Disciplinary Boundaries - What Are They andHow They Can Be Transgressed?


Basarab Nicolescu


President of the International Center for Transdisciplinary Research(CIRET) **

Professor at the Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj, Romania

Honorary Researcher at CNRS, France


E-mail: nicol@club-internet.fr







1.    Introduction


The expression “disciplinary boundaries” is very oftenused. However, the astonishing fact is that no rigorous definition ofdisciplinary boundaries exists till now in literature. In this article, we will show that, based upon thetransdisciplinary approach[1], we are able to give such a rigorousdefinition.

The words “discipline”, “disciplinary” and“disciplinarity” are relatively clear. For example, in a recent paper, EliElvis and Erik Stolterman define disciplines in terms of philosophical norms(values, methods and reasoning) and practical norms (common notions ofmind-set, knowledge set, skill set and tool set)[2]. But what could theterm “boundaries” of disciplines mean?

Our approach might seem paradoxical: why, in order togive the definition of “disciplinary boundaries”, we have to go fromdisciplinarity to transdisciplinarity? In fact, the answer is quite simple: iftransdisciplinarity means not only “across” and “between” disciplines, but alsobeyond all discipline, this necessarily requiresa definition of “boundaries” of disciplines. And this definition is based upon theunderstanding of the key-notion of transdisciplinarity – that of “levelsof Reality”.


2.    Definition of transdisciplinarity


a.     The emergence of transdisciplinarity


Transdisciplinarity is a relatively young approach: itemerged seven centuries later than

disciplinarity, due to the Swiss philosopher and psychologist JeanPiaget (1896-1980).

The word itself first appeared inFrance, in 1970, in the talks of Jean Piaget, ErichJantsch and André Lichnerowicz, at the internationalworkshop “Interdisciplinarity –Teaching and Research Problems inUniversities”, sponsored by the Organizationfor Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), in collaborationwith the French Ministry of National Education[3]. It is Jean Piaget whostimulated the other thinkers present at this workshop to use the word “transdisciplinarity”.In fact, he even wanted as title of the workshop “Transdisciplinarity–Teaching and Research Problems in Universities” but the authorities ofOCDE were afraid of using the particle “trans”[4]

Piaget retained only the meanings “across” and “between”of the Latin prefix trans, eliminating themeaning “beyond”. I proposed the inclusion of the meaning “beyond disciplines”in 1985[5] and I developed this idea over theyears in my articles and books and also in different official internationaldocuments. Many other researchers over the world contributed to thisdevelopment of transdisciplinarity. A key-date in this development is 1994,when the Charter of Transdisciplinarity[6] was adopted by the participants atthe First World Congress of Transdisciplinarity (Convento da Arrábida,Portugal).

For me, “beyond disciplines” precisely signifies theSubject, more precisely the Subject-Object interaction. The transcendence,inherent in transdisciplinarity, is the transcendence of the Subject. TheSubject cannot be captured in a disciplinary theory.

The meaning “beyond disciplines” leads us to an immensespace of new knowledge.

The main outcome of introducing the meaning “beyonddisciplines” was the formulation of the methodology of transdisciplinarity.

The formulation of transdisciplinarity which I willpresent is both unified (in the sense of unification of differenttransdisciplinary approaches) and diverse: unity in diversity and diversitythrough unity is inherent to transdisciplinarity. It is now accepted andapplied by an important number of researchers in many countries of the world.

Much confusion still arises by using as synonymous words“methodology” and “methods”. Methodology does not mean “methods” but thescience, the logos of methods. There are myriadsof methods that can be used in the framework of a unique methodology. Anexemplary case is the methodology of modern science formulated by GalileoGalilei in Dialogue on the Great World Systems[7]:


1. There are universal laws, of a mathematical character.

2. These laws can be discovered by scientificexperiment.

3. Such experiments can be perfectly replicated.


In the framework of this unique methodology, valid tillnow, there were formulated, during five centuries, a huge variety of scientifictheories and models, even contradictory as, for example, classical physics andquantum physics.

Much confusion also arises by not recognizing that thereare a theoretical transdisciplinarity, a phenomenologicaltransdisciplinarity and an experimentaltransdisciplinarity. This simultaneousconsideration of theoretical, phenomenological and experimentaltransdisciplinarity will allow both a unified and non-dogmatic treatment of thetransdisciplinary theory and practice, coexisting with a plurality oftransdisciplinary models.



b.    The axiomatic character of the methodology of transdisciplinarity


The axiomatic character of the methodology oftransdisciplinarity is an important aspect. This means that we have to limitthe number of axioms (or principles or pillars) to a minimum number. Any axiom which can be derived from the already postulatedones, have to be rejected.

This fact is not new. It already happened whendisciplinary knowledge acquired its scientific character, due the above threeaxioms of Galileo Galilei.

However, it should be obvious that if we try to build amathematical bridge between science and ontology, as is the case fortransdisciplinarity, we will necessarily fail. A bridge can be built betweenscience and ontology only by taking into account the totality of humanknowledge. This requires a symbolic language, different from mathematicallanguage and enriched by specific new notions. Mathematics is able to describerepetition of facts due to scientific laws, but transdisciplinarity is aboutthe singularity of the human being and human life. The methodology of modernscience is therefore not valid for transdisciplinarity. We have to invent a newmethodology.

After many years of research, I have arrived[8]at the following three axioms of the methodology of transdisciplinarity:


i. The ontological axiom:There are, in Nature and society and in our knowledge of Nature and society,different levels of Reality of the Object and, correspondingly, differentlevels of Reality of the Subject.

ii. The logical axiom: Thepassage from one level of Reality to another is insured by the logic of theincluded middle.

iii. The epistemological axiom: The structure of the totality of levels of Reality is a complexstructure: every level is what it is because all the levels exist at the sametime.


The first two get their experimental evidence fromquantum physics, but they go well beyond exact sciences. The last one has itssource not only in quantum physics but also in a variety of other exact andhuman sciences.

The above three axioms give a precise and rigorous definition oftransdisciplinarity.

Let me now describe the essentials of these threetransdisciplinary axioms, by describing in more details the key concept oftransdisciplinarity – i. e. the concept of levels of Reality.



c.     The ontological axiom: levels of Reality of the Object and of theSubject


The meaning we give to the word “Reality” is both pragmaticand ontological.

