Feature Article: Transdisciplinarity As An Interactive Method: A Critical Reflection On The Three Pillars Of Transdisciplinarity

October 2009 / Feature Articles

Predrag CicovakiWe are witnessing, I am convinced, the first stages of a new and extremely promising revolution. This movement promotes a new approach to human knowledge—ranging from and including natural sciences, social sciences and humanities—and, indeed, a new approach to humanity in general. The temporary name of this revolution is “transdisciplinarity,” and one of its most important pioneers and champions is the quantum physicist Basarab Nicolescu. As the author of La Transdisciplinarité, the initial manifesto of the transdisciplinary movement, he continues to develop this new vision of human knowledge and a new approach to the world in which we live together. The goal of my paper is to contribute to the development of this new paradigm by offering a sympathetic yet critical reflection on the fundamental philosophical and methodological aspects of transdisciplinarity. I will begin (section I) by discussing the word ‘transdisciplinary’ and will argue that transdisciplinarity should be understood as an interactive method. After that, I will consider (in sections II-IV) the so-called “three pillars of transdisciplinarity: the levels of Reality, the logic of the included middle, and complexity,” which Nicolescu claims “determine the methodology of transdisciplinary research.” What is at least initially unclear are two questions: First, why are there exactly three pillars, rather than two, or four, or any other number? Second, why these particular pillars, rather than any others? After suggesting why Nicolescu’s three pillars should be renamed as transdisciplinary ontology, transdisciplinary logic, and transdisciplinary epistemology, I will in the end (in section V) insist that there is a need for the fourth pillar as well. Nicolescu himself often emphasizes the value aspect of transdisciplinarity, namely that “it is a way of self-transformation, oriented towards the knowledge of the self, the unity of knowledge, and the creation of a new art of living.”(1) For this reason transdisciplinarity requires the fourth pillar as well, a new transdisciplinary theory of values.

I. Transdisciplinarity and Interaction

The prefix ‘trans’ indicates that “transdisciplinarity concerns that which is at once between the disciplines, across the different disciplines, and beyond all disciplines. Its goal is the understanding of the present world, of which one of the imperatives is the unity of knowledge.”(2) There are many reasons to avoid the trap of increasingly fragmented disciplinary research, and even interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approaches do not offer fully satisfactory solutions to this problem. Interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary inquiries remain fixed on a few aspects of reality and do not attempt to understand it as a whole. But a deeper problem, which is perhaps the reason for our fragmented approach, concerns our basic assumptions about the nature of reality. A brief reminder on the two most often accepted models—one classical and one modern—can illustrate the point in question:(3)

Model 1—The ancient and scholastic view of the priority of object over subject: Being and thinking are not ontological equals. Being is treated as having its own firmly established identity and unity, independent of and indifferent to whether it is known. ‘To be’ is to be a definite kind of thing. If our thinking is to disclose what being is, it must adjust itself to the properties of being.

Model 2—The modern view of the epistemological prevalence of subject over object: Being and thinking are not epistemological equals. Thinking has priority over being, insofar as it is more easily accessible than being. In order to be known, being must adjust to the structures of thinking. ‘To be’ is to be an object of possible knowledge; it is to be knowable as a certain kind of thing.

There are at least three shared assumptions in these models that no longer look acceptable. The first is that according to both models reality is understood as something static, not dynamic. The second assumption entails the complete separation of thinking and being, of subject and object. The third is that there must be a hierarchical relation between subject and object, between thinking and being; one of them is taken to be dominant, without considering whether they may be in a cooperative rather than competitive relation with each other.

All of these assumptions have been justly criticized. Nicolescu, for example, often speaks about Nature, rather than reality, and—with full awareness that it is a pleonasm—emphasizes the expression “living Nature.”(4) He is right to insist that, “the study of living Nature asks for a new methodology—transdisciplinary methodology—which is different from the methodology of modern science and the methodology of the ancient science of being. It is the coevolution of the human being and of the universe which asks for a new methodology.”(5)

I am convinced that Nicolescu is right, yet instead of a fairly general phrase “coevolution,” it is more precise to use the word “interaction,” which he himself uses more frequently.(6) We do not have a complete and comprehensive understanding of interactive relations, but several elementary points are clear.

  • Interactions are dynamic, not static, relations. Their conditions, parameters, or even objectives can change with different circumstances and over a period of time, without thereby interrupting interactive relations themselves.
  • Interactive relations are always reciprocal; this is what distinguishes them from one-directional relations, such as actions or reactions. This reciprocity can take many forms, depending of the elements or forces involved. We can distinguish, for instance, between interdependence, interchange, intercourse, interlinking, interfusing, interplaying, etc.
  • The positive value of interactive relations is expressed and measured not in “oppositional” or “hierarchical,” but in “cooperative” terms. It is expressed and measured not through zero-sum hierarchies and power-relations, such as losing and winning, controlling and being controlled, manipulating or being manipulated, etc. The positive value of interactions is shown in terms of proper functioning and fitting, balance and harmony, authenticity and growth.
  • Interactions can take place between quite heterogeneous elements and forces; homogeneity is not a prerequisite for interaction. This means that in our attempts to understand reality, we can observe interactions between the inorganic and the organic, between the organic and the psychic, or between the psychic and the spiritual, without having to force every phenomenon into any of the often artificially defended monisms, whether of a materialistic kind (as in modern science), or of an idealistic kind (as in Leibniz or Hegel).

For an interactive transdisciplinary methodology, a genuine pluralistic and dynamic approach to reality is the foundation of all research and of every attempt to understand our place and role in that reality. But to see in more detail what this interactive transdisciplinary methodology amounts to, we need to take a closer look at each of the proposed pillars of transdisciplinarity.

II. Levels of Reality and Transdisciplinary Ontology

The first, and perhaps the most fundamental, of the three pillars of transdisciplinarity is the view that reality is multi-dimensional, that it has different and mutually irreducible levels. Thinking primarily of the difference between the quantum and microphysical levels of reality, Nicolescu maintains that “two levels of Reality are different if, while passing from one to the other, there is a break in the laws and a break in fundamental concepts (such as, for example, causality).”(7) The idea is that, regardless of the capabilities of our intelligence and the actual level of our knowledge, the very structure of reality is discontinuous, and yet that this discontinuity does not prevent different layers from coexisting and interacting in a variety of ways.

Nicolescu points out that “the existence of different levels of Reality has been affirmed by different traditions and civilizations, but this affirmation was founded either on religious dogma or on the exploration of the interior universe.”(8) Rigorous attempts to handle several difficult problems in quantum physics and mathematics have given a new credibility to this old view, which has always lingered in the undercurrents of Western views of reality, but has—up to now—never emerged as the predominant paradigm. Nicolescu is obviously inspired by Kurt Gödel and his insight that a sufficiently rich system of axioms inevitably leads to results which would be either undecidable or contradictory.(9) Nicolescu also singles out the contributions of Heisenberg, Pauli and Bohr. He cites with approval Heisenberg’s conception of the three regions of reality: (i) that of classical physics, (ii) that of quantum physics, biology and psychic phenomena, and (iii) that of religious, philosophical and artistic experience. Nicolescu himself proposes a distinction between Objective Nature, Subjective Nature, and Trans-Nature, which taken together define living Nature, and toward the examination of which is the transdisciplinary method directed.

In his article “Three Pillars of Transdisciplinarity,” Seb Henagulph points out that a significant contribution toward our understanding of the different levels of reality is made not only by mathematicians and physicists; he brings to our attention the contributions by Arthur Koestler (“holons”), Ken Wilber (“Four Quadrants of the Kosmos”), and others.(10) By going back to ancient history, Henagulph reminds us that in Western philosophy there have always existed different approaches to reality and various understandings of it. He singles out Aristotle and Heraclitus as the representatives of the two opposed approaches: static and rational vs. relational and intuitive. Transdisciplinarity certainly does not exclude rationality. Rather, in it relational, intuitive, and interactive features have a leading role.(11)

Let us add a few more remarks concerning the contribution that philosophers have made toward our understanding of the multi-dimensionality of reality. Nicolescu mentions Edmund “Husserl and other scholars [who] have detected the existence of different levels of perception by the subject-observer of Reality,” and correctly adds that these thinkers “were pioneers in the exploration of a multidimensional and multireferential reality.” Unfortunately, “they have been marginalized by academic philosophers and misunderstood by physicists, with each area being trapped in its respective specialization.”(12)

I am citing Nicolescu’s reference to Husserl because I would like to call attention to the work of a philosopher who further developed Husserl’s phenomenological method and whose enormous philosophical opus is centered on the idea of multilayered reality. The name of this now unjustly neglected philosopher is Nicolai Hartmann (1882-1950).(13) His revolutionary works emerged in the thirties and forties of the twentieth century, at the same time when physics was opening new frontiers of a complex multidimensional reality. Since I believe that Hartmann’s insights could be of extreme importance for the further development of the transdisciplinary vision, I will outline several of his central ontological doctrines.(14)

In the history of Western philosophy and science we find various kinds of monisms and dualisms trying to capture the structure of reality, but Hartmann thinks that they are all based on oversimplifications and distortions; they “involve prejudice in favor of simplicity.” Hartmann argues in favor of ontological pluralism; he thinks that our map of the real being must be complex and multidimensional, for reality displays a multiplicity of forms that cannot be reduced to one or two ultimate principles. According to Hartmann, a phenomenological analysis clearly reveals four distinguishable and irreducible strata of reality: inorganic, organic, psychic, and spiritual. It is easy to distinguish between inanimate objects, plants, animals, and man (as an individual and as a member of society). All four strata are interconnected and can be compared in terms of their respective strength and height within their hierarchy. In terms of height, spirit is above all other strata, but it cannot exist without them; the higher strata are attached to and dependent on the lower for their energies and support. In terms of strength, the following principle holds: the lower the strata, the stronger and more basic they are. The lower strata are always included in the higher ones, but not the other way around.

The phenomenological analysis of the real world shows that it is both heterogeneous and united, and the central ontological aporia of the real world is to understand how its deepest heterogeneity does not preclude its unity. The fundamental task of Hartmann’s new ontology is twofold. First, it has to discern the basic categories of each stratum. Second, their mutual relations must also be determined. The former task is predominantly concerned with the categorial differences of the individual strata, the latter with their essential interconnectedness.

Like Aristotle and unlike Kant, Hartmann treats categories as the determinants of the specifics of being, not as concepts of the understanding. In Hartmann’s view, Kant does not sufficiently distinguish between our concepts of categories and categories themselves. Categories themselves are not mere forms imposed by the mind, nor do they determine in the way that causes, reasons, grounds, or purposes do. They are universal principles of being that have no independent existence aside from the things and events they determine; categories are not applied to reality by the mind but are inherent in things and events they determine.

In two of his ontological works—Der Aufbau der realen Welt and Neue Wege der Ontologie—Hartmann distinguishes the categories specific for each stratum of reality. As the categories of the corporeal world he identifies: space and time, process and condition, substantiality, causality, and reciprocity, as well as dynamic structure and dynamic equilibrium. The categories of the animate nature include: adaptation and purposiveness, metabolism, self-regulation and self-restoration, the life of the species, the constancy of the species and variations. The categories of the psychic reality involve: act and content, consciousness and unconsciousness, pleasure and displeasure. Finally, the categories of the spirit are: thought, knowledge, will, freedom, judgment, evaluation, and personality. There are no dominant categories within a single stratum, but they all jointly determine everything. As a result, it is impossible to grasp a single category by itself.

In addition to the categories specific to each stratum, Hartmann detects some categories that run through the entire sequence of strata, although in varying forms. Such categories are: unity and multiplicity, concord and discord, discretion and continuity, substratum and relation, element and structure, form and matter, inner and outer, determination and dependence, identity and difference, generality and individuality, as well as the modal categories and their negative counterparts.

