Graduate School of the Arts and Humanities Blog

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Welcome Note


Dear guest lecturers, dear participants at the first Bernese Winter School,

First of all, allow me to welcome you to Schloss Münchenwiler and to thank you for making the journey, in some cases from as far afield as Scotland, Belarus and the USA.

The Winter School is being organised by the Graduate School (GS@IASH) of the Philosophical-Historical Faculty, University of Berne, with the principal aim of offering a forum of exchange and critical debate to graduate students and researchers in the humanities and social sciences. Sponsored by the Stiftung Mercator Schweiz, the Winter School will take place in four consecutive years, focusing in turn on ‘transformations of knowledge’, ‘achronies in (global) processes of development’, ‘symbolic and aesthetic dimensions of change’, and the ‘worldliness of the humanities’. The term TransFormations is our leitmotif; by the capitalisation of the F in ‘formations’ we want to emphasise its two components: the dynamics of historical and social processes of change suggested by the prefix ‘trans’, and their necessary dependence on concrete cultural ‘formations’ and, indeed, ‘forms’. As Professor Wenzelhuemer has stated in his abstract, the circulation of knowledge – and communication in general – is always a mediated process that “needs to rely on some form of carrier – material or immaterial”. These carriers or media may include genres, metaphors, images, practices and performances as well as material objects, for instance the technical implements that allow the production of certain kinds of knowledge. We will see an example of such a mediated ‘TransFormation’ in Professor Hagner’s talk, in which he will examine the impact of the ebook and Open Access on the traditional scientific medium, the humanistic book, and on academic practices more generally.

From the perspective of a graduate school that carries inter- and transdisciplinarity as well as scholarly self-reflexion on its banner, it seemed obvious to choose the production of ‘knowledge’ as a starting point for a sustained conversation among various disciplines. In current debates, concepts such as ‘cultures/orders of knowledge’, ‘epistemological systems’ or even ‘agnotology’ and ‘necscience’ are ubiquitous. For those of us working in the humanities and influenced by Michel Foucault, it seems self-evident that knowledge is socially constructed by what has been variously called ‘scientific communities’ (Kuhn) or ‘thought collectives’ (Fleck), and that it is dependent on broader historical contexts as well as on shared assumptions, beliefs and practices (‘thought styles’, Fleck). However, this constructivist position is not shared universally. In a recent publication suggestively entitled ‘The Power of Knowledge’ (Reiner Grundmann, Nico Stehr: Die Macht der Erkenntnis. Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2011), I came across a quotation by the chemist and winner of the Nobel Prize Harold Kroto who claims that it is in fact easy to distinguish between true and false scientific theories: those which can be proved by experiment, and can be applied in real life, are ‘true’ and ‘factual’, all others are simply ‘not scientific’. The authors comment that this statement is probably representative not only for natural scientists, but for the popular view of science and truth (Grundmann/Stehr 10).

In contradistinction to Kroto’s pragmaticist position, historians and theorists of science who can be grouped together under the label of ‘constructivism’ (Fleck, Kuhn, Foucault, Rheinberger, Latour) insist on the interaction between “individual perceptual-behavioural activities and experiences; general cognitive processes; and particular social collective systems of thought and practice” (Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Scandalous Knowledge. Science, Truth and the Human. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006, 11). As Barbara Herrnstein Smith goes on to argue, the straightforward differentiation between scientific truth and personal opinion, or true and false science, or science and belief, is undercut and problematised if the conditions of emergence of a scientific theory are taken into account.

It is on this ground that practitioners in the humanities and social sciences tend to feel fairly comfortable, and can make a significant contribution, in two ways: First, the narratives of science produced by, for example, Ludwik Fleck and Hansjörg Rheinberger are centred on the lab as a paradigmatic space and the experiment as a paradigmatic practice. In consequence, this kind of history of science focuses on the natural sciences and marginalises other disciplines such as literary studies and art history. The latter disciplines and their thought styles, collectives, media and practices need to make their mark on the interdisciplinary field of science studies. Second, the humanities can contribute what is their strength to this enterprise, namely, their methods of formal analysis and close reading – applicable to literature and visual artefacts as well as to non-fiction writing – and thereby, explore further the processes of cultural transmission between science, literature and the arts, and social networks.

Various studies that bridge the gap between the sciences and the humanities both thematically and methodologically are under way. By way of example, I want to point out a collection that shows in an exemplary way the productive transfer between constructivist science studies on the one hand and literary studies on the other hand: Experiment und Literatur. Themen, Methoden, Theorien , ed. by Michael Gamper (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2010). Here, the figuration of the experiment is imported from science studies; contributions from the perspectives of, for instance, theatre studies and narratology analyse the performativity inherent in experiments, and narrative as a medium of transference between the ‘two cultures’. This collection is just one sample for the productivity and innovation to be found in this interdisciplinary field. Your own work – the research projects pursued by the participants in this Winter School – equally bears witness to this. I am looking forward to learn more about your research, both at the following poster presentation and over the next few days.

To conclude, let me thank those who made this event possible: our generous sponsor, Stiftung Mercator Schweiz; our cooperation partners, the Graduate Schools at the Universities of Heidelberg and Lucerne; our guest lecturers Michael Hagner, Christiane Schildknecht, Roland Wenzelhuemer and Stefan Willer; the team at Schloss Münchenwiler who will take care of our bodily welfare; and, last but certainly not least, Sabina von Fischer who has been indispensable for the organisation, and Manuela Rossini without whose initiative, foresight and commitment the Winter School would never have happened.

Münchenwiler, 22 January 2012

Prof. Dr. Virginia Richter

Director of the Institute of Advanced Study | IASH

University of Berne

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