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Open access publication in the spotlight for the month (May) - 'Vocation as tragedy: Love and knowledge in the lives of the Mills, the Webers, and the Russells'

Date:31 May 2024
Author:Open Access Team
Open access publication in the spotlight: May 2024
Open access publication in the spotlight: May 2024

Each month, the open access team of the University of Groningen Library (UB) puts a recent open access article by UG authors in the spotlight. This publication is highlighted via social media and the library’s newsletter and website.

The article in the spotlight for the month of May 2024 is titled Vocation as tragedy: Love and knowledge in the lives of the Mills, the Webers, and the Russells, written by Hanneke Hoekstra (lecturer and researcher at the Faculty of Arts). 


Can love affect knowledge and knowledge affect love? John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor-Mill, Max and Marianne Weber, and Bertrand and Dora Russell had a definite vocation: they wanted to change the world. They questioned traditional gender arrangements through publications on equality, marriage, and education. They were liberal thinkers, advocating individual freedom and autonomy, vis à vis the constraints of state and society. Their partnership inspired their work, a living experiment conducted through their own unconventional relationship. Over time, their increasingly radical, avant-garde ideas on marriage complicated the ongoing negotiation over power and intimacy which typified their marriages. Building on the historiography of social science couples, and by means of an analysis of the micro-social dynamics of marriage as documented in the life writings of the Mills, the Webers, and the Russells, I analyse the connections between gender, intimacy, and creativity. These couples’ experiences highlight the non-rational dimension of a most rational endeavour.

We asked author Hanneke Hoekstra a few questions about the article:

What does the study of the marriages of these famous social science couples (including all the personal tensions, feelings and conflicts) add to our understanding of their work?

Their work was directly affected by their love life. The essay addresses the emergence of the social sciences (philosophy, sociology, psychology, education). Among the pioneers of these fields, were noted married couples whose impact was profound; they wanted to change the world. Harriet Taylor-Mill and John Stuart Mill, Marianne and Max Weber and Dora and Bertrand Russell were idealists; they were committed to ideals of freedom and equality for men and women. Unlike (perhaps) pioneers in the natural sciences they took their own life in its most personal and its more social and historical context as a vantage point for their abstract social theory and philosophy. They were biographical writers convinced of the unity of work and life. They considered their marriages as living experiments, testing their ideals, since the family was the smallest social unit in society. They left an enormous amount of life writing; correspondence and autobiography in which they extensively reflect on their intellectual work, personal relationships and life because they believed in the value of self-reflection, inspired by the German romantics.

These sources are a goldmine for the historian. The Autobiography of John Stuart Mill and Marianne Weber’s Lebensbild, her idealized biography of Max Weber emphasizing the unity of life and work, consolidated their reputation as scientists for eternity. So in order to understand their work, we must consider their life.

These public accounts however mask to an extent the reality of their experiments. In this respect the correspondence is more revealing. In the case of Max Weber, correspondence reveals that his famous abstractions in the sociology of religion were the product of profound unhappiness, alcohol and drug abuse as a result of an unhealthy entanglement with his former student Else von Richthofen.

Sociology, psychology and education strive towards the improvement of society, through policy, therapy or perhaps mind control. The deep trust of the Russells in the primacy of science (as opposed to religion) caused them to raise their children guided by the psychological experiments of John Watson, the American pioneer in behavioral psychology. After the First World War, they wished to educate fearless citizens of the world. Their children however, developed in their adult lives severe psychological problems. The commitment to the ideal of free love, considered a radical new foundation of society (Freud), and advocated in publications for a wider audience (in the case of the Russells), was a destructive force in the marriages of the Webers and the Russells.

Historical biography can illuminate the contexts for scientific creativity; above all it shows that the human condition means its existential imperfection and that absolutist adherence to insights from the social sciences can cause conflict and may result in loss.

In this respect I am a bit worried about the 30 million euros for social cohesion research  NWO granted to sociologists to investigate social cohesion, led by the University of Groningen. This is a great success,  the enormous grant testifies rightly to the seriousness of the problem at hand, but also to the Big Science assumption (global) that conglomerates, quantitative methods and big data analysis are key to turning the tide. When it comes to social and political disintegration, history can teach us a lot.

You highlight how love and knowledge are intertwined in these famous couples. Why did you choose to write about this topic? 

