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Transdisciplinarity is a new approach to research and science which defines and solves problems more independently of specific disciplines

Contextual Quotes


“Transdisciplinarity is . . . radically distinct from multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity because of its goal, the understanding of the present world, which cannot be accomplished in the framework of disciplinary research. The goal of multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity always remains within the framework of disciplinary research” (Nicolescu, 2002).

- Basarab Nicolescu [1]

Source: cited by Jennifer Gidley, footnote p. 35


"What is beyond any discipline? It is, of course, ourselves, the human being. In more sophisticated words, we can say that what is beyond is the Subject. The Subject cannot be captured through formalism. When you want to capture it, it’s an ontological catastrophe, because the Subject is transformed in Object. Transdisciplinarity is coming back to knowledge of the Subject, more precisely of the interaction between the Subject and the Object."

- Basarab Nicolescu [2]


“As the prefix "trans" indicates, transdisciplinarity concerns that which is at once between the disciplines, across the different disciplines, and beyond all discipline. Its goal is the understanding of the present world , of which one of the imperatives is the unity of knowledge” (Nicolescu, 2002, p. 44). Leading researcher in transdisciplinarity, Basarab Nicolescu, posits three axioms of transdisciplinarity: “The existence of levels of reality; the logic of the included middle; the axiom of complexity” (as cited in Volckmann, 2007, p. 82)."

- Jennifer Gidley [3]

Short Summary

"It is important to briefly explain the differences between transdisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity, with mutual exchange of ideas and corrections. Whereas ‘multidisciplinary’ means only that various disciplines work alongside each other on one issue, interdisciplinarity implies the exchange of concepts and methods, which are incorporated into the various complementary disciplines.

Transdisciplinarity is a new approach to research and science which defines and solves problems more independently of specific disciplines,thus transforming disciplines and subjects by removing their traditional borders wherever a single disciplinary definition of an issue is not possible or useful."

(from Florian Waldvogel's essay Each One Teach One, cited in

Longer Summary

Basarab Nicolescu:

"The indispensable need for bridges between the different disciplines is attested to by the emergence of pluridisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity around the middle of the 20th century.

Pluridisciplinarity concerns studying a research topic not in only one discipline but in several at the same time . For example, a painting by Giotto can be studied not only within art history but within history of religions, European history, and geometry. Or else Marxist philosophy can be studied with a view toward blending philosophy with physics, economics, psychoanalysis or literature. The topic in question will ultimately be enriched by blending the perspectives of several disciplines. Moreover, our understanding of the topic in terms of its own discipline is deepened by a fertile multidisciplinary approach. Multidisciplinarity brings a plus to the discipline in question (the history of art or philosophy in our examples), but we must remember that this "plus" is always in the exclusive service of the home discipline. In other words, the multidisciplinary approach overflows disciplinary boundaries while its goal remains limited to the framework of disciplinary research .

Interdisciplinarity has a different goal from multidisciplinarity. It concerns the transfer of methods from one discipline to another . One can distinguish three degrees of interdisciplinarity: a) a degree of application . For example, when the methods of nuclear physics are transferred to medicine it leads to the appearance of new treatments for cancer; b) an epistemological degree . For example, transferring methods of formal logic to the area of general law generates some interesting analyses of the epistemology of law; c) a degree of the generation of new disciplines . For example, when methods from mathe matics were transferred to physics mathematical physics was generated, and when they were transferred to meterological phenomena or stock market processes they generated chaos theory; transferring methods from particle physics to astrophysics produced quantum cosmology; and from the transfer of computer methods to art computer art was derived. Like pluridisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity overflows the disciplines but its goal still remains within the framework of disciplinary research . It is through the third degree that interdisciplinarity contributes to the disciplinary big bang.

As the prefix "trans" indicates, transdisciplinarity concerns that which is at once between the disciplines, across the different disciplines, and beyond all discipline. Its goal is the understanding of the present world , of which one of the imperatives is the unity of knowledge.

