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Conference Information

Full Title: Nomadic Concepts: Biological Concepts and their Careers Beyond Biology

Location: Marburg, Germany
Start Date: 18-Oct-2012 - 19-Oct-2012
Contact: Jan Surman
Meeting Email: click here to access email
Meeting Description: 2nd Annual Conference of the Leibniz Graduate School for Cultures of Knowledge in Central European Transnational Contexts in cooperation with the Department of History, Central European University in Budapest

Venue: Herder Institute for the History of East-Central Europe


Peter Haslinger (Herder Institute, Marburg)
Katalin Straner (CEU Budapest)
Jan Surman (Warsaw)

Renewed interest in the role of language in the history of natural sciences has, in the last years, brought fresh insight into the mechanisms of cultural and conceptual transfer both be­tween science and non-scientific knowledge and across disciplines. While this research has pre­dominantly concentrated on transgressions between literature and science, the textual and terminological side of these exchanges has been given less attention. Following the ideas of ‘nomadic’ and ‘traveling’ concepts (Isabelle Stengers, Mieke Bal) our aim is to follow concepts in the divergent (disciplinary, ‘national,’ knowledge) cultures, observing and engaging with interactions between term, content and the linguistic environment. Using examples of biological terms/concepts, we seek to inquire how the exchanges with various, at first sight disconnected, fields and disciplines like religion, vernacular language, arts and literature have affected the form and content of these formations, and led to their modification, renaming, or differentiation from the original idea.

Studies in the language of science have demonstrated how the professionalization and solidification of scientific reasoning in the nineteenth century resulted in what is often viewed as a disciplinary closure: the formation of disciplinary-specific vocabularies as well as the ‘objectivising’ metaphors concerned with the changes of philosophical presuppositions (Daston/Galison 2008). The increasingly universalist view of scientific thought, and the particularist notions often embodied in the processes of the creation of national and/or disciplinary sets of terminologies and vocabularies have together created new narratives heavily imbued with various interdisciplinary references. In the biological sciences Charles Darwin or Jacques Monod, in chemistry Lavoisier, in physics Heinrich Kayser and Werner Heisenberg engaged in an intensive dialogue with non-scientific fields in order to literalize their scientific findings. Notwithstanding the trends to present ‘objective’ knowledge through specialized and aloof language, scientists use concepts from literature or religion to support and substantiate their claims, and often also to visualize them and make them fit in the theoretical frameworks they work in. (Dörries 2002, Latour 2002, Gross 2002, 2006, Steinle 2006, Eggers/Rothe 2009).

At the same time, however, conceptual instruments of biology have entered the public discourse, arts and neighboring disciplines. Darwin’s language, for instance, influenced through Spencer, the political imagination of the late nineteenth-early twentieth centuries; the concepts of organism or tissue were employed in fields like sociology or architecture. Through their linguistic restrains, some concepts have been retained in some languages but not in others: the concept of milieu, for instance, is widely employed in French and German, but the use of this term remains limited in other languages - having different terms denoting the same concept alters its connotations and thus the concept itself. The conceptual and terminological trajectories of the language of bacteriology and the language of politics were diametrically different between, for example, German and French, despite parallel scientific backgrounds - while the first was militant, the second remained pacifistic. The borrowings of biological concepts and vocabulary thus remain largely language-based, developing distinct, partially divergent trajectories.
Linguistic Subfield: Discourse Analysis; Historical Linguistics; Sociolinguistics
LL Issue: 23.2355

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