Transdisciplinary Reflections

June 2012 / Column

 A Personal Introduction

Alfonso Montuori

Alfonso Montuori

Alfonso Montuori

The networked society, with the amazing power of new technology, gives us access to more information than ever before. The problem now is not access to information. It’s how to organize that information, turn it into knowledge, and use that knowledge wisely. This is the challenge of Transdisciplinarity.

I want to begin by giving some personal history, the roots of my quest for Transdisciplinarity. In the process I want to make some connection between the Transdisciplinary, the Transcultural, and the arts. Central to Transdisciplinarity is the integration of the inquirer in the process of inquiry, and that for many of us our passion for Transdisciplinarity emerges out of a felt need to go beyond some of the limitations of more traditional disciplinary academic approaches, and certain established ways of thinking. These originate in a view of the Universe as a Machine, a view that has had a profound influence on how we understand human beings, Nature, and the also the nature of knowledge, thinking, inquiring, and organizing. I want to show the limitations of the old view, and the emergence of a new view. The implications of Transdisciplinarity go far beyond a set of tools for academic inquiry. They call for a reflection on who we are, how we make sense of the world, and how we might find ways to embody different ways of being, thinking, relating, and acting in the world.

I want to begin with a narrative and an overview of some, if by no means all, the issues that have brought me to Transdisciplinarity. In subsequent columns I will explore in more detail some of its many fascinating dimensions, with a broad focus on leadership, and with particular attention to diverse topics such as creativity, spirituality, the emergence of new ways of thinking, the role of the inquirer, the nature of social change, and the actual applications and implications of Transdisciplinarity.


In the mid-1980’s I left London and a life in music behind for California where I completed my Masters degree. It started out as an excuse to leave behind dreary weather for sunny California, but as soon as I started my studies I was filled with excitement about any number of ideas. After graduation, an experience teaching management students at Central South University in Changsha, China for a year had inspired even more questions. I was looking for a university where I could do my Ph.D. and frankly it was all a bit disconcerting. Every time I walked into a department and sat down to speak with the Chair, he or she would mumble something about how interesting my research project was and then politely add that this was probably not the department for me and I should try a different department. But Psychology would point me to Sociology, Sociology to Political Science, Political Science to Philosophy, Philosophy to Anthropology, and then, ironically, Anthropology would lead me back to Psychology.

Wondering around these departments I couldn’t help but be reminded of an earlier experience. In my late teens and early twenties in London I played in a variety of bands, and eventually led my own band. What kind of a band? There’s the rub. We were pretty good – after all, our music had been described as “astonishingly well-played” by the British weekly music newspaper Record Mirror, surely a source with impeccable taste. We performed to packed houses and everybody had a good time, but nobody could quite label us. In fact, the same newspaper wrote that our music “impertinently side-steps any classification.” But when the record companies would come to hear us they hemmed and hawed about signing us. They wanted to sign us, but the trouble was, they didn’t know what record store “bin” to put us in. Was it Rock? Punk? Funk? Comedy? We may have impertinently sidestepped any classification, but it turned out that this added considerable complexity to our so-called musical careers. What the hell “were” we? As far as I was concerned, the fact that we couldn’t be classified was not a bug, but a feature – record companies be damned! And that’s probably just as well, because I later realized the wisdom in a famous line attributed to Hunter S. Thompson that “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.” (He was actually referring to TV business, but his words were “appropriated” and “remixed” over the years.)

Compounding matters, I am also a “Third Culture Child,” a “rootless cosmopolitan,” “transcultural,” a “mutt” to use President Obama’s term. I didn’t live in the country that issued my passport until my late 40s when I became a (dual) US citizen. At that point I’d lived in the US for over 20 years. Again, the question was—who or what am I? Where do I fit in? Am I Italian? (My first passport and my father were Italian?) Dutch? (I was born in Holland; my mother is Dutch?) English? (Nothing like high school and undergraduate to build a sense of identity…) But I do my best swearing in Greek, a language I learnt when I lived there as a boy for 8 years, and I learned before English, which is my fourth language. Kwame Anthony Appiah’s statement reflects my experience: “For me a passport is a travel document. It’s not a statement about my soul.”

