Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Post-modern Interdisciplinarity

In the second part of the Critique of Judgment, Kant offers the following definition of how a science or discipline is established: "The principles of a science are either internal to it, and are then called indigenous (principia domestica), or they are based on principles that can only find their place outside of it, and are foreign principles (peregrina). Sciences that contain the latter base their doctrines on auxiliary propositions (lemmata), i.e., they borrow some concept, and along with it a basis for order, from another science" (Kant, Judgment 252). The second of these two cases, the borrowing of a concept from another science or discipline, is a practice that is easily discernible in recent critical history. One need only think of the borrowing from Saussurean linguistics that enabled the development of structuralism. Yet, as the history and the intentions of structuralism already show, such borrowing does not lead to the formation of a science or even a discipline we could call interdisciplinary but rather, remains firmly within the practice of either a critical method or the idiosyncrasy of a particular critical interpretation. Indeed, in such cases, the claim to interdisciplinarity has more to do with affirming the ability to borrow from one discipline or another as a central principle of modern humanistic study if not the history of the humanities in general.

This principle is also central the passage just cited from Kant's Critique of Judgment. However, for Kant, the principle of once science, once borrowed, may be easily forgotten as another science or discipline emerges, a new science that quickly takes on all the trappings of a science in its own right. Clearly, modern interdisciplinary study would resist, both strategically and ideologically, the transformation Kant describes: the reproduction of itself as a discipline. Yet, to the extent that modern interdisciplinarity defines itself through a critical relation to the ideology of disciplines (to do otherwise is to define itself according to the limitation it sets out to avoid), it poses the question of its own existence - not in the sense that such a question denies existence to interdisciplinarity but in the sense that it questions how interdisciplinarity currently exists as a recognizable form of inquiry. In other words, interdisciplinarity raises the question of the place it now occupies as a guiding concept for the production of knowledge within the modern university. Having taken up this role, has interdisciplinarity become, in effect, indistinguishable from the science whose principle remains internal to it? Does its borrowing lead back to what has long been the preserve of individual disciplines: the production of guiding concepts?

There lies a more fundamental question embedded within these questions: whether anything such as interdisciplinarity is conceivable as a form of knowledge - or, indeed, whether it is only as a form that it is conceivable. The answers to this question already seem predictably unavoidable whether it be an empirically driven declaration that "you cant do interdisciplinarity" or, on the other hand, a defense that emphasizes a kind of hybridity, an in-betweenness that always asserts its difference to the way in which a discipline guarantees its knowledge by focusing on the questions that authenticate its guiding concept. By pursuing this question and the kinds of answers it so regularly elicits, the question of interdisciplinarity and its role within our modernity - not to mention the evolution of the university in the late 20th century - cannot be posed, and precisely because, these answers are not answers. Rather, they are the two opposed terms of a dialectically determined history in which interdisciplinarity and disciplinarity engaged in what Kant could have called a play of representations, each one agreeably assuring the survival of the other. For, without the disciplines, there is no hope of designating, however vaguely or figuratively, a space between that would be the space of interdisciplinarity. Without such a history, discipline always remains a point of reference and especially so in its critical negation.

Despite the force of this negation, Kant's subsequent remarks to the passage cited at the beginning of this essay would already imply that this history takes place within a systematic tendency. Whether the principles are internal or borrowed, Kant states, "every science is of itself a system" (Kant, Judgment 252). The act of borrowing or even the act of displacing the principle of one science or discipline does not impede the development of systematicity in another area of study. Within this Kantian paradigm, it is as if no knowledge is conceivable without, at some level, revealing a relation to systematic thought. Yet, this tendency is not wholly Kantian, it also appears in contexts that reject the limitations of Kant's critical project. Thus, Novalis will speak of "systemlessness brought into a system" and Deleuze will proclaim "an organization of the many ... which has no need whatsoever for unity to form a system" (Novalis 2:289; Deleuze 182). This allure of the systematic remains strong even within those contexts that have rejected unequivocally the impulse towards epistemological foundations characteristic of the history of systematic thought. Yet, it can be argues that the sense of system implied by both Novalis and Deleuze is itself merely a borrowing or even, in the latter, a performance in the post-modern sense. Such a borrowing would then allow this use of system t recognize the systematic impulse of German Idealism but without subscribing to its totalizing tendencies - a performance that would not and cannot assume the same for German Idealism.

... Post-modern Interdisciplinarity: Kant, Diderot and the Encyclopedic Project, David Ferris

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