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’.

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 guide for interdisciplinary researchers: Adding axiology alongside ontology and epistemology

Community member post by Peter Deane

Peter Deane (biography)

Can philosophical insights be useful for interdisciplinary researchers in extending their thinking about the role of values and knowledge in research? More broadly, can a model or heuristic simplify some of the complexity in understanding how research works?

It’s common for interdisciplinary researchers to consider ontology and epistemology, two major arms of philosophical inquiry into human understanding, but axiology – a third major arm – is oft overlooked.

I start by describing axiology, then detail work by Michael Patterson and Daniel Williams (1998) who place axiology alongside ontology and epistemology. The outcome herein is to cautiously eject and then present a part of their work as a heuristic that may help interdisciplinary researchers to extend understanding on philosophical commitments that underlie research. Continue reading

Epistemological obstacles to interdisciplinary research

Community member post by Evelyn Brister

Evelyn Brister (biography)

What causes interdisciplinary collaborations to default to the standard frameworks and methods of a single discipline, leaving collaborators feeling like they aren’t being taken seriously, or that what they’ve brought to the project has been left on the table, ignored and underappreciated?

Sometimes it is miscommunication, but sometimes it is that collaborators disagree. And sometimes disagreements are both fundamental and intractable.

Often, these disagreements can be traced back to different epistemological frameworks. Epistemological frameworks are beliefs about how particular disciplines conceive of what it is they investigate, how to investigate it, what counts as sufficient evidence, and why the knowledge they produce matters. Continue reading

Productive multivocal analysis – Part 2: Achieving epistemological engagement

Community member post by Kristine Lund

Kristine Lund (biography)

In a previous blog post I described multivocalityie., harnessing multiple voices – in interdisciplinary research and how research I was involved in (Suthers et al., 2013) highlighted pitfalls to be avoided. This blog post examines four ways in which epistemological engagement can be achieved. Two of these are positive and two may have both positive and negative aspects, depending on how the collaboration plays out.

Once a team begins analyzing a shared corpus from different perspectives — in our case, it was a corpus of people solving problems together — it’s the comparison of researchers’ respective analyses that can be a motor for productive epistemological encounters between the researchers. Continue reading

A guide to ontology, epistemology, and philosophical perspectives for interdisciplinary researchers

Community member post by Katie Moon and Deborah Blackman

Katie Moon (biography)

How can understanding philosophy improve our research? How can an understanding of what frames our research influence our choices? Do researchers’ personal thoughts and beliefs shape research design, outcomes and interpretation?

These questions are all important for social science research. Here we present a philosophical guide for scientists to assist in the production of effective social science (adapted from Moon and Blackman, 2014). Continue reading