The most unifying theme in Hartmann’s pluralistic picture of the real world is that of a Heraclitan opposition and dynamic balance. Opposition is not to be confused with contradiction, which Hartmann believes exists only in thought. Every known structure in the real world, from atoms and solar systems, to animals and man, displays a complicated array of counter-forces and always attempts to maintain a balance. For Hartmann, there is no independence without dependence; more precisely, all that there is, is a partial independence and partial dependence, and they complement each other very well. For instance, there are two ways in which the higher mode of being is dependent on the lower: the first is existential (spirit cannot exist without a supporting consciousness and, indirectly, a body), and the second is limiting in terms of content and structure (the lower mode of being provides matter and serves as a basis for reshaping and rebuilding of the higher form of being). These two forms of dependence can also be used to illustrate the basic laws regulating the mutual relationship of the different strata of reality. They are the law of recurrence, which guarantees a partial continuity between the various strata, and the law of novelty, which ensures diversity. (The law of recurrence states that the lower categories penetrate into the higher strata, but not the higher into the lower. The law of novelty is simply the emergence of higher categories into the higher ontological stratum.) The determining power of matter does not extend beyond its limiting function; it does not prevent the novelty of the higher form, but rather merely limits its scope. Thus the real world is not governed either by matter or by spirit. It can be ruled neither from below nor from above, for every stratum, besides continuity, includes a certain irreducible specificity. In the full agreement with the advocates of transdisciplinarity, Hartmann maintains that the real world is an intricate, perplexing, multilayered and dynamic unity in heterogeneity.

III. Included Middle and Transdisciplinary Logic

Hartmann’s view that the foundations of logic—its laws and structures—are ultimately ontological rather than mental, would resonate well with Nicolescu. The author of La transdisciplinarité maintains that it is precisely the acceptance of a more complex, multidimensional reality which allowed Stéphane Lupasco to make a decisive break with the traditional logic of the excluded middle.(16) Nicolescu has in mind the recognition of the coexistence of the quantum world and the macrophysical world, and how that acceptance led to a resolution of what was then considered the intellectual scandal provoked by a number of untenable pairs of contradictories: wave and corpuscle, continuity and discontinuity, reversibility and irreversibility of time, and so on. Although numerous experiments in quantum physics have clearly indicated the simultaneous presence of both elements, these pairs appear mutually contradictory when they are analyzed by classical logic. This logic is founded on three axioms: (i) The axiom of identity: A is A; (ii) the axiom of non-contradiction: A is not non-A; and (iii) the axiom of the excluded middle: There exists no third term T which is at the same time A and non-A.

Lupasco developed the logic of the included middle: there exists a third term T that is at the same time A and non-A. He thereby resolved the problems of contradictory pairs, by using the idea of multilayered reality. As Nicolescu explains: “The third dynamic, that of the T-state, is exercised at another level of Reality, where that which appears to be disunited (wave or corpuscle) is in fact united (quanton), and that which appears contradictory is perceived as non-contradictory.”(17)

Nicolescu points out that although Lupasco’s new logic “has had a powerful, albeit underground, impact among psychologists, sociologists, artists, and historians of religion,” it has been “marginalized by physicists and philosophers.”(18) It may be more accurate to say, however, that philosophers have been too preoccupied with their own objections to classical logic and their own attempts to develop a viable alternative to it.

Let me mention a few examples. The principle of the excluded middle, together with the principle of bivalence (“Every statement is either true or false”), has recently come under attack by prominent logicians and philosophers of language, such as Michael Dummett.(19) The reason for this attack should sound familiar: the dynamic flow of many processes in reality makes it difficult, if not impossible, to establish whether many of our statements are either determinately true or false.

The other two principles, the principle of identity and the principle of non-contradiction, have also been under a critical scrutiny for a long time. Hartmann, for instance, challenged the alleged tautological character of both principles. The claim “A is A” is not an empty tautology, according to Hartmann, for it asserts that A is in one certain respect identical with something with which it need not be identical in another respect. The propositions “A is B” and “A is C” do not separate the subject A into two different beings. The real principle of identity should be expressed as “A1 is A2,” and this principle is basic insofar as it functions as the ground of any judgment whatsoever.(20)

What Hartmann has in mind in these sketchy remarks may be reconstructed in the following way. What am I doing when I state, for example after we finish a chess game, “These pieces are heavy”? First, I direct my audience toward the definite aspects of the perceptual field and direct attention toward some specific occurrences in it. I thereby establish temporary boundaries of the perceptual field: in this specific case, we are not talking about the weight of the chessboard or about the specific position of the pieces on the board. Second, by means of various concepts I identify the perceived objects as belonging to a certain type of objects (rather than to any other type). Had my intentions been different, these pieces could have been identified not as chess pieces but as pieces of wood, as pieces of different colors and shapes, or as toys with which my children like to play. Had my intentions been different, I would not have focused on that one definite characteristic of these pieces; rather I could have considered whether they are new or old, expensive or cheap, big or small. By asserting that these pieces are heavy, I compare them with and differentiate them from some other pieces. Thus, declarative statements always purport to establish what is the case, and this involves identifying what is the case and differentiating it from other things and events. This process is never the one of establishing a simple identity (of the kind: A is A) or a simple difference (of the kind: A is not B), but rather of relating different aspects of the same thing together: thus: A1 is A2, but A1 is not B1.

Hartmann holds a similar view with regard to the principle of non-contradiction. Considered in itself, it cannot be recognized that “A is not non-A,” for every synthetic judgment has the form “A is non-A.” Is it evident that A cannot at the same time be B and non-B? Obviously not, answers Hartmann. The indispensability of the principle of non-contradiction is not based on its alleged tautological nature, but again on its function: only under the assumption of its absolute validity can the uniformity of things and judgments be preserved. But whether such uniformity really exists in being or in the logical realm, and whether such a presupposition should, indeed, be taken for granted, we cannot prove it from the principle itself. Nor can we, according to Hartmann, establish it in any other satisfactory way. Just as the principles of knowledge need not themselves be known, the principles of rationality need not themselves be rational.

