Theoretical Foundations for Interdisciplinarity

By Lilian O’Brien, Walter Rech, and Svetlana Vetchinnikova

The authors of this post reflect on the outcome of the symposium Theoretical Foundations for Interdisciplinarity, which they conceived together while working as core fellows at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. The symposium took place at HCAS on 30.11.–1.12.2023.

Interdisciplinary research has yielded many new insights and methodologies. It allows us to tackle multi-faceted problems that draw from different domains of expertise.

But many who engage in interdisciplinary research will tell you that it can be difficult to do. Our symposium aimed to shed light on key sources of difficulty. Philosophers, linguists, and intellectual historians from Finland, Germany, Sweden, the UK, and the USA, came together for two days of rich discussion in November and December.

Image by Pavel Kaltygin


As the name of our symposium suggested, our interests were “foundational”. We were not, that is, primarily concerned with difficulties encountered in specific instances of interdisciplinary research, but with broader themes that are relevant to most interdisciplinary research.

For example, are there different kinds of explanation being sought in, say, the humanities and social sciences? We were also concerned with how variations in how language is used in different disciplines may prevent mutual understanding. Does our shared human cognitive architecture help or hinder interdisciplinary work? Given that concepts evolve over time, and shape our disciplines in deep ways, how does this affect our interdisciplinary work?

The papers at the symposium provided a rich and rewarding conversation. Here we would like to share brief observations of each of the co-organizers of the workshop.

Walter Rech:

The symposium illustrated that the dynamics of scientific evolution are both disciplinary and interdisciplinary, micro and macro. Historically, moves towards specialization as well as cross-fertilization have generated a productive tension.

Martti Koskenniemi noted that specific disciplines tend to produce and perpetuate their own worldview as characterized by particular interests and mindsets, thereby preventing a meta-description of the world. At the same time, some disciplines or sub-disciplines may move towards convergence or retain certain traits that they share with neighboring fields. Within the humanities, for instance, intellectual history remains a typical blend of history and philosophy: it discusses historical sources by simultaneously providing relevant historical contexts and delving into the philosophical analyses of texts, as Adrian Blau argued.

New technologies may also encourage interdisciplinary work. There is increasing convergence, for instance, between classical intellectual history and the digital humanities. Alison McQueen and Mikko Tolonen stressed the centrality of digital methods for expanding historical knowledge and analyzing large bodies of sources in a systematic manner. Within critical history, digital humanities may broaden existing canons and help make visible certain aspects of the past that have remained invisible so far.

Certain disciplines today appear as inherently interdisciplinary and can hardly be imagined otherwise. This is the case of human rights, as Miia Halme-Tuomisaari showed. While early human rights scholarship focused on human rights norms from a largely legal perspective, the broader phenomenon of human rights politics, diplomacy and culture is now studied by social and political scientists, historians, philosophers and economists. Importantly, these perspectives do not produce a meta-description of human rights but rather contribute to a more comprehensive picture of the overarching field, thereby also increasing awareness of the challenges facing human rights today.

Svetlana Vetchinnikova:

In the efforts to understand another discipline, it is useful to keep in mind that, in a way, any discipline is a product of cultural evolution. Disciplines evolve in social interaction between community members and are therefore subject to the influence of social, cognitive, and linguistic factors. As a result, disciplinary state-of-the-art may reflect the origin and historical development of the field no less than its actual subject matter. Any discipline as we know it could have been different. We do what we do because of how we got here.

This is not a fundamental flaw. In fact, complex systems, that is, open systems where multiple agents interact over time, such as all biological systems, produce optimal results through self-organization, adaptation, and evolution. However, our understanding of a field is incomplete without an appreciation of its history.

For example, statistics is often seen as the epitome of objectivity in science. This does not hold, as Bodo Winter vividly demonstrated. Rather, it emerged in the interplay between the processes characteristic of human social interaction like any other discipline. The spread of significance testing, which is arguably the most widely used statistical framework today, can be traced back to the specific sociopolitical context within which it developed including the idea of eugenics, the level of technological development of the time, the incentive system of academia with its focus on publishing as well as the bandwagon effect.

In appreciation of such developments, we may hear, especially perhaps from academic administrators, that we need to shake up the fossilized structures of academia. Indeed, some of the fossilized structures may be artifacts of the historical processes and can create perverse incentives and unintended consequences. At the same time, a so-called “fossilized structure” is an ultimate form of efficiency.

Fossilization, routinization, and conventionalization all refer to the same process of learning through practice. A convention, whether it is a linguistic form-meaning pairing, a social practice, or a methodological procedure, is a low entropy zone with reduced information load which lets us function efficiently. It is not just a highly automatized process like brushing your teeth but also a socially accepted process like agreeing with each other on a specific way of brushing your teeth to achieve predictability – which of course would be entirely useless in the case of teeth brushing but essential, say, in language.

There is a catch though. A convention reduces information load and facilitates communication for the members of the community who agreed on it, but not for the outsiders. So something which makes our work efficient within a field at the same time creates barriers between fields. The principle applies to all social practices including language. As Elke Teich showed, increasing conventionalization of a disciplinary sublanguage reduces cognitive load and makes communication efficient within a discipline but at the same time hinders interdisciplinarity.

In sum, historical baggage is both a blessing and a curse. It may help to unpack it now and then.

Lilian O’Brien:

Consider a cell biologist and a historian. They would seem to have little in common. The cell biologist is curious about what cells are, what their parts do, and what causal role they play in an organ. The historian is, say, interested in the rise of an empire, what sustained it, and what led to its demise.

And yet, in spite of the differences, central to the curiosity of both is the desire to understand how one thing causes or sustains the operations of another. How do mitochondria allow the cell to sustain its operations? How did a trade route sustain the operations of an empire?

Stephen Grimm’s talk emphasized such commonalities – he argued that a close study of research in fields as diverse as history and musicology reveals deep commonalities in the kind of understanding that is sought. In Lauren Ross’s talk, we learned about different kinds of causal concept, such as pathways and cascades. These show up in disciplines as diverse as sociology, chemistry, and environmental science and reveal common explanatory strategies. They also highlight ways in which diverse disciplines could be fruitfully brought together.

This is not to flatten out the many differences among disciplines, to pretend they are not there. As was amply illustrated in Caterina Marchionni’s talk, to insist upon harmony among disciplines even when they share the same object of curiosity – mental health in humans – is a mistake. It is not possible to integrate all of the important insights from diverse fields into a single overarching framework.

And, of course, the cell biologist seeks causal regularities, repeating patterns in nature. They wish to understand why things always happen in the cell in a particular way. By contrast, the historian’s interests are not usually quite so general, but seek understanding of a particular moment or sequence of events.

These and other differences speak against the assumption that we can do away entirely with disciplinary boundaries and diverse methods. But acknowledging this allows us to highlight the value of diverse disciplines, diverse methods, and to steer us clear of discounting one discipline in favour of another.

The symposium gave us an extremely valuable opportunity to stand back from the disciplines, to reflect upon and articulate important commonalities and differences among them. In doing so, we become better prepared to note both opportunities for, and obstacles to, interdisciplinary work.

Älkää vältelkö meitä, välittäkää meistä!

– Suomenkielinen blogiteksti lyhyellä englanninkielisellä esittelyllä


Wasiq Silan ja Friederike Lüpke (Helsingin yliopiston tutkijakollegium / HCAS)

Internationalisation at Finnish universities: from regulating languages to integrating language learners

The University of Helsinki often states the need for internationalisation and the importance of integrating international researchers and faculty members into the university community. In this blog entry, two international researchers shed light on one important challenge related to internationalisation: the integration of learners of Finnish and/or Swedish.

The university language policies date from a period when international staff and students without knowledge of Finnish and/or Swedish constituted a tiny minority. Internationalisation then meant increasing the use of English mainly among Finnish staff and students who had L1 proficiency in one of the national languages and a very high proficiency in the other national language and English (Kuteeva 2023). Policies thus focused on regulating the roles of these languages without the need to give much thought to integrating new members who did not have prior knowledge of either of the two national languages.

Since the percentage of international staff and students has been rapidly growing, access to adequate language classes and opportunities for using Finnish and/or Swedish while still learning these languages are of prime importance in order to maintain multilingualism at Finnish universities. But the need for offering opportunities for learning and using the national languages have importance beyond the walls of higher education institutions. International staff members and students are making their lives in Finland. Without Finnish or Swedish, they face huge obstacles and linguistic discrimination, for instance through being excluded from the labour market outside of universities and sufficient education opportunities for their children. But crucially, they are preempted from participating fully in Finnish society – much of current affairs, political life, literature, arts, socializing and networking, and crucially also the possibility to seek Finnish citizenship are closed off to them.

