“What is a politics of Chairs?” – Feedback on the debate led by science historian Wolf Feuerhahn as part of “Débats du CAK, saison 9” [CAK debates, season 9], held on 7 March 2018, at the Centre Alexandre Koyré

Translated by Liz Carey Libbrecht.


On 7 March 2018 a debate entitled “Qu’est-ce qu’une politique de chaires” [“What is politics of Chairs”] was held on La Politique des chaires au Collège de France [the politics of Chairs at the Collège de France], a multi-author work edited by Wolf Feuerhahn (researcher at the CNRS and assistant director of the CAK)1 and co-published in June 2017 by Les Belles-Lettres and the Collège de France in the “Docet omnia” series. Several contributors to the volume attended this debate, which was opened by Wolf Feuerhahn’s detailed presentation, followed by debaters Emanuel Bertrand (ESPCI Paris and CAK) and Christian Topalov (EHESS and Centre Maurice Halbwachs), and later by audience members.

Feuerhahn, Wolf (ed.) “La politique des chaires au Collège de France”, Collège de France/Les Belles, Paris, 2017


Professor Compagnon, who has been Chair of Modern and Contemporary French Literature since 20062, saw this volume as the first of a series dedicated to the research work carried out in the programme “Passage des disciplines” on the evolution of disciplines, which he launched in 2011-2012. A synthesis intended for a more general public, drawn from the initial results of this programme and co-authored by professors Antoine Compagnon, Pierre Corvol and John Scheid, had already been published in 2015 as Le Collège de France: cinq siècles de libre recherche [Le Collège de France: five centuries of research], Gallimard/Collège de France. Coordinated with the collaboration of Céline Surprenant, as was the 2015 book, “Passage des disciplines” has received the support of the CNRS, the Fondation Hugot, and the Fondation du Collège de France. Moreover, since 2017 it has received funding from PSL Research University, which has enabled the publication of the present volume. This programme brings together researchers from several institutions (the CNRS, the Centre Alexandre-Koyré, the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, the FMSH, Paris I, Paris-Sud, Paris V Descartes, Paris VIII, and Valenciennes Universities, as well as the Collège de France), and several disciplines for a “comprehensive” or “global” history of the Collège de France.

“Passage des disciplines” focuses on the emergence of scientific and literary disciplines, their organization and their renewal, both nationally and internationally during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, on the basis of the history of the renewal of Chairs at the Collège de France. In this sense, the institution constitutes an ideal vantage point, because the juxtaposition and redistribution of knowledge is a statutory requirement at it. This programme is organized around a limited corpus composed of the “presentation reports” (rapports de présentation) and “candidacy reports” (rapports de candidature) kept in the Collège de France Archives. These reports allow us to analyse the formation and circulation of knowledge from a broad viewpoint, in other words, beyond the framework of specific Chairs or of a single scholarly institution. In the context of higher education and research as a whole, a combined analysis of approved and failed Chair proposals may enable subjects yet unknown to us to emerge over the medium and long terms. The study of these documents, most of which are yet to be examined and deciphered, will thus serve to clarify the historical and contemporary formation of disciplines.

Compagnon, Antoine ; Corvol, Pierre ; Scheid, John. “Le Collège de France : five centuries of research”, Gallimard/Collège de France, Paris, 2015

