The Concept and Application of Transdisciplinarity in Intellectual Discourse and Research

The Concept and Application of Transdisciplinarity in Intellectual Discourse and Research

by Hester du Plessis, Jeffrey Sehume, Leonard Martin

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In the past four decades, transdisciplinarity has gained conceptual and practical traction for its transformative value in accounting for the complex challenges besetting humankind, including social relations and natural eco-systems. The need to develop frameworks for joint problem-solving involving diverse stakeholders is unquestionable. Besides generating


In the past four decades, transdisciplinarity has gained conceptual and practical traction for its transformative value in accounting for the complex challenges besetting humankind, including social relations and natural eco-systems. The need to develop frameworks for joint problem-solving involving diverse stakeholders is unquestionable. Besides generating inclusivity which embraces academia, civil society and policy-makers in the public and private sectors, transdisciplinarity allows for the appreciation of phenomena from a multiplicity of angles, and affords societies creative ways of seeking solutions to challenges that may appear intractable. Critically, because of the heterogeneity of sources, including community knowledge systems, transdisciplinarity is better able to unearth the richness of humanity's knowledge without a constraining and condescending rigidity.

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The Concept and Application of Transdisciplinarity in Intellectual Discourse and Research

By Hester Du Plessis, Jeffrey Sehume, Leonard Martin

Real African Publishers

Copyright © 2016 Hester Du Plessis, Jeffrey Sehume, Leonard Martin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-920655-35-8


Literature Review

There exist within our oral cultures corpuses of knowledge sometimes very elaborate. What becomes of such corpuses? What of their relations with assumedly modern science, that is, the progressive, conquering, heuristic activity now developing in our universities and other centres of intellectual production, the institutional research that depends structurally on the West?

(Hountondji 1997:13)

1 Abstract

In this chapter a literature review on the early progenitors of the development and idea of a transdisciplinary approach to research is provided. The chapter is broadly divided into two main areas: the first section comprises a review of scientific progenitors of transdisciplinarity (early theorising). The second section explores the development of transdisciplinarity in the 1970s to 1990s.

A deliberate strand of thought regarding the past influences and empirical situation in the development of a future 'ecology of knowledge', applicable for Africa, has been followed. In general, those individuals who moved beyond their disciplinary boundaries became the primary informers of this chapter. Here reference is made to the science rebels as well as the more progressive philosophers. We kept in mind the ultimate aim of the project: the development of a transdisciplinary approach appropriate within an African context. We strived to balance the Western historical contributions with a localised attention to the domain of an African rationale.

The vigorous debate on a transdisciplinary approach, evoked among scientists and philosophers, has been echoed by sociologists and educationists. For the purpose of this chapter, the focus is on contributions from science and philosophy. From the outset we apologise for the exclusion of the intellectual contributions by some of the outstanding thinkers in the domains of philosophy, sociology and education, since such an omission is counter-transdisciplinary. Here reference is made to the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus (fl.c.500 BC), the Athenian philosopher Socrates (470-399 BC), recent philosophers such as Roy Bhaskar (1975), and many others who were part of this intellectual journey.

The ideal is that, through the application of transdisciplinarity, the great intellectual leaders from different disciplines will ultimately contribute to the bigger debate – this will, inevitably include the arguments from the African Philosophers as well as other Philosophers of Science, Philosophers of Education and even scientists working in quantum physics.

The goal of this chapter is primarily to develop a sound theoretical understanding of the more recent developments of transdisciplinarity. We identified this need to develop an understanding of transdisciplinarity and its potential impact on African research since we stand to follow a research paradigm that is ultimately, as argued by Dani Nabudere (2012), sympathetic to the epistemology of Afrikology and transdisciplinarity.

2 Background and Introduction

The application of a transdisciplinary research approach is not new. As Martin Davies in his book Breaking the Disciplines (2003) aptly argues: Francis Bacon in his Novum Organum (1620), John Locke in his Of the Conduct of the Understanding (1996), Immanuel Kant (1781) in The Critique of Pure Reason, and Susan Sontag in her 'The aesthetics of silence' in Styles of Radical Will (1996) collectively set the example of efforts to interrogate our collective 'ecology of knowledge'.

These authors bring to the fore the crucial dilemma of a lack of concepts, ideas and notions that readily inform us of the difference between the knowledge already known and the knowledge society needs. For Davies (2003:9) the current pervasive discourse originating from a kind of academic self-consciousness provides us with some 'self-assembly, flat-pack kits of literary, philosophical and historical critiques to suit any agenda or situation'. More damning, this 'flat-pack kit' causes us to decline into platitude and predictability, denies us from real political intellectual purchase and, as result, standard theoretical ideas become our ideological comforters.

