Transforming transdisciplinarity: Interweaving the philosophical with the pragmatic to move beyond either/or thinking

By Katie Ross and Cynthia Mitchell

1. Katie Ross (biography)
2. Cynthia Mitchell (biography)

Can a dive into the philosophical depths of transdisciplinarity provide an orientation to the fundamental purpose and need for transdisciplinarity?

The earlier philosophers of transdisciplinarity – such as Erich Jantsch (1980), Basarab Nicolescu (2002), and Edgar Morin (2008) – all aim to stretch or transcend the dominant Western paradigm, which arises in part from Aristotle’s rules of good thought. Aristotle’s rules of good thought, or his epistemology, state essentially that to make meaning in the world, we must see in terms of difference; we must make sense in terms of black and white, or dualistic and reductive thinking.

Everywhere we look in Western society, we can see dualisms. Dualisms can be easily communicated in metaphor as the common Boolean “either/or” representation of two overlapping circles, where one is black and the other is white, and the middle grey section is ignored, as shown in the figure below. We see difference and separateness. The figure invokes common hard and fast dualisms often used to make sense of the world, where we view those in the black circle as distinct from and separate to those in the white circle. It is common to be less familiar with the relationships, co-existence, or mutual-causality between these entities or processes in the grey area.

However, this simple circular representation belies the profundity of the influence of this view within the dominant paradigms. The early transdisciplinary philosophers shared a sharp critique about the dualistic nature of Western society. Jantsch, Nicolescu and Morin all reflect on how this “either/or” logic runs straight through the heart of the dominant cultural paradigms and embeds within many individual worldviews. “Dualistic meaning-making” manifests when we see humans only as separate from nature; or we see ourselves and our disciplines only as separate from others; or when we believe values have no place in objective knowing.

Each philosopher offered their own guidance on how we can transcend dualism, prioritise process, see relationality, and perceive a radical interconnected unity of reality. For Nicolescu, this is his notion of the ‘Included Middle’ (see the figure below), which is in direct response to Aristotle’s excluded middle in his separatist rules of good thinking. The included middle refers to recognising the validity in paradoxes and contradictions, and the deeper insights they afford.

Common dualisms found deeply embedded within Western ways of knowing and being (conceived of and designed by Katie Ross)

Why does this critique of the Western paradigm matter? These deeply embedded dualistic norms and assumptions – according to these philosophers – are the seeds which create and drive the “wicked”, complex problems that many transdisciplinarians are dealing with today. For example, separatist thinking allows us to:

  • simplify problems to focus on weak but tangible interventions
  • justify inequitable treatment of nature or our fellow humans
  • prioritise efficiency and techno-scientific solutions.

Their philosophical provocations strongly suggest that if we do not transcend or stretch beyond dualistic ways of being, even our transdisciplinary efforts run the risk of escalating the “wickedness” of the situations we engage with.

Transdisciplinary research and learning is a step towards transcending the manifestations of dualistic being and thinking. Transdisciplinarity breaks down silos of previously segregated disciplines. Transdisciplinarity finds connection between previously separated spheres of society (academia, business, government) and ways of knowing (rational, intuitive, emotional, subjective, embodied).

But do our transdisciplinary approaches shine far enough into our beliefs to uncover how these deeply embedded dualistic ways of thinking influence all of our beliefs, and help improve our reflection on how we structure and engage in transdisciplinarity? If not, how can we strengthen our reflection and deepen our learning about ourselves?

One entry point into a reflection with our deepest assumptions is through exploration of six meaning systems. These meaning systems are categories of our most fundamental views, for example:

  • our beliefs about reality (ontology)
  • our beliefs about knowledge and knowing (epistemology)
  • our guiding values (axiology)
  • our beliefs in how best to organise society (social vision)
  • our underlying assumptions about what it means to be human (anthropology)
  • our views about the origin and existence of the cosmos and why are we here (cosmology).

Paradoxically and ironically, the selection and definition of these meaning-systems is deeply influenced by what one thinks is important. Perhaps you might choose other categories. For example, you might include spirituality or theology as another important category of our most fundamental views.

For transdisciplinarity to be truly transformative, collaborative transdisciplinary researchers must make space to reflect on the beliefs within – and the power and influence of – these six meaning-making systems, as well as the presence of duality within them, in their own personal and professional practice (Ross and Mitchell 2018).

