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Transdisciplinary Meeting Proposal

Bharath Vallabha's picture


I very much appreciate and am excited about the possibility of trans-disciplinary conversations. In my experience I have found though that good intentions on all sides are not sufficient in order for such a conversation to fruitfully take place. In what follows I would like to do three things: 

1) describe the situation (what it seems to me normally happens in the attempt at trans-disciplinary conversations)

2) diagnose the situation (the reasons why the situation plays out in the way it does), and

3) offer a proposal (suggest an alternate which we might pursue in the group in order to avoid the normal pitfalls).

I am writing this just as a way to suggest one possible way in which we can proceed in the meetings for the group.

Note: If you are writing a post below, you can focus on a proposal you have for what meetings might look like. So your post doesn't have to respond to this post. I think the main idea is to get different proposals on the table.


I. Description of the Situation

It seems to me that normally one of three things happen when people get together to try to talk beyond their normal professional or educational roles. Certainly other things also happen, but this is a preliminary list. And I find that normally I do each of these things in conversations myself.

(a) Knowingly or unknowingly, people channel the forms of discourse of their professional or educational background. The philosopher talks as a philosopher, the physicist as physicist, the artist as an artist, etc.

(b) People talk past each other because it is unclear how each person is using or understanding the crucial words in the conversation. For example, if we are talking about the “meaning” of a painting or a book or a fact, no two people in the conversation might be understanding “meaning” in the same way.

(c) In an attempt to dislodge oneself from channeling one’s background, people try to just follow a train of thought, whether or not one finds it credible, and even sometimes whether or not one actually understands where the train of thought is going. It is natural to think that waiting to understand the train of thought in question is to enforce one’s background onto the conversation, and so one in a spirit of openness one is inclined to participate in the conversation without fully understanding. This though leads to a conversation without a grounding and at the end it is unclear what is being taken away from it.

The main point of (a)-(c) is that even with good intentions, something about the structure of conversations can make it very hard to engage in substantive trans-disciplinary conversations. If this structural feature is ignored, the excitement of being in a new, irregular conversational group might be blunted by the uncertainty of what exactly is being gained from it.

If this is right, what are these structural features? And can they be avoided?


II. Diagnosis of the Situation

I think that the reason for (a)-(c) above can be traced to the following fact:

Conversations are normally structured around generic questions such as “Is truth independent of power?”, “Are the human sciences reducible to the natural sciences?”, “Is a person determined by nature or culture?”, “Is religion an opium for the masses?” and so on. And these questions are normally introduced through readings.

In one sense, that trans-disciplinary conversations should begin with such general questions is quite understandable. If one starts with more particular questions  (whether this or that theory of evolution is correct or whether Joyce should be read this or that way), one would become embroided in the more familiar disciplinary questions. So it seems as if the general questions side step such disciplinary questions and focus on broad, abstract questions which are pertinent to us as human beings as such.

But the problem with starting with questions is that once a question is in front of us, it is natural to focus on the answers to the question (“yes”, “no”, “maybe”, etc.). Like a Pavlovian dog, if a question is in front of me I find myself instinctively choosing a side (including the possibility that the question is ill posed) and then getting ready to defend it vigorously against other people. With the question in place, before the conversation has even warmed up, normally people are on different sides and the rest of the conversation just plays along the sides that are chosen.

Ultimately, the problem isn’t that people might disagree on the question. The real problem is that often it is an illusion that there is in fact a single, clearly defined question that everyone is considering. Instead, more likely what is the case is that everyone is interpreting the question in slightly different ways. Though a single, simple question seems to be on the table, the motivation for the question, possible interpretations of the question, possible answers, possible implications of the question, etc. are all left to individuals to fill in. And every person fills it in differently and so people talk past each other.

This should be expected. The whole reason why disciplines are helpful is because they help to provide meaning and structure to the questions fine tuned and honed in that discipline. If one asks a philosoher, “Does life have meaning?”, most probably she will respond by saying that it depends on what one means by “life”, “meaning” and “have”. This is because to the extent that a discipline makes progress, it is partly in discovering which ways of interpreting a question are fruitful and which aren’t, which are sensical and which aren’t and so on. Thus a discipline provides a context for understanding particlar questions. The discipline normally fills in the motivation, interpretation, implications, etc. of a question.

But if we seek to have a trans-disciplinary conversation, then there is no institutional structure which is actually helping us fine tune the question on the table. Each participant in the conversation can say the very same words as the person next to them (for example, “is cultural evolution like biological evolution?”) but what determines that each person is understanding the question in the same way, with the same motivations and goals, etc?

Because trans-disciplinary conversations are not the norm, there isn’t enough institutional memory of such questions to make sure that all the participants understand the question in the same way. As a result, the only thing which can help give more fine tuned meaning to the questions is the individual’s biographical history with the concepts in the question. And so naturally each person fills in, often unconsciously, the question as is pertinent to their biographical history. Given the divergent backgrounds of the different people in the conversation, the question gets interpreted differently.