One of those who seriously challenged classical logic—although he does not get very good press with Nicolescu—was Hegel.(21) The German philosopher clearly recognized that life is not constrained by the principles of logic and that there are oppositions and antinomies everywhere in reality. Any living organism violates the principle of non-contradiction since it simultaneously contains several stages of its development: any growing ‘A’ is also a ‘not-A’, both in terms of embodying a ‘pre-A’ and an ‘after-A’.(22) It is only when our naturally interactive mind closes itself to the possibilities of reciprocal relation with reality that it starts imposing its own preconceived and rigid categories onto the world, be they appropriate or inappropriate, or more or less appropriate. But the “all-or-nothing” character of the basic principles of classical logic does not apply well to natural processes, which allow almost infinite shadings and degrees.

As Hegel, Hartmann, Dummett and other philosophers have argued, classical logic should not be confused for “the science of thinking,” for the laws of logic are not the laws of our actual thinking. All of this does not show that the standard principles of classical logic are false or inappropriate. But it certainly means that we should be far more cautious about the range of their proper application. Nor does this criticism intend to imply that we do not need any logic and rationality. If anything, we need more logic and rationality. But we need logic and rationality that are not separated from the interactive processes taking place in reality. We need logic and rationality open to the dynamism of life and willing to participate in that dynamism. This indeed may be the only way for logic and rationality to be of value in our transdisciplinary pursuit of truth.

IV. Complexity and Transdisciplinary Epistemology

Of the three pillars of transdisciplinarity postulated by Nicolescu, the third one—complexity—is the least clear. Quantum physics undoubtedly leads us to realize that the universe is far more complex than we have previously suspected, but this insight has already been captured by the first pillar: the fact that reality is multidimensional certainly entails that the universe is a complex whole. The second pillar also points toward complexity, this time concerning our thinking of reality. We have seen how some of the principles of classical logic need to be revised, but their revision has to extend also to—up to now mostly uncontested, yet fundamental—the principle of sufficient reason.(23) This principle is one of the most often used when it comes to explaining the overall structure of the universe, but it has also had the most detrimental and arresting affects on our thinking. The reason for this is that the principle of sufficient reason tends to turn the world into a closed, static and rationally organized system. But this is not what the world is; the world is full of leaps, as well as accidental happenings, chance and luck.

To clarify this dynamism, Nicolescu introduces the distinction between “Objective Nature,” “Subjective Nature” and “Trans-Nature,”(24) but I must admit that I have a problem with this triad. Following Lupasco’s new logic, Nicolescu somewhat mechanically interprets everything through the prism of triadic relations, without even trying to see whether some relations can be explained in simpler, binary terms. And we have already seen in the previous section that even some problems regarding the principle of non-contradiction can be resolved by remaining on the same level of reality.

Regardless of whether we insist on binary, or triadic, or some other relations, the key point concerns the interactive relation between subject and object, man and the world. The mind should not be understood as separated from the body—as has so often been done—nor is it separated from other layers and aspects of reality. As a matter of fact, the mind is tied to reality in innumerable ways and functions interactively. As Hartmann expressed it, “man is placed in the midst of [the world], and is dependent upon it in many incalculable ways.”(25) Just as the senses are capacities for interaction, so is the mind. The mind is the capacity to be open, to interact with perceived differences and grasp their underlying similarities and connections. These differences may originate and be perceived anywhere: in our own thoughts, in our bodies, in other minds and bodies, in the immediate or mediate environment.(26)

Following our previous discussion, the third pillar should be more correctly understood as a transdisciplinary epistemology, rather than as complexity. According to such an epistemology, cognition itself should be understood as a kind of interaction: it is a form of interacting with other forms of interaction. In cognitive experience we do not, strictly speaking, respond to individual and isolated objects; we respond to the relations they have with other objects and with us.

How can we go beyond these initial remarks and get a better grasp of what a transdisciplinary interactive epistemology—and accompanying conception of truth—would amount to? Perhaps by pointing out that one of the deepest ‘truth traps’ in past thinking about the nature of truth has been to assume that it must depend either on the way the world is, or on the way we are and think about the world.(27) But why should that be so? Since the relation of ‘being dependent’ admits of degrees, in principle it is possible that truth depends both on the way the world is and on the way we are and think about it.

In this particular respect, all traditional theories of truth are one-sided and inadequate. It is not so much that they completely miss the nature of truth; it is rather that they capture only a few of the relevant aspects and disregard all others. For instance, correspondence theories correctly emphasize that truth depends on the way the world is. But they mistakenly separate man from the world, and alienate thinking and judging from their objects. Thus they try to define truth as a dubious ‘pictorial’ or ‘geometrical’ congruence between cognitions and objects. Coherence theories, by contrast, correctly emphasize the relevance of our conceptual apparatus and background knowledge. Yet they inflate the relevance of the subjective factors and underestimate the degree to which truth depends on the way the world is. As a result, they sever ties with reality and make true judgments appear to belong to a consistent but perhaps fictional story. Pragmatists correctly underline the functional role of truth, its connectedness to our needs, intentions and goals, and its relevance for practical orientation in the world. Their shortcomings are that they tend to ignore some of the constraints on the side of the object.

What are those constraints? Roughly speaking, they are the subjective and objective conditions that both create the possibility of objective truth value and impose some limitations on what is true or false. Let us first consider the constraints on the side of the subject.

(S1) First, there is a certain plasticity, or flexibility, of the subject. It is manifested by the degree of fluidity or rigidity of the subject’s goals, intentions, and expectations. Rigidly defined expectations and goals blind us to certain aspects of the situation presented. Fluid and flexible expectations and goals make us open-minded to unexpected things.

(S2) Further, there is the question of the respective simplicity or complexity of the subject. It is not measured by the number of components or parts involved, but by the complexity and sophistication of their background knowledge. An amateur chess player would not recognize a certain pattern of pieces as the Sicilian Defense; a person not familiar with chess at all would not recognize a certain pattern of pieces as a checkmate.