How have you engaged with the early philosophers of transdisciplinarity? What are your thoughts or reactions to them? Who else would you suggest is relevant? How do your transdisciplinary projects and teams create space to explore the deeper assumptions and beliefs within? What are the benefits and challenges of doing so?

To find out more:
Ross, K. and Mitchell, C. (2018). Transforming transdisciplinarity: An expansion of strong transdisciplinarity and its centrality in enabling effective collaboration. In: D. Fam, L. Neuhauser, and P. Gibbs (Eds.), Transdisciplinary Theory, Practice and Education: The art of collaborative research and collective learning. Springer International Publishing. Online:

Jantsch, E. (1980). The Self-Organising Universe: Scientific and Human Implications of the Emerging Paradigm of Evolution. Pergamon Press: New York, United States of America

Morin, E. (2008). On Complexity. Hampton Press: New Jersey, United States of America

Nicolescu, B. (2002). Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity. State University of New York Press: New York, United States of America

Biography: Katie Ross is curious about ways to create change towards sustainable futures. She wonders what types of strategies and approaches work well in certain situations, and what ‘palette’ of processes lead to the most meaningful and well directed change. Luckily, she is a Research Principal at the Institute for Sustainable Futures within the University of Technology Sydney, Australia, where she can explore this daily. She specializes in transdisciplinary action research and learning that agitates for change in social, technical and governance systems. She brings almost two decades of experience in the sustainability sector and is currently a doctoral candidate, exploring processes of transformative learning for sustainability.

Biography: Cynthia Mitchell is Deputy Director and Professor of Sustainability at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney, where she has been pioneering transdisciplinary research since 2001, principally in learning, water services and international development. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering. Her passion for improving our collective ability to articulate, do, and value transdisciplinary research began when an engineering professor said of her research student’s work, ‘I just can’t see a PhD in this’, and an education professor said ‘I can see three’.

26 thoughts on “Transforming transdisciplinarity: Interweaving the philosophical with the pragmatic to move beyond either/or thinking”

  1. Dear Katie and Cynthia

    Thank you for a lovely post. I have skimmed through some of the responses and it is wonderful to see such rich and varied discussion about transdisciplinarity.

    I framed my PhD research as ‘transdisciplinary’, drawing on critical realism as an enabling, underlabouring philosophy. My work is mostly within the field of sustainability science and I often come across confusion in terms of how people understand and apply TD.

    I think that a better understanding of its philosophical roots is much needed, and so I would love to read the full book chapter and any other writings you have on this. Could you share it with me? My email address is

    Thank you.
    Jessica Cockburn

  2. I’ve not been following this conversation for a few days so I am picking up on a point made by Gerald Midgley in a conversation with Katie.

    “The original meaning of transdisciplinarity was that particular theoretical and methodological ideas transcend the limitations of disciplinary boundaries” &

    “I am becoming increasingly concerned that, when I meet some of the leading lights in the transdisciplinarity movement, they seem to know little of the original meaning of the term and its connection with systems science. They say that it’s working with non-academic stakeholders that makes the movement ‘trans’ [TD]…”.

    I agree with this. There seems to be a growing fad among some (and i speak mostly from a South African perspective here) of claiming to be ‘TD’ because ‘non-academic’ partners are involved. There also seems to be some sort of new glamour about ‘heroically’ working with non-academic partners.

    My feeling is that there is pragmatic necessity to work with non-academics (they see the world differently to academics; they have copious amounts of ‘everyday’ knowledge; and they ‘act’ in places with more vigour / permanence than academics). However, there is – in my opinion – a prerequisite when working with non-academic partners for loosely defining an important role for both academics and non-academics in these partnerships. I always delineate this as ‘roles and responsibilities’ up front. We acknowledge that there are roles and responsibilities that different stakeholders have and treat that process of establishing those roles and responsibilities as an emergent one [i.e, we do not attempt to pre-define what the roles and responsibilities are]. We always share outputs/comes from our different roles etc ……

    Personally, I think that a critical role of academics is the transcendence of disciplinary boundaries if it is appropriate.

