Iteration and/as Transformation of Knowledge

Second Annual Conference of the Collaborative Research Centre 980 ‘Episteme in Motion’, 3-4 July 2014, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften



Conference report by Pietro Daniel Omodeo

The second annual conference of the Collaborative Research Centre focused on the epistemic transformations that result from recursive socio-cultural practices typical of institutional settings. The central question concerned how iterations, taking place within institutions, produce continuous and often barely noticeable intellectual changes, despite the fact that they are supposed to ensure the immutability and the stability of canonical bodies of knowledge. During this two-day international meeting the problematic was addressed from a plurality of angles, on the basis of a wide range of geographical and historical cases mirroring the multidisciplinarity of the Collaborative Research Centre and the variety of interests of its members. Talks and discussions gravitated around a series of key topics. Among them: reading and writing as socially embedded iterative practices; language and the visual as means of knowledge transfer, and codification; processes of institutionalization; the normativity and the prescriptive character of canons and of codified patterns of interaction; and the materiality in which culture is inscribed and by which it is permanently reshaped.

Following the welcome address by the speaker of the Centre, Gyburg Uhlmann, the designers of the conference, Eva Cancik-Kirschbaum and Anita Traninger, introduced the topics and the leading questions. They stressed that the aim of the conference was to question the dogma of intellectual history, according to which institutions are incapable of producing significant intellectual advances through their internal dynamics. It is out of question that long-term institutional iterations guarantee epistemic stability and the establishment and continuation of a tradition, its reinforcement and transmission. Yet historians should not neglect to investigate whether and how iterative practices gradually readapt, revise, and rework knowledge, producing deep transformations and unpredictable outcomes. Moreover, institutions themselves are subject to modifications; they originate as the result of institutionalization processes, and at the same time their formal establishment produces novel social patterns of interaction and cultural change. Thus, a fruitful perspective to investigate institutions-embedded knowledge will be directed to both the cultural-intellectual dimension, and the material one; it ought to take into account ideas as well as practices, and their mutual relation. Anita Traninger invited the participants to consider institutions from the inside—by reflecting on codified habitus, behaviors, hierarchies, mechanisms of identity, doctrines, and disciplinary distinctions—as well as from the outside—that is, from the viewpoint of their juridical, political, social, and cultural frame. Stabilizing factors, she added, are philosophical and rhetorical (e.g. justification strategies) and material (e.g., the media making knowledge transfer possible, or the buildings where institutional interactions take place). From the viewpoint of episteme in motion through iteration, it is important to focus on the actors (e.g., teacher and student, patron and institution, or commentators and authorities) as much as on the places of knowledge setting the stage for interpersonal relations (e.g., schools, universities, academies, artists’ workshops, intellectual circles, archives, libraries, and churches).

Rudolf Stichweh (Bonn) opened the conference offering a multidisciplinary perspective on institutions and iteration in the spirit of the sociological school of evolutionary institutionalism, of which he presented himself as a representative. He indicated two constituents of institutions and institutional change. The first one is the “other” and his/her “glance.” The second constituent is the figure of the “third” to which the actors appeal for the resolution of conflicts. While the “other” shall be seen as the principle of interaction and conflict, the “third” is the principle of order or bounded rationality. These two principles are the minimal conditions for the constitution of an institution. According to evolutionary institutionalism—a system theory resulting from a generalization of institutions—individual actions and personal identity are seen as functions of the system. In this theoretical framework, iteration plays a crucial explanatory role. It accounts, in fact, for unintended but necessary change, since iteration is the basis for evolution, that is, for systemic modifications (Modifikation in Systemen) as the reinforcement of deviations (Abweichungsverstärkung). These systemic modifications that arise from iterative practices are often difficult to be noticed by the same actors producing them, since they represent small changes or anomalies in the system (micro-diversity).

Gideon Freudenthal (Tel Aviv) redirected the attention from sociology to the history of knowledge. His talk dealt with commentary as a scholarly genre resulting from intercultural exchange. The case he reflected on was that of Jewish commentaries on works of the Enlightenment and on medieval sources. Freudental observed that, generally speaking, commentaries signal that a cultural transfer is taking place. They are necessary if a distance between the work and the recipient needs to be bridged in order to make the source accessible. The gap between work and reader can be temporal or cultural; it can concern the form, the content, or both. Moreover, different kinds of authoritative texts required different kinds of commentaries. While the readers of technical texts tried to explain the specialized knowledge they convey, texts of wisdom had to be interpreted in accordance with different cultural approaches. Wisdom is indeed neither accumulative nor progressive, but its interpretation changes over time. In the Middle Ages, as Freudenthal pointed out, commentary was the standard form of philosophical dissemination and production. Later, in the Early Modern Period, this genre was substituted by the monograph in the Latin West, whereas the Jewish philosophical tradition continued rely on commentaries, even at the moment of its encounter with the Enlightenment.

