Science and the Nation

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Course Description: 

In 1815 a dozen or so Swiss naturalists and physicians gathered outside Geneva to form a federation-wide learned society devoted exclusively to the natural sciences, “drawing together the ever more diverse parts of our body politic.” The founders of the Société Helvétique des Sciences naturelles cast it as based on a liberal politics without regard to social station, while also cultivating membership across different levels of scholarly dedication and achievement. Vowing not to seek out despotic patrons, and “inspired only for fatherland and science,” they planned to meet in a different canton every year with support from town fathers. Separated by laws, customs, mores, and language itself, naturalists from the twenty-two Swiss states convened in person “in order to overcome the prejudices that these differences might nourish, to the great detriment of the harmony which is so necessary to us.” In the 1820s German-speaking naturalists and physicians began congregating annually at rotating meetings in Saxony, Hesse, Bavaria, and eventually Prussia, with Berlin hosting the largest gathering to date in 1828. Alexander von Humboldt, the organizer of the Berlin congress, called it "a noble manifestation of scientific union in Germany; it presents the spectacle of a nation divided in politics and religion, revealing its nationality in the realm of intellectual progress." Many bilingual scholars attended the annual German-speaking gatherings (including Vienna in 1832, Prague in 1837, and Graz in 1843), and the congresses were soon emulated by Britain, France, Italy, the Scandinavians, Hungary, and eventually Russia, partitioned Poland, and the Czechs. At a time when most university appointments were closely controlled in Vienna, Berlin, and St. Petersburg (albeit with important variations in administrative oversight and corporate identity), these congresses offered a seminal early mechanism by which scientists could identify themselves with national communities. In the early stages, at least, the idea of the nation could help transform the local preoccupations of a seemingly fragmented Republic of Letters into something more universal. Where British and especially French scientists often fell back on an auto-universalizing patriotism in support of their endeavors, scientists east of the Rhine had no such luxury, and numbered both some of the most ardent advocates of a renewed Republic of Sciences as well as fierce proponents of national imperatives for scientific research.

Our task in this course will be to investigate the various ways in which natural scientists reconciled the universal claims they associated with specific forms of knowledge about nature and the national aspirations which so many of them also entertained during the long nineteenth century. Themes familiar from the canons of nationalism—comradeship with people one has never met, collective memory (in the form of textbooks), a growing capacity to imagine a collective future—all figure with scientists as well. Yet our aim is not simply to add case studies of scientists to methodologically familiar intellectual drivers of nationalism from literature, philology, history, philosophy, sociology, or the fine arts. The development of rational forms of administration that were often crucial to understanding how nationhood was constructed must sometimes be investigated in close relation to science in particular. Both forms of patronage and rewards for achievement (discoveries and inventions) that might seem peculiar to universal science can be more clearly explicated within processes of national formation. The very notion of "scientific community" as a historical social formation indeed owes much to nation-building tropes, notwithstanding its cosmopolitan claims. 

It is understood that few students will have specific research interests in the natural sciences (Naturwissenschaftentermészettudományokестествознаниеpřírodní vědynauki przyrodnicze), but the course further provides the opportunity to interrogate the normative status of other forms of scholarship (Wissenschafttudományvěda, nauka) in their relation to the nation during the period when Anglophone "science" ceased to be equated unproblematically with Wissenschaft, etc. Where Polish linguist Jan Kochanowski once insisted (refracting Leibniz) that the "essential polyphony" of universal knowledge could only be enriched via the nationality of science (scholarship), those studying the history of the human and social sciences will find this a useful venue in which to investigate that polyphony through a closer understanding of the contributions—empirical, institutional, and epistemological—of the natural sciences to the languages of collective belonging. By the same token, we will be attentive to the many ways that "national science" could serve as a projection of local and regional agendas—not always merely political, but sometimes constitutive of new and durable forms of knowledge production. Finally, in keeping with recent work on imperial contexts, we will take heed of supranational motives for national ambitions in the sciences.  Though the nationality of science is ultimately an incoherent concept, it has nonetheless been important and performative for a variety of Central and East European scientists determined to participate in the interminable regional debates about the course of cultural, social, and economic development. 

Learning Outcomes: 

Students will learn to situate the universal claims of the sciences in their historical contexts, while identifying points of continuity between familiar and unfamiliar national traditions of scholarship throughout Central and Eastern Europe. By engaging the frequently stronger claims of the natural sciences, they will arrive at a more rigorous understanding of the universalist claims of other forms of scholarship in nation-building contexts. In a very limited way this course also doubles as an introduction to the historical sociology of knowledge.


Assessment: One presentation in class: 20%; class discussion leader (twice): 10% + 10%; review essay: 50%; general class participation: 10%.

Review essay: 8-9 double-spaced pages (12-point font, no fiddling with the default margins; Chicago Manual of Style, full notes). Topics chosen in consultation with the instructor.  

Deadline: December 16