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Papers from the Colloquium

Theme 1: Interdisciplinarity – Introduction

Seeing things differently: the challenge of interdisciplinarity
Stephen Rowland

The most exciting ideas are often to be found when we cross disciplinary boundaries. Universities have been criticised for not being very good at that: for concentrating on questions which arise within our own disciplinary territories, rather than with the problems of others or of the wider world. In a context of teaching and research which is governed by utilitarian principles and economic imperatives, the pressure to engage and cross these boundaries is increasing. Interdisciplinarity – an important principle in the foundation of UCL in the early nineteenth centrury, and which emerged again in the universities founded in the mid twentieth century – is again fashionable.

UCL’s corporate plan makes 16 references to ‘interdisciplinary’ research and teaching and this is probably not unusual. But do we understand what it is to work in an interdisciplinary way? What is involved in making transitions across disciplinary boundaries in order to work with ideas and people that emerge from very different cultures of thinking, language and assumptions? In these notes I want to suggest some of the questions and difficulties this poses.

You may recall the Gaia Hypothesis. Proposed by James Lovelock - the renowned, or some would say notorious and eccentric, scientist and Fellow of the Royal Society - the Gaia Hypothesis views the planet Earth as a self-regulating, living organism. Gaia, the Greek goddess of mother earth, is, according to this hypothesis, alive and should be treated with the respect due to life. That appeared to be his idea.

The Gaia Hypothesis was immediately controversial. It was received enthusiastically by some as representing a new scientific paradigm (Ellis, 1998). By others it was seen as a foundation for a green environmental agenda. Others saw it as a triumph of interdisciplinarity, representing a new synthesis of environment and theology (Primavesi 2000).

Others, however, said that The Gaia Hypothesis is ‘unscientific’, ‘dangerous’ and ‘pure fantasy’ (Lovelock 2000: 6). It was denounced by the microbiologist John Postgate as "pseudoscientific myth-making", on a par with "astrology, fringe medicine, faith healing, nutritional eccentricities, religious mysticism and a thousand other fads and cults which now plague developed societies" (Turney 2003).

Reflecting upon this controversy, Lovelock gave the following explanation. Misunderstandings had arisen, he said, because of different meanings attached to the word ‘alive’ (Lovelock 2000: 6). When he says that the planet Earth is ‘alive’, he explained, he uses the term metaphorically. The problem is that the ordinary word ‘alive’ means different things to doctors, engineers and theologians. That’s where the confusion lies, he says.

Later in this colloquium we shall be talking about another ordinary word, ‘evidence’ which, like ‘alive’, is used to mean different things from different disciplinary standpoints. We could easily think of a number of other words - knowledge, fact, chaos, objective, research, truth - which, in ordinary language, or in discussion with people who share our standpoint, give us no problem but which, in the context of interdisciplinary discussion, incline towards multiple meanings.

In my own interdisciplinary field of education the word ‘social’ poses this sort of problem. Psychologists of education normally take it to relate to the interaction between individuals, whereas sociologists of education understand the social in terms of group life and the forces that shape groups.

Often it is not the specialist terms that elude us in interdisciplinary work so much as the ordinary ones used specially. As Wittgenstein noted: “it is the familiar that usually eludes us in life” and in language too. Crossing disciplinary boundaries therefore involves an unusual kind of listening: a listening that is prepared to hear the familiar as strange; a listening that is prepared to withhold immediate judgement, and that understands the slipperiness of language when it is put to work in unfamiliar contexts.

Working with people from a different discipline inevitably demands that we attempt to clarify how we are using words, and this makes us realise how metaphorical language is, even – or perhaps especially - when we use it to express a discipline’s most profound theories.

The language of modern science is wary of metaphor and attempts to avoid it wherever possible. This has not always been the case. Scientific writing in the eighteenth century was rich with metaphor. But in the scientific report of today terminology aims to be precise and depends upon definition. This quality is fundamental to scientific method and its basis in experimental procedures which can be reproduced.

This is not just a question of the arts versus the sciences. In legal language too, we see an emphasis upon precision. Judgements of innocence and guilt are intolerant of imagery, ambiguity and multiple interpretations. The demand for clarity leaves little room for metaphor. While some of the arts and humanities – perhaps poetry in particular - may often depend for their richness upon metaphor, technical language is denotative, rather than connotative. Metaphors are imprecise, open to different interpretations and thus readily lead to misunderstanding.

But science is more than mere calculation and precision. Lovelock’s idea that the planet Earth might be considered as a life is powerful. It reminds us of the ethical, spiritual and aesthetic considerations involved in being human inhabitants of the Earth.

But what part do, and should, such considerations play in scientific enquiry? Some philosophers have argued that science should become ‘poeticized’ (Rorty 1989). It has even been suggested scientists ‘should be prepared to initiate joyful experiments even in those domains where change and experimentation seem to be out of the question’ (Feyerabend 1975:17). Einstein felt that “pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas.” And when it comes to quantum theory we find terms such as ‘beauty’, ‘charm’ and ‘strangeness’ to signify various properties of the sub-atomic particles called quarks.

So perhaps, as a journalist writing in Science put it, ‘science does not need art to supply its metaphors’ (Banville 1998), and the boundaries between art and science are not so clear after all.

