Visiting Scholar Series: Can “Interdisciplinarity” Be Disciplined?

Duke Chapel 2In “Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline,” Bernard Williams makes two interesting, though seemingly opposed, points about the task of humanistic inquiry. These remarks, I think, might provide a helpful starting place for those of us thinking about the nature, aims, and problems associated with the “interdisciplinary” field that has come to be called theology and the arts or theology through the arts.

The basic question I want to raise is this: how are we to understand the discipline of theology within the context of interdisciplinary research?

Williams contends that for any field that understands itself as a “humanistic discipline, ‘discipline’ is supposed to imply discipline.” This means that in the process of speaking, reading, writing, and thinking within an academic field “there had better be something that counts as getting it right, or doing it right,” which takes the form of “offering arguments and expressing oneself clearly.”[1] In short, a discipline entails generally agreed upon standards of excellence.

But only a couple paragraphs later, Williams writes: “What I have to say … is an example of what I take philosophy to be, part of a more general attempt to make the best sense of our life, and so of our intellectual activities, in the situation in which we find ourselves.”[2]

For Williams, then, the task of philosophy is something with internal rules and boundaries (i.e., “getting it right”) and, at the same time, something concerned with “making sense” of one’s life in the most general sense. There is a tension, I think, between his endorsement of a seemingly absolute, generally agreed upon set of standards that make a discipline a discipline and his point that these disciplinary rules and boundaries are ultimately concerned with the absolutely local and thus contingent task of “making sense of life” in the place where “we find ourselves.”

Williams’ remarks here can easily be applied to any discipline that takes itself to be “humanistic” (e.g., visual art, music, literature, theology, history, etc.). Is there one thing that—in the case of all disciplines—makes each discipline a discipline? Is Williams’ definition able to help us grasp the uniqueness of particular fields of inquiry within the domain of the humanities? Or is his definition in the end overly vague? More to the point, how might we apply Williams’ framework to thinking about the issue of “interdisciplinary” enterprises like, say, theology and the arts?

“Interdisciplinarity” is all the rage these days, especially with respect to the field of theology. And I admit I have some anxieties about maintaining the integrity of the discipline, even though I often get the feeling I can do no better than to define it along the lines of Williams’ definition outlined above.

I worry that as theology gets absorbed into these “interdisciplinary” academic models (models that, as Richard Moran has pointed out, are increasingly institutionally imposed from the top down) we will continue to lose sight of its essential tasks and objectives (whatever those may be!). That in focusing so keenly on making theology relevant to other disciplines, we risk ultimately communicating precious little and in the process becoming very confused about what it is we’re doing.

And so I find myself asking, what, then, is unique about theological inquiry vis-à-vis historical, philosophical, artistic, or political forms of academic investigation? As students of theology, how are we to think about the nature and task of our discipline as it undergoes metamorphosis (or mitosis?) through self-conscious interaction with other areas of humanistic and scientific inquiry? For those of us who are attempting to work across disciplinary boundaries, both within and outside the academy, I think this is an important issue to get clear on. And as the list of “theology and …” continues to grow, this is something we will all have to deal with sooner or later lest we hand the problem over to someone like the university administrator.

Tanner Capps is from Westminster, South Carolina (USA). He is a ThD student at Duke Divinity School working in the areas of theology and early modern studies.

[1] Bernard Williams, “Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline,” The Threepenny Review 85 (Spring 2001), 1.
[2] Ibid., 2.

Image Credit: W. David O. Taylor

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  1. says: Christopher R. Brewer

    Tanner, thanks for bringing this issue up in conversation here. It has been, and will no doubt continue to be, a frequent subject of our conversation here in St Andrews. That said, your post raises a number of questions, pointing to the need “to get clear on this.”

    While I may not agree with everything he has to say, George Pattison’s *The End of Theology – and the Task of Thinking About God* (SCM, 1998) seems a relevant text.

