Research in Dialogue - Dialogue in Research: Interview with Professor Stéphane Van Damme

Europäisches Hochschulinstitut, Florenz
Brixius, Dorit

Dieser Beitrag ist hervorgegangen aus der Initiative von Doktoranden des Seminars für ‚History and Civilization' (HEC) am Europäischen Hochschulinstitut in Florenz. Ihr Projekt ‚Research in Dialogue – Dialogue in Research' wird herausgeben von Tilmann Kulke, Dorit Brixius, Ievgen Khvalkov, Florian Wagner und James White.
geschichte.transnational veröffentlicht in loser Folge Interviews, Literaturberichte und Forschungsergebnisse aus dem Bereich transnationaler und globaler Studien.

Interview with Professor Stéphane Van Damme
by by José Beltrán and Dorit Brixius, 15 October 2015*

Professor Van Damme, first at all, let us ask you: why the EUI? You lived and worked in France and the UK. What attracted you to the Institute, and how do you hope to contribute to the Institute’s status and academic life?
SVD: Before arriving at the EUI, I gathered much experience in French and British university systems, communicating in both French and English at both graduate and undergraduate levels. In France – at Paris I, the École Normale Supérieure, Paris VII and the EHESS Paris – this consisted of a strong experience at undergraduate level teaching, covering a wide range of topics in the History of Science. Since joining the Department of History at SciencesPo in 2009, my teaching experience has been focused on lectures in the History of Science within the programme Scientific Humanities, led by Bruno Latour. On the British side, I taught at the University of Oxford at the Modern History Faculty (replacing Pr. Robert Fox), lecturing mainly in the History of Science from the Renaissance to the twentieth century, and from 2007 at the University of Warwick where I was Associate Professor in Modern French History.
Being well aware of the specificities of the doctoral programme at the EUI, I would like to continue to make a significant contribution to teaching, research and administration throughout my stay in Florence. I especially wish to take the opportunity to enrich my experience of supervising and developing our European model within an international environment. Compared with my previous positions at SciencesPo in Paris or at the University of Warwick, at the EUI as professors, we have the opportunity to have a multi-cultural academic programme without a historiographical centre, neither an Anglo-American nor a continental one, which means that we have to translate and be attentive to these multi-cultural backgrounds. This is a very rich experience. I would even claim unique. This uniqueness needs to be advertised and understood rather than to be simply compared to job opportunities for researchers. The EUI is not an ordinary place, but a very special one. Besides the international and European side, I think it is also important to take into consideration the critical mass. For once, professors have the opportunity to have a large group of PhD students, which enables them to work together and think about or even invent what will be the future in the field.
Since my arrival at the EUI, it has been my aim to associate teaching with the research that motivated my application to the Institute. In the last two years, I taught departmental seminars on history and the social sciences, a training seminar on thesis writing, and a research seminar on the History of Science, stressing the global History of Science (‘Modern Science at large: the Culture of Curiosities’, which is a global history module taught together with my colleague Jorge Flores). I have encouraged the development of two working groups in the department: I sponsor the working group History of Science, and organize ‘conversations’ with eminent professors in the field in an interactive way (for example with Simon Schaffer or Jean-Marc Lévy-Leblond). I also sponsor the working group on Critical and Social Theory (as an extension of my seminar on history and the social sciences). On an interdepartmental level, it seems to me very important to develop interdisciplinary links in history and the social sciences. I have organized several events while keeping this idea in mind, notably a block-seminar in history and science studies in dialogue with the other disciplines of the EUI (Law, SPS and Economics).

In 2014, you published a monograph – the third of a trilogy – on what you have defined as ‘a cultural history of philosophy’.[1] It might seem striking to many people that a historian of science works in fields such as philosophy, instead of the traditional ‘hard disciplines’ – i.e. physics. You have also worked on antiquarianism and organized a conference on ghosts at the EUI in 2014, for instance. How do you conceive the History of Science, and therefore chose your objects of research?
SVD: By training, I am an Early Modern cultural historian with a speciality in the History of Science (I was trained by Daniel Roche and Roger Chartier in Paris). My research examines the multifaceted relations between early modern scientific knowledge and European culture between 1650 and 1850 by highlighting essential elements overlooked by Historians of Science, such as scientific centres (Lyon, Paris, London, Edinburgh, New York), the founding fathers of the Scientific Revolution (Descartes), paradigmatic disciplines (philosophy, natural history, antiquarianism, geography), and recently, imperial projects (North America, India). During my stay in the UK, I was struck by the broad definition of ‘science’ and the History of Science which could include the history of technology, history of medicine, or history of knowledge. Science is a problematic notion for the Early Modern period and that is precisely what we have to explore and not to consider it as a given object. By producing a radical contextualization, historians of science have the power to break with the genealogy of modern science where ‘hard sciences’ build the core. By so doing, one of the major issues is to position science vis à vis with philosophy. In 2014, I published a collection of essays on the history of philosophy, “A toutes voiles vers la vérité”, which explores the role played by (natural) philosophers in Old Regime societies. The distinction between philosophe and philosopher has often been linked to two different spheres of activity: on the one hand the publicist and man of letters, and on the other the scientist, scholar and natural philosopher. The intense dialogue between the history of philosophy, History of Science, and cultural history now allows historians to go further. But Enlightenment philosophy is not confined to writings and concepts – it can be seen at once as knowledge, social practice and a cultural object far exceeding the context of teaching in schools and universities. By importing methodological discussions from the social History of Science (part one), an urban History of Science (part two), the global History of Science, and finally political history, I aim to decipher the social and cultural density of philosophy in the Enlightenment – a density that is becoming also apparent beyond the traditional spaces where its production and reception seem most legitimate.

