Science and Philosophy Between Academia and the Public Sphere

Michael Hagner

Illusions, while a source of courage, strength and consolation, can also be dangerous. One task of science and philosophy is thus to shed light on them. Without illusions, reason could never have achieved the successes we associate today with the so-called scientific revolution and the sociopolitical enlightenment of the 18th century: insight into our place in the cosmos (Copernican turn), the universal laws governing the physical world (Newtonianism, theory of relativity, quantum mechanics), and the developmental principles common to all life forms (theory of evolution, genetics). Much the same holds true for improvements in social and physical living conditions, including the challenge to despotism posed by the separation of powers, a substantial reduction in hunger due to increased crop yields, the containment of infectious disease, etc.

In Western societies, the “enlightenment mentality” appears to be under threat. Technological achievements, which largely owe their existence to this mentality, can be turned against it — the internet, for example, which makes accessible vast quantities of knowledge while also offering platforms for the rapid dissemination of untruths, myths and conspiracy theories. It is therefore vital that science and philosophy combat anti-enlightenment tendencies in public, while meeting the academic standards set by scholars. Scientists and philosophers can be easily seduced into oversimplifying complex ideas when they are responding to a widely felt need for the world to be interpreted and made meaningful, and may encourage a lack of critical thinking. And the need for meaning fosters a climate conducive to the flourishing of illusions.

By “opening spaces for thought and keeping them open,” we create a philosophy that understands itself as both an ally of scientific skepticism and an advocate of a human need for meaning. The Science and Philosophy Between Academia and the Public Sphere project endeavors to provide a historical, systematic and problem-oriented reconstruction of a corresponding conception of critical thinking. How critical thinking can retain its critical and self-critical edge in the public sphere is therefore one of the project’s key questions. It also indirectly touches on the science communication strategies employed on a large scale by university PR departments today. No less relevant in this context is the media, both old and new, which constitute their own public spheres.

Particular attention will be paid to the form of knowledge and critique cultivated in the classical feuilleton, guided by the working hypothesis that the linguistically differentiated feuilleton typically seeks (or sought) to open spaces for thought and keep them open, rather than submitting to a binary, quasi-dogmatic logic of “either/or.” Further excursions into the history of ideas (Fichte, Schopenhauer, Marx, Dilthey, Nietzsche, Dewey, Max Weber, Heidegger and Rorty, among others) will extend the problem-oriented and systematic line of inquiry, contributing to the debate within the fields of science and philosophy and also addressing a non-academic public. In addition, the project will explore the intersection between historical-epistemological science studies and philosophy.

The project is being led by Michael Hagner, Michael Hampe and Uwe Justus Wenzel at ETH Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland.