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Interview with Troy Camplin, Interdisciplinary Scholar and Author of Diaphysics

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Communication, Creative Writing, Humanities, Information Design, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, News and Current Events, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Teaching, Theatre, Western Kentucky University, Writing on May 18, 2011 at 3:30 pm

Allen Mendenhall interviews Troy Camplin.


Troy Camplin holds a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Texas at Dallas.  He has taught English in middle school, high school, and college, and is currently taking care of his children at home. He is the author of Diaphysics, an interdisciplinary work on systems philosophy; other projects include the application of F.A. Hayek’s spontaneous order theory to ethics, the arts, and literature. His play “Almost Ithacad” won the PIA Award from the Cyberfest at Dallas Hub Theater.  


Q:  Your interdisciplinary background seems to lend itself to commentary on this site.  Tell us a bit about that background and a bit about your thoughts on the value of interdisciplinary scholarship.

A:  I have an unusual educational background that I only made more unusual in my independent studies. My undergraduate degree is in Recombinant Gene Technology, with a minor in chemistry, from Western Kentucky University. When I am interested in something, I spend all of my time learning about it. So, as an undergrad, I not only learned about molecular biology through my classes, but also in my independent reading. I read the journals and I read even popular works on molecular biology. This led me to John Gribbin’s book In Search of the Double Helix, in which he talks a great deal about quantum physics. I didn’t know a thing about quantum physics, and I really didn’t understand what he was saying about it in that book, so I decided to read his other books on quantum physics, including In Search of Shroedinger’s Cat. I cannot say I understood quantum physics much after reading that book, either, but I was hooked, and read every popular book on quantum physics I could read. In addition, I ran across several other popular science books that introduced me to what would become much more central to my thinking, including Gleick’s Chaos and Ilya Prigogine’s works on self-organization. These provided several of the seeds of my development as an interdisciplinary scholar.

Another element to my interdisciplinary development was a class I pretty much lucked into. Undergraduates have to take several required courses, of course, and one semester I wanted to take a New Testament class with Joseph Trafton (who was highly recommended, and whose class I eventually did take), but it was full. So I took an Intro. To Philosophy class just to get the hours in that section in. By chance I chose a class taught by Ronald Nash—a random choice that ended up changing my life completely.

Nash taught his class using three texts: a collection of Plato’s dialogues and two books Nash himself wrote. One of the books Nash wrote was Poverty and Wealth: A Christian Defense of Capitalism. It was through Nash that I was introduced to free market economics. I was hooked. I read everything I could find in the university library with the word “capitalism” in the title or as the subject. I read Walter Williams, Milton Friedman, Hayek, and a little book titled Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal  by Ayn Rand. The latter, of course, led me to Atlas Shrugged, and that led me to the rest of her work. Rand hooked me on the idea of being a fiction writer and made me interested in philosophy. I began reading the fiction writers she loved (and the ones she hated, to see why) and the philosophers she loved (and the ones she hated, to see why). I read and fell in love with Victor Hugo and Dostoevsky, Aristotle and Nietzsche. Particularly Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, whose tragic worldviews were deeply appealing to me. Nietzsche deepened my appreciation for philosophy, and introduced me to tragedy.

I was reading all of this and playing around with writing short stories during my final undergraduate year and my two years of graduate classes in molecular biology at WKU. As I was getting interested in philosophy and literature, I was also getting bored with molecular biology. We could not answer the questions I was asking at the time, and I learned I really did not like lab work, as much as I love to learn about biology. I really wanted to be a theoretical biologist, but such was not a real option at the time. Disillusioned, I dropped out of graduate school and decided to try to get into a Master’s program in creative writing. I took a year of English classes to prepare, and was accepted to the University of Southern Mississippi. While there I realized there was not much I could really do with a M.A. in English, and investigated Ph.D. programs. I discovered there was a creative writing Ph.D. program in the UT-Dallas humanities program. I described my background to the head of the creative writing program, Robert Nelsen (now president of UT-Pan Am), who then asked me what he needed to do to get me to UTD. It was a fascinating program, where you had to take classes in aesthetics, literary studies, and the history of ideas. Fiction writing, literature, and philosophy—my kind of program.

Going into UTD, I was planning to focus on creative writing, and do a creative dissertation. But then I took a class on Existentialism with Alexander Argyros. I enjoyed the class so much, I took the next class he offered: Foundationalism and Antifoundationalim. It was in that class that I was introduced to the work of E.O. Wilson, J.T. Fraser (on the philosophy of time), and Frederick Turner (also at UTD), and in which Argyros became my mentor. I eventually took classes on tragedy and on Nietzsche from Charles Baumbach, and classes on beauty, game theory and the humanities (where I was reintroduced to Hayek) and on poetry writing from Frederick Turner, who introduced me to writing formalist poetry and helped me to fall in love with poetry. Eventually, Frederick Turner, Robert Nelsen, and Alexander Argyros became my dissertation committee, with Argyros my chair. After my qualifying exams, my committee suggested to me that I should write a scholarly rather than a creative dissertation. Thus, my dissertation became Evolutionary Aesthetics, a work in which I bring together cosmology, chaos theory, self-organization, beauty, evolution, evolutionary psychology, Nietzsche’s philosophy, J.T. Fraser’s theory of time, Frederick Turner’s natural classicism in the arts, and Mises and Hayek to explain the origins of the arts, and why we appreciate beautiful works. I don’t think there is in the broadest sense a discipline I ignore in this dissertation.

After graduating, I wrote and published a book titled Diaphysics. In it I investigate the idea that there are laws of nature which go through all the levels of complexity in the universe— physical, chemical, biological, psychological, sociological, cultural, and artistic. I wrote it after I was introduced to the psychological theories of Clare Graves, as developed by Don Beck and Christopher Cowan in their book Spiral Dynamics. It is a model that fits well into J.T. Fraser’s cosmology, and I synthesized these two ideas in my book.

More recently I have been writing verse plays and poems, and scholarly articles on spontaneous order. My interest in economics has brought me to the Austrian economists, whose understanding of the economy most accurately matches the nature of things as I understand them to be. I have come to realize that the social and cultural must match, at a higher level of complexity, of course, the fundamental patterns of the universe, from the quantum physical up through the biological and neuropsychological. Thus, my cosmology informs my economics.

It seems to me that without a general interdisciplinary understanding of the nature of things, one is bound to make mistakes in understanding things like culture, economies, and artistic production and appreciation. The role of the interdisciplinary scholar is to help people to understand these deep interconnections, to show how everything in the universe is related, and to understand these structural patterns. The interdisciplinary scholar is dependent on the work of disciplinary scholars, but should be able to add knowledge to the world, and allow the disciplinary scholars to have a fuller understanding of the world, to understand how what they are doing fits into it.

Q:  Do you have any criticisms of interdisciplinarity?

A:  I do not have criticisms of interdisciplinarity per se—at least, if interdisciplinarity is understood as I understand it. I do have criticisms of how interdisciplinary programs are currently constructed, though, which is typically as a clearinghouse for people failing out of college. What I consider to be potentially the most difficult major, the most complex, fullest way of knowing about the world, is turned instead into the easiest major, designed to keep people in the university a bit longer, to keep their money coming. Further, many people mistake multidisciplinarity for interdisciplinarity. A multidisciplinary scholar uses more than one discipline to understand a problem, but does not understand the deep connections among the disciplines’ subjects; an interdisciplinary scholar first understands these deep connections, and uses that to create new knowledge on the boundaries of the disciplines. Most so-called interdisciplinarians are in fact multidiscipinarians.

Q:  You run the blog Austrian Economics and Literature, to which I have contributed.  Why did you start that blog, and in what direction do you see that blog taking?

A:  I became involved in the Fund for the Study of Spontaneous Orders conferences, to which I have presented twice. As I was working on the second presentation, which became published in Studies in Emergent Order, titled “The Spontaneous Orders of the Arts,” I tried to find out if there was anyone doing work involving spontaneous orders and literature, and I ran across Paul Cantor. I contacted him, and he told me he had a work coming out soon with Stephen Cox titled Literature and the Economics of Liberty. He was generous enough to share his introductory essay with me, which I quoted (resulting in the strange phenomenon of my paper citing his book being published about a month before the book). When the book came out, I of course read the entire thing, and realized that this was an approach to understanding literature that really needed to be expanded on. My approach to understanding literature was already informed by evolutionary approaches, particularly evolutionary psychology. In fact, I also run the blog Evolution and Literature, with Joseph Carroll and Frederick Turner as co-bloggers, which I started at the same time as Austrian Economics and Literature. The latter is the one that really took off, though, suggesting there is a real gap in literary scholarship that was not being filled. It is my hope that Austrian Economics and Literature will help to fill that gap, and provide the foundation for many scholarly published works. As I read, I post on the blog things I’m thinking, developing those ideas almost in real time. These notes could and should provide seeds for much more developed ideas.

Q:  Are you happy with the state of humanities teaching and scholarship in the academy?

A:  No. Humanities departments are dominated by 19th century notions of science and society. We see Darwinist approaches to understanding literature seen as “illegitimate,” and ideas of Darwinism within the humanities seems to be stuck in the social Darwinist debates at the turn of the 20th century. About the only place you can find a full-fledged Marxist is in English departments. The few recent developments that have been adopted, whether chaos theory or Kuhn’s paradigm shifts, have been adopted without any real understanding of the processes described by chaos theory (which is far from the truth of what chaos theory actually describes), and Kuhn’s theories are interpreted to mean that all knowledge is really historical and thus relative in nature, and will eventually be overturned, so there’s no point in learning any of it—or, since it is all determined by power structures (a corruption of Foucault and Nietzsche), all that matters is what I believe being imposed on others. Which may explain the nature of much teaching and scholarly rhetoric within the humanities.

Q:  What would you change about the academy if you could?

A:  College should be difficult to get into, and more difficult to stay in. There are a lot of people getting college degrees who should get (and really want) technical training. But the universities are dominated by the left, whose combination of elitism and egalitarianism has led to the fetishization of college for everyone. This necessarily results in the dumbing down of classes and to grade inflation. The goal becomes retention of students, and this has led to the bottom line being the top consideration rather than reputation. All of this is funded by easy money in the form of easy to get student loans. The reality of having to pay them back is lost on the average 18-21 year old, so they borrow unthinkingly for an increasingly devalued education. The lowering of standards trickles down to the high schools, which don’t feel the pressure to educate their students to the higher levels that would be necessary if colleges had higher standards.

Q:  You are the author of Diaphysics.  Explain what “diaphysics” is, and tell us about your book.

A:  “Diaphysics” comes from the Greek “dia-” meaning “through” and “physis,” meaning “nature.” It is the theory that there are physical laws in the universe that go through the different levels of complexity in the universe, driving the increase of complexity. Among the elements I discuss in the book are the fact that we see complex processes at the social, neurological, cellular, and quantum physical levels or reality, and that they are created through digital-analog interactions—basically, communicating individual elements that result in coordination of those elements. Information theory, chaos theory, strange attractors, emergence, and self-organization are all interconnected. Basically, the book lays out my understanding of how the universe works and interacts and gives rise to new levels of complexity. From it my ideas on culture, society, and economics emerge.

Q:  What projects are you working on now?

A:  I have just finished the first draft of a paper, “Getting to the Hayekian Network,” for an upcoming edition of Advances in Austrian Economics. In it I bridge Hayek’s ideas on the brain he developed in The Sensory Order to his ideas on social spontaneous orders by comparing hierarchical networks (typical of organizations like cellular regulatory networks and firms) to scale-free networks (typical of self-organizing processes like cells and economies). I am also working on another work, “The Far-From-Equilibrium City,” for another edition of Advances in Austrian Economics. In it I will be arguing that spontaneous orders are not best understood as being in equilibrium, but rather as far-from-equilibrium processes. As you can see, my interests in self-organizing processes and chaos theory/strange attractors have indeed mostly taken over my scholarly work.

I am also thinking about working on a paper I would title, “Why Economists Ought to Go to the Theatre,” in which I will bring together Aristotle’s Poetics, in which he talks about plays as “an imitation of an action,” and Mises’s praxeology. Indeed, I would like to spend much more time dealing with cultural economics and the economics of artistic production, as well as using Austrian economics, which is complex enough in the way it deals with economics to be relevant to understanding literature, to analyze literary works. Further, I would like to get back to writing more plays. I have several play ideas in mind, and I would love to have the time to work on them. Alas, without an academic position, I’m afraid that there’s not enough of me to work on the projects I would love to work on. The only way to catch up would be for me to stop coming up with ideas—something I hope never happens. One of the benefits of being an interdisciplinary scholar is that such a scenario is highly unlikely.


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