A research-based argument for conviviality and care by two learners of Finnish

Friederike Lüpke and Wasiq Silan (Gao I-An, 高怡安) are affiliated with HCAS. They met in a Finnish-learning choir at Stoa and have been helping each other learn and speak Finnishever since. Their experiences in using (or, mostly, not being able to use) Finnish at their workplace and the challenges they encountered in Finnish language classes and at the University of Helsinki motivated them to write the following text in Finnish. How these obstacles can be overcome is intimately linked to concepts stemming from their respective research. Wasiq’s focus is on the concept of care in Indigenous communities in Taiwan and the Nordic countries. Friederike’s research concentrates on convivial multilingualism. Conviviality and care are useful concepts not only for participatory language learning in formal classrooms, but also for the creation of more inclusive work environments and integration into Finnish society.  

They have written the text below in Finnish, and it has been corrected for grammar and spelling mistakes. The text thus intentionally presents learner Finnish. Too often, language learners are excluded from discussions on language policies and language support at Finnish universities because these discussions take place among L1 users of Finnish and happen in Finnish, which international staff members are not supposed to master according to widespread opinion. Friederike and Wasiq want to contribute to the discussion and illustrate that international staff members and learners of Finnish are able to do so, also in Finnish, if learners are welcome to the table.


Ystävällisyys ja avoimuus esiin

Tänä vuonna suomen ja englannin kielten tilanteesta käyty keskustelu on kiristynyt yliopistoissa ja suomalaisessa yhteiskunnassa. Usein tässä kiivaassa väittelyssä, johon osallistuvat eksklusiivisesti suomalaiset, puhutaan näiden kielten kilpailusta. Väitämme, että keskustelun painopisteen tulisi olla ihmisissä eikä kielissä. Suomen kielen opiskelijat tulisi ottaa mukaan. Tässä artikkelissa osallistumme keskusteluun sekä yliopiston jäseninä että suomen kielen opiskelijoina.

Yhdellä meistä oli pitkästä aikaa iloisia kokemuksia suomen kielen käyttämisestä, vaikka syynä oli vahinko. Friederikellä oli polvivenähdys, ja sen vuoksi hän liikkui taksilla ympäri kaupunkia. Oli ilo ja helppoa keskustella suomeksi taksikuskien kanssa. He olivat kaikki maahanmuuttajataustaisia ja olivat opiskelleet suomea asuessaan täällä, kuten Friederikekin. Samanlaisia positiivisia kokemuksia tapahtuu kaupoissa, monissa palveluissa ja joskus lääkärissä myös suomalaisten kanssa.

Tilanne muuttuu aina dramaattisesti, kun saavumme työpaikallemme Helsingin yliopistoon. Kollegoiden ovet ovat suljettuina, ja kun tapaamme suomalaisia kollegoita kahvihuoneessa, tervehdys tulee usein englanniksi. Vain tärkeät hallintokokoukset käydään pelkästään suomeksi. Arjen keskustelut pysyvät siis englanninkielisinä, mutta vallankäytössä käytetään ainoastaan suomea.

Mun matka suomen kieleen (1. jakso) - piirros, joka kuvaa suomen kielen opiskelijan kokemuksia.

Friederiken oppimismatka kahden ensimmäisen vuoden jälkeen

Kysymys nousee esiin: onnistuuko suomen kielen käyttö vain, kun puhumme opiskelijoiden kesken tai yliopiston ulkopuolella? Miten voimme osallistua yliopiston yhteisöön suomeksi? Mitkä ovat ne haasteet, jotka estävät meitä käyttämästä kieltä opiskelijoina suomea äidinkielenään puhuvien kollegoiden kanssa? Olemme Helsingin yliopiston henkilökunnan jäseniä, jotka ovat pitkään opiskelleet suomea. Tutkimuksemme liittyy monikielisyyteen (Friederike) ja alkuperäiskansojen hoivaan (Wasiq). Tässä artikkelissa yhdistämme suomen kielen oppimisen ja käytön haasteet kahteen tutkimuksessamme keskeiseen käsitteeseen. Ne ovat conviviality – eli ystävällisyys ja avoimuus vuorovaikutuksessa ihmisten kanssa, joita ei nähdä samanlaisina, sekä care – eli halukkuus auttaa muita kasvamaan ja viihtymään.

Integraation ja kieltenoppimisen kompastuskivet

Suomen kielen oppimisessa ja käytössä olemme kohdanneet kolme toisiinsa liittyvää haastetta. Suurin haaste on vanhentunut suomen kielen opetusmalli, joka keskittyy kirjakielen kielioppiin ja muodollisiin konteksteihin ottamatta huomioon modernia kielipedagogiikkaa. Puhuminen kuin Linnan juhlissa ei auta meitä arjessa, vaikka toki toivomme, että eräänä päivänä tulee kutsu Mariankadulle, ja meillä on vihdoin tilaa käyttää hienostunutta kirjakieltämme.

Lisäksi (ja anteeksi stereotypioiden herättämisestä, mutta vähintään Finnish Nightmares -sarjakuvan tekijä Karoliina Korhonen on samaa mieltä), kynnys vuorovaikutukseen on erittäin korkea suomalaisessa yhteiskunnassa. Se nousee vielä korkeammaksi, kun puhumme suomea vieraskielisinä: me emme uskalla käyttää suomea, koska emme koe puhuvamme tarpeeksi hyvin, eikä keskustelukumppanimme ajattele meidän puhuvan tarpeeksi hyvin. Esimerkiksi, jos haluamme harjoitella suomea kollegan kanssa jutellessamme aiheesta, josta me jo osaamme puhua suomeksi, ja hän puhuu monimutkaisesta asiasta nopeasti käyttäen suomea liian korkealla tasolla, tunnemme olomme masentuneiksi, ja vuorovaikutus epäonnistuu. Tällainen kokemus vahvistaa molemmille osapuolille, että suomen kielen taitomme ei riitä. Vaihto englantiin on siis välttämätön. Mutta jos meillä ei ole mahdollisuutta parantaa kielitaitoamme puhumalla, me emme koskaan pääse korkealle tasolle. Ilman tätä tukea emme voi opettaa suomeksi tai osallistua hallinnollisiin kokouksiin. Jos meillä ei ole suomalaisia sukulaisia tai ystäviä, se tarkoittaakin, että me pysymme täysin suomenkielisen yhteisön ulkopuolella.

Kolmas haaste on suomen kielen kurssien puute. Vaikka alkeistasolla on laaja tarjonta, kurssien määrä vähenee merkittävästi keskitasolta lähtien. Edistyneille opiskelijoille ei juuri ole tarjolla kursseja. Syynä on kurssien laatuun liittyvä noidankehä. Niin monet oppijat keskeyttävät tai toistavat samaa tasoa yhä uudelleen ja uudelleen, että edistyneitä oppijoita ei ole tarpeeksi. Monet suomen kielen opettajat ovat normalisoineet oppijoiden epäonnistumisen ja ajattelevat, että tämä johtuu siitä, että he eivät yritä tarpeeksi kovasti. Mutta neuvot, kuten Wasiqille annettu suositus parantaa kielitaitoa Kalevalaa lukemalla, kun hän ei pystynyt edes avaamaan pankkitiliä suomeksi, ovat usein haitallisia. Ja jos 90% opiskelijoista ei käytä suomea, he eivät ole ainoita häviäjiä. Häviäjät ovat myös suomen kieli ja suomalainen yhteiskunta.

Hyviä malleja sosiaaliseen vuorovaikutukseen perustuvaan kielenoppimiseen

Mutta onko kaikki huonoa suomen kielen opetuksessa ja jakamisessa oppijoille? Onneksi meillä on myös monia hyviä kokemuksia, jotka antavat meille toivoa.

  • Yliopistojen kielibuusti on hyvä esimerkki uudistuneesta opetusmallista, joka integroi arkipuhetta. Harmi vain, että samalla kurssien määrää ja opetustunteja per kurssi on vähennetty ja että kurssit siirrettiin kokonaan verkkoon. Yliopisto-opettajina meillä ei ole oikeutta opettaa etänä, paitsi kun on hyvä pedagoginen syy. Miksi suomen kieltä opiskelevat henkilöstön jäsenet, joiden on rakennettava sosiaalisia verkostoja ja saatava parasta mahdollista tukea käyttääkseen suomea työpaikallaan, kohdellaan huonommin kuin opiskelijoita?
  • Innovatiiviset interaktiiviset kurssimuodot, kuten Mari Nikosen Ask a Finnish Teacherin Puhetta-kurssisarja, auttoivat Friederikeä puhumaan suomea yli minuutin ajan ilman aivohalvausta. Kursseilla käytetään upeita innovatiivisia osallistavia kieltenoppimisen menetelmiä.
  • Vertaistukiryhmät, joissa suomen kielen opiskelijat ja suomenkieliset kollegat juttelevat vapaasti ja ilman pelkoa tehdä virheitä, kuten Topelian B rapussa ja aina torstaina kollegiumissa, ovat erittäin tärkeitä – kiitos meitä tukeneille kollegoille! Sen lisäksi, että nämä tilaisuudet auttavat meitä kehittämään suomen taitojamme, ne tarjoavat suomenkielisille kollegoille mahdollisuuden oppia, miten he voivat kommunikoida oppijoiden kanssa ja tukea heitä.
  • Tila, jolla on erityinen paikka sydämissämme on Johanna Lehtinen-Schnabelin johtama Stoan ”Opi suomea laulaen” kuoro, joka on osa ELLA (Embodied Language Learning through theArts) projektia. Kuoro on auki kaikkien tasojen oppijoille ja opettaa sekä suomen kielen ääntämistä, uusia sanoja, kuuluisia kansalauluja, pop-biisejä ja iskelmiä että erityisesti luotuja kappaleita kieliopin oppimiseen. Ennen kuoroon liittymistä olimme molemmat lähellä luopumista suomen kielen opiskelusta. Kuoro on parantavaa, hauskaa, sosiaalista ja inspiroivaa.
Kuva Opi laulaen suomea -kuoron harjoituksista, etualalla piano, seinälle heijastettuina Kuolleet lehdet -nimisen laulun sanat.

