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June 8, 2017: Martin Kusch: From Völkerpsychologie to the Sociology of Knowledge

Nollet Experiment

Seminar of Historical Epistemology


Martin Kusch (Universität Wien)

From Völkerpsychologie to the Sociology of Knowledge

June 8, 2017, h. 2:00  p.m.

Room Enzo Paci, Directorate of Department of Philosophy, Via Festa del Perdono 7.



This talk is part of a broader project of trying to understand the emergence of various forms of relativism in 19th century German-speaking culture. My talk focuses on one key strand of this general theme, namely the links between the Völkerpsychologie of Lazarus and Steinthal, and Simmel’s early sociology of knowledge and belief. My central theses are as follows: 1) Lazarus and Steinthal wavered between a “strong” and “weak” programme of VP. Ingredients of the strong programme included: Epistemic, moral and methodological relativism; causal explanation of beliefs bases on causal laws; a focus on groups, interests, tradition, culture, and materiality; determinism; a self-referential model of institutions. 2) Elements constituting the weak programme were inter alia: the blurring of explanatory and normative interests; an emphasis on freedom of the will; anti-relativism; anti-materialism; opposition to Comte and Buckle, no reception of Spencer. 3) Later research projects keeping the label “Völker psychologie” followed the weak programme. 4) In the 1880s and ’90s, Simmel called for a return to the strong programme. Intellectually, Simmel was ideally placed to push for such radical enterprise. 5) The intellectual -social -political situation of German academia around 1900 explains why Simmel soon distanced himself from both VP and sociology.


The talk will be held in English.
Participation is strongly recommended to students of the Doctoral School in Philosophy and Human Sciences.
Attendance is free. All welcome.



I shall present a friendly criticism of the philosophical ambitions of various leading approaches of historical epistemology, especially those proposed by Lorraine Daston, Jürgen Renn, and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger. To do so, I shall first explicate the current philosophical understanding of ‘epistemology’ and its historical background in order to reveal what aspects had to be ignored, and what kind of historical-philosophical case studies to be carried out, in order to make historical epistemology look as attractive as it nowadays seems to many historians. Second, I analyze the philosophical aspirations of the programs of Daston, Renn, and Rheinberger. Third and finally, I compare the debate over historical epistemology with the debate over the pros and cons of naturalized epistemology after Quine. I use lessons learned from the latter debate in order to state seven challenges, some destructive, some constructive, in order to put the philosophical ambitions of historical epistemology on a more solid foundation.


08 June 2017
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