We can argue that disciplinary specialisation reinforces knowledge already known by enforcing, through conventional methodologies, normative forms of behaviour. We readily acknowledge that academia is ruled by repeated reference to a 'unity of disciplinary action' – action that requires academics to be directed towards a purpose-filled strategic direction. Academics are persistently and repeatedly required to indicate an accepted discipline-bound 'course of action' (read methodology) to achieve discipline-specific (predictable?) results. This method-based process has not been unchallenged in the past. Francis Bacon (1947:73) in a way set the tone for contesting accepted scientific norms of method by blaming '... those who have taken upon them to lay down the law of nature as a thing already searched out and understood, whether they have spoken in simple assurance or professional affectation, have therein done philosophy and the sciences great injury'. He differentiated between different approaches to knowledge through his invitation: '... let there be, therefore, two streams and two dispensations of knowledge; and in like manner two tribes or kindred students in philosophy – tribes not hostile or alien to each other, but bound together by mutual services – let there be, in short, one method for the cultivation, another for the invention, of knowledge (Bacon 1947:77).'

Roy Bhaskar (1975:16) took care to emphasise the idea that '... knowledge is a social product, produced by means of antecedent social products; but that the objects of which, in the social activity of science, knowledge comes to be produced, exist and act quite independently of men'. According to Bhaskar (1974:16), knowledge must be viewed as a produced means of production and science as an ongoing social activity in a continuing process of transformation.

With such a promise of instability it is logical that science philosophers took up the challenge to question the status quo of organised (academic) science. 'Reason' (rationality) and 'method' (methodology) caught the limelight. The so-called 'science rebels' like Thomas Kuhn (1962), Jerome Ravetz (1996) and Paul Feyerabend (1987) collectively raged against the restrictions placed on researchers by 'scientific method' and challenged the rigidity and conformist acceptance by academia that science research should proceed along a rational path (with its implication of stability). Feyerabend (1987), specifically, challenged academia by proposing that science research should become a democratic process, be less dictated to by funding whims, and persuasively argued that cultural diversity is beneficial while uniformity reduces our joys and our intellectual, material and emotional resources. Ambiguity and ambivalence should become directive concepts – something existentialists like Simone de Beauvoir grappled with in The Ethics of Ambiguity (1972) where she developed a 'dialectic of ambiguity' to assist in creating knowledge within the 'chaos of being' (the chaos of existence).

However, in order to solve the quest of applying a transdisciplinary approach to some of the main problems that define our century we need not only a transdisciplinary approach that overrules specific individual disciplines. We need a new understanding about the nature of disciplinarity and its positioning in transformative abilities.

Manfred Max-Neef (2005) offers possibilities in this regard. He proposes that we need to differentiate and identify 'hierarchical levels' of disciplines. Integrative disciplines, such as philosophy, qualify as a value level and are positioned at the top. This is followed by a normative level consisting of disciplines such as political studies and the law, and this level is again followed by pragmatic levels consisting of disciplines such as engineering and architecture. Each level is qualified to ask its own specific questions. The top level asks questions such as: what exists, how should we do it, how should we do what we want to do? The middle level addresses technological issues and asks the question: what are we capable of doing? The lower normative level asks: what is it we want to do? And the lowest empirical level refers to empirical matters and answers to questions about what exists and is driven by the physical laws of nature, and what are the principles that drive life and societies.

Again, these examples make it clear that there is more to transdisciplinarity than a quest to apply a practical, applicable method by 'following a transdisciplinary approach'. There is the problem of communicating science/knowledge between disciplines, among scientists and with the general public. Max-Neef (2005) expresses the communication problem in his statement that: 'The growing rupture in communication is, to a great extent, the product of the exacerbation of rational thought, which manifest itself through the predominance of reductionism and of a binary and linear logic that, among other shortcomings, separates the observer from the observed.' The Western legacy of rationality has become the dominant measure for all thinking and leaves little space as a field of 'mental acts' in the perception, understanding and explanation of alternative or different world-views or methodologies.

Emmanuel Eze (2008:xvii) argues that, though reasoning is productive work, reason itself has become a thing, leaving no space for the diversity of reason in experience. This problem is well illustrated by notions of 'primitivism' and 'irrationality' identified by early anthropologists like Levy-Bruhl (1910) and Lévi-Strauss (1966) in their encounters with cultures in Africa. Part of this lack of communication is the problem of coping with language barriers, the lack of a vocabulary that captures new phenomena (such as 'climate change') and the naming of events, issues and abstract thoughts stemming from an oral tradition and traditional poetry.

More recently, physicists such as Lee Smolin (in Brockman 1995:31) identified the emergence of a third culture 'set of academics' (scientists who write and speak to the general public) having overt philosophical (political?) ideas related to science. Therefore, Smolin's (1995:288) argument that '... nature is not static or eternal, the complexity and beauty of nature stem from complex systems and, in relation to complexity, the world's complexity is essential and not accidental, was formulated through his personal transdisciplinary interaction with astronomers, philosophers and mathematicians'.

Philosophers like Jürgen Habermas and his theory of knowledge-constitutive interests in The Theory of Communicative Action (1984), and The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (1987) initiated a change in direction for scientific thinking. According to his locus we began distinguishing between empirical-analytic (positivist), hermeneutical (interpretive) and critical approaches in science research. Each of these follows a certain approach that guides the production of knowledge. Empirical-analytical research focuses on a technical or instrumental (means-end) interest, hermeneutical (interpretative) research has a practical interest and critical research follows an emancipatory interest. According to Habermas one could even begin to argue that critical social science is under threat from postmodern and poststructuralist challenges – especially under the notion of an emancipatory approach in action research. Habermas's thesis of 'uncoupling' systems and life-worlds, and his thesis on the colonisation of the life-world will allow us to look at the differences between steering problems (disciplinary methods) and problems of mutual understanding (interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary methods).

