Towards a Transdisciplinary Hermeneutics

Towards a Transdisciplinary Hermeneutics

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1. Introduction

The Problem

The central theme of this conference “Transdisciplinarity and the Unity of Knowledge – beyond the Science and Religion debate” is a very important and relevant one for the world that we are facing and living in today. The quest for the ‘unity’ of our knowledge is being contemplated against a backdrop of some unprecedented levels of fragmentation in the world. On the one hand, we have seen a rapid proliferation of disciplines and sub-disciplines across all academic institutions all over the world – also referred to as the ‘disciplinary big bang’.1 On the other hand, we see multiple crises and problems2 in the form of global warming, energy, water, waste, poverty, forced migrations, biodiversity loss, and violence etc. – all manifesting themselves simultaneously and on a scale never experienced before in human history. Also, these global problems have serious long-term consequences. Should they remain un-solved, they pose a real threat to our continued and peaceful existence on earth. What is unique about our current situation is the complexity of what we are facing. Not only is their scale and potentially irreversible consequences part of their complex nature, but none of these problems can be singled out as the one and only ‘big problem’ threatening our future. Neither can any of these problems be isolated as if they only occur in some remote or localised spot on the earth – ‘out of site out of mind’ as the saying goes. Edgar Morin has managed to capture describing this complex situation very well by saying that we are currently living in a ‘planetary context’ confronted by a ‘polycrisis’3. Describing the same complex reality we are being faced with, Manfred Max-Neef uses the term ‘problematiques’4. Morin and Max-Neef are just two out of a growing number of thinkers who have tried to depict the fact that we are living in global / planetary era which is profoundly different to any other era in human history in which the said problems have become so intertwined that each person, nation or society on earth, irrespective of location, origin, race, class or creed, are being confronted with these challenges. However, what really distinguishes the times we are living in from any other in human history is that these problematiques or polycrisis are human-made. For the first time in our history we are being confronted with the devastating consequences of our own actions and thinking, on a global / planetary scale never experienced or witnessed before. This is truly a unique situation from which no-one can escape and it is, then, in this planetary context that we are posing the question about ‘unity of our knowledge – beyond the science/religion debate’.

Although we may not have fully comprehended the relationship between the fragmentation of the problematiques of the world and our knowledge-systems, the simultaneity of both phenomena strongly suggests that there is an interconnectedness that needs serious and ongoing exploration. However, as a point of departure, what we are increasingly becoming aware of is that the crossing the disciplinary divide constitutes a necessary prerequisite when looking for sustainable solutions to the complex problems we are facing today – we simply cannot look for solutions from within the confines of the single disciplines or sub-disciplines. The complex nature of the polycrisis we are facing clearly warrants a trans-disciplinary response, which has as its aim the development of an interdisciplinary dialogue capable not only of crossing disciplinary boundaries, but, at the same time and in the process of doing so, finding practical, long-term solutions which may have the potential of ensuring our presence on the earth for many, many generations to come.

It is then against this background of fragmentation, both in the world and in our knowledge-systems, that I will be approaching the theme of this conference from the point of view of a transdisciplinary hermeneutics. Critical to this approach will be to explore the possibilities of a conceptual framework for imagining and understanding the question of the ‘unity’ of our knowledge as a pre-condition for finding sustainable solutions to complex problems. Embedded in this approach is the argument that any attempt to find answers to the unity of our knowledge from a mono-disciplinary position within the current fragmented knowledge-systems is doomed to fail. The latter has its epistemological roots in the Cartesian subject <–> object partition. Trying to search for answers to the unity of our knowledge within this chasm not only creates a logical conundrum of how to find solutions to problems created by this fragmentary mindset in the first place5. The consequences of this approach are all too familiar to us. Once the subject–object relation has been severed at the epistemological level, it opens the door for the subject and object to drift further and further apart to the point where there is almost a complete detachment from the world and where there is no more understanding or appreciation of the relationship between our thinking and doing. The logical outflow of this position, in turn, is one of absconding ourselves from any intellectual, moral-ethical or socio-political responsibility and accountability for the consequences of our own thinking and actions. Alternatively, should we accept some form of responsibility and accountability and decide on getting involved in the task of looking for solutions, but still follow the instrumental logic of Cartesianism, we would most probably be inclined to look for techno-scientific type of solutions only. However, the last thing on our minds, literarily and figuratively speaking, would be to change the way we think – or more precisely, changing the way we think about our thinking. There would simply be no need for this as our resolve in the status of our own ideas and knowledge have undergone some spectacular transformation – from the mere dancing images or chimera on the wall inside Plato’s cave, to the absolute certainty of Cartesian mathematical principles, through to the Kantian transcendental thought categories, completely independent from the world and totally self-sufficient in and for themselves (an sich) for their own existence and validity – but always sufficiently removed from the world to, seemingly, have no relation to the crises unfolding in front of our eyes. Therefore, should we continue to allow these assumptions and ideas associated with this type of fragmentary thought into our own thinking whilst looking for the unity of our knowledge, we would certainly be running the risk of perpetuating the very problems of fragmentation we are hoping to overcome.