Together with a pragmatic sociology, the ‘cultural turn’ has certainly had an impact on your work. Perhaps you do define yourself as a cultural historian. We live a historiographical moment in which cultural history seems being increasingly put into question. Some even suggest its exhaustion as a way of making history. What is your opinion in that respect? Do you discern an end to the supremacy that the ‘cultural’ had enjoyed in the general field of history since the 1990s?
SVD: I do not have any problems with the cultural turn because I consider, like Chartier, the ‘cultural’ not as a field of social activities, but a new mode to question society. In my view, cultural history is still very enrooted in social history, which is why I am completely distant to the development of a form of ‘culturalism’ obsessed with notions like representation, imagination, memory, etc. Likewise, I consider the History of Science as a mode, not as a field: We are exhausted to constantly define what science is. Neither the reification nor the substantialisation are enough to encompass the variety of relations produced by the attention on nature. I see my works within the framework of a wider understanding of science, my conception of the History of Science branches out towards art and literary history. I have, for instance, thought in depth about literary material and issues in a historical perspective in my book on a trial over libertinism in 17th-century France (“L’Épreuve libertine”, 2008). In my forthcoming book, “Les Voyageurs du doute”, which addresses the geographical and anthropological dimensions of sceptical knowledge and libertinism in France between 1650 and 1780 (to be published in 2016), I also investigate the literary foundations, and expressions, of scepticism. In 2011, I organized with my colleagues Frédérique Aït-Touati (CNRS) and Rowan Tomlinson (University of Bristol) a conference at New College (Oxford) on the ‘Arts of Interpretation’. This gathering questioned the boundaries between art and science, by investigating interpretations both as an art and as type of knowledge or know-how.

In relation to that, you seem particularly concerned for the cultural and social dimensions of knowledge. A very important part of the transformation of the History of Science in the last three decades has been precisely to develop a sophisticated methodology in order to understand the role of social practices and actors in the making of knowledge. What are the gains, but also the deficits (if any, in your opinion) of this attention to social interactions, practices and places in the history of knowledge? Has this social or ‘pragmatic approach’ to science been done at the expenses of scientific ideas?
SVD: When I was in France, I did a lot to import and discuss a different kind of social sciences in history based on pragmatic sociology with Luc Boltansky or science studies with Bruno Latour. For me, qualitative sociology and anthropology of science are essential in my research. My conception of the History of Science as a social science questions the very notion of science and knowledge as such, which draws me to study disciplines that emerge at the frontiers of science, such as archaeology. In recent years, an intensive dialogue between historians of philosophy, historians of science and historians of literature and art has allowed a much more complex understanding of the emergence of modern science. As a consequence, the study of Enlightenment science is no longer confined to writings and concepts. Rather, science is studied both as knowledge and as a social practice that is a cultural object of which the impact far exceeds the contexts of its teaching in schools and universities. By importing methodological discussions from the social History of Science, the urban History of Science, the transnational History of Science, my research 1) captures the social and cultural density of knowledge in early modern societies, and 2) studies how new forms of science flowered outside of the spaces in which the production and reception of the established sciences were the most legitimate ones. In contrast to a genealogical approach based on the modernity of modern sciences and the idea of a Scientific Revolution, I adopt a more archaeological method dealing with an ‘Old Regime of sciences’. History of practices is not a History of Science by default, but another narrative, which counterbalances the idealistic intellectual history narrative.

