Review Essay of Basarab Nicolescu’s Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity
(Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001) ISBN 0-7914-5261-1

by Karen-Claire Voss

After reading Nicolescu's Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity, it is hard to imagine how any thinking person could retreat to the old, safe, comfortable conceptual framework. Taking a series of ideas that would be extremely thought-provoking even when considered one by one, the Romanian quantum physicist Basarab Nicolescu weaves them together in a stunning vision, this manifesto of the twenty-first century, so that they emerge as a shimmering, profoundly radical whole.

Nicolescu’s raison d’être is to help develop people’s consciousness by means of showing them how to approach things in terms of what he calls “transdisciplinarity.” He seeks to address head on the problem of fragmentation that plagues contemporary life. Nicolescu maintains that binary logic, the logic underlying most all of our social, economic, and political institutions, is not sufficient to encompass or address all human situations. His thinking aids in the unification of the scientific culture and the sacred, something which increasing numbers of persons, will find to be an enormous help, among them wholistic health practitioners seeking to promote the understanding of illness as something arising from the interwoven fabric—body, plus mind, plus spirit—that constitutes the whole human being, and academics frustrated by the increasing pressure to produce only so-called “value-free” material.

Transdisciplinarity “concerns that which is at once between the disciplines, across the different disciplines, and beyond all discipline,” and its aim is the unity of knowledge together with the unity of our being: “Its goal is the understanding of the present world, of which one of the imperatives is the unity of knowledge.” (44) Nicolescu points out the danger of self-destruction caused by modernism and increased technologization and offers alternative ways of approaching them, using a transdisciplinary approach that propels us beyond the either/or thinking that gave rise to the antagonisms that produced the problems in the first place. The logic of the included middle permits “this duality [to be] transgressed by the open unity that encompasses both the universe and the human being.” (56). Thus, approaching problems in a transdisciplinary way enables one to move beyond dichotomized thinking, into the space that lies beyond.

Nicolescu calls on us to rethink everything in terms of what quantum physics has shown us about the nature of the universe. Besides offering an alternative to thinking exclusively in terms of binary logic, and showing how the idea of the logic of the included middle can afford hitherto unimagined possibilities, he also introduces us to the idea that Reality is not something that exists on only one level, but on many, and maintains that only transdisciplinarity can deal with the dynamics engendered by the action of several levels of Reality at once. It is for this reason that transdisciplinarity is radically distinct from multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity, although it is often confused with both. Moreover, because of the fact that reality has more than a single level, binary logic, the logic that one uses to cross a street and avoid being hit by a truck, cannot possibly be applied to all of the levels. It simply does not work. Nicolescu explains it is only the logic of the included middle that can be adequate for complex situations, like those we must confront in the educational, political, social, religious and cultural arenas. As he writes, “The transdisciplinary viewpoint allows us to consider a multidimensional Reality, structured by multiple levels replacing the single-level, one-dimensional reality of classical thought.” (49)

In Chapter 1, "To Avoid Any Misunderstanding," he traces the history of the use of the term “transdisciplinarity” and carefully defines it. Chapter 2, entitled "Tomorrow May Be Too Late," explains exactly why we must seriously consider adopting the transdisciplinary approach. While those of us who have grown up in the shadow of the threat of widespread nuclear war may have become somehow used to living with being immured in it; i.e., the constant threat has developed all the earmarks of being just another unpleasant fact of life, there are alternatives. While “everything is in place for our self destruction,” at the same time, he writes, “everything is also in place for positive change . . . The challenge of self-destruction has its counterpart in the hope of self-birth.” He elaborates the idea of different levels in Ch. 4, "Quantum Physics and Levels of Reality," explains the role of complexity in Ch. 6, "The Emergence of Complex Plurality," further elucidates the meaning of “transdisciplinarity” in Chapters 7 and 8, and devotes separate chapters discussing the implications of what he calls “scientism,” conceptual dualism, and changing paradigms of Nature. For example, in Chapter 9, "The Death and the Resurrection of Nature," he opens up the implications of a mechanist view of Nature, a view in which whatever piece of Nature currently under examination is taken to be sufficient for generalizing about the whole. When this is coupled with a view of Nature as a sort of inanimate object, as it frequently is, a premise (whether conscious or unconscious) is formed that comprises the root of all our various environmental crises.