(S3) Finally, there are constraints having to do with the availability and structure of the cognitive apparatus. Our senses are structured so as to make only certain dimensions of observed reality accessible. The nature of our intellectual abilities similarly opens some vistas and closes off others.

What about the constraints on the side of the object? The senses provide the needed cognitive material which, when properly formed, leads to cognitive contents and judgments. The material provided by the senses, the underdetermined objects of empirical intuition, has a potential to be determined in various ways. But these underdetermined objects must also impose some limitations on the possibilities on the formation of objectively valid judgments. Here are a few such constrains.

(O1) One of them concerns the plasticity, or the level of underdetermination, of the observed objects or events. A simple curved line is normally more plastic than an equally simple straight line. The shape of a cloud is more plastic than the shape of a square. All objects and events have their own specific degree of plasticity which functions as a limiting factor in our attempts to perceive and grasp those objects and events.

(O2) Furthermore, there are constraints that deal with the respective simplicity or complexity of objects or events we try to grasp in our cognitions. Objects and events contain more or fewer components. A geometrical figure involves more components than a straight line; a chessboard involves more components than one of its squares. More complex objects and events offer more resistance to our attempts to grasp and illuminate them.

(O3) There is also a level of relative accessability or inaccessability of observed objects or events. It is easier to grasp one billiard ball hitting another, than the action on a football field; it is easier to grasp a straightforward opening move in chess than one that starts a complex combination. Without attempting to postulate here some invisible essences of things, it may be that there are layers of reality that are—temporarily or permanently—inaccessible to all of our cognitive advances. As Heisenberg summed it up, “We have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning.”(28)

If we would like to express the interactive relation between the listed subjective and objective constraints in a more formal manner, we could evoke Bertrand Russell’s famous propositional function: ‘f(x)’.(29) The subjective constraints are roughly analogous to the function ‘f’, and the objective constraints are represented by the variable ‘x’. The subjective and objective elements permeate each other and interact in order to create judgments with a determinable truth value. More generally, thought and being are different in the way in which ‘f’ and ‘x’ in the interactive propositional function ‘f(x)’ are different. ‘Different’, however, does not mean completely ontologically and functionally independent and separate. Rather, ‘f’ and ‘x’ work together and create a certain harmony together. Indeed, although distinguishable, ‘f’ and ‘x’ need each other and depend on each other. Kant’s famous dictum concerning concepts and intuitions finds its full application here: functions without variables are empty, variables without functions are blind. It cannot be said that one is more important than the other, or that one dominates over the other, for they have different roles, and one without the other is incomplete. Only in their interaction can they fully realize their potential and fulfill their roles.

According to this approach, the issues of truth and falsity became dependent on the presence or absence of a harmonious relation between ‘f’ and ‘x’, and truth itself can be defined as their harmonious interaction. This means that our statements (judgments, propositions, theories) are true when (i) we recognize the challenges which the situations in which we find ourselves pose to us [the interaction element], and (ii) we respond to the spirit of the challenges we face [the harmony element]. By contrast, our judgments can “go wrong” for two different reasons. They are false (mistaken, erroneous) when we respond inappropriately and violatively to the task at hand [interaction but no harmony]. They are illusory when, blinded by our own conceptions, interests or ideals, we do not even recognize the challenges posed to us by the situations in which we find ourselves [no interaction]. Harmony and disharmony clearly allow of degrees. An interaction can be more or less harmonious. It can also be partially harmonious and partially not. If so, then truth and falsity are really only the extreme values or points on a scale that contains many intermediate shades and possibilities.

V. Toward a Transdisciplinary Theory of Values

Transdisciplinarity is far more than a method. It is far more than a guideline for conducting research and collecting knowledge. When Nicolescu names one of the introductory chapters of the Manifesto “Tomorrow May Be Too Late,” he voices a concern shared by many about the direction in which our fragmented sciences and, indeed, our whole disoriented civilization is going. The overwhelming response to the outcry of the Manifesto is the best evidence that Nicolescu’s concerns are shared with countless other scientists, artists and intellectuals.

Nicolescu argues that the “potential for self-destruction—material, biological, and spiritual—is the product of a blind but triumphant technoscience, obedient only to the implacable logic of utilitarianism.”(30) Almost a century ago, Albert Schweitzer—one of the true predecessors of transdisciplinarity—similarly diagnosed the decay of our civilization by pointing out that the “interaction of material and spiritual has assumed a most unhealthy attitude.”(31) Transdisciplinarity intends to correct this imbalance, not only by emphasizing the inalienable rights and values of the inner person, but also—very much in the spirit of Schweitzer—by reestablishing our sense of wonder and reintroducing our appreciation for the sacred. The sacred is not to be understood in a strictly religious sense, since transdisciplinarity aspires to be transreligious, just as it attempts to be transcultural and transnational. Transdisciplinarity aspires toward the establishment of a harmonious coexistence with living Nature.(32)

There is a problem here, however, and it does not reside in the transdisciplinary vision itself, but in its full articulation and realization. Even Nicolescu himself does not seem aware of the magnitude of the problem, since he does not find it necessary to establish as the fourth pillar of transdisciplinarity one that would deal with values and their systematic examination. We cannot get very far with the declaration that transdisciplinarity affirms the presence of the sacred, or that transdisciplinarity strongly favors rigor, openness, and tolerance. There is a need for serious and systematic discussions about what the sacred involves, as well as systematic inquiry about how the sacred is related to other human values and endeavors. Similarly, rigor, openness and tolerance are steps in the right direction, but a fully developed map of values and a comprehensive examination of their nature is needed.