    From my experiences, the non-academic partners tend to be more interested in what comes from the attempts at transcendence of boundaries ……but academe seems highly resistant to the theoretical basis of those efforts, especially if they are unfamiliar [to them] forms of potential ‘transcendence’. At this point, I wonder if this is just another case of ‘dualisms’ at play? I’m not sure it is. I think that the so-called ‘habits of mind’ are relevant, but I think that the expression ‘habits of mind’ may over-simplify some very relevant factors (probably cognitive psychology can help here) in the so-called ‘resistance’ to change. one quote helps me here: “Academics and practitioners alike tend to believe in the superiority of their knowledge, especially when supported by hard data or personal experience” (Roux, Nel, Cundill, O’Farrell & Fabricius, 2017, p. 712).

    In summary: a changing world requires changing forms of science (Warren Weaver wrote about this in 1948 ….so it is not a new concept). Non-academic partners do seem to have no problem with that concept. Academe does seem resistant to it [in my limited experience]. Transcendence, in my mind, should be the natural habitus of academics ….but there is a seemingly persistent desire to stay within theoretical ‘knowns’ for most academics. Perhaps academe has just become another cult? who knows?

    Roux, D. J., Nel, J. L., Cundill, G., O’Farrell, P. & Fabricius, C. (2017). Transdisciplinary research for systemic change: who to learn with, what to learn about and how to learn. Sustainability Science, 12(5), 711-726. doi:10.1007/s11625-017-0446-0

    • I agree with Chris Burman’s further comments on this. In terms of ‘changing forms of science’, there has recently been a new coalition of transdisciplinary researchers around something called Second Order Science – essentially science that incudes the observer (or intervener-participant), so that the choice of what to research, and with whom, gets as much attention as how to do it and what is observed.

      Now, I don’t think Second Order Science is drammatically new – Systems Thinking, Cybernetics, Complexity Thinking, Action Research and I2S have all walked this path before. Nevertheless, we cannot predict which initiative will be the one to break through, so I tend to support them all as long as they are not superficial in their understanding of transdisciplinarity. If you want to look at what this new initiative is about, there is an open access paper that can be downloaded for free:

      Fazey I and 47 other authors (2018). Ten Essentials for Action-Oriented and Second Order Energy Transitions, Transformations and Climate Change Research. ‘Energy Research and Social Science’, 40, 54-70.

        • Dear Chris, Gerald and Gabriele,

          Thank you very much for the additional comments, and for sharing the Fazey paper and blog. I had not seen either, but read both with great interest! I very much admire their deeply collaborative and dialogue-based approach, their synthesise across other action-oriented approaches, and their significant number of examples. Huge congratulations to all involved; it is a very inspiring precedent. We are supporting a university-wide discussion on transdisciplinary research and this paper will provide a very valuable discussion topic.

          Reading the paper and the suggested research essentials within the spotlight of this blog about dualism, I wonder about the essential need to be aware of the (inextricable) relationships between philosophical and practical knowledges? How might that perception of the unity between practical and philosophical thought/ being/doing help achieve the deep worldview reflection and societal transformation they call for?

          I also wonder about the (inextricable) relationships between means and ends? Does the ‘focus on solution’ facilitate a similar but different dichotomy as a ‘focus on problem’? All those years ago, Rittel and Webber (and before them Joanna Macy, John Dewey, etc), argued how perceiving means (problems) and ends (solutions) as separate things, is what gets us into trouble, as we end up breaking the radically complex ontological relationality (as suggested by Bateson) and disrupt the epistemic perception that the problem/solution co-emerge together?

          All the best during the holiday season,


          • ‘Means’ and ‘ends’,

            A few years ago I heard Kevin Rogers, formally at Wits, talk about something similar. He explained means and ends as something similar to a ‘ journey along a yellow brick road’. His points:

            1/. A linear journey from the problem –> solution is typically a fantasy when working with complex issues (he primarily worked on water-related issues and community stakeholders were always part of his journeys);
            2/. He suggested that the journey is typically more of a ‘complex adaptive’ journey;
            3/. When starting out from the problem towards a solution, it is normal for the planned route to be disrupted / disturbed for multiple possible reasons;
            4/. The journey involved elements of ‘unlearning’ – as well as learning; was typically iterative etc. ….which could have the affect of people re-framing the initial problem statement. In turn this could influence the preferred / ideal ‘solution’;
            5/. So, for him, – and I tend to agree – problem and solution / means-end are inextricably linked, but are variable constructs.

