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Articles from Integral Leadership Review

Transdsciplinary Reflections: Transdisciplinarity as

Play and Transformation
2012-11-05 11:11:04 Alfonso Montuori

Alfonso Montuori

Americans have historically been a very practical people. Delving too much into the
realm of theory and ideas, let alone epistemology, has often been viewed askance; a
somewhat effete egghead distraction from the business of getting things made and
done. Theory is a complex and problematic term, and its also far more pervasive
than we may thinkeven among those inclined not to be sympathetic to too much,
or even any, theorizing. I suggest that there is a danger in what I see as an
increasing anti-intellectual tendency to dispose of theory or suggest theory is simply
an abstract opinion, as in it is just a theory, or some intellectual framework
removed from reality: so many castles in the air.
Most inquiry is intra-paradigmatic, meaning it goes on within an established
discipline and theoretical framework. The fundamental disciplinary and theoretical
assumptions remain largely unchallenged. Integral scholarship tends, by definition,
to be inter- or transdisciplinary. A central dimension of transdisciplinarity is that it
should be meta-paradigmatic. Transdisciplinarity involves moving across disciplines
and across theories. This means understanding the fundamental assumptions
underlying disciplines and theories as well as their underlying paradigms. Many
years ago Magoroh Maruyama coined the somewhat unwieldy but useful term
paradigmatology in an important paper on cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural
communication that still deserves a wider readership.
Disciplines and theories create understandings of specific topics through sets of
distinctions. In the process of transdisciplinary inquiry we acknowledge that,
because of its complexity, our topic will be studied in a way that goes beyond the
boundaries of one specific discipline or theoretical framework. We study how the
topic has already been approached through a plurality of theoretical lenses in
different and probably non-communicating disciplines. It is helpful to understand how
these lenses construct the topic; how they frame our understanding of it; what

distinction they make about what is central and peripheral; what the unit of analysis
is; what matters and what does not matter; and what is illuminated as well as what
is obscured, ignored, or simply left out.
So, in that sense, transdisciplinarity and integral scholarship require engaging theory
rather thoroughly and really becoming aware of how it shapes our understanding of
the world. But the term theory is getting bashed around a bit these days. There are
many ways in which the use of the term theory is problematic. I want to point out
some major areas of possible confusion, mostly because they are the source of
considerable debate; and in the process also highlight some of the dangers of
ignoring theory.
Disimissing Theory
At the most basic level there are the giving theory the elbow critiques, such as we
find in the evolution debate: its just a theory. This popular use of the term views
theory as a dirty word and dismisses it as, essentially, abstract speculation. The
theory of evolution is therefore entirely speculative, flimsy at best, with little
relationship to facts. Where is your missing link, Mr. Darwin? What about the
eyeball? It is just a story a particular group of people tell, and there are really no
criteria to differentiate between the speculations of an evolutionary biologist and
those of a layperson. Anyone can make up a story and, therefore, a theory. In this
context, theory is often opposed to fact, as in, a fact is real, a theory is not.
This more popular dismissal of theory is complicated by the relativization of science
as a way of knowing coming from a variety of sources, including of course the work
of Thomas Kuhn, sociologists of science like Bruno Latour, and feminist
philosophers like Lorraine Code, Evelyn Fox Keller, Carolyn Merchant, and others. If
before the way natural scientists used the term theory was arguably more clearly
defined and precise than the way social scientists did; now it all seems to be getting
more confusing. This adds a twist because it is a slippery slope from relativization
and challenge to complete dismissal. The often virulent backlash against so-called
postmodern authors has largely been about a sense that it rips knowledge from any
moorings and leaves us with nothing to hang on tono foundation at all.
Over the last decade or so I have become increasingly concerned that theory is
simply not appreciated any more. Now lets be clear, theory has never been loved in
the US to the extent that it has been in Europe. Recently the sociologist Howard
Becker steered me clear of a book by a well-known French sociologist whose work I
know he thinks of highly. Dont get that one, he told me, its not very good. Its his
theory book. He had to write it because in France youre nobody until you have a
A source of confusion in the postmodern debate is, I believe, cross-cultural. The
French love to play with ideas and words in a way that most Americans find
troubling and perhaps irresponsible. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari argued that
philosophy is about the creation of conceptstherefore, a creative process.
Invention, not discovery. This sort of thing is alien to what might be called our latent
positivism and our explicitly practical action orientation. But taken too far, our

pragmatism becomes anti-intellectualism, and before we know it were in the land of