By “Reality” we intend first of all to designate thatwhich resists our experiences, representations,descriptions, images, or even mathematical formulations.

In so far as Nature participates in the being of theworld, one has to assign also an ontological dimension to the concept ofReality. Reality is not merely a social construction, the consensus of acollectivity, or some inter-subjective agreement. It also has atrans-subjective dimension: for example, experimental data can ruin the mostbeautiful scientific theory.

Of course, one has to distinguish the words “Real” and“Reality”. Real designates that which is, while Reality is connected toresistance in our human experience. The “Real” is, by definition, veiled forever,while “Reality” is accessible to our knowledge.

By “level of Reality”, I designate a set of systemswhich are invariant under certain laws: for example, quantum entities aresubordinate to quantum laws, which depart radically from the laws of themacrophysical world. That is to say that two levels of Reality are differentif, while passing from one to the other, there is a break in the applicablelaws and a break in fundamental concepts (like, for example, causality).Therefore there is a discontinuity in thestructure of levels of Reality, similar to the discontinuity reigning over thequantum world.

The zone between two different levels and beyond all levels is azone of non-resistance to our experiences, representations, descriptions,images, and mathematical formulations. Quite simply, the transparence of thiszone is due to the limitations of our bodies and of our sense organs —limitations which apply regardless of what measuring tools are used to extendthese sense organs.

Thezone of non-resistance corresponds to the sacred— to that which does not submit to any rationalization.

The unity of levels of Reality of the Object and its complementaryzone of non-resistance constitutes what we call the transdisciplinary Object.

Inspired by the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl[9],I assert that the different levels of Reality of the Object are accessible toour knowledge thanks to the different levels of Reality of the Subject.

As inthe case of levels of Reality of the Object, the coherence of levels of Realityof the Subject presupposes a zone of non-resistance to perception.

The unity of levels of Reality of the Subject and this complementaryzone of non-resistance constitutes what we call the transdisciplinarySubject.

The two zones of non-resistance of transdisciplinary Object andSubject must be identical for the transdisciplinary Subject to communicate withthe transdisciplinary Object. A flow of consciousness that coherently cutsacross different levels of Reality of the Subject must correspond to the flowof information coherently cutting across different levels of Reality of theObject. The two flows are interrelated because they share the same zone ofnon-resistance.

Knowledge is neither exterior nor interior: it is simultaneouslyexterior and interior. The studies of the universe and of the human beingsustain one another. Without spirituality, the knowledge is a dead knowledge.

The zone of non-resistance plays the role of a third between the Subject and the Object, an interaction term, which actslike a secretly included middle which allows the unification of thetransdisciplinary Subject and the transdisciplinary Object while preservingtheir difference. In the following I will call this interaction term the HiddenThird.

The introduction of the levels of Reality induces amultidimensional and multireferential structure of Reality.

A new Principle of Relativity[10] emerges from the coexistence between complex plurality and openunity in our approach: no level of Reality constitutes a privileged placefrom which one is able to understand all the other levels of Reality. A level of Reality is what it is because all the other levelsexist at the same time. This Principle of Relativity is what originates a newperspective on art, education, spirituality, religion, politics, and sociallife.

Our approach is not hierarchical. There is nofundamental level. But its absence does not mean an anarchical dynamics, but acoherent one, of all levels of Reality.

Every level is characterizedby its incompleteness: the laws governing thislevel are just a part of the totality of laws governing all levels. And eventhe totality of laws does not exhaust the entire Reality: we have also toconsider the Subject and its interaction with the Object.

Our ternary partition { Subject, Object, Hidden Third }is, of course, different from the binary partition{ Subject vs. Object } ofclassical realism.

Based upon our definition of levels of Reality, we canidentify other levels than the ones in natural systems. For example, in socialsystems, we can speak about the individual level, the geographical andhistorical community level (family, nation), the cyber-space-time communitylevel and the planetary level.

Of course, one has to be very careful in going fromnatural systems to social systems: the notions from natural systems have not to be blindly applied to social systems. For example the quantumdiscontinuity and its associated notion of global causality is not the same asthe social discontinuity, i. e. the discontinuity between the individual leveland the community level. The global causality for quantum entities is differentfrom the global causality for human beings: the quantum entities do not chooseto cooperate or not in order to insure the quantum non-separability but humanbeings are free to choose if they cooperate or not in order to insure thelinkage of their community. However what is really the same is the notionitself of discontinuity, i. e. the break in thegeneral laws governing two different levels ofReality. The general laws governing the individual human being (biological andspiritual laws) are different from the general laws governing the communitylevel (historical, social and political laws). Transdisciplinary sociology has to be based upon the notion of discontinuity.

Levels of Reality are radically different from levels oforganization as these have been defined in systemic approaches[11].Levels of organization do not presuppose a discontinuity in the fundamentalconcepts: several levels of organization can appear at one and the same levelof Reality. The levels of organization correspond to different structures ofthe same fundamental laws.

The levels of Reality and the levels of organizationoffer the possibility of a new taxonomy of the more than 8000 academicdisciplines existing today. Many disciplines coexist at one and the same levelof Reality even if they correspond to different levels of organization. Forexample, Marxist economy and classical physics belong to one level of Reality,while quantum physics and psychoanalysis belong to another level of Reality.

The ternary structure of Reality has to be contextualized. We can then identify several epistemological ternaries, veryuseful in analyzing and solving concrete problems such as global warming,traffic accidents or natural disasters:


Levels of organization – Levels of structuring– Levels of integration 

Levels of confusion – Levels of language –Levels of interpretation 

Physical levels – Biological levels –Psychical levels 

Levels of ignorance – Levels of intelligence– Levels of contemplation 

Levels of objectivity – Levels of subjectivity– Levels of complexity 

Levels of knowledge – Levels of understanding– Levels of being 

Levels of materiality – Levels of spirituality– Levels of non-duality


d.    The logical axiom: the included middle


The incompleteness of the general laws governing a givenlevel of Reality signifies that, at a given moment of time, one necessarilydiscovers contradictions in the theory describing the respective level: one hasto assert A and non-A at the same time. This Gödelian feature of thetransdisciplinary model of Reality is verified by all the history of science: atheory leads to contradictions and one has to invent a new theory solving thesecontradictions. It is precisely the way in which we went from classical physicsto quantum physics.

However, our habits of mind, scientific or not, are still governedby the classical logic, which does not tolerate contradictions. The classicallogic is founded on three axioms:


1. The axiom of identity: A is A.

2. The axiom of non-contradiction: Ais not non-A.

3. The axiom of the excluded middle:There exists no third term T (“T” from “third”) which is at the same time A andnon-A.

Knowledge of the coexistence of the quantum world and themacrophysical world and the development of quantum physics have led, on thelevel of theory and scientific experiment, to pairs of mutually exclusivecontradictories (A and non-A): wave and corpuscle, continuity anddiscontinuity, separability and non-separability, local causality and globalcausality, symmetry and breaking of symmetry, reversibility and irreversibilityof time, and so forth.

The solution of thesequantum paradoxes is relatively simple: one has to abandon the third axiom ofthe classical logic, imposing the exclusion of the third, the included middleT.

In fact, the logic ofthe included middle is the very heart of quantum mechanics: it allows us tounderstand the basic principle of the superposition of “yes” and “no” quantum states.

In order to obtain a clear image of the meaning of the includedmiddle, let us represent the three terms of the new logic — A, non-A, andT — and the dynamics associated with them by a triangle in which one ofthe vertices is situated at one level of Reality and the two other vertices atanother level of Reality.



The included middle is in fact an included third. If one remains at a single level of Reality, all manifestationappears as a struggle between two contradictory elements. The third dynamic,that of the T-state, is exercised at another level of Reality, where that whichappears to be disunited is in fact united, and that which appears contradictoryis perceived as non-contradictory.

The logic of the included middle does not abolish the logic of theexcluded middle: it only constrains its sphere of validity.

The included middle logic is a tool for an integrative process: itallows us to cross two different levels of Reality and to effectivelyintegrate, not only in thinking but also in our own being, the coherence of theUniverse. The use of the included third is a transformative process. But, atthat moment, the included third ceases to be an abstract, logical tool: itbecomes a living reality touching all the dimensions of our being. This fact isparticularly important in education and learning.

e.    The epistemological axiom and theuniversal interdependence

The fact that the structure of the totality of levels ofReality is a complex structure - every levelis what it is because all the levels exist at the same time - involves the understanding of the term “complexity”[12].


There are several theories of complexity. Some of them, like the onepracticed at the Santa Fe Institute, with the general guidance of MurrayGell-Mann, Nobel Prize of Physics, are mathematically formalized, while others,like the one of Edgar Morin, are not.

In the context of our discussion, what is important to be understoodis that the existing theories of complexity do include neither the notion oflevels of Reality nor the notion of zones of non-resistance[13].However, some of them, like the one of Edgar Morin[14], arecompatible with these notions.

From a transdisciplinary point of view, complexity is a modern formof the very ancient principle of universal interdependence. In fact, complexity is producing models of the universal interdependence – it can never totallyexhaust it. In this sense, complexity has to be ranged as an epistemological axiom.

It is useful to distinguish between horizontal complexity, which refers to a single level of Reality and verticalcomplexity, which refers to several levels ofReality. It is also important to note that transversal complexity is different from the vertical, transdisciplinary complexity.Transversal complexity refers to crossing different levels of organization at asingle level of Reality.

It is also useful to distinguish between restricted complexity (understood as tool for applications, more or less mathematicallyformalized, e. g. complexity as practiced at Santa Fe Institute) and generalizedcomplexity (as the one formulated by Edgar Morin,conceived as a general framework for thinking and action).

If we wish to establish a link between the two mainapproaches of complexity – the restricted one and the generalized one -,the bridge would be precisely the notion of levels of Reality. A level ofReality is, in fact, the simplexus of the complexus present in Trans-Reality. The coexistence of all the levels cannotbe conceived in the absence of the Hidden Third. The complexity of theTrans-Reality is a transcomplexity unifyingdifferent types of complexity. It would be useful to perform in future adetailed study of transcomplexity.


f.     The Subject-Object relation inPre-Modernity, in Modernity, in Post-Modernity and in Transdisciplinarity[15]

In Pre-Modernity the Subject was immersed in the Object(see Fig. 1). Everything was trace, signature of a higher meaning. The world ofthe pre-modern human being was magical (see figure).


Fig.1. The Subject-Object relation in Pre-Modernity.


In Modernity, Subject andObject were totally separated (see Fig. 2) by a radical epistemological cut,allowing in such a way the development of modern science. The Object was justthere, in order to be known, deciphered, dominated, and transformed.


Fig. 2.The Subject-Object relation in Modernity.



In Post-Modernity (see Fig. 3) theroles of the Subject and Object are changed in comparison with Modernity andare reversed in comparison with Pre-Modernity: the Object, still considered asbeing outside the Subject, is nevertheless a social construction. It is notreally “there”. In looks more like an emanation of the Subject.

Fig. 3.The Subject-Object relation in Post-Modernity.



Transdisciplinarity leads to a new understanding of therelation between Subject and Object, which is illustrated in Fig. 4:

Fig. 4.The Subject-Object relation in Transdisciplinarity.




The Subject and the Object are, like in Modernity,separated but they are unified by their immersion in the Hidden Third, whoseray of action is infinite.

The transdisciplinary Object and its levels, thetransdisciplinary Subject and its levels and the Hidden Third define the Transdisciplinary(TD) Reality or Trans-Reality[16] (see Fig. 5).




g.    Definition or definitions?

Some researchers believe that transdisciplinarity tolerates severaldefinitions, depending on “the problem to be solved”. This is simply wrong,both from epistemological and logical points of view, because it introduces theconfusion between the words “definition” and “description”.

A true definition requires the identification of the necessaryand sufficient conditions in order to formulate therespective notion. The axioms i – iii analyzed above are precisely thenecessary and sufficient conditions for defining transdisciplinarity. If welimit ourselves only to necessary conditions, we get only a “description” andnot a definition. An example of this situation is the German-Swiss “definition”[17]as materialized in two recent books: one edited by Gertrude Hirsch Hadorn etal.[18] and the other one edited by FrédericDarbellay et Theres Paulsen[19]. This “definition” understands by“beyond disciplines” only the interaction between academic disciplines andsociety. It is obvious that society is beyond disciplines. But “beyond alldiscipline” has to include also other levels of Reality than the social level:the individual level, the planetary level, and even the cosmic level. Otherwisewe arrive at what I just called a “level of confusion”: we mix different levelsof Reality.

In other words, the German-Swiss definition is a particular case ofthe general definition we gave and therefore it is merely a description and not a definition. This particular description allows, ofcourse, the formulation of useful models, by developing a particular approach. It has to be realized that the definition we gave is compatiblewith several different approaches of transdisciplinarity. It is therefore ageneral and unified definition of transdisciplinarity.

The problem just discussed is far from being just a pedanticdistinction between “definition” and “description”. It touches on the core of classicalor non-classical logic: the axiom of identityA=A. If we gave several definitions of A we simply violate the logical axiom ofidentity: it would mean that A is not A and therefore we can assert anythingabout anything. This axiom of identity is crucial in defining “disciplinaryboundaries”.

3.    What are “disciplinary boundaries”?


The unconscious barrier to a true understanding of whattransdisciplinarity means by the words “beyond all discipline” comes from theinability of certain researchers to think the discontinuity. For them, the boundaries between disciplines are like boundariesbetween countries, continents and oceans on the surface of the Earth. Theseboundaries are fluctuating in time but an assumed property remains unchanged:the continuity between territories.

We have a different approach of the boundaries betweendisciplines. For us, they are like the separation between galaxies, solarsystems, stars and planets. It is the movement itself which generates thefluctuation of boundaries. This does not mean that a galaxy intersects anothergalaxy. When we cross the boundaries we meet the interplanetary andintergalactic vacuum. This vacuum is far from being empty: it is full ofinvisible substance, energy, space-time and information. It introduces a cleardiscontinuity between territories of galaxies, solar systems, stars andplanets. Without the interplanetary and intergalactic vacuum there is nouniverse.

However, the above considerations are simply metaphors.

We need a rigorous definition.

We define disciplinary boundary as the limit of the totality ofthe results – past, present and future – obtained by a given set oflaws, norms, rules and practices. Of course, thereis a direct relation between the extent to which a given discipline has beenmathematically formulated and the extent to which this discipline has a preciseboundary. In other words, the more mathematicallyformalized a given discipline is, the more thisrespective discipline has a precise boundary.

Most of the disciplines are not mathematicallyformalized and therefore their boundaries are fluctuating in time. In spite ofthis fluctuation, there is a boundary defined as the limit of the totality of fluctuating boundaries of the respective discipline. For example, it must be clear foreverybody that the economy will never give information on God, that religionwill never give information on the fundamental laws of elementary particlephysics, that agriculture will never give information about theneurophysiology, or that poetry will never give information on nanotechnologies.

The existence of such a limit is directly connected tothe discussed logical axiom of identity. A discipline has a given identitybecause there is such a limit of the totality of fluctuating boundaries of therespective discipline. It is precisely this limit that we call “disciplinaryboundary”. Every discipline has a specific horizon, to use a nice word introduced by Hans-Georg Gadamer, as meaningthe total sum of prejudices[20].

Disciplinary boundaries are of two types: commensurableand incommensurable.

Disciplines belonging to the same level of Reality arecommensurable: the same set of general laws governs them. For example, classicalphysics and Marxist economics have commensurable boundaries. Disciplinesbelonging to different levels of Reality are incommensurable: different sets ofgeneral laws govern them. For example, classical physics and quantum physicshave incommensurable boundaries. This incommensurability is a consequence ofthe incommensurability of levels of Reality.Disciplines with incommensurable boundaries are born during the scientific andparadigmatic revolutions. For example, quantum physics and Jungian analyticpsychology or classical physics and Freudian psychoanalysis have commensurableboundaries but Jungian analytic psychology and Freudian psychoanalysis haveincommensurable boundaries.

There are more complicate situations in which in one andthe same field of knowledge there is coexistence of commensurable andincommensurable boundaries. For example, some of the works of surrealist artare commensurable with classical physics while others are commensurable withquantum physics.

There is a real discontinuity between incommensurable disciplinaryboundaries: there is nothing, strictly nothingbetween two incommensurable disciplinary boundaries, if we insist to explorethis space between the respective disciplines by old laws, norms, rules andpractices. Radically new laws, norms, rules and practices are necessary.

The above definition of disciplinary boundaries remainsvalid for multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity, which are justcontinuous extensions of disciplinarity: there are multidisciplinary andinterdisciplinary boundaries as there are disciplinary boundaries. However, in crossing boundaries in multidisciplinarity andinterdisciplinarity, we again meet the two types of commensurable andincommensurable boundaries. The confusion between the two types of boundariesexplains, for example, the difficulties in defining interdisciplinarity in acoherent way.

Not only disciplines but also cultures and religionshave boundaries. The nature of these boundaries isdifferent from that of disciplinary boundaries. It may seem paradoxical tospeak about cultures and religions in transdisciplinarity, which seem to refer,by the word itself, to academic disciplines. However, the presence of theHidden Third explains this fake paradox.

The crucial difference between academic disciplines onone side and cultures and religions on the other side can be easily understoodin our approach. Cultures and religions are not concerned, as academicdisciplines are, with fragments of levels of Reality only: they simultaneouslyinvolve one or several levels of Reality of the Object, one or several levelsof Reality of the Subject and the non-resistancezone of the Hidden Third. In spite of the universal presence of the HiddenThird in cultures and religions, there are still boundaries, because levels ofReality are inevitably involved in cultures and religions. These boundariescontain however the singular point of the HiddenThird. This singular point is absent in disciplinary boundaries. Inmathematical terms, the boundaries of cultures and religions correspond tosingular functions. Let us also remark that the fact that all cultures and allreligions involve the common singular point of the Hidden Third, the dialoguebetween cultures and the dialogue between religions is a realistic possibility.

To go beyond disciplinary boundaries means to go beyondboth commensurable and incommensurable boundaries. This clarifies even more thedistinction between multi-, inter- and transdisciplinarity. Onlytransdisciplinarity can perform this task.

Transdisciplinarity has no boundary. Therefore, transdisciplinarity can never lead to asuper-discipline, super-science, super-religion or super-ideology. Inparticular, in our globalized world, we need to find a spiritual dimension ofdemocracy. Transdisciplinarity can help with this important advancement ofdemocracy, through its basic notions of “transcultural” and “transreligious”[21].

The transcultural designatesthe opening of all cultures to that which cuts across them and transcends them,while the transreligious designates the openingof all religions to that which cuts across them and transcends them[22].This does not mean the emergence of a unique planetary culture and of a uniqueplanetary religion, but of a new transcultural and transreligious attitude. The old principle “unity in diversity and diversity from unity” isembodied in transdisciplinarity.

The crucial fact of absence of boundaries intransdisciplinarity is the result of the structural incompleteness of thelevels of Reality.

In fact, it is precisely the incompleteness of levelsof Reality which explains to the existence of disciplinary boundaries. This might seem paradoxical but it is only a fake paradox.Disciplines are blind to incompleteness due to arbitrary elimination of theHidden Third in these disciplines, i. e. the arbitrary elimination of theinteraction between Subject and Object. Once this unjustified assumption iseliminated, disciplines are inevitably linked one to another.

How does one understand this link between disciplines inthe presence of incompleteness and discontinuity of levels of Reality?

In another words, can we imagine a fusion ofdisciplinary boundaries?

This dream of the fusion of disciplinary boundaries waspresent from the beginnings of transdisciplinarity[23].This project goes back to the talk given by Erich Jantsch in 1970[24]at the international workshop “Interdisciplinarity– Teaching and Research Problems in Universities”[25].

Such a fusion of disciplinary boundaries is simplyimpossible in transdisciplinarity, because it wouldlead to a new boundary, whose even existence is incompatible withtransdisciplinarity. Links and bridges between disciplines are still howeverpossible: they are mediated by the Hidden Third, which, as the human being, cannotbe captured by any discipline and by any boundary.




3.    How we transgress disciplinary boundaries?[26]


a)    Disciplinarity and transdisciplinarity:reductionism and trans-reductionism


Transgressing the incommensurabledisciplinary boundaries necessarily requires the full presence of the Subject,of the human being. Disciplinary boundaries were created by the mind, duringtime. They are epistemological and not ontological boundaries. The human beingcannot be reduced to his/her mind. The human being is not an object. Life hasno boundaries. Only artificial, in vitrofragments of life can have boundaries. As nicely expressed by John van Breda: “[…] disciplines do not in any way ‘represent’ the complex, multi-leveledstructure of reality. Rather they are ‘windows’ through we look at certainaspects of Reality only. Of course, looking thru these different ‘windows’, we can and have learnt a tremendousamount about Reality. But the danger is when welose sight of the fact that we are only looking at Reality through our own epistemologically constructed windows, andshould not mistake the actual existence of the plethora of disciplines with thecomplex structure of Reality itself. Disciplines remain just so many ‘windows’to look through at very specific aspects ofReality only. [Someone once saidmetaphorically that Nature has not ‘packaged’ itself as Physics, Chemistry, Biology etc. I guess we can add by saying thatSociety has also not ‘packaged’ itself asPsychology, Sociology, Anthropology etc.]”[27]

We understand therefore whydisciplinarity is intimately related to the scientific reductionism.

The words "reduction" and"reductionism" are extremely ambiguous. Different authors usedifferent meanings and definitions and therefore extremely unproductivepolemics could be generated.

For example, philosophers understand by"reduction" replacing one theory by a newer more encompassing theory,while scientists understand by the same word exactly the opposite operation. Inother words, philosophers reduce the simpler to the more complex whilescientists reduce the more complex to the simpler, understood as "morefundamental". In physics, for example, one reduces everything tosuperstrings or membranes, by hoping to arrive at a "Theory ofEverything".

In fact, there are many other meanings given to the word"reduction": in chemistry, in linguistics, in cooking, in physiology,in orthopedic surgery, etc.

In order to avoid anyconfusion, we will adopt here the general scientific meaning: one reduces A toB, B to C, C to D, etc. till we arrive at what is believed to be the mostfundamental level. Human thought follows, in fact, the same process of reduction.Reduction is, in many ways, a natural process for thought and there is nothingwrong about it. The only problem is to understand what we find at the end ofthe reduction chain: is the chain circular and, if not, how do we justify theconcept of "end" at the end of the chain?

In any case, we have todistinguish "reduction" from "reductionism". There are manytypes of reductionisms and there is a real danger in confusing them.

Sometimes"reductionism" is defined through the assertion that a complex systemis nothing but the sum of its parts. One has to distinguish between:

1. methodological reductionism:reduce the explanation to the simpler possible entities.

2. theoretical reductionism:reduce all theories to a single unified theory.

3. ontological reductionism:reduce all of reality to a minimum number of entities.

In the literature one findsother kinds of reductionisms: for example, Daniel Dennett defines the"Greedy reductionism"[28] (the belief that every scientificexplanation has to be reduced to superstrings or membranes), while RichardDawkins defines a "hierarchical reductionism"[29](there is an hierarchy of complex organizational systems, every entity on onelevel being reducible to one level down in the hierarchy). The appearance ofboth these types of reductionisms serves as a criticism of the extreme forms ofreductionism. However, the very fact that there are so many varieties ofreductionisms signals a situation of crisis of reductionism itself.

The crisis of reductionismis, in fact, the crisis of disciplinarity. Thecontemporary big-bang of transdisciplinarity is, beyond any doubt, a sign ofthis crisis.

To avoid any confusion, we willaccept, in this article, scientific reductionismas meaning the explanation of complex spiritual processes in terms of psychicprocesses, which in turn are explained through biological processes, which intheir turn are explained in terms of physical processes. In other words, atypical scientist reduces spirituality to materiality. Philosophicalreductionism will correspond to the inverse chain:reducing materiality to spirituality. Both types belong to what can be called mono-reductionism. Some philosophers accept a dualistic approach: materiality asradically distinct from spirituality. The dualistic approach is a variant of"philosophical reductionism": it corresponds to a multi-reductionism. One can even see, especially in the New Age type of literature,forms of what can be called an inter-reductionism: i. e. transferring of some material aspects to spiritual entities or, vice versa, transferring of some spiritualfeatures to physical entities.

Non-reductionism is expressed through "holism" (meaning that the whole ismore than the sum of its parts and determines how the parts behave) and"emergentism" (meaning that novel structures, patterns or propertiesarise from relatively simple interactions, resulting in layers arranged interms of increased complexity). Holism and emergentism have their owndifficulties: they have to explain from where novelty comes, without giving adhoc explanations.

The notion of levels of Reality is crucial in conciliating reductionism (so useful in scientificexplanations) and anti-reductionism (so clearly needed in complex systems).

The transdisciplinary theory of levels of Reality appears asconciliating reductionism and non-reductionism[30]. It is, in someaspects, a multi-reductionist theory, via theexistence of multiple, discontinuous levels of Reality. However, it is also anon-reductionist theory, via the Hidden Third,which restores the continuous interconnectedness of Reality. Thereductionism/non-reductionism opposition is, in fact, a result of binarythinking, based upon the excluded middle logic. The transdisciplinary theory oflevels of Reality allows us to define, in such a way, a new view on Reality,which can be called trans-reductionism.

The transdisciplinarynotion of levels of Reality is incompatible with reduction of the spirituallevel to the psychical level, of the psychical level to the biological level,and of the biological level to the physical level. Still these four levels areunited through the Hidden Third. However, this unification cannot be describedby a scientific theory. By definition, science excludes non-resistance.Science, as is defined today, is limited by its own methodology. And it isprecisely the scientific methodology which is at the basis of disciplinarity.


Of course, there isnothing wrong by itself with scientific methodology, disciplinarity andreductionism. What is wrong is the extreme disciplinarity, i. e. the exclusionof transdisciplinarity. There is no transdisciplinarity without disciplinaritybut the reverse statement is also true: disciplinarity has to fail if is notcomplemented by transdisciplinarity. The scientificmethodology has to be complemented by the transdisciplinary methodology.


Transgressingdisciplinary boundaries, cultural boundaries and religious boundaries meansfinally freedom of thinking and action in a globalized world.


b)    How can the boundary-lesstransdisciplinarity solve real-world problems?


Could real-world problems be solved by the boundary-lesstransdisciplinarity?

An exemplary case is the global warming.

“If TD is indeed boundary-less (having no boundaries),how would it be possible for natural and social scientists (as well as societalstakeholders) to study a real-world problems such as global warming / climatechange in a transdisciplinary manner? – writes John van Breda. In otherwords, how can this human-made natural planetary crisis (polycrisis –Morin) be approached and studied without some form of shared methodological andmethods approaches, without some form of consensus (boundaries) with respect tocertain concepts, methods, laws etc. In short, what would a boundary-lesstransdisciplinary study of global warming look like? Also, how would thisdiffer from current disciplinary, inter- and multi-disciplinary studies ofclimate change? In this regard, one already sees some evidence of the globalwarming debate becoming dominated by the natural scientists, wanting to reduceclimate change to the reduction of CO2 levels in the atmosphere only– without any consideration of the socio-economic consequences this mayhave for the plight of the poor in developing countries. In other words, areduction of CO2 levels can only mean or result in no economic growth.I would argue that these disciplinary studies on global warming are happeningwithin the confines of the disciplinary boundaries of existing disciplines,such as the Earth Sciences and Economics. If this is correct, then there isindeed a need to go ‘beyond’ these boundaries on the global warming issue inwhich a reduction in CO2 levels does not equate to no economicgrowth. We need to be able to think economic growthand reduction in CO2 levels simultaneously. How do we use the logic of the included middle T in this to comeup with a truly TD study of global warming?”[31]

My first remark is that a “consensus”does not mean necessarily “boundaries”. The actors involved in the TD study ofglobal warming are themselves a part of this study. They not apply givenreceipts but they are deeply involved in a creative process. This process is boundary-less. A “consensus” means here sharingcommon values on the basis of the personal evolution of the involved actors.“Neutrality” belongs to a disciplinary approach. The TD approach is notneutral.

My second remark is that the includedmiddle T, which gives us the possibility to cross in a rational mannerdifferent levels of Reality, comes not before but after the contextualization of the problem in question.

The contextualization is the crucialstep in the TD problem-solving. “Contextualization” means here, as explained inthe Section 2c), the consideration of the pertinent epistemological ternaries.

Everything starts, as always in thetransdisciplinary applications, with the identification of the levels ofReality involved in the given problem.

In the global warming we cannot limitourselves to the physical and economical levels of Reality. We have also toconsider the individual, social, political, planetary and cosmic level. Only insuch a way we respect the values implied by the global warming problem.

A good epistemological ternary to startwith is the ternary {Physical levels – Biological levels –Psychical levels}. It must be clear that the increase in the CO2levels has an influence on the biological level and that the no economic growthchoice would have influence on the psychical level. Once recognized this point,we discover that we have to circulate in between the different epistemologicalternaries. An immediate connection could be established with the ternary {Levelsof confusion – Levels of language – Levels of interpretation}.Reducing the global warming problem to the economy level is typical for a levelof confusion, where the different levels are mixed. The level of language istherefore itself a level of confusion – the language of economy has to bedistinguished from the language of physics, psychology, and history. Theinterpretation of the global warming depends on cultural, ideological andreligious beliefs. One therefore very fast realizes that another ternarybecomes relevant: {Levels of objectivity – Levels of subjectivity –Levels of complexity}. And we can continue in such a way our TD analysis of theproblem.  

The conclusion we might reach is that {reductionin CO2 levels, no economic growth} is not an appropriate solution ofthe global warming problem. We can have both reduction in CO2 levelsand economic growth if we understand by“economic growth” a gradual growth, involvingreduction of growth for developed countries and increasing of growth forunder-developed countries. Here the role of the included middle logic iscrucial. The included middle T will be necessarily located on a transnational,transcultural and transreligious level. In other words, the TD solution willinvolve a drastic change in civilization mentalities and the functioning ofinternational institutions. At the end of the way, hope is present. In fact, the relation between transdisciplinarity andhope is a natural one. The root of hope is the simultaneous consideration ofall levels of Reality enlighten by the Hidden Third.



4.    Designing transdisciplinary Tncurricula


Once understood what “disciplinary boundaries” means wecan begin to design transdisciplinary Tn curricula, where n = 1, 2,3, namely:

n = 1 means “transdisciplinary”;

- n = 2 means “transdisciplinary andtransnational”;

- n = 3 means “transdisciplinary, transnationaland transreligious”.

Such curricula are todayan obvious necessity. The explosion of the words “transdisciplinary” and “transdisciplinarity”in the framework of the community of engineers and of the computer-scientists isjust the first sign of the evolution of the present university towards a transdisciplinaryuniversity, or, by using a nicely coined recent word, “transversity”[32].The engineers were the first to react to the contemporary necessity ofdeveloping technology through a mixing of different disciplines. We anticipatedin 1997 this movement, when we organized the International Congress “What University for Tomorrow – Towards theTransdisciplinary Evolution of University” (Locarno, Switzerland, April 30– May 2, 1997)[33].

The first step is T1 curriculum. There is noreceipt for doing that. It is a creative work in terms of context of therespective higher education institute: there is not and cannot be a “handbook”for conceiving transdisciplinary curricula. However useful notions are alreadypresent, conceived by the engineers themselves: “transdisciplinary metrics”,“transdisciplinary matrices”, “transdisciplinary design”, “transdisciplinarymeasures”, “transdisciplinary product development”[34].These notions mix different concepts from different disciplines and maximizetheir use in practice by familiar statistical procedures. They are useful inidentifying the cluster of disciplines which have to be present together in a T1curriculum. However they are not sufficient in order to build a T1curriculum. New transdisciplinary concepts have to emerge from the mixing ofdisciplinary concepts. Otherwise we just push the boundaries but we do notarrive at the bound-less transdisciplinarity. A good idea comes from the newtransdisciplinary master of engineering program at the Institute for Design andAdvanced Technology at Texas Tech University[35]: the introduction of“core” curses. One of them must be, in a true T1 curriculum, themethodology of transdisciplinarity. A consistent T1 curriculum willunavoidably lead to the “human factor”, which is impossible to be neglected.The crucial point will be the introducing the notion of “levels of Reality”.The fact that a recent PhD thesis in mechatronics[36] isperforming precisely this step is very encouraging for further developments.

The next step is T2 curriculum, which can beadopted in institutions having a great number of students from differentnations. The T3 curriculum will be much more difficult to implementin the world of today. Present mentalities are not yet prepared for such acurriculum.


4.    Why we need transdisciplinarity?


Why we need transdisciplinarity? To improveproblem-solving in contemporary globalized world? To make hard sciences moreand more efficient in their technological applications? To perform a transdisciplinary synthesis of business, science andengineering, as it is explicitly said in the presentation of an importantrecent congress, opened by the Nobel Prize of Physics Steven Weinberg[37]?

Of course, there isnothing wrong with joining science, business and engineering, if the final aimis the material and spiritual happiness of the individual human being in allcountries of our troubled world. “Transdisciplinary knowledge integration”[38] is just a first step towards unity of knowledge. Human values have tobe always at the center of our thinking and action. Bad turn-over like more andmore inequalities between different countries of our world or like a more rapideconomic growth that consumes the already limited resources even faster, can beavoided if the methodology of transdisciplinarity will be rigorously applied.


Acknowledgments. The author thanks John van Breda(University of Stellenbosch, South Africa) for his very stimulating questionsand comments during the last five years. He also thanks Prof. Atila Ertas forhis kind invitation at the congress “Transdisciplinary SustainableDevelopment”, The ATLAS – 2010 bi-annual meeting T3Transdisciplinary-Transnational-Transcultural, Georgetown University,Georgetown, USA, May 23-28, 2010. The very interesting talks given at thiscongress very much stimulated the ideas of the present article.






Christopher M.Adams, « Developing Transdisciplinary Metrics Using Data MiningTechniques », Doctoral Dissertation, College of Engineering at Texas TechUniversity, December 2009.

Christopher Adams,Derrick Tate, and Eunseog “Eun” Youn, “Establishing Transdisciplinary KnowledgeIntegration Measures Using Natural Language processing and latent semanticanalysis”, 2010, submitted manuscript to Artificial Intelligence forEngineering Design, Analysis and Manufacturing.

Léo Apostel, Guy Berger, Asa Briggs and Guy Michaud (ed.), L’interdisciplinarité– ProblŹmes d’enseignement et de recherche, Centre pour la Recherche et l’Innovation dans l’Enseignement,Organisation de Coopération et de développement économique, Paris, 1972.

Sergiu Berian, Research Concerning theTransdisciplinary Potential of Mechatronics, PhD thesis in Mechanical Engineering, Technnical Universityof Cluj-Napoca, Cluj-Napoca, Romania, 2010 (in Romanian).

EliBlevis and Erik Stolterman, “Transcending Disciplinary Boundaries inInteraction Design”, Interactions, September-October 2009.

The Charter of Transdisciplinarity (in French, Spanish,English, Portuguese, Turkish, Italian, Arab and Romanian):


Michel Camus, Thierry Magnin, Basarab Nicolescu andKaren-Claire Voss, “Levels of Representation and Levels of Reality: Towards anOntology of Science”, in Niels H. Gregersen;Michael W.S. Parsons and Christoph Wassermann (ed.), The Concept of Naturein Science and Theology (part II), GenŹve, Éditions Labor et Fides, 1998.

PaulCilliers, P. 1998, Complexity and Postmodernism. Understanding complexsystems, Routledge, London, 1998.

Fréderic Darbellay and TheresPaulsen (ed.), Le défi de l'inter- et transdisciplinarité - Concepts,méthodes et pratiques innovantes dans l'enseignement et la recherche /Herausforderung Inter- und Transdisziplinarität - Konzepte, Methoden undInnovative Umsetzung in Lehre und Forschung, Presses polytechniques et universitaires romandes, Lausanne, 2008.

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press, UK, 1976.

Daniel Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1995.

Atila Ertas, Timothy Maxwell, Vicki P.Rainey, and Murat M. Tanik, “Transfotrmation of Higher Education: Thetransdisciplinary Approach in Engineering”, IEEE Transactions on Education,Vol. 46, No. 2, May 2003, p. 289-295.

Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, 2nd revised edition, translated from German by J. Weinsheimer andD.G.Marshall, Crossroad, New York, 1989.

Galileo Galilei, Dialogue sur les deux grandssystŹmes du monde, Seuil, Paris, 1992, translatedfrom the Italian by René Fréreux with the collaboration of Franćois de Gandt,pp. 128-130; Dialogue on the Great World Systems,University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1956, with an introduction by Giorgio deSantillana.

