ASA Decennial Conference - Anthropology and Science

20th century physics, international human rights legislation, and conceptions of human agency

Contact Convenor: Stephanie Koerner

School of Art, History and Archaeology, University of Manchester
Oxford Road
Manchester M13 9PL

Tel: 0161 275 0300 

Panel abstract

The concept of agency has become the focus of a number of overlapping debates in anthropology, the history of the philosophy of science, and cross-disciplinary science studies. This may be due to the central roles this concept has played among the key foci of both the ‘critique of meta-narratives’ and influential models of ‘globalisation and multi-culturalism’.  It may also be due to the influences on these fields of anthropologically oriented science studies, which challenge a-historical notions of agency. A notable example is Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer's analysis of interrelationships between legal and scientific discourses: The Leviathan and the Air-Pump. Hobbes, Boyle and the Experimental Life (1985).

This panel explores the impacts on conceptions of agency of 20th century science and law. Papers have been invited, which touch upon the impacts of quantum physics, international law, and wider public discussions of science, ethics, ‘cultural identity’, and ‘human rights’. Several papers have bearing upon questions of whether experiences of discrepancies between legal and scientific ideals and actualities can make a difference, not just in the outcomes of particular events,  but in conjunctures in the ‘longue duree’. 

Selected References

Barnes, B. 2000. Understanding Agency: Social Theory and Responsible Action. London: SAGE Publications.

Castellani, E. (ed.) Interpreting Bodies: Classical and Quantum Objects in Modern Physics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Cowan, J.K., Dembour, M.-B., and Wilson, R. A.  (eds) 2001. Culture and Rights: Anthropological Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Husserl, E. [1936] 1970. The Crisis of European Science and Transcendent Phenomenology, trans. by D. Carr. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press.

Kusch, M. 2002. Knowledge by Agreement. The Programme of Communitarian Epistemology. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Latour, B. 1993. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Owens, D. 2000. Reason Without Freedom. London: Routledge.

Ratner, S.R. and Abrams, J.S. 1997. Accountability for Human Rights Atrocities in International Law: Beyond the Nuremberg Legacy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Shapin, S. and Schaffer, S. 1985. Leviathan and the Vacuum Pump. Hobbes, Boyle and the Experimental Life. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Toulmin, S. 1990. Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wilson, R. A. 1997. Human Rights, Culture and Context: An introduction. In R.A. Wilson (ed) Human Rights, Culture and Context. London: Pluto Press. 1-27. 

William Stevenson's quantum theory of subjectivity

James M.M. Good, University of Durham

Trained to doctoral level in both physics and psychology, William Stephenson was one of the pre-World War II pioneers of the use of factor analysis in educational testing and assessment. He is now best known for his work in developing Q-methodology, a technique for the assessment of meaning and shared knowledge. For much of his life, however, his abiding preoccupation was the development of a ‘science of subjectivity’ that was adequate to post-Einsteinian science.  In this task he embraced the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory and in particular Niels Bohr’s notion of complementarity. In this paper I will outline the nature and contemporary significance of Stephenson’s quantum theory of subjectivity.

Immateriality and governance: reconsidering Whitehead, agency and materiality
Victor Buchli, University College London

Recent developments in governance have shifted from a classical Foucaultian understanding of materiality in relation to agency and social control to one that is increasingly im-material rendering current understandings of  materiality and agency highly problematic .  This paper seeks to investigate this shift and its implications for our understandings of  materiality in general by re-examining the work of Alfred North Whitehead and the influences of 20th century physics on his work.

A framework of contingencies: agency and its 'twin concepts' (object, action, autonomy/freedom of will)

Elke Kurz-Milcke, Georgia Institute of Technology

As a concept, agency has been central to a broad range of scholarship and research domains, one of them artificial intelligence. Of course, it is not surprising that researchers in political science think differently about and with agency than those pursuing the development of AI/Intelligent Systems. That's almost trivial. However, what I would like to propose is a framework for the concept of agency that is more general and more specific than attributing one type of understanding to one field and another to another field. With this framework agency has a couple of 'twin concepts', specifically: agent, object, action, autonomy/freedom of will. How this framework gets interesting can be described by the metaphor of a stage, on which the 'actors' or “objects” stand in varying distances to the audience and to each other. When agency is in play, there is an agent somewhere on stage, actions are taken, objects are manipulated, and autonomy/free will raises its head. How these entities interact on stage, i.e., in a particular account of the mind or in AI or political science, characterizes the respective account in a particular way and, of course, can be analyzed to better understand the potential, limits and economy of the respective account.

