Transdisciplinarity through Structured Dialogue
Beyond sterile dualities in meetings to the challenge of participant
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Published in Transnational Associations, 1995, 1, pp. 43-53 [PDF version]
A version of this was also published in Knowledge Organization, 22, 1995,
2, pp. 82-88
The 1st World Congress on Transdisciplinarity was held near Lisbon from 2-6 November
1994. The event was organized with the support of the Portuguese National Commission of
UNESCO, the Transdisciplinarity Study Group for UNESCO, and the International University
of Lisbon, under the auspices of the Centre International de Recherches et d'Etudes
Transdisciplinaires (CIRET, Paris), UNESCO, the Council of Europe, and the Mayor of
Setubal. It was opened by the President of Portugal.
The 76 invited participants were primarily French-speaking, with 33 from France. Other
countries represented included: Argentine, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Hungary,
Italy, Japan, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Switzerland, USA. A preparatory meeting
had been organized by CIRET at UNESCO in Paris in June.
The event was held in the Convento da Arrabida, a Franciscan monastery dating from 1542
but abandoned since 1854 (when religious orders were abolished in Portugal). The monastery
has been taken over and partially restored since 1990 by the Fundaçao Oriente, with some
buildings converted into a small residential conference centre (although many participants
resided in nearby Settubal as guests of the city). The centre is part of the European
Network of Cultural Businesses and Institutions located at Historical Sites. It is set
in the Arrabida National Park on slopes overlooking the sea. Christopher Columbus is said
to have meditated in a hermitage there prior to his explorations.
Given the nature and ambitions of the event, it would be inconsistent to describe it in
any conventional way. The following sections are therefore designed to evoke an
understanding of what it might, or might not, have been according to one's perspective.
What indeed is transdisciplinarity and who could possibly be interested in it? As with
many events that bring together unusual combinations of people, it is less interesting
what it 'is' and more interesting what a range of committed individuals assume
it to be from their various perspectives. Lack of detail in any preliminary announcements
then contributes to diversity and surprises.
Whereas many are familiar with efforts at interdisciplinarity over the past decades,
transdisciplinarity is as yet poorly defined -- if it does not lie beyond definition as
commonly accepted. Clearly it is in some way associated with whatever can be understood to
be 'beyond' interdisciplinarity and a discipline-bound perspective.
What it might be is obviously of fundamental concern to philosophers, logicians and
those concerned with any form of epistemology or challenges to conventional logic. And
philosophers and mathematicians concerned with 'complexity' were indeed
represented at the event. But it is also of concern to physicists faced with the
constraints and limitations of their methodology. But the technical questions of such
disciplines do not prevent those from the social sciences from having their own
understanding of its significance. Those present therefore included anthropologists,
sociologists, mythologists, linguists, and semioticians. But there were also participants
reflecting the special concerns of media communication, culture, ethics, architecture and
information technology. And then there were those concerned with concrete forms of social
and political action.
Whilst many were concerned with various forms of theoretical integration of
disciplines, others were concerned with integrative experience, as indicated by the number
of psychoanalysts of various schools. Various religious perspectives were represented, as
well as those of the plastic arts, literature and poetry. There were also traces of more
esoteric concerns in some of the presentations touching on kabbalistic and other
Many of the participants were major authorities in their respective fields. This does
not mean that there was any clear consensus on the nature of transdisciplinarity. However
there was clear concern that the fragmentation of the disciplines was failing to serve
society in the face of a complex of global problems and conflicting initiatives.
A choir of disciplines?
It would be inspiring to imagine a choir of disciplines gathered together on such a
challenging occasion. How would they divide into sections -- and on the basis of what
common qualities? How would their multi-part song take form as a self-organizing whole?
With what insights would the functions of a Kapelmeister be performed -- if such a role
Would transdisciplinarity emerge as the musical form to which all perspectives
collectively contributed -- each according to some appropriate timing, each from an
Of course many of the participants did indeed sing according to the modalities of their
respective discipline. There was much sincere effort towards articulation of the
collective song. But like the tuning period of an orchestra, harmonies would emerge
briefly before being swamped by discord from some other source. There were hints of
unifying themes, but these were easily obscured by the enthusiasms of particular singers.
One participant's unification could easily become another's straitjacket -- although such
mutual constraint could also be said to be evident in any choral context.