Is there something between and across the disciplines and beyond all disciplines? From the point of view of classical thought there is nothing, strictly nothing: the space in question is empty, completely empty, like the vacuum of classical physics. Even if it renounces the pyramidal vision of knowledge, classical thought considers each fragment of the pyramid which is generated by the disciplinary big bang as an entire pyramid; each discipline claims that it is sufficient unto itself. For classical thought, transdisciplinarity appears absurd because it does not appear to have an object. In contrast, within the framework of transdisciplinarity, classical thought does not appear absurd; rather, it simply appears to have a restricted sphere of applicability.

In the presence of several levels of Reality the space between disciplines and beyond disciplines is full just as the quantum vacuum is full of all potentialities: from the quantum particle to the galaxies, from the quark to the heavy elements which condition the appearance of life in the universe. The discontinuous structure of the levels of Reality determines the discontinuous structure of transdisciplinary space , which in turn explains why transdisciplinary research is radical ly distinct from disciplinary research, even while being entirely complementary. Disciplinary research concerns, at most, one and the same level of Reality ; moreover, in most cases, it only concerns fragments of one level of Reality. On the contrary, transdisciplinarity concerns the dynamics engendered by the action of several levels of Reality at once . The discovery of these dynamics necessarily passes through disciplinary knowledge. While not a new discipline or a new superdiscipline, transdisciplinarity is nourished by disciplinary research; in turn, disciplinary research is clarified by transdisciplinary knowledge in a new, fertile way. In this sense, disciplinary and transdisciplinary research are not antagonistic but complementary.

The three pillars of transdisciplinarity -- levels of Reality, the logic of the included middle, and complexity -- determine the methodology of transdisciplinary research .

There is an interesting parallel between the three pillars of transdisciplinarity and the three postulates of modern science.

In spite of an almost infinite diversity of methods, theories and models which have traversed the history of different scientific disciplines, the three methodological postulates of modern science have remained unchanged from Galileo until our day. Only one science has entirely and integrally satisfied the three postulates: physics. The other scientific disciplines only partially satisfy the three methodological postulates of modern science. However, the absence of rigorous mathematical formalization in psychology, history of religions, and a multitude of other disciplines does not lead to the elimination of these disciplines from the field of science. At least for the moment, not even an exact science like molecular biology, can claim a mathematical formalization as rigorous as that of phys ics. In other words, there are degrees of disciplinarity which can respectively take into account more or less completely the three methodological postulates of modern science.

Likewise, the process of more or less completely taking account of the three methodological pillars of transdisciplinary research generates different degrees of transdisciplinarity . Transdisciplinary research which corresponds to a certain degree of transdisciplinarity will be closer to multidisciplinarity (as in the case of ethics); one which corresponds to another degree will be closer to interdisciplinarity (as in the case of epistemology); and that corresponding to yet another degree will be closer to disciplinarity.

Disciplinarity, multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity are like four arrows shot from but a single bow: knowledge."



Alfonso Montuori:

"Transdisciplinarity can be summarized as requiring:

1. A focus that is inquiry-driven rather than discipline driven. This does not involve a rejection of disciplinary knowledge, but the development of pertinent knowledge for the purposes of action in the world.

2. A stress on the construction of knowledge through an appreciation of the meta-paradigmatic dimension – in other words, the underlying assumptions that form the paradigm through which disciplines and perspectives construct knowledge. …

3. An understanding of the organization of knowledge, isomorphic at the cognitive and the institutional level, the history of reduction and disjunction (what Morin calls “simple thought”) and the importance of contextualization and connection (or “complex thought”).

4. The integration of the knower in the process of inquiry, which means that rather than attempting to eliminate the knower, the effort becomes one of acknowledging and making transparent the knower’s assumptions and the process through which s/he constructs knowledge." (


From Modelling the Demands of Interdisciplinarity.

Zachary Stein explains the evolution from disciplinarity to transdisciplinarity (in terms of growing group competences):

Disciplinarity: Group is able to produce new knowledge (or confirm exiting knowledge) in a specific discipline by employing one set of concepts and methodologies.

