VII. Methodological considerations: The human person as a relational being

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Leonardo da Vinci, The Vitruvian Man, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A group of teachers and collaborators proposes a transdisciplinary course at the Accademia Alfonsiana entitled “The human person as a relational being. Transdisciplinary perspectives.” The text is published on the website of the Accademia Alfonsiana in Rome.

In the last post of this series, I do not propose to add another paradigm to the five already studied but rather to offer some more general methodological considerations. While these thoughts arise out of reflection on the different paradigms studied in this series, it is hoped that they will be of help in the further planning and in the realization of the transdisciplinary course.

From a methodological point of view perhaps the best place to begin is with the very idea of a discipline. What constitutes a discipline as opposed to an idea, a theory or a perspective? If we do not have some clarity and some consensus on what we mean by a discipline it is most unlikely that we will be able to explain clearly what we mean by “transdisciplinary”.

A second methodological consideration concerns the relationship between a discipline, a paradigm and a method. When a new discipline, such as sociology, is developed it is with a view to studying some new problem, often using new methods, in pursuit of some theoretical and/or practical objectives. We may think of a paradigm as a kind of model for this study of the new problem, while methods are techniques used within a given paradigm. In examining the five selected paradigms (personalist, phenomenological, psychological, sociological and theological) it became obvious that a discipline such as psychology or sociology does not operate with a single paradigm or with a single method. In the planned course the selected object of study is quite specific: the human person as a relational being. A key methodological issue will be how can we move (in our thinking) between different disciplines that employ different paradigms and different methods in the study of this selected object? If we simply juxtapose the findings of different disciplines, we can hardly claim that we are being transdisciplinary. But given the differences mentioned above it is by no means self-evident that we can simply transfer a finding (or indeed transfer ourselves!) from one discipline to another. Hence again the need for clarity on what exactly we mean by a transdisciplinary perspective.

As if all this were not complicated enough, it was also clear in our study of the five paradigms that there were not just divergences between the different disciplines but within the disciplines themselves. So, the methodological issue arises as to which of the (often competing) various paradigms used within a given discipline we wish to follow in our transdisciplinary study of the person as a relational being? Is this choice arbitrary or are some paradigms inherently more compatible with a moral theological perspective?

A final methodological issue concerns the relationship between the different disciplines studied and the discipline of moral theology. Can we assume that a finding in sociology, for instance, can simply be integrated into moral theological reflection on the human person? Is it not possible that, as it stands, a given sociological finding is simply incommensurable with moral-theological discourse (because of presuppositions, methods and objectives)? In such a case does it make sense to talk of a hierarchy of disciplines or is every discipline ipso facto of equal validity relative to other disciplines?

These are just a few of the methodological issues that a reflection on the five paradigms has brought to light. No doubt during the course many other such issues will arise, some of which may prove to be quandaries or indeed aporias. It is probably best to be modest in our expectations and think of the course as availing of the various disciplines to highlight aspects of our understanding of the human person as a relational being rather than aspiring to an unlikely synthesis.

Fr. Martin McKeever, CSsR