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Cecilia Dockendorff
The Long Way from Non-Reductionism to Transdisciplinarity: Critical Questions about Levels of Reality and the Constitution of Human Beings


Overcoming reductionism seems to have reached considerable consensus today, if not among all the “hard” sciences, at least in most leading theories in social sciences. But, does this take us easily to embrace TD? This paper provides some reflections about the journey from the attempt of overcoming reductionism to arriving at TD propositions. I discuss some of the challenges TD faces vis-à-vis some other contemporary attempts to overcome reductionism, focusing on two of the central themes this transition implies: levels of reality and the constitution of the human being.

I initiate this attempt by discussing the relationship between reductionism in science and in society, particularly how it has affected modern occidental culture and our every day life. Reductionism is not only an epistemological problem that concerns philosophy and the sciences. The darkest side of it is the cultural implications as they are at the centre of human relations among fellow human beings and their relation to Nature.

The modern notion of Subject, which has further evolved into a reduction of the human being constitution, is at the centre of the cultural implications of reductionism. I review some of the late attempts in philosophy to overcome the reductionistic Subject, as in the works of Wittgenstein, Rorty and Foucault. In social sciences, there have been similar theoretical attempts, as is the case of Luhmann and Habermas, who largely blame one another for failing.

But the process of overcoming reductionism in science, philosophy and the social sciences has had little effect on our modern culture. I propose an observation program to address our social crisis from a cultural point of view. In this view, culture is defined as a semantic domain which includes a socio-cultural matrix, this is, a constellation of reductionistic presuppositions from which we can trace the implications of reductionistic semantics on human action in daily life.

From this analysis, I go into addressing the problem of overcoming the reductionistic notion of Subject and proposing, what instead? Will we stick to the modern notion of Individual? Shall we adopt social systems theory and become just psychic systems? What is TD saying when speaking of transdisciplinary human beings? Or even more dangerously when saying transdisciplinary subject? Do we need a new term for us humans? These are some of the challenges TD faces in wanting to overcome reductionism. In my view, TD has a great advantage over other attempts in that it can address a continuum in which to be an individual happens just in one level of Reality, while in others, we humans cease to be individuals but still “are”. What shall we call ourselves then, if we do not want to end up in a new reductionism? I believe TD is in the best position to address these questions, but still has work to do to convey its answers into science and society.

Cecilia Dockendorff is founder and president of Fundación SOLES, a non-governmental organisation operating with the aim of strengthening citizen’s capacity to generate cultural changes that lead to a more just and equal society. Cecilia is a sociologist and holds a Masters degree in anthropology and social development. She is currently writing her doctoral dissertation on sociological theory. She has published and worked as a researcher, teacher, and university lecturer and has a long history of involvement in the promotion of the NGO sector. She is currently a member of the board of directors of Civicus, an international alliance for citizen participation, and of Chile Transparente, the Chilean chapter of Transparency International. Cecilia has also served as a board member of several prestigious non-profit organisations in Chile, and in the past two governments, she has served as a member of advising committees on issues such as overcoming poverty and the promotion of citizen participation, as well as the strengthening of civil society.


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