Interdisciplinarity: Social/Behavioral Disciplines and the Humanities

By Thomas Scheff

Abstract: Most disciplines and sub-disciplines consider their particular specialization to be valuable in itself and superior to other disciplines. But compared with the huge leaps in the physical sciences, social/behavioral disciplines and humanities have made little progress. Since many of the physical science advances were the result of the merging of disciplines, perhaps interdisciplinarity should be tried. The way that Virginia Woolf’s depiction of role-taking in interior monologue (To the Lighthouse) preceded the idea in social science is an extraordinary example. Her novel was published seven years before G. H. Mead’s book, and provided many precisely detailed examples. She described the least parts (words and gestures) just as Mead provided the wholes (abstract concepts), following Spinoza’s idea of part/whole methods. Yet no discipline has recognized how perfectly they support each other, how empty they are without both parts and wholes. The need for integration may be the single most important issue facing the social/behavioral disciplines, the humanities and their sub-disciplines.

There is a substantial literature on the structure of academic disciplines; most of it is quite critical. For example, Abbott’s (1988; 1998; 2001; 2002) discussions are thinly veiled criticisms of the lack of progress of the social sciences. My own caricature (1995) was less serious but makes the same point: the incentive structure for serious research is weak, based less on advancing knowledge than other more immediate personal considerations.

Not only these studies, but also the whole literature tends to be critical without offering any way forward. This paper will suggest a way forward through the fog of personal and social interests. In his 1998 book, the biologist E. O. Wilson stated that the physical sciences have made huge advances but the social sciences and humanities have not. He argued that most physical science progress has been made when separate disciplines or sub-disciplines have combined: biophysics, physical chemistry, and so on. His plea for integration within and between the social sciences and the humanities was made fourteen years ago, but there have been only a few responses (Repko, et al. 2011; Slingerland and Collard 2012).

Many readers of Wilson’s book, particularly in the humanities, were offended by his somewhat careless biologizing of human conduct. For this reason, they don’t use his term, consilience, but instead, transdisciplinarity. So as not to take sides, this report uses the neutral term interdisciplinarity.

Part/Whole: An Interdisciplinary Path

One of the first philosophers of science, Spinoza (1632-1677), outlined what amounts to a method for understanding humans. He proposed that they are so complex that to even to begin to understand requires moves rapidly back and forth between “the least parts and greatest wholes.” What he called “least parts” were concrete particulars, while “greatest wholes” were abstract ideas, concepts and theories (Sacksteder 1991; Scheff 1997). William Blake stated a similar idea in one sentence: “Art and science cannot exist but in minutely organized particulars.” (c. 1820).

Everyone uses Spinoza’s method unthinkingly in daily life. Everyday discourse would be impossible to understand in any other way, since if taken literally, it is fragmented, ambiguous, and incomplete. In this case the least parts of discourse are the words, gestures and paralanguage, and the greatest wholes the meanings constructed from these least parts.

Humanist/Social Science Interdisciplinarity

Connecting many disciplines, Lehrer’s book (2007) proposed that literary figures like Walt Whitman, Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf foresaw developments in current studies of self psychology and of neuroscience. This book provides examples of the benefits of integrating social science and literature.

An earlier article of mine (Scheff 2000) describes several quite specific examples of the way that the novels of Virginia Woolf foretold key ideas in the social sciences. The most surprising is her treatment of what is now called “role-taking” in thought, how we live in the minds of others without realizing it. The social philosopher G. H. Mead (1934) and his many followers developed a whole social psychology around it, now called Symbolic Interaction.

Seven years before Mead’s book (1934), Woolf’s 1927 novel To the Lighthouse was largely based on Woolf’s taking the role of her own mother, who is the basis for Mrs. Ramsay, the leading character. Woolf’s intuitive understanding of the process of role-taking is made unmistakably clear in a part of Mrs. Ramsay’s interior monologue that critics have come to call “The Brown Stocking” episode (Auerbach 1953). Auerbach gave it this name because it takes place during a few seconds when Mrs. Ramsay is trying the stocking she is knitting on her son’s ankle. It is of interest that Auerbach, who first reported the psychological depth of this incident, threw up his hands over the Ramsay-Bankes inner dialogue that is described below.

The last part of the two pages of interior monologue begins with what seems to be an actual dialogue, a phone conversation between Mrs. Ramsay and William Bankes. But the phone conversation is taking place not from Mrs. Ramsay’s point of view, but rather from Bankes’s. The section starts with a compliment that Bankes pays to Mrs. Ramsay, that “Nature has but little clay like that of which she moulded you.” After further compliments, Bankes states, either to Mrs. Ramsay or to himself, that yes, he would catch the 10:30 train, which is what the phone call is ostensibly about.

The point of view of this sequence is obviously not Mrs. Ramsay’s, but Bankes’s. How could this be? What Woolf seems to be doing is showing that Mrs. Ramsay imagined a sequence of events beginning with an actual compliment to herself, but then going on to carry through the compliment to a sequence of thoughts and activities as they might have occurred to Bankes.

Mrs. Ramsay knew that Bankes was an admirer of hers, and she also knew his habits quite well. She is thinking of the problem of Mrs. Ramsay and her beauty from the point of view of an admirer of hers. She is imagining herself from Mr. Bankes’ point of view, as Woolf, in the two monologues, is imagining the world from Mrs. Ramsay’s point of view, a world within a world. Just as Mrs. Ramsay was able to plausibly construct the world from Mr. Banks’s point of view, because she knew him well, so Virginia Woolf was able to plausibly construct the world from Mrs. Ramsay’s point of view, since she knew the model so well (her own mother, Julia Stephen).

When Woolf’s sister Vanessa read To the Lighthouse, she wrote to Virginia, “…you have given a portrait of mother which more like her than anything I could ever have conceived possible. It is almost painful to have her so raised from the dead. …as far as portrait painting goes you seem to me to be a supreme artist…” (Lee 1997, pp. 473-474). Woolf was not only an artist, however; she could have also been an inspiration to social scientists.

Woolf has her protagonist, Mrs. Ramsay, “living in the mind of others (as with Mr. Bankes) without knowing it,” as Cooley would have it. But the Ramsay-Bankes episode shows that Woolf knew that she was living in the mind of her mother, because she has her mother do the same thing with Bankes that she was doing with her mother. Such a specific, concrete and detailed example of role-taking is totally absent in Cooley’s writing, and although present, not made explicit in Goffman’s.

Another thing that is illustrated concretely in Woolf’s writing that is absent from Cooley and only implicit in Goffman is the reason that people don’t know it: the incredible speed of inner speech. All of the interior monologues in Woolf’s work, but especially The Brown Stocking episode, clearly show that their pace is hundreds, if not thousands, of times faster than external speech. Current studies of consciousness have yet to catch up with Woolf in this matter.

It is significant that Auerbach, who first realized Woolf’s psychological insight implied by the Brown Stocking incident, threw up his hands after trying to understand the Bankes dialogue. The humanities are accustomed to dealing with the particulars, the least parts. Mead, on the other hand, was probably unfamiliar with Woolf’s work. He certainly didn’t use it to explain the specifics of role-taking, because he belonged to a social discipline, sociology, so that he dealt only with the greatest parts, with abstract concepts and theories. The two points of view need each other badly but the division between them seems particularly difficult to change.


Pascal (1660) long ago implied that the sciences and humanities need each other and all disciplines and sub-disciplines as well. The sciences provided what he called system, while the humanities provide finesse (intuition). Specialization is still a good idea, but it must not become an end itself. Rather, it should be balanced by integration between specialties. If this is true, the social sciences and the humanities need to connect, as well as the disciplines and sub-disciplines within and between them. It therefore seems that there should be groups in all social and humanities disciplines trying interdisciplinary or other new approaches, and that this is a crucially important matter.

The issue is important far beyond the universities. Unlike other species of creatures, humans have become capable of destroying other humans en masse. Ironically, this capability is a function of the huge advances of knowledge in the physical sciences. We may be very near the point where a single “shooter” is capable of destroying millions of people.

In these dangerous times, perhaps one interdisciplinary theme would be to find out what leads to the kind of syndrome that severs all empathy for other humans. Empathic connectedness with other members of the species is hardwired into humans just as it is in other mammals (Icobonie, 2008, pp. 264-265). What are the social, psychological, economic and political mechanisms that lead to disconnection and complete alienation from others both at the interpersonal and intergroup levels? If all disciplines would start working together on this problem, we may be able to solve it before it’s too late.


Abbott, Andrew. 1988. The System of Professions. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press.

______________1999. Department and Discipline. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press.

______________2001. Chaos of Disciplines. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press.

______________2002. The Discipline and the Future. Pp. 205-230, in The Future of the City of Intellect: the Changing American University. Steven Brint, editor. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press,

Auerbach, Erich. 1953. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Blake, William. 1820. Jerusalem, Ch. 3, plate 55, lines 60-75.

Cooley, Charles. 1922. Human Nature and the Social Order. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday/Anchor Books.

Icaboni, Marco. 2008. Mirroring People. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Lee, Hermione. 1997. Virginia Woolf. New York: Knopf.

Lehrer, Jonah. 2007. Proust Was a Neuroscientist. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Mead, G. H. 1934. Mind, Self, and Society. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press.

Pascal, Blaise. 1660. Pensees. (Thoughts). Paris: Editions du Cerf. (1982)

Sacksteder, W. 1991. Least Parts and Greatest Wholes: Variations on a Theme in Spinoza. International Studies in Philosophy. 23, 1, 75-87.

Scheff, Thomas. 1995. Academic Gangs. Crime, Law, and Social Change. 23: 157-162.

______________1997. Emotions, the Social Bond, and Human Reality: Part/Whole Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

______________2000. Multipersonal Dialogue in Consciousness. Journal for the Study of Consciousness, 7: 3-19.

______________2011. Parts and Wholes: Goffman and Cooley. Sociological Forum, 26, 3, 694-754.

______________2012. Testing Elias’s Shame Thesis. (Submitted for publication).

Wilson, E. O. 1998. Consilience. New York: Knopf.

Woolf, Virginia. 1927. To the Lighthouse. New York: Harcourt (1989).

Thomas J. Scheff, Professor, Emeritus, UCSB, is the author of many books and article on social aspects of mental illness, emotions, and literature. In addition to V. Woolf, he has published articles and chapters on a novel by Goethe, and several on George Eliot’s work. His most recent book concerns the emotions implied by pop song lyrics: What’s Love Got to Do with It? (2011). Contact:

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