From the outset, Antoine Compagnon designed this long-term research programme to be “comprehensive” so that it would contribute to a broader history of knowledge established as disciplines, without however aiming at being exhaustive. It was also intended to be “comprehensive” with regard to the academic approaches and voices included, in order to avoid three main pitfalls: that of univocity, which is quickly suspected in the case of discourses emerging from the same institution as the one in question; that of hagiography, which is all the more of a risk to the members of the Collège considering that – let it be said – it is a beautiful and gratifying place in which to work and to be, and one which is moreover prestigious in the eyes of the public; and lastly, it is tempting to add the pitfall of self-censorship which, out of a desire for scientific honesty, may arise from an exaggerated fear of the first two pitfalls, leading to a toning down of the message through criticism and paralipsis. In all of the research team’s work, it is remarkable that the tone of debates changes, depending on whether they are held at the facilities on the premises of the Collège itself and in the presence of some of its professors, or in other research institutions with different configurations. For example, certain contexts give people a propensity to speak more freely, resulting in less reverence than that which is inspired by the Collège de France and its professors, amongst others. The intellectual honesty of the contributors, who are working according to a variety of combined methods, regardless of whether they are members of the Collège de France or not, is not being questioned here. Healthy emulation comes into play when several renowned scholarly institutions, with a varying history of tradition and prestige, get together to work around one of them and the political and epistemological relationships that they maintain in shaping the landscape of academic disciplines. The question, “Who is speaking?” and its counterpart, “Where is one speaking from?”, are therefore accompanied by a third, slightly different but nonetheless equally stimulating question: “Where is one speaking?” Revealing the place bias, in addition to raising the problem of the subject of the talk and his or her theoretical and institutional position, is a meaningful result of these meetings between institutions on institutions and their labelling or self-definition practices. We therefore believe that the relocation and multiple locations of work sessions and discussions help to avoid all of the pitfalls mentioned overall.

In the present case, during the 7 March debate and possibly in the book itself, emphasis was placed on the importance of self-definition by the Collège de France and on the statement of its centuries-old mission, according to which it is destined to promote new knowledge, to the point of turning it into a major critical lever of this undertaking. It may appear that this emphasis has been placed on self-definition all the better to challenge it, not without some irony, when more attention could have been paid to the question of whether “endogenous discourses” – such as the motto and the idea of transformation – are so decisive in the practice of scientific freedom and the selection of Chairs.

The 2017 publication, following that of 2015, marks a new phase in the historiography of the Collège de France, as Wolf Feuerhahn points out in the Introduction3. With the exception of pioneering prosopography work carried out by historian Christophe Charle, and the jubilee publications of some professors (for instance on the occasion of the 400-year anniversary) or the thematic publication of inaugural lectures, until now relatively little work has been published on the history of the Collège and its Chairs. Few scholars in general and few historians in particular have explored the long history of the Collège, from 1530 to 2018, in the profuse space of its traditions and the disciplines that it has invented, as well as in the individuality of its professor figures and the collegiality of its political and scholarly practices4. Last of all, few scholars have delved into the details – in other words, into the abundance and at times serial austerity – of the available archives. Yet diligently consulting them, at the Collège itself as well as at the Archives Nationales, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the Institut de France, the École Pratique des Hautes Études, or the Sorbonne, can inform the study of the “heart” of this history, of the politics and policies of Chairs in the local and global economy of disciplines, within the broader scientific landscape, whether academic or not, and over successive eras.

This is why the researchers in this group embody the wide variety of institutional affiliations and methodological approaches purposefully selected. As important as it may be, the PSL banner does not adequately embrace the rich diversity of viewpoints, and “Passage des disciplines”, a programme created by Antoine Compagnon in 2012, at the same time PSL was founded, takes the liberty of stepping outside of formal boundaries when the aim is to complete or nuance the landscape described. That is the meaning of the epithet “comprehensive”. The sources relevant to the study of the Chairs of the Sorbonne, regardless of whether it was a competitor, a foil, or on the contrary, an inspiration or a partner, cannot be neglected in this long-term programme.

The present work is the first published demonstration of this diversity, as attested by the list of twenty-one contributors5, the majority of whom were present on 7 March. Wolf Feuerhahn hailed the collective undertaking of the book and Christian Topalov went even further, praising its “highly structured architecture”, which emerged from a “veritable workshop of several researchers on a spectacular corpus, which remains relatively rare”.

