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“Brain, culture and society” program

The boundaries of the social and human sciences are constantly changing. Charles Percy Snow, a British chemist, novelist, and high-level civil servant, gave a now-famous lecture in 1959 about the gap between the “two cultures”, namely, the humanities and the sciences. In the past 50 years, considerable efforts have been made to bridge this gap. In 1963, C.P. Snow introduced the concept of a “third culture” that could be a platform for dialogue between the human sciences and the so-called “hard” sciences. In the past two decades, concepts such as trans-, inter-, and multidisciplinarity have persistently dominated academic discourse, and the concept of the “two cultures” might seem to be outdated. Yet communication between the human and natural sciences is still not guaranteed. All too often, research on each side ignores the thinking and results of other fields. This results in a regrettable loss of knowledge.

The exponential growth in scientific data on the human body and brain is constantly revealing more information about how human beings function in their environment. It is becoming hard for the social and human sciences to continue to study humankind, the mind, and consciousness while ignoring neuroanatomical and neurofunctional data from the life sciences, especially neuroscience. Likewise, neuroscience cannot claim to understand the human being without including the knowledge acquired by the humanities. According to Rabelais, “science without conscience is the ruin of the soul”; the same is however true if we study the mind and “the soul” without taking into account the human brain and body. In this perspective, the Paris IAS supports the building of interdisciplinary bridges and fosters communication and intellectual debate among researchers in the human and natural sciences.

Interdisciplinary cooperation already exists within Paris and in Île-de-France. Yet, it often concerns projects identified by neuroscientists where the role of the social sciences is primarily that of supporting research on the functions of the brain. The opposite approach, namely the integration of the results of the neurosciences into humanities research, and the contribution of neuroscientific research in the definition of what it is to be human, is rarer.

The support group of the “Brain, culture and society” program

The Paris IAS has appointed a group of outstanding interdisciplinary researchers in order to support the development of the HSS-Neuroscience program, to assist in the selection of the themes to be taken up in workshops and conferences, and to give suggestions for the researchers that could be invited for a stay at the institute.

The committee meets about three times per year and consists of:

  • Alain Berthoz, Collège de France (Neuroscience), Chair
  • David COHEN, Hôpital Pitié-Salpêtrière (Psychiatry)
  • Julie GRÈZES, Inserm - École normale supérieure (Neuroscience)
  • Étienne KOECHLIN, Inserm, École normale supérieure (Neuroscience)
  • Lionel NACCACHE, Institut du Cerveau et de la Moelle Epinière, Sorbonne
    Université (Neuroscience)
  • Elisabeth PACHERIE, CNRS (Philosophy)
  • Denis PESCHANSKI, CNRS (History)
  • François RECANATI, Collège de France (Philosophy)
  • Catherine TALLON-BEAUDRY, École normale supérieure (Neuroscience)

Scientific objectives of the program

As it attracts remarkable international researchers, the Paris IAS has the possibility of launching ambitious projects likely to generate innovative knowledge. In this perspective, the goal of the thematic program on neuroscience is the development of a new scientific approach, founded on a combination of different theories and methods.

The goal is to create a permanent space for interdisciplinary dialogue, and to initiate workshops and symposia that lead to original collaborations around new projects. The IAS is by definition a meeting place of different research cultures that interact during regular seminars, but also informally in the daily life of the Institute. By hosting in residence (from a few weeks to a full academic year) researchers in neuroscience in a program mainly involving HSS specialists, the Institute makes exchange possible and allows each participant to discover the work and ways of thinking of others.

Research workshops and symposia

Scientific meetings, which give experts from different disciplines the possibility of discussing a common theme from different perspectives, constitute important occasions for exchanges between “the two cultures”. They illustrate the variety of possible approaches to the same question, and permit the evaluation of possible complementarities.

Directly related to the Île-de-France research community, the IAS organizes several events each year –from the half-day workshop to international conferences– bringing together specialists from the brain and life sciences (neuroscientists, psychologists and psychiatrists) and SHS researchers.

The working themes are very diverse, but the focus is on major societal issues, such as the mechanisms of identification and adhesion to a community, understanding the causes of extreme violence, or the political uses of scientific knowledge on the brain.

The IAS aims to become a major meeting place for research in the HSS and brain science, to attract researchers interested in this kind of dialogue, but also to raise the interest of those less convinced of its necessity.