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«Axial Ages» in the History of Humanities: from Early Modern Times to the Present 

Priority areas of development: humanitarian

Goal of research: The project’s goal is to develop an analysis language and an empirical base for studying the moments of discontinuity (‘revolutions’, ‘turns’ etc.) in the history of human sciences from the early modern to the postmodern era.

Methodology: The project draws on methods developed earlier in the philosophy and theory of the humanities to conceptualize ‘turning points’ in the history of human sciences. Its epistemological tools include Doris Bachmann-Medick’s concept of ‘cultural turn’, Michel Foucault’s ‘epistemological rupture’, Reinhart Koselleck’s ‘Sattelzeit’, Jaakko Hintikka’s and Nancy S. Struever’s ‘moralization of modalities’, Aleksander Mikhailov’s ‘end of the rhetorical epoch.’ Among the theories of cultural and historical periods that were instrumental for the realization of the project's goals are Jürgen Habermas’s and Reinhart Koselleck’s theories of modernity, concepts of early modern times developed by thinkers from the proponents of ‘civic humanism’ to John G.A. Pocock, a wide range of theories of the baroque from Fritz Strich to René Welleck, the metaphor of the Renaissance in all the variety of its interpretations from Jacob Burkhardt to Ronald Witt.

Empirical base of research. The empirical basis of the study was made up of key or most representative texts that showed that to comprehend the ways of conceptualizing ‘turning points’ in the history of the humanities and social sciences. For the first section, these were texts reflecting the thematization of anthropological issues in the context of early modern ‘rhetorical sciences of contingency’ taking shape (primarily medical comments and treatises, essays on politics, ethics and rhetoric of the 15th–18th centuries). In the second section, the study draws on texts reflecting the correlation between revolutions in the human or social sciences and social or political revolutions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (programmatic romantic texts on the advent of a ‘new era’ such as the ‘Oldest Systematic Program of German Idealism’, the writings of Ernst Jünger and Werner Sombart who revived the messianic rhetoric of romanticism under the aegis of ‘conservative revolution’, and programmatic texts of the ‘Ukrainian science’ of 1917 and after). In the third section, the empirical basis of the study included mostly the programmatic works by theorists of various ‘turns’ in the history of the humanities and social sciences, including Cultural Studies (Jim McGuigan, Henry Jenkins, John Urry, Doreen Massey) and landmark publications from leading periodicals (e.g. History and Theory for history) allowing to gauge the main parameters of ‘turns’.

Results of research:

 – Section One displays theoretical perspectives opened by bringing back anthropological questions into the discussion of ‘revolutions’ that happened in the early modern European humanities. As early as the beginning of the 20th century, Wilhelm Dilthey in his philosophy of Geisteswissenschaften and Fritz Strich in his baroque studies relied on an analysis of early modern anthropology as a fundament on which to reconstruct the Weltanschauung of the sixteenth and seventeenth century Europeans. These authors made it possible to consider anthropology to be the best platform to synthesize competing forms of conceptualizing the cultural and historical epoch termed ‘Renaissance’ by Jacob Burkhardt and Jules Michelet, ‘baroque’ by Heinrich Wölfflin and German historians of literature. The speculative apparatus of these old theories of baroque anthropology (the ‘spirit of the age,’ ‘worldview’, ‘the baroque man’) that was repeatedly criticized by such reputable theorists as Ernst Robert Curtius and René Wellek, to name just two, has recently given way to methods and categories of ‘new rhetoric’ and biopolitics (‘contingency’, ‘political technology of the body’). Studies presented in Section One made it possible to trace the main stages of the ‘rhetorical-medical mindset’ reconceptualization in the modern historical and theoretical literature on the early modern times: in Section 1.1 this trend is traced drawing on theories of the baroque from the history of philosophy to the baroque policy, which made it possible to highlight the restoration of anthropology’s domination.

In Section 1.2, the tendency toward rehabilitation of somatic categories in the literature on Renaissance Platonism is considered, which allows, in particular, to call into question the concept of a purely spiritualistic and exclusively metaphysical orientation of the Florentine Platonists, especially Marsilio Ficino.

The main result of Section 1.3 was the introduction into circulation of a number of medical texts on the subject of arbitrary movement (motus arbitrarius). Traditionally, this topic was studied almost exclusively in connection with the notion of ‘effort’ (conatus, endeavour) and its importance was attributed to its role in the history of philosophy or in the history of mathematics (differential and integral calculus). Placing these texts in the research field of baroque anthropology allowed us to explicate the medical dimension of the aporia of studying the contingent with rational scientific tools. It also demonstrated the role of somatic disciplines in the tectonic process of ‘moralization of modalities’.

Subsection 1.4 was devoted to a ‘meeting’ between humanistic philology and natural science at the beginning of the 16th century, which led to a revision of epistemological conventions and generated syncretic categories and principles shared by natural and text sciences. This section shows that until the 18th century, philological ‘refinement’ of authoritative ancient (primarily Greek and Roman, but also Arabic) texts was perceived as an important part of a physician’s, astronomer’s and even mathematician’s competence.