Self-definition around a motto

Docet omnia”, chosen as the title of the collection, is no other than the motto of the Collège de France. The book, just like the 7 March debate, necessarily takes a stab at this motto, paying tribute to it as much as it dissects it and questions it. The inquiry proposed in La Politique des chaires is therefore carried out through the lens of a more comprehensive history of academic disciplines, their creation, longevity, disappearance, and transformation, and of their titles – their “labelling” is the term chosen by Wolf Feuerhahn to describe the expanse of science under successive regimes or varying topographies. The goal is to identify and analyse the politics of scientific choices in the establishment – or lack thereof, which is just as meaningful, or in the emergence in the form of a rejected project – of a given discipline at the Collège de France, in the form of Chairs, in accordance with a label or title that is often a matter of debate at the Assemblée collégiale des Professeurs [the Faculty]. The Faculty is the deliberation and decision-making body, in this respect and on all other matters. It is however important to point out, as do Wolf Feuerhahn and Rafael Mandressi (director of the Centre Koyré), that some of the terms used in the institution’s discourse, despite remaining relatively stable over the long term, clearly do not describe the same reality during different eras (for example, what were once called the “lecteurs royaux” of the “Collège Royal” became the “professors” of the “Collège de France” and “opening lectures” became “inaugural lectures”, to only cite the most famous examples). The same goes for the titles of Chairs, which as indicated by Professor Antoine Compagnon in the preface to the book, can even go so far as no longer having any relationship to the actual contents of teachings.

Wolf Feuerhahn has provided a clear synthesis of the methodological expectations and main contributions of the book, largely summarized hereunder, with his agreement.

Exploring “the adventure of words” in the wake of the Chicago school

Avoiding nominalism, we aim to retrace the appearance of the titles or labels of Chairs, their transformations, and their “re-semantization” when applicable, based on the investigation of the uses and vocabularies of the actors themselves. We analyse the effects, whether praiseworthy or stigmatizing, of “labelling” and exclusion or consolidation phenomena, keeping in mind the performativity of discourses, a fortiori in a world – the intellectual world – where much is spoken and written.

When it was founded in 1530, the Collège de France has defined itself as the protector of the vanguard of science, in opposition to a Sorbonne6 stuck in the past, and of the independence of this science. However, it is mainly through “Chairs” and the gloss of their “titles” that the institution has disseminated this self-definition. Specifically, the Collège is not subject to the reproduction and limitations involved in the labelling of disciplines, because it creates the labels for its Chairs and can change them at will. The first chapter of the present book, “L’Atelier des intitulés” [the label or title workshop] echoes the title of the symposium Dans l’atelier des intitulés. À propos de la singularité du Collège de France” [At the labelling workshop: on the singularity of the Collège de France)] that was held at the Collège de France on 27 and 28 November 20147 With regard to the Collège’s singularity, it critically examined the overriding political, scientific, cultural, institutional, and philosophical mechanisms of these successive “labelling” operations.

« Docet omnia » or « nova docet » ?

Wolf Feuerhahn therefore insists on two key elements of this self-definition: the motto “Docet omnia” and the famous slogan invented by Ernest Renan in the early 1860s, which is still cited today, especially on the Collège’s website, to define the institution’s main goal: “[to teach] science in the making8 [la science en voie de se faire]. While the transformation of the Chairs began in the late eighteenth century, it was not until the Renan era that this self-definition was expressed and made explicit.

