Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities
Research project

Citizenship in Modern Societies (CIMS)

This project focused on the notion of citizenship in modern societies.


Main content

About the project

SVT and Institute of Philosophy, East China Normal University ( ECNU) have had a mutual exchange program for scholars for publications and international conferences since 1994. The collaboration program, entitled Marco Polo, has resulted in a number of publications, research stays and joint conferences. The last couple of years, however, the activity level has decreased due to financial causes. This  research project is a first step towards an important revitalization of the collaboration program.

China is important economically, politically, and in the field of research and knowledge production. To get good contacts and connections with eminent Chinese researchers is for Western universities now a major task. This goes for co-research in fields such as energy, climate, health, aquaculture, and oceanography, just to mention a few. At the same time, there is a need for research on Chinese language and culture, history and society. However, Chinese philosophy, in a broad sense, has played a major role all through its long history, and it still does; e.g. the institutional and cultural importance of Confucianism and Taoism as well as Chinese Marxism and Pragmatism. Consequently, philosophy is important for a deeper understanding of China and the Chinese if we in the West want to engage in dialogues in depth with them, and not merely do research on them.

Since that which is called philosophy in China is conceived broadly and less academically specialized than at most Western universities, it embraces the historical and social embeddedness of human thinking (as a reminder, compare with Marxism) as well as applied philosophical thinking, for instance on cultural modernization and the role of the sciences in society, reminiscent of what in Norway is called studies of the sciences and the humanities (vitskapsteori).

China has great potentials and ambitions as a knowledge society. Even though Norway is a small country, some of its institutional models and professional strongholds are of interest in this connection.


The possibility of fruitful exchange between Chinese and Norwegian scholars have been demonstrated in the Marco Polo project over many years. Marco Polo is a collaboration program on modernization between the Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities (SVT) at the University of Bergen, Norway, and the Institute of Philosophy at East China Normal University (ECNU) in Shanghai, China. The project understands modernization in the Weberian sense, and focus on ‘values’ and institutions in a ‘philosophical’ perspective. Marco Polo was formally founded in 1994, as a mutual exchange program for scholars and for publications, and for international conferences. Documented results thus far include: Professor Shijun Tong (now Director of ECNU): The Dialectics of Modernization: Habermas and the Chinese discourse of modernization (2000) and Professor Zhenhua Yu (now Dean of the Department of Philosophy ECNU): On the Tacit Dimension of Human Knowledge (2006, later also in Chinese) – both books were written as doctoral theses at UoB within the frame of Marco Polo. From the Norwegian side, e.g. Gunnar Skirbekk: Multiple Modernities. A Tale of Scandinavian Experiences (Hong Kong, 2011; Chinese version published in Shanghai, 2013), and Timely Thoughts. Modern Challenges and Philosophical Responses: Contributions to Inter-Cultural Dialogue (published in the US, 2007; Chinese version published in Shanghai the same year).

In a sense the research collaboration delineated in this project started already in 2009 when the University of Bergen and East China Normal University arranged a joint conference in Bergen on ‘Multiple Democracies in Theory and History’. Papers read at this conference were published in a book titled Multiple Democracies in Theory and History, edited by Rasmus Slaattelid and Simen Andersen Øyen, University of Bergen, SVT Press, 2009.

Recently, at SVT, there has been a renewal and strengthening of the competence on the interface between political theory and the philosophy of the sciences, notably by the doctoral thesis of Silje Langvatn on the discussion between John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas on public reason and the notion of citizenship. The Chinese partners in the project have expressed an interest in this kind of subject and in extending the cooperation. We have therefore decided to launch a new project with the title ‘Deliberative Democracies and Citizenship in Modern Societies’ (CIMS).

