Universities and Transdisciplinarity

The role of universities in modern society

"We are here to counsel with each other. We must build spiritual and scientific bridges linking the nations of the world."
(Albert Einstein, 1947)

Education is the strategy that has been developed by our species with a dual purpose: to estimulate societal life and to enhance creativity. This has been achieved through the transmission of accumulated knowledge from previous generations and through living through challenging experiences. In all levels of education and in every society, along history, these two major goals for education are noticeable. Of course, the characteristics of each society determines the style education has taken in that specific society. The prevailing systems of knowledge determine educational practices. A number of case studies illustrate this [1].

We are recognizing great changes occurring in society. The new facilities in transportation, communications and information collecting, storing and processing bring new dimensions to the technology developed since the dawn of modern science. These have evident reflects on the characteristics of modern civilization, particularly in urban life, in the models of property and production and in economics [2]. Consequently, new perceptions of equity, of security, of recognition and reward have been generated and universalized in modern times. From a colonial posture in the origin of these concepts we move at a very fast pace to seeing the humanity as a whole and recognizing a human race, of which the Earth is the home. And we look for our identity as individuals belonging to a species with many specificities among all the living entities in a planet which is part of an ongoing cosmic process. Indicators of these new perceptions are numerous [3]. Modern education will, necessarily, reflect these new perceptions.

Particularly the universities are out of compass with these recent developments. Universities created in the traditional model in the colonies and recently independent nations are indicators of the inadequacy [4].

We are looking for new models. This has been common in every stage of mankind in which we see the emergence of new forms of knowledge [5]. Now the character of universality of the educational systems, the incorporation of the traditions to intellectual circles all over the world, and the emergence of new forms of production demand a new organization for these places of production and transmission of knowledge. Of course, the concept of knowledge is essential for any proposal in this direction.

What follows reflects the transdisciplinary approach to the understanding of ourselves and of our place in the cosmos.


"The dead and the non-dead are the two great divisions of primitive society which seem almost to stand to each other in the relation of exploited to exploiting classes. ... The immortality of the dead is a fantastic reality."
(Christopher Caudwell,1908-37)

It is important to recognize the need of intellectual support for our behavior which results from a diversity of views. In a moment of strong and widespread indicators of nationalisms, fundamentalisms in human relations, a planetary view is needed [6].

How did we reach this point? It is interesting at this moment to venture into some etymological remarks. In the main Indo-European languages, the word life comes from two roots. One, traced back to the Latin ( vie, vita, vida ) has a meaning of behavior, which in the XI century has been identified with the of a complex system in evolution from two status, birth and death. In another conception, life comes from leip which has to do with the functioning of the body (liver, lipo). In both there is the sense of a dynamics of continuity of the individual and of the species, of survival. The search for nourishment and mechanisms of reproduction are imprinted in the genetic code.

Modern science and technology have created just about everything, except life with the splendourous complexity of continuity and reproduction. Continuity not only of the individual, but of life in the most general sense. Out of these drives, intrinsic to life, we see the rise of altruistic and ecological behavior, which are the warranty of life. Like every living being, homo sapiens sapiens is driven toward survival of the individual and of the species which permeates our entire existence, in the span between birth and death. But unique among all the species, we are provided also with a sense of time, we aim at transcending our existence, going before birth and after death, driven by consciousness and will. Understanding consciousness and will are present in the earliest manifestations of human behavior. Looking for our past and for our future have led to cults and spirituality, in the forms of traditions and religions, and to divinations, in the form of arts and sciences. Knowledge means the acquired ability of surviving and transcending.

Under this dual drive towards survival and transcendence , human behavior has marked an evolution towards the acquisition of knowledge. In this evolution some distortions are noticeable.

