Conference of the Société Française pour l’Histoire des Sciences de l’Homme (S.F.H.S.H.). Paris, September 2005

According to Auguste Comte’s famous law, mankind was supposed to have gone through three stages : theological, metaphysical, and positive. The reign of sciences (the ‘positive’ age) was supposed to take its origin at the very moment when men abandoned the religious stage of their existence after the transitional stage of ‘metaphysics’. The founder of positivism considered that the law did not apply only to natural sciences but also to the science of Humanity, which was the highest point of the positive knowledge, ‘Sociology’. The same Auguste Comte nevertheless founded with his disciples a Church, whose dogmas and rites were carefully written down under an openly admitted fascination with Catholicism.

This oversimplified summary shows the complexity of the relationship between the sciences of man and religious thought. The object of this conference is to organize different questions, to assess the current research on the topic, or even to question accepted ideas. By crossing epistemological questions and an original rigorous historiographic approach, different levels of discussion can be distinguished.

1. Science and religion. Confrontation and imitation

According to Comte’s scheme, it is generally admitted that the human sciences take their flight in Western societies when beliefs and religious frames become less important, not only in individual consciousness but also among institutions. The development of the human sciences implies a rationalization of knowledge which entails the development of our modern academic institutions. Within these, religion became one of the privileged objects of the young human sciences. A ‘science of religions’ proper developed, whereas psychiatry, psychology, history and sociology aimed at turning religion into something ‘religious’ but human and only human, submitted to neutral or would-be neutral approaches. These were logically considered as hostile to official religions, and so they were under the eyes of the scientists themselves. But such general considerations raise new questions and deserve mere subtle answers. As an example we can more openly question what has been often described, perhaps too hastily, as the warfare between the sciences of man and the limits to which religion tried to confine them. One of the most typical examples is probably the polygenist or evolutionary theories concerning the origins of man, and the consequences they had on the sciences of anthropology, ethnology, and prehistoric archaeology, problems which we know are not yet solved. But, if we may sometimes legitimately speak of struggle, we can also speak of borrowings, since the human sciences made use of and are still making use of some concepts and religious practices. Psychologists in the nineteenth century offered psychotherapies which were very similar to confessions, direction of conscience or cure of the soul. Academic institutions can also be studied themselves as the heirs of religious institutions, with their dogmas, rites, and hierarchy. Educational institutions, especially in France, inherited from a long clerical tradition. The actors on the academic stage, scholars or intellectuals, are bound together by common creeds which take sometimes the form of lay religions, so that scientism as well as free thinking were able to take the same form as the one which was adopted by their ideological opponents.

2 Religion and positive knowledge versus the sciences of man as messianism

Religious discourses, which also aim at the knowledge of the world, can both rest upon elements borrowed from data produced by the sciences of man and contribute to their development. It will be probably necessary to re-estimate the contribution of religious scholars to the development of human sciences in many fields. Famous cases exist concerning prehistoric archaeology and human palaeontology or, in a more distant time, ethnology and geography which rest upon the knowledge of missionaries. More recently, other missionaries contributed to the development of urban socio-ethnology or the sociology of labour. And if psychologists inherited practices from the priests, the latter, in their relationship to their congregations, may have drawn inversely part of their experience from psychologists or psychoanalysts, or may have become themselves psychologists and psychoanalysts. The border line between the apologetic and the political dimensions of scientific discourses is porous and calls for more detailed studies. But the actors of human sciences may have themselves been inspired by apologetic ends. The sciences of man, as well as religions, aimed sometimes at reforming man and society. One of the openly admitted objectives of the founders of sociology was to present theoretically to the understanding and render practically possible a society where religion and the ethical prescriptions it conveyed had disappeared. One should not be surprised by their propensity in the course of the nineteenth century to found churches or chapels and publish catechisms. Marxism could be considered as the last messianist movement of the Western world, and in the same way psychoanalysis may have been viewed as a movement which offered a new faith and a new form of spirituality. Such questions have been carefully studied, but they still deserve to be discussed.

3 The theological foundations of the sciences of man and the practical limits of rationality

In the last instance, the very status of the discourse of the sciences of man could be questioned from the standpoint of religious thought. The most relevant examples can paradoxically be found in the most advanced fields of knowledge from an analytical standpoint : could we not assert polemically that political economy and psychology have both become in a way contemporary theological forms ? Is not pedagogy, in its very attempts to become scientific, still resting on religious conceptions, in spite of the proclamations of neutrality of most of its exponents ? A careful reading of authors and trends of thought in these disciplines often reveals the religious foundations of their thought, sometimes implicit, sometimes quite explicit. Practices stemming from the human sciences and claimed to be rational are still today competing with other practices which are avowedly magical or religious. The confrontation is obvious in the sphere of psychology, where there often exists a direct competition between the practitioner and the priest, the marabout and the clairvoyant, provided the former does not himself build up some form of theoretical syncretism, such as the one which is proposed by ethno-psychiatry. But recent sociological studies on the Stock Exchange show that magical practices are also here competing against rational religious practices. What should we think of the new forms of management inspired by ‘new age’ forms of religiosity ? On such issues many fields remain to be explored.

4 Space and time

The themes concern every human science, in various and often intertwined modes. They rest mostly on the history of the Western Christian world, but comparative investigations in other cultural and religious spheres are welcome. As far as time is concerned, the Conference intends to treat such themes on a wide temporal scope, from the Renaissance or even before to our present days. Treating this temporal scheme, as is often done, as a linear western movement of secularisation of knowledge, here again according to Comte’s scheme, calls for new shades of meaning and new questions.

The Conference will take place in Paris, from September 21st to 23rd.

Proposals for papers (one or two pages) must be addressed before January 15th 2005 by post to SFHSH, Centre Koyré, Pavillon Chevreul, 57 Rue Cuvier, 75231, Paris Cedex 05,or by e-mail to Jacqueline Carroy, [email protected] or Nathalie Richard [email protected].

Scientific Committee :

Daniel Becquemont, Philippe Boutry, Jean-François Braunstein, Alain Caillé, Jacqueline Carroy, Pietro Corsi, Marcel Gauchet, Rita Hermon-Belot, Danièle Hervieu-Léger, Dominique Ottavi, Philippe Régnier, Nathalie Richard, Jean-Marc Rohrbasser, Antonella Romano, Philippe Steiner, Wiktor Stoczkowski, Camille Tarot, François Vatin, Fernando Vidal.