By looking at further global efforts towards the establishment of a transdisciplinary approach we acknowledge the work of Basarab Nicolescu (1996) who, as a quantum physicist, in a quest to move beyond disciplines, introduced a methodology of three axioms: the ontological axiom, the logical axiom and the complexity axiom.

Acknowledgement of the Charter of Transdisciplinarity that was drafted during the First World Congress of Transdisciplinarity in 1994, as a reaction against 8,530 definable fields of knowledge '... as the result of both increasing specialisation and overlapping domains' is crucial. The challenge will be to deliver outcomes in the spirit of the Transdisciplinarity Article 13 of the 1994 Charter of Transdisciplinarity which states:

The transdisciplinary ethic rejects any attitude which refuses dialogue and discussion, no matter whether the origin of this attitude is ideological, scientistic, religious, economic, political or philosophical. Shared knowledge should lead to a shared understanding based on an absolute respect for the collective and individual diversities united by our common life on one and the same Earth (Adopted at the first World Congress of Transdisciplinarity, Convento da Arr'bida, Portugal, November 1994).

The work done by Edgar Morin (2002) is important whereby he stated that we need not look at the totality of knowledge in each sphere but rather focus on crucial knowledge, strategic points, knots of communication and the organisational articulation between disjointed spheres. The work of Alfonso Montuori (Volckmann 2009) is equally important since he added a fourth dimension to the three offered by Nicolescu (1996). This fourth dimension allows complexity to connect with contextualised information - the integration of the observer into the observed is proposed. Paul Cilliers's Complexity and Postmodernism: Understanding Complex Systems (1998), whereby he contextualised notions of complicated and complexity, was a valuable addition to this line of argument.

The 'social epistemology movement' of the 1980s saw Steve Fuller (2007) asking fundamental questions about the nature of knowledge in attempts to reconcile normative and empirical approaches in science research. Michael Gibbons's (1984) proposed Mode 1 and Mode 2 systems of knowledge production created a stir among science researchers since it indicated a shift towards a transdisciplinary approach and placed 'uncertainty' central within (consumer-driven) science investigations.

It is immediately clear that there is not yet a pure formulation of a 'transdisciplinary theory of values' and it is argued that such a set of values should include the interactive relation of facts and values. This relationship between facts and values could be dynamic, reciprocal and mutually supportive.

There is also no doubt that the two systems are complex and could be highly subjective and relative. Richard Bernstein (1983), for example, looked at the shift in what is taken to be the 'significant epistemological unit' used during scientific inquiry. This unit represents a move from '... the preoccupation with the isolated individual term, to the sentence or proposition, to the conceptual scheme or framework, to an on-going historical tradition constituted by social practices – a movement from logical atomism to historical dynamic continuity' (Bernstein 1983:24). This shift tells us that it is important to understand '... the role of tradition in science as mediated through research programmes or research traditions but we must understand how such traditions arise, develop and become progressive and fertile, as well as the ways in which they can degenerate' (Bernstein 1983:25). This then leads to the question: what constitutes a (scientific) research community and how are norms developed and consensus reached?

Addressing the relationship between facts and values provides an opportunity to introduce the ideas of Philosophers in Africa in their reflection on the relation between science and society. Through the promotion of modernity and the glut of capitalism (consumerism) little space is left for valuing and valorising indigenous knowledge systems and values. To accept a transdisciplinary approach to research, researchers must be willing to embrace all knowledge systems in a reflective and responsible way. Central to this process is to promote the public engagement between science and society through science communication processes.

3 Review of Scientific Progenitors of Transdisciplinarity (early theorising)

3.1 The beginning of the end: challenging science and the scientific method

In modern society main streams of academic endeavour are identified and then grouped either under the natural sciences or the social sciences and humanities. As a rule, academics specialise in either the one disciplinary stream or the other. To work in-between these two main streams evokes a transdisciplinary complexity. This complexity arises from efforts to formulate linkages in the construction of a conceptual framework capable of addressing the 'cultural divide' that currently exists between different disciplines and their respective intellectual systems and methodologies.


Excerpted from The Concept and Application of Transdisciplinarity in Intellectual Discourse and Research by Hester Du Plessis, Jeffrey Sehume, Leonard Martin. Copyright © 2016 Hester Du Plessis, Jeffrey Sehume, Leonard Martin. Excerpted by permission of Real African Publishers.
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Meet the Author

Hester du Plessis is a Senior Research Specialist: Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), Research Use and Impact Assessment (RIA) Unit, Pretoria. She is a Fellow of the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA), South Africa. Dr Leonard Martin is the Head of the Humanity Faculty at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA), South Africa. Jeffrey Sehume is a Senior Researcher at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA).

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