Dumb and Dumber.
Recently I read a review of a book in which two chapters were described as entirely
theoretical. The author argued that these chapters had no practical implications or
application. This reflects another longstanding coupling in theorys rather
promiscuous historythe debate about theory and practice, or praxis. The
philosophical debate on the relationship between theory and praxis is extensive; but
the complete divorce between theory and practice, as if the two were exact
opposites, is problematic. Dont give me theory! Give me something useful. Give me
something practical.
I have also been continually struck by the aversion to theory in workshops and
management training seminars. While I appreciate the focus on action and
practicality, I am concerned that people are increasingly unable or unwilling to read a
theoretical work and consider what its implications and applications might be.
French and American Cultures
Grappling with the infinite play of abstraction may be more of a French thing, but in
the US we like models because models suggest movement, direction, and how to
get from A to B. The trend towards 7 steps to . . . The 5 ways to. . . 8 lessons of.
. . type books reflects a process of translation. Somebody takes a complex set of
ideassay chaos theory; or positive psychology; or, more recently, the latest
insights from neuroscienceand frames them in easy to understand steps or
lessonsa model. All well and good. The problem arises when we seemingly lose
our ability to make sense of theory independently of the priestly class of professional
translators. When we need translators to make sense of theory and show us the
five or seven or eight steps, we move from a sense of the practical to essentially
asking somebody to tell us what and how to do things. At what point do we just want
to follow orders and not think for ourselves? At what point do we begin to lose track
of our own implicit theories, of our beliefs and assumptions, and the way they shape
our understanding of and action in, the world?
The implications of theoretical anemia are considerable. They go beyond what might
be thought of (tellingly) as the abstruse academic domain inhabited by alien
eggheads. There are implications for basic citizenship, for elections, for
understanding the different perspectives presented by political parties, for
excavating their assumptions, for understanding their implications, and so on. I am
writing this in the days leading up to the 2012 election; and there are a lot of halfbaked, undigested theories floating around. The you didnt build this debate, which
is polarizing left and right is essentially about an individualistic, closed system view
of the individual vs. a more communitarian, socially constructed view. For the Ayn
Randian individual, to quote Sinatra and Brown, I did it my way, and I dont want
nobody to give me nothing. To suggest I didnt do it alone is to attack me as an
individual, to attack hard work, to bring up the specter of dependence, and worse.
For the more communitarian view, an individual exists within a social system, in a
network of relationships, and we need to acknowledge the role of the larger social
and environmental systems including direct and indirect government support. It

takes a village. Very different perspectives, different assumptions, different

implications, consequences, etc. These views have become incommensurable, it
What is lacking is a more thoughtful unpacking of the implications of these
perspectives, their theoretical roots, and their implications and applications. It is
easy to remain stuck in slogans and emotional calls about the virtues of the
individual or community. We can easily remain on this surface level if we don not
know how to excavate our theoretical assumptions and if we do not acquire the
ability to entertain ideas, as John Lilly used to say. We might, therefore, embrace the
notion of being able to play with ideas and appreciate them as creative products or
ways of framing the world but holding them lightly without excessive attachment.
Particularly if theyre our own.
For those who feel such a playful approach to ideas is simply not appropriate in an
age of great change and potential global disaster, I highly recommend Richard
Bernsteins work. He draws heavily on hermeneutics and a sophisticated reading of
the pragmatist tradition, particularly in his wonderful books Beyond Objectivism and
Relativism and The Abuse of Evil: Politics and Religion after 9/11. In the latter, a
powerful discussion of pragmatic fallibilism in the face of great danger, and the need
for the ability to engage a serious threat without becoming immobilized by
indecision. He convincingly argues that it is possible to be a pragmatic fallibilist, to
continually question ones premises and theories, to believe ones ideas and
theories are fallible, and still take action despite the call of absolutism and
unreflective reaction/action.
In the field of leadership even a cursory assessment of the literature shows the
plurality of theories and models of the mainstream discourse. There is also the
movement towards so-called leaderless organizations. There are other recent
developments, such as post-heroic leadership, which challenge the very premises
of the ways we think about leadership, down to the unit of analysis and the basic
cultural archetype of the leader.
With this great, rich, and yet confusing, pluralism, it is all too easy to either throw
ones hands up in despair or simply salivate when the bell of the newest model or
theory emerges, going from one to the next, in an endless quest. Developmental
psychology offers an interesting way of approaching this issue.
William Perrys important work on cognitive development was based on 10 years of
research on the way undergraduate students changed their thinking based on their
college experiences. For the sake of convenience, Perrys research can be
summarized as presenting three main stages.
The first of these stages is dualism. We make a clear distinction between the self
and the external world. Knowledge resides in the external world. Knowledge is
absolute truth, and learning involves searching for the appropriate authority. Any
differences in perspectives are reduced to right-wrong, good-bad. We reject

