Defining a Discipline

Posted by Edward Willatt on Friday, January 8, 2010 Under: Architectonics

Thinking about the relations between the disciplines and about the problems surrounding the specialisation of knowledge leads again and again to a pressing question.  How do we define a discipline?  This is not a fashionable question given that if any discipline tries to define other disciplines it opens itself to the accusation that it is setting itself above those other disciplines.  This would work against the equality of disciplines and the assemblages that result from disciplines relating on equal terms.  I want to put forward some rough thoughts on this matter.

I would argue that there is a great difference between two conceptions of how a discipline is defined:

i). A discipline is defined by its method.

ii). A discipline is defined by its subject-matter or object(s) of study.  

In
the first case, if one studies history or science one becomes a historian or scientist, one becomes proficient in a method that grounds one’s  activity – a historical method or a scientific method in these cases.  This method is applied to any object, it has universal scope.  Of course methods change and there are alternatives within disciplines, but everyone pursues a particular method, one which they seek to realise in various spheres and in relation to very different objects.  This is not the case when one studies a discipline defined by its subject-matter.  I recently came across the term ‘Pirateology’ and here we have a variety of methods all focused upon the subject of piracy.  These would presumably include history, literature, criminology and geography. 

The debate over so-called ‘Mickey mouse’ degrees often centres upon whether the subject-matter of a degree is ‘worthy’ of being the subject of a degree course.  My worry is not about which subject matter is ‘worthy’ of study but over the whole notion of a discipline being defined by an object of study, no matter how worthy or unworthy the particular object may be.  The study of neglected objects is not to be derided.  Excluded subject-matters have rightly been emphasised, such as when certain philosophers drew attention to the neglected role of the body in western philosophy or when socialist thinkers and artists bring to light excluded members or elements of a society.  I would argue that what we do need to be concerned about is the narrowing of a discipline, from a universal method to the study of a particular subject-matter.  When this happens we find that certain methods and theoretical models are used in a discipline as it pursues its specific field of study.  Specialists in this field employ their methods in isolation from the broader use of these methods.  The disadvantage here is that the specialised use of methods risks being cut off from their broader development.  They become the methods devoted to a particular object of study and not extended to other objects.  


I would argue that it is this universal extension of methods that results in all sorts of relations in a broad and concrete synthesis.  We might find a historical method employed in the study of a particular object and not informed by the study of history more broadly.  It becomes subject to the obsessions of the specialist.  The integrity of a discipline more broadly construed is thus undermined by the limits of a field of specialisation.  It becomes a discipline devoted to a subject-matter but, contrary to what is often assumed, is not in fact for this reason more concrete.  The relations of concrete subject-matters or objects of study which are realised in broader disciplines are the outcomes of a universal method.  The universal relations of the concrete are realised by a scientific method or a historical method which range across objects, producing encounters and radical disjunctions between them. 

What are the advantages of disciplines defined by their universal methods?  The extent to which the activity of subject is grounded in a particular method and approach to the world is brought out in Alain Badiou’s thought.  His ‘militants of truth’ are engaged in rigorous enquiries whose condition is a ‘clearing of the ground’, a clearing away of given objects in order that new objects may emerge in scientific, artistic, political and amorous situations.  The continuous development of methods is therefore crucial, although these must be transformed by the activity of subjects who wager upon the truth of a particular ‘event’.  For example, Badiou refers to the ‘Barque-Picasso event’, by which he means the occurrence to which certain artists rallied and whose ‘truth’ depended upon their activity in rigorously drawing out and developing this occurrence.  This movement, of course, was cubism.  Such scientists, artists, activists and lovers must not be attached to particular subject-matters but instead develop new and universal methods.  There are precursors to these new movements (Cézanne plays this role in relation to Cubism) but there must always be a ‘wager’ upon the truth of an event that is not supported by subject-matters or objects that are already given and recognised.  Specialisation would work against the change Badiou wants to account for.  He argues that a wager is to be realised by the fidelity of a subject to a truth which is not given and objective but is rather fragile and uncertain.  This requires the continuous development of a method that relates ‘being’ and ‘event’ rather being concerned with particular objects.  This demands that situations are not over-determined by objects of study, by subject-matters to which specialists are attached.  Instead there must be militant subjects whose fidelity to a truth is a condition of revolutions and transformations in different disciplines.  

Disciplines defined by the universal methods show themselves to be capable of realising genuine change as well as having the scope of the concrete and not simply of a particular subject-matter.  These will be disciplines engaged more widely with the concrete and more open to change, ones that avoid the bureaucratic organisation of disciplines that demands they show their ‘relevance’ to society by embracing particular subject-matters.  Thus we find that, while defining a discipline may seem objectionable, it is a necessary step if we are to recognise the issues involved in the organisation of disciplines and the way study is carried out.  It is necessary if we are to be sure that disciplines maintain an integrity that makes them effective, that allows them to genuinely embrace the concrete and moments of transformation.

