Collegium Helveticum

Epistemic Authority


Venue & accessibility info: Collegium Helveticum

This event is open for students as well as artists and researchers at all career-stages.

Participation is free of charge, including coffee and lunch.

What is epistemic authority? The workshop invites an open-ended discussion about epistemic authority, its present and future role in science and society. While some debates require a strict definition, this workshop takes the concept of epistemic authority as a starting point to facilitate conversation and exchange across different fields.

Throughout the history of science, epistemic authority has been attributed to scientific instruments or professors, delegated to methodical conduct or good practices, invoked by appealing to objectivity or assuming a god-like perspective. In recent years, discussions on epistemic injustice and epistemic violence have prompted a critical approach towards the formation and credibility of knowledge. Since decades, however, different individuals and groups have worked on new ways of including various forms of knowledge on equal grounds. The workshop brings together artists, scholars, scientists, and practitioners around the limitations and potential of epistemic authority.

Questions we want to discuss may include but are not limited to:
When and how is epistemic authority legitimate?
How is epistemic authority attributed?
Is epistemic authority a necessary element of scientific and other knowledge practices or can we do without?

For participants, there is no need to prepare anything. For some sessions, participants are invited to bring an object to the conversation (see details below).



Coffee and croissants


Welcome and opening remarks


Morning sessions 1,2,3

Gallery, Laboratory, Library
Details of the sessions are below


Lunch break


Afternoon sessions 4,5,6

Gallery, Laboratory, Library
Details of the sessions are below


Public panel discussion

Meridian Hall
with one representative of each session

Moderates by
Julia Reichert
Neumarkt Theater


Closing remarks

Morning Sessions

Session 1: Trust and Epistemic Authority

Nadia Mazouz
ETH Zurich

Julia Reichert
Theater Neumarkt

Epistemic authority is something that belongs to free individuals and collectives—or so is a founding idea of the enlightenment. Freedom of thinking means the possibility and the necessity to make up one’s own mind. However, individuals as well as collectives can and must ascribe it to others and to institutions. No one alone, and also no collective, can rely solely on itself. What do these processes of attribution look like? How far are they explicit and conscious? How much do they rely on trust? What is the basis of this kind of epistemic trust? What happens when it weakens or vanishes altogether?

Session 2: Voice—Silence—Silencing

Adam Knowles
University of Zurich

Roy Wagner
ETH Zurich

Having a voice and being silenced are often regarded as political contraries. Not having a say in the matter or being deprived of the chance to voice one’s concerns is considered tantamount to political disenfranchisement. Such disenfranchisement leads to a diminished existence subject to a double bind of silencing: a voice that is not only not heard, but is not even registered as not being heard. This silence is not first and foremost an audible silence, but instead a silence created through structures of epistemic violence which render the speaker incomprehensible, even when audible. Indeed, silenced voices often speak audibly and voluminously in order to pierce the structures of silencing. Alternatively, silence may be an opportunity for others to speak on one’s behalf regardless of one’s approval, or enable the assumption that there must be an intelligible hidden statement behind the silence, which needs to be deciphered.

This session will explore the epistemic, ontological, and political dimensions of the complex relationship between voice speech, silence, and silencing. It will explore such questions as: Are there freely chosen silences? If so, how do those silences speak? And how do they differ from imposed silences? And what must language be if it can speak through silences? Why is the voice a privileged aspect of political participation? What are the performative dimensions of silence? What can a silence express other than a stifled statement? And to what extent does academic analysis intensify violent structures of silencing? What kinds of voices can be authoritative?

Session 3: Kitchen Conversations

Seraina DĂĽr
Zurich University of the Arts

Mario Wimmer
Collegium Helveticum

The kitchen can be considered one of the paradigmatic common places of care and reproductive work, thus making it the ideal setting to question whether epistemic authority necessarily relies on a break with everyday practice. We assume that everyday practice can be considered a resource for knowledge formation and the foundation of a novel understanding of epistemic authority.

Thinking scientifically may, as Gaston Bachelard or Louis Althusser claimed, necessitate a rupture from everydayunderstanding. Yet, breaking away from a modern notion of scientific thought may serve as a prerequisite for an open epistemology that equally considers issues such as care, justice, participation, responsibility, or violence. The kitchen conversations invite to contemplate the unconscious moments in the shaping of the modern scientific mind.

