International Scholars to Discuss Political Epistemologies and Marxism
On June 21-22, the HSE Poletayev Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities will host a conference on ‘Soviet States and Beyond: Political Epistemologies of/and Marxism 1917-1945-1968’. The event is the second in a series of three conferences organized by an international group of scholars, including Friedrich Cain of the Max Weber Centre for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies at the University of Erfurt, Alexander Dmitriev at the HSE Poletayev Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities, Dietlind Hüchtker of the Leibniz Institute for the History and Culture of Eastern Europe (GWZO) in Leipzig, and Jan Surman, Research Fellow at the Poletayev Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities.
Ahead of this week’s event, Jan Surman joined the HSE News Service for a discussion about the topics that will be covered at the conference and the outcomes that organizers hope to achieve following the discussions among scholars.
— Before we talk about the conference, how would you briefly explain epistemology to those who are not familiar with the subject?
— Epistemology in its most general meaning is a branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of knowledge, its sources, scope and criteria of its justification. However, in our research programme we follow a more specific branch of epistemology called historical epistemology, which is informed by philosophical discourses but more concentrated not on abstract criteria for knowledge, but on placing knowledge in history. We are interested in questions of how, under which conditions, new ideas come to the world but also how new ideas about knowledge appear and influence science and scholarship. These ideas are linked mostly with Gaston Bachelard or Ludwik Fleck, and were in most recent times followed by Lorraine Daston and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger.
While historical epistemology historicizes epistemological categories and parameters such as evidence, facts, rationality, objectivity, and observation, we are also interested in the question of how it relates to power relations, that is to politics in the sense of Michel Foucault. In our eyes, this was something missing in the discussions in historical epistemology in recent years. Importantly, we do not do political epistemology as a branch of political sciences, a development which especially Jeffrey Friedman advocated in the last decade, but as a branch of history and philosophy of science.
— This recent conference was the second in a series of three, with the third one scheduled for October 2018. Why have you organized three conferences in one year, and what are your expectations for this upcoming one?
— This week’s conference is an outcome of a cooperation with Max Weber Centre for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies at the University of Erfurt and the Leibniz Institute for the History and Culture of Eastern Europe (GWZO) in Leipzig. Our intention was to connect political epistemology and the space of East-Central Europe, and we felt that the long 20th century is the best way to do it, because it experienced a lot of cultural and scholarly dynamics, which the mainstream scholarship in the history of science has not always acknowledged.
Our intention was to connect political epistemology and the space of East-Central Europe, and we felt that the long 20th century is the best way to do it.
Each of the conferences we organize is concentrated on different topics and introduces new ideas into our general program – in Moscow this week we are concentrating on Marxism and its various epistemologies, and at this conference we want to bring together colleagues working in different countries on the issues connected to Marxism and science and see how their research can inform each other. There is growing field of study connected to this, but it seems to us that it is not yet very well connected, and people often do not know what the others are working on. Additionally, much research done in Eastern Europe is not published in English, so the conference intends also to breach a language barrier. We think it is very important that different research cultures speak to each other, both in a metaphorical and literal sense, and this is our contribution to it.
The next conference focuses on the question of ‘truth’ in the last 50 years. So, we are moving more and more into the contemporary times, and I think this is one of the main assets of our research programme that in the end it attempts to offer some new insights into the topics that are hotly debated now.
— Do you have any other goals for this week’s event?
— For our research programme, it is also vital to see how the question of political epistemologies can be applied to Marxism, which by definition was a science led system, in which politics was omnipresent. So, it is also a test run for categories we developed for another space, with another discourse in mind, which we will now reify with new topics and materials.
It is important for us that we do not come with a set of questions prepared for other historical situations and simply apply them to new issues and materials, but that we develop and change our questions in confrontation with them. Quite often you can see that this does not happen, especially among historians. So this conference is also an experimental system in which we hope that our epistemic categories will also change, and already the preparations for this conference have altered the way we talked about political epistemology and its scope.
— What are some of the reports you are expecting at the conference?
— There will be a number of very interesting talks during the conference. To begin with, recently appointed professor of newer history at the University of Vienna, Anna Echterhölter, will hold a keynote on the issue of how history of measurement travelled between ‘the East’ and ‘the West’ around the middle of the 20th century. But equally important are talks that young researchers will give, like Alexei Lokhmatov on sociology between the scholarly and public sphere in Poland after World War II, or Daria Petushkova on Marxist intellectuals in interwar France.
It is very important that different research cultures speak to each other, both in a metaphorical and literal sense, and this is our contribution to it.
We have also planned a more general discussion of how to decentralize our project from science and include also other social spheres, arts and architecture in particular, and I personally look forward to the result of this roundtable.
I think that every conference lives not only from the reports that are presented, but from the dynamics of discussion, and we prepared ample time for questions and more informal discussions. Coffee breaks and informal dinners in the evenings are indeed a powerful tool to generate new questions.
— What does your presentation cover?
— In my presentation, I will be talking on two unrealized projects of museums. One of them, Mundaneum, was in Geneva, and was a cooperation between the philosopher and peace activist Paul Otlet and architect Le Corbusier that took place 1928-29. The second one is the Palace of Technics in Moscow, which was foreseen to be built in the 1930s and plans for which were quite well underway until it was finally abolished.
Since in my research programme at HSE I deal, among others, with the question of how science and other social systems inform each other, here I will be talking about what we can learn about the ideas of scientific knowledge from an analysis of a dialogue between arts and scholarship, which we would not be able to learn if we were to concentrate only on standard historical sources.
Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE News service
Photo provided by Jan Surman