19.224 failure of interdisciplinarity

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Wed, 24 Aug 2005 07:11:35 +0100

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 19, No. 224.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Tue, 23 Aug 2005 16:49:55 +0100
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: failure of interdisciplinarity

The following is quoted from the Preface by Sir
Stafford Beer to Humberto R Maturana and
Francisco J Varela, Autopoiesis: The Realization of the Living
(1980): 64-5.

>A man who can lay claim to knowledge about some
>categorized bit of the world, however tiny,
>which is greater than anyone else's knowledge of
>that bit, is safe for life: reputation grows,
>paranoia deepens. The number of papers increases
>exponentially, knowledge grows by
>infinitesimals, but understanding of the world
>actually recedes, because the world really is an
>interacting system. And since the world, in many
>of its aspects, is changing at an exponential
>rate, this kind of scholarship, rooted in the
>historical search of its own sanctified
>categories, is in large part unavailing to the needs of mankind.
>There has been some recognition of this, and
>inter-disciplinary studies are by now
>commonplace in every university. But will this
>deal with the problem? Unfortunately, it will
>not. We still say that a graduate must have his
>'basic discipline', and this he is solemnly
>taught - as if such a thing had a precise
>environmental correlate, and as if we know that
>God knew the difference between physics and
>chemistry. He learns also the academic mores,
>catches the institutional paranoia, and proceeds
>to propagate the whole business. Thus it is that
>an 'interdisciplinary study' often consists of a
>group of disciplinarians holding hands in a ring
>for mutual comfort. The ostensible topic has
>slipped down the hole in the middle. Among those
>who recognize this too, a natural enough debate
>has ensued on the subject: can an undergraduate
>be taught 'interdisciplinary studies' as his
>basic subject? But there is no such subject;
>there is no agreement on what it would be like;
>and we are rather short of anyone qualified to
>do the teaching. Those who resist the whole
>idea, in my view correctly, say that it would
>endanger the norms of good scholarship. There is a deadlock....
>The dissolution of the deadlock within the
>disciplinary system that I described above has
>got to be metasystemic, not merely
>interdisciplinary. We are not interested in
>forming a league of disciplinary paranoids, but
>(as Hegel could have told us) in a higher synthesis of disciplines....
>In the mounting pile of new books printed every
>year that are properly called scientific, one
>may take hold of one's candle and search like a
>veritable Diogenes for a single one answering to
>the honest criteria I have proposed for a
>metasystemic utterance. There is only a handful
>in existence at all, which is not surprising in
>view of the way both knowledge and academia are
>organized. And yet, as I have also proposed,
>herein lies the world's real need. If we are to
>understand a newer and still evolving world; if
>we are to educate people to live in that world;
>if we are to legislate for that world; if we are
>to abandon categories and institutions that
>belong to a vanished world, as it is well-nigh
>desparate that we should; then knowledge must be rewritten.



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Received on Wed Aug 24 2005 - 02:20:22 EDT

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