Surprisingly, when we look back at the history of our civilization, it is hard to find any other discipline more neglected, and involving more prejudices and confusions, than axiology. The Greek word axios means ‘being worthy’ and ‘estimable’, and it has the same roots with two other words well known to us: axon and axioma. Axon is translated as axis. Taken literally, axon refers to the straight line, real or imaginary, passing through a body, around which it revolves, or may be imagined to revolve. (As an example, we can think here of the axis of the earth). Taken symbolically, axis refers to a turning point or condition, around which something (say, our lives) may turn and depend upon. Axioma is the Greek word for axiom, and it means authority, an authoritative sentence. A combination of these words should clearly indicate how values function and how they relate to facts. Values are not facts. They are not an ontological Atlas on whose shoulders the earth stands, but rather serve to provide a center which gives us a sense of orientation. Values provide an axis of orientation for our lives, for our attitudes and our deeds, for our decisions about what is right and wrong, valuable or not. Values also provide an authoritative voice based on which we can make proper choices concerning how to live our lives and further develop our humanity.

Considering how obviously important axiology is, how then could it be that it is one of the least developed disciplines? A full answer would demand a long and detailed study. For a short answer, it may suffice to remind ourselves that we often forget the wisdom behind the old proverb that “a stick always has two ends,” on which Nicolescu also relies in his explanation of the central tenants of transdisciplinarity. Through the history of our civilization, values and facts have frequently been contrasted and it has often been attempted to derive one from the other. One model has been Platonic and has been advocated by idealists of various brands: values are above facts and beings, and facts and beings are real only to the extent that they imitate and participate in those ideal values. The second model is the reversal of the first, and has been championed by the proponents of modern science (empiricists, positivists, and pragmatists): facts, and being, are above values, and values either derive from facts, or must at least be justified by facts. There have also been those who had realized that the stick must have two ends, and that all attempts to derive values from facts, or facts from values, must be futile. The efforts of Max Scheler and—even more so—of Nicolai Hartmann must be mentioned here, but their works nevertheless create a puzzling impression. According to their views, facts belong to the real world, values to the ideal, but it is not quite clear how they could relate to and interact with each other.

In accordance with our previous discussion, I believe that a transdisciplinary theory of values must also be based on an interactive relationship of facts and values. How is it to be done? We have already indicated that the basic function of the mind in judging the world and collecting knowledge of it is identification: we need to identify what we are observing, by classifying it and recognizing how similar and how different it is from other things and events we observe. When we are dealing with values, by contrast, the basic function of the mind is orientation: values are like a coordinate system for the map of reality we are trying to assemble. Values do not give us a sense of what is and what is not, but only of what is valuable and what is not. Since they have different functions, the relationship between facts and values is not hierarchical, nor can one be reduced to, or derived from the other. Their relationship is dynamic, reciprocal, and mutually supportive. Their relationship is interactive.

We are far from any developed transdisciplinary and interactive theory of values, but the skeleton of such a theory need not be equally obscure. The central problems of such a theory are the following three. First, it has to explain the nature of values by contrasting them to non-values (such as facts), and by showing how they are mutually related. Put differently, we need to figure out the ontological status of values, as well as whether and how their validity can be objective. Second, the nature of values should further be clarified by explaining the contrast between positive and negative values, as well as between various kinds of positive values. More specific issues under this rubric would involve: the distinction between intrinsic and non-intrinsic (e.g., instrumental) values, and the distinctions between means and ends on the one hand, and parts and wholes on the other. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the nature of values should be further elaborated by examining conflicts between various positive values. In this part, the plurality of values must also be considered in its various aspects: not only that we need to distinguish between moral and non-moral values, but it would also be useful to establish a full scale of values. We would presumably never find an a priori fixed scale, such as the one in which Scheler believed when he distinguished between pleasure values, vital values, spiritual values and the values of the holy.(33) Nevertheless, even more flexible and changeable comparisons of values would be most useful.

Such comparisons would be most useful in the context of unavoidable conflicts of positive values. In the face of the threatening dilemmas that we confront as individuals and as a civilization, it is of utmost interest to learn more not only about whether and how such conflicts arise, but also about whether and how they can, in principle, be resolved. One of the deepest problems of our time is the problem of orientation, the problem of choosing and pursuing the proper art of living. As Nicolescu correctly observes, this problem is intensified and magnified not only because of our real potential of self-destruction, but also because of the lack of universal values and depreciation of the spiritual and the sacred. In the absence of any appreciation of such values, in the absence of any clear vision of a new art of living and the lack of a genuine commitment that would put a free and spontaneous development of individual personality in the center of all values, we are walking on a very dangerous tightrope. As Nicolescu puts it: “We have not advanced at all on great metaphysical questions, yet we permit ourselves to intervene in the very depths of our biological being. In the name of what?”(34)

Nicolescu puts his finger here on something extremely important, yet he does not go deep enough in dealing with the issues involved. Of course, considering how serious the threat of self-destruction is, his question “In the name of what?” is by no means rhetorical. Taking into account that there is every indication that as a civilization we have neither the insight nor the courage to understand and confront our bleak predicament, the possibility of our collective self-destruction seems even more threatening than the scary prospects of genetic engineering. If we are realistic and serious, we have every reason to suspect that humanity will self-destruct. Taking into consideration our apathy, moral cowardice, culpable ignorance and deadly weaponry, and factoring in the effects of increasing ecological degradation and the unstoppable demographic explosion, it is not at all improbable that humanity will not survive even the twenty-first century.

And yet, it is important to realize that the issue is not black or white, either-or, negative versus positive values. The dilemma does not concern a choice between a negative and a positive value, but rather a choice between various positive values. Even if we are not going to find them satisfactory, there are answers to the question: “In the name of what?” They may be: in the name of human curiosity; or in the name of increasing our power over people and the ability to control and manipulate them; or in the name of short-term gains; or in the name of curing curable diseases; or, more generally, in the name of idealistic attempts to “fix” those human faults that perhaps could be fixed by means of genetic engineering.

As in all truly difficult dilemmas, the choices have to be made between conflicting positive values. And it is all the more difficult to make them, because, as Nicolescu correctly observes, we have not advanced at all on the great metaphysical questions. What great metaphysical questions? Here are a few samples: Is the world fully rational? Is there a higher meaning inherent in the world and its events? What if the world is partially (or completely) irrational? What if there is no higher (or any other) meaning inherent in the world and its events?

