Roy Bhaskar - Abstract Keynote

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Unity of Theory and Practice, Interdisciplinarity, and Non-duality

Much philosophy is not ‘serious’, in a sense which derives from Hegel. When, for example, David Hume, the eighteenth century British Empiricist, says he has no better reason for leaving a room by the ground floor door than by the second floor window, he is not being serious. For if he were, he should leave such rooms by the second floor window on at least fifty per cent of all occasions. But of course he never does, because he has reason, and good reason, for always choosing to exit by the ground floor door, namely the force of gravity (which of course his epistemology was not able to accommodate). Lack of seriousness is manifest in a split between theory and practice, a split between our talk and our walk – so that the theorist becomes in practice what I have called a ‘TINA formation’. Our philosophical aim now should be one of enhanced reflexivity, that is where our practice is right, to be able to articulate it in theory; and where it is wrong, to make way for a transformed practice (so as to bring practice into alignment with our best theoretical intuitions).

Seriousness about the topic of ‘research across boundaries’ implies seriousness about the nature of our world. This is an open system, characterized by, among other things, complexity, emergence and human being (and a fortiori social life). This means that our research findings can never conform to the schema of traditional received philosophy of science, can never assume a deductive-nomological form (that is can never be universal empirical invariances). They only appear to be such under a few special experimentally established closed conditions. Outside these conditions, nothing can be remotely understood in this kind of way.

If we are to be serious, then our philosophy must be in keeping with both science and ordinary life; so a principle of hermeticism applies, which means that we should be able to apply our philosophy to (and in the context of) our everyday experience. So a serious philosophy has to be a talk that we can walk, an account which can make sense of how we are in the world. The presentation sketches a dialectic from the kind of knowledge we have in science to the kind of knowledge we could aspire to have of the world of everyday experience. This would be a dialectic from disciplinarity to interdisciplinarity; and will take us through a number of steps.

Thus it takes us from a view of the characteristic multiplicity of causes, mechanisms and theories in open systems, a position which I call multi-mechanismicity, highlighting the complexity of our open systemic world, to a position which is one of multi-disciplinarity, which depends upon the emergence of irreducible levels or orders of being in our world.

We go from multidisciplinarity to interdisciplinarity when we take into account the emergence of outcomes, and to intradisciplinarity when we allow that the mechanisms too may be emergent. With or without such intradisciplinarity, the characteristic ontological form of interdisciplinarity involves the integrity of what I call a laminated system, constituted by mechanisms operating at several different levels of being. The WHO definition of a human being for health purposes as ‘bio-psycho-social’ involves the postulation of a laminated system. This is a unity-in-difference, a unity constituted by the co-presence of several simultaneously efficacious orders of being.

This is the ontological condition of interdisciplinarity. How it is to be known? We now move to a position which involves transdisciplinarity or the employment of (cognitive and semantic) resources drawn from a potentially large, and in principle infinite, number of disciplines to fashion coherent knowledge of the workings of the laminated systems encountered in the open world. Transdisciplinarity is the form the development of our knowledge of interdisciplinarity (of the laminated systems of the concrete world) must assume.

Epistemologically of course our position is characterized by the coexistence of a multiplicity of distinct disciplines; and we can only achieve the epistemic integration we need to acquire knowledge of the laminated totality at work by a process of cross-disciplinary understanding, supplemented where necessary by immanent critique. This will involve hermeneutic encounter between the disciplines being brought to bear on the understanding of the particular open systemic phenomena concerned.

Such a hermeneutic fusion involves the transcendental identification in consciousness of one consciousness by another consciousness, i.e. a mode of non-duality. This is only one of the forms of non-duality we encounter in quotidian social life. Arguably it is underpinned by a principle or axiom of universal solidarity, which together with a principle of axial rationality may provide an organon for the resolution of conflict in social life.

Disciplinarity is predicated on a distinction between the domain of the real, the generative mechanisms and causal structures which science posits and identifies, and the domains of the actual and the empirical, including the things and events which we experience as the phenomena of everyday life, a distinction which may be captured by the notion of ontological depth. Within the world of singular disciplines, our aim is to isolate ways of acting within the world. In interdisciplinarity, our aim is to capture the integration of these ways in a coherent unitary account of the phenomena we seek to explain.

Now just as when we expand and develop as individuals, we become at once more unique, more creative, and more able to connect with the experience of others, so there is no incompatibility between depth and integration (or unification) in knowledge.

Both depth and integrity are required. This expresses a dynamic, which is also at the heart of more inclusive, emancipatory social change, a dynamic which was well expressed by Jelalludin Rumi, when he said:

‘every forest branch moves differently

in the breeze, but as they sway,

they connect at the roots’

Boundaries are both preserved and transcended, as new epistemic and social forms emerge. As for research across boundaries, this must take place in the space, the ‘no man’s land’ between borders, that is, in the space beyond or outside boundaries.