Transdisciplinarity Conference in Brazil

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Mark Swilling, John Van Breda and Fanie Cloete (from the School of Public Management and Planning) attended the Second World Congress on Transdisciplinarity from 6th – 12th September. Renowned Paris-based physicist Professor Basarab Nicolescu who acted as Convenor of the Congress, invited Mark, John, Fanie and University of Stellenbosch Rector and Vice-Chancellor Professor Chris Brink to attend the conference to share the work being done by the Sustainability Institute and the University of Stellenbosch in general. In particular, talks were delivered on three topics: the practical linkages between transdisciplinarity and sustainability that have been demonstrated in the development of the Lynedoch EcoVillage; a proposed D.Phil in Transdisciplinarity that Professor Brink believes could, in his words, be a “flagship project” for the University; and a keynote address on the epistemological, ontological and methodological relationships between transdisciplinarity and sustainability from a Southern African perspective. The keynote address that was delivered by Mark Swilling recieved a standing ovation.

The conference was attended by 350 intellectuals and academics from many different countries, including Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Canada, USA, France, Rumania, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Colombia, etc. They came from all disciplines, although most were from the natural sciences. Talks ranged from the highly complex abstract theoretical discourses, to numerous stories of a vast number of local level projects and initiatives that have been inspired by transdisciplinarity. Many of these projects were from numerous Brazilian cities.

In his opening address, Professor Nicolescu re-articulated the basic concepts of transdisciplinarity as presented in his previous works, and the works of many others (in particular Edgar Morin). The basic proposition is that transdisciplinarity differs from multi- and inter-disciplinarity work because it goes beyond disciplines in a way that makes the re-unification of knowledge a possibility which, in turn, is seen as a necessity for tackling the sustainabilility, the ultimate challenge of our times. Transdisciplinarity is presented as an approach that makes possible a “multi-referential epistemology” (i.e. knowledge that operates at different irreducible ‘levels’, from the quantum, through the macro-physical, to the ecological) and a “multi-dimensional ontology” (i.e. knowledge of levels of reality that are also irreducible). The three pilllars of transdisciplinarity being the notion of irreducible levels of reality, complexity and the included ‘middle T’ that has hitherto been excluded by the Aristotelian dualism.

A group of Professors from around the world were selected at the Congress to develop a new Doctoral Programme in Transdisciplinarity Studies for Sustainability. The first meeting will take place in South Africa at the Sustainability Institute in April 2006.