Multi-disciplinarity: Group is able to demonstrate disciplinary competence and relate the results produced by surrounding disciplines to its own, and relate its own results to others (e.g. communication between disciplines).

Cross-disciplinarity: Group is able to demonstrate disciplinary competence and to constructively collaborate with groups from other disciplines in a problem-focused manner.

Inter-disciplinarity: Group subsumes at least two disciplinary sub-groups, with one as primary focus of expertise. Capable of solving problems that cannot be addressed by either discipline, typically in a problem-focused manner.

Trans-disciplinarity: Group subsumes at least two disciplinary sub-groups, neither of which is primary. Produces both problem focused and synoptic knowledge, which cannot be reduced to either of the sub-group competencies. It is capable of spawning new disciplines, and reforming existing ones in light of emergent perspectives.


The Three Natures

Nicolescu distinguishes:

Objective nature: the natural characteristics of the Transdisciplinary Object, approachable through 'subjective objectivity'

Subjective nature: the natural characteristics of the Transdisciplinary Subject, approachable through 'objective subjectivity'

Trans-Nature: similarity and communion between the Transdisciplinary Objects and Subjects

The Three Axioms of Transdisciplinarity

All excerpts in this section are from the interview by Russ Volckmann [4]

"If you take these three axioms, which parallel the three axioms of modern science, you get the definition of transdisciplinarity. But this means that we define transdisciplinarity not via a new discipline, but via a new methodology. In other words, we identify transdisciplinarity not with a new discipline, but with a new knowledge — knowledge about what is in between, across and beyond disciplines. For this new knowledge, you need these three axioms."


"The first axiom is the existence of levels of reality. We have to define what levels of reality means. Let’s say, in first approximation, that the laws of quantum physics correspond to a new level of reality in total discontinuity with the laws of nature we knew at the level of our own scale, where Newtonian physics is valid. Newtonian, or classical, physics is applied essentially at our scale of centimeters, seconds, and so on, with extension to planets and cosmic things, towards the infinitely long and infinitely big, like we say.

Quantum physics goes the other direction: infinitely small and infinitely short—extremely small distances and extremely short intervals of time. And there, to our surprise, we discovered laws that cannot reduce to classical physics. That’s the core of all understanding of this revolution. It is the fact that one cannot reduce the quantum laws to the classical laws. We cannot have continuous passage from one to the other. That’s the reason why, in fact, quantum physics and the relativity theory are, in logical terms, a contradiction. It doesn’t mean they contradict facts—they are all perfect for their realm of reality. But it’s a very defined realm— and that’s the point.

In a given region of reality, classical physics is perfect. But if you extend this region, classical physics is working no more, and you discover new laws, which are in discontinuity with the laws of our own scale. That’s more or less how I define levels of reality."

The second axiom concerns the existence and need for different logics, that can account for different levels of reality.


"What does it mean in simple words without going into technical details? For a normal mind, you cannot say yes and no at the same time, or there is something strange with your way of thinking. But you can have yes and no at the same time if you have at least two different levels of reality. That’s a basic fact that I demonstrated in 1985 in the book Nous, la Particule et le Monde, and it was a simple solution to all these puzzles of paradoxes. If we are located on a given level with our mind, our representations, our images, we will discover in our formalizations, located on a different level of reality, as a couple of oppositions, yes and no. On our own level, our representations appear as approximations, as sections or projections of something much richer, which are submitted to more general laws. This is the second axiom of transdisciplinarity: In order to go to complex phenomena, you need a non-classical logic, and the best candidate is this included middle logic."

"The third axiom of transdisciplinarity is the axiom of complexity. There are many theories of complexity. I noted myself at the Congress in 1992 at the Pontifical Academy of Science, consecrated to complexity in sciences, that no less than 32 different definitions of complexity were given. Most of these variants are not compatible with the existing levels of reality. One of the compatible variants is the one of Edgar Morin. This is in connection with general systems theory, a systemic approach.

From the point of view of transdisciplinarity what we need is complexity, understood as the fact that every level of reality is what it is because it’s connected with all the other levels of reality. Reality has a complex structure. Complexity, in this form, is no more or no less than the very old Principle of Universal Interdependence."

Status Report 2007

Reported by Basarab Nicolescu to Russ Volckmann. Has there been progress for transdisciplinarity?

From,%20Modeling%20the%20Demands%20of%20Interdisciplinarity%204,%202007.pdf :

"One field in which there is already a lot is education. I worked many years with UNESCO on a project of applying transdisciplinarity in higher education. We met in a Congress in Locarno in 1997, sponsored by UNESCO. That was the turning point toward practical applications in education. This means renewed methods of teaching in different fields, and introducing transdisciplinarity in universities. I’m proud to say that I succeeded, myself, after many years of fighting in many countries, I now have two possibilities—one in South Africa and one in Romania—to start Ph.D.s in transdisciplinarity. There are many people in the world who are at the intersection of different fields of knowledge and they have no way to do their Ph.D. studies, because there is no department in the world. So all the work I did with many, many friends all over the world was to create these conditions. Slowly they are appearing through applications made by individual professors. They are appearing. You can see it in the last issue (in French) of “Transdisciplinary Encounters”, the magazine published by the organization I’m leading, CIRET, on the concrete application in education. In South Africa, they are on the way to do that at Stellenbosch University. There are many places in which there are transdisciplinary lectures; in the U.S., in Romania, in Italy and even in France. Myself I am teaching transdisciplinarity at the Babes-Bolyai University from Cluj-Napoca, in Romania, for doctoral students.

Another field in which I’m very happy to see that it’s moving towards transdisciplinarity is the realm of health. There is one important organization in Quebec, led by one of our members, Patrick Loisel, who even founded a transdisciplinary department for health sponsored by the Canadian Institute of Health. It’s financed by government and at the University of Sherbrooke, in which he brought together people from different specialties for handicap problems. They are applying transdisciplinarity ideas and methodology with the levels of reality, but in concrete terms and in context. They’ve convinced people that everybody wins with this connection.

The other ways in which transdisciplinarity is applied is in a powerful country of transdisciplinarity, Brazil. The formation of transdisciplinarity among university people, but also different social workers, has been at the University of Sao Paulo for three or four years. In fact, in Brazil, in September 2005, we had the second World Congress of Transdisciplinarity, and to my surprise I saw that more than 50 universities were represented from Brazil. They were not only teaching transdisciplinarity, but using it in organizations of departments and curriculum.

Another way is the problem of law studies. They are especially interested to include the problem of the included middle in the problem of law." (,%20Modeling%20the%20Demands%20of%20Interdisciplinarity%204,%202007.pdf)

Key Books to Read

Basarab Nicolescu. Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity. Albany, NY, USA: State University of New York Press, 2002

More Information

One of the key founders of the movement, Basarab Nicolescu, interviewed by Russ Voclkmann. Strongly recommended at,%20Nicolescu%20Interview%20on%20Transdisciplinarity%204,%202007.pdf

Key essay by Zachary Stein, Modeling the Demands of Interdisciplinarity. This essay has great graphics showing the evolution of post-disciplinary forms of research.

See also the text of the Charter for Transdisciplinarity

See also our entry on Participative Epistemology

Bibliography of Basarab Nicolescu

Nicolescu, B. (2002). Manifesto of transdisciplinarity (K. Voss, Trans.). New York: SUNY Press.

Nicolescu, B. (1997). The transdisciplinary evolution of the university - Condition for sustainable development [Electronic version]. Retrieved March 22, 2008, from

Nicolescu, B. (2005). Towards transdisciplinary education and learning . [Electronic version].Retrieved March 22, 2008, from

Nicolescu, B. (n. d.). The transdisciplinary evolution of learning [Electronic version]. Retrieved March 22, 2008, from

Nicolescu, B. (2008). The reform of thought, transdisciplinarity, and reform of the university. In B. Nicolescu (Ed.), Transdisciplinarity: Theory and practice. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press