In : Architectonics 



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Defining a Discipline

Posted by Edward Willatt on Friday, January 8, 2010 Under: Architectonics

Thinking about the relations between the disciplines and about the problems surrounding the specialisation of knowledge leads again and again to a pressing question.  How do we define a discipline?  This is not a fashionable question given that if any discipline tries to define other disciplines it opens itself to the accusation that it is setting itself above those other disciplines.  This would work against the equality of disciplines and the assemblages that result from disciplines relating on equal terms.  I want to put forward some rough thoughts on this matter.

I would argue that there is a great difference between two conceptions of how a discipline is defined:

i). A discipline is defined by its method.

ii). A discipline is defined by its subject-matter or object(s) of study.  

In
the first case, if one studies history or science one becomes a historian or scientist, one becomes proficient in a method that grounds one’s  activity – a historical method or a scientific method in these cases.  This method is applied to any object, it has universal scope.  Of course methods change and there are alternatives within disciplines, but everyone pursues a particular method, one which they seek to realise in various spheres and in relation to very different objects.  This is not the case when one studies a discipline defined by its subject-matter.  I recently came across the term ‘Pirateology’ and here we have a variety of methods all focused upon the subject of piracy.  These would presumably include history, literature, criminology and geography. 

The debate over so-called ‘Mickey mouse’ degrees often centres upon whether the subject-matter of a degree is ‘worthy’ of being the subject of a degree course.  My worry is not about which subject matter is ‘worthy’ of study but over the whole notion of a discipline being defined by an object of study, no matter how worthy or unworthy the particular object may be.  The study of neglected objects is not to be derided.  Excluded subject-matters have rightly been emphasised, such as when certain philosophers drew attention to the neglected role of the body in western philosophy or when socialist thinkers and artists bring to light excluded members or elements of a society.  I would argue that what we do need to be concerned about is the narrowing of a discipline, from a universal method to the study of a particular subject-matter.  When this happens we find that certain methods and theoretical models are used in a discipline as it pursues its specific field of study.  Specialists in this field employ their methods in isolation from the broader use of these methods.  The disadvantage here is that the specialised use of methods risks being cut off from their broader development.  They become the methods devoted to a particular object of study and not extended to other objects.  


I would argue that it is this universal extension of methods that results in all sorts of relations in a broad and concrete synthesis.  We might find a historical method employed in the study of a particular object and not informed by the study of history more broadly.  It becomes subject to the obsessions of the specialist.  The integrity of a discipline more broadly construed is thus undermined by the limits of a field of specialisation.  It becomes a discipline devoted to a subject-matter but, contrary to what is often assumed, is not in fact for this reason more concrete.  The relations of concrete subject-matters or objects of study which are realised in broader disciplines are the outcomes of a universal method.  The universal relations of the concrete are realised by a scientific method or a historical method which range across objects, producing encounters and radical disjunctions between them. 

What are the advantages of disciplines defined by their universal methods?  The extent to which the activity of subject is grounded in a particular method and approach to the world is brought out in Alain Badiou’s thought.  His ‘militants of truth’ are engaged in rigorous enquiries whose condition is a ‘clearing of the ground’, a clearing away of given objects in order that new objects may emerge in scientific, artistic, political and amorous situations.  The continuous development of methods is therefore crucial, although these must be transformed by the activity of subjects who wager upon the truth of a particular ‘event’.  For example, Badiou refers to the ‘Barque-Picasso event’, by which he means the occurrence to which certain artists rallied and whose ‘truth’ depended upon their activity in rigorously drawing out and developing this occurrence.  This movement, of course, was cubism.  Such scientists, artists, activists and lovers must not be attached to particular subject-matters but instead develop new and universal methods.  There are precursors to these new movements (Cézanne plays this role in relation to Cubism) but there must always be a ‘wager’ upon the truth of an event that is not supported by subject-matters or objects that are already given and recognised.  Specialisation would work against the change Badiou wants to account for.  He argues that a wager is to be realised by the fidelity of a subject to a truth which is not given and objective but is rather fragile and uncertain.  This requires the continuous development of a method that relates ‘being’ and ‘event’ rather being concerned with particular objects.  This demands that situations are not over-determined by objects of study, by subject-matters to which specialists are attached.  Instead there must be militant subjects whose fidelity to a truth is a condition of revolutions and transformations in different disciplines.  

Disciplines defined by the universal methods show themselves to be capable of realising genuine change as well as having the scope of the concrete and not simply of a particular subject-matter.  These will be disciplines engaged more widely with the concrete and more open to change, ones that avoid the bureaucratic organisation of disciplines that demands they show their ‘relevance’ to society by embracing particular subject-matters.  Thus we find that, while defining a discipline may seem objectionable, it is a necessary step if we are to recognise the issues involved in the organisation of disciplines and the way study is carried out.  It is necessary if we are to be sure that disciplines maintain an integrity that makes them effective, that allows them to genuinely embrace the concrete and moments of transformation.

In : Architectonics 



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