The overall result of research presented in Section One is a changed approach to early modern studies. Instead of focusing on ‘turning points’, key figures and pivotal texts that led to fast revolutionary changes in humanities’ language and self-image, we are now talking about longue durée processes in the history of intellectual culture such as ‘moralization of modalities’, ‘emancipation of the signifiers’ in the political language, and epistemological crisis.

– Section Two deals with the forms in which revolutionary changes in social and political life were conceptualized by the language of philosophy and the humanities. Subsection 2.1 analyzes the genealogy of topoi central to historical narrative of the so-called ‘classical German philosophy’. For this end, the crucial components of German idealism’s self-interpretation are singled out: (1) the interpretation of the French Revolution and Immanuel Kant’s project of transcendental philosophy as two interconnected aspects of one pivotal moment in global history; (2) the program of a ‘philosophy of unification’ (Vereinigungsphilosophie) as a basis for a future new culture that would overcome the internal contradictions of modern thinking; (3) parallels drawn between the cultural situation at the turn of the 19th century in Europe and the situation of classical antiquity in the Mediterranean, leading to the construction of an analogy between ancient Greece and early modern Germany; (4) an eschatologically tinged perception of the abovementioned pivotal moment as the end of the Modern Time, requiring an intellectual 'closure' of the entire previous development of Western philosophy in the form of an encompassing system representing the total of its contents.

Reconstructing the genealogy of key topoi used in historiography and history of philosophy made it possible to see how problematic the constitution of ‘watershed periods’ in the history of knowledge is. Also, it facilitated demarginalization of epistemological settings that had been relegated to the periphery of the teleological narrative.

Subsection 2.2 problematizes the ability of twentieth century ideologies to revive elements of the romantic discursive formation that were perceived as marginal and archaic by the end of the 19th century. It shows how the ‘conservative revolution’ discourse (exemplified by Werner Sombart and Ernst Jünger) appropriated and profited from the language of romantic political economy (Adam Müller): its specific understanding of ‘capital’ and ‘productive forces’ did not coincide with either the Marxist or the liberal (Adam Smith) interpretation of these concepts; it adopted the idea of parity of consumer and exchange value, the idea that there were not one but many political economies (‘each nation must have its own political economy’); it contrasted the anthropological types of ‘hero’ / ‘warrior vs. ‘trader’ / ‘bourgeois’ and insisted that economic life had a historical and cultural basis. Research presented in this subsection shows that in order to understand the reasons for this ‘second birth’ of romantic political economy, it is necessary to consider romanticism as the first critical reaction to Modernity, a reaction that became paradigmatic for all subsequent ones. In other words, any project of criticism against Modernity inevitably actualizes anew certain elements of the romantic discursive formation – a phenomenon that referred to as ‘Post-Romantic Syndrome’ hereinafter.

Subsection 2.3 demonstrates the inseparable link between the genesis of a political theory and the historical context in which it is actualized. This thesis is explicated using the actor-network method which allows to see in concreto the networks of personal contacts and mutual influences, and the constitution of statuses in professional communities as well as in various political environments of Restoration era France, demonstrating subsequently how these factors are connected with the language and the conceptual apparatus of contemporary political theories.

Subsection 2.4 deals with the separation of the three largest fields in the Russian / Soviet literary criticism on the eve of the 1917 revolution and during the first post-revolutionary decades: historical poetics, comparative studies and the formal school. A paradoxical peculiarity of Russian formalism (which it shares, however, with some Eastern European literary theories) was, as is shown in this subsection, that while being essentially universal in methodological terms and depending on no particular language or national canon, formalism for a long time developed within Russian literary tradition. Paradoxically, the de-automatization of technique and the evolution of the imagery in formalists remained within the boundaries of the Russian national literature without borrowings from foreign literatures having any independent significance or influences in these processes. This ‘anticomparatism’ and commitment to national tradition were largely due to the way Russian philology overcame the consequences of the political and cultural blockade it suffered in post-revolutionary years.

In subsection 2.5, interwar ‘images of Ukrainian science’ are the subject of research. The multiplicity of these ‘images’ is examined in connection with the fate of scientific communities and centers of ‘Ukrainian science’ that were situated in ideologically and culturally different and sometimes antagonistic locations: Prague (Czechoslovakia), Lviv (Second Polish Republic), Kharkov and Kiev (Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic). Research presented in this subsection has shown what ideas about the tasks of science, the nature of truth and the sources of knowledge were developed in this transboundary Ukrainian scholarly community, and what relationship existed between them and the ideological discourses and political regimes within which they took shape;

– Section Three analyzes the notion of ‘turn’ characteristic of the language of self-description used by the humanities and social sciences of the 20th and early 21st centuries.