Opi suomea laulaen -kuoron harjoitukset

Vetoomus kollegoillemme, opettajillemme ja yliopiston johdolle

Toivoisimmekin lisää tällaista ystävällisyyttä ja avoimuutta vuorovaikutukseen ihmisten kanssa, joita ei nähdä samanlaisina, sekä halukkuutta auttaa muita kasvamaan ja viihtymään. Tämä voisi inspiroida suomen kielen oppimista kaikkialla. Päätämme lauluun, jonka opimme kuorossa – Happoradion ”Puhu äänellä, jonka kuulen”:

Puhu äänellä, jonka kuulen

Sanoilla, jotka ymmärrän

Runoilla, jotka käsitän

Sinuun tarvii tekstityksen

Salaisuuksien selittäjän

Kertojan kaikkitietävän

Puhu äänellä, jonka kuulen

Laulu kuvastaa sitä ystävällisyyttä, hoivaa ja huolenpitoa, joiden avulla selviämme monista haasteista, jotka estävät meitä oppimasta ja käyttämästä suomen kieltä. Sillä tavalla voimme oppia kohtaamisten kautta sen sijaan, että itkisimme yksin Suomen Mestari -kirjan äärellä.


*Kuteeva, Maria. 2023. Tension-filled English at the multilingual university: A Bakhtinian perspective. Bristol: Multilingual Matters






Is it legal? Is it useful? Some questions on targeted killing

By Walter Rech (HCAS Core Fellow)

Photo by sibsky2016, Shutterstock

Whether carried out by sharpshooting, poisoning or drone attacks, targeted killing has become a defining tool of war and counterterrorism in the twenty-first century. While the term of ‘targeted’ killing seems to indicate a limited use of force, its significance goes well beyond the elimination of single individuals.

Possible justifications of targeted killing: utilitarian and humanitarian approaches

From a strategic perspective, targeted killing has been deemed useful and effective in particular as a means to neutralize enemy entities that rely on charismatic leadership and may find it difficult to replace charismatic leaders adequately or adjust their internal structure in response to external attacks. This especially applies to criminal groups in the early stages of organizational development or to governmental authorities that have recently seized power. These entities may not be able to deal with ‘decapitation’, i.e. the loss of key leader figures.

In addition to being useful and effective under the above circumstances, targeted killing may paradoxically be justified for humanitarian reasons as it allows the state to achieve security goals without starting a full-scale war leading to innumerable civilian and military casualties. Already Renaissance authors noted that although the elimination of enemy individuals may look very much like sheer assassination and thus as blameworthy, it had a humanitarian component. As Thomas More put it in Utopia:

‘[The Utopians] think it likewise an act of mercy and love to mankind to prevent the great slaughter of those that must otherwise be killed in the progress of the war, both on their own side and on that of their enemies, by the death of a few that are most guilty; and that in so doing they are kind even to their enemies, and pity them no less than their own people, as knowing that the greater part of them do not engage in the war of their own accord, but are driven into it by the passions of their prince.’

The human rights perspective

Yet despite utilitarian and humanitarian arguments the practice of targeted killing still raises a number of legal and policy issues. At least in times of (formal) peace, the elimination of individuals without due process seems at odds with international human rights, in particular the individual’s right to life, and may not always comply with strict law enforcement standards typically required by liberal democracies. The elimination of foreign public figures, in particular, would be tantamount to political assassination, which is illegal under domestic laws and international treaties. It could qualify as an act of aggression against a foreign state, unless carried out in self-defence. Beyond the killing of public figures, even the elimination of terrorists, which might raise fewer legal and ethical issues, might turn out to be problematic in the long term if the targeting state deploys security arguments and emergency measures in ways that undermine human rights and constitutional guarantees.

Ticking bombs?

But surely, some might respond, there must be some justification at least for neutralizing terrorists who are preparing an attack, the classical ticking bomb scenario. This would clearly differ from the elimination of foreign leaders. One cannot deprive the state of its right to protect its citizens from terrorists simply because of the risk that some states will manipulate counterterrorism as an ideological tool. In a ticking bomb scenario, targeted killing would be a lesser evil compared with the consequences of a terrorist attack.

Yet the ticking bomb scenarios in which targeted killing seems most legitimate occur fairly rarely in the real world. Most targeted killings are meant to eliminate individuals who may not constitute an immediate threat. As a result, they should be apprehended whenever possible rather than killed, as most liberal legal systems require. If states decide to allow so-called shoot-to-kill policies to address security threats, strict standards of proportionality and necessity should be applied.

Breaching the law to protect the law?

Some have still argued that fully respecting ordinary criminal laws and human rights standards may in some exceptional cases prevent the state from properly addressing security threats, and terrorists should be eliminated as soon as the occasion arises. This might contravene liberal democracy standards, but it may sometimes be necessary to breach the law, or lower legal standards, in order to protect the law itself. The argument goes that when the legal system is threatened by people whose very aim is to destroy the law, legal protections should not be granted to them.

Is this a ‘war’? The law of armed conflict

In addition to utilitarian arguments, there would be a legal avenue for justifying targeted killing occurring in wartime. If terrorist attacks are recurrent and part of a continuous threat, the conflict between the state and opposition forces that the state regards as terrorists may legally be considered as a situation of outright armed conflict. The law of armed conflict would then apply, and this law offers more leeway to the state than human rights law or domestic criminal law. Under the law of armed conflict, all those taking active part in the hostilities – hence not only those constituting immediate threats – represent military targets and may lawfully be killed. There is no strict rule of armed conflict requiring the targeting entity to apprehend rather than kill the targeted person as long as the person is engaged in the hostilities, for instance by virtue of belonging to an armed group. Thus, the targeted killing of enemies during armed conflict does not raise many issues, and indeed states have often eliminated enemy troops and military officers through sharpshooting in wartime. Under this view, the central distinction would be the one between the state of war, in which targeted killing would typically be allowed, and a state of peace, in which human rights would play a major role and would place a heavier burden of proof on the targeting state to show that the targeting is lawful.

Operations abroad

Some further argue that a situation of armed conflict may also exist between the targeting state and terrorist entities based abroad. Under this view the targeting state, as a victim of terrorist attacks, would have a right to defend itself against those entities, including by means of extraterritorial operations. It has been argued that if a country is unwilling or unable to stop terrorists who threaten another state, the latter state has a right to take action to neutralize the terrorist threat on that country’s soil. This would be supported by Art. 51 UN Charter, which endows member states with an ‘inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs’ against them.

A slippery slope?

But could the justification of targeted killing turn into a slippery slope nevertheless? Even when targeting states do not intend to undermine the global human rights regime, merely resorting to and justifying targeted killing in an expansive way could weaken constitutional rights for ordinary citizens and introduce worrying precedents in international relations. The fact that targeted killing has sometimes been used by some states to neutralize internal dissidents shows that there is a fine line between legitimate counterterrorism and the more controversial elimination of internal opposition. Who will decide which kind of enemy qualifies as a legitimate target or rather the victim of domestic repression?

As the world order seems to be in transition it is important to keep in mind that targeted killing is part and parcel of broader practices of and discourses on the use of force in global politics. In previous centuries, targeted killing has been seen as a useful and even humanitarian tool, as More suggested, but it has also been used by some states to secure international influence and force regime change abroad. What is at stake in targeted killing policies and practices is not only the legality of specific acts but also the broader standards applicable to the use of force as a way of addressing domestic and international threats.

Walter Rech’s Collegium projectTargeted Killing and International Law, 1600–1800” investigates the history of state-sponsored assassinations and targeted killing in early-modern times, in particular in the period 1600–1800, when lawyers and government officials developed a set of core arguments on the matter. The project addresses the legal, political and ethical issues at stake in targeted killing and why it is important to rethink this practice today.