Superposition of understandings
Transdisciplinarity might be thought of as a challenge to space-binding and
time-binding learning. A congress would therefore tend to show evidence of superposition
of layers of insight and understanding which in other circumstances might be separated
over time and space.
This could be seen in the emphasis, from one perspective, on the conventional linear
organization of the event. There were many solo presentations in sequence throughout each
packed day. But, to the surprise of many, a significant number of these mirrored common
themes that transcended conventional logics. The transcendence of duality was evoked in
But in a context where it was to be expected that every participant's understanding was
necessarily challenged and stretched by unfamiliar insights, distinguishing fruitful
insight from unhelpful distractions was no easy task. The event could thus be read and
heard in a variety of ways through superimposed layers of meaning and noise. Participants
were free to project significance into the dynamics or to strip them of meaning
In an event of this nature, requiring a configuration of complementary insights, must
significance for one necessarily be meaningless to another for the congress to function
effectively? Can such an event transcend its own limitations without the apparent presence
of such conceptual hubris? How is the experience of hubris to be balanced against that of
It is occasionally argued that useful communication in a conference can be most quickly
evoked by subjecting participants to a shared shock of some kind. Clearly few organizers
would be prepared to indulge deliberately in such risky exercises.
A latin environment offers many natural opportunities through which to subject
northerners to useful shocks. Scheduling and arrangements are liable to evoke northern
nervousness under the best of circumstances. When should one start to panic: when
transportation arrangements seem unpredictably fluid; when the event is opened in the
absence of many participants; when hotel reservations have not been made; when there is no
interpretation into a language one understands; when there is no complete programme...?
What better than to arrive in the dark and be required to walk for 10 minutes through a
heavy mist to an undefined destination down a muddy track that a bus is unable to
negotiate? The aesthetic experience alone offers interesting flavours to any exploration
Shocks of this kind can usefully force participants into a mental framework that is
detached from conventional expectations. Responding in the moment to emerging
configurations of circumstances then makes for a more harmonious experience than a
stressful need for predictability. Surprises can be more effectively evoked, met and
enjoyed. Encounters with other participants under such conditions then have a more
realistic quality going beyond shared interests or congeniality. The reality of the event
then permeates the content and process rather than being detached from them as a neutral
framework. Taken seriously transdisciplinarity does indeed call for transformation of the
framework within which it is considered and exercised.
Searching for keystones
From within an architectural metaphor, any assembly of disciplines can be seen as a
configuration of walls and pillars. Each presentation effectively positions a new part of
the structure. Participants can wander between the parts as they emerge -- and to the
extent that they can negotiate the various barriers and pitfalls of a complex building
site. Finding one's way around is no trivial matter. Certain parts may make it easy to get
lost - especially when the mist comes down and all sense of context and perspective is
lost. One may have odd encounters with participants mysteriously busy in distant and
unfrequented parts of the structure. One may be drawn into furious activity in other more
Especially challenging is the difference in what is seen by different participants.
Some seem only to see a rather primitive structure in the earliest stages of its
construction -- or in the final stages of its decay into ruins. Others seem to see a
completed temple of integrative knowledge and insight in all its glory. Wandering around
an atemporal structure that flickers unpredictably in this way between reality and
potentiality is a real challenge to understanding. Some participants seem to be engaged in
constructing a roof in the absence of any substantive walls to support it. There are
magnificent doorways which, in the apparent absence of any walls, seem to lack any
justification -- except as a powerful symbol of future possibility. Where do they lead?
Marvellous windows seem to lack any support and yet let in light of unforeseen quality.
And, as in the most famous Escher drawings, stairways to higher levels often seem to lead
paradoxically back to their starting point, defying any normal sense of gravity in the
process. Arguing in circles then takes on new meanings.
Most confusion seems to lie around the nature of the keystones on which any such
edifice depends. It is one thing to construct walls and pillars -- most disciplines have
long practice in building conceptual edifices. It is another to find the form through
which such knowledge structures can be meaningfully related to others to bear a load at a
higher level. This is the challenge of conceptual scaffolding. Again, some participants
have an almost mystical approach to the substance and design of keystones, others lapse
into technicalities that fail to arouse confidence elsewhere. There is a sense that much
work remains to be done.
Most challenging to the unwary is the apparent ability of some participants to work on
higher floors of the structure when the lower levels do not yet seem to offer any
substantive support. How do they get up there? Some seem to have specially powered
elevators. What keeps them there? With what materials are they working? What do they think
they are doing? Are there yet higher levels that one cannot see through the confusing
mists of one's limited understanding? Is one effectively a ghost oneself to someone
observing from another part of the structure?
