Charting the Transdisciplinary Space through Spinoza’s God and Nāgārjuna’s Śūnyatā.

Soraj Hongladarom
Department of Philosophy and Center for Ethics of Science and Technology
Chulalongkorn University

It is indeed the case that the proliferation of knowledge in the last century has produced a plethora of academic specializations each aiming at taking care of an ever smaller chunk of putative reality and developing ever more refined tool to do it. Academic specialization is a result of the idea of division of labor that ran parallel with industrial development that started in the late nineteenth century and continued until today. It is obvious how specialization carries advantages in many ways. With limited time and resources, it is not possible to excel in more than a small part of the whole, and in order to increase the depth of what is being studied, it has seemed to become necessary that more specialization is required. It seems that in order to go deeper and gain more knowledge at anything, one needs to delve into ever smaller bit, zooming in on it and analyzing it to finer details. In this atmosphere, the thinking is that the big picture—how every specific things all hang together—is left alone and somehow is believed to emerge spontaneously from the juxtapositions of these smaller bits.
However, it has become increasingly evident that this way of academic specialization is no longer able to answer to the needs of people and societies any longer. When academic disciplines go their own way in delving deeper and deeper in their own domains. they all branch out and go their separate ways. It is necessary that when each member of a group is equipped with a tool to enable them to zoom in on particular spots, they will each branch out and sooner or later will lose touch with each other completely. In biology, one may choose to study insects and another spiders, but when there are more insects to be studied the one who studies them finds that it is necessary for them to choose a particular species of insect, and so on; while the other who chose to study spiders do the same thing. Sooner or later the two biologists lose touch with each other. And this is only within the same academic discipline. One can then imagine what it would be like for, say, a historian of economic life in early Song dynasty and an entomologist specializing in life cycle of a butterfly species on an island south of Thailand to talk to each other and try to understand each other.
Many scholars such as Steve Fuller argued that academic specialization is a political tool for administrators to keep university lecturers in line. Specialization effectively prevents academics from understanding and collaborating with one another. This keeps them from establishing a united front against the administrators and hence academics, instead of becoming a potent political force, are strong only in their small domains where they are ‘experts,’ and are quite powerless outside. Since these small enclaves are scattered and unconnected to one another the political energy that could be harnessed is thus weakened. These scholars also note that academic specialization only mirrors the same trend outside of the academia. Politicians are keen of dividing people up, giving them profiles and categories. The British skillfully employed this ‘divide and rule’ tactic in their colonial administration in the early part of the last century.
Perhaps the above paragraph explains why it is very difficult to break away from this trend in specialization. Not only are most academics familiar with the trend, they feel comfortable and ‘protected’ within their small enclaves. Moreover they feel themselves to be powerful there and not outside, where they are not professionals but only lay people. Going beyond disciplines means that the academics lose their professional status and become only normal citizens. Moreover there are the political agenda as outlined above. Nonetheless, it has become actually necessary that academics who are producers of knowledge talk to one another and try to understand one another. The greatest danger of specialization lies not only in the weakened political force of the academics, but on academic disciplines losing out altogether in providing solutions and answers to the increasingly complex society and reality that we human beings are faced with at the onset of the twenty-first century. It is ironic that increased complexity would demand a rethink of specialization, but the picture of each knowledge seeker going out her own way digging her own way and branching out from her colleagues is no longer tenable. The reason is that it is impossible to get all the depths there are in all corners this way; zooming in on particular spots invariably means one is losing out on the whole picture. Today’s reality, with greater interconnectedness due to communication technologies and other means, is vastly more complex than the one studied by scientists in the late nineteenth century when the idea of specialization took hold. Nonetheless it is well documented that the world in the early part of the twenty-first century demands that one gets the big picture—how everything is related to everything else. This complexity does not merely need collaborative efforts among different disciplines, but there is also a need for a ‘transdisciplinary’ endeavor which means going beyond disciplinary boundaries altogether.
