[Humanist] 23.363 claiming interdisciplinarity

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sat Oct 10 05:50:42 CEST 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 363.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Fri, 9 Oct 2009 14:59:29 -0300
        From: Richard Cunningham <richard.cunningham at acadiau.ca>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.350 claiming interdisciplinarity
        In-Reply-To: <20091006083724.210673C4FB at woodward.joyent.us>


Our conversation about interdisciplinarity seems to have taken on some  
unfortunate absolutist tenors, and to the extent I may have  
contributed to taking the conversation in that direction, I regret it  
and apologize.  As I implied in my first note, I know someone who is  
convinced what she does is absolutely interdisciplinary.  But what she  
does looks to me and many others (I know of no one who sees her work  
the way she does herself) like someone with an advanced degree in one  
discipline reading texts from another discipline and then treating  
them in a way wholly familiar to her home discipline and unrecognized  
and unrecognizable to inmates of the other discipline.  She strikes me  
now, as she struck me a week ago, as the paradigm Sir Richard Brook  
must have had in mind when he encouraged such people "to ask  
themselves an honest question."  The person of whom I was thinking and  
am now writing is, I must acknowledge, an extreme example, and as such  
likely to lead me to make absolutist assertions.

Nonetheless, I think it likely that interdisciplinarity is best  
fostered in an environment within which no discipline is assured  
supremacy.  By that I mean that two people, one paid to do the work of  
and manifest the principles of one discipline and the other the same  
for another discipline would seem to me the minimum requirement for  
the best interdisciplinary work.  I suppose an individual can do  
interdisciplinary work, but I can't bring myself to believe that one  
person disciplined to read in accordance with one discipline can read  
the texts of another discipline and reach as many or as varied  
questions, implications, and conclusions as can two people, one from  
each discipline.  There will of course be variations even in this weak  
formulation, e.g. one driven individual will quite often out perform  
two lazy people.  But if we assume all involved are doing their best  
and working equally hard, then I think the two people will provide a  
more nuanced record of their encounter with the text, the object, the  
subject, etc. than will the one person.

I suspect my unwillingness to let go of the need for more than one  
person for interdisciplinary work stems from my belief that the  
concept of discipline is real, and forceful.  It takes as much time  
and effort as it does to earn a PhD because the mind has to  
disciplined into encountering the world in a certain way.   For  
example, a medical doctor looks at a red splotch on a person's leg and  
sees a rash (which she sees as an example of ______ _____, a Latin  
name I don't know, even for the sake of example), while a psychologist  
looks at the same red patch and sees the reason for the depressive  
patient's recent down turn, while the artist sees the same thing and  
is inspired to paint something she's never painted before.   Without  
the time invested to discipline the mind, the MD-painter might be  
replaced inadvertently by the painter-MD, and while the world would  
have new art the sufferer might not be relieved.  I think "discipline"  
came to be the word that describes our endeavours precisely because a  
way of thinking is instilled, i.e. we are disciplined to think in such  
a way, that drives out all other reactions.  Only subsequently can a  
different reaction, a different thought, be brought to bear on the  
item of study.  So while I admit a different way of looking at things  
can be achieved by even a disciplined thinker, I believe the word  
"discipline" becomes less meaningful--and interdisciplinary along with  
it--if disciplines fail to render a mode of thought about the world as  
something close to instinct in the disciplined thinker.

I say all this without moral approbation.  It may be good or it may be  
bad to be disciplined the way academic disciplines work on us.  But I  
believe they do work on us, and often in less-than-fully-conscious ways.

With apologies for the length,

On 6-Oct-09, at 5:37 AM, Humanist Discussion Group wrote:

>                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 350.
>         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
>                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
>  [1]   From:    "Michael S. Hart"  
> <hart at pobox.com>                         (9)
>        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.346 claiming interdisciplinarity
>  [2]   From:    Willard McCarty  
> <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>          (27)
>        Subject: impossible!
> -- 
> [1 
> ]------------------------------------------------------------------------
>        Date: Mon, 5 Oct 2009 05:18:20 -0700 (PDT)
>        From: "Michael S. Hart" <hart at pobox.com>
>        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.346 claiming interdisciplinarity
>        In-Reply-To: <20091005051926.17AEB3BDD3 at woodward.joyent.us>
> Marvin Minsky, sometimes regarded as the smartest person alive,
> in the following quotation very solidly supports ideas/ideals a
> person might well regard as "individual interdisciplnarity:"
> "You don't understand anything
> until you learn it more than one way."
> Having only one point of view seems very narrow minded when
> viewed in the context of those who have more than one.
> There are plenty of examples available.
> Michael S. Hart
> -- 
> [2 
> ]------------------------------------------------------------------------
>        Date: Tue, 06 Oct 2009 09:35:05 +0100
>        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
>        Subject: impossible!
>        In-Reply-To: <20091005051926.17AEB3BDD3 at woodward.joyent.us>
> I confess to sadness but not surprise when someone in effect says,
> "achieving X is impossible, therefore we should not try". But I will
> even dispute that when X = interdisciplinary work, done by one person,
> it is impossible. As George Steiner is to his three principal  
> languages
> (German, French, English) so are some with respect to disciplines. But
> my point really is, to follow the analogy, that just because your
> linguistic abilities are not up to Steiner's doesn't mean that  
> learning
> German, say, is without merit. I know there are many here who will
> agree, even with some ferocity, about languages other than one's  
> native
> tongue. My point really is, to reach for another, quite nearby  
> analogy,
> that social anthropology is possible. We know from the writings of
> people like Geertz and Dening how difficult it is, but possible, and  
> how
> rewarding.
> I agree that we're each of us trapped to some degree inside our own
> skins. But as Geertz remarked that's where the social anthropology
> begins, at that boundary. We are trapped, perhaps, to some degree by  
> our
> native discipline, but if reaching out is impossible, then there's no
> point whatever to doing what we do. That we in fact do it must then be
> some kind of cruel hoax.
> Comments?
> Yours,
> WM
> -- 
> Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
> King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
> Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
> Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.
Richard Cunningham
Associate Professor, English & Theatre
Director, Acadia Media Centre
Acadia University

More information about the Humanist mailing list