Thinking the Complex

The inseparability of the subject–object relation is the reverse side of the assertion that our detachment from the world and our inability to ‘see’ a connection between our thinking and doing is rooted in the subject <–> object partition. Implied in this argument is another assertion, namely that our re-connection to the world is dependent upon our ability to posit this inseparability of the subject and object as a mutually interdependent relationship. In other words, what is important for us is to imagine our own coming into consciousness as a process in which the subject becomes aware of its ‘otherness’ in the world in a self-affirming and inclusive way. To understand the emergence of this ‘otherness’ in the act of consciousness as affirming, rather than negating, the position of the nonseparability of subject–object relation presupposes what Edgar Morin has been referring to as the ability to ‘thinking the complex’. Whilst accepting the consequences of the subject distinguishing itself from the object in the act of consciousness, it means avoiding interpreting this in terms of the binary logic of Cartesianism. Instead of following this path of dualism, Morin argues that we need to reform our thinking so that what appears as ‘separation’ or ‘partition’ between the subject and object can be imagined as a relationship of ‘interdependent circularity’, or as he puts it: “a thinking that re-links that which is disjointed and compartmentalised …. a thinking capable of conceiving recursive relations”6. The ability to see the interdependent ‘recursivity’ or ‘circularity’ in the subject–object relation at the outset of self-reflexive thought is considered key in our pursuit of the unity of your knowledge. Being able to think the complexity of the subject–object relation itself allows for a reform in our thinking, without having to revert to the simplistic notions of pre-modern mysticism in which the subject can ‘know’ the world ‘directly’ in some or other magical / un-mediated way. Neither are we forced to fall back onto the positions of either positivism or idealism, two forms of reductionism in which the object and subject are set-up as opposites against each other as the ultimate locus of absolutely certain knowledge. In short, complex thinking enables us to re-imagine our connectedness to the world, to ‘see’ the links between our thinking and doing, between our thoughts and actions and, most importantly, to re-gain a sense of responsibility for the consequences of our fragmented thought.

Such then is the challenge before us to build the scientific mind capable of thinking the complex in the very act of self-consciousness. A key aspect in responding to this challenge will be our attempt to explain in more detail how the ‘interdependent circularity’ between the subject and object can be conceived of as a dynamic complex unity between the ‘transdisciplinary subject’ and ‘transdisciplinary object’. Critical to the success of this will be the incorporation of the notion of the ‘logic of the included middle’. In order to avoid that the notion of an ‘interdependent circularity’ between the subject and object from becoming the proverbial ‘vicious circle’, incorporating the ‘included middle’ plays a crucial double-edged role. By incorporating this important notion it becomes possible, on the one hand, to maintain the distinction between the subject and object, established in the act of consciousness. On the other hand, bringing in the logic of the included middle will enable us to conceptualise of the unity between the subject and object – without falling into the trap of mysticism or reductionism. Therefore, as will be argued, conceiving of the subject–object relation as a complex unity in this manner forms the basis for the possibility of a truly trans-disciplinary dialogue between all the sciences, which, in turn, is considered to be of key importance when trying to understand the unity of our thought and knowledge-systems. In other words, what needs to be demonstrated is that the unity achieved at the epistemological level, can be extended to the level of interdisciplinary dialogue where a crossing of disciplinary boundaries can be conceived of as a distinct possibility. It is against this background that it becomes very difficult, if not impossible, to imagine how the prevailing fragmented mono-disciplinary environment can provide the right intellectual space and institutional framework for finding answers to our quest for the unity of our knowledge. For the different disciplines to be able to enter into a meaningful trans-disciplinary dialogue with each other, whilst engaging with the problematiques confronting humankind, is considered to be a sine qua non for creating the necessary intellectual and institutional space and framework within which to pursue the unity of our knowledge. If this is indeed the case, then grounding such a trans-disciplinary dialogue in the notion of a complex unity between the subject and object is of critical importance. For as long as the subject and object remains to be seen as binary opposites within the Cartesian fold, it remains impossible to see on what basis the disciplinary divide can be overcome and, in turn, on what basis the unity of our knowledge can be imagined. The latter presupposes the creation of a truly trans-disciplinary intellectual space and dialogue within which the scientific mind can work relentlessly and rigorously at finding solutions to large-scale, complex problems never witnessed before in our relatively short stay on the earth.

Therefore, when viewed from such a unified perspective, ontologically and epistemologically speaking, it becomes impossible to ‘de-link’ the fragmentation in the world from our fragmented thinking and knowledge-systems. The current rather dramatic unfolding of the planetary crisis cannot only be explained in terms of certain social or market forces ‘out there’, somehow detached from ourselves and our thought-processes. Such alienation and reification of thought is impossible from the position which sees the subject–object relation as a complex unity – despite all systematic attempts to either ‘de-link’ (modernity) the subject from the object or ‘de-construct’ (post-modernity) both the subject and object as mere social reconstructions, thereby collapsing the subject–object relation per se. Furthermore, not only does an interpretation of the world from within the conception of a unified subject–object relation help us to de-mystify what otherwise would appear as ‘objective’ forces detached from our own thinking, the effects of reification, but what this perspective also offers is an understanding of the consequences of persisting with the logic of fragmentary thought into the future. This is so, not only because of the slowness or possible complete lack of response to the planetary crises facing us, but also because of persevering with the type of ‘solutions’ generated and offered by the prevailing instrumental reasoning and techno-scientific responses which have characterised and dominated our mono-disciplinary approach to these problems. Should we, therefore, uncritically allow our response(s) to the world and its problems to be dictated by the logic of fragmentary thought, we are at risk of not only having to face the consequences of our own thinking and actions, but the irreversibility of these consequences – i.e. having to face a situation where we will have no control over the consequences of the self-induced, manmade planetary crises we are facing, irrespective of what and how we think and what actions we intend taking. The persistent interference of our cumulative economic actions with Nature over the last 150 years or so would have reached and gone beyond a ‘threshold’ point where we would become mere spectators to problematiques that have spun out of control7. Whether we have already reached such a point of no-return or not is a moot point on which the proverbial jury is still out. However, what this does suggest is that there is a sense of urgency behind ur attempts to unify our fragmented knowledge-systems. The overcoming of the fractured subject <–> object relation and the consequences hereof for our interpretation, understanding and responses to the world we are living in is, certainly, not of theoretical or philosophical interest only. Consequently, it is then in this context that this particular attempt to develop a transdisciplinary hermeneutics is inspired by a vision of the world in which our knowledge-systems have become unified, where the intellectual and institutional space and framework for complex thinking and learning have been created by an ongoing and truly trans-disciplinary dialogue and where all of this are contributing to the finding of long-term, sustainable solutions to those complex problems threatening our stay on earth if remained unresolved.

Whether I succeed or fail in this endeavour I will leave up to the reader-listener to judge. However, I ask of the reader-listener to be judged from the point of view of accepting the inseparability of the subject–object relation. I, therefore, ask the reader-listener therefore not to be judged from the point of view of reductionism, where the subjectivist and objectivist positions of idealism and positivism-empiricism reign supreme on either side of the Cartesian chasm. I would also ask the reader-listener not to be judged from the even more problematic position of deconstructionism where the subject–object relation has been imploded as a result of the ‘deconstruction’ of both the ‘subject’ and ‘object’ as mere social reconstructions. I am not suggesting here not engage in rigorous debate with these positions at all, as will become clearer in my defence of hermeneutics immediately below. However, it is my view that both forms of reductionism and deconstructionism are too simplistic for our purposes of understanding and representing the complex unity of the subject–object relation. As has been alluded to so far, this notion of a ‘complex unity’ can only be imagined in terms of a notion of ‘interdependent circularity’ in which the subject, in the act of consciousness, both distinguishes itself from and identifies itself with the object. To the extent that the positions of idealism, positivism and deconstructionism fail to comprehend and represent the complex unity involved in the subject–object relation, by separating or tearing the latter apart, do they render themselves obsolete for our task at hand of developing a transdisciplinary hermeneutics which not only seeks to understand the complexity of our multi-leveled relationship to the world, but to use such understanding for the purposes of finding answers to the unity of our knowledge. It is, then, on this basis of not only seeking to understand the unity, not the separation or demolition, of the subject–object relation that this study will proceed, but also, to the extent that we succeed in doing so, to consider the positive consequences and outcomes of such hermeneutic inquiry to work towards the creation a truly trans-disciplinary dialogue between the sciences and to achieve the ultimate goal of the unification of our fragmented knowledge-systems. 

