The challenge of interdisciplinarity difficulties and achievements
The challenge of interdisciplinarity: difficulties and achievements
Author: Evandro Agazzi
Published at: seminar room on the department of Philosophy, University of Navarra
Date of publication: 14 March 2002
1. What interdisciplinarity is not
Over the last thirty years or so, interdisciplinarity has become very fashionable, especially in the world of teaching, as many saw it as the remedy to overcome the motivation crisis affecting students. The diagnosis was that young people were not interested in the disciplines for two main reasons: that the contents of the disciplines were "old" and obsolete, and that they did not find intellectual interest in the delimited and closed horizon of the various disciplines. The remedy was therefore sought in two directions: by giving priority to current affairs as the thematic content of teaching and by promoting interdisciplinarity as a method to replace the traditional habit of teaching the disciplines separately. Both solutions failed. Current affairs can sometimes arouse real interest, provided that it concerns some genuinely serious and stimulating problem, otherwise current affairs can only arouse a superficial and ephemeral "curiosity". More serious was the misunderstanding at purpose of interdisciplinarity, since this was conceived as a rejection of disciplinary study, as its opposite, and for this reason interdisciplinary study was often understood as a discursogenic (rather than a general) one, which avoided delving into notions that would have required a serious and sometimes laborious knowledge of specific "disciplinary" contents. In the end, even if this pedagogical internship was comfortable for some lazy teachers and students, it proved incapable not only of producing gains in the growth of students' knowledge, but also of gaining their interest: they became just as bored as before.
These frustrating results were due to a radically mistaken way of looking at interdisciplinarity and also to ignorance of the motivations and conditions that characterise it. First of all, it must be said that it is correct to react against a closed view of the different disciplines, since the meaning of each one of them cannot be grasped without relating them to a wider horizon of knowledge and existential experience, but it is also true that each discipline offers objective knowledge that has an intrinsic validity and is part of the construction of a collective knowledge staff . It is therefore necessary to reject the idea that interdisciplinarity is in antithesis or in opposition to disciplinary knowledge: there is no true interdisciplinarity without disciplines. However, this does not mean that in order to realise interdisciplinarity it is sufficient to "bring together" the discourses of different disciplines at contact, but rather to achieve something like a "common" speech , and this is very difficult. How often when we consult the conference proceedings of congresses that claim to be interdisciplinary we realise that each discussion paper develops its own private speech , using its own technical language and criteria of validity, without being able to dialogue with the others. Faced with these sequences of purely disciplinary tables placed side by side, we often find that we understand almost nothing of many of them and, in any case, that we feel disoriented rather than enriched.
2. Motivations for interdisciplinarity
The importance of interdisciplinarity is a relatively recent finding which has arisen within practical-operational contexts, when the effective management of a business requires the finalised and organised coordination of a broad set of competences, knowledge and information in order to make the right decisions. For this reason, some authors have traced the roots of interdisciplinarity to the needs of modern warfare, which (especially after the Second World War) has shown unequivocally that it is not enough to rely on the strength of armies, but also to coordinate a very complex set of planning in industry, communications, information research, propaganda, development of new technologies, all in order to carry out the war in the best possible way. Outside this particular context, the same necessity has been imposed in all activities where a large project requires that a very wide range of judgement elements be taken into account, provided by sometimes very specialised competences, but which must be evaluated and compared by someone (person or group) who is not more expert than others in a given sector, but who must be able to synthesise the different elements and arrive at the right decision. We have thus seen that the motivation for interdisciplinarity lies in the presence of a complex problem that requires the use of a large amount of information which is necessarily provided by specialised sources, but which must also be communicable thanks to an intersectoral form of codification that makes it possible to bring the whole together in a solution programme for this problem. It is therefore clear that interdisciplinarity cannot be seen as opposed to specialization, but rather as a harmonisation of various specialisations in order to understand and solve a problem. subject In the examples mentioned above, the problems were of a practical nature, but the same speech applies without difficulty to eminently cognitive problems. We can even say that in the field of knowledge interdisciplinarity offers a way to overcome that fragmentation of knowledge that specialization seems to make inevitable, allowing us to realise a certain unity of knowledge, not as a "reduction to identity" but as an awareness of the complexity of the realities that surround us, which requires that the true understanding of this complexity consists in taking into account the differences and at the same time understanding the reasons and the meaning of their being together and related. Here we find a second motivation for interdisciplinarity and we can see that it is not to be confused with multidisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity, which have their validity and their fields of application, but are different things.