            He seemed to enjoy using the slide he had to describe this to warn people not to get too hung up on the ‘solution’ because 9 times out of 10, the solution changed during the journey along his complex, adaptive ‘yellow brick road’.

            Enjoy your break too!

            And thank you for your blog and the copy of the chapter. I enjoyed both enormously.

          • Yes, the means/ends issue is very important in two ways.

            First, it is often in the interests of those seeking to control the actions of others to separate means and ends, so those in authority set the ends unilaterally, and others only get some participative input into the means of achieving those end.

            The other aspect concerns morality. It is often assumed that values are involved in setting ends, but means are just instrumental so are value-free. However, that can’t be the case. There are always better and worse means from an ethical standpoint (not purely in terms of efficiency and effectiveness). This means that means actually involve multiple ends: more is achieved through the enactment of means than just the end that people are being explicit about (for instance, if the means to a desired end involves compromising human rights, then those means have another end – compromising human rights – implied within them).

            Werner Ulrich writes about this really well in his book “Critical Heauristics of Social Planning: A New Approach to Practical Philosophy”. Also, there is a paper by Flood and Ulrich (1990) in the journal ‘Systems Practice’ that summarises the argument.

  3. I agree with you on the need for this philosophical discussion, but I think the absence of it in much contemporary discourse about transdisciplinarity stems from a much larger problem – the meaning of ‘transdisciplinarity’ itself has become degraded over the years.

    The original meaning of transdisciplinarity was that particular theoretical and methodological ideas transcend the limitations of disciplinary boundaries. ‘Systems’ was considered the ultimate case of a transdisciplinary idea, as we can define and redefine phenomena in terms of systems instead of taking a disciplinary perspective on those phenomena, or taking several disciplinary perspectives and aggregating them. So the transdisciplinary fields that emerged in the 1940s were Systems Science, Cybernetics and Complexity Science, and later came Systems Thinking. What is common in all these fields is that there is theory and/or methodology as the focus of the research community, rather than a disciplinary or application domain.

    Unfortunately, I see too many definitions of transdisciplinarity these days that say it brings together the disciplines and goes beyond them by involving non-academic stakeholders, who are the applied ‘problem owners’. To me, this is just interdisciplinarity+. Most applied research disciplines and interdisciplinary practitioners talk about engaging stakeholders and partnership working beyond academia – there is nothing particularly ‘trans’ about this. What is ‘trans’ is the emergence of a theory or methodology that is not project-specific (as a theory generated by a time-limited interdisciplinary project might be), but has sufficient value to attract a sustainable research community around it, with all the organs that a research community needs (journals, conferences, professional societies, etc.).

    It is no accident that the discussion of dualism, and its transcendence, is replayed on an almost daily basis in the systems research community – it is one of the fundamental rationales for pursuing a systems approach. I read about it so often that it gets a bit tiresome! And transdisciplinarity as a discourse was born as a partner to systems theory (and of course Jantch and Morin are big names in Systems too). The fact that you have to ask the question of whether challenging dualism is relevant to transdisciplinarity speaks volumes, to me, about the loss of meaning in what ‘transdisciplinarity’ has become.

    • Dear Gerald,

      Very good to hear from you! Thank you very much for sharing your reflections and expertise about the history, development and current status of transdisciplinarity and systems. I agree that systems thinking and its lineage is a truly powerful transdisciplinary theory/method.

      I also agree there is a lot of overlap between the three theorists/philosophers mentioned above. Fritjof Capra writes about the many conversations with Erich Jantsch and Gregory Bateson during their time at Esalen and Berkeley. From what I gather, Jantsch, Capra, Nicolescu and Morin all spent time at Berkeley in overlapping periods, and Morin and Nicolescu are both currently part of CIRET (The International Center for Transdisciplinary research). There were a lot of personal connections and no doubt deep conversations amongst these networked individuals that contribute to the philosophies and practices we have labelled systems and transdisciplinarity.

      I would suggest not to let my single blog post disparage you or speak volumes on behalf of what the entire field of transdisciplinarity has become! That is way too much pressure for my small blog and unique individual learning journey, in comparison to a field of thousands. Perhaps you were more critiquing the post? If so, that is okay. That is the role of this forum, to engage in critical dialogue in a safe space!

      I feel like I must clarify: in the blog I was trying to ask if we have gone far enough in perceiving how very deeply dualism influences us (reflecting a spectrum), as opposed to asking whether or not challenging dualism is relevant to TD (reflecting a binary). I am sure most people, given the chance, would agree that it is fundamental to TD.