Mapping Care: Insights from the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies Retreat

By HCAS Fellows Andy Graan, Charlie Kurth, Lilian O’Brien, Wasiq Silan and Nina Öhman

In the tranquil summer retreat of 2023, the fellows of the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies (HCAS) embarked on a journey to Haikko, a picturesque manor near the charming artisan old town of Porvoo. The purpose of the retreat was to foster interdisciplinary dialogue and conclude the productive academic year. While indulging in the seashore where one of the most renowned Finnish-Swedish painters, Albert Edelfelt, made his paintings, we delved into the intriguing topic of ‘care’ and explored its multifaceted dimensions. This blog post sheds light on our Mapping Care workshop, which brought together perspectives on care, ranging from indigenous studies and feminist theory to musicology, philosophy and more.

HCAS Fellows in front of the Haikko Manor in May 2023

The concept of care has been extensively analyzed and interpreted across various academic disciplines. From indigenous studies and feminist theory to political philosophy and queer theory, ideas about care have formed into an intricate composite of different meanings and applications. Recognizing the significance of care as a concept, our workshop aimed to create a safe space where we could share thoughts, exchange ideas, and collectively unravel the complex nature of care.

To kickstart the dialogue, two influential readings were circulated among us. The first was an essay by Sara Ahmed titled “Selfcare as Warfare,” which delved into the transformative power of self-care, drawing inspiration from the influential writer and activist Audre Lorde. Ahmed’s exploration of care as an act of resistance provided a thought-provoking foundation for the discussions that followed. The second reading, a chapter from Robin Wall Kimmerer‘s acclaimed book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, was titled “Learning the Grammar of Animacy.” In this chapter, Kimmerer elucidates the indigenous perspective on care by emphasizing the interconnectedness between humans and the natural world. By understanding the animate nature of all beings, Kimmerer advocates for a more respectful and reciprocal relationship with our environment. With the help of these two articles, we started a discussion about what ‘care’ may mean.

Weaving the meaning of care

Our workshop became a collaborative journey of introspection and exchange. We started the discussion by mapping out what ‘care’ means to us in our current studies, and what we envision ‘care’ would be in five years. We wrote down what comes to mind, inscribing one or two keywords on post-it notes. Our goal was to create a visual storyboard showing how care takes form in our current and future projects. Here is a description of the storyboard of our creation.


Wasiq Silan:

I approach ‘care’ in relation to wellbeing and health in the Indigenous context. I started out to engage with notion of ‘care’ through my fieldwork at the day club, a social welfare project that takes place in many Indigenous communities in Taiwan to support older adults to age in place. Being trained in political science, my research design was to examine how Taiwan’s long-term care policies for the elderly impact older adults in the Indigenous communities.

However, I quickly realized being at the day club was like a ceremony that transformed my research, my positionality and the framing through which I see care. Namely, I am more interested in how Elders experience care, and more broadly what health and well-being mean in the Indigenous Tayal context. In practice, I followed my grandmother into the day club (community care center), using ethnography as well as Indigenous methodologies to make sense of what care means to the Bbnkis (Tayal Elders). I found out that contrary to the policies, where care is treated as a tool to delay the (often inevitable) functional decay, care for Bbnkis is relational. A way of life. Malahang (care, caring or governing in Tayal) entails strengthening relationships between people, humans and animals, and most importantly, with land.

In a similar vein, care workers in the Indigenous communities were under moral stress when they want to provide meaningful care to the Bbnkis. The stress points at a collective ethical labor that Indigenous care workers are subjected to when they decided to privilege Elders’ needs rather than policy guidelines. Care thus becomes a fundamental site of struggle in the wider Taiwanese policy environment where decolonization was only beginning.

What does it look like in 5 years? I envision further developing the framework of care in the context of Tayal knowledge. Specifically, I aim to collaborate with community researchers through Indigenous methodologies to explore caring about relations within millets growing.

Andy Graan:

My current research focuses on projects and the model of agency that is presupposed by the project form.  Projects are based on the historically specific assumption that society and nature are objects that can be transformed and they position human actors as the agents who both envision and execute transformation.  This model of agency underwrote the myriad modernist projects that resulted in rapacious European colonialism, the enclosure of the commons, and constitutional government, just to name a few. Moreover, this model of agency perpetuates technofuturism as a hegemonic form of problem solving in the world today.

My interest in “care,” then, stems from my desire to denaturalize and provincialize the project form as a model of action.  Projects are premised on human subjects acting on natural and social objects.  Care, however, as articulated by thinkers working in the fields of feminist philosophy, Black feminist theory, and cultural anthropology, describes a different kind of social relation and a different model of action, one based on reciprocity, mutuality, kinning, respect, and solidarity.  Care is focused on the here and now, rather than on speculative futures. Care can be a praxis of refusal and survival, of denying dehumanization and oppression, of continuing to live after apocalypses.

Indeed, groups facing marginalization and abjection—women in patriarchal societies, the enslaved, the indigenous, the poor, those subjected to apartheid and occupation, refugees, and immigrants—have born the greatest burdens of care but have been its most profound elaborators and practitioners.  Everyday care practices too often go unrecognized while commodified care practices are hoarded by some and denied to others.  As I see it, then, the literature on care provides us with an important provocation. In elevating practices of reciprocity, refusal and survival, it punctures recalcitrant myths of progress (for whom?) and centers the fiercely mundane labor of living together.

Lilian O’Brien:

In my current research I am very interested in the nature of commitment – committing to plans and principles is central to our ability to function as social agents who coordinate and co-operate with others. Committing is also something that can give meaning and value to our lives, when, for example, we commit to caring for and supporting others in close relationships.

I am interested in the relationship between committing and caring. They seem to be interdependent, at least sometimes, and I would like to better understand this relationship of interdependence, how they are different from, or similar to, one another, how they may reinforce one another, but also how they may be in tension with one another. Is committing to promoting the well-being of another necessary for caring for them? How does and should caring for another be constrained or informed by prior commitments to plans or principles that are unconnected to caring for the other? The discussion at our care workshop has helped me to appreciate the complexity of the concept of care.

The other area in which I have thought about caring is in the context of feminist philosophy, and specifically, in feminist ethics. Feminist philosophers have argued that ethical theorizing, which has in the past been dominated by male philosophers, has neglected relationships of caring that are found in everyday settings, particularly in domestic settings where, for example, parents care for children, where children are taught to care for one another and for nonhuman animals, their environments, and so on.

Some feminists have thought that ethics should have care at its core – ethics should be much less focused on the rights of freely contracting individuals and should instead focus on the relationships of responsibility that we have to one another in social settings. Whether or not that revisionary view of ethics offers a clear and plausible alternative remains to be seen. But even if this radical revision does not work, it would be an impoverished ethics that did not take seriously the ethical issues that arise because we are the kinds of creatures who are embedded in caring relationships.

Nina Öhman:  

I have not yet used “care” as a concept in my current research, but I have become inspired by its potential to elucidate – or should I say amplify – the audible bonds people build with each other. As a musicologist, my research engages with sound and recently I have been thinking about the many ways in which the idea of care guides musical lives of individuals and communities. And how I might understand and write about caring in its myriad sonorities. On the one hand, a well-known approach is music therapy as health care, but on the other hand, caring / uncaring can be seen more broadly as the power of music to soothe, or trouble, our lived experiences. Furthermore, music in communal life can express values and enforce relationships, conveying caring for one another. Yet, music can also be used destructively, for example to disturb peace, for harmful or purposeful noise, demonstrating carelessness or uncaring.

Additionally, I have thought about what the idea of care might mean for us as researchers in our work. Instead of assuming the position of a so-called objective observer, I ponder how might we engage in our work as thinking and feeling individuals enacting care. I still have a lot to learn and understand about this topic, but surely care is an integral part of the dialogue we have with our interlocutors.

Charlie Kurth:

In my research and teaching, I’ve approached care from a variety of perspectives: within biomedical ethics, as a way to understand the complexity of the doctor-patient relationship; within normative ethics, as a feminist-inspired alternative to ethical theory; and in my work on moral psychology, as a label for a range of related, morally significant emotions—compassion, empathy, concern, and the like. The workshop gave me the opportunity to think not just about these facets of my work, but also gain further insights from the other participants. On this front, the discussion helped me see that talk about ‘care’ is much more conceptually rich and complex than I had appreciated.


With our reflections on what role ‘care’ plays in research, we can begin to recognize how our work is deeply entangled with care and (un)caring across different disciplines. Care encompasses the future, but even more so it is about here and now; care is an embodied experience, but it also transcends; care seems to evoke personal emotions, but it also triggers relational commitments that at times are even inseparable from the communities one cares about. Care is both mundane and sacred. Care has aspired to be turned into practice that empowers and transforms. Meanwhile, care continues to be practiced every day, largely unnoticed, likely devalued and may hardly be reciprocated.

