By Geert Somsen
On August 5, 1922, Henri Bergson, the celebrated French philosopher, closed the first conference of the International Committee for Intellectual Cooperation, the showcase Republic of Letters of the new League of Nations. In it were gathered the most prominent scientists from all over the world (Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Geoffrey Hale, and several others). Would they be able to live up to the ideal, Bergson wondered? Would their meeting indeed demonstrate that scientists knew no borders and were united in a supranational community? Bergson’s answer was a resounding “vérification”! Yes, the committee represented “intellectuals from the entire world” and, indeed, they had shown themselves to be a wholly inclusive community – “it really seems to me that we are here among friends.”
Bergson made these statements fully aware that the meeting lacked two important nationalities: Germans and Austrians. In the spirit of the Treaty of Versailles, scientists from the First World War’s Central Powers were deliberately kept out of international conferences. Bergson himself had been instrumental in this policy of exclusion. At the same time he had no trouble calling the meeting “international”, representing “the world”, and “universal civilization”. His internationalism was circumscribed. It came with a distinct membership list.
Now the example of the 1920s boycott is both well-known and very straightforward. But on closer inspection, German and Austrian scientists appear to be not the only absentees at international conferences. At the above meeting, for example, there were no official delegates either from China, Japan, the Middle East, Persia, South-East Asia, or Australia. Africa was represented by the Oxford philologist Gilbert Murray.
Nor does this need to surprise us. These exclusions were made as a matter of course. Just as Bergson had deemed Germans “no longer fit” for universal civilization, most non-Europeans were considered “not yet fit” for international science. The civilizational hierarchies that underpinned Europe’s empires were reproduced in the scientific world.
But there were also subtler mechanisms coloring the map of scientific internationalism. Most large scientific conferences of the twentieth century boasted “social programs”, aimed at fostering a sense of community among attending scientists (as Georgiana Kotsou relates in another blogpost). Yet these often revolved around pastimes that were as middle class as they were European: cocktail parties with toasts, organ recitals, shopping excursions to department stores, Waldorf-Astoria banquets, beer garden comradery (to mention a few activities at early twentieth-century chemistry meetings that I have been studying). The bonding that such events provided was no doubt real. But it was also not for everybody. Dress codes could be serious obstacles. Japanese chemists (long the only non-Western presence) often shied away from the typical conference socializing and became known for their silent smiles. Conference sociability was hence also circumscribed – at least as much as the membership lists that underpinned Bergson’s universalism.
It would seem then that besides formal rules it is perhaps informal culture that shaped access more than anything. The question is: How could it be otherwise? Can there be codes of behavior and forms of social gathering that are fully inclusive? Or would such a universal culture be the product of every Other’s assimilation rather than its own flexibility? Such issues may drive further historical research, just as much as they may help us think about conference practices today and in the future.