Sunday, November 20, 2011

Resisting Interdisciplinarity

First, apologies for not having posted for some time.

One might think that philosophers have an in-built reason to celebrate interdisciplinarity. After all, many of us do philosophy of x, where x is science, or language, or mind or some other object of study to which one more disciplines that is not philosophy is also directed. As a philosopher of mind, for example, what I do counts as part of an interdisciplinary endeavor called cognitive science that includes psychologists, biologists, linguists, computer scientists, etc. In addition, philosophers take themselves to be an a position to ask and consider questions that particular disciplines can't answer, for either principled or practical reasons. For example, neuroscientists take for granted that in studying the brain they are thereby studying the mind. All this is to the good.

However, interdisciplinarity is not an unalloyed good. Indeed, there is a trend towards interdisciplinarity that I will call anti-disciplinarity: a trend towards rejecting the value of expertise, the value of pursuits with a history, the value of collective intellectual pursuits that transcend spatial and temporal boundaries.

My worries about anti-disciplinarity have to do with our larger conversations about the purposes of higher education and the centrality of student learning. I break my worries into two concerns: first, the role of anti-disciplinarity in the deprofessionalization of higher education; second, the effects of anti-disciplinarity on student learning.

Why are administrations so eager about and interested in so-called interdisiplinarity? One explanation may be just that it is a new buzz-word or concept that is required to look like a viable candidate for a position as an Associate Dean, Dean, Provost, President, etc. Another explanation is that some simply view interdisciplinarity as a good thing. Another, compatible, explanation is that it is in the fiscal interest of the higher educational industry to deprofessionalize the workforce. In this latter guise, interdisciplinarity is really just a stand-in for anti-disciplinarity. If there are no disciplines, no experts, no actual set of practices by which scholars and teachers ought to be evaluated, then faculty are simply so many movable pieces, whose credentials stand for nothing other than an antiquated mode of identification. There is no reason to pay faculty as professionals, for they have no profession. There is no reason to hire faculty in permanent positions, for there are no permanent questions, no permanent pursuits, no common projects that require anything other a generic person to teach generic courses.

What about the effects of anti-disciplinarity on student learning? There are the immediate practical effects of an itinerant faculty: student learning is best pursued over time through long-standing mentor-mentee relationships. But there is a less immediate but very real effect that I am beginning to see in my own students: they believe that pursuing a topic, question, issue, puzzle, problem, etc. consists in a very broad, very superficial sense of the territory and does not require expertise. It does not require discipline. In addition, they believe that a topic, question, issue, puzzle, problem, etc, can only be treated at this very generic, superficial level. But part of the joy of being a scholar is that one may contribute to and connect with a much larger field of inquiry by working very diligently on one part of it. I should add that there is here a built-in incentive towards anti-disciplinarity for our students, especially when it is being touted by the institution: diligently working away on a technical and challenging portion of a long-standing problem is more difficult and time-consuming than painting broad, elliptical impressions about impermanent worries. Most importantly, students learn when they are asked to go through the paces of disciplining the mind towards a focused, collective effort. When students are asked to participate in the gestures of anti-disciplinary activity, they are asked to participate in a collective illusion that masquerades as student learning.

Should we resist interdisciplinarity? How may we do so as faculty, as scholars and as teachers? Is there a way to celebrate true interdisciplinarity without being complicit in the deprofessionalization of higher education and the substitution of appealing and illusory forms of entertainment for real student learning?


  1. One way to handle this may be by team-teaching. When my philosophy classes have touched on areas such as psychology, or quantum physics, I have invited fellow faculty members in to talk to students and answer their questions. I take it that what you are opposed to is 'inter-disciplinary' as in "be an instant expert on any field". By bringing in people from other fields, I hope to make the point that true inter-disciplinary research is a particularly demanding form of teamwork that involves respect for practitioners of other disciplines.

  2. There is an epistemological side to this too, as hinted in the opening part of your post. Disciplines are not distinguished by the topic they focus on (problem, or however you call it) but by how they approach that problem: the questions they ask, the methods they use to investigate the questions, etc.

    Done well, interdisciplinarity brings greater insight to a problem or issue by bringing these different approaches together, adding another layer to the creation of knowledge. It's hard work and demands expertise and a willingness to contemplate issues one otherwise might not see.

    I agree though that some of the push for interdisciplinarity is anti-disciplinary, negating the value of those disciplinary approaches and the difficulty of learning that disciplined way of thinking through several years of focused study.

    Interestingly, the English higher education model has traditionally been very disciplinary with little if any exposure to disciplines outside what North Americans would call the "major". Whereas the liberal arts model dominant in North America has long exposed students to a variety of disciplines, if only briefly.

