Crossing Forbidden Boundaries: My Academic Odyssey
He tarries at the threshold.
He sets out with trepidation, clinging to Her memory, leaves but does not.
Odysseus does not know that his moment of departure will bring him
home to Her.
– The Plight of Odysseus
In 1971, I received a Ph.D. in experimental psychology from the City University of New York. Shortly after completing my training in this scientifically-oriented discipline and publishing some pretty narrowly focused research papers in straight-laced psychology journals, my interests widened considerably to include the fields of general systems theory and philosophy. At this time, I began writing beyond the borders of the discipline in which I had been formally schooled. While my work had become largely philosophical, I taught in a psychology department, which proved to be something of a problem in a highly specialized academic world. The feedback from my colleagues was that they didn’t quite know where to place me, and I myself was experiencing something of an “identity crisis.” Eventually, I wound up teaching a course on existentialism in the philosophy department, in addition to my psychology offerings.
As the 1970s unfolded, my interest in philosophy brought me to the foundations of modern physics and I found myself engaged in the process of intensively retraining myself so that I would be able to read, write, and publish in this field. Another field of study excited my attention around the same time, one that challenges conventional assumptions and boundaries perhaps even more than the anomalies of contemporary physics. I am speaking of parapsychology, the interdisciplinary investigation of controversial phenomena such as ESP and psychokinesis (“mind over matter”). What drew me to teach and write in this field was not simple curiosity, not the desire to advocate a set of beliefs that are opposed to the belief structures of conventional science, and definitely not the unfortunate sensationalism associated with psychic research. I just wanted to ask the deepest questions I could about the foundations of the academic areas I was involved with, so that I could bring meaning and life to them. Parapsychology gave me a chance to do that, since it raises some fairly basic questions about space and time, the nature of communication, the limits of human consciousness, and so forth. My pursuit of parapsychology, physics, and philosophy when my appointment was in the Psychology Department did cause my promotion to Full Professor to be delayed for a number of years. Evidently, that was the price of doing what is forbidden: of crossing disciplinary boundaries, of delving into areas of study declared off limits by the academic canon.
In the early 1980s, I further tested academic propriety by crossing genre lines and writing a philosophical novel. In creating The Moebius Seed, I was not so much interested in jumping from one category of expression to another, in abandoning my nonfiction academic writing for fiction; rather, I wanted to explore the boundary between these genres. That’s where the action was for me, and still is–not in what lies within fixed categories, but in the more dynamic and generative space of transition between them. So the problem I posed for myself in writing the novel was how I could operate in the liminal zone between fictional and factual realities.
After publishing The Moebius Seed in 1985, I returned to nonfiction philosophical work and, in 1994, put out a book of my essays called Science, Paradox, and the Moebius Principle. The subtitle of the book speaks to its highly interdisciplinary nature: “The Evolution of a ‘Transcultural’ Approach to Wholeness.” The word “transcultural” refers here to the two cultures that C. P. Snow spoke about: those of science and the humanities. Snow had voiced deep regret that these two worlds are so incapable of communicating with each other. What I wanted to do in my book was explore the borderland between the “hard” sciences and “soft” humanities, and perhaps find a way of bringing them together.
It may be that my next book, Dimensions of Apeiron (2004), challenges boundaries even more insistently than previous works. There was an indication of this during the time I was looking for a publisher. The director of a certain university press told me that he liked the book, admired its broadly integrative quality spanning numerous fields, but that there was too much hard science in it to fit the “soft philosophy focus” of the books that he prints (in the philosophy of religion, aesthetics, etc.). When I appealed to him by suggesting that he accept the challenge of publishing a book that could integrate “soft” and “hard” approaches, bridge the “two cultures,” he declined citing the bottom line. Most publishers find it too financially risky to print a work that does not fit into a pre-existing category defining a recognizable, well-established market.
It turns out that Dimensions of Apeiron was just the first of three closely related volumes, each of which transgresses conventional boundaries in its own particular way. Topologies of the Flesh (2006) blends mathematics with continental philosophy and Jungian thought, and ends by breaking the taboo that prohibits the author of a scholarly work from making a personal appearance in the pages of his or her text. The Self-Evolving Cosmos (2008) addresses the problem of unifying the forces of nature by merging physics, philosophy, and psychology in an intimate fashion.
When my trilogy was finally completed, the wind went out of my sails. For almost four decades, I had been spurred by an urgent sense of needing to shape and nurture a body of interwoven ideas that had been growing organically. Now that that mission seemed fulfilled, the sense of satisfaction was accompanied by a feeling of vacuous drift. Was there another meaningful step for me to take in my work, another boundary to question? Or, at the age of 66, should I be thinking in terms of taking up crossword puzzles? I gave myself a long time out to ponder the possibilities.
There were several subjects I thought I might explore, foremost among them the subject of death. I considered returning to the medium of fiction for this, took some notes, wrote a few pages, then shelved the idea, ostensibly because I wasn’t prepared to change gears for the kind of writing that that would require. Instead I would write another scholarly book. Death is a topic of central importance to philosophy and one I’d never systematically examined (though the theme comes up in Topologies of the Flesh). Again I made notes and wrote several pages, only to hit a brick wall once more. What was wrong with me? Was it that, after 40 years of writing, I had finally shot my load? It took a few more weeks of self-reflection to understand the actual problem: no conventionally published book could touch the boundary I now needed to challenge–that between the author and reader.
I discuss this issue in my Invitation to Proprioceptive Dialogue. No matter how revolutionary the content and form of a conventionally published book, no matter how passionately its author may reach out to his or her audience, the fact is that this audience remains anonymous by virtue of the way the book is distributed and accessed, with little opportunity for direct contact between writer and reader. It was my desire to bridge the gap between author and audience that brought me to the internet, and here to this website. Through this medium it will be possible for me to engage with readers in a more immediate way, to enter into dialogue and share my process with them and perhaps become a member of their audiences as they are members of mine. I’m looking forward to the experience.