The Transdisciplinary Imperative

The Transdisciplinary Imperative

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ImageThe problems we face today—economic collapse, environmental degradation, energy needs—are so broad and complex that they seem intractable.  Plenty of brain-power is being applied to our situation, and there is no shortage of individuals trained at our blue-chip academic institutions on Wall Street , in the halls of government, and in corporate enterprises.  And yet, here we are.  But one might just wonder whether knowledge itself shares some of the blame for these troubles—I mean knowledge divorced from the larger view, divorced from the whole.  Could it be that knowledge without wisdom causes as many problems as it solves?

The economic, moral, political, environmental, technical, intellectual, scientific, and even spiritual challenges we face demand approaches that are suitably rich in resources for tackling them.  We need to learn how to take the full measure of our knowledge, to find out what it is we really know now that we know so many disciplinarily distinct things.  We need to find a way of recapturing a vision of the “forest” and not just the “trees.”  The negative consequences for failing to do so are obvious.  Our disciplinary practices inevitably give rise to the fragmentation of knowledge.  This fragmentation of knowledge leads to the fragmentation of the university, which has a significant impact on its mission to educate the next generation.  The fragmented university leads—consciously or unconsciously—to training students (and faculty, too) to compartmentalize their thinking, their reality, and hence their lives. 

Our situation demands we respond to the “transdisciplinary imperative,” an approach to research and teaching that would serve to mitigate the consequences of this fragmentation.

What is a transdisciplinary approach?

The term “transdisciplinarity” can be found occasionally in the intellectual landscape.  There have been conferences held, manifestos published, organizations formed, and some good work has been undertaken.  However, the term still lacks specificity and is often applied without sufficient theoretical reflection.  As yet, transdisciplinarity has been unable to bear the weight of the profoundly important idea in names. 

Physicist Basarab Nicolescu1 explains that the “trans-“ in transdisciplinary signifies working simultaneously through disciplinary practices, between the disciplines (as in multi- and interdisciplinary endeavors), and beyond the disciplines and the institutions they form and in which they reside, in the hope of approaching something like the unity of knowledge. 

Transdisciplinarity depends upon rigorous disciplinary work.  The various academic disciplines—the “sciences,” broadly construed to include the social and the human sciences along with the natural sciences—form around the practice of making our questions precise, focusing our investigations, and employing analytic techniques in order to come to knowledge.  Transdisciplinarity rejects attempts to address broader questions in ways that ignore the undeniable advances produced by the various disciplines.

Transdisciplinarity also relies on innovative interdisciplinary work.  Many areas of inquiry—and many real-world problems we need to address—can only be pursued in a collaborative manner that utilizes multiple areas of specialized expertise.  Transdisciplinarity rejects attempts at “reductionism”—the idea that one area of knowledge or expertise can adequately account for the richness of nature and human experience.  It recognizes that successful interdisciplinary efforts often result in the formation of new disciplines, new spheres of specific expertise, with their own canons and methodologies.

Transdisciplinarity demands something more.  Disciplinary and interdisciplinary work, with their overarching emphasis on analysis (breaking ‘reality’ into its constituent ‘parts,’ around which develop methodologies, standards of practice, certifications of expertise, and quite often ‘orthodoxies’) make significant contributions to our knowledge.  But they also exact a price:  the fragmentation of knowledge.  This fragmentation is widely lamented.  Unless universities restore the idea of synthesis as a complement to (not a replacement for) analysis, unless they regain the taste for something like the unity or the “symphony” of knowledge, unless they embark once again on a quest for wholeness, unless they learn to seek wisdom in addition to knowledge—they will not live up to their name and their mission. 

Some may argue that transdisciplinarity is impossible.  It will result either in a homogenous, vague, superficial “theory of everything” or it will develop into yet another discipline, another parochial body of knowledge without achieving the goal of a synoptic view.  The transdisciplinary desire for something like a harmony or symphony of knowledge is simply a pipe dream. 

One way to think of transdisciplinarity is to see it as a quest for the “whole story.”  Whole stories are impossible, however, if for no other reason than the temporality of stories.  Our story is ongoing, so we can’t write the ending yet.  And while our stories are being written—including the stories from all of the disciplines in the natural, social, and human sciences—there will be the rough and tumble we’ve come to expect in the highly competitive marketplace of ideas. 

Nevertheless, we give up seeking the whole story at our peril, even if it is impossible.  We need to think of the “whole story” as a regulative idea, one at which we aim despite knowing that we cannot attain it. 