I believe the underlying issues I was dealing with are very much the same. With music and education, I was passionate about something, and there seemed to be some indications, even if grudging at times, that I was not completely off the wall. The band was successful, my ideas were not bad—but none of it fit anywhere, not into pre-existing categories. And I apparently didn’t fit anywhere as a person, not in any traditional flag-waving sense, not in any conventional discipline, in any established musical style.

Not lacking in youthful hubris, I of course assumed there was something wrong with them, with university departments, with record companies, with jingoistic nationalists. It seemed that categories had the ability to deny or at least marginalize the existence of people and things and issues that were patently there. Human beings are very good at creating categories, but we also become trapped in our own categories. Growing up in a number of different countries it soon become clear that what appears real and unquestionable and simply “the way the world is” in one culture may be viewed as bizarre and wrong-headed and even dangerous in a different culture. Much of what was considered “given” or “just the way things are” or “the way something is supposed to be” in one country turned out not to be the case at all elsewhere.

These experiences made me very aware of the nature and power of perspectives, of different ways of seeing the world. They instilled a fascination with epistemology at a fairly young age. More specifically, they made me aware that human beings see the world in many different ways and that we typically become habituated to one way of viewing the world, and the more time we spend with “our” people, in “our” discipline, “our” country, playing “our” music, the more likely we are to become somewhat ossified and blinkered. And a key question was, what are the implications of living across cultures, playing across a number of musical styles, thinking about issues across disciplines?

Little boxes on the Hillside…

…our thinking is ruled by a profound and hidden paradigm without our being aware of it. We believe we see what is real; but we see in reality only what this paradigm allows us to see, and we obscure what it requires us not to see.

Morin, 2008

The emergence of disciplines has often led to the forgetting of their impetus in living human subjects and their crucial role in both the maintenance and transformation of knowledge-producing practices. The results are a special kind of decadence. One such kind is disciplinary decadence. Disciplinary decadence is the ontologizing or reification of a discipline. In such an attitude, we treat our discipline as though it was never born and has always existed and will never change or, in some cases, die. More than immortal, it is eternal. Yet as something comes into being, it lives, in such an attitude, as a monstrosity, as an instance of a human creation that can never die. Such a perspective brings with it a special fallacy. Its assertion as absolute eventually leads to no room for other disciplinary perspectives, the result of which is the rejection of them for not being one’s own. Thus, if one’s discipline has foreclosed the question of its scope, all that is left for it is a form of “applied” work. Such work militates against thinking. (Gordan, 2006)

In graduate school one of my required texts was Thomas Kuhn’s classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Kuhn, 1996) Kuhn’s work added an important element to my thinking. Suddenly, the insight that cultural differences created very different ways of seeing the world found a parallel in the world of academic inquiry. This was particularly important because it further showed how our understanding of the world and of ourselves involves a process of construction – we eventually take residence in these constructions for better or worse, and forget that we are the ones who have built them.  Another required text, Graham Allison’s Essence of Decision, showed three very different ways of framing and understanding the Cuban missile crisis, and served as a further illustration of how the different ways we can construct perspectives starting with different fundamental assumptions (Allison, 1971).

Ernest Becker bemoaned disciplinary fragmentation in his underappreciated The Structure of Evil, showing how underlying assumptions structured and organized the way we think about the world Becker, 1976). These assumptions form the basis for our approach to inquiry. They are the taken for granted (but rarely questioned) starting points for scholars. In his study of scientific revolutions, Kuhn argued that the majority of scientists engage in “normal science,” which means they are expanding the research agenda of a certain way of seeing the world, introducing the now popular (and arguably over-used) term “paradigm.” Scientific revolutions involved engaging so many anomalies in the dominant paradigm that its very foundations needed to be challenged. Given my background, this, of course, fascinated me.

Something clicked when I read Kuhn and these other authors. It was directly related to my experience of cultural heterogeneity my experience of “relativism.” I hesitate to use the latter term since it has become so tainted by a nihilistic “anything goes” gloss. I mean more broadly knowledge relative to our time and space, our history, traditions, discourse and practices. It became clear to me that the material I was studying originated in particular scholarly “cultures,” and that the very way inquiry was organized was the function of a set of underlying assumptions about the organization of knowledge. Around the same time, I also read Bucky Fuller, Arthur Koestler, and Fritjof Capra’s ambitious The Turning Point, in which he discussed at some length the “Newtonian Cartesian” paradigm, and, like Koestler and Fuller, made the case for a systems theoretical way of thinking (Capra, 1984). It seemed there was potentially a change afoot, and this change involved new ways of thinking and organizing knowledge. It was becoming clear I was not the only one who thought disciplinary fragmentation was a problem.

