In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus published his theory on the revolutions of heavenly spheres. Our current conception of revolution is far removed from its original definition regarding the regular, lawfully revolving motion of the stars. Copernicus does not denote the violence nor newness that we regularly associate with the term.

Notes from Professor Kristen Thompson’s Lecture

When the term was first politicized and applied to earthly bodies, it became synonymous with restoration. In our current definition of revolution, these two words are antonymous! What we refer to now as the Glorious Revolution was not thought of as a revolution whatsoever at the time but rather a restoration of the monarchy. People who particpated in the American and French revolutions wanted no more than to restore the old order of things. However, the Declaration of Independence is evidence enough of the fact that no old order was restored. The country experienced immense change only when the people of both countries recognized that any effort at restoration would result in failure. This revelation gave rise to our current understanding this term. The entirety of Davidson’s 2019-2020 Humanities Program was centered around the seemingly basic question:

What is a revolution? 

As we progressed through 8 different units, however, we began to recognize the multitude of layers of this question. In an attempt to answer this complex question, I will recount what we learned in each unit. 

Revolutions have much to do with frames of reference, a concept discussed by Professor Quillen. Governments, however, 

In Professor Quillen’s unit, we discussed identity and frames of reference. When one group is met with another group that has a different frame of reference, diagreements arise, and this could eventually give rise to a revolution. Rather than asking who is right, we should really understand each others’ frames of references (where people are coming from and what the assumptions are for each group). However, there comes a time when governments must work to homogenize groups in order to make laws and rules, leaving those with opposing frames of references dissatisfied. Political theorists John Locke and Karl Marx attempted to create new political societies that would please the greatest amount of people. Locke sought to create laws for the public good and recognized that he had to overthrow the reigning political ideology of his time to do so. However, his model did not account for differences that were politically significant, for he assumed that all people are free and equal, when, in reality, we are born into the world in different positions. Perhaps this is the reason why erecting a successful form of government is so difficult. Marx better recognized ideas of inequality and class struggle and aimed to create a political system that would redistribute the wealth that capitalism produced. In doing so, however, he made the assumption that humans would become less selfish through evolution. Both Locke and Marx believed that their systems worked best because they failed to recognize that their universal claims about human nature were impractical. Regardless, their political theories in themselves are revolutionary in that they both challenged the reigning ideologies of their times and that they had and continue to have great success. 

In his unit, Dr. Robb focused heavily on conceptual schemes, an idea that relates closely to frames of reference. Scientists work within a certain paradigm that assumes a number of conceptual schemes to be true. Truths, therefore, are hybrids between something that is really out there and an imposed conceptual scheme. They work within this paradigm, assuming it rather than testing it until a large number of anomalies arise. When this occurs, a revolution takes place and the paradigm is replaced with another that resolves the old anomalies. It seems, then, that a paradigm shift is necessary for but does not guarantee revolution. A paradigm shift that yields no real change is perhaps a revelation, not a revolution. During Dr. Robb’s unit, we read up on revolutions in Lapham’s Quarterly. For me, this opened my eyes to different types of revolution that we had not yet explored, particularly those involving violence and art. I could not fathom why Malevich’s Red Square painting was included in this book about revolutions. I was also led to wonder if violence is necessary for revolution.

Professor Tamura answered some of these questions regarding violent and visual revolution. Violence is not necessary for revolution, but it is a good indicator that a revolution is taking place. She sought to identify the conditions that make it possible for perpetrators to commit evil acts. A large state of bureaucratized thoughtlessness allowed the Hutus to impose terrible acts of violence upon the Tutsis during the Rwandan Genocide. Revolutions, then, can be comprised of thoughtless acts. However, all revolutions seem to be marked by some sort of intentionality, even if just by one person. Professor Tamura also spoke of the role of photography in portraying violent revolutions. People are largely drawn to stare at atrocious pictures, and, in a way, there is no war without photography. Photography makes revolution visible throughout the world and is perhaps a form of revolution in itself, for it brings more awareness to the atrocities being carried out. Suddenly, there is no longer is an “elsewhere” in contemporary genocide. By supplying guns, bullets, and gas to Rwanda, other countries perpetuated the Rwandan Genocide. Perhaps more discomforting, those who viewed photos of tragedy and remained idle are equally as responsible for the genocide of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis.

Professor Wills illustrated the power of conceptual schemes, recognizing that these hidden frameworks are the reason that the Bible raised diametrically opposed views regarding racial differences. Some point to religion as a justification for their racist thinking. Conceptual schemes at the time recognized varying degrees of humanity, white males being the “most human” and African Americans being the “least human,” or, as argued by Voltaire, an entirely different species. Thus, civil rights activists such as Malcolm X, the Freedom Riders, Mary Church Terrell, and Ida B. Wells challenged reigning conceptual schemes and aimed to redefine who is human through both violent and nonviolent revolution

In her unit, Professor Bory taught us that dance can be a site for revolution and that the body can be an agent of change. In the past, for example, slaves would mock plantation owners and unite through the cakewalk. Modern dance is organized around ideologies rather than aesthetics, and the dancer is no longer an object but rather a subject. Doing something on stage is tantamount to or a rehearsal for doing it in the real world. Dance challenges conceptual schemes, refusing materiality in a culture that worships materialism

Professor Munger spoke about the revolution that the art world experienced with the introduction of reductionism. Kandel explains that abstract works, unlike figurative works, are self-referential, meaning that viewers focus on the work itself rather than an external framework of knowledge. Thus, the viewer projects his or her own impressions onto the canvas and experiences more brain stimulation than he or she would have experienced upon viewing a portrait or photograph. The idea of reductionism challenged the commonly held notion that all great art is mimetic and closely represents the world as we see it.

In Professor Munger’s and Professor Denham’s unit, I began to wonder if revolution inevitably leads to terror. The conditions that gave rise to Stalin’s terror and the RAF were not uniquely German and Russian. Such terror could have easily arisen in the west as well. We have seen tyranny after revolution with Castro in Cuba, Napolean in France, Caesar in Rome, and Franco in Spain as well.  Perhaps the only government that successfully established a free government after a revolution was America after the Revolutionary War. It seems, though, that the only reason that America avoided tyrannical rule is that George Washington was an exceptional person. Thus unstable conditions often follow political revolutions, and terror is a good indicator that a revolution has recently occurred

I conclude that revolutions occur due to the relativism of knowledge and experience. No one paradigm can perfectly satisfy us since we have different frames of references and different conceptual schemes. We continue to undergo paradigm shifts, hoping that we will eventually find one that satisfies the truths about human nature. In reality, however, our knowledge about the world is inextricably linked to our conceptual scheme. We are tasked with the difficult challenge of determining what aspects of human experience are due to the world and what aspects are due to our imposed conceptual schemes.