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he University of Lorraine (Nancy, France) is organizing an interdisciplinary conference to explore the relationship between knowledge and political power from the 18th century to today. Abstracts are due June 24th; in-person presentations are encouraged but arrangements for remote presentations are possible.

Dating back to the beginnings of Greek democracy and the Platonic conception of the philosopher king, the relations between power and knowledge have recently come back to the fore with the rise of populism or the sanitary crisis. Whether an obstacle to democracy, a means for citizens to control their representatives or a vehicle for regenerating democracy (Mounk, 2018), knowledge now appears, more than ever before, as a constitutive feature of government.

This interdisciplinary conference will seek to explore the implications of such relations since the 18th century and to examine to what extent knowledge may establish, legitimize or discredit the forms and figures of political power.

Alongside the democratic ideal, the specialisation and secularisation of knowledge during the Enlightenment gave rise to conceptions of a social order based on knowledge, be it Robert Owen’s utopian schemes, Comtean positivism or the clerisy called for by S. T. Coleridge. As mass democracy spurred the growth and influence of political parties, debating societies and think tanks appeared with the aim of influencing political decision-makers as well as public opinion, precipitating reforms and asserting the dominance of thought over action (Stone & Denham, 2004; Landry, 2021). In the liberal and democratic project, education has come to represent a valuable means of promoting citizenship for reformers ranging from philanthropists, socialists and liberals, to philosophical traditions such as British idealism or American pragmatism (Tyler, 2006; Dewey, 1916). On a broader scale, cultural critics or intellectuals have invoked their learning or expertise to purportedly counterbalance institutional power or to exert influence in the public sphere.

That knowledge may imply coercion has been the butt of criticism from multiple traditions. Together with the poststructuralist movement inspired by Michel Foucault or cultural studies, critics of modernity such as Eric Voegelin, hostile to what he deemed a gnostic conception of power, or Carl Schmitt, for whom Hegel’s philosophy implied an “educational dictatorship”, have concurred in their questioning of Enlightenment optimism, dismissing knowledge as a necessary condition for progress and holding it to be the locus of a political struggle.

The debate has been central to the theorization of disciplines, understood as fields of knowledge that presuppose the existence of “disciples” and therefore some form of authority (Moran, 2002). If the specialisation of knowledge seems inevitably linked to the world being perceived as increasingly complex, what are the checks on experts’ judgements? Can a government reliant on specialised knowledge be genuinely democratic? Can philosophy, as Nietzsche would have it, challenge the claims of objectivity and disinterestedness voiced by “we, scholars”? Or should principles and values regulating knowledge and information in the public sphere be formulated to overcome the current “epistemic tribalism” underlying the surge in disinformation and conspiracy theories (Rauch, 2021)?

Knowledge also stands at the intersection of political power, economic and social policies and ideologies. New Labour governments, for instance, claimed to base their agenda on the knowledge economy while fostering a brand of governance dubbed by some as technocratic or managerial (Dillow, 2007; Parry & Protherough, 2002). On this view, the crisis of democracy has been assumed to originate in an intellectual elite’s promotion of identities, amounting to « the critical demolition of foundationalism » (Lasch, 1995), or in a system giving birth to « a bloated cognitive class » (Goodhart, 2021). More fundamentally, the Hayekian critique of constructivist rationalism set out in « The Use of Knowledge in Society » (Hayek, 2014) and the Keynesian conception of economic policy (Dow & Hillard, 1995) paved the way for an ongoing debate over the possibility of knowledge serving both social justice and liberty in a democratic regime.

With an interdisciplinary approach, the conference will welcome proposals dealing with the relations between knowledge and power from the 18th century to today: papers can address the history of political and/or economic ideas, intellectual, cultural and political history or political science and sociology. In-person presentations, in English or in French, will be encouraged but arrangements for remote delivery may be made. A selected number of papers may be published.

Papers may discuss, but are not limited to:

Please send proposals in English or in French (300 words maximum) and a short biography to and by 24th June 2022. You will be notified early July about the committee’s decision.

Last modified 8 May 2022