If we would like to expand this list of the great metaphysical questions on which we have not advanced, and keeping in mind the threatening possibility of self-destruction, our list would also have to include various questions concerning the value of human life: Does human life have an intrinsic or absolute value? While it is clear that, prima facie, life is a value and death is disvalue, it should also be clear that we may overestimate the value of life (e.g., when health is taken as the highest good and a vital value is promoted too high, beyond its proper measure), and also that we can underestimate its value (e.g., when all value is carried over into the life beyond, as in various forms of asceticism).

Our stance is additionally complicated by two further realizations. The first of them is that, throughout its history, humanity has not really succeeded in reforming itself and that the battle to improve humanity is never definitely won. The second is yet another historical warning, namely that it is quite possible that the genuine and deep conflicts of values could not be principally resolved: it may be that we should renounce the ideal of a unified hierarchy of values.(35)

Keeping these issues in mind, we can see better different kinds of complications behind Nicolescu’s concerns. He is justifiably wondering about in the name of what we are risking the destruction of human race and its biological restructuring. Yet, as long as we do not have satisfactory answers to the mentioned metaphysical questions, we can with equal justification, and similar confusion, also ask: In the name of what should humanity be preserved and remain intact?

These concerns make it more obvious, I hope, why we need a transdisciplinary theory of values, and also why such a discipline is of central importance. How else could transdisciplinarity, understood as a method, even attempt to bring us closer to a genuine resolution to these and other difficult metaphysical questions? How else would we prevent a new and revolutionary movement which we now call transdisciplinarity to turn into one more of those countless “isms” it is supposed to replace? How else would we avoid being disappointed one more time, by yet another illusory hope and unfulfilled promise? The relevance of transdisciplinarity and its further fate will depend on whether it can provide genuine and satisfactory solution to these genuine and disturbing puzzles.

As Nicolescu correctly observes, our situation is truly paradoxical: “[E]verything is in place for self-destruction, but everything is also in place for positive change…The global challenge of death has its counterpart in a visionary, transpersonal, and planetary consciousness, which could be nourished by the miraculous growth of knowledge. We do not know which way the balance may swing.”(36)

Indeed, we do not know that. Nor do we know whether we still have enough courage and wisdom to reawaken our sense of wonder and our appreciation of the sacred, to dedicate ourselves toward building a new kind of humanity. If we do not find it out soon, tomorrow may be too late.

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Predrag Cicovacki is professor of philosophy at the College of the Holy Cross, where he served as Director of Peace and Conflict Studies (2000-2003) and was the Editor-in-Chief of Diotima: A Philosophical Review. He is the author of over fifty philosophy papers published in English, Serbian, German, Russian, Chinese, and Slovenian. Cicovacki is the author of the following books: Anamorphosis: Kant on Knowledge and Ignorance (1997), The World We Live In: A Philosophical Crossword Puzzle (2002), and Between Truth and Illusion: Kant at the Crossroads of Modernity (2002), and Dostoevsky and the Affirmation of Life (forthcoming). He is the editor of Essays by Lewis White Beck: Fifty Years as a Philosopher (1998), Kant’s Legacy: Essays in Honor of Lewis White Beck (2001), Destined for Evil? The Twentieth-Century Responses (2005), and Albert Schweitzer’s Ethical Vision: A Sourcebook (2009). He is currently preparing his own book on Schweitzer as moral philosopher.

^––––––– ^


(1) Basarab Nicolescu, Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity, trans. Karen-Claire Voss (Albany: SUNY Press, 2002), p. 45.

(2) Quoted from Nicolescu’s paper “The Transdisciplinary Evolution of the University: Condition for Sustainable Development,” posted on the internet site: www.perso.club-internet.fr/nicol/ciret/bulletin/b12/b12c8.htm.

(3) Nicolescu, Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity, p. 44.

(4) I discuss these models in my article “New Ways of Ontology – The Ways of Interaction,” Axiomathes, 12: 2001, pp. 159-170. This article is inspired by Nicolai Hartmann’s book New Ways of Ontology, trans. Reinhard C. Kuhn (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1953).

(5) See Nicolescu, op. cit., p. 65. See also chapter 3 of the same book, pp. 9-14.

(6) Ibid., pp. 64-65. As Joseph Chilton Pearce expressed it in his book Magical Child (New York: Bantam Books, 1980), pp. 39-40: “How do we believe that we can predict and control the natural forces of the universe? Through clever intellectual manipulations and tool usage. We accept this notion so completely because we have been conditioned to believe implicitly that only by so using our intelligence can we, in fact, survive nature. Interaction between the mind-brain and its source of information has been rigorously, religiously denied by Western logic, if not most cultural logic. Interaction with the living earth would imply that the earth responded in kind, interacting with us. And the one cardinal rule of all classical Western academic belief, which is very much in power over our minds today, is that the mind has absolutely no relation to the world other than to be informed of that world through the senses and to make some sort of intelligent reaction to that information. This belief has automatically robbed us of personal power.”

(7) Nicolescu himself uses the word interaction more frequently; see op. cit., pp. 17, 18, 35, 36, and passim. The following presentation of various characteristics of interactive relations relies on my book, Between Truth and Illusion: Kant at the Crossroads of Modernity (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), pp. 161 ff. For further discussion of the nature of interactive relations, see Pearce, op. cit., pp. 7, 18, 23-25, 28-31, 39-40, 114 and passim.

(8) Nicolescu, op. cit., p. 21.

(9) Ibid., p. 22.

(10) Compare this with the “old” approach, as Nicolescu presents it on p. 10 of the Manifesto. To appreciate Nicolescu’s three pillars of transdisciplinarity, we can also compare them with what could be called the three pillars of the old way of thinking, as they are identified by Isaiah Berlin: “in the first place that …all genuine questions must have one true answer and one only, all the rest being necessarily errors; in the second place that there must be a dependable path towards the discovery of these truths; in the third place that the true answers, when found, must necessarily be compatible with one another and form a single whole, for one truth cannot be incompatible with another.” Quoted from “The Pursuit of the Ideal,” in Berlin, The Proper Study of Mankind, edited by Henry Hardy and Roger Hausheer (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), p. 5.