The CIMS project shall focus on four main questions: (i) How should we conceive the role and status of citizenship in well-ordered constitutional democracies? (ii) How should the notion of citizenship be conceptualized in well-ordered constitutional democracies that are risk societies, facing severe challenges? (iii) How to conceptualize the notion of citizenship in modern well-ordered societies that are extensive and complex, and with a responsibility for the future? (iv) How to conceive the notion of citizenship in the interface between religion and modern risk societies? Read more about the main research questions below.

There will be joint workshops and seminars, resulting in reports and media interventions, as well as international publications, articles, as well as a book publication at the end of the project period.

The project will run over four years. As for the funding of the project the ambition is to obtain a bilateral research-political collaboration between the University, the Norwegian Research Council, and the Department of Education as well as the Department of Foreign Affairs. This could be done by an authorization of SVT to be accountable for the administrative and academic use of the funding. Moreover, the Chinese partners will apply for economic support for Norwegian participants during their stay in Shanghai, and they will arrange a series of seminars with own funds.

How to get there?

Hence the question: how to get there? Luckily, a lot of co-research in already established, and the same is true for sinology of various kinds. Moreover, at the University of Bergen we are in the fortunate situation that scholarly networks and dialogues in depth are already established within the field of ‘philosophy’ as defined above, namely by the Marco Polo program on comparative studies of cultural modernization in Europe and East Asia, between the University of Bergen and East China Normal University in Shanghai. The program was founded in 1994, but started informally already in 1988. The East China Normal University specializes in higher education for teachers and are strong in the area of ‘philosophy’. The contributions of this collaboration are well documented (references at the end of this text).

It was an advantage for the SVT to have established cooperation with Chinese scholars at an early stage; Today everybody is knocking at the door of major Chinese institutions, but it “it is valuable to have known the president before the president became a president”, to quote a Chinese saying. Consequently, this research collaboration, within the frame of the Marco Polo program, represents a special and valuable ‘intellectual capital’. It should be cultivated constructively and actively.

Main research questions

1. The Notion of the Citizen

The notion of a citizen in democratic societies is a central theme in the current debates in political theory, notably in the great discussion between John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas on how to conceive the role of public reasoning and its translation through the voting procedures into the legal system. Should the arenas for public reasoning welcome all kinds of metaphysical and religious convictions, whereas the transformation into the legal system (with legitimate coercive laws for everybody) demands a translation of these opinions into public reasons that could be acceptable for all citizens? Or should citizens, already during the public debates, strive to use publicly accessible reasons in explaining and defending their positions - even if they also might have underlying metaphysical or religious convictions, convictions that would not have been shared by all co-citizens?

These are discussions well known by the Chinese members of our network. For instance, at the world congress for philosophy in South Korea, Professor Tong Shijun held a key note speech on Jürgen Habermas, John Rawls, and Charles Taylor, compared with similar discussions in Chinese philosophy. Tong was also the person who had Habermas, whom Tong had met at SVT in Bergen, formally invited to China, where Habermas was well received and even invited to the prestigious party school in Beijing. It was also Tong who translated Habermas’ two volume work on the theory of law, Faktizität und Geltung, from German to Chinese.

At SVT, this discussion goes on, starting with the notion of a well-ordered constitutional democracy, exploring the notion of a citizen who argues politically in terms of public reasons. Public reasons are here seen as reasons connected to the shared political-moral ideas, and not merely reasons connected to personal gain or to some controversial religious, moral or philosophical “comprehensive doctrine”. Moreover, there is a discussion on the view that there is a need for “pre-public reasoning” to prepare the citizens for this task. Accordingly, the voting citizen is conceived as a co-responsible public actor, not merely as narrowly interest-driven actor, as conceived by those who defend an aggregative understanding of democracy. The discussion focuses on the question whether a citizen in a well-ordered constitutional democracy, with the right to vote and thus entitled with a political power, whether and in what sense this implies co-responsibility and thus a demand for the use of public reason in political deliberation and voting. Hence, there is a difference between the role of a citizen and that of a “subject” (in the sense of Untertan); but there is more to it, and the subtleties of this debate should be continued both among western scholars and in dialogue with our Chinese colleagues. The role and status of citizenship in well-ordered constitutional democracies is the first question we want to explore further.