      For my PhD, I am looking into transformative learning and sustainability, and thus engaged with the philosophers whose fields have merged into ‘education for sustainability’: John Dewey (experiential education); Paulo Freire (critical pedagogy); transdisciplinarity (Nicolescu); systems (Jantsch); complexity (Morin). Aside from realising how much personal connectivity existed amongst these individuals from ‘different fields’, the obvious clarion call from each of them – in their own unique way and in their own unique field – was the need to transcend the ultimate myth of the Western paradigm, that of difference, separateness, dualism.

      In discussing this observation with one of my supervisors whom you know well, Richard Bawden, he suggested I read your chapters on transcending dualism in your Systemic Intervention book, as he felt it was a very powerful piece about subject/object dualism in the systems field. It appears you have spent a significant amount of time exploring this notion and synthesising the subject/object dualism! Thank you!

      In part, for my PhD, I am curious about how many ways and levels dualism affects us as a lived, embodied perception and experience of the world (similar to the ideas Craig raised in the post below). I am curious about how this perception influences the way we engage and work collectively to create positive change, even as a group of transdisciplinary or systems researchers, who might get it academically, but are still learning to embody it personally (because dualism has done such an effective job of separating ‘knowing cognitively’ and ‘embodied knowing as a lived perception/action praxis’).

      I am curious about questions like – why might I perceive myself as separate from the Noisy Miner birds chirping outside my window, verses what is it like to fundamentally perceive how you, me and the Noisy Miner are always in relation, or intra-action, or even as Jantsch implies, ultimately a Whole? What are the impacts of a language that is object focused and rather than verb/process/relational-focused, like many Indigenous languages? What are those experiences that allow us to feel/embody/perceive ourselves, not as an individual self, but as a process-in-relation with others? What would it mean to fully and continually embody that perception, as I imagine Gregory Bateson did? I know I am not there yet, but I am trying. Towards that end, I am very keen to hear your suggestions about who else makes important contributions and critiques in this space!

      Thank you again Gerald, and I hope you can come to ISF soon! I very much enjoyed the dinner together in Glebe during your last visit.

      All the best,


      • Thanks Katie. To clarify, I was not attacking your blog post at all, but building on it to say that more has been lost than just the critique of dualism. I am becoming increasingly concerned that, when I meet some of the leading lights in the transdisciplinarity movement, they seem to know little of the original meaning of the term and its connection with systems science. They say that it’s working with non-academic stakeholders that makes the movement ‘trans’. Perhaps I am not meeting a fully representative set of people, but I have had this experience too many times for it to be coincidence.

        • Dear Gerald, thank you very much for your response. We’d agree at ISF, that TD is is much more than bringing together a variety of knowledge stakeholders; and would agree that knowing the historical lineage is an incredibly valuable part of strengthening and deepening one’s praxis. Perhaps we could write a blog about the historical mutual co-arising lineage? 🙂 All the best, Katie

  4. Hi Katie and Cynthia,
    I am stimulated by your clear outline of the challenge of trans-disciplinarity and the short-comings of conventional either-or thinking. Your six entry points for considering assumptions and meaning systems is helpful.

    I have been working recently on implications of taking a radical hermeneutics approach (e.g, Gadamer). This can also be traced back to Aristotle through recent attempts to re-habilitate his concept of phronesis as a neglected but necessary virtue alongside his more reductive episteme and techne. In particular, I was alerted to this way of thinking by the work of Juarrero (Dynamics in Action, 1999) and Flyvbjerg (Making Social Science Matter, 2001). By focusing on phronesis (practical wisdom), and hermeneutics as activities distinct from those normally the concern of disciplinary studies there is the opportunity to theorise and practice the expression of human sense-making as going beyond the ‘included middle’ to something like a ‘phase shift’ between levels of organisation that allows a stance that is inherently integrative of knowledge and experience. The challenge of that approach, I think, is to allow for the flow between levels. Interpretation and sense-making is not only integrative of knowledge and experience gleaned from disciplinary studies (episteme and techne), but also impacts the framing or enquiry and findings of disciplinary activity. This may all be quite obvious to you already. I am just sharing ways in which your blog article has stimulated some connections for me.

