The Re-Emergent Interdisciplinary Nature of Scholarship

One of the complaints about scholarship these days, especially in the humanities but also in the natural sciences, is that each discipline has become so specialized, that it has become irrelevant to those on the outside. Young scholars in PhD programs are continually pushed to the marginalia in the search for new and original topics, and the dissertations they churn out are frequently so obscure and specific that nobody would read them except the author and their board.

My goal in this post is not to complain about over-specialization in scholarship but rather to suggest that over-specialization is not the way of the future. David Brooks’ op-ed in the New York Times this week, entitled “The Young and the Neuro,” addresses the necessarily-interdisciplinary nature of contemporary research being conducted in the humanities, and especially in cognitive neuroscience, which fuses the fields of bioetechnology, psychology, economics, as well as political science and ethics. Scholars involved in this emergent field are actually transversing disciplines, all in the hopes of trying to figure out how and why people interact in the way that they do.

The new interdisciplinary nature of such scholarship is a reaction against the reductionism we saw in the earlier part of the century, especially in the wake of new knowledge about genetics. A funny side note: in yesterday’s NYTimes crossword puzzle, one of the clues (33 across) was “essence of a person, one might say.” Not to spoil it for you, but the answer is DNA.

The research Mr. Brooks discusses challenges this notion that DNA actually is the essence of a person. People like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins and E.O. Wilson wanted to use genetics to explain the essence of all human behavior. Ethics, once considered a branch of philosophy, entered into the natural sciences as scientists hypothesized and rapidly worked to confirm that one’s genetic constitution could explain why you as a person behaved the way you did. This field became known as sociobiology–the systematic study of the biological basis of all forms of behavior.

If the sociobiologists would have stuck to ethics, they would not have ruffled very many feathers. But sociobiologists also had to attempt to illustrate how genetics could even explain the great metaphysical questions faced by humankind such as the nature of the soul and the existence of God. What happened in the wake of such books like The God Delusion was a widespread religious reaction against science, especially science that extolled genetics as a causal mechanism or used the dreaded word “evolution.” This religious antithesis to the new work in biology, genetics, and evolution became another form of reductionism. Instead of using science to explain everything, the “theologians” and preachers and ordinary believers wanted to use God to explain everything.

Here is what both sides missed. Different fields explain different phenomena and answer different pressing questions raised by human beings. This was something Aquinas (drawing on the Greek heritage of Aristotle) recognized in distinguishing the practical from the speculative intellect. The practical intellect deals with the natural world, the world that is contingent, subject to decay and change and evolution. The practical intellect deals with sense data derived from sensuous consciousness, that is, with this particular human being, this particular triangle, this particular action.

The speculative intellect is concerned not with the contingent, but with the necessary, the universal, the unchanging. The speculative intellect is concerned with the immaterial. It wants to know not “this particular triangle” but rather, what is the essence of “triangle?” What is the universal form that makes particular triangles come into being? The speculative intellect is not concerned with this particular action, but rather with the question of causation–what are the universal forces that causes anything at all to happen?

The practical intellect deals with what Aristotle called the practical sciences: physics, ethics, politics. The speculative intellect deals with the mother of all science: metaphysics (literally, “above or beyond the physics.”) Aquinas recognized in light of his theological preoccupations that even this neat division was not truly in accordance with reality with the recognition that theology was both speculative (metaphysical) and practical (ethical and political). That is, our study of God is primarily speculative but imminently practical. Theology is speculative because it deals principally with divine things which are immaterial, but secondarily practical because it is concerned with human acts insofar as these acts lead the person to beatitude. So even theology, the premier metaphysical pursuit becomes interdisciplinary in Aquinas’ work. The larger part of the Summa theologiae (“sum of theology”) deals with practical matters, what we would now call ethics.

But Aquinas’ ethics are a theological, and hence, interdisciplinary ethics. His ethics are most certainly theological in the sense that all human acts must be properly considered as part of the life in the spirit. Charity, the most important theological virtue, is the form and mother not just of the theological virtues, but of all the virtues, including the human or moral virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. Thomas’ sum of theology shows how biology, anthropology, politics, ethics, economics, metaphysics, and theology are interwoven, each answering different particular questions in order to draw the really important conclusions concerning why we (humans) are here on this earth, what we are supposed to be doing while we are here, and where we are ultimately meant to end up.

In Aquinas’ day, he could be a theologian, an ethicist, a political scientist, an economist, and an anthropologist, but such “renaissance men” were thought to have been long-extinct in the contemporary period in light of the increasing specialization of each of the disciplines. We assumed that to really know anything in the wake of the proliferation of knowledge that followed the modern scientific, industrial, and technological revolutions, you had to be a specialist.

What Brooks’ article indicates to my Thomistic eyes is that we are beginning to re-recognize the important ways in which the practical and speculative concerns overlap, the dangers of reductionism, and the importance of interdisciplinary pursuits in drawing the right sort of conclusions about the questions we are asking. As Brooks points out, we now know the important influence that genetics has on our behavior. But we are beginning to recognize also how complementary processes of social interactions and culture influences genetics and physiology. He writes,

All of these studies are baby steps in a long conversation, and young academics are properly circumspect about drawing broad conclusions. But eventually their work could give us a clearer picture of what we mean by fuzzy words like ‘culture.’ It could also fill a hole in our understanding of ourselves. Economists, political scientists and policy makers treat humans as ultrarational creatures because they can’t define and systematize the emotions. This work is getting us closer to that. . .

The hard sciences are interpenetrating the social sciences. This isn’t dehumanizing. It shines attention on the things poets have traditionally cared about: the power of human attachments. It may even help policy wonks someday see people as they really are.

The challenge faced by young scholars like myself is no longer how to get my questions and my language specific enough to generate a new idea. Rather, young scholars are faced with the new challenge of how to gain a broad enough base of knowledge to re-ask the really old questions without dabbling too much, or drawing conclusions that are too broad to actually be meaningful.

My own dissertation asks how we can integrate a moral theological discourse into the already-interdisciplinary discourse about eating disorders, that is, anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Researchers have already acknowledged that eating disorders are physiological, biomedical, psychological, and sociological disorders; I argue that they are also moral disorders. So if you want to really know why people have eating disorders and what can be done about it, you need more that psychology, biomedicine, and sociology. You also need ethics, metaphysics, and yes, even theology.


2 comments so far

  1. Patti Anne on

    Bethany- the following came to mind when I read your post:

    From The Idea of a University by John Henry Newman

    “[The purpose of a liberal arts education is to] open the mind, to correct it, to refine it, to enable it to know, and to digest, master, rule, and use its knowledge, to give it power over its own faculties, application, flexibility, method, critical exactness, sagacity, resource, address, [and] eloquent expression. . . .”

    “A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are, freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom. . . .”

    “Knowledge is capable of being its own end. Such is the constitution of the human mind, that any kind of knowledge, if it be really such, is its own reward.”

    “I hold very strongly that the first step in intellectual training is to impress upon a boy’s mind the idea of science, method, order, principle, and system; of rule and exception, of richness and harmony.”

    “There is no science but tells a different tale, when viewed as a portion of a whole, from what it is likely to suggest when taken by itself, without the safeguard, as I may call it, of others.”

    “If his [a student’s] reading is confined simply to one subject, however such division of labour may favour the advancement of a particular pursuit . . . certainly it has a tendency to contract his mind.”

    “A truly great intellect . . . is one which takes a connected view of old and new, past and present, far and near, and which has an insight into the influence of all these one on another; without which there is no whole, and no centre.”

    “General culture of mind is the best aid to professional and scientific study, and educated men can do what illiterate cannot; and the man who has learned to think and to reason and to compare and to discriminate and to analyze, who has refined his taste, and formed his judgment, and sharpened his mental vision, will not indeed at once be a lawyer, or a pleader, or an orator, or a statesman, or a physician, or a good landlord, or a man of business, or a soldier, or an engineer, or a chemist, or a geologist, or an antiquarian, but he will be placed in that state of intellect in which he can take up any one of the sciences or callings I have referred to, or any other for which he has a taste or special talent, with an ease, a grace, a versatility, and a success, to which another is a stranger. In this sense, then, and as yet I have said but a very few words on a large subject, mental culture is emphatically useful.”

    “One thing is unquestionable, that the elements of general reason are not to be found fully and truly expressed in any one kind of study; and that he who would wish to know her idiom, must read it in many books.”

    • everydaythomist on

      Thanks for this. I remember you telling me when I was young that the purpose of a liberal arts education was not to produce good anthropologists or philosophers or sociologists, but rather to create good people. I think a lot of people worry that the push to specialize even in undergraduate programs, that is, to declare a major even before you begin taking classes, and to thereby limit your education from the beginning, is a serious disadvantage of the contemporary university set-up.

      Aquinas gets the idea of the intellectual virtues from Aristotle (the virtues of wisdom, science, understanding, art, and prudence) and I think these are what Newman is referring to in the second-to-last paragraph when he refers to the “ease, grace, and versatility” with which an educated person will be able to approach a new discipline. The intellectual virtues not only perfect our ability to use and direct our intellectual appetite, but also allow us to use our knowledge in the appropriate way, to use our knowledge not for the mere sake of gaining as many facts as possible, but to enter into deeper knowledge of particular facts and particular phenomena. And so I think that interdisciplinary study is a way of not just learning more but also learning more deeply.

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