The main particularity in this evolution is a contracition with the commitment of preservation of life in the essence of its code: continuity of life through the survival of the individual and of the species. Although it is intrinsic to life the elimination of one individual or of species so that other can survive, under altruistic and ecological behavior, in the human species this is done under the motivation of consciousness and will. The basic question we rise is related to this, that is, the elimination of one life so that another go on. This is the most fundamental issue of individual, social and environmental morality. In this multiplicity we place ethics .

What does ethics mean ?

"The knowledge of good and evil seems to be the aim of all ethical reflection. ... In the knowledge of good and evil man does not understand himself in the reality of the destiny appointed in his origin, but rather in his own possibilities, his possibility of being good or evil."

(Dietrich Bonhoeffer,1906-45)

What does it mean an ethical behavior? Again, an etymological exercise show us that ethics, as well as ethos and ethno, refer to the other. It is the recognition of the other which brings the need of an ethics. The recognition of conflicting behavior of the other in oneself, the other in the strange, the other in competing societies and species. To prevail upon the other concur with the drives towards survival and transcendence. The equilibrium in this concurrence is the major and essential issue. My reflections are permeated by this single question.

It has been frequent in the behavior of our species the acceptance that some forms of life are more worthed than others and some are not only useless but in some cases threatening. Some species are dangerous - so away with them! In the same vein, some individuals in a certain species are less productive, give us less of aimed benefits, so away with them! Some indeed bother us, like a mosquito in the middle of the night. So, away with them! And this cascading reasoning can be carried on to our own species: some are less productive, so away with them, some bother us, so away with them. If we use insecticides for mosquitoes that bother us, why not to use guillotines, electric chairs, and nowadays letal injections to eliminate those deviants that bother us.

Summing up, human behavior has been increasingly dominated by the feeling that one individual may be worth more than others. This is the origin of modern social and environmental behavior. I see no way of facing man's social and environmental behavior other than looking into values and generating an appropriate ethics, focused on restablishing concurrence in equilibrium with survival and transcendence.

Scientific knowledge has grown and continues to grow, apparently without limit to its reach, disclosing the mechanics of the universe and giving us the capability of looking into the minute and most elementary components of matter, of touching and shaping the evolution of living forms. This same mode of thought, scientific knowledge, has been used to convince individuals that they are close to absolute truth and boast such a degree of precision and self-confidence that the humbleness of search is replaced by the arrogance of sureness, which intimidates inquiry and praises dogmatism.Most of the distortions in the long search of mankind for knowledge throughout history has been the result of a segregationistic separation between science and traditions.

Something like a neurosis philosophicus tries to identify and to emphasize contradictions between traditional knowledge and scientific knowledge. The attribute of "rational" is reserved to the later in a detrimental and contemptuously way for the former.

Ethical responsability has been "rationalized", brought into normative codes, or reserved, in depreciation, to the domain of values and traditions. The renaissance consolidated modes of thought which had originated in the civilizations of the antiquity around the Mediterranean. A new mode of thought was developed in Europe and imposed through the world after the navigations.

The western "civilizatory mission", which started about 500 years ago, resulted in a model of society dominated by science and technology and a consequent economical, social and political order. Modes of production and division of labor and new concepts of property and wealth, are intimately related with underlying philosophy which made all them possible, which was indeed proposed to justify the conquest-colonization process. In this process gods, languages, modes of thought, of labor, of property, of health and so on were imposed throughout the globe. Science and the values associated with scientific and rational thought were often used to relationalize variants of exploitation of human beings by human beings in the process of building up agricultural supplies. The concept of humanity and an ethics for the entire mankind was gradually removed from this thought.

This mode of thought, prevailing since the XVI century was responsible for:

  1. interpreting differences among human beings as different stages in the evolution of the species;
  2. explaining unsatisfying basic material needs as ranging from lack of industry to laziness, and the the search for the satisfaction of spiritual needs as lack of scientific rationality;
  3. and the preservation of natural and cultural patrimony as obstacles to progress. Indeed, progress is a concept associated with the new thought.