To summarize, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s language game (see endnote below) may be helpful: there will be no one thing common to all forms of care, and no successful characterization of it in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, but that there will only be “family resemblances” among a variety of things that deserve the title “care”.

The HCAS retreat of 2023 served as a platform for us to collectively explore the multifaceted nature of care. The workshop—and the retreat as a whole—fostered a safe space for intellectual growth, encouraging us to challenge preconceived notions and develop a deeper understanding of amorphous concepts, such as care. By bringing together various disciplines, the Collegium’s retreat demonstrated the power of interdisciplinary dialogue in enriching the depth of our thinking.


Endnote: Ludwig Wittgenstein: Philosophical Investigations, sections 65-67:

  1. You talk about all sorts of language- games, but have nowhere said what the essence of a language-game, and hence of language, is: what is common to all these activities, and what makes them into language or parts of language. So you let yourself off the very part of the investigation that once gave you yourself most headache, the part about the general form of propositions and of language.”And this is true.—Instead of producing something common to all that we call language, I am saying that these phenomena have no one thing in common which makes us use the same word for all,— but that they are related to one another in many different ways. And it is because of this relationship, or these relationships, that we call them all “language”. I will try to explain this.
  2. Consider for example the proceedings that we call “games”. I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all?—Don’t say: “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games’ “—but look and see whether there is anything common to all.—For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look!—Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ball- games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost.—Are they all ‘amusing’? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis. Think now of games like ring-a-ring-a-roses; here is the element of amusement, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared! And we can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; can see how similarities crop up and disappear. And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail.
  3. I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way.— And I shall say: ‘games’ form a family.










Academic job interviews

By Tuomas Forsberg (HCAS Director 2018–2023)

What advice can be given about academic job interviews? There are plenty of tips and various lists of dos and don’ts on the internet, but here are some of mine. My first piece of advice, however, is that you might want to browse what people have written on academic job interviews. Knowing that the key issues are often very much the same will increase your self-confidence.

By Fauxels,

Having said that, academic job interviews can be very different depending on the position and national or institutional culture and traditions. For some academic positions, such as HCAS fellowships, there are no interviews. Interviews can be superfluous for research grants and arranging them takes a lot of time and effort. However, for a tenured or permanent position, or for a leader or member of a close-knit research group, interviews are normally indispensable. For a teaching position, a demo lesson as well as an interview is a basic rule.

Job interviews are for gathering information

The weight placed on interviews can also vary. Some consider them crucial, while others, such as psychologist Daniel Kahneman, think that they are often overrated and can mislead hiring decisions. In Kahneman’s view, interviews are most useful if the recruiting side knows what kind of information they are looking for in the interviews and can compare the candidates’ performance on the basis of clear standards. Intuition and first impressions are not reliable indicators.

However, very few academic job interviews follow Kahneman’s strict standards. Intuition and first impressions often matter, but they are seldom decisive. If you are the top candidate, first impressions are likely to be more positive than if you are further down the list. Poor performance in interviews can often be forgiven if the interviewers have formed a positive opinion of the candidate beforehand, and particularly if they already know the person. However, the top candidate can sometimes fail so badly in interviews that he or she will no longer be considered for the position. An excellent performance, by contrast, can put you high up on the list, but you will seldom be offered a position solely on the basis of an excellent interview if your other credentials are clearly weaker than those of the top candidates. The purpose of academic interviews is often to weed out unsuitable candidates.

How do we avoid failure in academic job interviews? The worst mistakes are typically that you do not seem to know or cannot explain the substance of your expertise, even when you have conducted research into it. You should be able to explain gaps in your CV or other apparent weaknesses but, in most cases, it doesn’t help to bring these up unless asked. You should know the key requirements of the position and the basic institutional features of the unit that is hiring. You can also fail if you don’t indicate the right motivation for the position, if you show no ability for self-reflection, or if you behave in an arrogant or strange manner. You don’t need to be the nicest person, but you should be able to interact naturally and be on the same page as the interviewers during the interview.

Prepare yourself

When you’re preparing for an academic interview, it helps if you can talk to people who are well informed about the position and the unit. At the very least, you should check the job advertisement, the webpage of the unit, and other relevant material that has been sent to you or is available before the interview. It is also worth gaining some knowledge about the background and profiles of the people who will be interviewing you, if possible.

You should be prepared to answer at least the following questions: What is your motivation in applying for the position?; What is your key (theoretical) contribution to research?; What is your teaching or leadership philosophy (depending on the position)?; What added value can you provide to the unit, or what is your development vision?; and What are your strengths and weaknesses overall?

Photo by HCAS

Consider what you can offer, not what you need or want. Think about the questions you would like to ask when you are given a chance to do so, typically at the end of the interview. Don’t ask how much time for research you will really have, although that is the key question that ambitious scholars usually have in mind when they apply for a new position.

Try to be as articulate as possible and address the issue directly. You can include short anecdotes and examples, but you shouldn’t be too wordy. On the other hand, your answers shouldn’t be too concise either. The best impression is when more questions could have been asked besides those that were prepared, but all the key questions were nevertheless asked in time. Be clear about your strengths but don’t oversell or exaggerate. You may be asked why you think you’re a unique fit for the position, but don’t overstate your uniqueness.

There are also some issues related to appearance and manners. These are often contextual, but being able to read the context could be one aspect of the interview. It’s better to be overdressed than too casual. It helps if you’re polite, but you shouldn’t flatter the interviewers. Sometimes the panel members want to shake hands, but often they don’t, in which case a brief greeting will suffice.

The hardest advice to take is the suggestion not to be nervous, because if you really want the position, you’re likely to be somewhat apprehensive. However, try not to show your nervousness: you should avoid fiddling with your hands, scratching your head, or fidgeting in your chair. Don’t worry if you do find yourself succumbing to nervousness, however. If you’re the top candidate, most interview panels will likely understand your nervousness. They may even forgive some otherwise weak answers because of it.

Tuomas Forsberg and HCAS fellows in the common room of the Helsinki Collegium.

Does interdisciplinarity require joint themes?

By Tuomas Forsberg

Tuomas Forsberg

HCAS Director Tuomas Forsberg (photo by Veikko Somerpuro)

Institutes for advanced study are based on the idea of bottom-up, curiosity-driven research. This has not prevented institutes for advanced study from having thematically defined calls. Some of them have an annually rotating theme guiding their recruitment, others support smaller thematically organized research groups. A few institutes for advanced study may also have a broad, interdisciplinary thematic focus that constitutes their brand.  

In general, research funders seem to increasingly prefer thematic rather than open-ended calls, believing that such calls lead to interdisciplinary synergies and more salient deliverables. The underlying belief is that understanding and finding solutions to the pressing problems that our societies currently face, such as climate change, economic instability and inequality, the growing role of artificial intelligence, or violence and war, require interdisciplinary research. While this is correct, the trend towards thematic organization of research is as much a problem as it is a solution, because it limits the strengths of bottom-up research. Investing in people rather than themes might be a more fruitful strategy. 

The Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies (HCAS) has had a couple of thematic calls (e.g. solidarity, mortality) in the past, but none for many years. There are several reasons why, at least in the humanities and social sciences, open-ended calls may actually have an advantage over thematic calls.  

First, it is difficult to define a theme that, without being too abstract, would be broad enough to allow for genuinely interdisciplinary perspectives. Often, a theme is a concept that reflects some complexity. Yet, coming to an agreement about the meaning of a concept across disciplinary boundaries is often a very time-consuming – if not frustrating – enterprise. While conceptual research benefits from interdisciplinarity, it is often more productive if carried out by individuals rather than by groups. This is because conceptual research requires nuance more than a broad picture. 

Second, themes easily duplicate something that is already being done elsewhere. A theme in itself does not yet constitute a new and intriguing research puzzle. Themes that are recognized as up-and-coming and timely have typically already been around for quite some time. A top-down selection of themes may not lead to new innovations or cutting-edge epiphanies but instead just rearticulate something that would have been done in any case.  

Third, in an institute whose major strength is to provide an equal platform for researchers, thematic calls may create unnecessary hierarchies. Either there are those who are working on a theme and those who are not, or there are those who have more influence in defining what the theme entails than others. A theme without clear ownership is worse than no theme. 

Fourth, announcing a thematic call may lead to a gratuitous embellishment of applications. Applicants are often very clever in framing their research to match the given expectations but would like to pursue their own path if they get funding. Moreover, if the theme is somewhat abstract and open-ended, it is not always easy to discern whether the thematically designed framing of the research proposal actually benefits the proposed research. 

