Spring 2006, March 31-April 1
Science at the Crossroads: Geopolitics, Marxism, and Seventy-Five Years of Science Studies
Perhaps the most memorable aspect of the Congress was the surprise presentations by a Soviet delegation, chaired by the well-known Bolshevik leader Nikolai Bukharin, which were translated and distributed during the event itself as Science at the Cross-Roads. Among the delegates were physicist Boris Hessen and plant geneticist Nikolai Vavilov. The topics they and their compatriots explored included world agriculture, electrification, organic evolution, and “the relations of science, technology and economics under capitalism and in the Soviet Union.” The striking presentation, however, was Boris Hessen’s “The Social and Economic Roots of Newton’s Principia,” a social constructionist essay avant la lettre, which argued that Newton’s major contribution to mathematical physics was in fact a response to the demands of the growing capitalist society in which he lived. While scholarship since has not borne out many of Hessen’s claims, his central point • that science operates within a wider political economy • has become commonplace.
In order to reflect on how much • and how little • has changed as science studies have developed over three-quarters of a century, we would like to bring together scholars for a two-day workshop to consider three themes: the history of Marxism and science; Marxism and the history of science; and science, technology, and the “developing world.” Invited guests have been asked to give stand-and-deliver presentations, tailored for this specific workshop. There will be four panels, corresponding to the themes, and one keynote panel.
Panel I: The History of the 1931 Congress: Marxism & Science: This first panel explores the interactions of Marxism and science in the 1930s, in particular the dialectical materialist ideas of the Soviet delegation and the political milieu of their major British interlocutors enmeshed in the sciences: Joseph Needham, later famous as the doyen of the history of Chinese science; J. D. Bernal, the X-ray crystallographer and advocate for the study of the “social relations of science”; and J. B. S. Haldane, the geneticist and social critic. These three are only a small cross-section of the intense interest in scientific planning and the state in the 1930s in Britain and the Soviet Union as well as other nations and empires.
Panel II: Marxism and Science Studies: For all the limitations of his own analysis, the challenge Hessen proposed of providing a Marxist history of science has been taken up repeatedly in the years since the Congress, not least in the Strong Programme for the Sociology of Knowledge (SSK) of the Edinburgh school. In the spirit of recent Princeton workshops which have engaged both the history and philosophy of science, the idea for this session is to have two papers • one by a historian & one by a philosopher • which explore the impact of Marxism on science studies over the past 75 years.Panel III: Colonialism, Science and Development: This panel takes the “International” in the title of the Congress seriously by exploring two questions. First how did radical critiques of science from the inter-war period affect on-going debates about the place of science in economic development outside the West? And second, what was the broader historical relationship, in the years preceding and during the Cold War, between science, technology, and development?
Panel IV: Scientists as Disciplinary and Social Critics: This panel explores an often elided aspect of the 1931 Congress and explores its implications into the present: the vocal presence at that meeting of scientists who were also determined activists and critics (often from a Marxist framework) of both the state and of the goals and content of their scientific disciplines. By linking two prominent scientist-activists to present their reflections on the social position and relevance of this form of political engagement today, this panel should close the conference with a focused discussion of how much the legacies of the 1931 Congress are still with us.
Keynote Panel: The keynote panel consists of two speakers • one a historian and one a philosopher • who have expertise in several of the themes the workshop addresses.
Papers for this workshop will not be pre-circulated, but abstracts are available.