War of the maps
Under such circumstances it is useful to pay careful attention to those who offer maps
and plans of the structure that is emerging into collective awareness. At such an event,
many offer such maps. The event could even be described as a 'map market' with
some stall-holders making harder sales pitches whilst others seem relatively indifferent
to the interest of potential buyers. Their maps sketch in relations between certain parts
or offer a general understanding of the whole.
But there are difficulties with such maps. Often these are a consequence of the limited
extent to which the map-maker has explored the structure as a whole. Some maps are imbued
with the mystique and wisdom of antiquity. Others seem to be simply out-of-date. The
map-maker may deny that certain features are part of the structure. Some maps are very
sketchy indeed. Some are based on quite bizarre projections. Some provide an excessive
amount of detail for only a very small part of the overall structure. Some are really only
technical drawings relating to particular aspects of the construction. But it is also
important to recognize that everybody does not need the same kind of map.
Most disturbing are the situations in which participants argue for the respective
merits of their own map -- effectively denying that of others. How can one find a way to
reconcile the maps to facilitate the ability of people to navigate the structure? For even
the process of discussion is fraught with difficulty when there is no common language and
people are suspicious of the experience underpinning any given map they are offered. In
French the 'War of the Maps' (La Lutte Des-cartes) suggests an
interesting twist to the challenge. It is of course possible that the higher
dimensionality of the transdisciplinary arena makes it inherently unmappable -- or
transcendent to the normal function of maps.
Coffee...what a break
There is now widespread recognition that the real business of meetings takes place at
coffee breaks and meals. The coffee in Portugal is superb, even when served in quantity.
Coffee and meals with a superb view can only be conducive to a higher order of reflection.
Coffee breaks are indeed a real relief from the substantive indigestion of lengthy
presentations. A different pattern of communication ensues. It is this switch in mode
which is poorly understood. Clearly the presentations provide substance for dialogue in
the breaks. And the breaks reframe the way in which the presentations are understood. They
are necessary complements.
But as with the digestive or respiratory processes of the body, it is questionable
whether organizers know how to get the balance right. Too much inspiration? Too little
expiration? Or just plain breathlessness because of the high altitude? Maybe conferences
need some communication analogue to breathing exercises -- provided they can protect
themselves from the ministrations of self-righteous conference gurus!
Much has been be said about the logical or other frameworks through which disciplines
can be related or integrated. Much stress can be placed on the need for understanding of a
single discipline before it can in any way be transcended. It is difficult to transcend
that which one has not acquired or gained some competence in. But then what is a
discipline -- given that most disciplines find ways to disparage or deny the legitimacy of
Then too, there is a strong current, which was represented by some participants,
favouring a more experiential approach that is less dependent on ideas and more reflective
of integrative, grounded experience. Many spiritual, aesthetic and physical disciplines
stress this perspective.
A more shamanistic metaphor may be appropriate. In this sense the disciplines reflect
the habitual patterned (and often limited) behaviours with which many are often
unfortunately familiar in society today. Rather than a Kapelmeister, what the key player
at a transdisciplinary event then takes on are the functions of a Shaman. Through some
suitably repetitive conference ritual (not lacking at the 5-day event), the Shaman
effectively evokes a 'trance of the disciplines' allowing new insights of a
'supernatural' order to emerge. Like the Kapelmeister, the Shaman uses
disciplined chanting to good effect. Clearly to the detached observer, the sight of a
collection of disciplines indulging in activity of a dubious nature can only raise
questions and many doubts. And yet to others the 'trance' offers experiential
evidence of a higher order whose operations are understood as vital to the organization of
everyday life. What indeed would entrance the disciplines and oblige them to constrain
their habitual responses in useful new ways?
Perhaps it was no accident that so many psychoanalysts were present from Brazil --
given the importance of shamanistic and voodoo traditions there.
But why would poets and artists of the highest repute choose to be present at such an
event? They have never received much consideration from the harder sciences. And yet they
too imagine a role for themselves in the transdisciplinary arena.
It is tempting to accept that the sciences have reached the limit of their ability to
articulate their understanding of complexity in the formal languages which they cultivate.
It is tempting to foresee a time when higher orders of complexity can only be understood
through the insightful representations of the arts. For many participants that time may
have already arrived. Formal abstractions have come to be equated with aridity. The much
sought integration may need to be fired by experiential and aesthetic qualities.
