Declaration of In(ter)dependents

Metanexus is not a political organization, but I hope you will indulge me for a brief observation. 

We’re coming to the end of the presidential election season here in the U.S.  As usual, the race is a close one and will very likely be decided by independent voters.  In fact, “independent” is the nation’s largest “political party”—more registered voters identify themselves as independent than either Republican or Democrat.  According to a recent Pew Research Center poll of registered voters, 27% identified themselves Republican, and 36% identified themselves as Democrats.  That means 37% of registered voters consider themselves independents!  (Not to mention those voters who registered in one of the two major parties but still vote independently.)

Back in January of this year, Stanley Fish lamented this state of affairs in his always-provocative New York Times blog, Think Again (“Against Independent Voters”).  In that piece, Fish, Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor and a professor of law at Florida International University, and dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, complained that the idea that independent voters are (or are even seen to be) smarter, more reflective, more serious voters than party partisans is all wrong.  He writes:

The assumption is that if we were all independent voters, the political process would be in much better shape.

This seems to me to be a dubious proposition, especially if the word “political” in the phrase “political process” is taken seriously. Those who yearn for government without politics always invoke abstract truths and moral visions (the good life, the fair society, the just commonwealth) 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, politics, which is what independent voters hate.

Not so.  At least it is not so in my case nor in the case of any of the independents I talk politics with.  We tend to think that it’s the parties that quash politics, not the other way around.  Parties hate politics.  Look at the punishments meted out by the national parties to non-compliant states that move their primary dates to be “more competitive”–in other words, to have more of a role in the politics of selecting a nominee for their party.  Look at the energetic efforts at re-districting that go on in order to reduce competition in local politics.  Look at the strong-arm tactics parties use to get “difficult” candidates out of the race before, heaven forbid, someone votes for them.  Look at the censorship that goes on every four years during the national conventions, quashing participation by party members with dissenting points of view on this or that issue.

When Fish’s piece was published, I had a lot more to say about it (and if you are interested you can see my response at my blog, Peripatetic Praxis).  The point I’d like to make here is that there seems to me an analogy between the way Fish looks at independents in 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 and hundreds (at least!) of parties—namely, the disciplines, sub-disciplines, and sub-sub-disciplines that make up the academic institutional landscape.  And it might be that those of us advocating for transdisciplinarity might be viewed in a similar way as Fish views independent voters.

Let me paraphrase Fish, substituting transdisciplinary ideas for independent political ones:

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.

The honest transdisciplinarian ought to feel the twinge of recognition in these charges—and the situation might even be worse.  In fact, I think there are factions who do disagree with these aims, not only because they may “have no content” but also because they may be dangerous ideas.  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?

Just as Fish presents a caricature of the independent voter, this academic paraphrase gives us only a caricature of what transdisciplinarity is all about.  Yes, there may be independent voters guilty as charged by Fish, and we at Metanexus have run into more than our fair share of ten-page “theories of everything” that are supposed to answer all of humanity’s questions once and for all (but are nothing but nonsense).  But the transdisciplinarians I know from all around the world love to engage in definitional disputes.  They do “take sides”—just not along established disciplinary lines.  Watching the television ads this election cycle (any election cycle) provides enough evidence that in politics the two parties demonize each other, and independents do tend to hate that.  But in academia, the same thing happens.  Witness the absurd and embarrassing battles between “Continental” and “Analytic” philosophy, or how pro- and anti-string-theorists will write about each other.  Not to mention the now tedious “battle between science and religion” that goes on in the popular press (but that generally—at least at that level—exhibits very little in the way of thought or insight).  Academic politics can be brutal!  But not necessarily just in cases where, as Henry Kissinger was purported to have said, “so little is at stake,” but also when so much is at stake—namely, the truth about how things are.

But the transdisciplinarians I know are the least likely to “demonize” their colleagues with whom they have disagreements.  They are most likely to be open to genuine collaboration and fruitful dialogue.  They are least likely to get caught up in academic “turf wars” and most likely to reap the benefits (and the pleasures) of intellectual (and spiritual) community.

And just like the independent voters will likely decide the outcome of the next presidential election, which is, I suppose, of some importance, it will be the transdisciplinarians who will determine the “outcome” of our common quest for knowledge and wisdom—which is of paramount importance.  Transdisciplinarians are independent minded scholars and researchers, no doubt.  But it is more accurate to say that they are interdependent minded, rigorously trained participants in their own spheres of expertise but cognizant of the fact that the pursuit of the whole requires the work of all of us—from every discipline, from every sphere of authority and expertise, and from every sort of academic, religious, civic, and cultural institution.  Transdisciplinarians know they have to undertake the hard intellectual and spiritual work (but no less enjoyable and enriching for all of that) 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.

Declare your interdependence!  Join with us at Metanexus, and let’s do that work together!  Become a member today!

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