In Chapter 12, "The Feminization of Society and the Poetic Dimension of Existence," Nicolescu calls for the celebration of a “wedding between the masculine and the feminine,” (85) and flatly charges us with having “wounded the Eros of the world by giving preference to the unbridled development of the masculine.” (86) This has had numerous effects, one of which is the devaluation of what “love” means, another of which is the emptying of the meaning in sexuality (genuine “Eros,” he writes, “has been replaced by an erotic masquerade” (86)), and a third thing, which is the “social marginalization of women” that is an inevitable result of “the logic of the marketplace.” Chapter 13 is devoted to a discussion of the contemporary obsession with “image” as opposed to Reality. Today, what we term social interaction is generally merely a process in which two or more masks engage in superficial exchange. Whereas in another age the challenge was to create images that conveyed Reality, “today,” Nicolescu argues, “Reality must conform to the image we make of it.” (91)

In Chapter 15, "The Transcultural and the Mirror of the Other," he embarks on a discussion of the multicultural and intercultural exchange that is increasingly occurring worldwide, usually as the result of exploiting the economic possibilities inherent in the opening up of new global markets. Stating that “the multicultural and the intercultural by themselves do not assure the kind of communication between all cultures that presupposes a universal language founded on shared values,” (104) Nicolescu explains how the perception and experience of the “transcultural” can prevent a flattening and homogenization of diverse cultures by leading to the perception and experience of the Other as being but a previously unsuspected facet of ourselves.

Chapter 16, "Transdisciplinarity—Deviations and Wrong Turns," provides an invaluable service because it explores, in some detail, just how various groups have misappropriated the term “transdisciplinarity,” for their own purposes. Nicolescu comes out strongly against what any careful observer can already see happening, particularly in Western Europe: the phenomenon he terms “the marketing of transdisciplinarity.” When “[s]old in such a way, transdisciplinarity could constitute an ideal means for bestowing new legitimacy to decision makers in distress without doing anything to change their approach.” (115) The possibility reminds this reviewer of nothing so much as what happened with deconstructionism. Deconstructionism was once lauded as being a panacea for all kinds of social ills resulting from the over-concretization of certain concepts such as hierarchical dualism. Feminists were especially enthusiastic about it because they understood that it afforded them a powerful tool for deconstructing the patriarchal categories that have been used for centuries to justify the oppression of women. Persons of color were equally hopeful about the similar potential they perceived in deconstructionism. Gradually, though, we witnessed an appropriation of deconstructionism that functioned to defuse its entire original potential for occasioning radical change. Beginning with its being a tool for the radical restructuring of thought, for the most part, deconstructionism ultimately became nothing so much as yet another manifestation of a “glass bead game.” Nicolescu is therefore correct in taking pains to warn us against the similar pitfalls that can become associated with transdisciplinarity.

"The Transreligious Attitude and the Presence of the Sacred," Chapter 18, may well be the most controversial. The author deplores the absence of reference to the sacred in much of today’s thinking because according to him, “the sacred, understood as the presence of something irreducibly real in the world, is unavoidable for any rational approach to knowledge. One can deny or affirm the presence of the sacred in the world or in ourselves, but, in view of elaborating a coherent discourse on Reality, one is always obliged to refer to it.” (125, emphases mine) Nicolescu continues by saying that the “abolition of the sacred led to the abomination of Auschwitz,” and is the “origin of totalitarianism.“ The remainder of the chapter is devoted to an extremely precise delineation of the complex relations present among the ‘sacred,’ the ‘transdisciplinary model of Reality’, ‘levels of Reality,’ the transcultural,’ and what he calls ‘transreligion.’


In Ch. 19, "The Transdisciplinary Evolution of Education," he lays before us a vision of education as a life-long process. Invoking the Delors Report, compiled by Jacques Delors, Chair of the International Commission on Education for the Twenty-First Century sponsored by UNESCO, Nicolescu explains how the report described “four pillars” of a new form of education: “learning to know,” “learning to do,” “learning to live together,” and “learning to be.” After commenting on each of these in turn, he puts forward a challenge to the university to become a place that is once again true to the meaning found in the etymology of the word ‘university.’ He sees the university once again becoming a place for “the study of the universal.” (140), a place where the entire Universe, not only parts of it, would be studied. Finally, he points out the fact that “there is a direct and unavoidable relation between peace and transdisciplinarity.” Saying that “severely fragmented thought is incompatible with the research of peace on this Earth,“ he states that this fact “requires” not only “the transdisciplinary evolution of education,” but also, “the transdisciplinary evolution of the university” itself. (140) By this, I believe that the reader can infer from this that in Nicolescu’s view, a genuine university would do far more to create peace than merely incorporate a program called “Peace Studies” as but a token fragment within its overall curriculum.

What I have presented here in this essay is but the map of a vast territory. There is no way a brief essay can do justice to what Basarab Nicolescu has created. You must read this book for yourself. It constitutes a veritable treasury of living ideas assembled by a visionary who is also a renowned scientist. To my mind, this is a peerless combination. Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity indeed serves to rekindle our hope, and can lend all of us heart to proceed on the “quest for a tomorrow” (2-3).

Karen-Claire Voss