by Kim Hajek
In early September, Anne Por (PhD candidate) and Kim Hajek (postdoc) from the Scholarly Vices Team joined forces with Maarten Derksen (University of Groningen) for a conference panel exploring the virtues and norms that shape scholars interactions with their peers. The setting was the 41st annual meeting of the European Society for the History of the Human Sciences (ESHHS) held in Berlin at the Sigmund Freud PrivatUniversität. In a well-attended session, Derksen, Por, and Hajek took up the question of scholarly virtue and vice from the angle of how scholars were supposed to interact with one another in informal settings across several centuries and various Western national contexts.
Derksen’s opening paper introduced the two key lines of analysis for the panel: conversation as a practice, and psychology as both a practice and a field of enquiry. Conversation, Derksen argued, can be considered to function along a continuum between the robust criticism of parrhesia (of the Cynics) and the cultivated politeness of Enlightenment salons. He briefly examined the ways Edward B. Titchener attempted to frame his ‘club of experimentalists’ as a place where selected insiders could engage in entirely frank debate, centred around the material instruments of the hosting laboratory. The recent ‘tone debate’ on Twitter relating to psychology’s replication crisis formed another key case-study from which Derksen developed his plans for a larger study of scholarly conversation.
Por continued the focus on conversation, but jumped backwards in time to explore the way students at 18th- and 19th-century German universities were encouraged to use such informal interactions to ‘calibrate’ their inner experiences and sentiments. In introductory courses, known as Hodegetik, and associated hodegetical handbooks, psychology was presented, in part, as a practice of self-cultivation; hodegetical authors used metaphorical imagery and implicit classification systems to inculcate a connection between body, feelings, and language in their student readers. Students could learn to see certain feelings, such as boredom, as vicious (or at least, less virtuous), while at the same time they learned to match certain bodily sensations to the language describing such feelings. As Por remarked, hodegetical texts instantiate only one form of such self-calibration between body, feelings, and language—other practices sharing a certain ‘family resemblance’ can be traced both backwards and forwards in time.
In the second half of the 20th century, psychology students were expected to read another text genre in the form of codes of ethics, as formulated by national psychological associations. Hajek’s paper closed the panel by asking what such standardising texts have to say about how psychologist-scholars have been assumed and encouraged to interact with their peers and students. Hajek presented codes of ethics from c.a. 1960 and c.a. the 1990s in three national contexts—USA, France, the Netherlands—all of which are surprisingly silent on the virtues or behaviours expected of psychologist-scholars, despite explicitly including scholarly roles (scientist, teacher, researcher) in their scope. Certain characteristics of scholarly interaction might be read between the lines, Hajek proposed, or inferred from the verbal weight given to different statements (e.g. ‘must’ vs. ‘it is encouraged’).
Discussion after all three papers was lively and engaged—an instance of semi-formal scholarly conversation working as desired. All ESHHS conference participants agreed, however, on the irreplaceable value of holding embodied and informal conversations over coffee breaks and lunches, or sitting in the pleasant late-summer sun.