(11) Seb Henagulph, “Three Pillars of Transdisciplinarity,” www.goodshare.com/pillars.htm. For further discussion of similar issues, see Pearce,Magical Child, and Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity (New York: Dutton, 1979).

(12) For more on this issue, see Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values (New York: Bantam Books, 1981), pp. 60-61 and passim. See also Carl Gustav Jung, “Two Kinds of Thinking,” in Symbols of Transformation, trans. R.F.C. Hull (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971; vol. 5 of the Collected Works), pp. 7-33.

(13) Nicolescu, op. cit., p. 22.

(14) Hartmann dedicated most of the last twenty years of his life to his work on ontology. His most important ontological books of that period are:Zur Grundlegung der Ontologie (1935), Möglichkeit und Wirklichkeit (1938), Der Aufbau der realen Welt (1940), Neue Wege der Ontologie (1943), and Die Philosophie der Natur (1950). Related works also include Grundzüge einer Metaphysik der Erkenntnis (1921), Die Philosophie des deutschen Idealismus (vol. I 1923; vol. II 1929), Das Problem des geistigen Sein (1933), andTeleologisches Denken (1944). This is a truly astonishing opus for one thinker.

(15)My presentation here borrows from my article “A Forgotten Giant – Nicolai Hartmann” (Part II), Diotima: A Philosophical Review, 3: 2002, No. 2, pp. 87-102. For more comprehensive introductions into Hartmann’s philosophy, see, for instance, W.H. Werkmeister, Nicolai Hartmann’s New Ontology (Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1990), and Martin Morgenstern, Nicolai Hartmann. Zur Einführung (Hamburg: Junius Verlag, 1997).

(16) Nicolescu, op. cit., pp. 28-31.

(17) Ibid., p. 29.

(18) Ibid., p. 28.

(19) For Dummett’s attack on the principle of the excluded middle and the principle of bivalance, see his The Logical Basis of Metaphysics(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), pp. 9-10, 17, 74-75, and passim. Dummett argues that anti-realism leads to the rejection of these two principles, but R. Walker insists that realists may also have good reasons to reject them; see his book The Coherence Theory of Truth: Realism, Anti-Realism, Idealism (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 32 ff.

(20) Hartmann, Grundzüge einer Metaphysik der Erkenntnis (4th ed., Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1949), ch. 34, section (h).

(21) See Nicolescu, op. cit., pp. 29-30.

(22) Hegel captures this idea in the following way: “The bud disappears in the bursting-forth of the blossom, and one might say that the former is refuted by the latter; similarly, when the fruit appears, the blossom is shown up in its turn as a false manifestation of the plant, and the fruit now emerges as the truth of it instead. These forms are not just distinguished from one another, they also supplant one another as mutually incompatible. Yet at the same time their fluid nature makes them moments of an organic unity in which they do only do not conflict, but in which each is as necessary as the other; and this mutual necessity alone constitutes the life of the whole”; Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), section 2.

(23) For useful discussions of the relevance of this principle for Western philosophy and science, see Arthur O. Lovejoy’s classic The Great Chain of Being (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1936).

(24) See, for instance, Nicolescu, op. cit., pp. 63-64.

(25) Hartmann,New Ways of Ontology, p. 29. See also his books Das Problem des geistigen Seins, 2nd ed. (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1949), pp. 85 ff., and Philosophie der Natur (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1950), pp. 522 ff.

(26) For the view that the mind is by its nature interactive, see, for instance, Pearce, op. cit., pp. 7-8, 23-31, 39-40, and passim. See also Gregory Bateson and Mary Catherine Bateson,Angles Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred (New York: Bantam, 1988), pp. 17 ff.

(27) I borrow the phase “truth traps” from Pirsig’s book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, pp. 288-289, and passim. In the following presentation of the various kind of constraints, I rely on my article “Rethinking the Concept of Truth: A Critique of Deflationism,” The Truth and Its Nature (If Any), ed. J. Peregrin (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1999), pp. 203-221, and my book Between Truth and Illusion, pp. 26-31.

(28) Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science (New York: Harper & Row, 1958), p. 58. For a further discussion of some of the previously mentioned constraints, see N.R. Hanson, The Patterns of Discovery (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959), esp. ch. 1; and Hartmann, Zur Grundlegung der Ontologie, 3rd ed. (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1948), pp. 191-203. Instead of talking about objective constraints, Hartmann talks about “resistance” and “unyielding of objects.”

(29) See Bertrand Russell, Principles of Mathematics (New York: W.W. Norton, 1903), pp. 82-88, and Russell, Introduction to Mathematics (New York: Macmillan, 1919), pp. 155-166.

(30) Nicolescu, op. cit., p. 8.

(31) Albert Schweitzer, The Philosophy of Civilization, trans. C.T. Campion (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1987), p. 1.

(32) Instead of Nicolescu’s transdisciplinarity, in the related context Hartmann uses the word morality and argues that moral philosophy “signifies a new kind of love for the task in hand, a new devotion, a new reverence for what is great. For the world to which such an attitude will open is once more great, as a whole and its smallest part, and is filled with treasure, unexhausted and inexhaustible”; Ethics, trans. Stanton Coit (London: Allen & Unwin, 1932), vol. I, p. 91.

(33) See Max Scheler, Formalism in Ethics and Non-Formal Ethics of Values, trans. Manfred S. Frings and Roger L. Funk (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973), pp. 89-100.

(34) Nicolescu, op. cit., p. 7.

(35) The historian of ideas who was very vocal in raising these concerns was Isaiah Berlin; see, for instance, his already cited “The Pursuit of the Ideal.”

(36) Nicolescu, op. cit., p. 8.