The Allure and the Danger of Interdisciplinary Study

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

-Alexander Pope

A word that has been thrown about in academia for as long as I’ve been involved is “interdisciplinary”.  On the Thomist side of my experience, the word is a source of some pain: you can often see department members’ eyes struggling not to roll, and for good reason.  Frequently, interdisciplinary courses, programs, or events are a thoughtless attempt at appearing on the “cutting edge”; at creative, innovative ways to “spark new thoughts”, and so on; much like modern art, the interdisciplinary track tends to think its method is more important than its results.  And indeed, the result is commonly as ugly as a Jackson Pollock.  Haphazardly splashing ideas across the already-cluttered canvases of students’ minds, with too little thought of organization or orientation…

On the other side of my experience, the semiotic–which experience is almost entirely through reading and only very thinly through in-person interaction–interdisciplinary study is seen as a natural part of studying semiotics.  On the one hand, semiologists (a subspecies of semioticians) have long been interested in the study of language in all of its forms, which inevitably sprawls across all the anthropocentric, culturally-related studies: psychology, philosophy, literature, the plastic arts, music, history, film, and so on.  On the other hand, Peirce-inspired semioticians are aware that the communicative nature of semiosis extends beyond the human realm, and therefore find its application in all living things–and in some cases, even in the non-living.  Zoology, biology, neuroscience, computer science, information studies, and physics, of all their various stripes and sizes, fit within the overall study of semiotics.

Of course, I’m suspicious that a lot of people who claim to be “doing semiotics” don’t really know what semiotics is, have never read a good introduction to the subject, have ever read Charles Peirce, and would likely balk if told that semiotics is “the normative science of truth”.  It seems likely that if you put ten semioticians from across the globe in the same room, you’d have at least five definitions of semiotics.  To be fair, if you put ten Thomists in a room, you’ll probably have ten varieties of Thomism.

At any rate, interdisciplinary studies has a twofold allure: one is much like the allure of semiotics, in that, being poorly-described and defined but wide-ranging and open to complexity, it is academically sexy.  It’s that highly-attractive person seen across the room that you want to follow.  Often, though, seen up close, it’s just not all that pretty; and even when it is, just like many an attractive person, the peronsality isn’t straightforward and pleasant, and could use a great deal of therapy.

The other allure is genuine: no one science, no one approach to knowledge, is self-contained and complete, and often the worst excesses of intelligence are born in a monomaniacal obsession with a single discipline.  The ability to transcend one’s own specialized discipline and appreciate its subject matter from the perspective of another–as well as bringing one’s own expertise to bear upon the other’s subject–opens the horizons of the intellectual world.  Philosophers in particular can be intransigent about the merits of other disciplines, in no small part because philosophy’s object of study is everything.  This does not mean that philosophers are in fact experts, however, in anything; rather, they are experts in generality, and perhaps even in a specific approach to generality; but that expertise is limited and unlike the expertise that someone has who focuses upon a more narrow field of inquiry.

Library at the Schloss Leopoldskron Palace in Salzburg, Austria

(As an aside: the over-specialization in philosophy today is a real problem with the university.  It is little exaggeration, for instance, to say that a job posting requires an Area of Specialization in 20th Century Jewish Feminist Ethics and an Area of Competence in Afro-Asian Islamic Poetic Expression of Metaphysical Themes in the 1370s.  I am sure that there is material to study in both; I am sure one could even write books about it, very scholarly, and maybe even insightful books; but this is a niche within a niche within a niche of scholarship and quite far removed from what philosophy itself is.)

Long story short: interdisciplinary studies can be a very good thing, but only when structured properly.  It is easy to become intoxicated with a multitude of shallow draughts.  To be united, two different fields of inquiry must be brought under a common umbrella–such as semiotics, the study of the action of signs–and oriented towards a common goal, namely, the meaningful discovery of truth.  Only then can we drink deep.


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