Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities

History of the Centre


The Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities (SVT) was established in 1987 as a permanent inter-faculty institution at the University of Bergen, Norway. The field of study, Theory of Science was (in accordance with the Jeløya Conference in 1975, which was under the auspices of the Norwegian Research Council) defined as research in the fields of philosophy, history and social science focusing on the roles these different sciences play in society; in addition it was defined as research into the theoretical and ethical aspects and uses of such scientific research.

During its first years SVT was located at Állegt. 32. From the Fall of 2008 the Centre was moved to the same building as The Centre for Women’s and Gender Research (SKOK) in Ida Blom’s House, on Állegt. 34 situated across from the Science Building south from Nygårdshøyden in Bergen.

Today the Centre has a staff of about twenty people, with research fellows, post-docs, and permanent academic and administrative personnel (the latter are part of the joint administration with The Centre for Women and Gender Research).

In modern scientifically-based high risk societies there is a documented need for critical reflection and constructive collaboration across different fields. The Centre has, like other academic institutions at the University, its work tied to research, teaching and information dissemination. The Centre prioritizes collaboration with colleagues in other fields; in this sense the Centre also has an interdisciplinary profile.

From its inception the Centre has had the theory of science and ethics portion of the PhD training of doctoral candidates from different faculties as one of its most important tasks.

In addition to collaboration on the regional and national level, the Centre has an extensive international collaboration with colleagues and closely related professional circles in Europe as well as in the Americas and Asia.

What is vitskapsteori?

The term vitskapsteori is defined as research on science, as inquiry into all the sciences (vitskapar) found at a comprehensive university, not merely the natural sciences. Moreover, these inquiries, these “studies of the sciences and the humanities”, include various disciplinary approaches – historical, anthropological, sociological, psychological, philosophical, etc. However, the researcher in vitskapsteori ought to have a double competence in the sense that he or she should be able to understand, from the inside, what is going on in his or her field of research, and the researcher ought to be philosophically informed in the sense that he or she should be able to cope with the epistemic and normative presuppositions of his or her own approach as well as of those of his or her field of research. Accordingly, a philosopher without this kind of double competence will not be able to do research in vitskapsteori, neither will anthropological or sociological researchers who lack this kind of double competence or such philosophical reflectivity.

This is the definition of vitskapsteori, though in practice there are gradual transitions and matters of discretion (how much double competence and philosophical reflectivity is required in the various cases?). It should be noted that this definition is not an invention by those who work in that field today; this definition of vitskapsteori originates from an initiative taken by eminent Norwegian scientists and scholars, on behalf of the Norwegian Research Council (NAVF) in the 1970s (see below). However, over the years, ethical questions concerning scientific and scholarly research as well as its uses and misuses have become more important. The same is true of questions concerning the relationship between science (vitskap) and society.

Why vitskapsteori?

Modern societies are science-based in a variety of ways. Hence it is important to understand what the various sciences can, and cannot, deliver, and to understand how, and why, this is so. More specifically, due to specialization in contemporary research there is a need for vitskapsteori both at the universities so they can live up to their name of uni-versity, and in societies in general in order for them to be able to cope with the different professions and experts, each with their specific approach and perspective.

Hence, there is a need for vitskapsteori in the sense of competent transdisciplinary reflection and communication, and in the sense of competent ethical discussions and assessments of various challenges facing modern crisis-laden and technology-based societies. There is a need for such discussions among scholars and scientists, but also in the public space among enlightened citizens.  At university level, the PhD candidates, at least, should be exposed to such discussions. In these cases, vitskapsteori, as defined above, has a role to play.  

How to do it?

At an early stage (in the 1980s) the Norwegian Research Council supported vitskapsteori by giving money for research projects and for seminars in vitskapsteori at each of the four universities (preferably eminent international scholars and scientists as speakers and participants). In return, the four universities agreed to continue with these activities for a similar period of time and with a similar amount of money.

At the University of Bergen, these activities became institutionalized (in 1987) by the establishment of Senter for vitskapsteori (SVT) as a permanent interfacultary institute, with the responsibility for vitskapsteori at all faculties. The initiative came from Pro-Rector Ole Didrik Lærum, professor of medicine and university rector in 1990-1995, who argued that for budget reasons the activities in vitskapsteori ought to be organized as a permanent institute, though the name “center” was used and not “institute” (which causes some misunderstandings). The rules and regulations for this center were formulated in collaboration with the university director, Magne Lerheim.