During our recent election season, Stanley Fish issued a harsh rebuke to independent voters in his always-provocative New York Times blog, Think Again.2 Fish thinks independent voters are a bad idea because they deny the importance of political parties, their platforms,  and the vigorous arguments they produce.  Independent voters, argue Fish, want us all to just get along.  An analogy can be made between Fish’s view of politics and the way many academics, administrators and faculty alike, tend to look at research and learning.  Academia functions in a sort of a party system.  It is not a two party system—in fact, there are hundreds of parties, namely the disciplines and sub-disciplines that make up the university.  Those of us advocating for transdisciplinarity might  appear to deny the value and importance of the academic disciplines (the “parties”) in favor of “homogenization.”

Let me paraphrase an excerpt from Fish’s piece, substituting transdisciplinary ideas for the independent political ones he’s criticizing, to give an idea of the criticism:

Those who yearn for academia without the stranglehold of disciplines always invoke abstract truths and moral visions (wisdom, the whole, wholeness, integral knowledge, the unity or “symphony” of knowledge, synthesis, metaphysical vision, etc.) with which no one is likely to disagree because they have no content. But sooner rather than later someone gives these abstractions content, and when that happens, definitional disputes break out immediately, and after definitional disputes come real disputes, the taking of sides, the applying of labels (both the self-identifying kind and the accusing kind) and, pretty soon, the demonization of the other. In short, discipline, which is what transdisciplinary proponents hate.

An honest transdisciplinarian ought to feel the force of these charges.  Certainly, it sets a challenge:  what do wisdom, wholeness, synthesis, and the unity of knowledge really mean?  Would pursuit of these aims blur disciplinary distinctions, homogenize our knowledge into a “least-common-denominator” gruel, leaving us without sharp distinctions and clear ideas?

True, I have encountered ten-page “theories of everything” that are supposed to synthesize all knowledge and answer all of humanity’s questions once and for all.  These efforts are nothing but nonsense.  But genuine transdisciplinarians move much more slowly and carefully.  They love to engage in definitional disputes.  They do “take sides”—just not always along established disciplinary lines.  Transdisciplinarians are the least likely to “demonize” their colleagues with whom they have disagreements and are unlikely to be summarily dismissive of groundbreaking or “nonstandard” endeavors.  They are most likely to be open to collaboration and fruitful dialogue.  They are least likely to get caught up in academic “turf wars” and most likely to reap the benefits and pleasures of intellectual community, even as they vigorously debate their way towards understanding.  They are also, alas, least likely to be awarded tenure and promotion.  We simply lack the measures for evaluating their work.

Nevertheless just as independent voters consistently decide the outcome of presidential elections, which are admittedly of some importance, transdisciplinarians  will likely determine the “outcome” of our common quest for wisdom—which is of paramount importance.  Transdisciplinarians tend to be independent-minded scholars and researchers, no doubt, but it is more accurate to say they are interdependent minded, rigorously trained participants in their own fields but cognizant of the fact that the pursuit of the whole requires the work of all of us—from every discipline, every sphere of expertise, and every sort of academic, religious, civic, and cultural institution.  Transdisciplinarians know they have to undertake the hard intellectual work to discover (or re-discover) for themselves and future generations “how things hang together,” how to rightly pursue the unity of knowledge, and how to seek wisdom.  They don’t see this as a new job or another job; they see it as a regular part of their “day” job—a part for which they are not commonly rewarded.

We need to realize that if transdisciplinarity means training “generalists,” that does not imply an education in superficiality.  As Alasdair MacIntyre reminds us, “superficiality should be as unacceptable to the educated generalist as it is to the specialist.  And a sense of complexity is perhaps even more important for generalists than for specialists”3 who frequently gain their specialized knowledge by means of cordoning off small sectors of reality, i.e., by simplifying matters.

Some see no distinction between transdisciplinarity and interdisciplinary work.  But the latter inexorably leads to the creation of new disciplines and new fields of knowledge.  Transdisciplinarity, on the other hand, is not seeking to create another new academic discipline.  Instead, it promotes approaches to profound questions that do not fit neatly into any particular disciplinary boundary or perhaps even easily within the borders of the institutions that have traditionally legislated those boundaries.  One key feature of transdisciplinarity is that it contains an explicit moral component.  This moral aspect raises issues that must be addressed regarding defining and pursuing—as well as containing—transdisciplinarity.  Systematic reflection about how to do this is part of the endeavor, and it is to be hoped that much more of our collective time will be devoted to it.  It is likely that we will develop new or expanded fields of “transdisciplinary studies.”  We will likely articulate new methodologies , practices, and standards appropriate to transdisciplinarity that are analogous to—but not identical with—those in established disciplines. But to paraphrase Aristotle, the ultimate goal is not to know about transdisciplinarity, i.e., to turn it into one more discipline among others, to have only an intellectual understanding of it.  The important thing is to learn to adopt, wherever appropriate, transdisciplinary approaches to research and teaching that can help to meet the challenges that lie before us—educational and otherwise.