2. In Defence of Hermeneutics – Some Philosophical Considerations 

Why choose a ‘hermeneutical’ approach to focus the attention on overcoming the problem of disciplinary fragmentation? And, more specifically, why try and join ‘transdisciplinarity’ with ‘hermeneutics’ to develop a ‘transdisciplinary hermeneutics’ at a time when the field of hermeneutics has come under such severe criticism from post-modern thinkers such as Foucault and Derrida. Derrida in particular has been scathing in his attack on hermeneutics and has chosen to drop the term all together from his own philosophical vocabulary. In his philosophy of deconstruction and difference, Derrida not only disputes the possibility of discovering any form of ‘truth’, but also argues that there are no thought rules (methodologies or methods) to which we could appeal or that can guide our thinking along the way as it were. ‘Truth’ is not only an illusion as it is only through numerous socially constructed iterations and repetition that we come to believe in the ‘universality’ of these (repeated) ideas, values and principles. However, in the end, these are nothing more than social constructions and it is the task of deconstructionism to be vigilant and guard against treating any notion, including that of the ‘subject’ and ‘object’ per se, as universally true. It is, then, against this background that Derrida launches his fundamental critique of hermeneutics to the extent of getting rid of this notion altogether. For him, hermeneutics is too closely associated with the ‘discovery’ of ‘hidden meaning(s)’ somewhere to be ‘revealed’ to the hermeneut-interpreter8 whose task it is to translate these as ‘messages’ in and to a particular context. In fact, Derrida goes so far as to say that hermeneutics is per definition a theological or rabbinical project by nature – hermeneutics, even the secular versions as articulated in the thoughts of philosophers such as Heidegger, Gadamer and Husserl, in the final analysis, follows the same theological methodology, namely to repeatedly interpret and re-interpret an already-given ‘Truth’ (inscribed in the tablets on the Mountain). After having ‘received’ this ‘revealed’ message, all that remains to the interpreter is to ‘understand’ the context of the ‘receiver’ of this message and to, then, ‘translate’ and ‘explain’ the ‘meaning’ of this (a priori) message to the listener-receiver.

I do not wish to go into the detail of Derrida’s onto-theological critique of hermeneutics. What is of more interest to me at this point is to level some critique against his own thinking and, in so doing, explain why the choice of a ‘transdisciplinary hermeneutics’ is intellectually justified. Derrida’s philosophical ideas of ‘difference’, ‘repetition’ and ‘deconstruction’, in the main, have three problem areas. In the first place, to accentuate so strongly and repeatedly that there are ‘no rules’, ‘principles’ or ‘values’ to which we can appeal or fall back onto in our thinking amounts to a ‘thought rule’ in itself.  To be able to be a vigilante or guardian of the ‘no truth’ position, deconstructionism has to adopt through relentless repetition this thought rule of ‘no rules’. This position affirms, rather than contradicts, the fundamental hermeneutical notion that there is no ‘presuppositionless’ or ‘value-free’ understanding or interpretation. Our thinking will always be based on or influenced by our assumptions and it is, therefore, better to admit what these presuppositions might be, or be open to be made aware of them. Secondly, the insistence by Derrida on the principle of difference, namely that words or concepts do not have meaning in themselves, but only in their difference to other words and concepts, constitutes a logical problem of sorts. If we apply this very rule to principle to itself, then it implies that the very word ‘difference’ can only be understood in terms of what is different or dis-similar to itself – in other words, its own ‘non-difference’ which implies some or other notion of coherence. What this means is that we need a mode of thought which can think of both difference and coherence at the same time – i.e. a non-binary thinking which does not think in mutually exclusive terms only. The challenge to develop this way of ‘thinking the complex’ has already been alluded to above. Thirdly, the further repeated insistence in Derrida’s thoughts that ‘nothing is or ever was innocent, integral or undivided’ comes very close to constituting a ‘metaphysics of the divided’. Not only is such a fixed position highly problematic in terms of the notions of the ‘unity of matter’ and a ‘coherent universe’ in quantum physics9 and emerging quantum cosmologies10 respectively, but it is the binary logic and repeated insistence on ‘division’ and ‘difference’ that takes on the dimensions of the very type of metaphysical thinking which Derrida has so painstakingly tried to deconstruct.