As much as I enjoyed my Californian immersion in scholarly inquiry, I wondered why classes seemed to function as fairly airtight compartments. Students were never encouraged to bring material from one class to another, even if the material seemed obviously relevant. Discussing cross-cultural differences and particularly how the very different experiences of World War II might have influenced US-Soviet negotiations about nuclear weapons and troops in Europe was verboten in a course on US-Soviet relations (albeit in the nicest possible way a university professor can be dismissive).

The cross-cultural issues that fascinated me because of my background seemed to belong only in the course on cross-cultural issues. I found out that this was generally the norm in academia. Watertight courses, watertight disciplines, and indeed watertight sub-disciplines. Mentioning personality psychology in a course on social psychology brought hoots of derision from the TA. Discussing material from Sociology with psychologists studying creativity was also decidedly not a way to win a popularity contest. Philosophers dismissed systems theory as deterministic scientistic nonsense. Here is a neat summary of that view:

For the systems theorist, human beings are part of a homogeneous, stable, theoretically knowable, and therefore, predictable system. Knowledge is the means of controlling the system. Even if perfect knowledge does not yet exist, the equation: the greater the knowledge the greater the power over the system is, for the systems theorist, irrefutable. (Lechte, 1994, 248)

Something was wrong. This was disciplinary fragmentation as its worst, and the critiques of systems theory were redolent with Snow’s “two cultures” split: do not bring material from the natural sciences into the human sciences. At times hearing academics dismiss disciplines other than their own and worry about the “threat” of systems thinking and interdisciplinary work felt like England around the time the Chunnel was about to open, with tabloid headlines warning about the prospect of invading “hordes of garlic-breathing frogs.” (Yes, an actual headline.) The internecine squabbling among disciplines, and the efforts to keep disciplines pure and un-polluted by other disciplinary perspectives, described so carefully and thoughtfully in Bruce Wilshire’s The Moral Collapse of the University: Professionalism, Purity, and Alienation didn’t seem very “scholarly” let alone “scientific” (Wilshire, 1990).

“In the beginning,” of course, there was only Philosophy. Over the years, with the accumulation of more and more knowledge and the development of specialists and specializations, various disciplines had spun off and “gone it alone.” Aristotle, the great classifier, had given his books titles that reflect today’s disciplines, like Politics, Ethics, Physics, Rhetoric, and Meteorology. But of course, he dealt with them all himself. This was simply not possible now, it was argued, but in the process, disciplinary silos were formed, and it seemed there was little if any interest in communication, let alone integration.

The organization of knowledge paralleled the organization of industry and followed Adam Smith’s principle of the division of labor as disciplines gradually split off from Mother Philosophy (psychology didn’t cut the cord until the late 19th century). There was ncreasing specialization and expertise, with a focus on depth, on drilling deep, rather than the broad but arguably “thin” overview. Buckminster Fuller argued that this was also a principle of divide and rule: only the “bosses” at the top had the “big picture.” There is no doubt that this division of labor and specialization has lead to remarkable advances. It’s at the heart of Modernity and the Industrial Revolution. But we are increasingly beginning to realize that a lot was lost in the ensuing reductionism.

Reductionism was the driving force behind much of the twentieth century’s scientific research. To comprehend nature, it tells us, we must first decipher its components. The assumption is that once we understand the parts, it will be easy to grasp the whole. Divide and conquer; the devil is in the details.  Therefore for decades we have been forced to see the world through its constituents. We have been trained to study atoms and superstrings to understand the universe; molecules to comprehend life; individual genes to understand complex human behavior; prophets to see the origins of fads and religions… Now we are as close to knowing everything there is to know about the pieces. But we are as far as we have ever been to understanding nature as a whole (Barabasi, 2003, p. 6).

