Research Projects

SAS relies on multidisciplinary research teams integrated into global academic networks; structurally, these teams replace traditional disciplinary departments and ensure intensive communication among faculty members within and across disciplines.

About Project

Most of the problems challenging contemporary forms of citizenship — including statelessness, political apathy, the commodification of passports, civil conflicts, the citizenry’s superficial understanding of “public affairs,” and the exclusion of minorities — are inherently multidimensional and require multidisciplinary perspectives. However, scholarship on citizenship has largely been narrow in focus and lacking in contributions from fields beyond political science, sociology and history. Three founders of contemporary research on citizenship (T.H. Marshall, H. Arendt, and R. Bendix) saw citizenship mostly in terms of the rights and membership status offered by nation-states. The “Citizenship Reframed” project seeks to overcome this gravitation toward a nation-state model of citizenship in terms of rights and status and the concomitant bias towards these social science disciplines. Paying due respect to the fundamental theory of citizenship in the social sciences, our research project offers a reconceptualization of different aspects of political belonging by incorporating such dimensions as ethno-cultural identity, political reasoning and participation, space and the environment, and visual representation. The work of our research team is organized around both individual discipline-based inquiries of particular aspects of citizenship and several interdisciplinary collaborative projects: on political behavior, visual propaganda, and environmental sustainability. Collectively, our case studies seek to reveal the limitations of the modern liberal conception of citizenship based on the nation-state.

Research Team

art history
media studies, sociology

About Project

The very framing of education today (to achieve economic success in an increasingly competitive and unstable labor market, to attain growingly unattainable normative standards of happiness and well-being, to develop adequate skills of civic participation to prop up fragile democratic cultures, etc.) seems to be one giant generator of anxiety for students, teachers, and society at large. We believe that these framings are in urgent need of interrogation, both from an empirical and an ideological standpoint. To this end we propose three streams of research converging around these issues of pedagogy, anxiety, and crisis.

The first is a conceptual analysis of the language by which we describe learning processes today. We want to develop a descriptive language that is more precise than prevailing attempts to name the current condition of learning. To this end, we are interested in critically interrogating conceptions of students, teachers, parents, and educational reformers of all stripes that overinflate a sense of agency and efficacy.

The second stream of research is empirical, drawing on methodologies in neurobiology and psychology to study existing cultures of learning. We would like to affirm the perceptions of students in our research, and thereby aim to incorporate students at SAS in both research design and as research subjects.

The third is an attempt at concept formation, in the philosophical and sociological tradition, wherein we try to develop more normative conceptions of learning processes in times of “crisis and anxiety.” A major part of this work will be to bring into conversation literature on tragedy, crisis, anxiety, and education, with education providing the primary domain in which we want to develop these normative concepts.

Research Team

philosophy, psychoanalysis, neuroscience
social neuroscience
philosophy, pedagogy

About Project

The “problem of free will” (What is free will ? Do we really have free will ?) is a classic of philosophy; a staggering number of “great minds” have expressed their opinion on this topic, virtually from all disciplines and arts, including Aristotle, Aquinas, Hume, Kant, Spinoza, Tolstoy, and Einstein. While philosophy was the mother discipline from which the topic sprang, in recent times several other disciplines have joined the debate, in particular psychology, neuroscience, cognitive science, computer science and physics. Both in professional and broad-public texts the link between free will, consciousness and (in)determinism is often immediately made. For instance, the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy starts its entry on free will thus1: “Most of us are certain that we have free will, though what exactly this amounts to is much less certain. According to David Hume, the question of the nature of free will is ‘the most contentious question of metaphysics.’ If this is correct, then figuring out what free will is will be no small task indeed. Minimally, to say that an agent has free will is to say that the agent has the capacity to choose his or her course of action. But animals seem to satisfy this criterion, and we typically think that only persons, and not animals, have free will. […] This article considers why we should care about free will and how freedom of will relates to freedom of action. It canvasses a number of the dominant accounts of what the will is, and then explores the persistent question of the relationship between free will and causal determinism […].” The typical human capacity referred to in this passage, not shared by animals, is usually considered to be consciousness or (other) cognitive capacities.

