During my entrance exam for the doctoral course at Tokyo Tech (Department of Transdisciplinary Science and Engineering GEDES *), one professor asked me, “So, which part of your research is transdisciplinary?”

At that time, I couldn’t answer the question because I didn’t have any answer to it in the first place. After that day, I still kept asking myself “What makes a research transdisciplinary?”, or the question could be interpreted as ‘What is transdisciplinarity?’

A bridge over Tama River which connects Tokyo and Kanagawa prefectures.

At the early stage of my thoughts, I understood that the difficulty of transdisciplinary studies was unique and different from other kinds of bridging activity. However, transdisciplinarity is just one example of a radical difficulty embedded in every communication activity.

Bridging different research areas is, after all, highly related to communication. Even in our daily communication, we do not know how much we can understand each other. For example, if I say to you ‘I am now a little bit sad.’ Then, you might feel you can share my sadness, but it is still might be quite impossible for you to fully understand what I want you to know. Even the speaker herself does not know what she is saying because her words are signs which are not her tools but a shared society’s tool. We always fail to communicate. It is the same for communication over the different research areas. Some people might say, for example, “I really can’t say anything about feminism because I am a man and I’ve never studied humanities or social sciences before. I don’t think I can understand the arguments.” At this stage, we can have at least two options: be nihilists or be fools.

If we choose to be nihilists or someone who thinks that all values are baseless and that we cannot actually know or communicate anything, then simply, we have to admit that transdisciplinarity is an illusion and we should stop it.

On the other hand, if we think we belong to the other group, (try ignorant) fools trapped in failure, then, we should keep trying to bridge the gap between different research areas through communication. Even though we understand that it can be difficult, we can keep asking, “Is there anything which can cross the border?” As we have already seen, a language hardly crosses the border. It can perhaps crosses the border, but between different research areas, there is an obstacle called ‘jargon.’

In my opinion, it could be materiality or existence which enables us to cross the border. The materiality could be simply a tangible object. If there is a tangible object between us, we can at least see, feel, or touch it. These physical interactions give us a piece of strong information that both of us can rely on. Regarding existence, for example, we can share experiences, times, or locations, but the meaning of existence could be more.

Transdisciplinarity should include communication using the concepts or ideas which are organized by languages. If the concepts or ideas have certain kinds of existence, we might assume that there is a possibility to cross the border. Then the next question we can ask is “What is the existence of the concepts or ideas?”

Emmanuel Levinas (1986) argues that our existence begins when we escape from ‘exist’ (Ilya) (verb) to ‘existence’ (noun). At that moment (which is always now, the current), we become a lonely being that is essentially closed from everything. This change of ‘existence’ is called hypostasis (phrase shift). Through hypostasis, we can be independent and put ourselves in relations with others.

If we can make hypostasis onto the concepts or ideas, we could establish much solid communication over different research areas. Language itself is not enough. We need hypostasis which is beyond our signs, which enables us to build our reality with others to keep believing in and trying transdisciplinary communication.

Now, What is hypostasis onto concepts or ideas? That could be a question that we have to answer soon.


*Department of Transdisciplinary Science and Engineering GEDES
Levinas, E. (1986). Jikan to tasha [Time and the other]. (Y. Harada Trans.).
Hosei University Press. (Original work published 1948).