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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

Dr Roger Smith: Being human in Russia – free will and psychology under the Tsars

18th November 2008, 17:15 to 18:15, Birley Room, Hatfield College

IAS/Hatfield College Public Lecture

In the 1860s, under the new tsar Alexander II, there was an outpouring of hope for change in Russia. Liberal reformers and the first generation of revolutionaries alike looked to science for enlightened ways to build ‘the New Man’, a human being free from ignorance and prejudice. There was a highly charged debate about establishing psychology as a science and about human free will and the soul – with more than a few parallels to our modern debate about neuroscience, human nature and religious belief. Autocratic politics, revolutionary action, a vivacious women’s movement, the great novels of Turgenev, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, all addressed the question of free will.

The lecture will identify the leading actors in the debates and their hopes for human science. Then as now, elsewhere in Europe as in Russia, argument about what sort of science of being human is possible and desirable affected both the course of history and human self-understanding. The rich Russian debate of the 1860s, about the way forward for psychology, opened up still-running questions concerning mind, body and spirit – concerning the very ‘being’ of being human.

Roger Smith is Reader (Emeritus) at Lancaster University and an independent scholar associated with the Institute of the History of Science and Technology and the Institute of Psychology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, in Moscow. He is currently a Fellow at the Durham Institute of Advanced Study and Hatfield College(October-December 2008) participating in the Institute’s ‘Being Human’ research theme.

Dr Smith’s research has centred on the history of the relations of mind and brain, linked to the rich history of views connecting ‘being human’ and nature. He was led into the history of knowledge of the brain, of psychology and psychiatry, of the puzzle of human agency in a deterministic world (the problem of free will), of the relationship between the human sciences, the humanities and the natural sciences, and so on. His research, continuing at Durham, attempts to debate these questions through different kinds of projects in intellectual history.


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