2. Preconditions & Conceptionalization

We recall how we want to proceed: We start within a given setting, looking for its preconditions and how they should be conceptualized. But how should the setting itself be conceived? A well-ordered constitutional democracy – yes, but even so there are various conceptualizations, some “thin”, some “thick”. Rawls sticks to a “thin” version, starting with a well-ordered constitutional democracy, conceived in general terms. But real societies are historically embedded, deep down, each in their special setting. That’s a trivial point, but not without importance when we look at real cases (different societies that are well-ordered constitutional democracies may differ in various ways, cf. Skirbekk, Multiple Modernities. A Tale of Scandinavian Experiences, Hong Kong, 2011).

However, there are also some common characteristics of modern societies that are not properly conceived when these societies are conceptualized primarily in legal and political terms - as well-ordered constitutional democracy, by Rawls-, namely the role of scientific and scholarly activities and of enlightenment, and also the increasing challenges, internal as well as external. In short, modern societies are internally ‘risk societies’ and the contemporary world is conflict-laden, e.g. due to intertwined challenges such as overconsumption and overpopulation on a global scale, combined with a proliferation of destructive technologies, and in many parts of the world also combined with faulted states, poverty, unemployment, lack of education, and pre-modern mentalities – to the extent that even currently well-ordered societies are facing a troublesome future. Hence the question: how to conceptualize the notion of a citizen in well-ordered constitutional democracies that are modern risk societies with severe challenges ahead?

We recall Hobbes: nobody is secure – not anymore, not in a global perspective, not for the future. In short, there are reasons for a “thicker” conceptualization of well-ordered constitutional democracies as “modern societies”. What then concerning the notion of citizenship in such democracies? This is the second question we want to investigate in this project.

In short, how should the notion of citizenship be conceptualized when we consider citizens in well-ordered constitutional democracies that are modern risk societies in a challenging global setting? This is our second question. In short, a “thicker” description of the political setting than what Rawls takes as his point of departure.

A few remarks, to elucidate the underlying concern: Democracy is usually legitimated by the principle of popular sovereignty – self-rule by the people. Those who give the laws are those for whom the laws apply, and in making the laws the law makers understand what they are doing. Hence, these laws are valid (given that decisions are unanimous; if not, and there is a majority vote and a majority rule, a concern for minorities would make a difference, be it in terms of legal restrictions by minority rights, or in terms of a socio-cultural concern for minorities).
In short, the idea is that those who give the laws and those for whom the laws apply are the same subjects, (i) in space, and (ii) in time, and also (iii) that they know what they are doing.

But all three requirements are problematic, not least in modern societies:

(i) Many decisions reach far out, beyond national borders. For instance, economic and military decisions made by a great power (like the US) have impact on other people. Hence there is ideally a need for international laws and courts, but here again there are challenges as to democratic procedures and justification, and also as to sanctions for those who do not sign up or do not comply. Similar challenges are found in large and complex societies in contrast to small societies. For that reason there is a need for rethinking the meaning and function of traditional democratic ideals.

(ii) Moreover, many decisions reach far out into the future, not least due to modern technology and influential institutions of various kinds, often operating with a short-term perspective, as market transactions on the financial market or political parties focusing on upcoming elections. Future generations have no votes, even though they are often deeply influenced by our decisions here and now. Hence there is a need for institutions with a long-term perspective and that take a responsibility for the future.

(iii) In a modern world, the sciences and humanities are differentiated into numerous specialties, each with their more or less special concepts and methods. Each one sees some aspects, not others. Then there are unintended consequences, hard to foresee, and at times even hard to recognize within the given scientific perspective (physicists and engineers are not specialists on social implications).

