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Cultural History Association, Self-Determination and Power, Realism and the Human Sciences Conference, 8-11 September 1989

For some years the Cultural History Group of Aberdeen
University has held an annual cultural history conference in
June, which brings together students and researchers from
various countries around topics as widespread as the Scottish
Enlightenment, the culture of revolution and the methods and
import of cultural history itself. The atmosphere of the events
has reflected the spirit of cultural history as an approach, as
well as the enthusiasm of the group running them. People
interested in each others’ varying disciplinary approaches
work together to fathom the mystery of a wide variety of
human situations: from the strange 17th-century set of rules
for dining in the refectory laid down in verse by the college
proctor; to the role of modernism in post-revolutionary soviet
culture; to the political balance between catholicism and protestantism in post-war Holland.

The participants at these annual events reflect the confidence (expounded at this year’s conference by the noted
Leibnitz scholar, Olga Pembo) that cultural history has something special to offer to the meeting of minds across cultural,
historical and discipline boundaries. Aware both of this growing confidence and an increasing European dimension to the
issues, this year’s conference members agreed to try to set up
a European Cultural History Association. The project intended to link cultural historians in different countries is
likely to get under way early this year. More details from Joan
Pittock at the Faculty of Arts, Taylor Building, University of
Aberdeen, Aberdeen AB9 2TW.

Noel Parker

The Pearce Institute in Govan attracted a wide variety of
participants to the ‘Self-Determination and Power’ event it
hosted in January. Writers, academics, and political activists
congregated for what promised to be a rare chance to debate
contemporary social, cultural, and political issues. Shunning
the guru role inevitably forced upon him, Noam Chomsky
took the audience on a whistlestop tour of his libertarian
philosophical and political views, and George Davie made
some interesting connections between the Scottish commonsense tradition and Chomsky’s own approach. But many were
disappointed at the atmosphere of complacency which prevailed. Although a host of competing interests were represented – nationalists, liberals, anarchists, and socialists – the
differences between them were rarely explored. There was
broad agreement that self-determination and power are good
things which people don’t have, but little discussion about
what they mean, why they are wanted, and how they can be

‘Self-Determination and Power’ is to be praised for
providing a platform which exceeds the usual political
agenda; the proceedings were recorded and a book is planned.

B ut it also revealed the necessity to reassess political and
social goals and motivations. Scottish Child, which organised

Radical Philosophy 55, Summer 1990

the event together with the Edinburgh Review and the Glasgow Free University, offered the romantic image of future
generations as a reason for present struggle, but it seems that
a more coherent and immediate paradigm is urgently required
if the winds of change presently causing structural damage in
Europe are not merely to dislodge a few tiles at home.

Sadie Plant

8-11 September 1989
This year’s conference, capably organised by Maureen
Ramsay and Colin Divall at Manchester Polytechnic, had the
overall theme ‘What does it mean to be a realist?’ The question was answered, most often indirectly, in contributions
from the usual wide range of fields. After an informal warmup by Roy Bhaskar and William Outhwaite, covering issues
of realism and politics, there were plenary contributions by
Bob Jessop, on the realist character of regulation theory in
political economy, and by John Lovering, on the relationship
between the British state and the defence industry. John
Shotter, from the Dutch diaspora, offered a provocative social constructionist critique of realism, and Andrew Collier
opened up the previously uncharted issue of the relationship
between realism and Heidegger’s philosophy. Ted Benton
and Lynda Birke discussed the biology/society interface, and
Alex Callinicos that between realism and postmodemism.

Workshop sessions included John AlIen and Barbara Reid on
landlordism, M. Ferrero and Tim Marshall on quantum theory, Tony Woodiwiss on law, Derek Layder on the macromicro issue in sociology and Andy Pratt on policy evaluation.

Participants seemed to share your reporter’s impression that
the conference provided both individual contributions of
considerable interest and a valuable arena for interdisciplinary discussion.

William Outhwaite


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