I was soon attracted to “eccentric” thinkers like Gregory Bateson, Edgar Morin, Erich Jantsch, and Magoroh Maruyama. Bateson made contributions to psychiatry, communication, family therapy, cybernetics, anthropology, evolutionary theory, ecology and a number of other disparate fields. Morin has written important books about death, cinema and popular culture, ecology, education, and politics. Maruyama has written about cybernetics, management, cross-cultural differences and futures research. Jantsch wrote remarkable works of synthesis, drawing extensively on the work of Ilya Prigogine, applying them to topics where “it didn’t belong,” like society and social change, and explicitly addressing spirituality and mystical traditions. What I found particularly compelling about these thinkers was that they explored a wide range of issues, and sought to bring not just a new perspective to them, but new ways of thinking. Not just new information, or even frames, but new meta-frames, and efforts at integration, all motivated by the need for application in light of world problems.

Like me, these thinkers never belonged to any particular discipline. In some cases they suffered for it. Bateson was largely forgotten and out of print for a number of years in the USA. His classic Steps to an Ecology of Mind was available as an audio book in Italy, which tells us something about the importance of cultural differences in the history of ideas (G. Bateson, 1972). Jantsch’s work was largely ignored and picked up by equally omnivorous thinkers like Fritjof Capra and Ken Wilber, both of whom are influential but outside the academic mainstream, and is now out of print. Maruyama drifted from department to department in any number of countries, and while his work was published in major journals in several different disciplines—his The Second Cybernetics is a citation classic (Maruyama, 1963) – he also wrote extensively (and complained privately) about what he called “subunderstanding,” or the tendency by scholars to understand works that crossed several disciplines very partially, typically ignoring or misunderstanding the elements that did not fit in their discipline, and reading them from a narrow disciplinary lens (Maruyama, 2004). Morin is probably France’s most influential living thinker, at this point, celebrated by the prestigious newspaper Le Monde with a special magazine issue devoted to his life and work. The day before François Hollande’s recent election victory Le Monde published a dialogue he had with Morin, and in Latin America and countries like Italy he is viewed as one of the most important contemporary thinkers. But Morin’s lack of disciplinary home, not to mention his complete refusal to ride on the coat-tails of “French postmodernism” (which in France is considered an Anglophone creation), still makes him suspect with many traditional French academics. Until recently he was virtually unknown in the US. Morin describes himself as an intellectual poacher, and the title of one of several recent biographies is tellingly titled Edgar Morin, L’Indiscipliné, or “Edgar Morin, the Undisciplined.”

Morin and these other thinkers shared a particular concern:

We need a kind of thinking that relinks that which is disjointed and compartmentalized, that respects diversity as it recognizes unity, and that tries to discern interdependencies.  We need a radical thinking (which gets to the root of problems), a multidimensional thinking, and an organizational or systemic thinking (Morin & Kern, 1999, 130).

The reform in thinking is a key anthropological and historical problem.  This implies a mental revolution of considerably greater proportions than the Copernican revolution.  Never before in the history of humanity have the responsibilities of thinking weighed so crushingly on us (Morin & Kern, 1999, 132).

The most important task today is, perhaps, to learn to think in the new way.

Bateson, 1972, p.462.

(Here we find an immediate opportunity for “subunderstanding,” because neither of these thinkers neatly separates thinking and feeling, for instance—or more generally perhaps, thinking and being.)

It is not surprising that Bateson, Jantsch, Maruyama, and Morin have all drawn extensively from General Systems Theory (GST) and cybernetics. Both GST and cybernetics emerged as attempts to develop a “transversal” language, a way of thinking that could re-connect what had been torn asunder in disciplinary fragmentation. Both were supposed to provide a language that could go beyond the barrier of hyper-specialization so that scholars could talk to each other using basic concepts like open system, feedback, etc. Bateson and Morin have explored the epistemological implications of GST and cybernetics in considerable depth. It is also important to note that in France the term epistemology is used to refer more broadly to the philosophy of science.

Reductionist thinking ignores context and these thinkers saw the implications clearly.

Without context, words and actions have no meaning at all. This is true not only of human communication in words but also of all communication whatsoever, of all mental process, of all mind, including that which tells the sea anemone how to grow and the amoeba what he should do next. (G. Bateson, 2002, 14)

There are many catastrophic dangers which have grown out of the Occidental errors of epistemology. I believe that this massive aggregation of threats to man and his ecological systems arises out of errors in our habits of thought at a deep and partly unconscious level (G. Bateson, 1972, 487)

All four thinkers critiqued the dominant “machine” way of thinking. The focus on simplicity, inherited from Descartes, meant eliminating complexity. But the complex is that which is woven together, so in the process of simplifying our subject, we unraveled the weave, lost the context. What we got was still extremely useful, but it did not provide us with what used to be called “the big picture,” Barabasi’s “whole,” and it completely ignored relationships and interconnectedness. We see the individual threads, but not what Bateson called the pattern that connects.