Katerina Oikonomopoulou (Patras) examined the role of reading communities in processes of epistemic transfer in the Graeco-Roman world of high empire (I-II cent. CE) She drew attention specifically to their function in the assimilation, criticism and transformation of natural knowledge. Idealizations of those reading communities can be derived from writings by authors such as Plutarch of Cheronea and Aulus Gellius. Both authors staged institutional, or semi-institutional environments such as philosophical dialogues and teaching or the symposia. They presented communities of peers or philosophy students gathering together around a senior intellectual figure or a teacher in order to read or discuss scientific texts. Oikonomopoulou stressed the iterative character of these social practices of teaching, discussion and critical scrutiny. On the one hand, they aimed at the establishment of specific methods to engage with sources, which were judged to be valuable to the community as a whole. On the other, common reading triggered the production of new scientific genres, such as the problemata, which built on pre-existing scientific traditions.

Ursula Verhoeven-van Elsbergen’s (Mainz) talk dealt with iterations in writing practices in Ancient Egypt, regarded both from an emic and an etic viewpoint. Egyptian textual traditions display an inner tension between two tendencies: on the one hand, the adherence of the copied text to the original, the importance of which is stressed in the sources themselves; on the other, scribes’ claims to their “avoidance of repetitiveness.” Recent sources analyses demonstrated that copies were carried out not only on the basis of written models but also through memorization. Depending on circumstances, different alterations or variations could modify the texts. A Middle-Egyptian rock-cut tomb decorated with graffiti belonging to different genres served as a case in point. She argued that formal variations were not random and did not result from lack of accuracy. Rather, they reveal copyists’ intentions, associations and ambitions.

Dieter Simon (Berlin), in his evening keynote speech, addressed institutional episteme in motion from the point of view of jurisprudence. He focused on an alleged paradox of justice: The ideal of justice presupposes an inalterability of law on the one hand and its adequacy to its contingent applications on the other. This abstract desideratum is constantly invalidated by reality. ‘Capricious nature’ (launische Natur), varying circumstances and the fluctuating nature of human condition and society, enforce continuous adaptation of norms and laws, that is, their constant modification. Simon made his point clear through a panoramic view of the history of jurisprudence from Justinian times to the present, pointing out that the developments of this discipline were always set in motion by the tension between the intended immunity of law from change and the necessity of its extension and revision, in the name of universal claims for justice.

Christoph Oliver Mayer (Dresden) tackled the problem of canonicity and canonization in the fields of literature and the arts. He reflected on the mise en scène of early-modern academic controversies as a strategy of institutional legitimation. As Mayer pointed out, the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes was not a single debate. Rather, it was a controversy over validity and legitimating criteria in literature and the arts. The real issue at stake was the renewal of the cultural canons within a ritualized institutional framework. Discussions over the canonical acceptability of Molière’s comedy École des femmes show that academic polemics in the age of Absolutism had a theater-like character; controversy became the acknowledged means to give credit to an author and his work and to push cultural changes. 17th century controversies centered around the Académie Française. It was ultimately the monarch who played the role of the external legitimizer and validator. In turn, academic activities conferred legitimacy to the absoluteness of the sovereign at a symbolic level. In this cultural-political climate, the model of cultural production and reproduction did not remain confined to literature, but equally informed the other arts, and expanded from Paris to the provincial academies.

Philip Kreyenbroek (Göttingen) treated iteration from the viewpoint of religious knowledge. He took the case of Zoroastrianism as an example of religious transfer and transformation in the passage from oral transmission to scripture. He considered the perception of the ancient sacred texts of Zoroastrianism at a time when they were orally transmitted as well as in later phases, when their written fixation and translation produced substantial cultural changes. In fact, the written fixation of religious texts during the Sassanian period (224-651 CE) was a response to a changing religious context of competing book religions, while the oral tradition kept its importance in the ritual context. A systematic theological approach did not emerge before the 9th century, but decreased with the marginalization of Zoroastrianism in Islamicate Iran. The shift from an oral to a written religion implied wide-ranging socio-cultural transformations: the modification of priestly authority, the shift of focus from content to practice (and back), the emergence of a systematical theology, of diverging interpretations, commentary practices, and schools. With this case study, Kreyenbroek illustrated the reciprocal influence between media and practices and the interconnection between modifications of religious knowledge and institutional and political changes.

