What is the Interdisciplinary?

‘Interdisciplinary’: it is one of those rare words in the English language to have seven syllables and a capacity for tripping up speech in the midst of a quickly spoken sentence. Do we have a strange kind of mimesis here, so that the very sound and sequence of the syllables anticipate the complexity of the concept they formulate?

What is the interdisciplinary, in effect? We at the ISI have been living with the term for quite some time, ever since we founded our predecessor, ISHA—the Interdisciplinary Seminar in the Humanities and Fine Arts in 2001. Since then, we have hosted seventeen seminars on various themes, as well as more than 150 faculty fellows in virtually every college on our campus, from the humanities and fine arts, to the social sciences, to education, public health, physics, and management. We have hosted colleagues from the Five Colleges, as well as independent scholars in the local community. We have a first ISI book, Negotiating Culture, which emerged from one of our seminars. In our residency program we welcome distinguished guests who join our community for a week, present lectures, visit classes, and engage with graduate students in seminars, both disciplinary and interdisciplinary. It’s not a bad record, though we are always looking for ways to extend our range.

But what is it that we do, and what is it about the word that seems to define us—yet in some ways seems so indefinable? These days interdisciplinarity is always in the news. It seems interdisciplinary work is the future; we cannot do without it. And it is true that extraordinary activity is going on in the world. Classicists and microelectronic researchers combine to trace words on scrolls carbonized in the eruption of Vesuvius that both destroyed and preserved Pompeii and Herculaneum. The remarkable Margaret Boden combines philosophy with medicine, cognitive science, psychology, computer science and technology in thinking through the problems and potential of artificial intelligence. Alan Turing, the individual who more or less defined the possibility of artificial intelligence as well changing the nature of the computerized world we live in, operated at the intersection of mathematics, electronics and engineering.

As Turing’s biographer, Andrew Hodges, shows, a key aspect of his innovation was to think not of replicating the physics of a brain but of imitating its logical structure. And at some level the logic of these interdisciplinary advances makes eminent sense to me from my own vantage point in the humanities. As someone who has worked on what I call the grammar of identity, one of my key concerns has been the nature of the boundary. Without going into detail, I can say it is clear to me that a meaningful grammar of identity occurs not at strongholds of security but at points of encounter and intersection. Similarly, it is transitive—not intransitive—boundaries that make for experiences of challenge but also, quite precisely, of significance. Meaning, in a profound sense, depends on the boundary across which it is transferred. And that in turn suggests that we have to construct boundaries that enable transition and transitivity if we want to generate new meanings.

What does that mean for interdisciplinary work? It means, first of all, that the interdisciplinary does not, in and of itself, efface the disciplines. Rather, interdisciplinary work in some way depends on the disciplines, and particularly on a relationship among them, so that new projects and topics can result across boundaries of intersection. There is a necessary symbiosis between the disciplinary and the interdisciplinary: no one without the other, and it is in the process of interaction that both the disciplines and the interdisciplinary work evolve.

When we engage in our seminars, with participants from all over the disciplinary map, time and again this is the exciting thing to witness. We talk in a room; we sit around a table. But that room extends to the conceptual universes we come from; they too are around the table with us. And in the process of discussion, in the exchange of ideas around a theme, we are also creating multiple versions of the transitive boundary across and through which our discussion flows. And so a new object emerges, nothing less than the product of our discussion, viewed from all those perspectives and angles. It is like a hologram there in front of us, not strictly an object but a vision of possibility. In this room, around this table, we are the incubators of such a possibility. In this respect, the ‘interdisciplinary’ is not a thing, not an object, but a practice.

Stephen Clingman
ISI Director