Just as the scientific disciplines must recognize their limitations in a
transdisciplinary framework, so it is with the artistic disciplines. Transfiguration is no
trivial matter if it is to succeed. How can such disciplines bring to bear their aesthetic
power to reframe and reconfigure that of which others are aware? Of what idiosyncracies
must they themselves be aware -- and leave behind in this endeavour?
The Arrabida Monastery, and its natural environment, certainly set a high standard of
aesthetics. How can higher orders of beauty be given form in the light of
transdisciplinary perspectives? There were those who addressed this issue and related this
quest to those of more scientific inclination. For scientists do claim sensitivity to the
beauties of the natural order, even though these have no place in their language of formal
A key thread in linking formal abstraction to aesthetic sensitivity was explored
through notions of symmetry. As in many instances, the event was privileged to have one of
the world's few specialists on this topic. The search for keystones may even be defined in
terms of the search for new forms of symmetry capable of holding the relationship between
new forms of seeming incommensurability.
Each form of symmetry can be said to imply the presence of a higher form of order. The
nature of that order can often only be surmised through a pattern of symmetry -- as a two
dimensional projection of what escapes the comprehension. The challenge is even greater
when the symmetry lies in the dynamics between intangible qualities or principles. This is
especially so when their apparent incompatibility can only be understood, if at all, as of
a 'complementary' nature -- with all the paradoxical challenges this may imply.
It was for such reasons that symbolists of various persuasion were attracted to the
event. For it is symbols that have been traditionally used to embody subtle qualities and
it is through the symmetry of symbols that higher orders of understanding are suggested.
It is however one thing to imply the possibility of such understanding and another to
manifest it in practice -- especially at a congress with others endowed with related or
competing skills. But did some of these differences, like those between the tones of
specially tuned Tibetan temple bells, serve to create the kind of interference patterns
through which higher harmonics could be engendered and heard? This calls for meeting
skills of an unusually high order.
The local organizer of the event, a well-known artist, had recently completed a book on
five-fold symmetry. But, curiously, and unrecognized by the organizers, the event was held
in a hall lit in such a way that the interference pattern between certain fixed lights
created a striking heptagram on the main wall -- an unusual pattern under any
The organizers, and the Kapelmeister, were clearly faced with a daunting challenge.
This was aggravated by the requirements of the various sponsors.
As with any work of art, or any piece of research, there are outside influences that
structure the enterprise in ways that may appear less than fruitful. It is a truism that
the more that a project is international, intercultural or interdisciplinary, the lower
the probability of institutional support. This is hardly surprising when sponsoring and
funding agencies are themselves organized to reflect the high degree of fragmentation of
contemporary society -- and pride themselves for their practical realism and social
relevance in doing so.
Sponsors fear any form of innovation but require that projects appear innovative. This
is a traditional dilemma for innovators. Transformative processes must be disguised as
exercises in the reinforcement of the status quo. But in the case of this event the
external pressures were even more severe. In order to be eligible for funding, an open
discussion-oriented congress had to be presented as a closed, traditionally-ordered
sequence of presentations -- minimizing the amount of discussion. But the final
institutional 'sting' was that promised funding was then decimated just prior to
the event -- effectively preventing any interpretation between French and English-speaking
Even under such circumstances there is a need to maintain acceptable links to the
institutional world. The wise may even allow traditional protocol to rule in potentially
transformative environments -- giving to Caesar, what is Caesar's. The wisdom of allowing
Caesar to claim full responsibility for creativity and innovation has long been recognized
-- even when he fails to recognize the limitations of his understanding of it.
In a transformative environment it is to be expected that transformative insights would
co-exist with a total lack of transformation. Optimistically these extremes may be seen as
necessary complements to each other, with the one providing stability to give birth to the
The event did however provide some striking lessons in collective impotence and
paralysis. What lessons are to be learnt from participants waiting impatiently outside the
conference hall, inadvertently locked, when there is an open window via which the door may
be opened? And what is to be learnt from highly intelligent participants observing,
without reaction, as the bus they are in drives kilometres past the sole turn off to their
conference site? The latter incident may of course be reframed in terms of offering new
experience -- but there are limits to such intellectual gymnastics.
But what is to be said of a conference that emerged as highly structured despite
declared intentions to the contrary? How is it that participants can accept their
individual and collective impotence so readily? With even the 'complainers'
acting discreetly and non-disruptively in the articulation of their complaints.