    In my own practice as an action researcher I am exploring tools to help surface systematic reflection on how integrative sense-making happens, and how such tools might facilitate dialogue between ontological, epistemological and axiological starting points. To this end I have found useful adaptations of Critical Systems Heuristics (Ulrich), windows of systemic appreciation (Flood) and the importance of thresholds of salience, credibility and legitimacy (Cash et al.).

    Thanks again.

    • Dear Graeme,

      Many thanks for your reply. It is fascinating and so very helpful to see where points of connection are made! I must admit, I haven’t read Gadamer, Juarrero, or Flybjerg, but they are on my list. Alicia’s work in particular came very highly recommended by a colleague.

      Reading through your interests and description of practical wisdom and hermeneutics, and quickly skimming one of Alicia’s papers (and seeing her critique of linear causality, and reinterpretation of Aristotle’s four causes), I wonder if there are many connection points with John Dewey’s work. His paper in 1896 “The reflex arc concept in psychology” is attempting to shift the interpretation of causality from the stimulus-response (billiard ball, mechanistic cause and effect) model to a reflex arc (complex circular, intra-level, intra-active) notion. And his philosophical book “How we think” explores the integration of knowledge and experience for strengthening practical wisdom using a hermeneutical approach, but not in those words per se.

      Have you published any of your own work on supporting reflection for integrative sense-making at the ontological, epistemological and axiological levels? We’d be keen to learn more about your experiences with adapting critical system heuristics, and others for that purpose!

      All the best,


  5. Yes, the outcome of black and white thinking and ignoring the grey is judgemental thinking: this is good; this is bad; this is right; this is wrong, etc. and so on and on. This type of thinking does not help collaborations deal with complex problems; it merely leads to wicked issues being chopped, diced and made even more difficult to clear up. Identifying and working with paradox, rather than gravitating to one part of it or the other, will always (eventually) gain the best outcomes. And those trying to do this will definitely need time to meditate!

    • Dear Charles, I agree! It takes time and perhaps emotional resilience to engage with paradoxes and feel comfortable with uncertainty and complexity. It’d be great to hear any advice you have for engaging with paradoxes and ‘the grey’ in collaborative work!

  6. I continue to be curious about the relationship between the rich range of work in action research traditions which are usually associated as starting with Kurt Lewin in the mid-1940s, and that of TD. I’m amused to see Katie describes herself as specializing in “transdisciplinary action research and learning”, so maybe there isn’t a useful distinction. But does this mean that TD arose without being aware of AR?

    Steve Waddell

    • Dear Steve,

      Great to hear from you! It is hard to believe that it has been more than a year since the 2017 International Transdisciplinarity Conference and our shared taxi ride to the airport after the conference (thanks to Gabriele)! I hope you are well.

      I agree, the connections between many of these fields and terms is an intriguing space. This was also a significant theme and topic of dialogue at the ITC in Leuphana, i.e. the relationships between team science, MD, ID, TD, action research and communities of practice, systemic inquiry, social learning systems, Mode 2, post-normal, sustainability science, the UN’s Learning Cities, transformational complex change systems, etc. And on top of this, there is all of the regional variations in how all of these concepts are defined, theorised and practiced based on their mentors, history, and local context. This is why i2S plays such an important role, as I am sure you’d agree!

      I’d love to chat more about your amusement, as it would be a learning opportunity for me! 🙂 I’d be curious to learn how you see the similarities, distinctions, connections and your own experience of both. My email is

      I started out engaging with and applying action research in 2004 (before I was introduced to the concept of transdisiplinarity) with Bob Dick’s AR course (quite well known in Australia) and using AR to collectively improve processes within high schools.

      Since becoming a TD researcher at the Institute for Sustainable Futures in 2010, and then engaging with the international TD community, I have seen a wide variety in how TD is practiced where in some cases there is far less engagement in rhythms of inquiry, action, reflection towards actual improvement in a complex situation.

      I suppose by including both terms, I was attempting to illustrate – in 100 words or less to a diverse international audience – what excites me about being a person in the world trying to help create positive change. We are all in this together. :).

      I am not sure if I can answer your question satisfactorily, other than to surmise that some hubs and practitioners of TD around the world may have arisen without being aware of AR, and some have been very aware of each other, and some are just at the beginning of their own learning of what TD and AR are and how they relate.