ambiguity because it suggests that the proper authority has not been found.
The second stage is multiplicity. Perrys research suggests that the exposure to a
pluralistic world breaks down absolute categories of right and wrong as we begin to
see there are many different perspectives and a lot of grey areas. Rather than
believing in a single, absolute truth, we believe that there are as many truths as
there are people. The loss of the right answer swings us towards the view that
anything goesthat all perspectives are just a theoryand that one is as good as
the next. The self becomes a source of knowledge; and, in fact, there is a privileging
of subjectivity. You see it your way, I see it my way. An anti-authoritarian position
can develop as a reaction to the conformism of dualism.
Perrys third stage is contextual relativism. It emerges from an ongoing grappling
with multiplicity, as well as the realization of the ultimate futility and the nihilism of
multiplicity. If everybody is rightor nobody is wronghow can we make any
choices or commitments? Whereas dualism saw the source of knowledge as
external and objective, and multiplicity as internal and subjective, contextual
relativism reconciles the two in dialogue and appreciates the importance of context
in making choices. It looks for knowledge in the interaction between self and world
as an ongoing inquiry.
Perrys work points to the kind of complex thought articulated by the French
philosopher Edgar Morin, to Bernsteins pragmatic fallibilism, and to the work in
post-formal thinking familiar to readers of this journal. It also points to the importance
of cultivating a more complex, post-formal way of thinking in order to do justice to
transdisciplinary work. It frames our encounter with a plurality or multiplicity of views,
not as a reason for despair, but as a challenge to develop new thinking and creative
inquiry. This would recognize the need to grapple with theoretical perspectives as
creative openings into the world, which are themselves viewed through our own set
of, often mostly implicit, assumptions about the world. One way to begin
approaching theory, therefore, is to recognize that we all have our own theories, our
own set of creative frames and openings to the world, our own epistemology. As
Gregory Bateson put it, anybody claiming not to have an epistemology simply has a
bad one.
Transdisciplinarity framed in this way becomes more than simply engaging in
research using a plurality of disciplinary and theoretical perspectives. It becomes an
inquiry into the nature of knowledge, as well as demanding of the researcher an
ongoing process of self-reflection and self-inquiry an elucidation of how we
ourselves create our understanding of the world, how that understanding emerged
through our own personal and social history, by being embodied and embedded,
and how it (and we ourselves) can be opened and indeed transformed as we
develop a more nuanced, creative epistemology and way of being in the world.
About the Author
Alfonso Montuori, PhD, is Professor at California Institute of Integral Studies,
where he designed and teaches in the Transformative Leadership M.A. and the
Transformative Studies Ph.D. He was Distinguished Professor in the School of Fine

Arts at Miami University, in Oxford Ohio and in 1985-1986 he taught at the Central
South University in Hunan, China. An active musician and producer, in a former life
Alfonso worked in London England as a professional musician. He is the author of
several books and numerous articles on creativity and innovation, the future,
complexity theory, and leadership. Alfonso is also a consultant in the areas of
creativity, innovation and leadership development whose clients have included
NetApp, Training Vision (Singapore), Omintel-Olivetti (Italy) and Procter and Gamble.