There was more that was missing because of disciplinary fragmentation. For example, a number of topics did not “fit” into any discipline. When I first started researching creativity in the mid-80’s it was viewed as individual, personal, the province of the genius and his (and rarely her) personality, imagination, and thinking. Because of this focus, which reflected (once again largely unchallenged and unspoken) cultural and historical assumptions, it “lived” in psychology. But this meant that creativity in relationships, groups, and organizations was either ignored because it was simply not “seen” through the lens of (individual) psychology. And sometimes, alternative views were flatly rejected: creativity is only a function of individuals, and there is no such thing as relational creativity – it’s always the individual. A camel is a horse designed by a committee. Brainstorming was the only tip of the hat to “collaborative creativity,” and tellingly it’s a somewhat artificial procedure of dubious value. What about simple dialogue with colleagues, playing with ideas over coffee, arguing over dinner and a bottle of wine, the excitement of sharing ideas with friends late into the night, the more convivial, everyday, unstructured processes where, if pressed, we all know ideas emerge, even if the result of conflict and differences of opinion rather than artificial “collaboration?” The scholarly models and frames did not seem to reflect the lived experience of people engaging in the improvisational exchanges William Irwin Thompson has called “mind-jazz?”

I came to creativity research from my experience as a musician, particularly interested in collective improvisation. But when I reviewed the literature, I found the three P’s of traditional creativity were Person, Process, Product. The very way the topic of creativity was framed could not account for what I was interested in. The “who” of creativity was only the Person. The person was the subject of Psychology, where creativity research “lived.” And consequently there was little or no research on musical groups, or any other relational dimensions of creativity, until quite recently. And yet the magic of improvisational music, whether in jazz or in “rock” bands like the Grateful Dead and King Crimson was an emergent property of the interaction between musicians. This could not be accounted for at the time, and has only recently become the subject of systematic research.

Another troubling issue was that the deeper philosophical assumptions underlying most disciplinary perspectives were mostly ignored. From Plato to Hobbes and Locke, political philosophy was based on well-articulated assumptions about human nature. Some of the early philosophers showed up in histories of several disciplines—both Plato and Locke in histories, political science and psychology, for instance. But if “human nature” was discussed at all when in political science and international relations, it was still in the terms outlined by the philosophers, and then mostly through Machiavelli’s famous dictums. None of the important research in psychology I was interested in at the time –humanistic psychology and the emerging transpersonal field – were addressed. Any “official” reference to psychology or human nature dated back to when the split from philosophy occurred, and no efforts had been made to keep a dialogue going.

Economics was even more dismal. Rational Choice theory may have its place, but leaving out consumer motivations, values, ethics, and psychology in general, not to mention larger social and cultural factors, is surely bordering on reductio ad absurdum.

“How did economists get it so wrong?” asked Paul Krugman in a 2009 NYT article, after the recent economic meltdown (Krugman, September 6, 2009). Up to that point macro-economists thought they had it all figured out. Apparently not. Economics, the most “scientific” of the social sciences, was also the most isolated, the discipline least likely to “play well with others.” Its reductionist quantophrenia led to an illusion of security, of a solid scientific foundation. Individual disciplines are unable to provide us with the knowledge we need to address the overwhelming complexity of global problems.

I have taught various branches of behavioral biology and cultural anthropology to American students ranging from college freshmen to psychiatric residents, in various schools and teaching hospitals, and I have encountered a very strange gap in their thinking that springs from a lack of certain tools of thought. This lack is rather equally distributed at all levels of education, among students of both sexes and among humanists as well as scientists. Specifically, it is a lack of knowledge of the presuppositions not only of science but of everyday life. (G. Bateson, 2002, 23)

