Theory Transfer Conference

Theory Transfer:



Cornell University, Ithaka

September 16-17, 2016



The symposium examines the transfer of German Theory to the United States in the areas of philosophy, sociology, and literary criticism after 1980. Its aim is to uncover and analyze the general and specific conditions under which individual theorists or theoretical systems are received and appropriated by American theorists, either working in established disciplines that are modified by the incoming theory or in newly created fields that augment the disciplinary constellation.


Typically, theory transfer is examined in terms of actors, i.e. individuals or groups who are involved in the labor that moves a theory from one cultural location to another. One can easily identify translators, publishers, reviewers, readers, and interpreters, those actors who are necessarily involved in the process. While this aspect is critical for the transmission, it constitutes only part of the process, it is the visible side that can be documented and turned into a narrative without difficulty. However, theory transfer also presupposes objective conditions at the level of the epistemic organization of knowledge and the institutional basis, conditions that remain largely invisible to the actors because they are taken for granted as a self-evident environment. It is the moment of failure, the moment when the attempt to move a theory from one country to another breaks down, that makes these conditions visible.


What is presently missing is a systematic approach that brings a conceptual language to bear on the seemingly irrational movements of theories from one country to another or, to be more precise, from one national culture (broadly understood) to another. Yet, given the present globalization of knowledge and knowledge production, even a model based on the concept of interconnected and competing national cultures cannot do justice to the actual complexity of actual exchange processes. It can serve therefore only as a preliminary framework for this symposium.


If we understand theory as a specific form of knowledge, we can make use of existing models of knowledge production and its social use, including its export to or import from other countries. We have to take into account the shared or disputed acceptance of a concept of knowledge. Moreover, we haves to analyze the underlying institutions, including their specific rules, norms, and values, as the sites of production and transfer. Finally, one has to examine the cultural environment that defines the distance between national cultures and thereby also defines the probability of easy or difficult transfer. These objective factors deeply influence the actors, in many instances without their own awareness. In other words, not only the production of theoretical knowledge is conditioned by objective factors, the same applies to its transfer to another national culture.


Of course, transfer processes occur not only within spatial configurations (in our case from Germany to the United States) but also in time (the moment of discovery, translation, and reception). They are therefore part of the historical processes that shape the systemic conditions of transfer. In short, a descriptive model of theory transfer has to acknowledge and examine the diachronic aspect at various levels. For instance, institutional changes in the receiving culture may enhance, slow down or even block the transfer of a specific theory. The creation and growth of a new scientific discipline could open up opportunities for an individual theory that had remained excluded before.


One of the interesting and significant differences between the role of a theory in its country of origin and its adoptive country is its place in the configuration of theoretical knowledge. The field of coexisting theories is typically heterogeneous as well as conflicted. One can observes hierarchies of dominant and subordinate theories, clusters of theories built on a common epistemological ground, and theories related to each other in terms of hostility and rivalry. In many instances these relationships are grounded in institutional relationships that are, while open to change, relatively stable. A theory coming in from the outside must find its place within this field of existing complex relationships. It can make a strong claim by replacing an existing theory or it can make a weaker claim by presenting itself as compatible part of an existing system of knowledge.


A widely shared awareness of unresolved scientific or cultural problems in the scholarly community of the receiving country would encourage a theory transfer with a strong claim. In this case there is either the notion of a theoretical gap that has to be filled in order to solve the problem or the sense of an inadequate theory that has to be removed in order to find a better solution. The latter situation would lead to a “war” between those who defend the old theory and those who want to replace it with new ideas coming from the outside.


Friday, September 16, 2016



Colloquium with Ralf Klausnitzer

Saturday, September 17, 2016



Steffen Martus and Carlos Spoerhase: “Zur Lokalität des Theoretisierens”



Ethel Matalla de Mazza: “On Krakauer”



Leslie Adelson: “Critical Theory and Narratology: Heliotropic Storytelling with Alexander Kluge”






Max Pensky: “On Habermas”



Peter Gilgen : “On Luhmann”



“Labor, Markets, and Dissemination: the Impact of Institutional Forces”

Panelists: Paul Fleming (German), Kizer Walker (CUL), and Mahinder Kingra (CUP)

Moderator: Peter Hohendahl



Cornell University, Ithaca, NY

401 Physical Science Building