This need for transdisciplinary fusion is not only the case among the knowledge domains themselves, but perhaps more importantly between the domains and that of value. Ethics and epistemology, value and knowledge, have become separated for more than a century, due to the belief that the two answers totally different questions and are completely different in their orientations. The realm of ‘ought,’ so it was argued, is not to be confused with that of ‘is.’ The former tells what one ‘ought’ or ‘ought not’ to do; whereas the other tells us what ‘is’ or ‘is not’ the case. In the paper I intend to discuss this issue, relying on the works of the European philosopher Baruch de Spinoza, and the Indian Buddhist master Nāgārjuna. More specifically, I intend to show how the insights of these two masters, who lived far apart both in time and in space, could provide us with much needed tools and vocabularies in help us in exploring the uncharted space of transdisciplinarity, especially concerning the unity of knowledge and value.
In the Ethics, Spinoza shows that God is equated with Nature, and in fact with everything in the universe, which is in fact an attribute of Him. In other words, in Spinoza’s vision everything is God and is in God at the same time; everything is one and the same in one aspect and there are infinite variety of infinitely many things at the same time. In Spinoza’s words: “No attribute of a substance can be truly conceived from which it follows that the substance can be divided.” This means that there is only one thing. The substance here means God Himself, which for Spinoza is one and the same with reality. God appears at once as one entity and as infinitely many aspects of it. Both subject and object are only aspects of God; hence they are fundamentally one and the same. Minds and bodies are thus essentially the same; it is only through our finite minds that these are conceived as separate entities. In another theorem, he says “Whatever exists is in God, and nothing can exist or be conceived without God.” Since the substance or God (which is the same) cannot be divided and since anything that exists exists in God, everything is in God and is part of God.
The insight one gets from Spinoza is, then, that in our attempts to chart the transdisciplinary space, we realize that essentially things are one and the same, and all the differences there are between things are only appearances at the superficial level. Seemingly intractable differences, such as those between the humanistic and scientific disciplines, or between ethics and science, are thus only superficial, and deep down things are one and the same. The space, then, looks like that of Spinoza’s God with His infinite variety of modes and attributes. Boundaries are illusions created to serve mundane, temporary purposes; once this is realized then boundaries fall away and the transdisciplinary space reveals itself. It is a space where concepts are not taken as objectively real. Words can mean one thing or another, totally unrelated thing. There is always a constant flux between concepts. Since disciplinary boundaries are constructed through concepts the transdisciplinary space then arises when concepts are in constant flux and there is a “playful” attributions or interconnections among them. Words and concepts are not fixed forever through a system of “objectively real” scheme of meaning; on the contrary, their meaning structures are what are played upon. At one time one may fix on a particular conceptual scheme, but one may change to another, totally different scheme the next moment, or dispense with all schemes altogether and perceive reality as it really is—totally devoid of all conceptualizations and dualities.
The vision is also a Buddhist one. And a corollary to the theme of the paper I also show that Spinoza and Nāgārjuna share much more in common than scholars have standardly assumed. Here ‘God,’ ‘Substance,’ ‘Emptiness’ (śūnyatā) and ‘Nirvāna’ are words that refer to the same thing. That thing includes everything there is, and we are all parts of it. In Mūlamādhayamakakārika, Nāgārjuna provides us with a description and logical analysis of Emptiness. Reality as normally conceived—that which we normally taken to be real and consists of things like tables, chairs and so on—is in fact one and the same, and differences among discrete ‘things’ like tables and chairs are merely constructed out of our conceptualization which we have to depend on in making meaningful statements and in comprehending reality that faces us in our living. However, both Spinoza and Nāgārjuna invite us to penetrate beyond these conceptualizations. They help us create a map of the transdisciplinary space, a map which is odd from the beginning (and might not be eligible to be a ‘map’ at all) in that it lies on the brink of breaking down of conceptualizations and hence intelligibility.
This is why the philosophies of Spinoza and Nāgārjuna are so difficult to propound. Dissolving fixed conceptualization means that language as normally used, which presupposes the dualistic idea enshrined in symbolic logic as the law of bivalence or of non-contradiction, is only “playful tool.” In the non-dualistic world, and so in the proposed transdisciplinary space, non-contradictions are on about the same level as contradictions. They are not separated into what is acceptable or not acceptable as in standard logic. This runs a real risk of breaking down in communication and intelligibility. Nonetheless, in realizing the vision and in charting the map, language is indispensable, and we need to live with this risk, always realizing that conceptualizations are only putative and through language one cannot get at the direct oneness with reality which after all is one and the same as ourselves from the beginning. The transdisciplinary space where value and knowledge are unified is then an exhilarating place to be in.

(This paper is going to be presented at the Metanexus Conference 2007 –


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