Starting out from the what the concept of agency can contribute to research on and with intelligent systems. When I announced the idea of such a discussion a couple of month ago, it was paraphrased as: "...and Elke might do a discussion on agents". In a way, this description is correct, however, my contribution to the discussion will be to expound how agency is more than a property ascribed to an agent. I will emphasize the concept of agency as one in which different domains, scientific fields, and cultures intersect. I suggest that it is useful to acknowledge the fact of multiple meanings of a concept, in this case, agency, and I can contribute a framework of these meanings and how agents are implicated in this framework. The flip-side of this suggestion is, of course, that the notion of agent is part of a larger meaning structure, and, at least I think so, always points beyond itself to this larger structure.

Interpretations of native American-European histories

Colin Samson,University of Essex

Many recent historical studies of the Native American - European encounter in North America have rejected the popular notion that Native peoples were the victims of a legacy of conquest.  Instead, it is argued that these encounters have involved accommodation, resistance and exchange.  These often shaped 'cultural confluences,' which according to historian Colin Calloway, 'have been part of the give and take between conquered people and their conquerors.'  In this presentation, I would like to tease out the assumptions about culture, history and power that are contained within this reformulation of history, asking why it might be that non-Native North Americans are so keen to embrace notions of exchange or resistance.  I will contrast these approaches to those implicit or explicit in some recent Native American art and literature.

Archaeological heritage law

Penny English, Middlesex University

Archaeological heritage law, that is, legislation which defines certain elements of the past in the landscape as of particular significance, rests on assumptions about the physical universe. It not only defines this material but regulates its ownership and determines the extent to which the places may be used, altered or destroyed. Specific conceptions of what is meant by both time and space underlie the way law is applied. Archaeological sites embody both the spatial and the temporal. Such law defines a bounded and static site in the dimension of space. In seeking to ensure its preservation and conservation it seeks to freeze it at a given moment within the dynamic trajectory of time. Newtonian physics is therefore the foundation for the operation of the law.

However, much recent work in the social sciences generally, but perhaps particularly in geography has re-appraised the relationship between time and space (see, for example, Lefebvre, Soja,) The two are in a dynamic relationship with each other, and furthermore, cannot be divorced from a third element, the social. Space is constituted through social relationships, which exist in and through time. This brings the conception of time and space in the social sciences into parallel modes of thought as modern physics. Time and space are relational concepts, existing in a four-dimensional space-time and can no longer be defined as fixed and separate.

Moreover, the observer is no longer detached from the physical world but an actor within it. This has implications for the legal definition and regulation of rights over places of significance for the formation of cultural and social identities. Identity is not a passive consequence of a relationship with a place in time, but actively constituted in space-time.

Justice, history and memory in contemporary political discourses in central Europe

Zdenek Kavan, University of Sussex

Does history matter in contemporary politics of post-communist countries? This question forms the starting point for this paper. It will be concerned with how the process of radical change and democratization after 1989 developed historical dimensions and how not the just the communist past but also the pre-communist one began to generate conflicts and tensions with a whole range of demands - for justice, for compensation and restitution, for new forms of statehood and for democracy. The rapid collapse of the communist regimes and the public euphoria accompanying this generated a somewhat false impression of a new consensus which soon began to dissipate. New and old conflicts required new forms of legitimation and history proved a useful basis for such forms of legitimation. This, however, entailed high levels of politicization of history raising an interesting question regarding the tension between 'history' and 'politics'.  Does this politicization of history under new forms of democracy encourage greater plurality or does it support forms of authoritarianism and insistence on unified positions?

The concept of crimes against humanity

Norman Geras, University of Manchester

The paper provides some preliminary general background on the concept of crimes against humanity and then goes on to deal with one particular issue arising from the literature: the sense in which crimes against humanity may be reckoned to be, indeed, against humanity. It considers ten possible meanings of this idea, and offers an adjudication.

Human rights and human sciences: towards reconciliation between human rights morality, archaeological ethics and bioethics law

Samuel Hardy, University of Sheffield

I shall examine the implications of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and its application in the Council of Europe Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine (1997); from this, I will draw out a manifesto for change of the World Archaeological Congress’ Vermillion Accord on Human Remains (1989).