In short: SVT was defined and organized as a permanent interfacultary institute, with equal obligations for all faculties; the permanent positions were defined and organized with part-time obligations at SVT and part-time obligations at some other institute or special faculty. The first permanent part-time positions were established in collaboration with the Department of Philosophy and the Faculty of Humanities. Moreover, at an early stage, the Faculty of Humanities appointed a commission (vitskapsteoretisk utval) to take care of the education in vitskapsteori in the new PhD program. At a later stage, the Faculty of Humanities was involved in the founding of the Marco Polo program (with the East China Normal University, Shanghai), at SVT.

Due to SVT’s good relationship to and origin at the Department of Philosophy and the Faculty of Humanities, it was important to develop good relationships with other faculties and departments as well. To be received on equal terms throughout the university, there was, already at the beginning, a close collaboration with colleagues in the natural sciences and medicine.[1] For the same reason, SVT was intentionally located close to the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences, with a physical distance from the Faculty of Humanities.[2]

As an interfacultary institution, with obligations to all faculties, SVT should ideally have been located directly under the central administration, in the same way as the Centre for Development and the Environment (SUM) and three other centers are located directly under the University Board at the University of Oslo. However, at the University of Bergen the decision was taken that SVT should be administratively located under the Faculty of Humanities.  

Historical background

At the University of Bergen, we have Senter for vitskapsteori, in English translation “Center for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities”. It is the only center of this kind in Norway. Moreover, the term vitskapteori (in German, literally: Wissenschaftstheorie) is defined in a special way, as mention above. How come?

To find the answer, we have to refer to a conference at Jeløya in 1975, arranged by the Norwegian Research Council.[3] At this conference, the term vitskapsteori was defined and plans for promoting vitskapsteori were discussed. The report from this conference has been decisive for the development of vitskapsteori in Norway ever since.

There was a pre-history to the conference at Jeløya: After the War,[4] Norwegian philosophers were interested in what was going on in various scholarly and scientific disciplines.[5] Personal contacts were established between philosophers and main researchers in other fields, at the same time as the philosophers remained critical (and self-critical) in the discussions with their colleagues in other disciplines. As a result, the ground was well prepared for the Jeløya-conference in 1975.

As mentioned above, vitskapsteori was conceived as “research on research”, i.e., as various kinds of research (historical, sociological, anthropological, philosophical, etc.) on various kinds of scholarly and scientific activities, not merely on the natural sciences, but on all disciplines at a comprehensive university (the humanities, jurisprudence, and theology included). In short, a broad conception; but then there are two restrictive provisions: (i) Those who do research in vitskapsteori should understand what is going on in the scholarly or scientific field under investigation, i.e., understand what is going on as seen from within these disciplines. A certain double-competence is required.[6] (ii) Those who do research in vitskapteori should be philosophically trained and informed. They should be able to discuss conceptual and methodological presuppositions and problems within the scholarly and scientific disciplines in correct academic terms, including normative issues and challenges in the process of research as well as in its usage and its role in society.

Consequently, the notion vitskapsteori entails transdisciplinarity in a demanding and serious sense.[7] A double-competence is needed. Accordingly, the recruitment of academic personnel for positions in vitskapsteori is not an easy task. Moreover, institutionally such positions should ideally include a double connection, to a community of researchers in vitskapsteori and also to the discipline (or field of research) under investigation. These were earnest concerns when the Senter for vitskapsteori was established at the University of Bergen.

However, at the Jeløya-conference there was no agreement as to how vitskapsteori ought to be organized institutionally in Norway: Should there be one center (and where should that be), or should vitskapteori be spread to all four universities?