All these three characteristics of modern thought lead to a despicable behavior. The associations are clear:

  1. with arrogance,
  2. with indiference and inhumanity,
  3. with irresponsible behavior. These are capital sins and may cause the destruction of the species. They violate the natural wisdom of a species, they dictate the most serious threat to the extinction of homo sapiens sapiens.
homo sapiens sapiens . We have to restore the dialectical complementarity of theory and practice. But we are frequently trapped by the fascination of the theoretical discourse at the expenses of the recognition of the essence of the practice. This is the essence of transdisciplinarity.

A new ethics

"The greatest philosophical error is to count as philosophers only philosophers proper when every man of some greatness must have shaped their own philosophy; and the reason for their not technically uttering or specifying it in the technical language of acknowledged philosophy may be their feeling that their philosophy was all the more philosophically true when it remained unstated."
(Paul Valéry, 1871-1945)

The species can not survive without an ethics which counteract the characteristics of modern thought and appeal to the simple and primary principle of preservation of life and civilization on Earth. We call this the

Ethics of preservation :

1. respect for the other in spite of all differences;

2. solidarity with others in the satisfaction their basic needs for survival and for transcendence;

3. cooperation with the other in the preservation of the common natural and cultural patrimony.

Can civilization survive without an ethics for the entire mankind?

Human behavior as action

In the very short span of his presence in the planet, man is threatened by extinction [7] and at the same time is marvelled to find himself as the focus of a process. We propose understanding homo sapiens sapiens as a creature in search of wisdom and of the sublime.

Human behavior and life are inseparable. Life is action performed by the individual in and into reality, an action which follows a strategy designed by the individual himself as a result of his will after processing information from reality. We understand reality in the sense proposed by Basarab Nicolescu:"une realité d'interaction ou de participation." [8]

Will plus processing of information are the essence of free intelligent behavior which characterizes our species and which defines our existence. One exists in the measure one reacts to impulses (information) from reality and willingly processes this information defining strategies for action upon reality. The dynamics of the process

... reality --> individual --> action --> reality --> individual -->...

is the dynamics of life and we all, as living human beings, are subjected to it [9]. And thanks to it, we all are responsible for modifying reality. To what extent ? To the measure of our sanity.[10]

Action manifests in several ways. Action which leads to survival and satisfaction of needs common to all living beings, as well as action which satisfies man's characteristic needs for explanations, for understanding and for creating. In other words, for tanscending his own existence and projecting himself into the past and into the future.

Reflecting upon the behavior of living species, we see a form of wisdom in nature. This is seen either in the laws which determines a rigorous and predictable behavior, mathematically precise, according to the old paradigms, or in the complexity which defies the basic assumptions of cause and effect and which have to be recognized as inaccessible to our current understanding.

The believe in the first hypothesis lead to the success of the reductionist approach. Going deeper into the phenomena, increasingly narrowing the field of interest and treating them under increasingly limited specific methodological precepts, we do not avoid the needed search for global explanations, thus paving the way to the multidisciplinarian and to the interdisciplinarian approaches. But these are nothing more than recurrent incursions into the unknown with the same or similar methodological instruments, shifting the focus to other categories of questions. We will not be succesful in our search for explanations if we remain the level of classical methods of science and focus our views on functions and their domains and counter domains. In other terms, if we rerstrict our analysis to cause and effect. We need to go a step further, looking into the categories of analysis themselves and understanding the relations between the objects and their dependences within the various categories . This is similar to what has been called functorial analysis by mathematicians. Our proposal calls for an analysis of the dynamics of the full process.

The scheme below is appropriate to describe the relations and interdependence of individuals, societies (as groups of individuals) and nature. The three relate to each other according to survival strategies. We leave it open the explanation for these strategies, be it according to precise laws which sociobiology try to understand or according to a chaotic or to a synergetic behavior. The fact is that survival is inherent to living species and the equilibrium, symbolized in the triangle in the figure, is maintained. Modifications occur in the eventual changes of species.