Participants even failed to move to reconfigure the seats in a circle -- which would have
facilitated any dialogue. Is this the route to transdisciplinary transformation?
There is an instructive story about four able-bodied participants in such a meeting:
There was an opportunity for a real transformative change initiative. Everbody
was sure that Somebody would take the opportunity. Anybody could have done
so. But Nobody did. Somebody got angry about that, because it was
Everybody's responsibility. Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody
realized that Everybody was failing to do so. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody
when Nobody did what Anybody could have done!
In this way the congress modelled the fundamental challenge of contemporary society.
The best and the brightest indulge in the structures and dynamics of the past -- since
they continue to be well-nourished by them. At the same time they are aware of the need
for new forms, and may even discuss and enthuse about them at great length. But the silken
cords binding to the past are very strong: avoidance of rudeness, respecting the eminent,
acknowledging support, need to avoid jeopardizing valued friendships, cultivating possible
future relationships (and funding), reliance on the 'tired and true', etc.
Participant impotence: Mea culpa
Blame and scapegoating others obscures the need to understand individual
responsibility. Such impotence is most frustrating when it is conscious:
(a) As an opening speaker, what 'spell' prevented me from restructuring my
presentation to involve the participation of others in dialogue? Having advised the
organizers on such specific challenges prior to the event (Reflections on the
organization of transdisciplinary conferences, Transnational Associations, 1994, 5, pp
292-301), what exactly prevented me from switching to an emphasis on dialogue --
especially since I had already distributed a prepared paper to all? Agreed there is always
a case for using a presentation to establish one's own legitimacy and the coherence of any
transdisciplinary enterprise. Caesar needs to be reassured, even when he has withdrawn
much of his financial support. Opening speakers are expected to offer coherence. But
perhaps the error is to be caught up in this role rather than bridging to the urgent need
for self-organizing dialogue as a contemporary challenge to both content and process in
meetings which claim to be innovative.
(b) As a participant, what 'spell' prevented me from vigorously protesting
certain 'abuses' and styles of presentation? Why did I not plead for dialogue in
a more open meeting? Is there no limit to tolerance? But then again, I had already said my
piece. With what justification could I challenge the rights of others? But why not simply
voice that dilemma? There were many others holding that view.
By buying into a traditional communication pattern, this was effectively reinforced for
a whole chain of speakers. And for each speaker it became more difficult to break the
pattern and give up the opportunity to say one's piece -- even though this precluded any
Traditional speeches from the podium are a comforting ritual -- a contemporary form of
chant. Other forms of communication involve a much higher order of risk. Failure to take
such risk prevents participants from bringing their collective insights to bear on the
issues of how to redesign or co-create their communication environment in the spirit of
those insights which purportedly unite them.
Are there other ways of approaching such participant impotence? At an event in which
there was much stress on duality and its transcendence -- with an emergent third -- there
might have been a case for calling upon the insights of the psychoanalysts present,
especially those of Freudian orientation. Could such impotence be seen in terms of
psycho-sexual metaphors? Whether a question of impotence or frigidity in the face of
transformation, it suggests some deep-seated fear of conceptual 'consummation'
through which the excluded third takes form.
Faced with duality, the transdisciplinary participant is effectively unable to act. As
elsewhere, such impotence can only be discussed with the greatest discretion. It must be
disguised and reference to it must be avoided in polite society -- despite its obvious
implications for the political impotence currently evident within the international
community. This would suggest that there is a need to completely reframe the way in which
conference participants approach such duality. As in contemporary society, the pattern of
contextual stress is recognized as a severe inhibitor of healthy response. But should this
suggest a search for psychic aphrodisiacs to facilitate the necessary response to duality?
If a choir is a useful metaphor, it highlights the need for the individual discipline
of the participants. It is one thing for meeting participants to claim to practice a
discipline, but it is another for them to act in a disciplined manner within a meeting.
The issue of participant discipline is seldom raised explicitly -- except in the stressful
irritation of session chairpersons endeavouring to ensure respect for a much abused
The art of 'terminating' an inappropriate presentation remains elusive under
the best of circumstances. There are always participants who overrun their time, depriving
others of similar opportunities. To do so, some shamefully abuse their status as world
authorities, honoured guests or sponsors -- and are allowed to do so, despite considerable
irritation. Some launch into lengthy anecdotes from their life story, abusing real
appreciation for their achievements. Some see their presentation as an opportunity for
personal dramatization -- so drama too was well- represented at Arrabida! This may take
the form of personal testimony -- converting the gathering into a testimony meeting in
which applause is required as necessary affirmation. Some abuse a gathering as a marketing
or self- promotional opportunity before a trapped audience.