Jochen Hinkel, « Transdisciplinary KnowledgheIntegration – Cases from Integrated Assessment and VulnerabilityAssessment”, PhD thesis, Wageningen University, The Nethererlands. March 2008.

Gertrude HirschHadorn et al. (ed.), Handbook of Transdisciplinarity, Springer, 2007.

Edmund Husserl, Méditations cartésiennes, Vrin, Paris, 1966. Translated form the German byGabrielle Peiffer and Emmanuel Levinas.

Erich Jantsch, “ Vers l’interdisciplinarité et latransdisciplinarité dans l’enseignement et l’innovation “, in Léo Apostelet al. (1972).

Locarno Declaration, Declaration and Recommendation of the International Congress “Which University forTomorrow ? Towards a Transdisciplinary Evolution of the University”, Locarno,Switzerland, April 30 - May 2, 1997


SueL. T. McGregor and Russ Volckmann, "Making the TransdisciplinaryUniversity a Reality", IntegralLeadership Review, Vol. X, No. 2, March 2010

Edgar Morin, La méthode I – Lanature de la nature, Paris, Seuil, 1977.

------------------------- La méthodeII - La vie de la vie, Paris,Seuil, 1980.

------------------------- La méthodeIII - La connaissance de la connaissance, Paris, Seuil, 1986.

------------------------- La méthodeIV – Les idées, leur habitat, leur vie, leurs mŌurs, leurorganisation, Paris, Seuil, 1991.

------------------------- La méthodeV – L’humanité de l’humanité,Paris, Seuil, 2001.

------------------------- La méthodeVI – Ethique, Paris, Seuil,2004.

Ernest Nagel and James R. Newman, Gödel's Proof, New York University Press, New York, 1958.

Basarab Nicolescu, Nous, la particule et le monde, Le Mail, Paris, 1985. 2nd edition,Le Rocher, Monaco, “Transdisciplinarité" Series, 2002.

------------------------ La transdisciplinarité, manifeste, Monaco, Le Rocher,"Transdisciplinarité" Series, 1996. Englishtranslation: Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity. New York: SUNY Press, 2002, translation from the French byKaren-Claire Voss.

------------------------- b. “Gödelian Aspects of Natureand Knowledge”, in Gabriel Altmann and Walter A.Koch (ed.), Systems - New Paradigms for the Human Sciences, Berlin - New York, Walter de Gruyter, 1998, pp. 385-403.

------------------------ “Hylemorphism, Quantum Physicsand Levels of Reality”, in Demetra Sfendoni-Mentzou (ed.), Aristotle andContemporary Science, New York, Peter Lang, 2000,Vol. I, pp. 173-184. Introduction by Hilary Putnam.

------------------------- “Toward a MethodologicalFoundation of the Dialogue Between the Technoscientific and SpiritualCultures”, in Liubava Moreva (ed.), Differentiation and Integration ofWorldviews, Eidos, Sankt Petersburg, 2004.

------------------------- “Transdisciplinarity –past, present and future”, in MovingWorldviews - Reshaping sciences, policies and practices for endogenoussustainable development, COMPAS Editions, Holland,2006, edited by Bertus Haverkort and Coen Reijntjes, p. 142-166.

------------------------- Qu'est-ceque la réalité ?, Liber, Montréal, Canada, 2009.

Basarab Nicolescu (ed.), Transdisciplinarity –Theory and Practice, Hampton Press, Cresskill, NewJersey, 2008.

Jean Piaget, “L’épistémologie des relations interdisciplinaires”, in LéoApostel et al. (1972).

Transformative Systems: Transdisciplinary Synthesis of Business,Science and Engineering”, Dallas, USA, June 6-11, 2010, Transformative SystemsConference (SDPS 2010), organized by The Society for Design and Process Science


John van Breda, private communication, E-mailof January 10th, 2010.

* Paper submitted to the special issue “Research Across Boundaries - Advances in IntegrativeMeta-studies and Research Practice”, Integral Review – ATransdisciplinary and Transcultural Journal for New Thought, Research andPraxis, USA.

* http://basarab.nicolescu.perso.sfr.fr/ciret/

[1] Nicolescu, 1996.

[2] Blevis and Stolterman, 2009, p. 48.

[3] Apostel et al. (ed.), 1972.

[4] Nicolescu, 2006, p. 142-166.

[5] Nicolescu, 1985.

[6] “Charter”.

[7] Galileo, 1956, 1992.

[8] Nicolescu, 1996.

[9] Husserl,1966.

[10] Nicolescu, 1996, p. 54-55.

[11] Camus et al., 1998, p. 94-103.

[12] Cilliers, 1998.

[13]Nicolescu, 1996, 1998, 2000.

[14] Morin,1977, 1980, 1986, 1991, 2001, 2004.

[15] The ideas expressed in this section were stimulated by a richexchange, over the past years, with John van Breda.

[16] Nicolescu, 2009.

[17] The expression “German-Swiss” is not pejorative. It expresses thesimple fact that the majority of the involved authors are from Germany andSwitzerland. .

[18] Hirsch Hadorn et al. (ed.), 2007.

[19] Darbellay and Paulsen (ed.), 2008.

[20] Gadamer, 1989.

[21] Nicolescu, 1996.

[22] Nicolescu, 2004.

[23] Nicolescu, 2006, p. 142-166.

[24] Jantsch, 1972.

[25] Apostel (ed.), op. cit..

[26]The expression “transgressingboundaries” used here has obviously nothing to do with the similar expressionused by Alan Sokal in his famous hoax “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward aTransformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”, Social Text 46/47,Spring/Summer 1996, p. 336-361. In fact, Sokal never defines what heunderstands by “boundaries”.

[27] van Breda, 2010.

[28] Dennett, 1995.

[29] Dawkins, 1976.

[30] Nicolescu (ed.), 2008.

[31] van Breda, 2010.

[32] McGregor and Volckmann, 2010.

[33] Locarno Declaration, 1997.

[34] Adams, 2009; Adams et al., 2010.

[35] Ertas et al., 2003.

[36] Berian, 2010.

[37] Transformative, 2010.

[38] See, e. g., Hinkel, 2008.