflict between, on the one hand, van Huyssteen’s insistence that each discipline be evaluated contextually first and only then transversally (159) and, on the other hand, his quick dismissal of theological models he finds overly abstract, apparently because evolutionary epistemology tells him so (105). Moreover, I wonder whether the limiting function of different transversal moments will inevitably push toward a minimalist, “least common denominator” theological construction, which would seem to give science an inherent advantage and controlling function in the interdisciplinary task.
49 Calvin O. Schrag, The Resources of Rationality: A Response to the Postmodern Challenge, Studies in Continental Thought (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), 68. Consider also the location of another essay on transversal rationality within a volume devoted to hermeneutics: “Transversal Rationality,” in The Question of Hermeneutics: Essays in Honor of Joseph J. Kockelmans, ed. Timothy J. Stapleton (Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1994), 61-78.
74 Christian Early, for example, criticizes van Huyssteen for being too optimistic about the non-existence of incommensurable reasoning strategies; review of The Shaping of Rationality, by J. Wentzel van Huyssteen, Modern Theology 16, no. 3 (Jul 2000): 407-408.
76 It should be noted that van Huyssteen’s model of transversal reasoning does include space for actual dialogue. Recall that in Schrag’s three moments of transversal communicative praxis – evaluative critique, engaged articulation, and incursive disclosure – the second moment of engaged articulation is where dialogue can occur. In this analysis, I am focusing on the first moment of evaluative critique, as it is here where transversal moments and “dialogue partners” are first identified.
77 Gremmen and Jacobs, 315-27. They examine what they call the “dilemma of sustainability,” which is a situation in ecology where different economic sectors are in conflict because their strategies for environmental sustainability are incompatible (they highlight a recent conflict between fisheries and energy companies in the Pacific Northwest). In such situations the common resolution strategy is to engage in negotiations involving the trading off of interests. They argue that Gadamer can be utilized to reframe these situations as “controversies” of interpretation, which suggests that resolution strategies can instead focus on achieving mutual understanding. In Gadamerian terms, the two groups in conflict are different reader-groups with competing interpretations of the “text” of sustainability. As such, each group must engage in processes of foregrounding prejudices, explicating historical horizons of inquiry, and recognizing that understanding is the application of something universal to something particular, which can then lead conflicting groups to stances of openness and conversations oriented toward a fusion of horizons.