The Paris IAS positions itself as an institution and as an approach that is both an intellectual and a scientific project. Like the other Institutes for Advanced Study, the Paris IAS acts as a host institution for excellent senior and junior researchers, and therefore seeks to bring in outstanding researchers to work with the social science networks of the Paris region and the rest of France.
Nevertheless, it cannot fulfil this role without also taking part in the development of the humanities and social sciences (HSS) by advocating a clear scientific approach. This approach must be adapted to the specific characteristics of the Paris IAS location, while fitting with the current rationale for the development of HSS. Given the wide range of research institutions and their broad scope, the Paris IAS would be unable to objectively select and support a single precise research theme that would be pertinent for all fields. Conversely, displaying and advocating a scientific rationale for the support and dissemination of HSS research is part of the Paris IAS mission if it indeed defines itself as an actor in scientific development.
In its heyday, Fernand Braudel’s project was an attempt to federate the humanities and social sciences. This endeavour harnessed impressive means to create the necessary institutions. However, the era of totalising ambitions is now over. For a long time, Marxism held a favoured position in the intellectual realm, but it, too, failed to escape a profound disaffection. More generally, the structuralist orientation – one of the dominant features of the social sciences in the 1960s and 1970s – was also called into question due to its difficulties in providing an adequate explanation for social change.
Paris is heir to an intellectual tradition made even richer by its geographic concentration, which is in turn partly due to the centralisation of the French State. While Paris has lost its central position in today’s globalised academic world, it has held onto its exceptional potential as a centre for research and learning. The times have changed, especially with intellectual exchanges taking place on an international basis. National research traditions are forced to adapt. Nowadays, merely having a long history is not enough to bring disciplines together in an organised fashion. We observe that there is simply no doctrine or conception that clearly stands out for its ability to explain the humanities and social sciences. All these factors argue in favour of developing a global HSS culture, driven by the potential for increasingly rich dialogue and collaboration.
In the current period, the humanities and social sciences must avoid the pitfalls not only of “impressionist essayism”, but also of pure technical expertise. Hence the need to reflect on the types of explanations that are appropriate in HSS. To achieve this, we must maintain a continuous effort to position ourselves in relation with the major challenges facing not only the humanities and social sciences, but also the period that they are developing in. We must reject the belief that the humanities and social sciences are destined never to reach maturity and can only be grounded in an impoverished conception of causality. Such a way of thinking must combine three dimensions:
A relationship with history: The search for knowledge, in any discipline, can never be separated from the demand for, and production of, intelligibility in the traces and memory of the past. Not only do the social sciences have an interest in history, but their contribution to history is still a critical question. Any ambitious culture-driven scientific approach must face the insurmountable presence of history.
An interest in modelling, which historians have integrated for a long time now, as it is clear that history cannot be written through pure narration. Nevertheless, we must question the fruitfulness and limits of models considered as analytical tools and not theoretical perspectives.
Integration of the humanities: A crucial question these days is what the social sciences can derive from the humanities, and how the humanities can be reintegrated into a social science perspective. To do so, we must avoid considering “traditional culture” (conveyed by the humanities) to be opposed to a social science culture.
The question is not to pursue a fictitious unity of the humanities and social sciences. No science is based on a single paradigm, and the social sciences employ several paradigms. This obviously leads to difficulties in communication between the different disciplines, but looking at the rationale behind their development, we see that none of them would gain from being isolated in a “disciplinary ghetto”. A pluralistic approach to research must be upheld. This is why one of the Paris IAS strong ambitions is to play a useful role in the production of transdisciplinary paradigms, or at least, general frameworks of reference where different disciplines can meet without losing their specific features.
One fruitful path for thought would be to consider action and a theory of action. The question of action has clearly become dominant, even if this shared term covers very different research perspectives. While action is of as much interest to the economist as to the sociologist, it is obviously also a relevant question for the historian or the philosopher. After all, isn’t analytical philosophy to some extent a reflection on action? Once we abandon the outdated opposition of “determinism versus liberty” and adopt more realistic approaches, we realise that determination and partial autonomy are not incompatible. Taking into account the weight of social structures without ignoring social actors is one of the fertile dimensions for explanation in HSS. The question of action has the merit of reminding us that, while all action involves intentions and capacity, it is also linked to the conditions for its exercise. Indeed, the role of action is to explain how these conditions are combined.
Moreover, social action does not consist solely of observable behaviour; it also implies casting light on the meaning that actors give to their own situations and thus to their own actions. This inevitably raises the question of the cognitive capacity of social actors. The development of the “cognitive sciences” since the 1950s has demonstrated the urgency of forging a “new alliance” between HSS and the natural sciences (particularly the life sciences), or at least endeavouring to understand how these various sciences interact. The interest is twofold: firstly, the cognitive paradigm can favour an understanding of cognition in the social sciences, and secondly, the social sciences can open up a debate within the sometimes very mechanical approach of the natural sciences.
In this regard, we see that the Paris IAS must be both an instrument and an actor in an “open” thought process. In other words, one that never refuses confrontation or dialogue, with the sole precondition of applying intellectual rigour and honesty to the only valid objective: acquiring knowledge. Lastly, given its institutional position, which is the foundation for its independence, the Paris IAS can also be a venue for cooperation between the numerous entities that take part in the production of outstanding HSS research, while at the same time fostering the coordination and networking that have now become integral parts of an innovative scientific policy.
As an instrument and an actor in HSS research policy, the Paris IAS must also become a meeting place for knowledge and researchers from many disciplines.
Director of the Paris IAS
Professor at École Normale Supérieure, Cachan