Another strong element in your work is what we may call the location of science: you are very much interested in the relations between knowledge and cities, such as Paris, Edinburg or New York. In a moment when a ‘global’ or ‘cross-cultural’ turn is deeply influencing the research agendas of historians, how does this ‘urban’ perspective contribute to the historiographical debate?
SVD: As editor of Volume 1 of the “Histoire des sciences et des savoirs”, published this year by Le Seuil, and co-editor of “A Global History of Linnean Science” (forthcoming at the Voltaire Foundation, 2016), I explored new possibilities to produce master narratives in the History of Science, both by displacing the historical chronology focussed on the ‘old regime of science’ and by contrasting Early Modern sciences with the modernist paradigm. This has been achieved first by the attention paid to world-cities and science with my colleague Antonella Romano (EHESS). I also published a book on “Paris, scientific capital” (2005). I tried to answer the following question: Which role did knowledge play in the organisations, institutions and practices shaping of modern metropolis? The development of new cultural infrastructure (observatories, laboratories, libraries, botanic gardens), which characterised ‘big science’, had significant consequences for urban planning. Their localisation within large metropolises helped to identify capital cities as major centres of knowledge. It is a first attempt to come to terms with some of these questions. It explores the relationships between modern science and metropolitan identity at a time – during the Enlightenment – in which Paris was considered as an Enlightenment capital. The book traces how Paris attained this centrality within the competitive European space of Enlightenment. By analysing both practices and representations, and considering different ways in which urban spaces were appropriated, a new figure of a philosopher emerged at that time. This was represented in fictional images as well as in local identities. Paris was a laboratory for these new representations and practices. I argue that, at the turn of the eighteenth century, the profound change in the culture of mobility of intellectual elites helped to modify metropolitan culture by producing a shift from a conception of the classical city to a flowing and energized metaphor of modern capital described by Baudelaire. In this work, I tried to blend the cultural history of institutions with the history of material culture (instruments), with the history of cultural sociability, and with social history of urban elites.
In another book on the birth of Metropolitan archaeology, “Metropoles de papiers” (2012), I explore another perspective by investigating the role played by visual cognition and material practices, but also objects and artefacts in the recognition of the metropolitan past through the emergence of urban archaeological practices. Locating precisely the role played by modern sciences, and especially archaeology and both natural and human sciences, in this process of imposing a new collective representation of the city, is a way of contributing to the urban History of Science advocated in a special issue of the prestigious series “Osiris” in 2003. Today, by enlarging the geographical scope to not only include empires, but also through discussion with experts in Chinese, Indian or South Asian histories, I am developing a new interest to a more global perspective. I am currently working on natural history and natural philosophy in the Early American Republic, especially in New York State.

Let us draw your attention to the balance between academia and private life. You are not only an internationally recognised scholar but also a busy family dad. Many young scholars hesitate to have children and start an academic career at the same time. What would be your advice on how to combine research and family?
SVD: There is no tip, but a simple principle of generosity should guide both academia and private life. I think it is important to practice separate spheres, to have clear boundaries and to encourage young scholars to have a proper family life if they wish to, and not to wait until the end of the PhD, which tends to become the norm in our field. I defended my PhD with my two elder daughters.

Thank you very much for this very rich and personal interview.

[1] À toutes voiles vers la vérité. Une autres histoire de la philosophie au temps des Lumières, Paris 2014. The other two books are: Descartes. Essai d’histoire culturelle d’une grandeur philosophique (XVIIe-XXe siècle), Paris 2002; Paris, Capitale philosophique de la Fronde à la Révolution, Paris 2005.

* José Beltrán is a PhD candidate in History at the EUI, where he is completing a dissertation on the work of Father Charles Plumier (1646-1704) and the role that visual representations played in transatlantic enterprises of natural history in seventeenth-century France. Before coming to the EUI, he studied history at the universities of Alicante and Aix-Marseille, and History of Science at the CSIC in Madrid and the Centre Koyré of the EHESS in Paris.
Dorit Brixius is a PhD candidate at the EUI. She specialises in botany on eighteenth-century Isle de France (present-day Mauritius) and the island’s relation with the Indo-Pacific World. Before coming to the EUI, she undertook her studies at the University of Potsdam. She holds a BA in History and Anglo-American Studies and an MA in Early Modern Cultural History. While working on her dissertation, she has been a pre-doctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte Berlin and a visiting PhD student at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge.


Dorit Maria Nicola Brixius
PhD Researcher
Department of History and Civilization
European University Institute
Villa Schifanoia
Via Boccaccio 121
I-50133 Florence

Research in Dialogue - Dialogue in Research: Interview with Professor Stéphane Van Damme, 01.06.2015 Florenz, in: Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists, 31.10.2015, <>.
Editors Information
Published on
Regional Classification
Subject - Topic
Additional Informations
Language Contribution
Country Event