    He begins by noting: “The stone upon which all conceptions of theological privilege stumble is, from a certain point of view, stunningly obvious: theology has no methodology of its own. The skills required to be a working theologian are essentially skills shared by a range of workers in the humanities. They include philological, philosophical, historical and literary skills that may indeed occur in a unique combination in theology (although that too, in an age when the boundaries between, e.g., philosophy and literature are increasingly blurred, is difficult to maintain), but not in such a way as to give theology access to any data inaccessible to other sciences or to formulate arguments or conclusions unintelligible to other sciences. Naturally, by concentrating on a specific area of interest, the theologian will acquire a certain specialized knowledge that comes from reading texts, studying historical events or engaging with philosophical questions that are more or less neglected by others. Such specialization, however, only serves to differentiate theology from other disciplines in the humanities in the way that a historian of Byzantium is differentiated from a historian of ideas, or a student of Renaissance literature from a student of film studies…. The theologian may indeed come to possess a certain expertise, a certain style, a certain art, but that, I suggest, falls far short of what theology has generally believed to be necessary in order to do justice to its essential nature. ” (pp. 4-5)

    Not surprisingly, Pattison is no friend of what he calls “revelationism,” suggesting “that the claim simply cannot stand.” (p. 16) He explains: “The problem is that this ‘guarantee’ is self-referential and self-policing: in the last resort revelationism has no evidence for its claims other than the claim that they are true or compelling…. Ultimately, therefore, revelationism turns out to be an appeal to authority, but this ‘authority’ has no force other than the appeal itself. It is not really an exercise in logic or metaphysics at all, but a piece of powerful and compelling rhetoric. A rhetorical tour de force (and Barthian theology is indeed that) cannot, however, be treated as constitutive of anything that would count as knowledge.” (p. 21)

    This is the context in which Pattison argues: “The really real, then, is itself no longer a single entity, but the best result of the best research to date across a multiplicity of fronts. If we want to know about it, we have to get into the detail. The work is done in the engine-room, not the bridge. The theologian is not alone. No one has a view from above any more. But the question then arises as to whether, in this situation, it is still possible to go on thinking about God, and, if so, what such thinking would be like.” (p. 29)

    And how does Pattison answer? With dialogue (i.e., a dialogical rather than a monological style); put differently, interdisciplinarity. Now, more would have to be said (and/or read, i.e., of Pattison) to engage this more fully, but the point I wish to make, drawing upon these bits from Pattison, is that the notion of disciplining interdisciplinarity seems to beg the question. More cynically, it seems to be a theological power grab for it suggests that interdisciplinarity either 1) be avoided (in an effort not to lose sight of the essential tasks/objectives, i.e., as defined by, say, theology), or 2) be controlled by predetermined theological concepts in which case there is really nothing to be learned by such an endeavor for we already have our minds made up at the outset.

    Now, I repeat, I’m not fully on board with Pattison, but the issues he raises surely deserve more than the re-entrenchment of revelationism, no? And if not, why bother speaking of interdisciplinarity at all? Better to get right to it at the level of (Barthian) theological method. That’s not to say that such an approach might not yield some sort of interdisciplinary dialogue, but besides being something of a very different sort, I fear the conversation might be rather lopsided, with one of its conversation partners doing all the talking and thus failing to listen which is, it seems, the very reason to engage in such pursuits.

    A significant conversation with no easy answers (to my mind), one that needs more explicit attention here – many thanks for getting the conversation started.

  2. says: Tim M. Allen

    Hi Tanner, thank you for raising this important subject for discussion. I wonder if the ‘and’ between the ‘other’ disciplines is more of a movement to place God back into relation to all things. Where earlier periods did not necessarily need the ‘and’ or ‘through’, ours is an age where God is too often bracketed out, so the ‘and’ becomes more constructive rather than an act of dilution or vagueness. I also wonder if theologians too often presuppose that they can accomplish the theological task without ‘other’ disciplines. Although I can understand your question of clarity concerning theological construction, it would seem that the theological task in a pluralistic society would do well to risk engaging the ‘other’ disciplines. Your question concerning institutional development is an interesting one and I am sure will become even more significant in the near future. Thank you, again for your thoughtful post and raising this important topic!

  3. says: Tanner Capps

    Thank you for these comments. First, I should have been clearer in the original post that I’m talking about Christian theology here and not theology is some general sense. I apologize for being unhelpfully vague on that point.

    Chris, before responding to the material you’ve cited from Pattison, it would be helpful to hear more about how you would answer some of the questions I’ve laid out. Specifically, from your perspective, how is Christian theology to be normatively oriented as it seeks to pursue a “dialogical style” in the interest of “interdisciplinarity”? It would be equally helpful to hear more about how you understand the nature of the contemporary research university as a site of intellectual exchange. Given what you’ve written here, I have a sense of what you might say, but I don’t want to assume too much.

    Tim, you may be right. However, as you know, the pursuit of “interdisciplinarity” isn’t confined to the theological world. Given this trend, one could argue this is ostensibly about relating disciplines to one another for the sake of relating disciplines to one another. If it’s more complicated than this, then I’m interested in what’s motivating these shifts. My sense is that most university administrators and other folks keen on cultivating departments defined by “interdisciplinary dialogue” aren’t primarily concerned with “placing God back into relation to all things,” though I may be wrong about that.

    1. says: Tim M. Allen

      Tanner, thank you for your thoughtful reply! You are absolutely correct in pointing out the ‘interdisciplinary’ in all areas of humanities, not simply theology. Here at St. Andrews, a Critical Theory group meets occasionally for those interested in the cross disciplinary conversation in the humanities. The point I want to make is that the goal and often result is to discover “new” and “often surprising lines of thought.” Of course, this is no guarantee that the outcome will be positive for Christian theology, but neither does the ‘interdisciplinary’ pursuit determine a negative production for theology. The theologian can certainly endorse, along with the historian, and critical theorist to discover new ways of communicating important truths! Great topic, Tanner and like I mentioned in my earlier comment, I am sure this will continue to be an important conversation piece. Thanks, again!

    2. says: Christopher R. Brewer

      Tanner, thanks again for this. Having just returned from a long absence, I wanted to follow-up (as promised) on this important conversation. That said, I’ve just spent 30 minutes typing up a detailed response only to lose it when my computer shut down unexpectedly, and so, unfortunately, this response will be brief. My apologies.

      First, my hesitation, and the motivation behind my first comment, was that I find it a bit strange to begin the conversation of interdisciplinarity with discipline for while it’s clear that a discipline needs disciplining, the idea that you or I might discipline the discipline seems a bit presumptuous, and if theologically motivated, then perhaps political as well. I don’t mean to say that theological motivation is necessarily political (in the worst sense), but at the very least, the potential is there, and so these motivations need examining. More helpful than a plan for disciplining the discipline, it seems to me, would be a plan for self-discipline, and for me anyways, the first step in that plan would be cultivating the ability to listen, and a healthy dose of patience.

      Second, and again, I’m not fully on board with Pattison, but his point that even if we were to discipline the discipline of theology, we’d have to be interdisciplinary in doing so for theology has no methodology of its own seems an important one.

      Third, and in response to the questions in your comment, I certainly don’t have this sorted. These are, as you know, incredibly difficult questions (both in your post and comment). That said, I’m happy to hear your thoughts as I have much to learn (by which I mean much to read!). From what I do know, I’d want to begin with dialogue and listening, and this whether we take C.S. Lewis’s notion of receiving from An Experiment in Criticism, or David Brown’s notion of listening from God and Enchantment of Place, etc. Norms and criteria are, of course, important, but, for my part, these come later once all has been heard (and this in the spirit of Ecclesiastes 12:13). There’s quite a bit of poetry and commonly observable, shared experience before we get to the norm there: Fear God and keep his commandments … lots of looking and listening, no?

      If I’m passing you like a ship in the night, feel free to point me in the right direction.

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