Consilience or “the unity of knowledge”: an approach to complexity, a critical compass, a course of action

Consilience or “the unity of knowledge”: an approach to complexity, a critical compass, a course of action

In a complex world, it is no longer possible to content ourselves with deeper but disjointed knowledge. Consilience or “the unity of knowledge” is a way to approach the problems and challenges of our time by interconnecting fields of knowledge (Edgar Morin).

What characterises a complex society is the fact that each individual is specialised in only a small number of tasks. In “The Wealth of Nations”, Adam Smith, perhaps inspired by the Greek philosopher Xenophon, underlined that the division of labour encouraged specialisation, making society more prosperous through greater productivity. Nevertheless, he was also concerned about over-specialisation undermining the intellectual and moral capacities of workers. An ultra-specialised individual performing the same tasks over and over becomes incapable of developing their intellect, of making reasonable judgments, and of taking part in their nation’s great debates. Specialisation makes us better at what we do or study specifically, but renders us incapable of addressing issues outside of our area of competence or those that depend on other fields of knowledge.

And yet it is undeniable that today’s world cannot be understood without combining multitudes of disciplines. The current pandemic (SARS-CoV-2) is a striking example. Its origins are linked to biodiversity and ecology. Its spread varies according to demographics, sociology, urbanisation and the economy. The ways of tackling it combine law, politics, medicine and ethics. Is there any sense in attempting to analyse this pandemic from a single perspective? That is why we turn to the concept of “consilience”. We define this concept, borrowed from the polymath William Whewell in the 19th century, as “the need to draw from different disciplines, to combine them, in a dialectical process in order to fully analyse an observed event.” By adopting a transdisciplinary approach, it becomes possible to better contextualise knowledge, integrate the local and global dimensions, and examine the multiple aspects of a problem to finally put forward solutions to the known effects. This approach is in line with humanism and its “universal man” ideal, but also with Enlightenment, which Kant summed up with the famous motto: “Sapere Aude” (translated in several ways, including “dare to know” and “dare to become wise”).

It is SKEMA’s ambition to regularly bring you chronicles of consilience, articles on a precise topic but seen through different lenses and from different angles. Our idea is not to merge the disciplines but to have them enter into an enlightening and fruitful dialogue. In any case, that is the challenge we are setting ourselves.

Rodolphe DesbordesProfessor of Economics, Strategy Research Centre, SKEMA Business School - University Côte d'Azur, France

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Frédéric MunierProfessor of Geopolitics, SKEMA Business School

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