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[Xmca-l] Interdisciplinarity and Transdisciplinarity



CHAT has been variously described as “multi-disciplinary” or
“inter-disciplinary”. It seems to me that this formulation has left
undefined the depth and nature of interaction between disciplines and above
all between CHAT on the one hand and discipline-based praxis on the other.

There's a similar problem in applied linguistics that might help. After
Dell Hymes's critique of Chomsky, and of the separation of competence from
performance, applied linguists more or less rejected the idea of the "ideal
native speaker/hearer in a homogeneous speech community who knows his
language perfectly". We all tried to include “real world problems” in our
linguistics instead, and this meant including the other disciplines which
have grown up around those problems: foreign language teaching,
lexicography, and discourse analysis.

Then Widdowson distinguished between a disciplinary “linguistics applied”,
where linguistic theory is simply applied to problems like forensics or
compiling computer corpora, and a more multi-disciplinary “applied
linguistics” where the relevance of linguistic insights to problems must be
mediated along with that of other disciplines, as we must in language
teaching.

For some purposes, that may not be a bad thing. In fact, the term "applied
linguistics" seems to suggest a many-splendored technology rather than a
unified and unifying scientific theory. Not so with CHAT, which begins with
the linked notions of culture and history (where I take one is product and
the other process) and ends with theory. Theory suggests something rather
more conceptual than complexive.

Halliday argues that terms like “multi-disciplinary” and
“inter-disciplinary” imply that the real work, or the “locus of activity”,
still belongs in the disciplines themselves, and that a multi-disciplinary
approach is essentially a matter of bridge-building, assembling various
disciplines into what we might call a complex, that is, a grouping of
disciplines which is complex by virtue of its many parts and highly diverse
links.

Instead, Halliday proposes a much more conceptually unified perspective he
calls “transdisciplinary”, with an orientation “outwards” towards
discipline-transcendent themes rather than “inwards” towards
discipline-specific content. These different unifying themes have emerged
at different moments in intellectual history.

The earliest to emerge was mathematics which helped to unite the various
branches of “natural philosophy” into physics in the seventeenth century,
while in the nineteenth century the theme of evolution united the study of
botany, zoology, economics and eventually, through cosmological enquiry,
even geology, physics and chemistry were annexed to the genetic approach.
In the twentieth century, “structure” emerged as a theme uniting all of the
above to psychology, sociology, and anthropology. Today, according to
Halliday, the emerging theme seems to be the science of meaning.

It seems to me that the historical and cultural strands explain very well
how the strands of CHAT came together in the last century. But maybe an
applied linguistic engagement with natural language semantics in this
century can provide CHAT an opportunity to participate in and perhaps even
lead the transdisciplinary project.

David Kellogg

Hankuk University of Foreign Studies