In 1998 Richard Dawkins, the populariser of science and author of The Selfish Gene, wrote a book called Unweaving the Rainbow. This poetic title alludes to Keats’s view that Newton’s science was destructive of the ineffable beauty of nature. Rejecting such romanticism, Dawkins (1998:186) nevertheless argues that science is not so dry as some would suppose. Indeed, he says, “Skill in wielding metaphors … is one of the hallmarks of scientific genius" and the proper exercise of a poetic inclination has its value.

So we have here some very different views about the nature of science from the inhabitants of different disciplinary communities. But are scientists the best people to inform us about the nature of science? Are artists the most reliable informants about the nature of art? Or can we learn about our own discipline from the inhabitants of a different disciplinary ‘country’? And this applies to the professions as well. Doctors may be skilled in curing illness and teachers in teaching their students, but do doctors and teachers have a special authority when it comes to deciding what it means to be healthy or educated?

When it comes to the purposes to which disciplinary or professional expertise is put, the political issue is sharpened. How significant are the views of biotechnologists in developing policies for the use of genetic modification? What credibility has a minister of state for higher education, who has had no direct involvement in that community? These are not rhetorical questions.

Over the last thirty years or so the power of professional and disciplinary authority have been seriously questioned. Some (e.g. Gibbons et al 1994) suggest that the disciplines are an increasingly irrelevant mode of knowledge production more geared to the concerns of academics to create and solve their own problems, than to engage with the world outside. Academic disciplines, with their own protective tribes and territories (Becher 1989) do more to preserve their own élites than contribute to social development, it has been said. In contrast, the terms ‘transdisciplinary’ and ‘multidisciplinary’ have been used to describe a new organisation of knowledge which is geared to the solution of practical problems, by overcoming disciplinary boundaries and drawing upon different fields of expertise.

But there is a danger here. Even if we could remove the boundaries between disciplines, might we not, at the same time, remove the forms of critique that characterise the thinking and practices within those boundaries? Academics value critique and society needs innovation founded upon critical understanding. Critique is also required to resist the misuse of power and tradition. The disciplines provide the bases for such critical judgement. But what is meant by ‘critical’ appears to be different in different disciplines. Sociology and psychology, for example, provide different grounds for making critical judgements about human behaviour.

These grounds are often contested, particularly in the social sciences, even within a discipline. The ground upon which a Marxist economist makes critical judgements, for example, will be very different from those upon which a neo-classical economist makes them. It is not just that their theories are different, but the very way they go about theorising.

And so disciplines are not spaces where all are in agreement. But criticism, and consideration of the grounds for it, are a proper concern of any discipline. What students learn, more than anything else, when they are inducted into a discipline, is something about the nature – albeit contested - of critical judgement that characterises that discipline. Education, research or problem solving that too readily moves across disciplinary boundaries without any disciplinary home or commitment, is in danger of lacking a critical orientation. This may lead to the ability to solve technical problems without an awareness of the value of their solutions.

The idea that there is some neutral transdisciplinary or metadisciplinary perspective from which judgements can be made about the different disciplines is an interesting idea, but one about which I am highly sceptical. Interdisciplinary work can be exciting, but it is hard. In confronting disciplinary boundaries, we should not be seduced into believing that we can leave behind the disciplinary roots that nourish our critical faculties.

Interdisciplinarity takes critique seriously. It acknowledges that different grounds of criticism are involved in different disciplinary perspectives. It negotiates and struggles across those boundaries and with those grounds. It rejects the notion that knowledge is a commodity, which can be picked off the shelf to solve problems as required. It acknowledges and struggles with difference in its working towards agreement. It is conducted in a spirit of open negotiation and contestation with a preparedness to listen and learn. But it does not give up on the need for critical judgement, a faculty much needed in our increasingly compliant educational culture.

Returning to Lovelock’s hypothesis of the Earth as the mother goddess Gaia: whether we consider, as theologians, scientists, physicists or engineers, that the Earth is a life, is more than a matter of defining our terms. Disciplinary language is steeped in theory, often assumed rather than explicit. Such theory often comes to the surface through the metaphors we use. The transitions across disciplinary boundaries challenge us to reflect upon the assumptions and purposes that form the basis of our disciplinary work. It requires that we be open and listen out for other possibilities.

Marcel Proust said that the real voyage of discovery is not about seeking new lands but about seeing with new eyes. When we attempt to cross the boundaries between disciplines, what is gained is not so much the opportunity to learn about new things (interesting though that may be) but to open our eyes to different ways of knowing the familiar. The boundaries to be crossed may lie in our own ways of seeing and our own ways of listening.


Banville, J. (1998) Beauty, Charm, and Strangeness: Science as
Metaphor Science July 3; 281: 40-41. The American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Becher, T. (1989) Academic Tribes and Territories. Milton Keynes: Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.

Dawkins, R. (1998) Unweaving the Rainbow. London, Penguin, 1998).

Ellis, W. (1998) Flapping Butterfly Wings: A Retrospect of TRANET's First Twenty Years. Eighteenth Annual Schumacher Lecture (ed. H. Hannum). Great Barrington, MA: E.F.Schumacher Society.

Feyerabend, P.K. (1975) Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge. London: New Left Books.

Lovelock, J. (2000) Gaia: The Practical Science of Planetary Medicine. Second Edition. London: Gaia Books.

Primavesi, A. (2000) Sacred Gaia. London: Routledge

Rorty, R. (1989) 'Philosophy as Science, as Metaphor, and as Politics', in Rorty, R. (1991) Essays on Heidegger and Others. Philosophical Papers, Volume 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; pp. 9-26.

Turney, J (2003) What a wonderful Gaia, The Guardian 19 June.


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