Subsection 3.1 describes the large-scale changes in the conceptual apparatus and the problematic field of history (primarily the history of ideas) from the 1980s to present days. It is only now, largely post-factum, that this shift is slowly receiving an analytical interpretation. Research done has shown that the first stage of this ‘velvet revolution in conceptual history’ can be described as proliferation of categories borrowed from new social sciences (anthropology and Cultural Studies) into history, most often separating them from their original contexts and conceptual foundations. An equally important feature of this stage is the fragmentation of the subject field of history. The ‘conservative turn’ that is currently taking place is described (following Ethan Kleinberg’s analysis) as a ‘return to the real’. It includes overcoming epistemological skepticism, abandonment of the thematic priorities of the 1990s that meant erosion of the disciplinary boundaries of history and even erosion of the demarcation line between scientific and non-academic forms of working with the past; it further encompasses reconceptualization of historical time and revival (albeit in a new guise) of universal history.

Subsection 3.2 is a case study to illustrate the points made in subsection 3.1. It analyses the reception of the so-called ‘emotional’ (or ‘affective’) turn in Russian historiography, showing that the mutual isolation of political science, linguistics and history in today’s Russia precludes any ‘turn’ as a single event affecting all humanities and social sciences.

Subsection 3.3 presents discussions about cultural populism as a ‘turning point’ in the history of Cultural Studies in the mid-twentieth century. The conditions that made this ‘turn’ possible are shown to be, firstly, the fundamental transformation of the Western academic landscape, and secondly the reformatting of media space and the changing political conjuncture. Both these transformations changed the norms, academic in one case, political in the second. The discrediting of both the figure of ‘critical intellectual’ and the normative model of culture resulted in a change of values prevailing ​​in the academia and in shifting the research focus towards previously stigmatized objects such as fandoms or popular culture products. A critical reaction to this ‘turn’ on the part of other disciplines such as sociology and political economy gave rise to controversy over the status of the object of cultural research as well as mutual accusations of ‘cultural populism’ and being ‘reactionary’. Subsection 3.3 shows how a number of aporias and paradoxes arising from this polemic became an integral part of the Cultural Studies’ recent self-reflection.

Subsection 3.4 analyzes the main parameters of the ‘transformative’ reception of popular culture products by different communities and traces the evolution of research approaches to this issue. The transition from ideology criticism to an ethnographic analysis of user communities allowed, as demonstrated in the subsection, to see various strategies of ‘participatory’ and transformative reading that tramples the canons of bourgeois aesthetics such as the required emotional and cognitive distance between the text and its reader. At the same time, the subsection also notes the limitations of ‘transformative reception’ studies: their inability to see, along with ‘interpretation communities’, the ‘interpretation online-fairs’ that presuppose anonymity and lack of horizontal communication between users / consumers (‘everyday fandom’). Particular attention is paid in this subsection to the state of affairs in such a newly emerging field of ‘participatory culture’ research as fan-studies. The authors chalk out the main lines of interdisciplinary cooperation between this sphere and ‘older’ ones ranging from nethnography to narratology and even receptive aesthetics.

Subsection 3.5 is devoted to the major turnaround in studying 20th century popular music – the birth of Popular Music Studies from the criticism of Theodor Adorno’s ‘sociology of music.’ The subsection explicates the main trend in the development of this new discipline as represented by the Institute of Popular Music in Liverpool: a rethinking of the role played by the audience and by the social environment in which a musical product is consumed. This required a synthesis of musicological, sociological and cultural disciplines such as ethnomusicology and discourse analysis, social psychology of music, and cultural studies of music.

Subsection 3.6 presents a general outline of the ‘spatial turn’ and its interaction with other ‘turns’, primarily the linguistic, the affective and the mobile ones. The analysis shows that a ‘turn towards language’ in the middle of the 20th century had a serious impact on the thematization of space and ways of working with it since it allowed thinking space by analogy with discursive forms. At the same time, in recent studies this ‘semiotic’ concept of space has been criticized, and space has been conceptualized as an autonomous subject of research. In this subsection, the basic epistemological principles of the ‘spatial turn’ are also explicated. These include pluralism of geographies, the social and cultural conditionality of space and the recognition of its processual nature (‘space as a function of motion’).

Level of implementation, recommendations on implementation or outcomes of the implementation of the results

The possibility for the project’s findings to be implemented is due to the fact that, for the first time ever, project participants drawing on extensive empirical data have succeeded in comprehensive historical reconstruction and theoretical conceptualization of ‘turning points’ in the history of the humanities and social sciences, ‘traditional’ (philology, history, political science) as well as relatively newly formed, such as Cultural Studies (ranging from fan- and media-studies to studies of popular music). The results of this project are presented in dozens of scholarly publications including those in periodicals indexed in WoS and Scopus. The new knowledge obtained has been approved and will be used later in courses on the history and sociology of science taught within the IGITI and the School of History’s joint master program ‘History of Knowledge’ at HSE. In addition, these results can be used in future theoretical works in the field of social sciences and humanities, in the planning and management of research in these areas. The research tools and conceptual apparatus developed by the participants in the project may be in demand not only by historians of knowledge, historians of the humanities and philosophers but also by managers and curators of museums, exhibitions and libraries, editors and authors of scholarly and educational periodicals as well as by developers of government programs to counter extremism and destructive ideologies.


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