The Art and Science of Deep Collaboration

Philosophy student Daniel Maher calls on the importance of indigenous knowledge and why it’s critical that we tear down the status quo of distinct disciplines, reflecting on Dalia Nassar’s Iain McCalman Lecture: Shallow and Deep Collaboration: Art, Ecology and Alexander von Humboldt.

Mount Chimborazo, Ecuador, which Humboldt famously climbed in 1802, giving him profound insights into the distribution of ecosystems according to altitude. Photo by Peter Conlan, via Unsplash.

“How can the ‘arts’ and ‘sciences’ effectively collaborate in addressing the environmental [and epistemic] crises? What should this collaboration look like, and what should its aims be?”. These are the questions that SEI director Professor David Schlosberg invited us all to reflect on in his introductory remarks to the Sydney Environment Institute’s 2021 Iain McCalman Lecture. There is, in fact, an answer. By dissolving the false distinction between the ‘arts’ and ‘sciences’ via deep collaboration, humanity can re-integrate its powerful analytic tools with its inspired philosophical frameworks and generate far deeper and richer insights than could ever be achieved with any solitary framework alone. It is the aim of this article to provide an exegesis of the exigency of this deep truth. One that, as Professor Schlosberg so poignantly points out, is a truth that has been lived by the Indigenous peoples of this very country for tens of thousands of years already.

Dr. Dalia Nassar began her lecture with an acknowledgment of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, of elders both past, present and emerging; a recognition of the rich cultural history of the land on which we gathered. Far more than a mere ceremonial acknowledgement, this recognition reminds us that we are not the first to stumble upon the necessity of a homeostatic way of life. It reminds us that the current environmental crisis is one that could have been avoided; had we the collective foresight to take insight from those indigenous cultures that came before us. This begs just one, simple question; why? Why is it that in the face of extreme environmental crisis, and despite widespread knowledge of its dangers, we do next to nothing? A simple answer follows. Because our knowledge doesn’t move us. This tells us something. Namely that the environmental crisis is not only a crisis of our physical reality, but also of our epistemic reality. Nassar summarises the situation succinctly, “it is as if we know, but don’t really know,” (or perhaps don’t really want to know). This tells us that our current models of knowledge acquisition are, as Nassar puts it, “inadequate, problematic and even dangerous in [this] time of crisis”.

“Why is it that in the face of extreme environmental crisis, and despite widespread knowledge of its dangers, we do next to nothing? […] The environmental crisis is not only a crisis of our physical reality, but also of our epistemic reality.”

But what exactly are our current models? There are two main types, the ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’, generally respectively associated with the systematic approach of the ‘sciences’ and the emotionally expressive creativity of the ‘arts’. Why the scare quotes? Well, as this article suggests, these distinctions are in fact not so distinct, and as humanity faces a radically disruptive future defined by complexity, what we require is an integrated approach to knowledge.

Philosopher of science Sandra Mitchell (2009) frames the curtailment clearly, “the long-standing scientific and philosophical deference to reductive explanations founded on simple universal laws, linear causal models, and predict-and-act strategies fails to accommodate the kinds of knowledge that many contemporary [disciplines] are providing about the world”. She advocates, instead, “for a new understanding that represents the rich, variegated, interdependent fabric of many levels and kinds of explanation that are integrated with one another to ground effective prediction and action”. This then takes us to an important distinction made by Nassar, that of ‘shallow’ and ‘deep’ collaboration.

Nassar posits that shallow collaboration “maintains the status quo of distinct disciplines. The disciplines continue to work within their boundaries and only collaborate at the end of their separate efforts.” She contrasts this with the concept of deep collaboration which “transforms the disciplines from the ground up. Disciplinary boundaries are porous and collaboration occurs from the beginning. This facilitates new ways of seeing, and new ways of thinking”.

With respect to the climate crisis, the shallow model establishes scientists as the deliverers of knowledge, and establishes the ‘arts’ as the emotive communicators and facilitators thereof, whose job it is to move us. But this model is deeply flawed. It fails to recognise the ‘sciences’ and ‘arts’ as both being systems of generating knowledge. This imbalance is further fuelled by the notion that ‘objective’ science is somehow separate and distinct from our ‘subjective’ human experience. This is what makes this shallow model so dangerous. When scientific climate change research is published, often we are unmoved by the inhuman nature of statistics. Yet when we are confronted with the emotive aspect of the crisis, we are also often dismissive, or overwhelmed by the incommensurability of the scale of this crisis. To maintain this shallow models is, as Professor Schlosberg puts it, “to choose wilful ignorance!”

“With respect to the climate crisis, the shallow model [of collaboration] establishes scientists as the deliverers of knowledge, and establishes the ‘arts’ as the emotive communicators and facilitators thereof, whose job it is to move us. But this model is deeply flawed.”

Paradoxically, however, one cannot even speak against this distinction of the ‘arts’ and the ‘sciences’ without invoking that same false dichotomy one seeks to vitiate. In arguing for the need to unify the ‘arts’ and ‘sciences’ one is implicitly presupposing their disunity and inadvertently reinforcing the misconception of their being separate entities in the first place. Hence the ‘scare quotes’ – they serve to elucidate the contradictory nature of attempting to dismantle misconceptions that are so deep-seated they are baked into the very language that we use to do so! So whilst it is critical to support deep collaborative ideals, it is critical we reassess the way that we use language in doing so.1

“Whilst it is critical to support deep collaborative ideals, it is critical we reassess the way that we use language in doing so.”

But is instantiating this deep model an impossible task? More importantly, is it even a desirable one? To answer these questions Nassar drew upon a historical example. She wanted to convince us of the possibility of this form of collaboration by showing us that it happened, and how it happened. Her example was the geographer, naturalist, explorer, and proponent of romantic philosophy and science, Alexander von Humboltd. Humboldt saw nature as a living whole, a complex and chaotic unity, not as unconnected parts that can be understood in isolation.

Professor Schlosberg pondered on Humboldt’s holism, and wondered whether while in South America he might have been influenced by the indigenous peoples. The literature certainly suggests as much. On his indigenous inspiration, Wulf (2015) speaks of how Humboldt “observed the stars, described the landscape and was curious about the indigenous people he met and always wanted to learn more”. He himself wrote of his own fascination with their worship of nature, describing the indigenous peoples as ‘excellent geographers’.2 They were, Wulf suggests, the best observers of nature Humboldt had ever encountered. Furthermore Humboldt viewed the indigenous languages as so sophisticated that “there wasn’t a single European book that could not be translated into any one of them”.3 Humboldt’s fascination with both the humanistic and ‘scientific’ approaches to natural study embodies the spirit of deep collaboration. For Humboldt, there was no distinction between the two. There was no boundary to dissolve! This was in fact, arguably, the status quo up until the ‘Enlightenment’ when natural philosophy bifurcated into natural science and philosophy.4

It is this organic disciplinary porosity that is necessary for the contemporary ‘arts’ and ‘sciences’ to transcend the inherent limitations of an isolated approach to knowledge. To conclude, the deep collaboration model is the necessary next step for human enquiry; for human sustainability. By dissolving the false dichotomy between the ‘arts’ and ‘sciences’ and with an integrated epistemology, maybe, just maybe we can again be moved by our knowledge, and so move forward.

1. Particularly if we are to view language from a Wittgensteinian perspective – as gaining meaning through its sociocultural use. Which, prima facie, it does! See Wittgenstein (2009).
2. See Wulf (2015), ch. 5.
3. See Wulf (2015), ch. 7.
4. An early example of the beginnings of this bifurcation is Robert Boyle’s 17th-century book – see Boyle et. al. (1996). Boyle presented the world as a ”vast, impersonal machine, fashioned by an infinite, personal God”, distinct from and diametrically opposed to the way, for example, indigenous cosmologies present the world. One example being that of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – see Kenny (2013), ch. V.

Boyle, Robert, et al. A Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature. Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Kenny, Anna. The Arandas Pepa: An Introduction to Carl Strehlows Masterpiece Die Aranda- Und Loritja-Stämme in Zentral-Australien (1907-1920). ANU Press, 2013.
Mitchell, Sandra D. Unsimple Truths: Science, Complexity, and Policy. The University of Chicago Press Chicago and London, 2009.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations (Revised). 4th ed., Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.
Wulf, Andrea. The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. First American edition., Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.

Daniel Maher is studying a Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Advanced Studies, majoring in Philosophy and Mathematics, and he is president of the Philosophy Society. Currently he is studying and researching paradox and paraconsistent logic with the intent (among other things) of finding a more powerful way to model the chaotic and oftentimes inconsistent nature of reality. He has a tremendous love of the environment and believes that the nonlinear fabric of ecological networks is a constant reminder that sometimes the way forward is not ahead, but all around us, if only we take the time to look.

The Iain McCalman Lecture, held annually in February, celebrates the work of interdisciplinary early career researchers. Dalia Nassar’s 2021 talk, Shallow and Deep Collaboration: Art, Ecology and Alexander von Humboldt is available to watch online or to read as part of our Longform Essay collection.