In recent years, a strong impetus has been given to the theoretical philosophical research by experimental advances in neurobiology, and by an increasing interest in humanoid functions and capacities that could be realized by robots, in general systems steered by artificial intelligence (AI). For instance, in 2008 neuroscientists have reported, based on the measurement of brain activity by fMRI, that ‘free’ choices of test persons (namely the choice to lift their left or right hand) could be predicted up to 10 seconds (!) before the test person consciously made the decision to pick one or the other hand2. To many researchers, especially neurobiologists, scientific results as these put free will in question. As another example among the many, in 2017 cognitive neuroscientists published an article in Science entitled “What is consciousness, and could machines have it?”3 – an example of the exponentially rising interest in machine-based forms of consciousness. In physics too, the question of free will has been discussed in 2018 and linked to one of the key problems of physics, i.e. the unification of quantum mechanics and relativity theory – namely by Nobel laureate Gerard ‘t Hooft4.

In this project, we start from the assumption that there is a clear case for studying free will and its link with consciousness and (in)determinism by a resolutely interdisciplinary approach. In particular, we intend to scrutinize the topic from the angle of philosophy, computer science / IT, psychology, history and physics. Let us here present a succinct description of some of the lines of research we will explore in this project.

While the philosophical literature assumes that a close link exists between free will and consciousness, the philosophers of the team (Prof. Louis Vervoort and Prof. Julie Reshe) will spell out this link in more detail. The question of whether humans really have a free will or, rather, are entirely determined by their past experiences and the laws and determinants of psychology, sociology, biology, physics etc., hinges on the dichotomy determinism versus indeterminism. Indeed, one may wonder whether all the influences, regularities, “laws”, determinants to which humans are subject, are ultimately deterministic or indeterministic (probabilistic) in nature. This relates to such fundamental physical questions as whether the universe is ultimately deterministic or probabilistic, a topic at the interface of physics and philosophy of science investigated by the physicist of the team (Prof. Louis Vervoort). Determinism and free will / consciousness will also be at the heart of the psychologist’s (Prof. Julie Reshe) contribution to the project. Julie is interested in investigating hidden causal factors which influence human behavior, in other words hidden deterministic mechanisms that shape human consciousness. Following Zapffe's philosophical tradition, Julie tends to discuss consciousness in a tragic key, as a hurtful evolutionary impasse, which creates the illusion of free will. She may furthermore be interested in general psychological questions related to free will, as well as in the therapeutic practices that the present research might inspire.

The computer scientists of the team (Prof. Munesh Chauhan and Prof. Vitaly Nikolaev) will investigate computational models that are relevant for better understanding free will and consciousness from an information-theoretic point of view. Their research will address questions as: Can computer codes emulate forms of consciousness, cognition, free will? What are the main hurdles in developing more advanced AI mimicking consciousness? Can philosophy, psychology, physics trigger ideas that can be translated in computer code? Thus the computer scientists’ work will have a high degree of technicality and involve the study and mastering of computational techniques and sub-disciplines as ANN (artificial neural networks), deep learning, data mining, physical model simulation etc. Their skills may also intervene in a potential collaboration with experimental neuroscientists for interpretation of numerical data, in particular brain-imaging data. The interface of their research with physics, philosophy and psychology will be an active field of research shared with all team members.

In the team’s historian’s (Prof. Tomasz Blusiewicz) core discipline, free will is an implicit assumption of the field: key historical figures are in the vast majority of cases depicted as history-makers rather than as products of history, and even less as products of underlying and necessitating sociological, psychological, medical, neurological etc. infra-mechanisms. However, some historians have made the courageous move to delve into a different form of history writing, taking these largely hidden or unknown deterministic factors much more seriously, and engaging in interdisciplinary investigations involving psychology, medicine, pharmacology, sociology, neuroscience etc. After a literature review of paradigmatic examples of historians who have theorized this type of research, our historian plans to contribute to this debate on the basis of the team’s insights.

We anticipate that numerous surprising and relevant cross-disciplinary collaborations between team members will emerge in the research process, and look forward to collaborations with human and social scientists, neuroscientists, computer scientists and physicists from Russia and abroad!