The diversity of scientific and scholarly perspectives, epistemic uncertainty, and the possibility of being power-infected – these are inherent challenges in modern science-based societies – in addition to institutional and psychological challenges in complying with the epistemic requirements of what we are doing. This is one of the reasons why “vitskapsteori” is important in modern societies and also for the conceptualization of modern societies. But the challenges remain, for the usual notion of democratic legitimation, according to which the actors are supposed to know what they are doing.

Consequently, the notion of personal autonomy, as a precondition for citizens in democratic states, needs a special consideration in modern (risk) societies conceived as moderate size nations. However, the notion of personal autonomy is also important as a precondition for citizens within large and complex societies with a responsibility for the future.

This notion has an epistemic aspect as well as a formative aspect (as Bildung, as Aufklärung – i.e., Enlightenment). The sciences and the humanities tell us about various kinds of influences and determinations. On the other hand, for self-referential reasons (some) personal freedom has to be presupposed. In this intricate problematic, it is relevant to discuss a meliorist and gradual notion of personal autonomy (as a constitutive, regulative idea – to talk in technical terms). Moreover, there are challenges due to the weakening of the political realm, caused by the force of a globalized market economy, but also caused by institutional constraints in various kinds of public agencies, and by commercialized media and Public Relation companies, as well as short-term and local party politics and market oriented university reforms. These factors are at the same time conditions for political actions and for responsible citizens and challenges to be considered and possibly improved by political actions and responsible citizens.

3. Citizenship in Modern Risk-Socities

How should the notion of citizenship be conceptualized when we consider citizens in well-ordered large and complex societies that are modern risk-societies in a challenging global setting, but with a responsibility for the future? This is our third question.

We may recall what has been said above, in these issues. However, one essential point should be emphasized: These societies are modern; hence, according to our notion of modernity, they are exposed to all the branches of the sciences and the humanities, with free academic discussions, for instance in the defence of doctoral theses, in a joint search for better arguments; thereby freedom of expression is required and presupposed, as a precondition for rationality and reasonableness in a modern world, characterized by multiple perspectives and by an awareness of our fallibility and thus of our need to listen to counter arguments and to the opinions and experiences of other people, cf. John Stuart Mill’s argument for the freedom of expression.

However, in a modern society, the sciences and humanities are not merely located within academia. Through the various science-based professions and projects, spread out into society at large, the need for deliberative reasoning is equally widespread. Furthermore, for a rational and reasonable politics there is, in modern societies, also a need for deliberation concerning various public affairs - though, also with a need for personal enlightenment and a sense of co-responsibility. At this point, there is a need for dialogues in depth with Chinese scholars, concerning Chinese thinking and experiences. This is now our third question: How to conceptualize the notion of citizenship in modern well-ordered societies that are large and complex and with a responsibility for the future?

4. The Role of Religion

There is also a fourth question, leading back to the question about the role of religion in well-ordered constitutional democracies: what about the role of religion in modern democracies and other well-ordered societies, that is, in societies that are characterized by the whole range of sciences and humanities and also by a culture of enlightenment? Cf. Kant: “Sapere aude! “Have courage to use your own understanding!” – that is the motto of enlightenment”.

The word “religion” is today used differently, about different phenomena. It has to be discussed and defined. This is the first task. Then there are various questions, concerning religious citizens in modern societies: (i) What about the relationship between religion (those with theological claims) and the modern need for deliberative reasoning, be it in public space, in education, and in academia? And how does this influence the role and status of the citizen? (ii) What about the relationship between religious (and cultural) rights (and identities) on the one hand and various institutions and special historically entrenched experiences on the other? And how does this influence the role and status of citizens that are immigrants from other countries, with other institutions and traditions and other notions of the relationship between religion and politics? (iii) What about the relationship between religious beliefs and practices and urgent challenges such as demography, overconsumption, and climate change? And how does this influence the role and status of citizens as co-responsible actors?

This is the fourth set of questions, to be raised and discussed in this project on the notion of citizenship in modern societies.