Open-ended calls do not entail atomistic research without any shared or interconnecting themes among the community of researchers. On the contrary, diverse themes tend to spontaneously emerge each year due to the daily interaction of researchers. Joint themes do not need to be overarching research topics but can be relevant empirical side-tracks, methodological components, or theoretical extensions in a fellow’s research project. Sometimes popular themes reflect the internationally recognized, strong research fields of the host country or the university of the given IAS, because they attract good applicants. Sometimes the themes reflect topical issues, such as health, sustainability, artificial intelligence, or peace and war. Sometimes the themes emerge bottom-up around concepts that are in the air in many disciplines within the humanities and social sciences but have not yet been pinned down with a single recognizable definition. Should that happen, the results are often the most impactful conceptual and theoretical innovations. 

Interdisciplinary themes are not undesirable as such, and often they are needed for fruitful scholarly interaction. But thematic calls do not offer any shortcuts to enhanced interdisciplinarity or innovative research. They are useful for mending deficiencies in a field that has been neglected and sometimes for establishing an entirely new field. They may be worthwhile for branding purposes because themes are easy to communicate outwards. However, open-ended calls are needed, too. This is all the more true when the general trend in research funding is towards thematic organization of interdisciplinary research.   

Providing a shelter for exiled scholars – Additional Kone Foundation Fellowships to help researchers displaced by the war

By Kaisa Kaakinen 

In March 2022, Kone Foundation granted extra resources to the Helsinki Collegium, to enable support for scholars who cannot continue to work in their home country due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Anton Kotenko, Sergei Medvedev and Anna Sokolova, all scholars recruited to HCAS in 2022, talked to us about the significance of the Kone Foundation fellowship for them and about the impact the war has had on the Russian research context. 

The March 2022 Kone Foundation Fellowship call was open both to Ukrainian scholars, who could not stay and work in their home country due to the war, and to Russian academics who had to resign from their positions in Russia because of their opposition to Putin’s regime and the war. According to the current policy of the University of Helsinki, the Collegium cannot fund researchers, who are officially affiliated with a Russian institution.  

The additional funding, enough for a total of 48 months of research time, was distributed through the Collegium’s ongoing Kone Foundation Fellowship program. This program has brought researchers from the Baltic countries, Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine to the Collegium already since the year 2004. Due to this existing structure, it was possible to recruit researchers quickly, and the first fellows began their terms at the Collegium in May 2022. 

Among the first scholars arriving in the spring 2022 was Sergei Medvedev, who is known both as a political scientist and as an active columnist and broadcaster. 

“I left Russia at the start of the war, which was a spontaneous but a long-awaited decision. It was a situation in which there were no other options left. I could not stay in Russia any single day longer, for moral reasons but also for safety reasons. But probably the moral reasons were prevalent.”   

Sergei Medvedev giving a talk in the HCAS common room.

Sergei Medvedev giving a talk at the Collegium in January 2023.

It was a happy coincidence for Medvedev that the funding opportunity brought him to Helsinki, which is a research context that he knows from before and has come to appreciate. The Kone Foundation fellowship made it possible for him to both continue his career after resigning from Higher School of Economics in Moscow and to organize all the practicalities in a difficult life situation.  

Anna Sokolova, scholar of Soviet history, notes that the Kone Foundation Fellowship call was a rare opportunity, because it was open also for Russian scholars, who had decided to resign from their positions and leave Russia. Sokolova and her family had left Moscow and moved to Yerevan, Armenia, soon after the beginning of the war.  

“During those first months nobody really understood how many academics fled Russia. That was absolutely unexpected even for us. When my family arrived in Yerevan, we suddenly understood that there are lots of colleagues and friends around, and Armenians were extremely helpful and supportive. They were trying to do their best in this situation, but they were also not ready for such a huge number of colleagues arriving,” Sokolova explains. 

Anna Sokolova in the HCAS Common Room

Anna Sokolova in the common room of HCAS

Sokolova is grateful for Kone Foundation and the Collegium for providing an academic safe haven in which it was possible to recover from the shock of the war and figure out what to do next. The fellowship at the Collegium gave her a sense of stability and security, which was the most important thing in the immediate aftermath of emigration. 

“Since the war started, I was not sleeping, nor eating, and we understood that, although we do not know where we are going, we must leave. […] It might be hard to imagine that a single year of funding can feel like providing stability, but in our case it meant a really high level of stability in comparison to the situation of many other colleagues who have, like, two-month fellowships, forcing them to change countries and organize documents all the time,” Sokolova says. 

Prospects for the future 

One of the benefits of the Collegium as a host institution was that the incoming researchers could be immediately integrated into an active research community of scholars from various countries and disciplines. Anna Sokolova stresses that it was important for her to be surrounded by the supportive atmosphere at the Collegium, by the friendly communication and events, which forced her to connect with others and helped her not to concentrate on the dark side of the situation only. 

Sokolova is working at the Collegium on her project “On the Edge of Socialism: State Institutes and Everyday Life on the Late Soviet Periphery”. She says that since the start of the war, she has seen her research topic in a new light, as she has come to perceive connections between the late Soviet period and contemporary Russia. She will continue her work in the fall 2023 with a one-year funding from the Finnish Cultural Foundation.  

“I got great support with my application to the Finnish Cultural Foundation, which I had to submit in October, quite soon after my arrival. Hanne [Appelqvist] and Tuomas [Forsberg] explained to me that this is exactly what I should do right now, and I did. I am very grateful for them for pushing me to do that.” 

Historian Anton Kotenko mentions that he has genuinely enjoyed the interdisciplinary setting of the Collegium.  

Being surrounded not only by historians of the nineteenth century Romanov empire, but by scholars studying such diverse topics as individual variations in perceptual chunking of spontaneous speech or general trust in society around you, makes one see the world in a whole new light.” 

When the war broke out, Kotenko resigned from his previous position at the Higher School of Economics in St Petersburg. At the Collegium, he is finishing the project with which he applied to HCAS, a manuscript of a book on the history of Ukrainian national territorialization in the nineteenth century. Since the beginning of his HCAS term in October 2022, he has been able to secure further funding in the form of a three-year fellowship from the German Research Society. Kotenko is hoping that these two projects at HCAS and in Germany will become the first steps for relaunching his academic career in the next few years.  

“In 2024 I will start working on the history of zoological gardens in the Romanov empire as a researcher at the Department of History of Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf. And as far as Korkeasaari Zoo was opened in 1889, I hope to be back in Helsinki quite soon to look for the primary sources in the local archives related to its establishment and the first decades of its existence.” 

Anton Kotenko giving a talk at the HCAS orientation week in September 2022

Anton Kotenko giving a talk at the HCAS orientation seminar in September 2022.

Kotenko is also actively involved with organizing an HCAS symposium for the fall 2023 on the validity of historical analogies and comparisons. The topic will be discussed in general theoretical terms but illuminated by reference to concrete cases such as the war in Ukraine, which has prompted different historical analogies by diplomats, politicians, scholars and journalists who have tried to explain the war and predict future developments. 

During his year at the Collegium, Sergei Medvedev has been able to finish his book “A War Made in Russia”, forthcoming in the summer 2023 with Polity Press. Furthermore, he has been able to contribute actively as a columnist for several Russian-language exile media outlets. 

In the fall 2023, Medvedev will begin work at Charles University in Prague as the academic supervisor of a new master’s program in Russian studies. For the past 15 years, he has been making a Russian-language television program called “Archaeology”, named after Michel Foucault’s archaeological method, which offers in-depth conversations with academics on current issues. In Prague, Medvedev will continue his work of hosting intellectual talk shows for Radio Liberty, which has its headquarters in Prague.  

Emigration and the Russian research context 

Sergei Medvedev points out that the Kone Foundation Fellowship at the Collegium has significantly contributed to the possibility of Russian academics to continue to work abroad after the recent political developments in Russia. He adds that the crisis situation has touched different fields differently.  

“It is of course difficult to ruin entire schools and institutions that have been there for decades, but especially in my field, political science, the Russian research context has been ruined. Let’s face it, these days Russia is a fully grown classical fascist country. How can you do political science and think freely in a fascist state? You have to comply with the ideological dictate.” 

While researchers in the natural sciences may still have good funding opportunities and a better chance to stay in Russia, also their lives have become precarious because all contacts abroad have been effectively banned and news about professors being reported to the police are abound. 

Medvedev has followed the changes at his former university, Higher School of Economics in Moscow, which used to be the most international academic institution and one of the best schools in social and economic sciences in Russia. 

“It is amazing to see how it is ruined from within. Since it is an important state institution, it is under the direct auspices of the presidential administration. The entire leadership has changed, and it is totally loyal to the war. There are war commanders coming there and talking to students, it has opened campuses in Luhansk in the occupied territory, there are recruitment points for students, and some of my ex-fellow professors are encouraging students to volunteer to go fight on the front. The university newspaper published reports about students who are fighting in Donbas on the Russian side operating drones and killing Ukrainians. It was just announced that there will be free education for anyone who participated in the war and for the children of those who are on the front. They are collecting money and goods for Russian soldiers at war, there are signs of propaganda at the university, without any reservation or shame. They have just joined the fascist operation. And this has been a global university where English speech could be heard just as often as Russian speech and with some Nobel laureates teaching. It is really striking to see such degradation in the educational scene in the matter of just one year, in an institution to which you belonged and where you worked for twenty years.” 

