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Progress & Decline in the History of Political Thought

10thAnnual London Graduate Conference in the History of Political Thought

20-21 June 2019, London

Keynote address: Prof. Richard Whatmore (St. Andrews)

Notions of progress and decline permeate contemporary debates. Positions on issues ranging from war, to democracy, trade, environmentalism, or gay marriage, are habitually justified in terms of their impact on the human condition. Current warnings of democratic decline and of the general retreat of the ‘West’, imply a notion of progress that rests on moderate liberal politics, free trade, cooperation, and multiculturalism. The Chinese model of economic growth and political repression has raised questions about the nature of progress and its relationship to political liberty, while Alexa and Siri push us to probe the impact of technology and artificial intelligence on the betterment of human life. This year, Steven Pinker’s highly controversial Enlightenment Now brought back in the spotlight notions of human progress as the advance of reason and science. But perhaps even more so, it highlighted the need for a historically informed discussion of progress and decline. Such is the ambition of this conference.

Visions of history as the incremental improvement of mankind are often associated with modernity and Enlightenment thinkers like Immanuel Kant, but conceptions of development and decay have been ubiquitous across history. The intersections between moral corruption and political decline preoccupied thinkers as diverse as Polybius and Cicero, or Machiavelli, Montesquieu, and Gibbon. For much of the Middle Ages, European religious thought rested on a model of progressive Christian teleology – a notion challenged by Renaissance writers like Guicciardini. Condorcet famously constructed a historical narrative of the progress of the human mind and believed, with Germaine de Staël and others, in the promise of mathematics and calculus to bring precision to socio-political conflicts, thus fuelling progress. Mary Wollstonecraft, John Stuart Mill, and others, raised the question of the situation of women as a matter of the moral and political betterment of humankind. Whether wealth – and later, the rise of commerce – improved or corrupted society was a question of importance to Aristotle, Rousseau, Smith and Hume, to note but a few. On the other hand, critics of imperialism, from J.G. Herder to Edward Said and Chinua Achebe, have interrogated Eurocentric assumptions about progress. In the shadow of two world wars, thinkers like Arendt and Adorno warned of the dangers of the idea of progress, while others, like Amartya Sen have challenged the ways in which global development agendas of organisations like the United Nations have tended to conflate progress with GDP.

From Hesiod to Fukuyama, history is replete with different understandings of the nature, possibility, trajectory, or extent of progress and decline. Such understandings have often underpinned the very conceptualisations of history – cyclical, Whig, teleological, and others. This conference, then, intends to investigate both the nature of the notions of progress and decline in history, and their impact on the conceptualisation of history as such.

We invite submissions from graduate researchers in intellectual history or related disciplines, drawing from different genres of writing, periods, and places, on topics including, but not limited to:

  • Ideas of progress/decline in the arts and sciences; ideas of golden ages and renaissance;
  • Notions of progress/decline as they relate to science, medicine, technology, and AI;
  • The relationship between religion, morality, and progress/decline;
  • Notions of progress and perfectibility; individual and collective betterment;
  • Understandings of corruption and other causes of progress/decline (constitutional, cultural, environmental, demographic, etc);
  • Challenges to Western-centric ideas of progress; ideas of stability and stagnation;
  • Engineering and measuring progress/decline;
  • The impact of these notions on understandings of history.

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