  3. Ben - thanks, and you are right. Perhaps a starting point in any useful attempt at interdisciplinarity is to recognize that is impossible without disciplines. Learning about and invoking work from other disciplines should begin (but need not end) in basic epistemic humility: very smart people have been working on these things very hard for a very long time and deserve prima facie respect.

    JoVE, I appreciate and agree with the point about focusing on methodologies instead of subjects - whether, what and to what degree something is a problem, puzzle, issue, etc. is already a part of a common project with a common set of assumptions.

    I also agree that the liberal arts are an excellent model of true interdisciplinarity. I would ad that they are a crucial element in resisting the instrumentalization of education and the short-sighted emphasis on skills, utility, and parochial expertise.

    But the anti-disciplinary movement is part of the dismantling of the intellectual breadth that the liberal arts represent. It is also a part of the move towards demanding that education have the narrowest, most short-term, and most reactive instrumental aims. It is central to the attack on the humanities and most importantly, central in the destruction of higher education as aimed at the education of a person rather than the training of a worker. Its primary aim is to eradicate the professoriate. This is why it has been seized upon so readily by administrations.

  4. Becko, these comments remind me that I've long preferred cross-disciplinarity to "interdisciplinarity". I'm strongly on board with the hypothesis that students learning how different disciplines approach the same problem or phenomena can be a remarkable stimulus to learning, but in order for that to happen, the students need to have been schooled in the canons of inquiry that define the disciplines. (It's worth remembering here the etymological connection between 'discipline' in the academic sense and in the more common sense: both concern training or instruction in accordance with rules.) For us philosophers, we spend a great deal of effort trying to help students see both the characteristic marks of a philosophical question (one that is not best addressed by economists, psychologists, or whatever) as well as the methods that define philosophical inquiry. Students who are then exposed to how other disciplines engage the same sorts of questions then learn not only more about the questions, but about the respective disciplines. But again, I think cross-disciplinarity better captures the proper image of disciplines engaging each other, whereas interdisciplinarity may well encourage the undisciplined intellectual vapidity you are worried about.

  5. "...neuroscientists take for granted that in studying the brain they are thereby studying the mind." I'm not at all convinced that's in any way "to the good," nor are such folks (much brighter than me) as M.R. Bennett, P.M.S. Hacker, Daniel N. Robinson, Michael S. Pardo, Dennis Patterson, Steven Horst, and Raymond Tallis.

    One of the fundamental questions any promotion of inter- or cross-disciplinary studies must face is that posed by Nicholas Rescher: “In a complex world, the natural dynamics of the cognitive process exhibits an inherent tropism toward increasing complexity.” While Rescher believes that this may be true for biological evolution, it certainly holds for technological “progress,” and, more to the point, is true for the “progress of knowledge” emblematic of the natural sciences.

    And I think those holds as well for the social sciences and perhaps even the humanities, for similar if not the same reasons. The irony, or at least the difficulty we therefore face is that our appreciation of this complexity is of a piece with the availability of information, which is growing at a rate analogous to that operative in the world of technology (not dissimilar to the ’geometrical ratio’ of growth Malthus thought, wrongly, applied to population). In Rescher’s words, the

    “the explosive growth of information of itself countervails against its exploitation for the sake of knowledge-enhancement. The problem of coping with the proliferation of printed material affords a striking example of this phenomenon. One is forced to higher levels of aggregation, compression, and abstraction. [….]

    And this ongoing refinement in the division of cognitive labor that an information explosion necessitates issues in a literal dis-integration of knowledge. The ‘progress of knowledge’ is marked by an ever-continuing proliferation of ever more restructured specialties [witness dissertation topics!] marked by the unavoidable circumstance that any given specialty cell cannot know exactly what is going on even nest door—let alone at significant remove. Our understanding of matters outside one’s bailiwick is bound to become superficial. At home base one knows the details, nearby one has an understanding of generalities, but at a greater remove one can be no more than an informed amateur.”

    Rescher illustrates his case with the natural sciences, wherein the “emergence of new disciplines, branches, and specialties is manifest everywhere.” Awareness of this fragmentation give rise to attempts at synthesis and synoptic vision, an endeavor to achieve some overall sense of unity, hence the increasing literature proclaiming the urgency and importance of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research. According to Rescher, however, the desire for dialectical or synthetic integration results, in the end, to the production of ever new fragments of disciplinary knowledge! The difficulties we face when presented with “an ever more extensive specialization and division of [intellectual] labor” are real and unavoidable.


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