Anna Sokolova points out that while the total percentage of researchers who have left Russia may not be very big, the ones who left are those scholars who were the most active and the most connected to international academia. “In some departments, they lost only one or two scholars, but in other departments everyone left.”  

At the same time, there are many reasons why researchers opposing the current regime have been forced to stay, for instance, because they must take care of dependent persons such as their elderly parents.  Sokolova finds it important to stay in contact on a personal basis with her former colleagues who are still in Russia – not with institutions but with individuals.  

“Somehow I feel that my community is not complete without them, because we as a community of scholars in Russia were split in so many parts by this war, and I think if I can save any kind of connections in such a state of total disruption, it is very important both for us here and for them there,” she says. 

Anton Kotenko hopes that the crisis of the war will galvanize studies of nineteenth-century Eastern Europe.  

“Many problems that have been discussed since February 2022 have their roots in the age of empires, but unfortunately, these have not been properly studied. Hopefully, historians will realize that they must take more responsibility for the world around them and provide it with decent studies of the past, which will develop from a larger number of visionary research projects.” 



Democracy and Contrarian Epistemologies 

By Kinga Połyńczuk-Alenius and Tero Toivanen

In democracy, contrarian epistemologies – such as conspiracy theories, scepticism and, perhaps to a lesser degree, denialism – float near the epistemic centre. Tentatively defined as relational epistemologies founded on the deep-seated distrust of power-wielding authorities and knowledge-producing institutions, contrarian epistemologies have a long history. This alerts researchers to their longevity as a social phenomenon and the referentiality, rather than newness, of their content. While contrarian epistemologies are always present and available, their popularity peaks in crisis situations, such as the contemporary ‘polycrisis’, in which political, social, economic, environmental, security and health emergencies converge.  

At least, these seem to be the key takeaways of the HCAS Symposium ‘Conspiracy theories, denialism and scepticism: Contrarian epistemologies between epistemic fringe and democratic core’. 

The symposium 

Organised on 1–2 December 2022, the symposium consisted of a two-day academic programme, featuring an opening address, three keynotes and five panel sessions, as well as the public event organised at Oodi, the Helsinki Central Library. The event attracted over 100 participants from Finland and abroad.  

Public event “Democratisation of knowledge and a crisis of democracy” at the Helsinki Central Library Oodi, with journalist Johanna Vehkoo (Tampere University), Alfred Moore (University of York), Emilia Palonen (University of Helsinki), Elżbieta Korolczuk (Södertörn University), and Martin Hultman (Chalmers University).

While the symposium website, including the programme, can still be viewed online, in what follows we would like to build on all the excellent contributions and reflect on what can be learnt from the symposium as a whole, especially as regards the epistemic centrality of contrarian epistemologies to democracy.  

Our aim as organisers of the symposium was exploratory, as we posited the relationship between democracy and contrarian epistemologies as an empirical question. The answers given to this question by the symposium contributions appear to point to the epistemic centrality of contrarian epistemologies in democracy in at least three ways. Yet, this epistemic centrality renders contrarian epistemologies ripe for exploitation by actors whose motivations, goals and modi operandi run counter to democracy. 

Contrarian epistemologies and knowledge infrastructures 

The first way in which contrarian epistemologies remain near the epistemic heart of contemporary democracies is through their close relationship to mainstream knowledge and its infrastructures.  

Indeed, as our symposium made plain, mainstream knowledge in its various guises is conventionally suffused with contrarian epistemologies. While conspiracy theories provide exciting plot structures for popular literature and conversational material for everyday talk  on social media, scepticism propels scientific debates and underlies investigative journalism.  

Although the imbrication of contrarian epistemologies and mainstream knowledge is inherent to democracy under the conditions of freedom of speech, it can also be exploited by undemocratic, or fiercely anti-democratic, actors who seek to colonise existing institutions or create their own.  

In this manner, the regime of Viktor Orban in Hungary hijacked state media while changing the law to populate private media companies with its cronies. The international ‘anti-gender’ movement, in its turn, has levelled up from producing its own pseudoscientific literature to establishing universities (vide the Collegium Intermarium in Warsaw linked to the conservative, ‘anti-gender’ think-tank, Ordo Iuris).   

Contrarian epistemologies and the status quo 

The second way in which contrarian epistemologies are epistemically central in contemporary democracies is their broad usage by elite actors engaged in protecting the status quo and business as usual. 

The most instructive example here is perhaps the climate crisis, which has not been properly addressed, despite overwhelming scientific evidence suggesting an impending catastrophe. The responses to such evidence range on the spectrum from wholesale denialism to scepticism towards its interpretations to the acceptance of evidence uncoupled from any meaningful action. Grouped together under the heading of ‘climate obstruction’, they can be understood as a contrarian epistemology of delay and inaction, which generates apathy rather than mobilisation while the planet rapidly warms; this epistemology has been promoted by fossil fuel companies, industries, neoliberal think tanks and contrarian scientists. 

Similarly, conservative political and social actors bent on preserving their privilege and position do resort to contrarian epistemologies if their status is threatened. An apt empirical example is, again, the ‘anti-gender’ movement, which both denies the existence of gender by binding identity with biological sex and discredits those who pursue, for example, gender equality, sexual rights or reproductive justice as agents of one or another global conspiracy. 

Contrarian epistemologies and political actors 

The third way in which our symposium demonstrated the epistemic centrality of contrarian epistemologies in contemporary democracies was by showing that they can act as a springboard to the acquisition of power through democratic elections, as evidenced by the rise of populist politicians worldwide.  

The compatibility between populism and contrarian epistemologies resides in that both are distrustful of institutions of power and knowledge controlled by the elite, who are always already corrupt and continuously scheming behind the scenes to secure their self-interest at the expense of the ‘people’. It is perhaps a curious feature of contrarian epistemologies that they can be used both by the elite actors to protect the status quo and by the populists to challenge that elite and, at least superficially, the status quo. 

Going beyond the populist hype, our symposium also looked at the ‘usual suspects’ of contrarian epistemologies, who can hardly be mistaken for being committed to democracy, such as European far-right parties and ultranationalists in Russia. In their hands, contrarian epistemologies often take aim at the weak and marginalised as well as at democracy itself.  

To drive home the point that contrarian epistemologies can aid the process of exploiting democratic politics to undemocratic ends, we also discussed the case of Nazi Germany, where the entire fascist project was built around the naturalised threat of the so-called Jewish cabal. 

Contrarian epistemologies: A litmus test for democracy? 

Our symposium showed the centrality of contrarian epistemologies in contemporary democracies across the board. From popular culture and social media to journalism and the academia, and from the socioeconomic and political elites to the actors challenging those elites from the margins of democratic politics, the prevalence of contrarian epistemologies can be linked to the cherished democratic principles, such as freedom of speech. Thus, it seems reasonable to conclude that contrarian epistemologies are an indispensable element of any democracy.  

Yet, they can also be used to propel reorientation away from democracy. As much as the centrality of contrarian epistemologies in contemporary democracies is an empirical question, so perhaps is their democratic character. 

They can engender critical knowledge instrumental in alleviating inequalities but, taken to the extreme, they may also subordinate knowledge to the ideology predicated on those same inequalities. Similarly, contrarian epistemologies can both mobilise and impede collective actions geared towards the democratic common good. Finally, from the perspective on democracy as a system of political equality, contrarian epistemologies can be pro-democratic when they target the elite and anti-democratic when they are turned against the weak and marginalised.  

At the current conjuncture, we know that our democracy is in crisis but we cannot really gauge the direction in which it is moving or grasp how far it has already gone. Under such circumstances, maybe we can turn to contrarian epistemologies – their content, prevalence and function – as a litmus test.  

We know that 21st-century authoritarianism and fascism do not come marching, clad in brown shirts. Instead, they may be creeping in on us through institutions of ideological indoctrination that disguise themselves as places of research and learning, through ‘petromasculinities’ that masquerade as objective economic realities, and through political actors that pretend to challenge the ‘elite’, all the while pitting the ‘people’ against other people. More research on contrarian epistemologies may be just what is needed to make sense of what is happening to contemporary democracies and to take stock of the extent to which they are still democracies at all. 

Exploring Emotions at the Collegium

By Charlie Kurth

I’m a Philosopher from Western Michigan University, spending two years as a Core Fellow at the Collegium. The project that brought me here looks at “negative” emotions—things like anxiety, disgust, shame, and anger. I’m trying to understand whether they help us become better people. My working hypothesis is that they can when they are felt at the right time and in the right way. This means that the hard issue—the one I’m really wrestling with—is about emotion cultivation. What, if anything, can we do to shape these emotions for the better?

Charlie Kurth: Emotion (Routledge; book cover)

The cover of Charlie Kurth’s recent book “Emotion” (Routledge, 2022)

In my first six months at HCAS, I’ve been making great progress on the book. This is in part due to having—as the HCAS motto states—the freedom to think: to have the time to work slowly and meticulously through the details of the book I’m writing. But at least as big a driver of my progress comes by way of my interactions with other Fellows and the opportunities to engage with scholars throughout the University of Helsinki.

As one example, at the end of February, I had the chance to present some work-in-progress at the HCAS Fellows Seminar. I’ve been working on a paper that develops a novel account of shame where I’m trying to better understand both what shame is from a scientific perspective and, from a philosophical vantage point, how shame might be morally valuable. While I felt that the paper was coming together, I also want to get it published in an interdisciplinary journal. So even though I was pretty happy with the progress I was making, I was also worried about whether I was framing the issues in an intuitively accessible manner.

The seminar feedback was tremendously helpful. I’m used to talking to philosophers in the language of philosophy. But the HCAS crew is a very interdisciplinary group. So as I was preparing my presentation for the Seminar, I was forced to focus on explaining what the core elements of my account of shame were, and how I could present them in a way that was accessible to non-philosophers. Wow—that was hard! But the payoff was big. Not only did the process leave me with a better sense of what I was trying to say, but the questions that I received from the other Fellows made me rethink some of the central assumptions that I was making. I’m now putting the finishing touches on a revised—and much stronger—version of the paper that will be sent out for review in a few weeks.

Antti Kauppinen, Anni Kajanus and Charlie Kurth at the Kollegium Talks event "Is There an Upside to Unpleasant Feelings?"

Antti Kauppinen (on the left), Anni Kajanus and Charlie Kurth at Think Corner on March 15, 2023

Shortly after my Fellows Seminar session, I also had the opportunity to put together a panel discussion for the HCAS Kollegium Talks Series at Think Corner. The session’s title was, “An Upside to Negative Feelings?” and it consisted of three scholars discussing how feeling bad can be good for us. Anni Kajanus, Associate Professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Helsinki, talked about her recent work on irritation. Based on her study of individuals in the US, Finland, and China, she’s found not only that we tend to be (particularly) irritated by people we are close to, but that this irritation can be a valuable tool—one that helps us protect (even strengthen) our relationships. In short, being annoyed at your spouse can be a good thing!

Antti Kauppinen, Professor of Practical Philosophy at the University of Helsinki, discussed anger. Feeling angry when someone harms something you care about is an important sign that you value the thing that’s been harmed. And being angry about these harms can also be an important source of motivation to protect what’s been damaged. For instance, if someone insults your friend, it makes you angry and you’re likely to feel moved to stand up for them as a result. That can be a very good thing.

My contribution was to talk about some of my work on anxiety. As I see it, anxiety is an emotion we feel when we are uncertain about what to do or say. And our anxiety can be helpful because it can motivate useful reflection: it makes us think about how best to resolve the uncertainty we face and so come to a better decision about what to do. The result of the Think Corner event was a lively discussion, not just between the three of us, but a lengthy and enjoyable Q&A session with the audience.

HCAS 20 Years – Anniversary Greeting

By Morten Kyndrup, professor, Aarhus University, HCAS Advisory Board Member, former president of UBIAS (University-based Institutes of Advanced Study), former Executive Director of the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies

Prof. Morten Kyndrup giving a talk at the HCAS Anniversary Celebration on June 15, 2022

Professor Kyndrup’s speech was delivered at the 20th Anniversary Celebration of the Helsinki Collegium in the Festive Hall of the University of Helsinki on June 15, 2022. (Photo: Veikko Somerpuro)

It is an honor and a pleasure for me to convey my greetings today on the occasion of this 20 years birthday of the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. So first of all: Congratulations on the anniversary!

One might ask: Why celebrate such an occasion? There is nothing really honorable about age in itself. Everybody acquires age over time! What counts, of course, is what you have achieved, what you do, and how you do it. This indeed applies to Institutes for advanced study.

I am not going to repeat today the beautiful story about the rise and development of the phenomenon of institutes for advanced study since the first one was created in Princeton in the 1930’s – in fact based on an amalgamation of two different European University traditions, the British Oxbridge system based on colleges, and the continental Humboldt-tradition of free, individual research. As such, a nice example of import-export, since this American invention inspired by Europe was subsequently re-exported back to Europe and to the whole world. Moreover, the idea of institutions like institutes for advanced study has spread increasingly fast over the last 50 years.

Why, one might ask? This is another long story. But at this occasion two points should be emphasized (to avoid widespread misunderstandings): First of all, institutes for advanced study were never thought of as alternatives to the ordinary university systems, but exactly as tiny supplements, exceptions, lacunas, with space to work and to meet with, temporarily, top notch colleagues from other disciplines under alternative circumstances. And secondly: Meeting not in order to turn disciplines into interdisciplinarity, but to let disciplines fertilize each other in their proper disciplinarities respectively. The two are by no means the same thing.

Anyway, the idea of institutes for advanced study is not an easy one to realize. It certainly produces “structural difficulties” to be a permanent, marginal exception to an overall system – especially if that overall system owns you. Unfortunately, such difficulties have led many universities worldwide to opportunistic shortcuts. Over the last decades, many institutes have been launched under the name of “advanced study” without actually fulfilling the criteria for or following the tradition of such institutes. There are quite some examples of initiatives, which have aimed at profiting from the IAS-connected prestige without actually engaging in the necessary endeavors to create such an institution, being, literally spoken, just a sign on the wall, a name without any real substance. I have seen – and visited – institutes with just a couple of fellows, institutes with local fellows exclusively, and institutes which were in fact nothing but a university’s visiting program or a traditional disciplinary institute just under another label.

Now this is why two international network organizations, the UBIAS (University-based institutes of advanced study worldwide) and the NetIAS (A European network of institutes) were created, both with stringent membership criteria (grosso modo identical) concerning institutional status, admission criteria, kinds of fellowship programs, scientific independence etc.

This brings me back to the good reasons for celebrating the Helsinki Collegium on its 20 years anniversary today: Here in Helsinki no shortcuts have been taken. The Helsinki Collegium is a real “classical” institute for advanced study, and as such, it is a core and distinguished member of both international networks. Like any other institute for advanced study, the Helsinki Collegium has led a life full of dangers and obstacles, because that is how it is to be a small institutional, permanent exception in the margins of a much bigger system. But the Helsinki Collegium has stuck to the principles, has built up and preserved its status as a genuine institute for advanced study. As such, the Helsinki Collegium has been an ideal to many of its sister-institutes worldwide. When I myself was about to create the foundation for AIAS, a new institute in Aarhus, some 12 years ago, I traveled around to learn from existing institutes. The first three I visited was the WiKo in Berlin, the SCAS in Uppsala, both much older, well-established institutes, and the Helsinki Collegium, by then less than 10 yrs old.

Over the years, I’d like to add, a close and fruitful cooperation has been flourishing between the AIAS and Helsinki Collegium – at staff level, between fellows and of course between directors, bilaterally and in the international networks. At this occasion, I will take the opportunity to thank the Helsinki Collegium warmly for this cooperation on behalf of AIAS and Aarhus University.

All in all, there are indeed good reasons for celebrating this anniversary of the Helsinki Collegium. Not because of age, but because of the institute’s achievements as a genuine, classical institute for advanced studies. The Helsinki Collegium has developed itself and thrived in spite of occasional hard times and difficult conditions. On top of that, the Helsinki Collegium has also contributed substantially to making the very concept of these institutes thrive and evolve internationally.

Achievements like that are of course not signed by the walls of the building. They are the result of ongoing endeavors of the staff, of the board members, and not least of the fellows of the Helsinki collegium. Nothing comes out of nothing, and real world achievements certainly do not.

So, congratulations to the Helsinki Collegium, to all of you behind these achievements, no one named, no one forgotten. But I can think of at least a handful of living persons, having over the years done the most honorable, determined efforts to make this come true.

However, I would also like to congratulate University of Helsinki on this occasion. You can be proud of the Institute for advanced study you have created. It contributes immensely, not least symbolically to your reputation as one of the world’s leading classical universities.

The Helsinki Collegium is a distinguished member of the leading international networks of institutes for advanced study. I am confident that I can extend my greetings today to be on behalf of also NetIAS and UBIAS.

Finally, as we do on anniversaries, I wish you a long and healthy life in the times to come. I can promise you that it is not going be easy. However, I am confident that you will survive, develop yourself and thus remain among the best, classical institutes for advanced studies worldwide.

Morten Kyndrup and other guests at the HCAS Anniversary Celebration

(Photo: Veikko Somerpuro)