The article is a result from the conference on Science as Vocation that Dorien Daling, Dirk Jan Wolffram, Catrien Santing and I organized on the occasion of the retirement of Klaas van Berkel, Professor of History after the Middle Ages, in 2020. We thought that the theme of Max Weber’s famous 1917 lecture, in which he defended academic freedom and the separation of science and politics, was an appropriate subject to reconsider the vocation of science. In his lecture for students in München, Weber represented the ideal scientist as driven by an autonomous need for knowledge and truth. Weber was perfect for honouring Van Berkel’s programme and substantive and admirable oeuvre, including his three-volume history of the University of Groningen.

A very long time ago I got a book from the library on the von Richthofen Sisters by Martin Green. I think I was interested in sisters at the time. Else von Richthofen was the mistress of Max Weber. I do not remember doing anything with it, or fully reading it. Radkau’s 2005 biography of Max Weber dominated the bookcase in our living room and I read parts of it. These sweet memories are connected to my private life and to be honest the short answer is, without doubt, my own (social-science) divorce in 2020. 

But there is also a long answer which follows my intellectual development. For years, I taught a class on “Politics as a Vocation”, Weber’s twin essay to “Science as Vocation.” As a political historian I have been very much interested in (classic) questions of vocation and power. I have written on the dynamic of love and power in political elites.

I was intrigued by the fact that Marianne Weber’s self-sacrificing and singular management of Max Weber’s scientific papers had an immense influence on the rise of sociology as a field of science. Weber, like Mill and Russell, wrote his major works outside the university. They were unfinished manuscripts when he died suddenly of the Spanish influenza in 1920. Her biography of her husband was an act of grief. This has been the somewhat intuitive vantage point for the essay and offered its theme.  History of science was a new field for me. The history of science (I guess arguably) revolves around the conditions for creativity. I was interested in the pros and cons of an intellectual partnership and wondered why Harriet Taylor-Mill is still debated and Marianne Weber and Dora Russell are more or less forgotten as social-science founders.

In general, I have been pursuing the history of emotions in relation to questions of change and continuity in modern history as a historical research program for a while now, mostly through the life writing of individual men and women. I enjoy biographical research. In the article I quote Johan Huizinga’s inaugural address (oratie) in 1905 in Groningen: “Hoe zou ik het bedrijf van mensen, gecompliceerd, irrationeel, hartstochtelijk, kunnen begrijpen dan door een gezicht op die mensen?” (“How could I understand the business of people, complicated, irrational, passionate other than by means of a perspective on these people?”)

You work as an historian at the Faculty of Arts. How does the transition to open science affect the discipline of history?

Few historians would contest the importance of the public dimension of their work. Humanists greatly value openness. From what I gather from discussions in the field and on the internet however, is that the open access movement as laid down in Plan-S is modeled on ‘Big Science’ in the natural sciences. It means the organization and funding of science through large research ‘consortiums’ (NWO, ERC) which fund large-scale projects both in terms of the number of projects, the method of analysis (quantitative, big data) and geographical scope. In these fields, funding includes a budget for publication of results. It appears that in history and the humanities, the lure of big data and the security of numbers, pursued and enabled by the digitalization of sources and texts, will probably also become a preferred recipe for success in securing large grants. Research Consortiums which address the preferred socially relevant research agenda of the government may include researchers from the Humanities, but a Dutch saying is ‘wie betaalt bepaalt’. The funding agencies probably also have preferences for the channels for the publication of results. Historians working with quantitative analyses and big data sets, perhaps, hoping to uncover governing laws in human behaviour, are better equipped and willing to work within this model.

So my impression is that the open access ideal cannot be seen apart from the adoption of  a hard (natural) science approach to research in the humanities Its obsession with metrics and big data fosters competition, I think, and potential argumentation in tenure decisions. The result is probably that the candidates who secure an academic career are those best suited to adapt to the system rather than the most creative. 

Bureaucratic control instruments like citation metrics or embargo periods are entirely irrelevant to historical scholarship which is simply produced and consumed very differently from the big science models that are driving OA. Historical writing can be more enduring and yet take years to be recognized and read. This long life for scholarship means there is less focus on measuring numbers of citations in the short term as a means for assessing value. Monographs (in Dutch) are still important to the field and have an important function for the general public. Martin Bossenbroek (retired!) won the Libris Geschiedenis Prijs 2023 for De Zanzibardriehoek on the history of slavery of the African island Zanzibar.

Apparently, the ban on subscription threatens the financial base of historical journals. APCs (Article Processing Costs) may make sense in the context of publications from the Principal Investigator of a grant-funded lab, but threatens professional editing, source checking etc. of historical articles. Long-form editing is vital to publishing since historians work with words and debate the interpretation of the past. The pay-to publish-model may compromise peer review, professional editing and curating of historical texts central to maintaining the high standard of historical knowledge.