While we discuss the relationship between everyday practice, care, and epistemic authority, we will prepare lunch for the participants of the workshop, continuing an old tradition at the Collegium. Ultimately, we extend an invitation to engage in kitchen conversations centered around the concept of “responsable” (Donna Haraway) epistemic authority in today’s context. We ask participants to bring an object related to the questions they want to discuss and prepare a short 3-minute statement that invites discussion.

Afternoon sessions

Session 4: Liquid Epistemology

Debasish Borah
ETH Zurich

Epistemic authority is not situated, rather is in a state of motion; this becomes apparent in postcolonial condition, where lived experience is a mélange of the local and the institutional. The postcolonial body needs both; on one hand, itneeds the institution because of the modern in it; technological, bureaucratic etc, on the other hand it needs the local to juxtapose the modern with its own social institutions and think about modernity in its own terms. In my opinion, an anti-colonial way to look at epistemology is to decentre epistemology; decentre not to place the centre somewhere else, rather leave epistemic authority in a state of in-betweenness, in a liquid state. This in-betweenness of epistemic authority makes it neither entirely disciplined, nor purely anticipatory, rather as a space of contestation in which individuals and groups can form, find, and claim their own epistemic subjectivities.

Liquid epistemic authority can exist only in a state of constant translation, free flowing and adaptable, the in-betweenness makes it a whole from parts, parts of the local and parts of the institutional. Translations, Stuart Hall wrote, are never complete, there are always leftovers, so-called un-translatables. These un-translatables or in-betweens are crucial as they resist complete cultural closure. In other words, translation not only unsettles the situated epistemic authority and triggers its motion, yet it also keeps it in that state.

The workshop invites to think about liquid epistemic authorities, to discuss about nuances of in-betweenness to decentre situated epistemic authority.

Session 5: “Objective” Stories of Un/Doing Mastery

Jennifer Page
University of Zurich

Ines Kleesattel

“What does knowledge do? How is it performative?”, asked queer thinker Eve Sedgwick. Concerned about the affective implications of critical theory, Sedgwick longed for “reparative” practices of critique complementary to a “hermeneutics of suspicion,” i.e., a paranoid mode of reading and questioning the exegetical process. Castigating the “uptight and unaesthetic” bent of scholarly cultures, Donna Haraway asserts that epistemic as well as political seriousness “requires that we take deep pleasure in our work.” And post-colonial scholar Julietta Singh reminds us how mastery, at the threshold of matter and narrative, keeps certain roles in place, whereas “rethinking what we do as something other than mastery” might push us toward novel forms of intellectual practice and perspective on the worlds we engage in. In this session of the workshop, wewill address the pains and joys of mastery (academic or otherwise), the pursuit and maybe achievement of it, and the failing and suffering along the way. In a playful and speculative manner, we will engage with objects, telling stories about them; about dis/embodiments of mastery and their potentials, absences, and ambivalences; and about how they might help in opening other senses to epistemic possibilities.

→ Please each bring a tangible object (or a picture of it) to this workshop that has played a role in your education or academic/professional career—in a positive or negative sense. Your object may have accompanied you in your everydayprofessional or scholarly life. It may be something you had to leave behind. Or it may be something else entirely.

Session 6: Open Session

The open session is designed to either continue discussions from one of the morning sessions or provide space for ad hoc discussions that emerge throughout the day.


Members of the working group on “Epistemic Authority”

  • Debasish Borah (ETHZ, arts and history of architecture
  • Seraina DĂĽr (ZHdK, theater and performance)
  • Ines Kleesattel (FHNW, arts & aesthetics)
  • Adam Knowles (UZH, history of philosophy)
  • Nadia Mazouz (ETHZ, practical philosophy
  • Jennifer Page (UZH, philosophy)
  • Julia Reichert (Theater Neumarkt, co-director and dramaturg)
  • Roy Wagner (ETHZ, philosophy of mathematics)
  • Mario Wimmer (Collegium Helveticum, cultural and intellectual history)

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