Revolutions can occur concerning political, intellectual, religious, artistic, technological, and economic situations. Although revolutions can occur in any one of these different contexts, all forms of revolution represent the same objective: change. The first four units of the Humanities course studied cases of political, intellectual, artistic, and social revolution. Each unit guided us towards an understanding of the characteristics and attributes of revolution; asking the question “what defines a revolution?”
The president of Davidson College, Carol Quillen, dedicated the first four weeks of the fall semester to studying identity, which created a dialog surrounding the question of what makes us human. This unit included readings from a variety of writers, including John Locke and Karl Marx. The two theorists presented revolutionary ideas. They determined the current structure of political power no longer functioned effectively. Although Locke and Marx disagreed on some matters, they both declared new political structures as a means of overthrowing an outdated structure; resulting in a political revolution. Lock decided Robert Filmer’s scheme ceased to successfully define political structures. As a result, Locke proposed a new political system based on the will of people to join a community. In this system, legitimate political authority comes from the community’s consent, and this authority makes its laws in the shared interest of the public good. In a similar vein of political revolution, Karl Marx also presented a new scheme to replace a system he found ineffective. Marx proposed political changes in hopes of ousting a society dependent upon an unfair dependence on wage labor. Both theorists used their political influence to provoke revolutionary thought, attempt to overthrow an outdated system and instill an improved political structure.
After studying examples of political revolution, we turned our attention to intellectual revolutions. Through the lens of the Scientific Revolution, we studied the structure of revolutions: the relationship between conceptual schemes and paradigm shifts. Both paradigms and conceptual schemes represent a set of foundational principles that shape how we see the world. Changes in how to view the world challenge current conceptual schemes. This paradigm shift challenges intellectuals to think differently about fundamental matters and forces them to seek new ways of understanding. By making sense of preexisting ideas, intellectuals compose new conceptual schemes that demonstrate reason and perspective. With the example of the Scientific Revolution, the scientific community recognized that the existing conception of the world stopped functioning adequately. In turn, they recognized the need for a paradigm shift composed of conceptual schemes. Intellectuals composed their paradigm replacements, leaving them open-ended for others to update or resolve. These new paradigms replaced in whole or in part outdated, defective paradigms. A revolution cannot occur without a paradigm shift, regardless of whether or not it completely overthrows the old paradigm. The paradigm shift solidifies the reason for the revolution.
No matter the degree or severity of a given revolution, documenting its progression enhances others’ understanding of the causes and outcomes. The third unit focused less on the causes of revolutions and more on the representation of revolutions. We used visual representations of violence, specifically of the Rwandan Genocide, to study artistic revolution. As the Hutus and Tutsis engaged in unimaginable brutality, the rest of the world carried on. Other nations completely ignored the issue, perceiving violence as commonplace. So, people surrounded by the trauma of the genocided turned to photography in hopes of provoking a global reaction. Photography can deepen our understanding of reality and create a revolution. In the case of the Rwandan Genocide, photographers disregarded the typical glorified depiction of war and instead forced their audience to confront the reality of war. Only cameras can capture death in its true form. Viewers felt an obligation to look at these shocking images of gore, bloodshed, and inhumanity; desire overwhelms reason. As photographers of the Rwandan genocide demonstrated, artistic revolutions challenge the visual standards and create unconventional replacements.
Lastly, the fourth unit focused on social revolutions and asked the question: is revolution fundamentally a project of redefining who is human? We studied social revolutions, such as the Haitian Revolution and the Civil Rights Movements. Both movements included strong black resistance, violent and nonviolent, to anti-black behavior. Members of the movements disputed the established system of racial domination, exploitation, and objectification. The Haitian Revolution challenged the Western framework of race, colonialism, and slavery. Similarly, the Civil Rights Movement challenged a system of assumed racial superiority. Leaders of these revolutions sought just, honorable, and lasting settlements. They demonstrated a passion to move others from ignorance to awareness, from awareness to conviction, and from conviction to action. The Haitian Revolution and the Civil Rights Movement sought to not only overthrow a scheme of segregation, discrimination, and racialization but also create new schemes to fit the society they wish to live in.
In addition to the four units about political, intellectual, artistic, and social revolutions, we also explored an edition of Lapham’s Quarterly dedicated solely to interpretations of revolution. Despite the variety of authors from different belief systems and periods, all the entries present similar themes of revolution. Fundamental qualities of a revolution include the struggle of one class to overthrow another and the hope of progressing towards the desired outcome. Political activist Simone Weil writes, “those who seriously take to heart liberty, equality, and the general welfare, who suffer at the sight of miseries and injustices, await the arrival of a revolution” (195). She declares that five actions encapsulate the meaning of revolution: a compensation for suffering, resolution of anxieties, a vindication of the past, a cure for current hardships, a summary of possible outcomes, and transfer of hope to the following generations. Similarly, the Greek philosopher Aristotle describes what causes a revolution: insolence, fear, contempt, carelessness, and neglect. He writes, “inferiors revolt in order that they may be equal, and equals that they may be superior. Such is the state of mind that creates revolutions. The motives for making them are the desire of gain and honor, or the fear of dishonor and loss” (58). So, to find the beginnings and causes of a revolution, one must ask, “what are the feelings of a people? What are the motives of the revolutionaries? Where to disturbances and quarrels arise? Both writers can agree that the development of history depends on revolution. No matter the success of upheaval and its replacement, revolutions will continue to occur because humanity moves in a cyclical pattern.
Upon reflecting on the four units and revisiting Lapham’s quarterly, I concluded the definition and composition of revolution. In the most basic sense, I believe revolution consists of a shift from one position to another; a change in conditions; an upheaval of an ineffective system; a deviation from one structure to another. A change in a community’s conceptual scheme, or their realization of a superior alternative, provokes a revolution of any form. I hope this interpretation will suffice, at least until someone overthrows my conceptual scheme and redefines revolution in with an improved structure.