3. The conditions for interdisciplinarity
The specialization is not a necessary evil dependent on the progress of the knowledge (as if it were imposed on us by the fact that the enormous quantity of notions that constitute the heritage of knowledge cannot "fit inside a single head"). This "quantitative" reason is rather superficial and cannot hide the much deeper fact that the specialization is a necessary condition for the constitution of the scientific knowledge understood in its broadest and most modern sense, i.e. as knowledge goal and rigorous. Indeed every scientific discipline (be it a natural or a human science) is characterised by considering the world of "things" from a single particular point of view, concentrating its approach on a few "attributes" of things and leaving out of its research field all the other attributes (properties and relations) of each thing. Consequently, the concepts that express these attributes and the predicates that translate these concepts into language are also specialised, as well as the operational procedures that allow to directly control the validity of the propositions of a given discipline. These constitute a very important part of the methodology of each science; the other part consists in the determination of the logical procedures used to organise the knowledge, to indirectly establish the validity of propositions that cannot be ascertained directly, to offer explanations and to construct theories. In short, each discipline is characterised by a specificity of concepts, language, methods and logics. If interdisciplinarity were presented as a proposal to eliminate these conditions and, for example, to force each discipline to make use only of concepts, methods and types of arguments used in common language, this would force us to renounce the cognitive contributions of the different sciences and everything would be reduced to that vague, generic and superficial speech of which I have spoken above. The real challenge of an interdisciplinary study consists, on the one hand, in taking the different disciplines as a starting point, respecting their specificity of concepts, methods and logics and, on the other hand, working so that all this does not become a "barrier" for the speech. It can be seen then that the most serious difficulty for interdisciplinary study does not consist in the fact of having to "house in one's head" a lot of different knowledge, but in the effort to understand the special meaning of certain concepts, to get used to certain particular types of "rationality". This is a difficult but not impossible task (it is similar to the effort of learning a new language language) and can bring very important achievements. Not only because it allows us to know more, but also because it leads us to know better since, about a certain reality, we become able to grasp more aspects, to explore its richness in depth, to appreciate its complexity adequately.
This speech would be more persuasive through a reference letter to a systemic perspective on which we cannot dwell at this point. However, it is sufficient to point out that the unity of knowledge makes sense because knowledge itself is a "system" whose different parts intercommunicate and relate to each other, since each sector of knowledge concerns particular aspects of a reality that is in itself complex. This unity is first of all required by the very unity of the "thing" we are investigating and want to understand: to understand it we begin by considering it from a certain point of view, then we realise that this is not exhaustive and we open up a new point of view; sometimes we see that a certain point of view is fruitful, but deserves to be deepened and we move on to another point of view which is included in it, but is more delimited. This is how the plurality of disciplines and their sectoral branches is born from a unitary demand for understanding, and this is precisely the correct dynamic of interdisciplinarity.
4. The knowledge as a synthesis
It is clear that the unity of the thing does not in itself guarantee the unity of its knowledge: this must be realised in the subject in the sense that he must be able to realise the synthesis of what he has managed to learn through specialised analysis. colloquium However, it is precisely because an individual subject is hardly ever in a position to achieve this synthesis on his own (at least in the case of complex realities) that the opportunity arises to call upon different disciplines, i.e. to attempt an interdisciplinary study. For this effort to be meaningful, it is not necessary that it leads to a complete understanding of the "thing" under investigation (it is inevitable that many aspects of it remain unexplored and partially "obscure"): the search for truth is always an unfinished business , which does not prevent us from recognising that certain results are well established in their partiality. It should be stressed, however, that the spirit of synthesis of which we are speaking should not be confused with that "globalising" and spontaneous attitude that imagines grasping the "thing" in itself without stopping at the tedious effort of analysis. On the contrary, the synthesis that is needed is the result of a reconstruction in which the analytical elements find their place and their meaning.
It should also be added that a serious interdisciplinary work cannot be carried out without the availability of sufficiently rich knowledge in different sectors, since the indispensable condition for a colloquium is that the interlocutors understand each other, which means that each interlocutor can understand with sufficient clarity the meaning of the perspectives of the others, even if he/she cannot always know the details of the results achieved in each discipline called to colloquium. This is perhaps the most serious difficulty of the interdisciplinary work , in that it requires a certain familiarity with fields of knowledge other than one's own. Not with all of them, but with those that are concretely involved in the interdisciplinary research in which we are engaged. Once again, it is not a matter of fleeing from specialization, but of becoming somewhat competent, without being specialists, in various sectors of knowledge. This is not so easy in the mentality and "environmental" conditions of our time: researchers have to work hard on very detailed problems if they want to achieve the new "results" that the academic community demands in order to recognise their professional dignity and open their careers to them. This is a cultural status that we must take into account but which is gradually beginning to change, since in the scientific world the topic of complexity is becoming more and more topical and interesting, and this is already producing effectively interdisciplinary research programmes.
5. The methodology of interdisciplinarity
It would not make much sense to try to propose something like a "method of interdisciplinarity", as it is customary to propose the methods of research in the different scientific disciplines. What we are going to propose are some general suggestions for an effective development of interdisciplinary study, i.e. of a project of research interdisciplinary. These suggestions will in fact be practical consequences of the approaches discussed above.