For historians and their journals, open access does not solve anything since their work was already accessible because subscriptions to the journals were/are cheap. Funding research is often a matter of numerous small grants. The prestigious journal American Historical Review decided against complying with Plan S. They find that the business model excludes scholars outside the academy (independent, high school instructors, archival specialists) who are nevertheless vital to the field, as well as authors in the global south, and threatens international collaboration. In short, for historians (scientists in the natural sciences also share this concern) open access threatens academic freedom. The American Historical Association states

Along with removal of barriers to access, freedom also means scholars and researchers should be allowed to choose when, where, and how to publish. How humanists conduct research, the funding they receive to do so, and the goals of publishing their scholarship require different mandates to ensure the future of scholarly communication.

Open access may thus impede the vocation of history to disclose the past to a wider audience. With respect to social cohesion, this is an unwelcome development.

My own commitment is to small scale (regional/biographical) projects, and books for a wider audience. I would like a full biography of the Groningen socialist leader J.H. Schaper (plenty of sources in the IISG and a published autobiography);  a study of the ‘Fryske Beweging’ in the post-war period;  the transformative impact of PvdA politicians Max van den Berg (Verkeerscirculatieplan), Ypke Gietema and Jacques Wallage on the city of Groningen deserves its historical due as well.  In line with my own research, I would be interested in a biographical study of Leo and Henriette Polak; the impact of the Second Feminist Wave on the university as well as the history of local student protest. These are great projects which can enhance research-based teaching for students who will be the enthusiastic history teachers, archival specialists and policy makers of the future. According to Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous author of Democracy in America,  “when the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness”. So I wonder how the University of Groningen feels about funding these historical research projects.

All in all it seems to me that the embrace of big science models in the humanities, including its modes of publishing, tend towards deleting the human factor in the humanities. In my article, I argue that a human-centered science will constrain the trend towards the impersonal abstractions of science derived from big data in the humanities, but also in the natural sciences. 

Could you reflect on your experiences with open access and open science in general?

I must admit that I had no clue about the complexities of open access publication. I found Endeavour. Journal for the History and Philosophy of Science through a tip from a contact in Leiden. When I contacted the journal, to suggest an edited collection on ‘Science as a Vocation’, I was fully oblivious, so I guess in hindsight it was a lucky break. Fortunately, my colleague and co-editor Dorien Daling, a specialist in the history of scientific journals, was more informed and took care of making enquiries on the policies of the University of Groningen, supporting open access. Endeavour is a hybrid journal which means it also has a subscription ‘model’ with no APC and access programs for scientists in the global South. From what I learned, Plan-S bans publishing in hybrid journals. The penalty being that (state) funders will not pay the fees. I am not sure how this rule still stands and translates into reality now, but it appears a dangerous one especially in the light of the announced policies of the new government.

The first shocker for me was when uploading in the system, there are questions to answer on the APC of 2960 USD. The waiver of the fees was a question mark for the retired authors, but they were graciously included by their former institutions. The second shocker was the selection of the copyrights when uploading for production. Selecting a license was a puzzling experience.  I assume variation in these mandates makes more sense to those involved in  high stake research in  medicine, natural sciences and technology.For a historian like me, whose work is narrative and creative, this has been a frightful moment and I think I made a wrong decision here. Others can just copy-paste passages but will have to acknowledge me as an author. In addition, I have no clue how AI will divulge this. . Once in production, the final proofs are really a matter of ‘production’, since Endeavour is published by Elsevier. Proofs were managed through an electronic system which was sort of stressful, because the software messed up with the referencing. You have no idea who these people are who answer to your amends, and where they are located. I like it though, that the article and the entire journal can be easily accessed and shared through links. Endeavour’s peer review and editing processes were according to the highest standards in the field. For both of us, editing the special collection Specialists with Spirit. Re-enchanting the Vocation of Science partly in Covid-times, has been a challenging and great learning experience.Aside from learning about open access, this project has been intellectually very rewarding since I tried a new field, which I discovered to be fascinating. I really enjoyed the collaboration with  the editor-in-chief of Endeavour, Prof.dr. Don Opitz.

Useful links:

International Institute of Social History (IISG)


Hoekstra, H. (2024). Vocation as Tragedy. Love and Knowledge in the Lives of the Mills, the Webers, and the Russells. Endeavour, 48(1), Article 100918.

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About the author

Open Access Team
The Open Access team of the University of Groningen Library

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