At a gathering in which many have a theoretical interest in self-organization
processes, what prevents them from acting in such a way as to augment the
self-organization of the event itself? Why the dependence on father figures to ensure good
behaviour on the basis of dubious criteria? Is it a proven fact that mature participants
are unable to exhibit the personal discipline to order their behaviour without such
intervention? Perhaps attention should be focused on the contrasts between a typical
Western 'organized' choir and the self-organizing variety characteristic of some
African cultures, for example. At what point does the discipline of Kapelmeister become
absorbed into the personal discipline of every participant?
Ironically the challenge of participant impotence in the face of such abuses may be
taken as an excess of participant discipline -- but of an antiquated kind. The challenge
is that participants misbehave when given the freedom to do so as presenters, but they
behave like chastened children, denying all responsibility, when relegated to the function
There is a need for a new participant discipline for those seeking to function in
transdisciplinary gatherings. A Charter of Transdisciplinary Meeting Participants
might be a useful beginning (cf Pattern of Meeting Participant Roles; the shdowy
roundtable hidden within every meeting. Brussels, UIA, 1993). As in the case of a singer,
it would highlight the way in which a participant could most useful contribute to a
collective song. It would clarify entry cues and the moments when a particular voice
should cease. It would articulate the function of counter- point and the disciplines of
multi-part song. Different styles of singing would be contrasted (to avoid vain attempts
to combine the equivalent of Georgian chant and hard rock!). It would clarify, despite the
best of intentions, how each participant brings both key insights and unfortunate ways of
undermining the quality of the collective song.
At Arrabida some participants called for a new attitude on the part of participants.
Such events should allow for skilful confrontation of perspectives without suppressing
fruitful disagreement. In music terms such elements make for more harmonies of a higher
order because of the ways in which apparent disagreement must be held in order to be
effectively integrated. The best of perspectives call for challenge in order to evoke
responses of a higher order.
Purpose: a new route to the 'Indies'?
What might have been the purpose of the congress? What quality was being optimized? Or
were there a multiplicity of mutually indifferent agendas?
At best a self-organizing event could be understood to be refining and reframing a
purpose through its own processes. This would of course be anathema to any conventional
sponsor and to many participants. Intentions are expected to pre- date any serious
project. Spontaneous discovery is to be kept to a minimum. Meetings are expected to
produce pre- defined products. It is no wonder that meetings come up with very little that
is new -- they are designed that way. Meetings are not intended to focus on the
transformative quality of the moment -- which may be why they do seldom give rise to
anything of moment!
There was of course the undercurrent of shared concern that disciplines have failed to
respond to the social challenge of the emerging social crisis. And in many ways their
arrogance and complacency have served to exacerbate contemporary problems and the
conceptual gridlock in responding to them.
A gathering of the disciplines at the place where Columbus meditated on the possibility
of circumnavigating the globe does have a quality of appropriateness. There is great need
to see the world functionally in the round. But for those sensitive to historical
symbolism, there was a high degree of irony in the interpretation by Columbus of what he
subsequently 'discovered'. He thought he had found a new route to the Indies. He
had in fact 'discovered' a new continent. But it was only new from his cultural
perspective -- since it was already inhabited by other civilizations.
What surprises are in store for the transdisciplinary enterprise? What might it be
expected to discover in this way?
Given the quality of those assembled at the monastery, it was to be expected that
patterns of insight would be articulated in such a way as to resonate with one another.
Complementarities were brought to light. Conceptual relationships and other bonds were
affirmed. The harmonies and discords relating particular perspectives were carefully
cultivated and contextualized, notably in relation to the rhythm of the meeting. Paradoxes
were suitably held and configured. The arduous sequence of presentations could be seen as
the carrier wave for such construction -- both occupying those susceptible to distraction
as well as focusing the intentions of the gathering. The conceptual scaffolding became
progressively more transparent.
The metaphor of an antenna is useful in this context. A suitable array of concept
detectors can be used to capture insights which are difficult to resolve under other
circumstances. Whether the antenna could have been better designed is another matter -- a
circular array instead of a linear one? And towards what was the array oriented?