When I was living on the Monterey Peninsula in 1988 I met Riane Eisler and David Loye. David had written brilliant books on a variety of topics, ranging from the brain to future studies to political psychology, racism and prejudice. I had only just read Riane’s The Chalice and the Blade, and when I told her about my interest in creativity she asked me to look into the creativity of women (Eiser, 1987). Once again a number of doors opened and gave me glimpses into a different world, the emerging literature on the psychology and sociology of women, Lorraine Code’s powerful work of feminist epistemology (Code, 1991), and the remarkable fact that much of women’s experience was simply not addressed in the literature. Exploring the creativity of women once again led me to read in a variety of disciplines. Any number of arguments were being made about why women were not represented in lists of eminent creatives, ranging from the essentialist to the insulting. A clear argument could be made that women were for years simply not given access to the very domains in which “eminent” contributions to creativity could be made. But this was a “social” argument that was not part of the general discourse of creativity. A steady interweaving of perspectives followed, and it became clear that it was precisely this process of weaving together, or complexification, that led to more nuanced perspectives on vexing topics living in fragmented isolation.

I began to see not only the nature of fragmentation, but also the way in which our dualistic thinking, driven by binary oppositions, was profoundly limiting. And the work of Morin and others stressed the need to go beyond these traditional dualisms, including for Basarab Nicolescu, a key figure in the development of Transdisciplinarity,

Transdisciplinarity transgresses the duality of opposing binary pairs: subject/object, subjectivity/objectivity, matter/consciousness, nature/divine, simplicity/complexity, reductionism/holism, diversity/unity. The duality is transgressed by the open unity that encompasses both the universe and the human being. (Nicolescu, 2002, 56)

To this we should add, female/male.

Multidisciplinary Disciplines

Environmental Studies, Women’s Studies, Cultural Studies, Genomics, Robotics, Neuroscience, Artificial Intelligence, and Nanotechnology are some of the most interesting and vital new disciplines. These new disciplines are all mutts, incorporating elements originating in a wide variety of other established disciplines, but now themselves taking on the status of “disciplines.” Environmental Studies is an explicitly interdisciplinary field, studying human interactions with the environments. It is informed by ecology as well as ethics, sociology, biology, and economics, among others. Women’s Studies is also multi- or interdisciplinary, drawing from politics, psychology, sociology, economics, neuroscience, and more. These disciplines arose out of the need to address specific issues, such as economic inequality, racism, sexism, and so on, and the underlying assumptions that fueled them.

The curricula of most management programs already draw on a variety of disciplines and research traditions. Students in the Harvard MBA take required courses: Finance, Leadership and Organizational Behavior, Marketing, Technology and Operations Management, Business Government and the International Economy. They can choose electives on Innovation, Negotiation, The Moral Leader in Literature, Film, and Art, area specific courses which include studying specific cultures (China anyone?), and much more. A recent Introduction to Leadership course at Harvard covers topics like Ethics, Charisma, Appreciative Inquiry, Positive Psychology, Slavery, and Mindfulness. Clearly this already provides a multi-disciplinary perspective. We should, therefore, acknowledge the extent to which we are already drawing on other disciplines within some of our established “disciplines.” And it is perhaps not surprising that this is mostly happening in what are perhaps the least traditionally “academic” disciplines, the ones that prepare practitioners, because approaching complex practices like leadership from the perspective of one discipline is enormously limiting.

But if our dominant way of thinking is still rooted in the machine view of the world, in analysis, how do we connect all these different sources? How do we go beyond a smorgasbord of courses that simply provide a set of diverse tools? This is a question that is now being addressed out of necessity, because as Bateson (2002) had already seen,

While so much that universities teach today is new and up-to-date, the presuppositions or premises of thought upon which all our teaching is based are ancient, and, I assert, obsolete. (p. 203)

The pattern which connects. Why do schools teach almost nothing of the pattern which connects? (p.7)

The implications of Transdisciplinarity are revolutionary. Fortunately they are beginning to be explored, and on several continents, as McGregor and Volckmann have shown in their book on emerging trends in Transdisciplinarity, Transversity: Transdisciplinary Approaches in Higher Education (McGregor and Volckmann, 2011). Lively debates are emerging, and there are ambitious efforts to develop inter- or transdisciplinary curricula. Things are changing, and for me participating in these new dialogues and explorations is tremendously exciting. These debates themselves reflect some of the core issues of transdiscipinarity, namely the larger societal and professional context: how do students with innovative and unusual degrees present themselves in an academia and more generally, in professional contexts that are still driven by disciplinary fragmentation?