To see what happened next, we have to take a step back. A major agent behind the Jeløya-conference was Knut Erik Tranøy, professor of philosophy at the University of Bergen. He incarnated the characteristic concerns of post-war philosophers in Norway: a mediation between analytic and continental philosophy, an interest in scholarly and scientific research, an interest in political issues, and an interest in open and enlightened public debate. As the founding father of the Department of Philosophy (in 1959) he was the right man at the right place, and at the right time; due to his professional solidity, his pedagogical skills, his administrative competence, and his confidence-creating collaboration with colleagues in other disciplines, he gave philosophy a significant amount of “social capital”. Consequently, when it turned out that there was no competent candidate for a vacant professorship in music in the late 1970s, Tranøy was able to convince the Faculty Board that this vacancy should be redefined as a professorship in the philosophy of the sciences and the humanities (vitskapsfilosofi) – since both professorships were interfacultary.[8] In 1979, Gunnar Skirbekk was appointed to this position.

According to its description, the professorship in the philosophy of the sciences and the humanities was administratively located at the Department of Philosophy, with half-time obligations at the department and half-time obligations at an interfacultary level. At the same time, as a professor of philosophy of the sciences and the humanities, Skirbekk was involved in a newly established committee for vitskapsteori at the Research Council. Consequently, efforts were needed at two levels: national and local, at the Norwegian Research Council (i) and at the University in Bergen (ii).

  • (i) At the Norwegian Research Council,[9] networking and negotiation were required in order to gain support for an arrangement whereby the Research Council granted money for the promotion of vitskapsteori at each university for four years, in return the four universities committed themselves to a similar support for vitskapsteori for the following four years.

    The negotiation worked out. Consequently, a vitskapsteoretiske forum (vitskapsteoretisk seminar) was established at each of the four Norwegian universities. The main activities were lectures – given by competent scholars, often from abroad – followed by discussions. The persons in charge, at each of these vitskapsteoretiske fora, collaborated closely and efficiently, like a blend of an academic stock market and a travel agency, often trading with international stars – for instance, when Hans Georg Gadamer accepted the offer to lecture in Bergen, what about a visit to the other universities, for instance by the Coastal Express to Tromsø, the northernmost university in the world? At that time, such invitations[10] were less common than they are today;[11] therefore it was relatively easy to obtain a yes. In short, this system was efficient both in academic and economic terms. For a reasonable amount of money, brilliant scholars and scientists gave lectures and took part in discussions throughout this network.
  • (ii) At the University of Bergen, as part of his half-time obligations for activities outside the department, Gunnar Skirbekk was in charge of the local vitskapsteoretisk forum.

    In addition to the activities at the forum with external lecturers, Skirbekk did networking by talking with colleagues and attending seminars at various institutes at the six faculties at our university, not only at the Faculty of the Humanities and the Faculty of Social Sciences, but also at the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Science, the Faculty of Medicine, the Faculty of Law, and the Faculty of Psychology.[12]

    In close collaboration with central persons at various faculties and at the head of the university – notably, the university pro-rector, Ole Didrik Lærum, professor at the Faculty of Medicine – it was decided (in 1987) that Skirbekk’s half-time position, plus a half-time administrative position at the Department of Philosophy, should be relocated to a permanent interfacultary center for the study of the sciences and the humanities. This was the birth of Senter for vitskapsteori (SVT).

A research project on cultural modernization, granted by the Research Council, became part of the activities of the Center. Later, a research project on ecology, technology, and human values was launched.

Moreover, at that time, the doctoral degree program was revised: some mandatory courses were now required for the doctoral degree and it was decided that vitskapsteori should be part of these requirements. Thereby the Center now gained a firm foundation in the education system of the university. As the Department of Philosophy had the responsibility for the mandatory introductory courses, examen philosophicum, the Center now had the responsibility for some of the mandatory courses at the doctoral level.

Being a permanent center (de facto an institute), with educational obligations of its own, for all faculties[13] (though with differences from one faculty to the next), there was a firm basis for permanent positions – positions for scholars and scientists with the kind of double-competence required by the definition of vitskapsteori (referred to above). Consequently, those holding these positions should collaborate with colleagues at the different institutes and faculties, and simultaneously they should participate in joint activities and internal seminars at the Center.

In short, a center of this kind depends on a common culture of serious academic discussions and social co-responsibility. Members of the permanent staff as well as those with short-term connections are all supposed to take part in internal seminars and other joint activities at the center.      


