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A Plea for Interdisciplinarity
June 4, 2014 richardstevenpark

A Plea for Interdisciplinarity

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Given the rather dizzying force of academic fragmentation in the modern world and the attendant sub-specialization of disciplines, a plea for interdisciplinary thinking for the Christian apologist is not only understandable, but indeed imperative. In this post, I offer a critical if brief comment on the legitimacy and need for academic integration.

Interdisciplinarity has become a sort of academic anomaly. It is, as the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre says, about his own (now classic) interdisciplinary work, something which goes against “academic orthodoxy”, laying outside “conventional academic disciplinary boundaries” (see “Postscript to the Second Edition” in MacIntyre, After Virtue, pp. 264-65). The highly acclaimed theoretical physicist David Bohm expressed this same concern over academic fragmentation, writing that unfortunately “art, science, technology, and human work in general, are divided up into specialties, each considered to be separate in essence from the others” (see David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, p. 1).

This was not always the case, and I contend need not be so. In Latin, the term scientia originally captured forms of rigorous inquiry that involved both: (i) the “natural sciences” (originally “natural philosophy”) under which category would fall concepts ranging from “ethics, politics, rhetoric and metaphysics” to “astronomy, physics, zoology” and the like; as well as (ii) the social or human sciences (“moral philosophy”). (For more on this point, see Shelby Hunt, Controversy in Marketing Theory: For Reason, Realism, Truth, and Objectivity, pp. 15 ff). All scientia, whether natural or human, yields knowledge. In order to analyze the world and life in late modern society in a most robust way, I find it necessary to traverse the various academic “disciplines” of knowledge, and do so especially by integrating these respective “domains”.

There is, of course, an historical reason for the onset of modern academic fragmentation, one which MacIntyre helpfully traces. MacIntyre describes academic fragmentation as resulting from the medieval scholastic period during which time the great St. Thomas Aquinas worked to synthesize Aristotelian philosophy with Christian theology (see Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, pp. 205-08 and 248-50). In brief, two schools of thought resulted from Aquinas’ attempt at synthesis. First, there were those who rejected it, suggesting that it smacked of “Averroism” – i.e., an Islamic appropriation of Aristotle; and secondly, there were others who sought to maintain the synthesis, yet doing so in a “compartmentalized” fashion whereby “logical studies proceeded . . . independently of enquiries in theology, and both in equal independence of writings about ethics and politics.”

Since most of the academy (in the West, at least) followed the latter route, theology was decentred and fell from its grace of being the “queen of the sciences.” While semblances of academic integration remained – e.g., the eighteenth century Scottish “professor of moral philosophy [who] was the official defender of the rational foundations of Christian theology, of morals, and of law” – by this point in time, fragmentation has had its effects as evidenced in the role of the academic theologian who was considered what MacIntyre describes as a “secularized professor of divinity.”

The historical disintegration and attendant fragmentation of the academy requires that the Christian apologist and analyst of society must seek to reintegrate the fragmented knowledge structures of our day in order to most effectively engage and critique the contemporary social malaise we call modernity.

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