Jean-Marc Lemelin

(with the help of Danielle Conway and Jim MacLean)


For the round table :

What is a discipline?

Seminar of the Department of French and Spanish

Memorial University of Newfoundland

St. John's, Newfoundland

February 15th, 2000

I would like to examine two points with you:

1°) What has the status of a discipline been from yesterday to today?

2°) What could or should it be in the future?

The first part of my examination is entitled "The transcendence of discipline" and the second, "The discipline of immanence".

FIRST PART: The transcendence of discipline

Since the Greeks, that is, for at least about 2500 years, there has been a classification of disciplines to determine what is knowledge, what is science, what is "epistêmê":

. With Plato in his Academy, there were geometry, philosophy, dialectics, ethics, and music (poetry) for the soul and gymnastics for the body.

. With Aristotle, there were also dialectics and ethics, plus rhetoric and poetics, as well as a kind of biology, physics, metaphysics, and logic.

. In the Middle Ages, when Scholasticism dominated the University, there were the forum or the symposium of the seven Liberal Arts, with the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, dialectics) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, music); with the exception of music, one basically differentiated between Arts and Sciences, Language and Mathematics, or letters and numbers.

. Later, with Francis Bacon, one had a "classification of sciences for the purpose of a propaedeutic guaranteed by the State" [or translation of Eric Porge. Les noms du père chez Jacques Lacan].

. With the XVIIth century, after Leibniz, who has the reputation of being the last man to have known every discipline, we have had the fragmentation of knowledge and an increase in the number of disciplines.

. After, in Germany, in the age of the Aufklärung, from Kant to Hegel and Humboldt, there emerged the doctrine of faculties, where parts of the soul corresponded to parts of the university.

. Finally, in the XIXth century, a few other classifications:

- With André Marie Ampère, there were two domains, the cosmological sciences and the noological sciences; these were further subdivided into four subdomains, eight branches, sixteen subbranches, thirty-two first-order sciences, sixty-four second-order sciences and one hundred and twenty-eight third-order sciences [see Patrick Tort. La raison classificatoire].

- With Auguste Comte, classification principles shifted from inorganic physics (astronomy, physics, chemistry) to organic physics (physiology and social physiology), that is from general and abstract or simple and impersonal to the particular and concrete or to the complex and personal [see Tort, p. 277].

- Partially following Comte, but with the inversion of the pyramid of being, Herbert Spencer moved from logic and mathematics (abstract sciences) to astronomy, geology, biology, psychology and sociology (concrete sciences), as well as mechanics, physics and chemistry (which are both abstract and concrete sciences) [see Tort, p. 352]. More precisely, abstract sciences include: logic, geometry of position, indefinite calculus, definite calculus (arithmetic, algebra, calculus of operations), geometry, cinematics, geometry of movement; sciences classified as being abstract and/or concrete include: sideral astronomy and planetary astronomy, astrogeny (solar mineralogy, solar meteorology), geogeny (mineralogy, meteorology, geology), biology (morphology, physiology), psychology and sociology, in a system of sciences where society is like a biological organism in evolution and with no discontinuity [see Tort, p. 381-383].

All of these classifications are based on a theological, metaphysical, mathematical, physical or biological doctrine (from "docere": teaching) and its dogmas (or its dogmatic of doctrinal points) and they are not necessarily realized in university disciplines: there is no confusion between discipline and science or philosophy. These disciplines are now embodied in departments, faculties, universities or other post-secondary schools.

From an epistemological point of view, a science can be defined by its object; but, this is not the case with a discipline. With a discipline, if it is a matter of field or domain (corpus) -- like French Studies, German or Russian Studies, Literary Studies, Film Studies, Canadian Studies, Medieval Studies, Religious Studies, Women's Studies, History or Humanities and Social Sciences --, it is basically an institutional classification, from a spectacular or transcendent point of view for academic and administrative reasons or purposes. These purposes are ideological, political and economic or historical and social ones, and involve work, jobs, professions, faculty, labor unions, the establishement, social classes, etc. In this way, the discipline of (by) the institution leads to the institution of (for) the discipline, to its institutionalization: the transcendence of discipline (or religion) inverts itself in the discipline of transcendence, in the "religion of transcendence" [see Marcel Gauchet. Le désenchantement du monde, p. 68] -- into indoctrination!...

SECOND PART: The discipline of immanence

If one exchanges the thematic and historical point of view for a methodological one, one is able to distinguish between a discipline (or disciplines) and discipline as a framework for thought, and maybe substitute the latter for the former.

When I began to work on this topic last fall, I was surprised to discover, in a good dictionary like Le Petit Robert 1, that "discipline" (from latin "disciplina") meant in the year 1080: "punishment", "devastation", "pain"; in the XIVth century, it was a whip designed to flagellate or mortify oneself; from that, it became, in the XVIth century, "instruction", "moral direction or influence" and, later, a "rule of behaviour"; by 1409, one has our modern definition of a discipline as a "branch of knowledge". But, like Jim MacLean indicated to me, these last three definitions are already true for Classical Latin, Latin being the university language until the XVIIth century.

So, discipline means method implying some kind of authority for or in didactics or pedagogy. From there, using method as a propaedeutic (from "paideuien": teaching) for learning and teaching, studying and searching for; being more disciplined than disciplinary without changing students into disciples...

At the same time, with method -- and there is no difference between method and theory, both being a matter of concepts and style --, we can cross-check an epistemological point of view and a methodological one: for Louis Hjelmslev, the founder, with Hugo Brondal, of the Linguistic School of Copenhagen called glossematics, the object is conceived as the intersection of a network of relations or connections. Going further, it could be possible to establish programs which are not based on thematic topics or disciplines but on problems, a problem being defined as an intersection of objects; going even further, a problematics could be characterized as an intersection of problems, and a university (or a faculty putting together Arts and Sciences) as an intersection of problematics.

If, from a diachronic point of view as Michel Serres pointed out, one can distinguish three major steps in technical history: writing, printing, surfing the Internet; from a synchronic point of view, one has particular or objective sciences: hard and soft sciences, natural and artificial sciences, pure and applied sciences, humanities and social sciences, arts and techniques. But those particular or objective sciences, anaphorical or shifted-out ones, are not goals (like truth); they are tools (like knowledge) for larger issues in the framework of a general science of the human being, a subjective science -- "subjective", or deictic (shifted-in), meaning here that this is a theory of the subject as radical immanence; a theory based on grammar (such as linguistics and semiotics) and metapsychology (such as phenomenology or psychoanalysis). This theory could be well considered the base for psychology, sociology, ethnology, anthropology and so on through to history and to biology. In a paradoxical manner or way, the objective sciences are human, too human; the subjective science is not human enough, almost natural -- man being a shifted animal... The subjective science is to the objective sciences what passion is to action, imagination to reason, or affect to representation.

At the level of particular sciences, we can talk of disciplinarity, interdisciplinarity or multidisciplinarity; but at the level of a general science, one must talk about transdisciplinarity (which is not transcendent but transcendental). This general and radical science is still an ideal -- maybe an impossible one --; it is not a new organon; but, perhaps this is the only place where one can talk about the immanence of a discipline that it exists on the bordelines of the institution. Despite the fact that some might question the principle of immanence, the immanence (what is transcendental) is to transcendence what time is to space, what absolute is to relative [see Gauchet].

This principle is also a theoretical principle of classification and hierarchical organization or a double principle: a metaphorical principle of resemblance and a metonymical principle of descent or genealogy [see Kant and Tort], metaphor being to metonymy what paradigm is to syntagm, what condensation is to transfer, what schizophrenia is to paranoia... In one last word, the question "What is a discipline?" presupposes a deeper one: "What is a taxonomy?" or "What is the principle of classification of a taxonomy or of a nomenclature?"

JML/February 15th, 2000