I have devoted much of my life to several of the interrelated topics that have arisen out of my desire to make sense of a complex world in a way that truly reflected its complexity rather than eliminate it or reduce it to simple categories and essences. In academia, I teach in two Transdisciplinary programs I was fortunate enough to be able to design, one of which includes a semester long course entitled Transdisciplinarity and the Pattern that Connects. My quest is continually enlivened by the constant challenge of assessing how to make a Transdisciplinarity curriculum exciting, vital, rigorous, relevant, and practical for new generations of students who share a passion for going beyond traditional approaches and have often come from educational experiences with extremely limited and limiting disciplinary perspectives. There are many challenges, and much unlearning to do along with the learning.

In collaboration with my wife, a jazz singer, I continue to play music and produce records that span many musical styles because that’s how we hear it, that’s what we play, and that’s who we are. There is now a greater openness to musical hybrids, even if what is often referred to as “the jazz police” still looks askance at certain non-jazz grooves or unusual instruments. As a member of the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences I am once again witnessing a debate about the nature of categories and musical styles. The Grammys recently restructured their awards and eliminated over 30 categories in the process. The dialogue is heated, harsh words have been spoken, and a lawsuit filed by musicians from a category that has been eliminated. The questions are vital, mostly having to do with the difficulty in establishing what musical categories should be represented in what can only be a limited number of awards, and even what actually constitutes a musical category in this age of mash-ups and fusion and remixes. The questions and issues parallel many of the ones explored in the context of Transdisciplinarity.

I continue to be a mutt, and proud of it. But now there are new ways of approaching muttness, and concepts like cosmopolitanism, hybridity and liquid identity are casting a new light on my questions. These new approaches reflect different cultural realities, new demographics, and new ways of thinking. And they provide me with new opportunities to explore not just my own identity, but ways of dialoguing and thinking about identity.

All of which tells me that Transdisciplinarity is an idea whose time has come. Exploring and articulating it will be a passionate endeavor for me and many others, and one of the most exciting adventures in inquiry today.


Allison, G. T. (1971). Essence of decision: Explaining the Cuban missile crisis. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Barabasi, A. (2003). Linked. How everything is connected to everything else and what it means for business, science, and everyday life. New York: Plume.

Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an ecology of mind. New York: Bantam.

Bateson, G. (2002). Mind and nature: A necessary unity. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Becker, E. (1976). The structure of evil. New York: Free Press.

Capra, F. (1984). The turning point: Science, society, and the rising culture. New York: Bantam.

Code, L. (1991). What can she know? Feminist theory and the construction of knowledge. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Eisler, R. (1987). The chalice and the blade. San Francisco: Harper Collins.

Gordon, L. R. (2006). Disciplinary decadence. Living thought in trying times. Boulder: Paradigm.

Krugman, P. (September 6, 2009). How did economists get it so wrong?, New York Times.

Kuhn, T. (1996). The structure of scientific revolutions (3d ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lechte, J. (1994). 50 key thinkers. New York: Routdlege.

Maruyama, M. (1963). The second cybernetics. Deviation-amplifying mutual causal processes. American Scientist, 51(June), 164-179, 250-256.

Maruyama, M. (2004). Polyocular vision or subunderstanding? Organization, 25((3)), 467-480.

McGregor, S., & Volckmann, R. (2011). Transversity: Transdisciplinary approaches in higher education. Tucson, AZ: Integral Publishers.

Morin, E. (2008). On complexity. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Morin, E., & Kern, B. (1999). Homeland Earth: A manifesto for the new millennium. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Nicolescu, B. (2002). Manifesto of transdisciplinarity. Albany: SUNY Press.

Wilshire, B. (1990). The moral collapse of the university: Professionalism, purity, and alienation. New York: SUNY Press.

About the Author

Alfonso Montuori, PhD, is Professor at California Institute of Integral Studies, where he designed and teaches in the Transformative Leadership M.A. and the Transformative Studies Ph.D. He was Distinguished Professor in the School of Fine Arts at Miami University, in Oxford Ohio and in 1985-1986 he taught at the Central South University in Hunan, China. An active musician and producer, in a former life Alfonso worked in London England as a professional musician. He is the author of several books and numerous articles on creativity and innovation, the future, complexity theory, and leadership. Alfonso is also a consultant in the areas of creativity, innovation and leadership development whose clients have included NetApp, Training Vision (Singapore), Omintel-Olivetti (Italy) and Procter and Gamble.