It is relevant to recall here the hypothesis already put forward by Christophe Charle, which stated that the practice of changing titles was effectively the result of a constraint imposed by the Sorbonne from 1770. The Université de Paris then agreed to grant recognition and latitude to the Collège Royal if and only if the latter consented in turn to change the titles of its Chairs in order not to overshadow it9. [Editor’s note: following the unprecedented use of all of the available and identified archive sources, the research carried out in the “Passage des disciplines” programme will nonetheless result in qualifying this hypothesis by pointing out the significant creative dimension – what we would today call the “innovative” dimension – at the core of the institution and the reality of its academic discipline’s practices, independently of any institutional discourse. One of the of challenges this long-term research is to consider the role played by the self-definition discourse, whether retrospective or prospective and performative, and of the creative power at play in the “workshop”, or even, one could say, in the shaping of disciplines and their titles. In the same line of thought, the recognized fact that the public authorities, by means of a letter in 1908, from the Minister of Public Education to then Administrator Émile Levasseur, recommended that the institution use Renan’s slogan (“science in the making”) in particular, by no means relegates this slogan to a lifeless version of self-definition under government control. To what extent have the actors, in this case the professors and the faculty, alongside and after Renan, successively adopted this slogan in their individual research practices and in collective reflection on the institution, as well as in their way of experiencing their commitment to the renewal of classes every year, for example, as an echo of the development of their latest research? This is what is difficult to perceive and to convey10].

In the twentieth century, the Collège underwent profound change and acquired even greater symbolic capital as the number of academics grew exponentially. In 1951, Lucien Febvre – among those whom Wolf Feuerhahn referred to as “the great electors” of the Collège, namely those individuals who had a significant role and weight on the Faculty and in electing Chairs –, while participating in the Faculty meeting concerning the proposed Chair of the History of Scientific Thinking, suggested that he preferred the motto “Nova docet” over that of “Docet omnia”. He proposed that the Collège teach “only that which is taught nowhere else” (see pp. 18-19, Febvre’s citation taken from “Rapport […] sur la création d’une chaire d’histoire de la pensée scientifique”, at the 11 March 1951 Faculty meeting [Archives du Collège de France, 4 AP 542], pp. 3-4).

De « l’atelier des intitulés » à la « tectonique des savoirs »

Wolf Feuerhahn insists on the methodological choices applied to the corpus of archives made up of these reports and the minutes of the Faculty meetings (4 AP from the Archives du Collège de France, digitalized in the form of a comprehensive consultable text in the Salamandre digital library), to which must be added the minutes of Faculty meeting deliberations (2 AP), Chair files (14 CdF), and the administrative files of professors (16 CdF).

Editor’s note: significantly, thanks to the support of the CNRS and PSL, the work of “Passage des disciplines” has made it possible to finance several fine archiving projects to mark and digitalize series collections, such as presentation reports or course programmes, for example. The archives team of the Collège de France, headed by Claire Guttinger, has worked in close collaboration with temporary staff recruited under the programme and is continuing this cooperation, specifically through additional research on the collections of the Archives nationales in series F 17, undertaken by Lucile Peycéré in the autumn of 2017. The members of this team, assigned to the Collège’s Bibliothèque patrimoniale [heritage library] under the direction of Anne Chatellier, Head Librarian, are moreover periodically invited to sessions of the “Passage des disciplines” programme, where they present their own research results, when relevant. Christophe Labaune, for example, draw up a detailed inventory of the Marcel Mauss collection between 2015 and 2017 – see his post on the present report: “Deux ans en compagnie de Mauss : rétrospective d’une exploration archivistique” [two years in the company of Mauss: a retrospective look at exploring archives].

“Tableau historique du College Royal de France, depuis sa fondation en 1530, jusqu’à la présente année 1758” [historical table of the Collège Royal de France since its founding in 1530 up to the present year 1758]. Archives du Collège de France, 2 CDF 2

The first of these methodological choices consisted in focusing on the exact wording of titles, striving never to extrapolate from individuals’ usage and vocabulary. Such an approach to the institution’s archives highlights a “tectonics of knowledge”, as Wolf Feuerhahn put it on page 20 of the book. Collisions with the practices of other institutions, including foreign and German institutions in particular, are analysed as part of this “titles workshop” of the Collège de France.

Wolf Feuerhahn argues that implicitly there is a debate around the particular men (and women starting with Jacqueline de Romilly in 1973, although to a much lesser degree), who stand as candidates, in the debate around Chairs and their titles.

Is it possible to distinguish a veritable institutional politics of Chairs at the Collège de France from this Chair “labelling workshop”?