1 Cf. internet website https://www.iep.utm.edu/freewill/, retrieved 14.10.2019.

2 Chun Siong Soon et al., Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain, Nature Neuroscience 11, 543 - 545 (2008)

3 Stanislas Dehaene et. al, What is consciousness, and could machines have it?, Science 27, Vol. 358, Issue 6362, pp. 486-492 (2017).

4 Gerard ‘t Hooft, Free Will in the Theory of Everything, arXiv:1709.02874 [quant-ph] (2018), cf. https://arxiv.org/abs/1709.02874

Research Team

philosophy, psychoanalysis, neuroscience
philosophy, physics
history, international relations, economics
IT, computer science

About Project

As liberal democracies around the world face the challenges of populism, constitutional crisis, and data-engineering, the rhetoric of “democracy in danger” is ever-present. Recent critiques have perceived democracy to be either under attack (Howard 2019; Mounk 2018), weakened and in need of care (Honig 2016), or requiring urgent renewal (Hooker 2017). Within this climate, existing definitions of democracy — as a system in which community members take collective actions, or as a mode for securing common interests through direct or indirect participation in community decision-making — no longer seem fit for purpose (Laclau & Mouffe 1985; Cohen 1989; Dahl 2000; Crick 2003). Increasingly we find ourselves asking: Do we still know what democracy is? Moreover, would we necessarily recognize it if we saw it?

Laboratories of Democracy proposes starting off “on the ground,” investigating a set of case studies that may help us reframe debates about democracy’s nature, orientation, and capacities in the twenty-first century. Connecting research in political theory, environmental anthropology, pre-modern history, and cultural studies, the project will focus on a series of marginal experiments in autonomous communal living. Each separated from the “outside world,” either geographically or ideologically, these cases will include: a set of intentional communities in the contemporary US; a commune of authors and activists in late-twentieth-century France; multispecies households, shared between humans, animals, and spirits, in present-day Southern Siberia; hunting communities in seventeenth-century Russia; and a constellation of monastic communities in twelfth-century England and Italy. While occupying disparate points in time and space, these experiments articulate an intriguing set of parallels in their vision of what communal living should be, and what it might do. As “laboratories of democracy,” they test the limits of an anti-political autonomy in isolation, simultaneously exposing potential fault-lines for mapping the democratic challenges of the century ahead.

We propose to analyze each case study as a “nexus of intentionalities” (Gell 1996: 29), or as “architectures of relationships/socialities,” where shared living spaces act as contact zones between community members. Our aim is to investigate how community members sustain their collective living through mutual entanglements and adjustments, and how — through these practices — they correspond to the outside world. We are also interested in analyzing how these entanglements of interests and intentionalities transform the shared living spaces we focus on. While not attempting to offer a solution for today’s challenges or to suggest a unifying model of communal living, we do seek to provide empirical material for thinking about the connections formed between community members as they adjust to each other’s practices, or as they unite their interests and, in doing so, build a shared space together.

Blog: https://labsofdemo.hypotheses.org/

Research Team

environmental humanities
cultural studies, comparative literature, critical theory
history, religious studies
history, cultural studies
political theory, law and culture

About Project

What are the social and individual implications of the manipulation of human natural characteristics and abilities related to sensory perception? The construct of society is determined by what members of that society perceive and how they interact in both competitive and cooperative manners. While nature and evolution selected a certain range of capabilities that imposed limits to the human capacity to perceive and perform, culture and technology have modified such abilities and changed the way we understand and interact with the environment.

Sensory perception evolved biologically as a network of neuro-mechanisms ensuring the survival and reproductive success of Homo sapiens. The sensitivity of the sensory systems was selected to favor the range of interactions that humans could physiologically respond to through autonomic and cognitive reactions. The evolution of advanced cognitive capabilities and the consequential evolution of culture propelled humanity into an area of sensory perception beyond that of those derived through genetic evolution. Humanity began hence to seek ways to manipulate sensory perception through conscious intervention in all steps along the operational chain of sensing—from stimuli to reception to neural processing, to obtain desired behavioral outputs.

The continuous pattern of such interventions through history suggests an innate desire to expand the boundaries of human neurobiology. By examining the history of modification, enhancement, compensation, and control of human physiological and psychological capabilities, this project will evaluate the impact of these manipulations so that causal relationships and predictive models can be conceptualized and studied.

Read more about the project

Research Team

film and media studies
anthropology, GIS