A concrete project of research interdisciplinary has to be born about a problem of understanding a complex reality (taking the concept of reality in its broadest sense). Therefore it presupposes the exact identification of the problem and also of those different aspects of it which require the cooperation of certain well-identified disciplines in order to be able to analyse and understand the same problem. This means that any purpose to make an interdisciplinary work "cold", i.e. mainly as a desire to use this methodology of work because it is highly recommended and "modern", and then to search for a "topic" that allows all people of good will who want to participate in this work to "work together", is very sterile. Unfortunately, this is how interdisciplinarity has often been conceived and practised in the teaching, with very poor results. On the contrary, if an interdisciplinary project arises because an interesting problem has been identified, it is almost inevitable that this problem will be interesting because it is complex and its examination will naturally indicate which (few) disciplines can really contribute to shed light on it.
Once the problem and the set of disciplines called upon to cooperate have been identified, it will be necessary to make explicit the differences that characterise the perspective that each one adopts. At first, one will have the impression that the different disciplinary discourses "talk about different things", but a little perseverance and, above all, availability to "listen" and try to understand the others' speech will lead one to realise that they are "talking about different aspects of the same thing" and thus to understand why the problem is complex and what its complexity consists of. In order to carry out this task concretely, some fundamental conditions are:
Make clear the different criteria that each discipline accepts to ascertain the data.
Explain the theoretical context that each discipline accepts without question in order to provide their explanations of the data.
Define very clearly the meaning of the concepts used in each discipline, relating them to their theoretical context and their criteria for access to data, so as not to believe that the same term has the same meaning in different disciplines.
Realise that each discipline uses logical procedures that, while rigorous, do not coincide with the subject of "logic" adopted by other disciplines.
Once these preliminary conditions are satisfied, the interdisciplinary "dialogue" can begin, in which each discipline sees the problem "from its own point of view" or "within its own optic". This is then a pluridisciplinary stage, although already sufficiently advanced because certain conditions have been set for comparing the different discourses and, at the same time, the realisation has been reached that each disciplinary speech is valid, but partial.
The transition to a true interdisciplinary vision occurs when a philosophical reflection is awakened within each discipline that leads it to perceive a need for unity, i.e. to consider its own speech not as a closed and autonomous speech , but as a specific voice within a concert. We have said that it is a philosophical reflection, and this is justified by the fact that the work is philosophical (and more precisely epistemological), by which the "preliminary conditions" discussed above are ensured, as well as the awareness of the partiality of the different disciplinary viewpoints with respect to the "point of view of the whole". Also of a philosophical nature is the hermeneutical ability to "interpret" the discourses of other disciplines within one's own language, without betraying their meaning. The wise use of this hermeneutic attitude allows a continuous exchange from one speech to another, which gradually eliminates "mistakes". The real mistake was at the beginning, when everyone thought they were "speaking the same speech", while in reality they were using the same expressions with different meanings. The mistakes disappear when everyone tries to understand the others' speech , without pretending that this reformulation is equivalent to a perfect translation, by "reformulating" it within one's own speech.
An important financial aid may derive from a certain effort of formalisation of the most important points of each disciplinary speech , since this makes it possible to highlight certain structural homologies between the results of some disciplines, which may reveal themselves as analogies when the (partial) formal identity is enriched with details related to the specific contents of the various fields of knowledge. This is the path that connects interdisciplinarity with transdisciplinarity, which, however, we do not wish to deal with here.
All this leads us to the synthesis in which the interdisciplinary work culminates. This cannot be conceived as the proposal of a sort of global image final, but as the overcoming of the unilaterality of particular optics, the awareness of their limited character and at the same time of the possibility of bringing them into harmony thanks to certain possibilities of inter-translation, to the existence of interconnections, of homologies and analogies. All this increases our capacity to understand the "thing" we are studying, without the pretension of finishing it: the interdisciplinary work is therefore never completely fulfilled; it can be considered reasonably finished when the desired objectives have been achieved (and this is why interdisciplinary study includes a "pragmatic" element, like any work, even if it is a work whose end is a knowledge).
6. Other achievements of the interdisciplinary work
We would like to conclude by pointing out some achievements that interdisciplinarity ensures from the point of view of the intellectual and cultural training . Many are convinced that the specialist's work is serious, hard and difficult, which is true, but it is also true that this work is "comfortable", in the sense that it consists of using well-known and guaranteed methods, working in respected sectors, following rules and practices that do not need to be critically discussed. On the contrary, the interdisciplinary work requires a much more developed attitude of comparison and dialogue, not only at the beginning, but also at the end of work since, as we have seen, the interdisciplinary synthesis is always open and open to question. Moreover, getting used to considering and valuing different points of view is a real intellectual experience, very positive in itself and fruitful in various circumstances. At the same time, the awareness of the limited nature of all knowledge and of the impossibility of attributing meaning to it without going beyond its boundaries nourishes both the critical spirit and the search for wisdom. This happens because, as we have seen, interdisciplinary methodology imposes awareness of the limits and conditions of validity of each knowledge, which implies, on the one hand, transcending towards richer and more complex horizons and, on the other hand, a deepening of the analysis of facts and situations in view of practical and existential aspects that at first had not presented themselves as worthy of our interest. For these reasons, interdisciplinarity can prove to be an important existential experience in which people become accustomed to seek an understanding of reality and of themselves that serves them in an authentic sense, i.e. to give their lives a fuller and "truer" meaning.