In a recent article, Alasdair MacIntyre complained that the trouble with Catholic universities is that they all want to be like Duke, and that the trouble with that is not that Duke is not a Catholic university.  It is that Duke is no longer a university at all.  The same could be said for most of our institutions of higher education.  Some celebrate the “multiversity” as a true expression of the diversity of our ways of being and knowing, but it would be a rare institutional mission statement that trumpeted this view.  Instead, they almost always talk about education for the whole person—the antithesis of the fragmentation generated by the “multiversity.”  We need, in the words of Vartan Gregorian4, to “reform higher education to reconstruct the unity and value of knowledge.”  Or, to put this more pointedly, we must restore the quest for wisdom to the core of the meaning of the university.  And wisdom is transdisciplinary.  It is not contained or containable within any single academic specialization or any combination of them, nor is it acquired solely in the pursuit of academic work as we’ve come to know it.  But we have divorced the university from the quest for wisdom by our specific set of academic practices. 

The 7% Solution

The call for transdisciplinarity is not as a replacement for or alternative to rigorous disciplinary and interdisciplinary work.  Rather, it is for a necessary but generally missing complement to standard academic practices.  It is an argument for the necessity to devote some portion of our time, effort, and resources to transdisciplinary work.  Let’s say, seven percent.  It could be slightly less but probably not much more.  Here is the challenge:  Could you take three and a half minutes out of each 50 minute class period (or, say, the final week of the semester) to consider how your subject hangs together with other fields of endeavor?  Could you consider devoting a 20 page epilogue to your next 300 page book to discuss how your work might be informative or even transformative for those working in other fields?  Could you set aside some small portion of the time you spend providing service to your institution to engage in interdisciplinary discussion on transdisciplinary questions (and include persons working outside your institution when you do)?  Or, should these modest proposals seem impossible for some reason I am unable to imagine, might you find just seven one-hundredths more of yourself to explore the potential of transdisciplinary approaches, for the sake of your students, your colleagues, your institution, and your community—not to mention for your own sake? 

And what if we were to begin to evaluate our work based on its contribution to transdisciplinarity, to intellectual community, and the university’s mission?  What if research were two-pronged—looking “down” and “in,” it proceeded like almost all research today, in an atomistic, analytic manner; but also looking “up” and “out,” trying always to connect its work with the research of others, with the university mission, with the education of the whole person, and with the well-being of society at large?  What if research had to justify itself (appropriately understood and in the proper measure) on both prongs?  What if teaching were evaluated in the same way?  And service? What if we were to take this two-pronged approach, to promote both analysis and synthesis, to find integral approaches to off-set the deleterious effects of hyperspecialization?

Transdisciplinarity recognizes  that deep in the heart of each person is a desire for something like the whole story of the whole cosmos in order that they might be whole persons living in whole communities with a profound regard for the whole of nature and reality.  In other words, we all seek wisdom (however unpracticed we may be at it).  It is the pursuit of this vision that constitutes the transdisciplinary imperative.  Transdisciplinarity is not some optional sidelight to research, education, and policy making.  It is not some frivolous ivory-tower pastime.  It is imperative that we learn how to think and research and teach in this way if we are to have the opportunity for a better future, one more just, more safe, more convivial, more wise


1 Basarab Nicolescu, “Transdisciplinarity as Methodological Framework for Going Beyond the Science-Religion Debate”, The Global Spiral, Volume 8, Issue 3, Cf. Basarab Nicolescu, La transdisciplinaritÈ, manifeste, Monaco, Le Rocher, “TransdisciplinaritÈ” Series, 1996. English translation: Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity. New York: SUNY Press, 2002, translation from the French by Karen-Claire Voss.

2 Stanley Fish, “Against Independent Voters”, New York Times, January 20, 2008,

3 Alasdair C. MacIntyre, “The End of Education: The Fragmentation of the American University”, The Global Spiral, Volume 8, Issue 1,

4 Vartan Gregorian, “Colleges Must Reconstruct the Unity of Knowledge”, Chronicle of Higher Education, June 4, 2004. Available online at: