And He was asking him, "What is your name?" And he said to Him, "My name is Multitude; for we are many."

The Disciplinarization of Interdisciplinarity II – The Creation of Inter/Disciplinarity


This construction of interdisciplinarity could not have left the idea of discipline untouched.
Before, because discipline was a harmless cartography of knowledges, interdisciplinary could be nothing else than an innocuous characteristic.  What was before an inoffensive notion, now gave origin to a regime: the idea of disciplinarity was thus created. It arose out of the necessity of pointing out disciplinary projects and organization as a regime. Disciplinarity did not exist before the end of the ‘60s. It was constructed as an antagonist of interdisciplinarity.



Between the clash with the new world of Cambridge and the depression that took me hostage for a year, this is what I was able to write about Discipline, its subjugating grips, and the fake transformation that goes by the name of Interdisciplinarity.

This essay is divided in three parts. This is the second. You can read the first and third here & here.






Something seemed to have changed radically, however, when in October 1967 an assertive statement was made during the introduction to a Course of Philosophy for Scientists at the École Normale Supérieur: “I remind you: interdisciplinarity is today a widely diffused slogan which is expected to provide the solution to all sorts of difficult problems”. The speaker was Louis Althusser, the Marxist philosopher then a professor at the institution.[1]

After indicating the “fashion for interdisciplinarity” as the first and most superficial reason for the interest of those present in taking the course, Althusser points out that the discourse around interdisciplinarity characterizes it as a “promise of a miracle cure” and as “virtually the main slogan of modern times”. Contrary to the rather harmless interdisciplinary traits of some practices, where intellectual interdisciplinarity is in fact used to “resolve specific problems”, the defense of interdisciplinarity no longer refers, Althusser says, to a “justified recourse to technical and scientific co-operation”; it is, rather, a façade of an “ideological myth”.[2]

Ideology is certainly not a simple concept in Althusserian theory. But in this course he understands an ideological proposition to be “a proposition that, while it is the symptom of a reality other than that of which it speaks, is a false proposition to the extent that it concerns the object of which it speaks”. According to this definition, Althusser denounces the ideological character of interdisciplinarity precisely because it is no longer referring to the “co-ordinated co-operation of specialists from several branches of the division of labor” given a “well-founded and objective necessity“ but rather to another reality: It is the lack of “recognition of [human sciences’] theoretical base”. In a restless and afflicted motion, human sciences cover up their lack of scientific basis with the philosophy of interdisciplinarity.[3]

Much could be said about Althusser’s fundamental demarcation between science and ideology, which grounds his diagnosis of the precarious state of human sciences; a diagnosis that, as we’ll see, finds no corroboration in the defenders of interdisciplinarity’s discourse. But what is worth to underline here is how he identified the emergence of the slogan of interdisciplinarity as a response to a  series of disciplinary problems that resulted in an academic sense of hesitation, uncertainty, lack of solidity; in one word, crisis. The Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique was already recommending interdisciplinary reforms in ’67 and just two years later the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation organized the first of a series of meetings that would constitute the idea of interdisciplinarity as the foundation of a new and broad university reform. These meetings between “high level experts” identified the same feeling of crisis to which the existing organization of academia was not able to respond, and showed how interdisciplinarity, although it was not a “panacea which would make it possible to cure all the ills from which the university is currently suffering … , [it] emerges as a major aspect in this transformation and as a powerful impetus for innovation”; these encounters would later result in a collective volume appropriately named Interdisciplinarity: Problems of Teaching and Research in Universities.[4]

In it, discipline is presented as “a specific body of teachable knowledge with its own background of education, training, procedures, methods and content areas”[5], but some other appraisals start to echo here.  The “monodisciplinary” organization of universities is showed to be a way that “Schools or “Faculties” jealously protect their branch of knowledge” and constitute a “major obstacle” to interdisciplinarity as a key innovation point in university; to show how the sciences’ classification respects a given model, and that the same sciences overlap is presented as contrary to the mode in which disciplines were then working[6]; and from the very first paragraph of the book, disciplines are said to be “not only a convenient breakdown of knowledge into its component parts, they are also the basis of the organization of the university into its autonomous fiefs”, such that they are inseparable from the “structure of the university” and that they are the “fundamental reason” why universities are “conservative” in the way they think of themselves reflecting society[7]. As an academic and political response to the institutional crisis, these authors make clear their analysis: the breaking down of knowledge into sections is in the cause of our institutions’ breakdown.


Fig.2 Illustration of a case of restrictive interdisciplinarity. Marcel Boisot, in his essay in Interdisciplinarity… (fn. 13; p. 96), explains how in certain interactions between specialists, disciplines may impose “technical, economic or human bounds on the others”. Disciplines do not remain undaunted and serene in relation to scientific knowledge construction.

There was thus a shift in the meaning and use of interdisciplinarity, in its discourse. It was no longer used as mere adjective to qualify certain projects or certain areas of the cartography of knowledges; it was no longer just descriptive. Interdisciplinarity emerged as a new prescriptive discourse on academic practices. It was now a cause and a demand for more methodological freedom, for more communication across boundaries, for fewer restrictions, for the unity of science[8]. Interdisciplinary became interdisciplinarity: the adjective became a noun.

This construction of interdisciplinarity could not have left the idea of discipline untouched.
Before, because discipline was a harmless cartography of knowledges, interdisciplinary could be nothing else than an innocuous characteristic. And for the interdisciplinary nature of a certain research enterprise to represent a rupture with the status quo, disciplines had to have other traits than just being used as contingent demarcations. What was before an inoffensive notion—discipline in the branch-of-knowledge sense—and a straightforward, factual adjective –disciplinary – now gave origin to a regime. And through a process of crystallization of prejudicial designs associated with disciplines the idea of disciplinarity was thus created. It arose out of the necessity of pointing out disciplinary projects and organization as a regime. Disciplinarity did not exist before the end of the ‘60s. It was constructed as an antagonist of interdisciplinarity.

On the same note, the prefix inter- could only have an oppositional value and be the protagonist of a rupture with the current regime if disciplinarity was not the “result of [the disciplines’] natural growth” . The boundaries were then “formed . . . in accordance with administrative categories”[9] and resulted in constraints on scientific research and education.  “A discipline is now no longer a slow and cautious accumulation of facts and minor laws connecting them together”; disciplines were now no longer the lines designed by nature herself, or the inconsequential mapping of the fields of knowledge. “It consists first of all of methods and techniques, as well as an arsenal of concepts and the elaboration of a suitable discourse for translating its conquests”, it depends on several philosophical concepts, and “it is a privileged viewpoint over a large fraction of the world and is thereby very often imperialistic towards other competing disciplines”[10].

Far from their previous innocuousness, disciplines are now conceptualized as structures[11]. It is their new status that allows the possibility of the critique: disciplines can act as obstacles, as barriers to knowledge. The premise behind the ascension of interdisciplinarity as a discourse is the repressive hypothesis of disciplinarity.

The possibility to influence the production of knowledge was granted to discipline, now considered part of the mechanism of the study of reality. For the first time, discipline was seen as performative.


Continue Reading….


[1] Althusser, L., Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists & Other Essays, 1990, Verso. pp. 78-85

[2] Idem

[3] Ibidem

[4] Apostel, L., Berger, G., Briggs, A. and Michaud, G. (Eds.) Interdisciplinarity: Problems of Teaching and Research in Universities, Organisation for the Economic Co-Operation and Development, Paris. The quotes are from Pierre Duguet contribution to the book, Approach to the Problems, pp. 13 and 19, respectively.

[5] Berger, G., Part I: Opinions and Facts, in Interdisciplinarity… (see fn. 13), p.25

[6] Duguet, see fn. 13

[7] Gass, J.R., in the Preface to Interdisciplinarity… (See fn.13)

[8] Duguet, see fn. 13

[9] Respondents to a study analysed by Berger, p. 52 (see fn. 14)

[10] Lichnerowicz, A., Mathematic and Transdisciplinarity¸in Interdisciplinarity… (See fn. 13)

[11] Idem, pp.90,98


2 comments on “The Disciplinarization of Interdisciplinarity II – The Creation of Inter/Disciplinarity

  1. Pingback: The Disciplinarization of Interdisciplinarity III – Foucault: Discipline as Power | MODO DE VOLAR

  2. Pingback: The Disciplinarization of Interdisciplinarity I – Unproblematic Disciplines | MODO DE VOLAR

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This entry was posted on 18/01/2016 by in Sem categoria.
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