This explains why normally (a)-(c) happen. Faced with this gap of how exactly to understand the question on the table (even one which seems so normal and ordinary as, “Does science imply there is no God?”), a person might do one of three things.

The person might revert back to their professional background to help fill in how to answer the question. So one might respond as a scientist or a humanist or an artist, etc. This is (a).

Or one might leave aside one’s profession and just let one’s biographical background fill in the question and guide one in how to respond to it. This way one is not bringing one’s profession into the conversation but is simply responding to the question as the person that one is. This is (b).

Intent to avoid either a professional or a personal bais towards the question, one might simply refuse to fill in the question in any way at all, with the hope that this might provide the most objective stance to the question. But without filling in the question more, it is hard to know how to engage with it. So the person just follows how others seem to understand the question without herself committing to it one way or another. This is (c).


III. A Proposal

If the above description and diagnosis are correct, then how can we generate a fruitful trans-disciplinary conversation?

Here is a proposal: Instead of focusing the conversations around general questions, let us center them around buzz words such as truth, nature, values, identity, religion, science, human being, earth, art, etc.

These are the words which make up the generic questions and which get interpreted in various ways by different people. Since the words are what make people interpret the questions differently, let us focus directly on the words themselves and see how each of us understands them. So instead of focusing on a question like, “Does science make religion moot?”, let us ask of each of ourselves, “How do you understand science?”, “When you think of religion, what do you think of?” and so on.

Our meetings can be a space in which each person can think out loud and share how they think about one of buzz words. Conversation and discussion can then be generated through the similarities and differences of how we think about the buzz words. The group, by being open and critical listeners, can help each person make explicit their conceptions of these keys ideas, and we can see how we engage with each other as we see different conceptions being put on the table.

If we discover that we have different conceptions of these key ideas, then we can think together about how we can go forward in our conversations given the differences. This is one of the virtues of focusing on the keys ideas rather than on questions or readings. For if we focus on questions and we disagree, that can make it seem as if some people are correct and some are mistaken; and since we think we are correct, we don’t care about how other people might come around to our view. But if we focus on ideas and see that we have different conceptions of the same words and so aren’t even understanding the questions in the same way, then it is collective issue for how to move forward. Everyone has an equal stake in trying to have a common understanding of the key words, for otherwise we cannot even talk to each other, let alone agree or disagree.

* So here is a more specific proposal: each month we meet we focus on two buzz words which seem to be in some sort of tension with each other. For example, (A) god and science, (B) east and west, (C) nature and culture, (D) creativity and discovery, etc. (If people like this proposal, we can think together about what the words should be. We can focus on the concepts which seem especially important to us.)

The point for each meeting will not be to just rehearse how these ideas are normally understood. Rather, the aim will be for each of us to think out loud and share with each other how we understand these words. Meetings will be an open space for firstly, understanding each other’s ways of looking at the world and secondly, try to determine what to do with the similarity and differences in the way we look at the world.

It seems to me that this would help make the meetings productive and transformative. Productive because sharing our ways of understanding particular concepts will be illuminating to others and to the individual herself; this will be like gaining concrete, factual information about each other which humanizes the conversation (exactly the kind of information which gets ignored when we focus on general questions and talk past one another). And transformative because seeing the similarities and differences in our ways of thinking of the keys concepts brings us all together in the common project of how we will think together given the differences. The very interactions we have in light of the differences we have noted about each other will transform our modes of being with each other. And perhaps that will enable our concepts to be transformed as well in ways which we cannot now forsee and which make possible new modes of conversation and thinking which currently don’t seem possible.

The crux of the matter is that if we concentrate on understanding how we think the buzz words and are there for each other in an open space of sharing, then we can bypass the stale old questions and bifurcations rigidified in our culture, and try to get right to the heart of the matter.

The more in a meeting we inhabit new spaces which challenge us and problematize our conceptions, the more exciting and productive the meetings will be. The proposal here is that we can do this best by focusing on how each of us understands the crucial concepts which are often what are taken for granted.


hank's picture

buzz and the dyad

Bharath, Anne,

Yes and yes. Thanks for this. Bharath has really articulated something (description and diagnosis) that was nagging at me and I like the proposal very much. I also like Anne's suggestions for topics for tomorrow and the shelving of opposing pairs for now.


Anne Dalke's picture

Trying it out

Trying out your proposal (and trying out if I understand it...)
on the 3 essays we'll be reading for our next session:
our buzz words might be "method," "interpretation" and "thinking."
Since each of the essays  argues "against" one of these things,
I have a general question about how useful we'll find it to be taking
an antagonist position--as well as a more specific question about the
usefulness, in our conversations, of pairing two concepts that are
in tension w/ one another.

So: a friendly amendment to Bharath's proposal:
let's do keywords, but not oppositional ones.

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