Art and Science: A Note on Interdisciplinarity




A Note on Interdisciplinarity.[1]


Break the pattern which connects the items of learning and you necessarily destroy all quality.[2]


My team and I chose the most populist, if not popular, genre in film history – the Hong Kong martial arts film – to tell our story, and we used this pop genre almost as a kind of a research instrument to explore the legacy of classical Chinese culture. We embraced the most mass of all art forms and mixed it with the highest – the secret martial arts as passed down over time in the great Taoist schools of training and of thought.[3]





Leonardo da Vinci may have been unique but his interdisciplinarity was not. There is a tradition of interdisciplinarity to which we should attend. One of the great representatives of this tradition was the seventeenth century Moravian educator Jan Amos Comenius.


Comenius wrote: ‘We see that the branches of a tree cannot live unless they all alike suck their juices from a common trunk with common roots. And can we hope that the branches of wisdom can be torn asunder with safety to their life, that is to truth? Can one be a natural philosopher who is not also a metaphysician? or an ethical thinker who does not know something of physical science? or a logician who has no knowledge of real matters? or a theologian, a jurisconsult, or a physician who is not all these at once? He deprives himself of light, of hand and regulation, who pushes away from him any shred of the knowable.’[4]


One can note also that Comenius pioneered communicating through images for the modern period in his great school book Orbis Pictus, published in 1657. His interdisciplinary work comes down to us in the English speaking world through the work of two Edinburgh academics in the nineteenth century, David Masson and Simon Somerville Laurie. Today we remember their generalist views through that defence of the interdisciplinary ethos, The Democratic Intellect, by George Davie. Davie followed this in 1986 with The Crisis of the Democratic Intellect. I quote from the latter: ‘the most important side of any department of knowledge is the side on which it comes into contact with every other department. To insist on this is the true function of humanism.’[5]Here Davie is paraphrasing John Burnet, professor of Greek at St Andrews University in the early part of the twentieth century. When Einstein noted that ‘it is not enough to teach a man a specialty’, he was exploring this same ground.[6]Davie explores a central tenet of interdisciplinary educational philosophy, namely that, as a matter of course, one area of thought or expertise is open to illumination by another and vice versa. Such possibilities of mutual illumination should be fundamental to the ethos of any body which styles itself a university. Davie’s point is that the advantage of the narrow focus of the specialist is that it creates detailed perception of a problem. But it also creates blindspots, eddies of ignorance in epistemological space, which can only be perceived from another perspective. This is interesting from our perspective here because it shifts the emphasis of interdisciplinarity from the purloining of other disciplines’ methods in the hope that you can apply them within your own discipline,  to illuminating, by the methods of one’s own discipline, what those other disciplines may be methodologically unable to access. This approach to knowledge also implies that it is inappropriate to attempt to reduce one area of thought to the modes of expression of another. This anti-reductionist stance – far from implying that because of an apparent incommensurability disciplines should be kept apart – instead creates the opportunity of juxtaposing them for mutual illumination. Thus difference is seen as a starting point for interdisciplinarity, not as a stumbling block to communication.


But how can we foster such interdisciplinarity? How can one trained person, or group of persons, make a difference to the practice of another person, or group of persons, trained in a different discipline? This is an old issue. One might argue that it is the issue that the college structures of our oldest universities was intended to address. But it has become more salient as an issue as detailed accounting for time and space within higher education has removed common, flexible spaces, in which non-programmed communication could take place. Common spaces have gone. Common times have gone. As these common spaces and times have disappeared, interdisciplinarity has emerged as an issue. But maybe there is a wider correlation between increasing specialisation and increasing consciousness of the need to be general. For example, in the 1960s C. P. Snow felt the need to invent the two cultures debate. Lack of interdisciplinarity had suddenly become salient, an emergent property of an over-specialised modernism. A characteristic of such salient cultural problems is that many people are interested in them, but funding tends to be sporadic; and dissemination, however immediately noticeable, does not enter the mainstream curriculum. As a result, any research that is done disappears quite quickly as publishers realign their lists in more profitable directions; and each new generation of interdisciplinary researchers feels that it must be the first. As one of those eternally-recurrent researchers, I spent a number of years studying inderdisciplinarity by making cognitive distinctions between different domains of thinking.[7]That was informative from a classificatory perspective but had few lessons for the establishment of interdisciplinary research. My current view of such research, which owes much to working with the visual anthropologists Tim Ingold and Wendy Gunn, is that interdisciplinary working can be illuminated by some idea like chaos theory.[8]Interdisciplinary working is responsive to random events which may reshape outcomes. It has a broad direction but resists predictability. But I don’t find ‘chaos’ a satisfactory word here. A better description for this process is the word ‘stochastic’.