A few dynamics at play in the creation of tiles

Without going into the details of the corpuses explored around Chairs or groups of specific Chairs, which is done in the collaborative book, Wolf Feuerhahn highlights two main pillars in the creation of titles:

  • taking account of more general political factors, for example, in the way of mitigating the colonial dimension by creating a Chair of “Muslim Sociology and Sociography” for Alfred Le Châtelier in 1902;
  • considering Chairs as focal points of institutional affirmation.

Renisio, Yann. “Le crédit des chaires”, cited in Feuerhahn, Wolf (ed.). “La politique des chaires au Collège de France”, Collège de France/Les Belles Lettres, 2017, p. 232-233

There are dynamics that play out in Faculty meetings and result in the emergence of titles; hence while they are variable, certain continuities can nonetheless be detected, particularly around the term “civilization” or “comparatism”.

From the end of the nineteenth century, the growing importance of science had an effect on the general economy of Chairs, and not only on the titles of scientific Chairs but also those of the humanities, which increasingly asserted the importance of “scientificity”: comparatism and not only description, structure, constants, and depth (the latter of which was considered particularly important by Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jean-Pierre Vernant, and even Françoise Héritier). The relationship between life sciences and the social sciences and humanities was moreover accentuated by the privileged relationship between the Collège and the publisher Éditions Odile Jacob (the daughter of François Jacob, another one of the Faculty’s “great electors”).

Main topics for discussion

Christian Topalov praised the architecture of the book as being highly structured and rigorous, and establishing a real ethnography of institutional practices. In particular, he mentioned the chapters dedicated to colonial Chairs and comparative studies, and to psychology and its ability to progress while masked or, on the contrary, to be used to conceal other disciplines, such as René Huygues’ art history, for example.

“By believing it, we end up doing it” are the words used by Christian Topalov to comment on the performative effects of Renan’s slogan over the course of the twentieth century and even to date, before moving on to summarize a few salient points: the forms of nepotism, whether direct or spiritual, the phenomenon of the “laboratorization” of science during the twentieth century, scientific “moments” that create and enclose us in fashions, as was the case around the concept of “civilization” or with the coupling of linguistics and philology.

Emanuel Bertrand moreover complimented the authors for a work that takes up a real challenge, that of a collective undertaking which is not satisfied with simply juxtaposing chapters but instead establishes a dialogue between them. The coherency of its words is based on a rich and serial common corpus, from which three key elements emerge: the constant renewal of the knowledge taught by the Collège de France; self-definition as a feature of institutional autonomy; and originality and rupture from the Université de Paris. The Collège considers itself to be and exists in a state of competition or even conflict with the Sorbonne (with the German university, with its “supervising” ministries, etc.), but on the other hand, what is the position of the Sorbonne with respect to the Collège de France? How can we further analyse the articulation between the choices of Chair titles and the choices of people? In this respect, it would be useful to compare the Collège’s practices with those of the École Pratique des Hautes Études and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, a product of the 6th section of the EPHE. Finally, is it truly possible to speak of a “politics of Chairs”? Would it not be more appropriate to speak of the “practice” of Chairs or even the “self-management” of Chairs?

Rafael Mandressi notes that over the long history of the Collège, spanning the period from 1530 to the present day, the generic terms “Université de Paris”, “Sorbonne”, and even “Collège” could not be used without precaution, as if they did not refer to shifting realities over that span of time. He moreover raises the crucial question: how is an institution’s prestige established?

In this sense, both the presentation and the discussion have opened up new research avenues for the “Passage des disciplines” research team. Looking towards 2019-2020, other publications will present the research and analysis carried out under this programme, not only on the successive regulations and statutes of the Collège de France, but also on important features whose absence at Faculty meetings may justifiably be considered surprising (e.g. Freud11, Darwin, Einstein12, Durkheim, to cite only the most famous of them). This is an indication that thanks to the diversity of viewpoints that this programme engages in cooperation with one another, the Collège’s 2030 jubilee – celebrating its 500-year anniversary – could base its commemorative festivities on in-depth archival research that has never before been carried out on this scale. By doing so, these celebrations will moreover demonstrate the immersion of the Collège de France – however singular it may be – in the global landscape of scholarly institutions and their practices.