Relations, such as mating and societal arragements, are well known among individuals of the same species and collective actions obey comportamental patterns dicatated by genetic structure. At the same time, individuals should relate with their environment and with other species through action upon the nature in which they are immersed, as a constituent part of it, and not as mere predators. These actions are essential for their own survival. And collectively, as a society, to keep the equilibrium. These behaviors, represented by the sides of the this triangle, are respectively regulated by the principles of animal physiology, of sociobiology and of ecology.

From the triangle of survival to the triangle of transcendence

The figure above represent the disciplinarian, at best interdisciplinarian approach, through domains of knowledge known as physiology, sociobiology and biology. But a global view calls for a transdiciplinarian approach. This leads as to the a geometrical metaphor in which we see the triangle as the essence of the phenomenon life. Breaking this triangle, in each of its sides, would lead to the termination of life in the planet. We thus call this the triangle of survival and the universe in which we place this triangle, which in our metaphoric image is the entire plane, reality. Very much like the adventure of Abbott's Square [12] we will probe three and higher dimensional spaces, where we will find the 0mni- - .

In the long history of the cosmos, which stands for reality in its totality, life comes relatively late in a diminute part of it. Since then, it has manifested itself as phenomena of various kinds. Other forms of life, in different universes, would probably call for different geometric metaphors. We can hardly conceive the same principles of physiology, sociobiology and ecology in a possible extra-terrestrial equivalent to life.

In this metaphorically plane reality, hominids appeared - by creation or by evolution - about 4,5 million years ago. From the Australopithecus through the Homo sapiens and finally to our own species, Homo sapien sapiens , another triangle is superimposed into the triangle of survival, which nevertheless continues to be the essence for the phenomenon life.

When homo sapiens came into being, tools, instruments, equipment, techniques came into playing a role in these arrangements. The relations of this new species with natural reality, in which it was equally immersed as a part of it and not as mere observer, can not escape the model given in the triangle of survival. The new species may exhibit other characteristics. Maybe a special development of the neck and the head, manisfeted mainly in a special arrangement of the internal ear, possibilitated standing on two feet and allowed for a more accute sense of observer, and the differentiation of the upper part of the trachea, which allowed for a different arrangement of sounds possibilitating a very sophisticated form of communication. These characteristics combined with a growth of the cerebral cortex to give origin to a species with a much better control of the body, an acute capability of receiving vast amount of information and of processing this information with an enormous sense of memory, plus the development of a creative form of communication - language - and the development of a sense of past and future. The animal characteristics and the drive for survival became subordinated to intelligence and will. This is the homo sapiens sapiens .

These new characteristics superimposed to the triangle of life another one, the triangle of transcendence, responsible for new intermediations between individuals, nature and societies (merely groups of individuals). Each individual of this new species, homo sapiens sapiens, which calls himself man [13], is, the same as any living species, constantly in the process of struggling for his own survival and for continuity of the species. But in this process man is acquiring mediators between himself, his other kins and nature, such as tools, instruments, equipments, techniques and communication. Some of these indeed deface nature. Other then the agglomerate of natural facts, nature now exhibits new facts, artifacts and mentifacts, facts produced by individual men. Reality is thus modified, enlarged.

Through the senses - which are yet only minimally known and controlled by man - artifacts inform other individuals, while mentifacts inform only the producer himself . Our senses are recognized as capable of recognizing what can be explained as materialized. Vibrations, light, sound, waves or particules, not sensed, are capable of producing sensations which are sensed. High frequencies are not sensed by the senses of humans, but yes for the senses of other animals . [14]

Each individual of the species homo sapiens sapiens is provided with an internal characteristic which submits the struggle for individual survival and for the continuity of the species, characteristics of all living species, to himself and to his will. Thus he develops a new characteristic behavior, unique to thés species, which is the power of decision upon his behavior. This is an essential principle, in different traditions called spirit, soul, anima, karma, and several other denominations. Will generates the essential need to explain, to understand and, to transcend one's own existence, to draw from their ancestors and to project into the generations to come. Man thus acquires a sense of past and of future, the sense of time. The drive towards survival is thus associated with the drive towards transcendence. Both become, together, the essentiality of human life. To eat, to breath and to procriate take another meaning. The purely animal drive towards survival, of the individual and of the species, of nourishing and of mating, is now associated with the drive towards transcending. Nourishing and mating are associated with pleasure and emotions and are impregnated with rituals.

