6a Understandings of Scientific Autonomy and of the Societal Responsibility of Science in Science Novels from Three National Variants of the Culture of Modernity

Research team: Uwe Schimank and Fabian Hempel

This project undertakes a critical examination of cultural differences in the conceptions of the autonomy of science as they are manifested in science novels from the U.S., Germany and India. The idea of an autonomous science has become an integral element of the Western culture of modernity. This culture of modernity is not, however, uniform everywhere in the West. Instead, it has several distinct national variants that are connected to key ideas of modernity (Münch 1986). This is well documented for the basic idea of individual freedom, and it is plausible to assume that it applies to sphere-specific freedoms as well, such as the freedom of an individual scientist to make decisions about how and what she researches. In Germany, the notion of ”inner freedom” dominates, whereas in the U.S., the notion of “exterior freedom” takes precedence.1 There is a corresponding difference in the understanding of responsibility. Responsibility in German culture means, above all, that society has a responsibility to provide everybody with the means for a decent living and includes the notion of “inner freedom;” in return, the individual is obliged to contribute to the common good. In US culture, society has no such responsibility or moral obligation for individuals’ pursuit of happiness.

These considerations lead to the research question that guides the first step of this project: How are these profound, albeit simplified differences reflected in the respective national understandings of scientific freedom and the societal responsibility of science? In order to answer this question, we compare science novels set in Germany and the U.S., and written by German and American authors, from a sociological perspective that is informed by theories of functional differentiation of modernity. We will compare the ways that scientific autonomy and science’s societal responsibility are treated in the novels, and whether scientific autonomy endangered by societal forces such as the economy or politics is stressed over scientific autonomy endangering other societal spheres and the individual’s conduct of life. In a second step, science novels that are written and set in India and written by Indian authors will be included in the comparison in order to assess how and in what form, in the wake of the globalization of Western ideas since the late 18th century and the subsequent formation of “multiple modernities” (Eisenstadt 2002), these diverse western-based notions of scientific freedom appear in the context of a non-Western modern culture. Examples of the corpus include Ein Tiefer Fall by Bernhard Kegel (2012) and Die Vermessung der Welt by Daniel Kehlmann (2005) for the German case; Intuition by Allegra Goodman (2006) and the Science in the Capital Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson (2005-7) for the U.S. case; and Helium by Jaspreet Singh (2013) and Serious Men by Manu Joseph (2010).

1 The German understanding, founded in Lutheran Protestantism and Kantian idealism, sees the core of freedom in the idea that as long as one can think whatever one wants, one is free. In contrast, the Anglophone understanding of freedom emphasizes “exterior freedom” of action in the tradition of the French enlightenment and British liberalism. To be able to do what one wants openly and without interference by othersespecially by state authoritiesis the essence of this kind of freedom.