Renaissance Society and Stevanovich Institute design talk around exhibition

Mary Abowd
News Officer for Arts & HumanitiesUniversity Communications

UChicago’s 100-year-old Renaissance Society recently teamed up with one of the University’s newest entities—the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge— for a discussion of how doubt permeates questions of identity, language, and what we know (or think we know) about sex and science.

Launched last year, the Stevanovich Institute investigates how knowledge has been shaped from antiquity until today. Researchers with the institute explore the contexts and conditions of the construction of knowledge across historical, cultural and scientific parameters.

The joint May 5 event, “On Doubt,” offered a chance to explore topics of mutual interest at the Renaissance Society and the Stevanovich Institute. The discussion was part of the Renaissance Society’s current exhibition, Between the Ticks of the Watch, running until June 26, which presents a platform for considering doubt as both a state of mind and a pragmatic tool.

“Doubt is an urge to think again, to question, to investigate … to pull at the loose threads of knowledge,” said Solveig Øvstebø, executive director of the Renaissance Society and curator of the exhibition.

“We were drawn to collaborate with the Renaissance Society [through the exhibit] because of the role of doubt as a generative force that spurs us on to question our assumptions, seek new avenues of inquiry and push the boundaries of knowledge,” said Macol Stewart Cerda, executive director of the Stevanovich Institute. “We are completely discipline-agnostic and bring together scientists, humanists, economists, artists, among many others.”

Doubt drives the scientific method because theories can neither be conclusively proven nor disproven, never beyond all possible doubt, said Robert J. Richards, Stevanovich Institute member and professor of the history of science and medicine, a presenter at the program. “The advancement of science works by conjecture and efforts at refutation of those conjectures … so most of the science of yesterday is probably doomed to fall into the wastebasket of the history of science,” Richards said.

Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer, another presenter, SIFK director, and professor of classics and gender studies, focused her remarks on human sexuality and gender studies. “The Greco-Roman model held that women were simply inferior, not fully developed versions of men,” she said. Over centuries, doubts led to one paradigm change after another regarding male and female bodies and gender roles.

“We may be on the cusp of a revolution where we are starting to doubt our current models,” she added. “Perhaps gender is not binary and does not exist on a continuum between male and female extremes. Instead, people might pick a spot on a two-dimensional grid.”

The third presenter, James Conant, professor of philosophy, discussed different ways doubt has been understood historically and in contemporary philosophy. “We must distinguish between forms of doubt that come up in everyday life, like are there UFOs, versus philosophical doubt,” he said. “And there are different kinds of philosophical doubt, too.”

Cartesian skepticism asks, how can I know things are as my senses present them to be? Kantian skepticism, on the other hand, asks, how can things even seem to be a certain way?

The topics discussed during the program and explored by the Renaissance Society’s exhibition are relevant today, at a time when doubt can be used constructively rather than seen as a negative force, Øvstebø said. “Where doubt does not exist, that’s where you’ll find trouble.”