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

Community member post by Katie Ross and Cynthia Mitchell

Katie Ross (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.

Cynthia Mitchell (biography)

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’.

You are biased!

Community member post by Matthew Welsh

Matthew Welsh (biography)

Complex, real-world problems require cooperation or agreement amongst people of diverse backgrounds and, often, opinions. Our ability to trust in the goodwill of other stakeholders, however, is being eroded by constant accusations of ‘bias’. These are made by commentators about scientists, politicians about media outlets and people of differing political viewpoints about one another. Against this cacophony of accusation, it is worthwhile stepping back and asking “what do we mean when we say ‘bias’ and what does it say about us and about others?”. Continue reading

Ten steps to strengthen the environmental humanities

Community member post by Christoph Kueffer and Marcus Hall

Christoph Kueffer (biography)

How might the environmental humanities complement insights offered by the environmental sciences, while also remaining faithful to their goal of addressing complexity in analysis and searching for solutions that are context-dependent and pluralistic?

There is a long and rich tradition of scholarship in the humanities addressing environmental problems. Included under the term ‘environmental studies’ until recently, fields such as the arts, design, history, literary studies, and philosophy are now gathering under the new umbrella of the ‘environmental humanities’. Continue reading

A checklist for documenting knowledge synthesis

Community member post by Gabriele Bammer

Gabriele Bammer (biography)

How do you write-up the methods section for research synthesizing knowledge from different disciplines and stakeholders to improve understanding about a complex societal or environmental problem?

In research on complex real-world problems, the methods section is often incomplete. An agreed protocol is needed to ensure systematic recording of what was undertaken. Here I use a checklist to provide a first pass at developing such a protocol specifically addressing how knowledge from a range of disciplines and stakeholders is brought together.


1. What did the synthesis of disciplinary and stakeholder knowledge aim to achieve, which knowledge was included and how were decisions made? Continue reading

Foundations of a translational health sciences doctoral program

Community member post by Gaetano R. Lotrecchiano and Paige L. McDonald

Gaetano R. Lotrecchiano (biography)

How can doctoral studies be developed to include innovation in practice and research, as well as systems and complexity thinking, along with transdisciplinarity? This blog post is based on our work introducing a PhD in Translational Health Sciences at George Washington University in the USA.

Innovation in Practice and Research

We suggest that innovation in practice and research is achieved by the integration of knowledge in three key foundational disciplines:

  • translational research
  • collaboration sciences
  • implementation science (Lotrecchiano et al., 2016).

Continue reading

Using the concept of risk for transdisciplinary assessment

Community member post by Greg Schreiner

Greg Schreiner (biography)

Global development aspirations, such as those endorsed within the Sustainable Development Goals, are complex. Sometimes the science is contested, the values are divergent, and the solutions are unclear. How can researchers help stakeholders and policy-makers use credible knowledge for decision-making, which accounts for the full range of trade-off implications?

‘Assessments’ are now commonly used. Following their formal adoption by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) in the early 1990s, they have been used at the science-society-policy interface to tackle global questions relating to biodiversity and ecosystems services, human well-being, ozone depletion, water management, agricultural production, and many more. Continue reading