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights identifies the moral requirements for human action: by contrasting the Vermillion Accord on Human Remains with the Declaration we may identify where the Accord fails to uphold human rights and therefore enables and engages in human rights violations.

The Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine acts as a measure of the capacity for practical application of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: by contrasting the Vermillion Accord with the Convention we may demonstrate that the failures to uphold human rights are neither inevitable, nor necessary, nor excusable.  In addition, we may demonstrate that the interpretation of the Declaration that criticises the Accord is a logical, accepted, even orthodox interpretation and that the implications and applications proposed are in line with current law and practice in parallel fields.

I will assert that the ‘right to life, liberty and security of person’ and the ‘right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion’ are prior to and irreconcilably and irreplaceably different from the ‘right to freedom of opinion and expression… [and the right] to seek, receive and impart information and ideas’ (UDHR, 1948: art. 3, 18 and 19): put simply, the right to the sanctity of the grave is prior to the right to the study of the grave.

Feminist epistemology and testimony in legal contexts

Jan Kilby, Salford University

This contribution explores the relevance to several key issues posed by the panel of recent developments in feminist epistemology and testemony in legal contexts.

Contingency, necessity and the invisible things of the world in 20th century physics, art, and discussion of the status of ethics in epistemology and ontology

Stephanie Koerner and Simone Perks, University of Manchester

In recent years, contextual analyses of complex areas of overlap in the histories of art, science, and philosophy have been throwing interesting light on the replacement of the 'closed, fixed and finished' medieval world picture by the 'open and unfinished' universe (cf. Koyré 1968; Blumenberg 1983; Wilson 1995) . One of the questions posed is that of the roles played by new attitudes towards curiousity into 'the invisible things of the world' in changes that took place in beliefs about relationships between (a) the structure, composition and forces of the physical world and (b) human nature, history and knowledge, which involved new modes of conceptualising chance and necessity in an open and unfinished world.

Notably, the association of realms of subvisibila and supravisabilia with notions of chance and necessity, has not been limited to modern science and philosophy (for instance, Augustine’s [ca. AD 354-430] The City of God 1963). Joseph Leo Koerner (1998: 264) notes, in an article on the role of contingency in the works of Heronymous Bosch (d. 1516), that medieval Christian theologians "coined the term contingentia to express the ontological constitution of the world as it was created out of nothing, is sustained only through divine Will, and shall pass away.”  Bosch's paintings of subvisible and supravisible realms are briming with entitities that, according to Aristotelian logic, are impossible. For Bosch, Koerner (1998: 264) explains, the world that we inhabit is not the necessary source of all meaning and value; "it could just as well not have been, or been otherwise, and it owes its existence to god's unconditional being." Bosch’s pictures of the world in its constitution as that which could be otherwise, argue for contempt of the idolatry of worldly things.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of radical change in attitudes towards the extension of human beings’ empirical horizons to the replacement of the 'closed, fixed and finished' medieval world picture by the 'open and unfinished' universe. Blumenberg (1993), for instance, notes that the century to which Kant attributed the Copernican Revolution gave rise to change both in the evaluation and justification of curiosity with respect to its object (a curiosity which may have owed much to medieval discrimination against it) and in regards to what had hitherto been been seen as naturally withheld from human knowledge. With the abandonment of Ptolomeic cosmovision (and its conception of sources of meaning and value), early modern science and philosophy began to undermine previous notions of boundaries to human knowledge and especially to the will to knowledge - with powerful implications for the status of ethics in modern epistemology and ontology (cf. Arendt 1961; ). 

In this presentation, we explore the contributions that curiosity into 'the invisible things of the world' in 20th century physics, art, and philosophy might have made to change in conceptions of necessity, contingency, and the epistemic and ontic status of ethics.


Arendt, H. 1961 Between Past and Present. Eight Exercises in Political Thought  New York: Penguin Books.

Blumenberg, H. 1983. The Legitimation of the Modern Age, trans. R. M. Wallace. Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press.

Koerner, J.L. 1998. Bosch's Contingency. In G. v. Graevenitz, O. Marquard, and M. Christen (eds), Poetik and Hermenutik 17 (Kontingenz). Munich: Wilhem Fink Verlag, pp. 245-284. 

Koyré, A. 1968. From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press.

Wilson, C. 1995. The Invisible World Early Modern Philosophy and the Invention of the Microscope.  Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Discussant: Roy Willis, University of Edinburgh