Soon-Woo Chung (Seongnam) addressed the social-ideological meaning of sacrificial space in traditional Korean educational institutions, pointing out the political embedment of teaching and ritual. Under the last Korean dynasty (14th-19th century), educational institutions served two main functions: teaching and conducting sacrificial rituals. In particular, the sacrificial space was regarded as much more important than the teaching space in terms of rank and ideology. The main function of traditional educational institutions such as private academies in rural areas (seowon), local public schools (hyanggyo), or the National Confucian Academy (Sungkyunkwan) was to conduct sacrificial rituals. In public educational institutions, the State managed the sacrificial service in order to materialize the approved ideology. During all of the Joseon Dynasty (1392‐1910), the sacrificial service was an effective means that enforced and reproduced the same types of teachers, thoughts, and education. In private academies the performance of sacrificial service guaranteed the legitimacy of doctrines of every local academic faction and was a means for pre-modern elites to dominate local societies. Sacrificial service was a form of pre-modern education, which provided social order of rank and the model of ethical authority through repeated ritual acts.

Dagmar Schäfer (Berlin) discussed iteration generated by large-scale technology projects in 18th-century China through a case study. Under the emperor Yongzheng planning for crafts was used as a means to achieve political stability. In that context, the bureaucratization of manufacture achieved a new quality through a strict and efficient regulation of production. The prescription of models inspired from Chinese Antiquity aimed at the material and symbolic reproduction of the centralized socio-political system. At the same time the implementation of a system for large-scale material and cultural replication required the codification of knowledge, improvements in communication and a regulation of information flow. Hence, the ideal of iteration without transformation through mass production was a factor of knowledge transformation through a process of codification and regulation of practical knowledge.

Dhruv Raina (New Delhi) pointed to the role of politics and ideology in scientific transfer on the basis of the history of mathematics and mathematical teaching in nineteenth-century India. By the end of that century, the mathematical traditions on the Indian sub-continent had been exposed to and re-configured in more ways than one through the lenses of European science. Raina pointed to the interplay between the historicization of the antiquity of Indian mathematics and modern mathematics as it was developing in the West in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century. British indologists and mathematicians and their Indian interlocutors engaged with the nature and history of mathematical knowledge on the Indian sub‐continent to set the stage for the modernization of mathematics in India. This was the frame for subsequent generations of Indian and British mathematicians who established a dialogue for the engraftment of modern scientific knowledge onto a Sanskritic basis. Raina stressed that this intercultural historical engagement also had repercussions on British mathematical education in the nineteenth century.

Beate Fricke (Berkeley) dealt with the use of visual media in medieval astronomy and, vice versa, the influence of medieval astronomy on visual arts. Her talk began with reference to the probably oldest preserved representation of the Earth’s curvature, which can be found painted on the Feldbach Altar that has received little scholarly attention so far. Fricke placed the unusual choice of a cosmographical background showing the terrestrial curvature in the central panel of this altarpiece in the broad cultural-historical context of medieval astronomy. Specifically, she argued that the precise study of light – its reflection, refraction, bending and breaking – informed late medieval depictions of the world’s surface, generally in combination with a ‘top mounted’ horizon. The boundaries between cosmography and art merged with reciprocal disciplinary influences. She pointed especially to the repetition of a specific set of images in codices and painting during the Latin Middle Ages.

Valeska von Rosen (Bochum) adressed the issue of normativity and canonicity in religious paintings around 1600. She pointed out processes of redefinition of canonicity after they have been radically challenged. As a case study, she considered the reception of Caravaggio as a model and the appropriation of specific pictorial elements in Dutch paintings, although Caravaggio’s work was deeply rooted in the Italian context. In fact the latter’s religious paintings depended on the artistic and religious debates taking place in post-Tridentine Rome. They maintained their disruptive potential even after their transfer into a different cultural and confessional environment. His visual language was intensely exploited, used and negotiated. This was a process in which it was appropriated and integrated into new contexts.

All contributions to this conference, and the debates between the members of the Collaborative Research Centre and the guests, showed the fruitfulness of a renewed attention for institutions and institutional settings in the investigation of long-term epistemic change. The stereotyped view that institutions are incapable of supporting and fostering intellectual advance was definitively challenged. As a perspective, it will be expedient to abandon short-cut judgments such as that cold societies seek stability through institutions (Lévi-Strauss) or that creativity is exclusively possible outside institutions (Chomsky). The conference highlighted specific mechanisms of knowledge stabilization, transmission, and transformation occurring within ritualized social arrangements. Iteration proved a useful category in cultural history bridging between the two poles of tradition and innovation: the repetition of the same and the relentless change of canonical bodies of knowledge.