April 21, 2015

New institute explores what knowledge is

A new institute at the University of Chicago will explore the broad question of knowledge: how it emerges and changes, and how disciplines are codified and intersect. The establishment of the new Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Human Knowledge (SIFK) was announced earlier this month. People involved with the foundation of the Institute contend that the Institute will, through its exploration of different academic disciplines, nurture a relatively young discipline of its own.

“One of the most surprising features of SIFK is that its field of study is still nascent. While other individuals and groups exist that ask the same questions, the study of the formation of knowledge has yet to be formally institutionalized with this breadth of inquiry anywhere but at the University of Chicago,” Shadi Bartsch, the inaugural faculty director of the Institute, wrote in an e-mail to The Maroon.

The Institute plans to conduct conferences and graduate and undergraduate courses, to distribute grants, and to publish a biannual journal (The Journal of the History of Knowledge). The academic work of the Institute will begin next year with the introduction of a seminar for graduate students.

According to Bartsch, the Institute is the result of almost a decade of thinking and planning. University Trustee Steve Stevanovich (A.B. ’85, M.B.A. ’90) donated $10 million toward the foundation of the Institute. Stevanovich previously lent his name to the Stevanovich Center for Financial Mathematics at the University.

Each quarter of the two-quarter-long seminar will be broken into a weeklong introduction and three modules, focusing on a specific aspect of the Institute’s broader concern. The modules will be taught by a different group of professors from separate fields. For example, Rob Richards, the Morris Fishbein Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Science and Medicine, and John Goldsmith, professor of linguistics, are proposing a module about the birth of the mind sciences in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Richards is part of a small group of faculty planning for the Institute’s first year, and a member of its executive committee.

“I think [the seminar] will give graduate students who are very often immersed in the details of whatever discipline they’re pursuing a chance to step back and consider questions about the formation of the very discipline they happen to be engaged in: How does [the discipline] come about? What are the implications?” Richards said.

Richards compared the new Institute to other academic innovations that emerged from the University of Chicago, including the discipline of sociology and early work in the field of psychology and the philosophy of science. “Chicago has been innovative in higher education for its whole existence, and I think this is just another one of those experimental procedures. It may not work out so well. Who knows. We hope it will,” Richards said.