Disciplines and Reductionism: An Argument for Alt-IDS


Western epistemology has employed various strategies of reductionism such as logical positivism, dualisms, and absolute truth to capture and subdue complexity into linear, understandable, and ultimately manageable forms of knowledge, says Welch IV (2009).

The obvious utility of reductionism notwithstanding, its ability to deal with increasing complexity is limited and its methodologies limiting. As I discussed in a previous post,  “reductionism fails because even if you know everything possible about the individual pieces that compose a system, you know very little about how those pieces interact with one another when they form the system as a whole. Detailed knowledge of a piece of glass does not help you see, and appreciate, the image that emerges from a stained-glass window” (Miller 2015, Kindle Locations 204-206).

That reductionist ideology is imprinted on our academic institutions via the disciplinary structure is well-established. Thus, in their attempt to deal with the increasing complexity of our world that reductionism cannot address, academics are turning more and more towards interdisciplinarity. This is good and works quite well to some extent. But, here’s the problem:

Disciplines are tools of reductionist epistemology. Simply combining the tools of reductionism, regardless of how seamlessly they are integrated, amounts to another level of reductionism. Simply combining different forms of reductionism maintains reductionism, even if in a new form. Thus, interdisciplinarity, if it is to be based on complexity theory, as is often claimed by IDS scholars and suggested by the limits of reductionism, has to be more than merely combining (integrating or whatever agitative verb one wishes to use) the established areas of study.

I am NOT suggesting a destruction of all disciplinary structures, as some IDS scholars often accuse dissenters from their perspective. I am suggesting a different way of working with them. There is a new way of doing knowledge (though the novelty of this approach is highly debatable).

One of the best discussions of the new way of doing knowledge can be found in a paper by Christian Suteanu (2005) entitled “Complexity, Science and the Public: The Geography of a New Interpretation.” I will copy the abstract here, but the abstract really does not do justice to the profound insights of the paper.

 Abstract: This article addresses complexity by selecting some of its key aspects that share a common feature: the power to change. They seem to change not only the way the world is approached by scientists, but also the way this approach, the resulting perspectives and their multiple relationships, are interpreted. These main aspects are: (1) the challenge of measurability, with an unexpected result that escapes the gravitational field of the measurability problem; (2) the meaning of reproducibility and the redrawn boundaries of scientific inquiry, with implications for the social sciences; (3) the altered expectations concerning prediction, which seem to break with a glorious tradition of unquestioned technological success; and (4) the discovery of all-embracing patterns of events that unavoidably include large events, possibly perceived as ‘crises’, which one may hope to understand and confront, rather than rule out. The resulting geography, with its new landmarks, new relationships among its elements and new means of orientation, is expected to reach the public sooner or later, even if the effect – according to complexity theory itself – cannot be foreseen in detail. All these fibres of change are considered in the context of a fresh meaning of time and of a topology dominated by network concepts.

The key point is that in reductionism we try to subdue, but in complexity we try to engage, and this is a challenge to the cognitive status quo of Western epistemology. This challenges our commitment to measuring, predicting, and repeating as the scared rituals of science while at the same time revealing whole new dimensions of the universe.

All of this boils down to the argument that it is insufficient to teach interdisciplinary studies as merely a method of combining established areas of study. This is only a part of the picture, and arguably a rather small part. We have to teach interdisciplinarity as process of engaging complexity of which disciplinary perspectives are but one set of tools available, a point made to some extent by Robert Frodeman. It is the cognitive tools of engagement that are crucial to a fully-realized complexity and hold the power and promise of a fully-realized interdisciplinarity. If the definitions of interdisciplinarity are inextricably tied to reductionist epistemology, then we need an alt-IDS (Interdisciplinary Studies).



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