But what was done with the insights captured in this way? It cannot be said that they
were processed in any ordinary way -- although those looking for a conventional product
will find one. Rather they were somehow fed back onto the meeting processes so that the
content became the process. The gathering became producer and produced -- it became what
might be called a meta-object or a meta-subject. There emerged a form of
self-reflexiveness that was imbued with the aesthetic and spiritual qualities of the
monastery and its environment. Perhaps it was no accident that the monastery is nestled
into the slopes of a sacred mountain on which one of Portugal's most famous mystic poets
had lived as a hermit. Beauty can function as the subtlest of contextual frameworks.
Can a meeting be said to enfold itself, gathering and configuring its elements into a
higher dimensional construct? Is this construct to be considered subject or object? Or, as
emphasized in a number of presentations, both-subject-and-object? Or again, in the light
of Eastern logics, might it also be neither-subject-nor-object? How may such a construct
be said to act, if action is how it should be understood?
Are the fragmented frameworks of individual participant experience to be considered a
necessary counter-balance to such meeting enfoldment? For clearly there is never any lack
of participants who experience a gathering as a jumble of relative meaningless
contributions. How then do participants work together to evoke such enfoldment? And in
what way does it touch them thereafter?
Embodiment of insight
What was really going on at the monastery? Was it an effort to give form to Herman
Hesse's Glass Bead Game in which the skills of the sciences are so intimately
entwined with those of the arts? As representative 'singers' of the disciplines,
what were participants striving to achieve through their responses to one another?
Can the quality of the endeavour be more appropriately evoked by the following
description by philosopher Antonio de Nicolas (1978) of the four complementary conceptual
languages of the Rg Veda that are considered necessary to hold the complexity of
insights and experience:
'Therefore, from a linguistic and cultural perspective, we have to be aware
that we are dealing with a language where tonal and arithmetical relations establish the
epistemological invariances....Language grounded in music is grounded thereby on context
dependency; any tone can have any possible relationship to other tones, and the shift from
one tone to another, which alone makes melody possible, is a shift in perspective which
the singer himself embodies. Any perspective (tone) must be 'sacrificed' for a new one to
come into being; continuity, and the 'world' is the creation of the singer, who shares its
dimensions with the song.
In ancient times, the infinite possibilities of the number field were considered
isomorphic with the infinite possibilities of tone...Rg Veda man, like his Greek
counterparts, knew himself to be the organizer of the scale, and he cherished the
multitude of possibilities open to him too much to freeze himself into one dogmatic
posture. His language keeps alive that 'openness' to alternatives, yet it avoids
entrapment in anarchy. It also resolves the fixity of theory by setting the body of man
historically moving through the freedom of musical spaces, viewpoint transpositions,
reciprocities, pluralism, and finally, an absolutely radical sacrifice of all theory as a
fixed invariant.' (Antonio de Nicolas, Meditations through the Rg Veda. Boulder,
Shambhala, 1978, p. 57)
The proceedings of the event will be published by the International University of
Lisbon and will presumably include a list of participants. The views of the most
authoritative French-speaking transdisciplinarians have been recorded in filmed
interviews. A Charter of Transdisciplinarity was drafted, debated and signed by
some. Whether it could have had a more self-reflexive evolving structure, consistent with
its content and objective, is a matter for the future.
The main lesson of the first congress seems to be the need for a new form of
participant discipline responsive to the transformative moment (rather than to the
untransformative constraints of sponsors and programmes prepared in advance). Perhaps this
implies a new form of structured dialogue, as implied by Stafford Beer's (Beyond
Dispute; syntegrity team design. Wiley, 1994) most recent experiments.
Perhaps the facilities of Internet will be the key to the required breakthroughs in
conceptual scaffolding. Given the presence of the arts, perhaps the transdisciplinary
reality is in some way essentially plastic. The success of such an event lies in the
ability of individual participants to mould its earthy reality into a form that embodies a
higher order of coherence. It is the ability of participants to act out of such coherence
which is the key to the future of transdisciplinary events -- irrespective of whatever is
What of the next congress (scheduled for 1996 in France)? Could there be any
improvement on Arrabida? A small group of complainants, including this writer, drafted
some mild suggestions. These were not discussed, but instead I was appointed to focus any
such recommendations for the next event, if it is ever to be held. Any practical insights
on how to square the circle in such a congress...?