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Citer ce billet
Laure Léveillé (2020, 26 février). “What is a politics of Chairs?” – Feedback on the debate led by science historian Wolf Feuerhahn as part of “Débats du CAK, saison 9” [CAK debates, season 9], held on 7 March 2018, at the Centre Alexandre Koyré. Colligere. Consulté le 24 avril 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/bdc4

  1. Wolf Feuerhahn is also the co-editor of the Revue d’histoire des sciences humaines (RHSH). His research mainly focuses on the transnational history of the organization, sharing, and labelling of knowledge in Europe from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century. []
  2. The complete the title of this Chair is “Littérature française moderne et contemporaine : histoire, critique, théorie” (Modern and Contemporary French Literature: History, Criticism, Theory). []
  3. See the details of these undertakings since that of Guillaume Duval in 1644, including those by Abel Lefranc and Maurice Croiset under the Third Republic, up until the creation of the Comité pour l’histoire du Collège de France [Collège de France history committee] in 1993, presided over by Marc Fumaroli. []
  4. Here, we can cite a previous editorial project edited by André Tuilier, entitled Histoire du Collège de France and published by Fayard, only volume 1 of which was published in 2006. []
  5. On pages 535-541 of the book. []
  6. This face-off, also taking place on either side of the Rue Saint-Jacques in its topographical dimension, has been described in detail and nuanced; in particular, Wolf Feuerhahn recalls that the holders of the Chair of Medicine at the Collège de France often also officiated at the Sorbonne, and passed Chairs down from father to son or from uncle to nephew, much like notaries. []
  7. Symposium organized by the Passage des disciplines programme under the direction of Antoine Compagnon, with the collaboration of Céline Surprenant, and with the support of the Centre Alexandre Koyré (UMR 8560), the Institut d’Histoire Moderne et Contemporaine (UMR 8066), and the laboratory “Anthropologie et Histoire des Mondes Antiques” (Anhima – UMR 8210), as explained in Note 6 of the chapter written by Wolf Feuerhahn, p. 17. []
  8. In French, “[enseigner] la science en train de se faire”. The slogan usually used today is that of teaching “la recherche en train de se faire” [“research in the making”]. []
  9. See p. 91 et sqq. where one of the supporting sources is mentioned: manuscript MS 964 “Université contre C[ollège] royal”, conserved at the Bibliothèque Interuniversitaire de la Sorbonne. Abel Lefranc also mentions archive documents regarding this, on page 258 of his book Histoire du Collège de France depuis ses origines jusqu’à la fin du Premier Empire, Paris, Librairie Hachette, 1893, 432 p. (In a note, he mentions documents conserved at the Mazarin Library Ms 3310, “documents 4, 19, 20, 26 etc.”). []
  10. Étienne-Jules Marey uses Renan’s slogan and mentions it in a 1903 report presenting the titles and work of Manouvrier, Chair in History of Science. He writes: “Renan did a good job of describing the purpose of the Collège by saying that it consisted in teaching science in the making”. []
  11. A symposium was held in June 2016 entitled “Freud au Collège de France” [Freud at the Collège de France]: https://www.college-de-france.fr/site/antoine-compagnon/p2093006875800059_content.htm. []
  12. Another symposium was held on 11 and 12 June 2018, entitled “Einstein au Collège de France” [Einstein at the Collège de France]: https://www.college-de-france.fr/site/antoine-compagnon/symposium-2017-2018__1.htm, after the symposium Darwin au Collège de France, held on 19 and 20 June 2017 https://www.college-de-france.fr/site/antoine-compagnon/symposium-2016-2017__1-day1.htm []

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