Beyond Autonomy and Periphery

Tuesday, 26 May 2015, 4:00pm - 5:30pm, IWM library
Bibliothek_EkaterinaSince Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason, the notion of autonomy lies at the center of the definition of the professional ethos of intellectuals and artists in modern societies. On this notion they based their claim to the new type of power – the one of expertise, characterized by moral neutrality, objectivity, and disinterested judgment. From this perspective, Eastern European communist regimes and “pro-regime” intellectuals were often considered to be on the periphery of the processes of modernization.

However, between the two World Wars both Soviet and western intellectuals could be characterized at some point as “engaged” with one or another ideological project of modernity in its liberal or totalitarian versions, respectively. The concept of “engagement” appeared in post-war Europe during debates unmasking the hidden repressive nature of expert knowledge. In this context, autonomy and engagement were seen as antagonistic concepts: the political engagement of intellectuals could be understood as the betrayal of the autonomous values of expert knowledge, but autonomy and moral neutrality in their turn could be seen as acting to conceal the reality of power relations. My presentation aims to analyze how the post-war debates about the political engagement of intellectuals were conceptualized in social theory by confronting the approach of critical theory with the “pragmatic turn” in the social sciences. This theoretical shift might help us to overcome the “autonomy vs. engagement” dichotomy by drawing attention to such “horizontal” aspects of engagement as social responsibility, prestige, reputation and recognition.


Ekaterina Nemenko is Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy at the Ural Federal University of Yekaterinburg. Currently, she is a Alexander Herzen Junior Visiting Fellow at the IWM.