However, acknowledging the complexity of the subject–object relationship, rather than deconstructing it, is to admit what Nicolescu has metaphorically referred to as the ‘two ends of the stick’ which can never be separated11. Or, to put it another way, applying the principle of ‘thinking the complex’ to the subject–object relationship is to admit from the outset that current fragmentation of the world and our knowledge-systems constitutes both an epistemological and ontological challenge, at the same time. Attempts to either severe the subject – object relationship will not only end up with two more sticks, each with their own inseparable subject – object ends, but attempts insisting on such separation will lead us back into the trap of Cartesianism or post-modern reductionism with a similar end-result or position of a ‘reification’ in our self-reflective thought – i.e. thinking from a position of severance or detachment from the world – the latter losing any notion of having ontological status, either as ideas / mathematical principles in the mind or as a socially or inter-subjectively reconstructed illusion. In either case, as the subject – object relationship has been severed, our ‘detached thinking’ in itself cannot be conceived of as having contributed in any way to the complex problems of the world. This is thought trapped inside itself and signifies the epitome of fragmented thinking, which has the cunning ability to “ab-stract, that is, to extract an object from a given field, (it) rejects the links and interconnections with the environment, and inserts it in the abstract conceptual zone of the compartmentalised discipline, whose boundaries arbitrarily break the systemicity (the relation of the part to the whole) and multi-dimensionality of phenomena”12.

Furthermore, not only does this type of context-less thinking have very little to contribute to finding solutions to the planetary problems, but it also works against the latter in a kind of a subversive way in that our already fragmented thought undergoes a further ‘deepening’ of fragmentation when processed, as it were, through and by the powerful forms of critique emanating from this mode of thought. Explaining this situation, Bruno Latour categorises these forms of critique into the three broad categories of ‘naturalization’ (E.O Wilson), ‘socialization’ (Philip Bourdieu) and ‘deconstruction’ (Jaques Derrida). He points out that these critics have developed these three distinct approaches to talk about our world in a manner that if the first speaks of ‘naturalised phenomena’, then societies, subjects and all forms of discourse vanish. When the second speaks of ‘fields of power’, then science, technology, texts and the contents of activities disappear. When the third speaks of ‘truth effects’, then to believe in the real existence of brain neurons or power plays becomes absolutely superfluous. He goes on to say that each of these forms of criticism of the world and our knowledge of the world is powerful in itself, but impossible to combine with the other two. Latour then asks the pertinent question whether we can imagine a study on the ozone layer or global warming as simultaneously naturalised, socialised and deconstructed. Clearly, in this context of these fragmented modes of critique, this would be highly unlikely, leading us to conclude with Latour that “our intellectual life remains recognizable as long as the epistemologists, sociologists and deconstructionists remain at arms length, the critique of each group feeding off the weaknesses of the other two. We glorify the sciences, play power games and make fun of the belief in reality, but we must not mix these three caustic acids”13. Indeed, following the logic of this mode of thought it would appear that the contours or fissures of our fragmentary thinking have been significantly deepened. Not only have we structured and institutionalised our intellectual life according to definite, almost ‘reified’, disciplinary boundaries, but surprisingly enough the self-critique of our own actions and thinking emanating from within such a fragmented structure seems to display very similar lines of division and separation.

As already mentioned, I do not wish to enter into a detailed analysis of Derrida’s deconstructionist philosophy any further. The purpose with these few cursory critical remarks is rather to explicate that the choice of a transdisciplinary hermeneutical approach to overcoming the already mentioned problem of fragmentation in our knowledge-systems is in fact a post-postmodern choice. It is to demonstrate that, at some fundamental level of our thinking, we cannot escape the logical impossibility of ‘presuppositionless’ thinking, interpretation and understanding. In fact, the very act of reaching ‘commonality’ or ‘common understanding’ is being made possible because of the presence of our different presuppositions, not because of their absence. Therefore, by bringing the key notions of hermeneutics and transdisciplinarity together holds great potential not only for being able to ‘think the complex’, i.e. the ability of conceiving simultaneously of difference and coherence, of discontinuity and continuity as interdependent recursive relationships, but also being able to demonstrate how, on the basis of this mode of thought, it becomes possible to imagine the emergence of a meaningful trans-disciplinary dialogue as a means of moving beyond disciplinary boundaries. This is a far cry from what might be construed as wanting to introduce or en-force some sort of a ‘meta science’ out of the plurality of existing sciences. ‘Transdisciplinary hermeneutics’ is rather an attempt to investigate the possibilities of not only what happens when we cross disciplinary boundaries, but also how this may happen – including looking into the consequences of this for our understanding of and responding to our unsustainable world. When looked at from this type of hermeneutical perspective, it indeed becomes possible to envisage that such a trans-disciplinary dialogue can materialize in a manner which both respects and transcends disciplinary boundaries and which, in turn, may result in the generation of ‘new’, trans-disciplinary knowledge and solutions to some of the complex problems were currently facing today.

It is then against this background of a post-postmodern position that this task of developing a transdisciplinary hermeneutics is approached. Hermeneutics originally developed as a general ‘theory of understanding’ with a vie to give a systematic