[1] At the first meeting in the «Vitskapsteoretisk forum», on May 14th 1981, Professor Ole Didrik Lærum from the Faculty of Medicine gave a lecture on the problem of objectivity in medicine. Then there were lectures by Professor Jan Fridthjof Bernt from the Faculty of Law, by Gunnar Løvhøiden and Jan Vaagen from the Department of Physics at the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences, and Kjell S. Johannessen and Gunnar Skirbekk from the Department of Philosophy at the Faculty of Humanities. These lectures were published as Objektivitetsproblemet i vitskapane, Skriftserien nr. 1, Vitskapsteoretisk forum, at Studia Bergen in 1984.

[2] This geo-diplomatic strategy did function: Quite a few colleagues at the Faculty of Mathemathics and Natural Sciences “took ownership” in SVT. For instance, when we were moving in, at Allegate 32, Professor Rolf Manne at the Chemstry Department came spontaneously over to help us screw the tables together. All along there were close interactions with colleagues at the Department of Physics, where priority was given for a permanent position in vitskapsteori; and there were tight social and professional connections with colleagues at the Department of Zoology; as a result of close collaboration between Audfinn Tjønneland, Andreas Steigen, and Are Nylund at the Department of Zoology, and the economist Arne Selvik, the book The Commercial Ark. A book on evolution, ecology, and ethics, was published at Scandinavian University Press in 1992.

[3] Vitenskapsteoretiske fag. En konferanserapport, NAVF 1976, ISBN 8272160013.

[4] See Gunnar Skirbekk, Notes in Retrospect, SVT Press 2013, p. 15.

[5] Inquiry was the name of the philosophical journal initiated by Arne Næss.

[6] The depth and degree of such a double-competence is up for discussion, but at least a reasonable degree of insight and training in the field under investigation is required, e.g. to the extent that one is able to be a competent co-discussant with researchers in the field. In the case of inquiries on technology and natural sciences it is not that difficult to see what is meant by “double competence” (cf Ragnar Fjelland, both a philosopher and physicist). As to a case of double competence in the humanities, cf e.g. Multiple Modernities (Hong Kong 2011) by Gunnar Skirbekk: Norwegian history in the 19th century is redescribed (reconceptualized) in terms of modernization theory, focusing on the development of historically situated versions of pragmatically conceived rationality. Cf also Skirbekk’s articles on religion in modern societies and on transcendental pragmatics, as a case of meta-philosophy, taking both the internal and the external perspective into consideration, see his homepage.

[7] Politicians tend to speak positively, but naively about transdisciplinarity. Surely, transdisciplinarity is exciting and interesting, but also demanding: one has to know one field of research, and then still another, and in addition, one has to be able to mediate between the two in a fruitful way.

[8] Presumably, the philosophy of the sciences and the humanities could be useful and joyful for everyone, like music!

[9] At that time, Skirbekk had been a member of the Council (fagråd) for the Humanities within the Research Council. In the mid-1980s, he was a member of the board of the Norwegian Research Council (NAVF).

[10] With a reasonable payment for the trip and for the lecture.

[11] Moreover, for quite a few, Norwegian nature was an attraction.

[12] For instance, professor of law and Rector at a later stage, Jan Fridthjof Bernt, was one of the main supporters. At the Faculty of Natural sciences, good relationships were soon established with various persons, such as professor Erling Tjønneland in zoology (we had many joint seminars on evolution theory and ecological challenges), professor Rolf Manne in chemistry, and the professorial troika of Johannes Hansteen, Harald Trefall, and Jan Vaagen at the Department of Physics. When Ragnar Fjelland was appointed to a tenured position at the Department of Physics, and simultaneously as a staff member of SVT, this decision by the Department of Physics did not come out of the blue. There was a lot of networking in advance.

[13] Also with a national responsibility: (1) In 1996-1999 Norgesnett for vitskapsteori/vitskapsstudiar was established (run by Ragnar Fjelland, Matthias Kaiser, and Gunnar Skirbekk), coordinating activities on a national level, with annual meetings (Ustaoset and Ål) and an info bulletin, and with credit giving courses for younger scholars. (2) From 2000, a research project in vitskapsteori was established (run by the same three persons, financed by the Norwegian Research Council), giving courses for PhD students (at Vatnahalsen and in Bergen), where outstanding foreign lecturers participated