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1.2 Obstacles to an interdisciplinary focus

Georges Gusdorf, in an exceptional survey of interdisciplinarity for the French-language Encyclopaedia Universalis France (1972) notes that interdisciplinary knowledge is à la mode and that everybody now calls for "pluridisciplinarity" or "multidisciplinarity". He even suggests that there is an element of snobbism in doing so. However, on closer examination, it is possible to discover that this requirement, far from constituting any form of progress, is only the symptom of the pathological state of knowledge at this time. The specialization without limit of scientific disciplines over the past two hundred years has resulted in an increasing fragmentation of the epistemological horizon. Atomised knowledge, he suggests, is the work of an atomised intelligence, which it would be legitimate to believe had lost the element of reason. The consequence is a disequilibrium which reaches the human personality in its totality. This scientific alienation may thus be regarded as one of the causes of the malaise of contemporary civilization.

After reviewing the problem of the disintegration of knowledge, specialization seen as an epistemological cancer, and the need for unitary knowledge, Gusdorf comments on the obstacles to interdisciplinary knowledge.

1. Discipline sub-division

The first obstacle he identifies is an epistemological one arising from the inexorable process of discipline subdivision and divergence. To the extent that each science is a well-formed language, each language thus created encloses the associated knowledge in an axiomatic space isolated from that of similar languages.

Specialists cannot be asked to testify with regard to the unification of the sciences insofar as these specialists by their vocation and training are ignorant of, or deny this very unity. Even those who profess to stand for the unification of the sciences cannot be trusted, for each one of them would be satisfied in defining their familiar point of view, and more or less justifying their own individual presuppositions.

2. Institutional reinforcement

The second obstacle is an institutional one in that teaching and research institutions reinforce the above separation through administrative procedures that tend to eliminate communications with institutions associated with other disciplines.

3. Development of feudal intellectual systems

The third obstacle is a psycho-sociological one. The division of intellectual space into smaller and smaller compartments and the multiplication of institutions which assume the management of each such territory results in the formation of a feudal system (he also uses the term epistemological capitalism) which governs the majority of scientific teaching and research enterprises.

The specialist, once his speciality has been transformed into a fortress, can give free reign to his desire for power. Under the pretext of division of labour, each intends to be master of his own domain and to defend his position against enemies from without and against rivals from within. Academic survival demands an expertise in career strategy and tactics that may even involve obstructing the development of the discipline over which control has been achieved.

4. Cultural biases

The fourth obstacle noted is a cultural one. The separation between disciplines is aggravated by the separation between cultures and their associated mentalities, between languages and between traditions. Science itself, as currently understood, is a typically western phenomenon (within which, for example, particular schools of thought may be associated with particular languages).

5. Forms of false interdisciplinarity

Gusdorf then notes the existence of various kinds of false interdisciplinarity favoured as solutions to the difficulties noted above. The simplest, and most naive, consists in bringing together for a meeting specialists from different disciplines, with the idea that such an assembly would suffice to bring about a common ground and a common language between individuals who have nothing else in common. The reports of such meetings neither achieve nor attempt to achieve any synthesis, leaving any such task to the reader. He concludes his survey with an outline of the basis for any conversion to an adequate interdisciplinary approach and the nature of the education required to accomplish this.

6. Synthesis by chance

Elsewhere he suggests that a specialist arrives at a view of the entire field of knowledge only by chance; he attains a perspective of synthesis only at the very limits of his domain. But he stops short; he is discountenanced, for nothing in his personal experience has prepared him to go any further.

Gusdorf's remedy is to encourage a new category of researchers toward synthesis. The major effort and reason for being of these researchers would be to create interdisciplinary intelligence and imagination. Ordinarily, human problems are confronted from the angle of a speciality. The proposed research would set as its task the confrontation of these problems in the perspective of unity or totality.

Since this section appeared in the previous edition in 1976, there have been remarkably few publications on interdisciplinarity as such. Indeed the most recent initiative of UNESCO on this subject, which falls so explicitly within its mandate, is a collection of papers published in 1983, with almost no references to papers published after 1976 (1983). Georges Gusdorf, one of the contributors, continues to be the most explicit about the work that has not been undertaken. At the time of writing, information was received concerning a study on Interdisciplinarity: history, theory and practice by Julie Klein (1990) which hopefully constitutes a major step forward in clarifying the scope of the field.