Transcript of the plenary by Steve Fuller at the BSA Annual Conference 2014.
Although Auguste Comte’s ‘religion of humanity’ is often derided as an eccentric outlier to sociology’s disciplinary history, in fact perspectives broadly sympathetic to Comte’s aim of steering the future of our species travelled under the banner of ‘sociology’ throughout the 19th century and were prominent when the first British chair in the field was established at the LSE in 1907, even though in the end only a very modest version of this aspiration prevailed. A consequence of this history – which had parallels in France and Germany – is that sociology developed in studied detachment from biology and technology, the two fields that have arguably transformed the human condition at both the micro- and the macro-levels most decisively over the past 250 years. Seen in world-historic perspective, academic sociology’s horizons seem remarkably cramped in comparison to what was on offer when ‘sociology’ was a term that was contested by the spawn of Comte. An especially vivid glimpse of this broader vision for the field may be found in H.G. Wells’ presentation to the early Sociological Society, with its invocation of the great 19th century political utopians
as well as its adumbration of eugenics and other themes that found a natural home in 20th century ‘science fiction’. A hundred years later, largely thanks to science and technology studies (STS), sociologists are now empirically attuned to the role that biology and technology play in defining the human condition – but is there a disciplinary vision to match these developments? It is striking that much of STS is explicitly anti-sociological and especially scathing of the field’s ‘anthropocentrism’. However, ‘humanity’ has more often been the name of a yet-to-be-realized normative ideal than an already existing privileged species. That ideal – one that joins Christian eschatology, Enlightenment theories of progress and transhumanist dreams of ‘enhancement’ in common cause – is increasingly called ‘uplift’, a concept with roots in both science fiction and bioethics. I shall argue that sociology needs to engage seriously with this concept not only to reconnect with its original spirit but also, and more importantly, to remain relevant as a discipline in the coming century.