Project summary

In the late twentieth century, the humanities in the English-speaking world were transformed by the reception of types of French and German philosophy and critical theory that, in one way or another, work across the boundaries of existing disciplines. However, this reception took place in a range of specific disciplinary contexts (especially English literary studies), isolated from the consideration of the nature and innovative potential of the 'transdisciplinarity' of these works. This project is a theoretical investigation into the way certain concepts - for example, art, gender and the new - function across disciplinary borders in the humanities.

Explicit discourses about 'transdisciplinarity' have recently been developed in both Science and Technology Studies and Education Studies. However, these are primarily focused on technological approaches to problem solving (in everyday and policy contexts) and the social organisation of knowledges. In neither instance has the idea been connected up to developments in the humanities since the 1960s, or to issues of a fundamental theoretical character about the unity of the humanities as body of knowledge and practice (or the unity of 'the human' itself). Traditionally, philosophy has conceived of itself as providing the forms of universality that span other disciplines. However, for reasons of its analytical formation, English-language philosophy has shown little interest in the question of the status, character and modes of functioning of general concepts across disciplines in the humanities. This is, however, a characteristic of philosophical Romanticism. The study of Transdisciplinarity and the Humanities must thus address both the existing literature on transdisciplinarity in other areas and the question of the relationship of transdisciplinary concepts to philosophical concepts, historically and analytically - through a new approach to the legacy of philosophical Romanticism.

This project aims to address the basic questions: What is Transdisciplinarity and the Humanities? And to what extent and in what ways is the creativity of a concept linked to its transdisciplinary construction, application or potential? It has among its objectives:

  1. The production of case studies, and critical and comparative analyses, of the transdisciplinary structures and dynamics of one major, philosophically informed transdisciplinary text from each of the German and French critical traditions - books which have had a significant impact on recent English-language work. We propose to compare Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944; 1947) and Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's two-volume work comprising Anti-Oedipus (1972) and A Thousand Plateaus (1980).
  2. The production of case studies of two transdisciplinary 'problematics' (or fields of problems): anti-humanism and gender study.
  3. The exploration of a distinctively 'Romantic' transdisciplinarity, through a retrospective investigation of the transdisciplinary dynamics of early German Romanticism (1785-1800), including analyses of the function of the general categories of 'art' and 'the new'.

The theoretical breadth of this project and its diverse case studies mean that it should be of interest to a very broad constituency of academics and others in the arts concerned with what is currently thought of as 'interdisciplinary' studies in the humanities. It aims to reorient this field away from the more conservative notion of interdisciplinarity towards the open, more experimental field of transdisciplinary constructions. As such, it should also be of benefit to those in Science and Technology Studies and Education Studies who use the existing discourse of 'transdisciplinarity', by its criticisms of it and its extension beyond its current limits.

Statement for speculative research

This project is speculative in a number of ways. In the first place, it is in the nature of the concept of transdisciplinarity that the precise boundaries of any particular investigation of it are uncertain. Our focus is on some transdisciplinary concepts in the humanities. However, the notion of transdisciplinarity inevitably raises the question of the constitution of the humanities themselves by concepts from elsewhere - such as 'science' ('the human sciences'); just as it raises the question of the disciplinary status and relations of transdisciplinarity itself. Transdisciplinarity must itself be a transdisciplinary concept, which is why its study must be, in the first instance, critically comparative and historical. This project posits the concept of transdisciplinarity, speculatively, as a new approach to understanding what is distinctive about basic concepts in the Humanities. It will thereby necessarily problematize existing disciplinary constructions of these concepts. This problematizing dimension is its second speculative aspect. Third, our ultimate goal is a process of conceptual construction (constructing the concept of transdisciplinarity), using materials from the criticism of existing concepts of transdisciplinarity and the study of particular instances. Such a process of conceptual construction is inherently experimental and uncertain in outcome. Indeed, the experimental character of this process is itself one of the focal points of the project. In sum, then, this is a 'proof of concept' project. If successful, it should open a research horizon for more extensive and radically cross-disciplinary, institutionally collaborative, investigations.

Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy (CRMEP) Arts and Humanities Research Council