Spring 2006, Vol. 14, No. 2 (requires Adobe Acrobat)

Interdisciplinarity—sic et non

by Helmut Walser Smith

Helmut Smith

Sic et non—even to borrow the title from Peter Abelard must seem presumptuous, but the very point of Abelard’s twelfth-century attack on the scholastic theology of his day, namely that it had devolved into stale citation of the church fathers, suggests something of importance to our own relationship to interdisciplinary work: namely, that it has similarly devolved. As if quoting the church fathers, we affirm the sic, and leave unthought the non.

The problem starts with the vague sense that because something is interdisciplinary, it is new, and therefore original. But let us admit—nearly seventy years of use has blunted the term’s avant-garde edge. The OED lists the first use of the term in the December 1937 issue of the Journal of Educational Sociology. It still has a hyphen, and in fact it was not until after World War II that the term interdisciplinary gained wider currency, losing that dash of insecurity that marked the earlier spelling. In a 1957 issue of the Journal Family and Social Network, we read “ten years ago interdisciplinary research was very much in vogue.” The author, E. Bott, proved optimistic in his assessment that interdisciplinary research was a fashion, and like pleated skirts, a fashion already passed. He was wrong, and by 1970 the editors of the prestigious journal Nature allowed the steroid-charged word “interdisciplinarity” to enter its pages, while in the same decade academic guides, to follow the OED, “taught us…to discriminate knowingly between the seven brands of interdisciplinarity.” But the history of the term does not end here. Not content with merely advancing knowledge, interdisciplinarity, now a quality rather than a qualifier, took on the wings of post-capitalist criticism. Against the colonization and commodification of language and thought, it has come to be, in at least one author’s breathless prose, “an intrinsically critical movement in and of itself.” And while our own usage of the term may be less charged, there is no escaping the aura that “interdisciplinarity” continues to emit.

This is what we hope for when, like people waving their arms to make shadows in Plato’s cave, we expect to make progress by the mere invocation of the word. We appeal to it as an elixir in applications for grants, in requests for more positions, in descriptions of courses, and in the intellectual defense of our work. To gage the word’s salience in our academic culture, imagine a course description that read, “This course will consist in linking a number of historical observations and inquiries to a series of half random trains of thought.” Not just that our curriculum committee would have none of it, but that we would not dare to write it.

Yet this is how Jacob Burckhardt introduced his course, “On the Study of History,” in the winter semester of 1868/9 at the University of Basel. As his course leavened what we now call cultural history, it surely seemed interdisciplinary. One of his colleagues, appointed to a Chair in Classics, certainly thought so, and even sat in on Burckhardt’s public lectures, complaining only that the lectures of the “elderly, highly original” historian, while “profound,” displayed “strangely abrupt twists as soon as they touch the danger point.” That classicist was himself no stranger to critical thinking, or to thinking across disciplines, and now most people think of Friedrich Nietzsche as a philosopher, though not always a congenial one. Burckhardt, also, did not think of his course as particularly inter-disciplinary (let’s put the dash back in), but assumed it part of the historian’s ordinary work to read literature, examine painting and sculpture, peruse economic and political treatise, study maps, collate manuscripts, calculate supply and demand, take measure of class stratification, and learn foreign languages. This went without saying. In his “Culture of the Renaissance in Italy,” Burckhardt adopted a similarly understated pose, cautiously adding “Ein Versuch,” a mere essay, to his imposing title. Was it a lack of self-confidence, an unsteady disciplinary nerve that caused such apparent modesty? The opposite, I would submit, is true.

It is in our own strained appeals to interdisciplinarity that one may detect a loss of confidence—in disciplinary confidence to be sure, but more deeply and troubling in the value of humanistic inquiry for its own sake. This is a large claim so let me start with terra firma, my own discipline of history. Here there is a venerable tradition of intensively reading across fields. In the United States, it is often associated with the heritage of the Annales School of social history, whose founders, Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, urged historians to read geographers, like Friedrich Ratzel and Vidal de la Blache; folklorists, like Marcel Mauss and Arnold van Gennep; and sociologists, especially Emile Durkheim and Max Weber. In Germany and England, travel beyond the disciplinary borders of history followed a different compass, but the trip was not taken for its own sake. Rather, the problem was to help historians understand popular mentalities, which had been ignored by a form of inquiry that saw history, in Sir John Seely’s smugly Victorian phrase, as nothing but “past politics.” In the Annales tradition, reading in other disciplines was a means to an end, not the end in itself. It is true that that wider reading allowed Marc Bloch, for example, to imagine a “broadened and deepened history,” but it was always clear that it was to the discipline of history that he owed his allegiance. His Apologie Pour L’Historie, written amidst the ruins of France in 1941, dedicated to Lucien Febvre, and never fully completed before the Gestapo shot Marc Bloch on June 16, 1944, was, after all, a declaration of love.

The point is less a proscriptive one than it is about inter-disciplinary thinking avant la lettre, and this, it seems to me, is important precisely because in an academic environment stamped by the ability of social and natural sciences to attract funding and generate programs, it is the traditional disciplines in the humanities, whether history, English, philosophy, classics, theology, art history, or the humanistic branches of the social sciences (not to mention some disciplines like linguistics, geography, and classical philology that are, quite literally, disappearing) who are forced to offer an “Apologie.” But beyond the question of what happens to disciplines within institutions, there is still the problem of how disciplinary knowledge disappears within disciplines: professors of English who cannot scan the lines of a poem; professors of history who haven’t the faintest notion of source criticism.

There are signs of a changing wind. Marjorie Garber, an English professor who is no stranger to inter-disciplinary work, has recently exhorted her colleagues to reflect back on what it is that they do well. In A Manifesto for Literary Studies (Seattle, 2003), she argues that “What literary scholars can offer to the readers of all texts….is a way of asking literary questions: questions about the way something means, rather than what it means, or even why.” This is a start, the “no” that would give substance back to the “yes,” and that would make it necessary to reinsert the dash into inter-disciplinary discussion. This is not a stogy position; it is not the irritated response of Carl Becker who, weary of the “new history” in 1925, “asked only that he (the historian) write a good book about something that interests him.” Rather, it is a plea to put the disciplinary back into the discussion, and to develop an appreciative language for the ways of thinking and actual practice of philosophers, historians, and scholars of literature. The emphasis on practice is, moreover, not misplaced. Not the disciplinary boxes, but the tools they contained ought to be put on the table again. Bloch, after all, defended the craft of the historian, the métier d’historien. Subject matter, the thing to which the métier was applied, ranged as wide as his imagination, and he defined it as nothing short of the “the interrelations, confusions, and infections of human consciousness.”

There are genuinely important reasons to pursue inter-disciplinary thinking, and this is precisely why the term’s loss of meaning, its emptiness, concerns us. Those genuine reasons involve the new ways of looking at a problem that are generated from outside a structure, which a discipline can be, and the recognition that different disciplines often represent different ways of considering fundamentally similar problems. Disciplines also change over time, not only with respect to subject matter but also in regards to method, and some new disciplines, like film studies, have made innovations on both counts. Moreover, the view from the outside more clearly illuminates the limits of a disciplinary perspective. All of these are powerful reasons for reaching outside one’s discipline. This is what Nietzsche did when he went to hear Burckhardt’s lectures. But he went to hear a historian, and in the end it was not a historian but Nietzsche who fixed on the “danger point.”

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