Discovering the other mediates the relation between the individual and society. The search for the other, a mere mechanism for the continuation of the species in all the other species, with man acquires another dimension . The search and discovery of "thee" is the first step for transcending his own space, for projecting oneself, indeed a necessary preliminary step towards transcending one's own existence. The recognition of "thee" and the search for a "common thee" leads naturally to the creation of myths and symbols, of traditions and norms, of wisdom and knowledge, of culture in its broadest sense. Individuals subordinate themselves to these categories of behavior intermediating their relations with their kinds. These categories dominate relations between individuals and society, as well as between societies of individuals and reality itself. The driving force of survival of the species is thus modified by factors resulting from these mediations. Examples are labor and division of labor, property, power structure and hierarchy.


These new intermediations are the essence of what became known as knowledge, the matema . This is recognized in the acquisition of abilities, capabilities, ways of doing, of explaining, of understanding, of coping with everyday needs of survival and of transcendence, and takes the form of distinct ways of communicating, invention of different instruments, acceptance of distinct ways of organizing themselves and of dividing labor. Groups of individuals living in a society, subjected to specific natural conditions, share the same responses to these specificities, the same matema. The resulting modes or styles of surving and transcending, which is manifested in communications, instruments and techniques, power and labor structure, myths and symbols, religion and systems of explanations, or what we simply call culture. These forms of behavior are incorporated in the pool of common knowledge which keeps a group of individuals, a community, a society together and operational. Culture thus manifests itself in different, obviously interrelated, forms and domains. Cultural forms, such as language, mathematical practices, religious feelings, family structure, dressing and behavior patterns, are thus diversified. They are of course associated with the history of the groups of individuals, communities and societies where they were developed.

Cultural diversities are present and impossible to avoid. A larger community is partitioned into several distinct cultural variants, each owing to its own history and responding differently to the same stimulus. Intracultural relations are enriching and at the same time challenging. Humanity at large is partitioned into different cultures, revealing sometimes conflicting forms. Intercultural relations are also enriching and also challenging. Intercultural, and sometimes even intracultural, conflicts are impossible to avoid. To live with these cultural conflicts is the main theme of cultural dynamics. And to reach the capability of living with cultural conflicts is the ultimate goal of civilization.

The essence of humanity

We will now discuss the meaning of being human or the essence of the human being. The play between the noun and verb, being and being, synhesizes this discussion. The essence of humanity is attained when the two are together in a symbiotic relation. This can only happen in a dimension superior to the flat two dimensional material reality.

The star resulting from the superposition of the two triangles, survival and transcendence, is the metaphoric symbol of the species. It is the substantive aspect of homo sapiens sapiens. The metaphor brings the star resulting from the two triangles superimposed as the essence of human species and it stands for the realization by the human species of its essential needs of survival and transcendence. This geometrical metaphor of the star of essentiality is an example of what we referred to a few paragraphs above. All this is immersed in a material reality in which transcendence can not be fulfilled. The material reality is the present, is the moment we are living. Metaphorically, is a two-dimensional universe, here and now.