The anthropologist Gregory Bateson gives the following definition of ‘stochastic’ in his remarkable book Mind and Nature:


Stochastic. (Greek, stochazein, to shoot with a bow at a target; that is, to scatter events in a partially random manner, some of which achieve a preferred outcome). If a sequence of events combines a random component with a selective process so that only certain outcomes of the random are allowed to endure, that sequence is said to be stochastic.’


In order to make such a stochastic situation possible for the development of interdisciplinary research, many factors are required but I think one is crucial and that factor is physical proximity: key people, at key times must be in the same place for long enough. If you already know what you want to explore in some detail (i.e. if the research path is well-trodden) such proximity is less important. However if you are working in a truly interdisciplinary manner, that is to say recognising that you do not fully understand one another’s disciplines, proximity is essential. This is, of course, obvious. But the obvious tends to be important and, paradoxically, due to its very obviousness it may not be high on any agenda, as the progressive removal since the 1980s of common spaces and times in institutes of higher education, indicates.






Murdo Macdonald is Emeritus Professor of History of Scottish Art at the University of Dundee.


[1]This paper has its origins in the seminars of the AHRC-funded ‘Learning is Understanding in Practice’ project, 2002-2005. The ideas were further explored at the Future Academy Symposium: With or Without Buildings?at Edinburgh College of Art in February 2005 under the title ‘A Broadened Sense’. Subsequent exploration included a position paper, ‘In the beginning was the word: how very convenient!’ for the Glasgow consultation meeting for the AHRC Beyond Textfunding stream in March 2007, and as part of the Durham University Institute for Advance Study workshop, Can interdisciplinary research produce ‘good’ knowledge? in September 2007.

[2]Gregory Bateson, (1979) Mind and Nature, London: Wildwood House, 8.

[3]From: Ang Lee, Director’s Statement – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, (Curzon Cinemas Programme Notes, January, 2001).

[4]Quoted by David Masson in his monumental Life of Milton, Vol. 3, London: Macmillan, 1859-94, 213-4. My immediate source is R. H. Quick’s adoption of the quote from Masson in his Essays on Educational Reformers, London: Longmans, 157-158, published in 1907.

[5]Davie, G. E., (1986) The Crisis of the Democratic Intellect, Edinburgh: Polygon, 15. See also, Davie, G. E., (1961) The Democratic Intellect, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

[6]Albert Einstein, New York Times, October 5, 1952. Reprinted in Einstein, A., (1954) Ideas and Opinions, New York: Bonanza Books, 66-7.

[7]This work is detailed in (i) A Basis for Library Design. Edinburgh Architecture Research. Vol. 12, 104-13 (1985); (ii) A Model of the Relationships between Art and Science. Edinburgh Review. Issue 71, 81-9 (1985); (iii) Birth Order, Art and Science: A Study of Ways of Thinking. PhD Thesis, Univ. of Edinburgh (1986); (iv) Types of Thinking. Common Sense. No. 1, 22-5 (1987); (v) ‘A Pattern of Thought’, Alba, Spring 1989, 15-17. See also ‘Towards an Ecology of Art and Science’ in Murdo Macdonald and James Leach (2005) Two Papers about Art and Science, Creativity and Practice Research Papers, Visual Research Centre, University Dundee, pp. 2-10.

[8]Learning is understanding in practice: exploring the interrelations between perception, creativity and skill. Funded by AHRB, 2002-2005.