An appeal for the human sciences and creativity in France

The human sciences are of vital importance to democracy, public policy and the understanding citizens have of themselves and their societies. Joining the social sciences to inquiries from philosophy to psychology and biology, they build knowledge crucial to shaping individual well-being and collective futures.

From the 17th to the early 20th centuries, French intellectuals were pioneers in developing the fields that became the human sciences. In the mid-20th century a number of distinctive institutions were created – or reformed – to give bases and support to the human and social sciences. These helped return France to intellectual flourishing and global leadership.

The existence of a range of different institutions was and is vital to the human and the social sciences, encouraging debate and original lines of research. Some like the École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) had a mission to first of all conduct research in various fields.

Others were designed to facilitate research, intellectual debate, collaboration and strong international relations for French scientists. Among these the Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme (FMSH) has been both special and influential.

We write this open letter with sadness and anxiety because the FMSH, and the rich intellectual life it supports, is threatened. Beyond the loss of one significant institution, we worry that this could mean France is succumbing to global trends to pursue rankings and administrative goals over intellectual creativity: developing larger organisational units, and risking the ‘normalisation’ of intellectual work within bureaucratic structures.

Brilliantly creative

France cannot be a brilliantly creative and productive centre for the human sciences – as it once was – without diverse institutions to support contending perspectives and different paths of creativity. Imitating global trends to giant scale without clarity of mission will not bring greatness back.

Imitating global trends is very different from being a distinctive intellectual milieu that engages thinkers from all around the world. Paris has been a unique meeting place for human and social scientists from East and West, North and South. The connections they forge advance French but also global thought.

The FMSH has been an exemplary part of this history, being, as the great American social scientist Immanuel Wallerstein called it, a veritable “ministry of international relations of human and social sciences”.

Founded by Fernand Braudel in order to organise the post-war rebirth of French human sciences, the FMSH has been a dynamic complement to the universities. Its unique library and its residence for scholars, the Maison Suger, helped ensure engagement of leading foreign social scientists and humanists with their French colleagues.

Seminars, symposia, conferences, working groups, panels, workshops and publications have all advanced internal connections among humanists and social scientists.

In recent years, the FMSH has worked with partners institutions around the world, from New York to Bogota, Brasilia and Beirut; Tunis and Rabat to Santo Domingo and Santiago; Saint-Louis (Senegal) to Bamako, etc … Its College of Global Studies brought renowned scholars to France, not just as visitors but for recurrent engagements.

The human and social sciences require openness to creativity and critique – and are easily stifled when subjected to bureaucratic administration. We are grateful that distinguished intellectuals have given their time and energy to developing important institutions. These include the successive presidents of the FMSH who have helped secure the freedom and creativity of the human and social sciences.

We have been disturbed by recent news of resignations, upheaval and the potential loss of the distinctive identity of the FMSH.

Since 20 July 2020, the three members of the management board of the FMSH have resigned, along with five out of 15 members of its supervisory board.

Administrative centralisation has deprived the president, the renowned social scientist Michel Wieviorka, of scope for intellectual and practical leadership, leading him to resign. All of the departing figures noted that the FMSH is losing its identity and freedom, ultimately depriving them of any capacity to fulfil their missions or their functions.

It appears that the distinctive identity, the contributions of the FMSH and its budgetary resources are being sacrificed to centralised bureaucratic control and inclusion in the development plan called Campus Condorcet.

This seems to signal not only loss of autonomy for the FMSH, but also a downgrading of support for the mission of advancing and integrating the human and social sciences. It is unclear whether there is any intellectual reason for the actions of the relevant ministerial officials, or only a desire for control and advancing the real estate development project to which they have committed themselves.

It is not for us as outsiders to object to Campus Condorcet as such. Perhaps such a giant operation is needed to house some French academic institutions; perhaps its cost creates budgetary challenges. But, as scholars who care about the human and social sciences and value French history and culture in the human and social sciences, we raise our voices to protest the potential loss of a distinctive existing institution.

We hope that France will still value critical thought and intellectual diversity, and not only administrative integration and the quantitative scale of its institutions.

We support departing FMSH President Michel Wieviorka, who has been subjected to personal attacks by those seeking to distract from the destruction of a venerated institution.

We are grateful for the support FMSH has brought to French and global human and social sciences, and for the leadership shown by its successive leaders: Fernand Braudel, Clemens Heller, Maurice Aymard, Alain d’Iribarne and Michel Wieviorka.

We hope that intellectual values may prevail and that the FMSH will continue to play a central role in a still diverse and vital field of human and social sciences in France, and in the world.

Jeffrey Alexander, Lillian Chavenson Saden Professor, Yale University.

Richard Bernstein, Vera List Professor, New School for Social Research.

Judit Bokser Liwerant, professor, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

Craig Calhoun, university professor of social sciences, Arizona State University, former director, London School of Economics and Political Science, 2012-16.

Manuel Castells, professor emeritus, University of California, Berkeley.

Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former president of the International Sociological Association, former president of Brazil.

Sergio Della Pergola, professor emeritus, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Nancy Fraser, Loeb Professor of Philosophy and Politics, New School for Social Research.

Jürgen Habermas, philosopher.

Sari Hanafi, professor, American University of Beirut; president, International Sociological Association.

Axel Honneth, Jack C Weinstein Professor of Humanities, Columbia University.

Michael Ignatieff, president and rector, Central European University, Budapest.

Julio Labastida Martín del Campo, investigador emérito del Instituto de Investigaciones Sociales, Universidad Nacional Autonóma de México.

Edgar Morin, directeur de recherches émérite, CNRS.

Tariq Modood, professor, University of Bristol.

Laurence Moore, Howard A Newman Professor of History and American Studies, Cornell University.

Ernesto Ottone, honorary professor, Diego Portales University, Santiago.

Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, chair, UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, Geneva.

Gonzalo Sánchez, former director, Centro Nacional de Memoria Històrica de Colombia.

Saskia Sassen, Robert S Lynd Professor, Columbia University.

Richard Sennett, professor, London School of Economics and Political Science, and New York University.

Charles Taylor, professor emeritus, McGill University.

Alain Touraine, directeur d’études, EHESS, Paris.