A further step, towards total wisdom, would be to reach another dimension. The human species gives a step which differentiates it from all other living species towards a third-dimension. To transcend is the effort to go beyond reality and this is a move to another dimension. We can not reach past neither future, but we are driven to them. Both past and future as behavior go beyond reality, are outside the two-dimensional space of the real. To penetrate this new dimension is man's attainment of spirituality, it is reaching the karma, it is the step beyond the materiality of two-dimensional reality. The drive towards this is the essence of will. Thus man attains his plenitude, reaches humanity, takes possession of his self, only in this enhanced three-dimensional reality. This is our concept of acquiring the full status of a human being.

Is this immersed in a higher dimensional reality? This goes beyond the capabilities of our perception as a species. We can reach the three-dimensional enhanced reality. It is our goal, as individuals and as a species, to attain the full dimensionality of our being humans. We probe into the unknown, into the higher dimensions, which is the domain of omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence.

"car on voit toujours quelque chose de plus en plus merveilleux, tellement que l'homme ne se lasse point de regarder et d'apprendre"

(Jakob Boehme) [15]


Notes et références
[1] Tribal education is an example.
[2] See the importance of urbanization in the New World in the study of José Sala Catalá: Ciencia y Técnica en la Metropolización de América, Theatrum Machinae, Madrid, 1994.. In it the author shows that urban life is the main supporter of scientific and technological knowledge.
[3] Among these we mention the increasing abolition of visa requirements and facilitates of residence, the proliferation of catastrophic religions, the use of substitutes for local currencies, international journals, world cars, standard softwares, international curricular developments.
[4] See my study on the role of universities in development: "Knowledge Transfer and the Universities: a policy dilemma", Integrated Technology Transfer , ed. Jacques Richardson, Lomond Books, Mont Lairy, 1979; pp. 37-43.
[5] We can thus understand the Greek academies, the monasteries and medieval universities, the modern university, and the land grant colleges.
[6] Even in my home country, Brazil, built by strangers who arrived, voluntarily or forcefully, since the XVI century to dominate and to impose to the natives alien modes of explanation, of understanding and of coping with reality, there is a growing trend towards being tougher with "deviants". Claims for the elimination of them, even through the establishment of death penalty, are widespreading all over the world.
[7] While avoiding being catastrophic, we can not avoid the recognition of the dangers facing nature, mankind in particular.
[8] Basarab Nicolescu : La science, le sens et l'évolution . Essai sur Jakob Boehme , Éditions du Félin, Paris 1988; p.127.
[9] See Ubiratan D'Ambrosio Da Realidade à Accueil [From Reality to Action] (3rd.edition), Summus Editorial, São Paulo, 1995.
[10] Insane is someone that conforms entirely to reality or equally one who does not accept his limitations.
[11] I was so influenced by Norbert Wiener: Cybernetics , John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1948 on these considerations. We are moving into an extended reality through the progresses of informatics.
[12] Edwin A. Abott Flatland. A Romance of Many Dimensions With an Introduction by A.K. Dewdney, New American Library Inc., New York, 1984
[13] I could opt for woman or for child in this moment, or use always man/woman and he/she as most authors do. I am not convinced this artifice has any effect in males or females of the species man other than exteriorizing, sometimes disguising a despicable interior attitude and behavior. I have no hesitation in everywhere and everytime expressing my profound respect for the other sex and my active solidarity with the struggle of women to correct a full history of discrimination and exploitation. Respect and solidarity for the other goes beyond gender.
[14] A number of cases of mental, distant and postmortem communication are reported. Either facts or fakery, they are an integrating part of the imaginary of man. They are explained as extrasensorial capabilities of certain individuals. Similiar to what up to 200 years ago was accepted explanation for schizoid behavior.
[15] See Basarab Nicolescu : op.cit. p.195.
To the Reader : This paper carries a message of hope for the future of mankind. I pay the burden of being candid in the message - love is what we need - and didactical in the style - every individual, the simple or the sophisticated intellectual, carries the responsibility and the means to reach sublimation. References and citations are only a few.

Congrès de Locarno, 30 avril - 2 mai 1997 : Annexes au document de synthèse CIRET-UNESCO

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