Friday, 29 July 2011

the emergence of pandisciplinarity


Having been founded three years after Columbus ‘discovered’ America, the University of Aberdeen celebrated its quincentenary in 1995. This encouraged associates of the Centre for Russian, East and Central European Studies to look at the area of its prime interest in a long chronological perspective as well as a wider context. For this purpose, we adopted a conceptual framework first devised in ancient Greece and then revived in the Renaissance of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries – the three unities of time, place and action. Action was used in the sense that Aristotle had applied to drama: ‘It is necessary, then, just as in other imitative arts there is one imitation of one thing, that the plot, being an imitation of the action, should be concerned with one thing and that a whole, and that the parts of the action should be put together that if one part is shifted or taken away the whole is deranged and disjoined, for what makes no perceptible difference by its presence or absence is no part of the whole.’ The other two unities were noted in the eighteenth century by, among others, the Aberdonian philosopher Thomas Reid: ‘Created things have their particular place in space, and their particular place in time.’ However, he continued: ‘time is everywhere, and space at all times’, thus emphasising the need for a guiding principle. In the late twentieth century, for this purpose, we expressed the hope ‘to move beyond interdisciplinarity towards pandisciplinarity, to attempt to recapture some of the comprehensive nature of enquiry associated with the Renaissance at the time of the university’s foundation in 1495, or with the Enlightenment during its development in the eighteenth century.’ We attempted under this broad heading to include such ideas as Chaos, Complexity, Gaia and Post-Modernism. (Paul Dukes, Cathryn Brennan, Xenofont Sanukov, Jean Houbert, Time, Place and Action: Quinquennial Perspectives on Russia, East and Central Europe, Aberdeen: Centre for Russian, East and Central European Studies, 1996).

In succeeding years, we used the concept in a number of ways, for example in an article of 2002 examining intellectual development in the Soviet 1920s: ‘October in the Mind: The Russian Revolution, Freidizm and Pandisciplinarity.’ (Revolutionary Russia, vol. 18, no. 1, 2002, 1-23). But it was not before reading the seminal article by Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer, ‘The Anthropocene’ (IGBP (International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme) Newsletter 41), that we developed a new focus, set out in Minutes to Midnight: History and the Anthropocene Era from 1763, Anthem, London, 2011. The book asserts that the study of history should be scientific – that is rational, global and evolutionary, taking its place among other sciences –humane, social and natural – in a pandisciplinary approach to humanity’s present predicament. It differs from most other approaches to the subject in its emphasis on application rather than explanation. In other words, rather than asking: what is history?, it attempts to answer the question: how can history be of use in today’s crisis?

The concept of pandisciplinarity was far from emerging in Aberdeen alone. For example, John R. Hall, Professor of Sociology at Davis, California brought it into his book Cultures of Inquiry: From Epistomology to Discourse in Sociohistorical Research, Cambridge: CUP, 1999, in particular pp. 173, 179, 259-61. In a chapter entitled ‘Discursive hybrids of practice: an introductory schema’, Hall has a section devoted to ‘The pandisciplinarity of inquiry.’ He notes that in the three decades concluding the twentieth century, historians and sociologists have sought ‘to define an enterprise shared by the two disciplines.’ He argues that ‘the pandisciplinarity of inquiry identifies commonalties in an enormous array of scholarship, ranging across literary and cultural studies in the conventional humanities, divergent approaches to the study of history (“social history,” “cultural history,” “oral history,” etc.) and the conventional social sciences – divided by disciplines (economics, geography, etc.) but united both by shared substantive interests (markets, colonization, culture, etc.) and by shared practices across disciplines, from ethnography to statistical analysis.’ Hall criticizes the concept of the two cultures advanced by C.P. Snow as ‘culturally arbitrary’ and advances that of the Third Path taking us ‘beyond merely parochial assertions about the supposed superiority of any particular local method.’ His approach ‘identifies limits to any quest for a single, objective social science, much less a “science of history” via social theory.’ Hall concludes:

The route of the Third Path opens out into an emergent network of communication, unevenly tied together by nodal connections among discourses, practices, and procedures of translation that push back the frontier of any absolute differend. Knowledge produced by way of culturally coherent practices of inquiry and their contestation can result in more than storytelling, even in the absence of an encompassing pure Reason.

Paul Boytchev takes an ‘Equilibristic pandisciplinary approach to technology enhanced learning’ (Proceedings of the Fortieth Jubilee Spring Conference of the Union of Bulgarian Mathematicians, Borovetz, April 5-9 2011.) He concentrates on ‘the core ideas of the equilibristic and pandisciplinary approaches in Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) and the way they could be combined into  a single approach’ with special reference to the relationship between the Humanities and Arts on the one hand and Science, Mathematics and Computing on the other. No doubt, the computer has a key role to play not only in TEL but more widely. (See, for example, ‘Computing for the future of the planet’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Series A, October 2008 [available online] ).  

As already intimated, our approach to pandisciplinarity differs from others in its emphasis on the central problems of our age symbolised by the Doomsday Clock, set by atomic scientists from 1947 but including new developments in the life sciences and technology as well as climate change from 2007 onwards. However, we would be foolish to ignore less instrumental discussions of this concept as illustrated above or considerations of other allied concepts such as consilience. This was first advanced in 1840 by the Cambridge scholar William Whewell in his book The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences. Literally meaning ‘jumping together’, for Whewell ‘The Consilience of Inductions takes place when an Induction, obtained from one class of facts, coincides with an Induction, obtained from another different class. This Consilience is a test of the truth of the Theory in which it occurs.’ Whewell is quoted by the Harvard entomologist Edward O. Wilson in the update and development entitled Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge, London: Little, Brown and Co, 1998, 6-7. Most of his book is devoted to a consideration of the nature of a full range of academic disciplines. In the twenty-first century, Wilson believes, ‘the natural sciences, and the humanities, particularly the creative arts... will be the two great branches of learning’, with the social sciences occupying a bridge position between them. (10) Although ‘the humanities... will draw closer to the sciences and partly fuse with them’, there will remain a distinction between ‘the future excursions of science and the imaginative flights of the arts.’ (333) However, Wilson gives the study of history, on which we place emphasis, sparse attention: even though he believes that the ‘imminent environmental bottleneck’ will cause ‘a new kind of history driven by environmental change’, he neglects old kinds of history. (320)  Moreover, while he makes the Enlightenment the fundamental point of departure for his argument, he says very little about history as process. Hardly surprising, perhaps, in view of his speciality.

And Wilson’s conclusion runs true to type, too: ‘We are, it seems, Old World, catarrhine primates, brilliant emergent animals, defined genetically by our unique origins, blessed by our newfound biological genius, and secure in our homeland if we wish to make it so.’ (333).
Amen to that.

1 comment:

  1. Clearly the scientific status of history is central to your project. One question: you write that the study of history as a science is validated by the extent to which it is "rational, global and evolutionary"; would it follow that espousal of Christianity which was coherent, rational and saw history as process from the Creation to the Fall and on to an end, would this be scientific? Or are there other characteristics required to make world views scientific?