Power and Knowledge from the 18th Century to Today

University of Lorraine (Nancy), 24-25 November 2022

Call For Papers

Dating back to the beginnings of Greek democracy and the Platonic conception of the philosopher-king, the relations between power and knowledge have recently come back to the fore with the rise of populism or the sanitary crisis. Whether an obstacle to democracy, a means for citizens to control their representatives or a vehicle for regenerating democracy (Mounk, 2018), knowledge now appears, more than ever before, as a constitutive feature of government.

This interdisciplinary conference will seek to explore the implications of this relationship since the 18th century and to examine to what extent knowledge may establish, legitimise or discredit the forms and figures of political power.

Alongside the democratic ideal, the specialisation and secularisation of knowledge during the Enlightenment gave rise to conceptions of a social order based on knowledge, be it Robert Owen’s utopian schemes, Comtean positivism or the clerisy called for by S. T. Coleridge. As mass democracy spurred the growth and influence of political parties, debating societies and think tanks appeared with the aim of influencing political decision-makers as well as public opinion, precipitating reforms and asserting the dominance of thought over action (Stone & Denham, 2004; Landry, 2021). In the liberal and democratic project, education has come to represent a valuable means of promoting citizenship for reformers ranging from philanthropists, socialists and liberals, to philosophical traditions such as British idealism or American pragmatism (Tyler, 2006; Dewey, 1916). On a broader scale, cultural critics or intellectuals have invoked their learning or expertise to purportedly counterbalance institutional power or exert influence in the public sphere.

That knowledge may imply coercion has been the butt of criticism from multiple traditions. Together with the poststructuralist movement inspired by Michel Foucault or cultural studies, critics of modernity such as Eric Voegelin, hostile to what he termed a gnostic conception of power, or Carl Schmitt, for whom Hegel’s philosophy implied an “educational dictatorship”, have concurred in their questioning of Enlightenment optimism, dismissing knowledge as a necessary condition for progress and holding it to be the locus of a political struggle.

The debate has been central to the theorization of disciplines, understood as fields of knowledge that presuppose the existence of “disciples” and therefore some form of authority (Moran, 2002). If the specialisation of knowledge seems inevitably linked to the world being perceived as increasingly complex, what are the checks on experts’ judgements? Can a government reliant on specialised knowledge be genuinely democratic? Can philosophy, as Nietzsche would have it, challenge the claims of objectivity and disinterestedness voiced by “we, scholars”? Or should principles and values regulating knowledge and information in the public sphere be formulated to overcome the current “epistemic tribalism” underlying the surge in disinformation and conspiracy theories (Rauch, 2021)?

Knowledge also stands at the intersection of political power, economic and social policies and ideologies. New Labour governments, for instance, claimed to base their agenda on the knowledge economy while fostering a brand of governance dubbed by some as technocratic or managerial (Dillow, 2007; Parry & Protherough, 2002). In this view, the crisis of democracy has been assumed to originate in an intellectual elite’s promotion of identities, amounting to « the critical demolition of foundationalism » (Lasch, 1995), or in a system giving birth to « a bloated cognitive class » (Goodhart, 2021). More fundamentally, the Hayekian critique of constructivist rationalism set out in « The Use of Knowledge in Society » (Hayek, 2014) and the Keynesian conception of economic policy (Dow & Hillard, 1995) paved the way for an ongoing debate over the possibility of knowledge serving both social justice and liberty in a democratic regime.

With an interdisciplinary approach, the conference will welcome proposals dealing with the relations between knowledge and power from the 18th century to today: papers can address the history of political and/or economic ideas, intellectual, cultural and political history or political science and sociology.

Papers may discuss, but are not limited to:

  • Experts, intellectuals, and scholars in the public sphere
  • Think tanks and debating societies and their relations with rulers, parties and ideologies
  • Historiography as a political project
  • Political economy as the art of governing and/or economic science in the service of the political (mercantilists, physiocrats, classics, scientific socialists…)
  • The disciplinary evolution of economics: depoliticisation and politicisation
  • Knowledge as constitutive of national identity
  • The legitimisation of policies through science
  • The fashioning of the elite (intellectual trajectories and influences, training, Oxbridge, the Ivy League, the formation of canons…)
  • Committed academics and knowledge as a channel for protest: Cultural Studies theorists and practitioners, neo-Conservative intellectuals, cultural critics…
  • The specialisation of knowledge and democratic representation
  • Power and knowledge informal institutions and/or the public sphere.

Indicative bibliography

Burrow, J.W., The Crisis of Reason. European Thought, 1848-1914, New Haven, Yale UP, 2000

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, On the Constitution of the Church and State, in The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, vol. 10, Ed. John Colmer, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul/Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976

Collini, Stefan, Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2006

Comte, Auguste, Discours sur l’ensemble du positivisme, Paris, Garnier Flammarion, 1998

Dewey, John, “Democracy and Education”, in Middle Works (1977), Ed. J. Boydston and A. Carbondale, Illinois, Southern Illinois University Press, 1983

Dillow, Chris, The End of Politics: New Labour and the Folly of Managerialism, Petersfield, Harriman House Publishing, 2007

Dow, Sheila C, and John Hillard, Keynes, Knowledge and Uncertainty, London, Edward Elgar Publishing, 1995

Drayton, Richard. Nature’s Government: Science, Imperial Britain and the ‘Improvement’ of the World, New Haven, Yale UP, 2000

Foucault, Michel, L’ordre du discours, Paris, Gallimard, 1971