      All the very best,


  7. Great to see another blog post addressing the fundamental barrier to transdisciplinarity (and clarity in general) – dualism or dualistic subject-object thinking. Thank you also for introducing me to Nicolescu – just binged on several of his papers.

    Before I respond to the question of what I personally do, can I make an argument for tracing the philosophical roots of dissolving dualism back much further than Nicolescu and others mentioned above – back to Plato and the subsequent academies – the foundation of our modern universities (historically at least). Back to the time when the fundamental training in the academy was the training in the resolution of subject-object duality.

    Platonic mysticism, now politely referred to as “contemplative science” was the basis of the training and went on through Plotinus and Dionysius to influence contemplative practices within the christian contemplative movements. Their goal was the direct cognition of transcendent reality beyond the divisions of subject and duality .While the practices varied over many centuries Pierre Hadot summarises the commonalities between the trainings to achieve resolution of subject object dualism as including:

    – structured meditative/contemplative practice
    – isolation
    – silence
    – maintaining an arousal of inspired compassion/beneficence
    – always keeping death and impermanence in mind
    – contemplating our smallness in an interdependent cosmos

    So this is what a university education/experience was intended to provide – no it doesn’t happen at my university either, so I go to a local meditation centre and go on Buddhist retreats to enhance transdisciplinarity. The Buddha and Plato would probably agree on most things including the training methods.

    How can it be translated to the modern university? I am not sure, I taught an undergraduate course in contemplative traditions along lines described above for two years which included an hour of contemplative lab work each week. The students did well and many made great progress working with dualism. The university insisted on dualistic objective exams. The theology school closed down, not sure it would fit anywere else. Lots of unis in US associated with the Association for Contemplative Practice in Higher Education appear to be having success..

    • Dear Craig, thank you so much for your generous response. It was wonderful to learn about your thoughts and experiences.

      I haven’t come across the work of Pierre Hadot yet, but a very quick skim of reviews for his book “What is Ancient Philosophy”, reiterates his resonance with this conversation, particularly the notion that ancient philosophers practiced philosophy as a way of life. We all have a philosophy/ies, the question is how aware are we of it/them? I have requested Hadot’s book from the library, and am looking forward to reading more from his perspective about how to reclaim that connection!

      These ideas of the inseparability between philosophy and daily life/practice were strongly embedded in other authors I am reading for my PhD, e.g. the readings of John Dewey and Paulo Freire. It seems this notion of dualism is often critiqued by many, but we have fewer widely known or practiced ways to build our awareness of it.

      Great to hear examples of contemplation within learning in universities. Thank you for sharing! For a while our office had a practitioner of Zen Buddhism leading weekly meditation, in which we (a research institute) could collectively explore these ideas of nondualism through shared practice. As part of my PhD I am also exploring experiential sessions that try to develop an awareness of how pervasive dualism is.

      Do you have other favourite authors or readings in this space?

      • Hi Katie, would love to hear/read any insights from your PhD research on the experiential sessions – first person inquiry isnt very common in research these days.

        Favourite authors or readings – I think Hadot is probably the best for highlighting the history and evolution of the practices over the centuries To delve into the practice and philosophy of deconstructing dualism, for me, I go to Buddhist sources because the practice and philosophy, being two wings of a bird, work together for me. If I was a Christian I would probably read some of the medieval mystics or even, more recently ,Thomas Merton.
        But for Buddhist texts, the Madhyamika philosophy is probably the ultimate philosophy of nondualism in Buddhism. Andy Karr’s “Contemplating Reality” is a great resource for westerners because it has a nice mix of contemplative practices and philosophical readings that build from the more dualistic to least dualistic schools of norther Indian Buddhist thought – ending at Madhyamika. Please send me anything you write about the reviews of the experiential sessions.

        • Dear Craig,

          I’d be happy to send through parts of my thesis, but it won’t be for another year or so 🙂 And I must clarify, the experiences that I am investigating are those who ascribe to the term ‘transformative sustainability learning’. I am conducting narrative case studies of designers and facilitators of these learning experiences to explore what conditions they are creating within their learning experiences for different paradigms to emerge, which includes a reflection on whether dualism was touched upon or not. This might be a bit different from your first interpretation of my thesis, but I am happy to send it through when I am done.

          Thank you for the other leads, I have noted Karr and Merton.

          All the best,



Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: