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International Conference 'Academic Revolutions?' Understanding Conceptual Renewal and Institutional Innovation in the Modern World

On October 12-13 "'Academic Revolutions?' Understanding conceptual renewal and institutional innovation in the Modern World" conference was held in IGITI. The goal of the conference was to discuss issues in such fields as the history of natural and social sciences and humanities as well as contemporary sociology of knowledge and sociology of ideas in their application to changes in scientific outlook and academic practices since the early modern period, including the Big Science and the trends of the twenty-first century.

The conference continued a series of international workshops and conferences organized by the Center for the history of ideas and sociology of knowledge (IGITI, NRU HSE) in recent years (Intellectual history vis-à-vis sociology of knowledge: between models and cases, 2014; Social and human sciences on both sides of the ‘iron curtain’, 2013, among others). Similarly to previous meetings, it brought together leading scholars from around the world dealing with the history of social sciences and humanities.

The centennial of the 1917 Russian Revolution was a good occasion to discuss the social and cultural dimensions of changes in natural and human sciences and to study the links between political contexts and epistemological frameworks of knowledge production. Among other things, the following issues were discussed: How revolutionary were / can be / should be the ideas of academic revolution? Do social and political changes function as decisive tests that lead to scholarly controversies being ‘closed’? Can revolutions be fruitfully studied as experimental phases and modes of academic development? What conceptual language can we use to discuss the negative aspects (‘failures’, ‘mirages’, ‘dead-ends’ etc.) of revolutionary development, on the one hand, and the positive / objective role of ‘counter-revolutionary’ actors, groups and factors?

See the conference programme.

Joseph Agassi — "The Place of Dichotomies in Western Philosophy"


Tetiana Zemliakova — "German-American Academic Migration in the Disciplinary Formation of Modern American Social Sciences, 1864–1910".



Conference overview

With the centenary of the October Revolution giving the tone to intellectual discussions in fall 2017, it was just a matter of time to history and philosophy of science (further HPS) to follow. Timed for the beginning of October, an international conference at the IGITI discussed usefulness of this concept for history and for the philosophy of science.

From the writings of Alexandre Koyré on Galileo, through Herbert Butterfield’s Origins of Modern Science to Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of the Scientific Revolutions, prominent scholars applied the concept of revolutions to describe abrupt changes. While not without opponents and conceptual alternatives, this metaphor of “turning around” finally recieved a fixed place in HPS conceptual toolbox. If this place was deserved, what would be the alternatives and what ballasts’ does speaking about revolution bring; namely: what is the usefulness of metaphors of political revolution to the account of scientific change? This was the topic of this two-day interdisciplinary meeting.

Tel-Aviv philosopher of science and student of Karl Popper Joseph Agassi was the keynote speaker, whose topic were dichotomies. As he stated dichotomies are simplifications, which partially clod our understanding of complexities, like in the question of genders or nature vs. nurture. However, once one is aware of it, they can be very useful. The example he discussed the issue of truth by nature vs. truth by convention which, introduced by W.V. Quine, had revolutionary repercussions for the philosophy of sciences. This dualistic thinking is also characteristic for our understanding or revolutions, with their dichotomy of now and before. In the discussion Agassi pleaded this for the historicisation of criteria with which revolution is defined instead of simply accepting the rhetoric of the winners. While discussing non-dichotomous philosophies the question of non-Western philosophical systems was also raised, coming subsequently over and over again during the discussions on both days.

The following session was concerned with philosophy. First presenter, Maxim Demin (HSE St. Petersburg) has discussed changes in the “ecosystem of textbooks” of philosophy 1937-2017, showing how authors were growingly distinguishing the classical vs. analytical philosophy. As he showed important here was the concentration of authority with few authors and central publishing houses, something as Joseph Agassi and Christopher Donohue argued in the discussion, dramatically changed with the market consolidation around 2000 and has to be taken more into consideration. Roger Smith (Lancaster University) discussed the issue of psychology and the question of how to define revolutions there. As he stated one has to be very careful in looking at the contexts in which psychology developed and became adopted, because such conditions vary from culture to culture and are not always compatible with our academic understanding of this discipline. Further Smith presented different ways development and change in psychology were described – ruptures (early Foucault), graduality, or Kuhnian paradigms. As he reminded the participants, revolutions is a tricky term and was used, especially by Butterfield, side by side with religious rhetoric. Discussion from the audience introduced a plethora of other concepts to describe changes– discontinuity, fast and big change vs. small and slow change or crises. As Elena Aronova also stated, the interesting question would also to investigate who speaks about a revolution, when and to which end. This also would provide information about the rhetoric of change in the psychology.

The final session of the first day added the issue of broadly understood institutions to the conference agenda. Tatjana Zemliakova (European University Institute, Florence) spoke about the social sciences, and the political sciences, in particular, in the USA as a result of the transatlantic transfer fueled by students’ academic peregrination. For students from the US coming to Germany at the young age, Europe seemed as a place of freedom as compared to the crisis-stricken colleges in the US. This made student prone to present German scholarship at home in brighter colors as it was and as historians now might see it. Three essential features of the German academia were seen as crucial: seminars, doctoral degrees and historical comparativism as the dominant method. As Zemliakova argued, it was not a linear transfer, and were major differences as to what got accepted. They depended largely on differentcolleges in the US, and went in some cases beyond pure academic culture including political sciences as form of political activism. Closing the session Jan Surman (IGITI HSE/IFK Vienna, Kunstuniversität Linz) discussed the situation in sciences in Soviet Ukraine in the interwar period. Deliberating different ways of conceptualizing the political vs. scientific, Surman argued that this is mostly seen as a simple dichotomy and in order to match the complexity of the Soviet Union, in which roles changed frequently, one has to choose another scale. As he argued Yehuda Elkana’s “images of knowledge” are an appropriate model for this, as they show how norms of scientificity were coproduced by people from different areas. Looking at the images of knowledge allows also to bring the specificities of Soviet science conception to the fore, like the subordination of sciences to the peoples or concentration on theoretical practice.

The following roundtable discussion concentrated mostly on language of talking about revolution. The concept itself was criticized for its euro-centricity and its religious ballast. Still, most have agreed that is still can be used as a useful analytical took, once the shortcomings of its use are recognized and it is not deployed as a timeless category but properly historicized.

The second day began with a talk of Elena Aronova (University of California at Santa Barbara) on the information revolution and the history of science. In particular she discussed the founder of bibliometrics Eugene Garfield and bibliometrics’ influence on the ways history of science was perceived and partially also written. For instance bibliometrics allowed to decenter HPS from the single personalities and show networks of influence resp. research groups / invisible colleges. Interestingly, Aronova showed also that the Airforce Department sponsored Garfield’s research, although they were only interested in details. As she argued, bibliometrics was also a reaction to the rhetorics of crisis and the perceived necessity to arrange available information. It was seen and presented as a revolution – a word, that as she demonstrated, was in everybody’s mouth in the early 1960s, from Dwight Eisenhower to Thomas Kuhn, with the open question of whose concept informed whose. Christopher Donohue (National Human Genome Research Institute) discussed the question to which extent there was a revolution in the genomics. As did several other speakers, he concentrated on the rhetoric and the temporalities, showing that for a revolution there is quite little an agreement. Did it start with, for instance, studies of Maynard Olson, one of the founders of the Human Genome Project? Or with Craig Venter and his private endeavor in competition with the public government project? Did it end with the draft sequence from 2000, or was this success prematurely marketed, as only 90% of the genome was decoded then?

The question of when do revolutions start and when they end (and – for whom, as this was Donohue’s key issue), was also leading in the next session in which Christian Fleck (IGITI HSE//University of Graz) and Alexander Bikbov (Maurice Halbwachs Research Center, Paris/Moscow State University) who both discussed the revolutions of 1968. Fleck saw 1968 as a step within the changes of the 1960s, cultural revolution (fashion, music, sexuality) and academic revolution (expansion of universities, new relations to politics). The main results that proved durable were for him were the massification of university education, the feminization of universities (although not in all disciplines) and the entrance of the market. However, he criticized that consequently universities became self-referential “ghettos”, growingly disentangled from their local environments, an issue that was vehemently discussed in the Q&A round, especially concerning the recent criticism of universities as detached from the societal needs as voided by the right-wing conservatives all around the world.

 Similarly to Fleck, Bikbov stressed the developments and infrastructure from before 1968. Especially École Nationale Superieure and Section VI of the École Pratique des Hautes Études (which became in 1975 the famous EHESS) provided possibilities for innovative research, although working there was considered “prestigious academic marginality.” Also in the works of Foucault or Bourdieu one finds the tendencies they became famous for after 1968 already before that time, although certain ideas were clearly reinforced. Importantly as Bikbov argues, new mediality emerged and many of the ideas considered now as breakthroughs were stabilized not through academia only but also through the literary field – a point which by the way has also been made in the German context concerning the post-1968 emergence of soft-cover books (so called Generation Suhrkamp).In the closing session was concerned with cybernetics. Eglė Rindzevičiūtė (Kingston University, London) has discussed different forms of presentation of cybernetics as a revolutionary system of both assemble knowledge but also of governmentality. While discussing different facets of how cybernetics was perceived, she placed special attention on the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (Laxemburg, Austria) which, established as trans-block institution in 1972 and thus a kind of bastard of the Cold War, was an exceptional place to make politicians and scientists accustomed to the global problems. As Rindzevičiūtė argued discussing the question of whether cybernetics should be seen as avant-garde or revolutionary, one of most suitable metaphors would be parasitism, since cybernetics was closely linked with the mainstream “normal” science drawing resources from it without giving much in return.

Olessia Kirchik (IGITI HSE) discussed the diverging images of cybernetics and its origin, seeing it as more a field of ideas than a singular field of research. Presenting itself as a theory of everything cybernetics could finally not stand on the hopes it promised and finally was doomed to fail. However, questions and also the vocabulary of cybernetics produced survived beyond the disciplinary failure, allowing one to ask the question to which extent dichotomy success vs. failure is applicable in this case. One of the questions raised in the discussion was also to which extent did cybernetics produce the narratives of the disciplines being all-encompassing and solving all the problems, and to which extent these were reinforced by mass media and literature, where robotics and computerization of a different sort was soaring as promises of future paradises.

While no overarching results were reached – likely also a result of disciplinary divergences – the idea of revolution and its usefulness as a category of analysis was severely criticized. From historicisation, contextualization, to the search for other (non-European?) alternatives to present ruptures, many points were raised. Particularly regarding revolutions as an actors’ category, a point repeatedly raised by Aronova, seemed to catch among the audience. However, revolution remained perceived as a useful category of presentation and of analysis, even given its limits.

(by Jan Surman)