In our Humanities course at Davidson, we are asked to define the word “revolution”. However, the first interpretations of “revolution” presented to us were written by middle class, white men. How is this considered revolutionary? Both of these scholars’ definitions were outdated. Lapham argues that revolutions require mass mobilization, the overthrow of a government, the pursuit of social justice, and the development of new political institutions.[1] Goldstone states that revolutions must relate to personal freedoms and are necessary for the preservation of these liberties.[2] Neither of these definitions include artistic, scientific, or technological revolutions.

In Lapham’s Quarterly: Crowd Control, Lapham quotes French philosopher Simone Weil, who says, “One magic word today seems capable of compensating for all sufferings, resolving all anxieties, avenging the past, curing present ills, summing up all future possibilities: that word is revolution… “this word has aroused such pure acts of devotion, has repeatedly caused such generous blood to be shed, has constituted for so many unfortunates the only source of courage for living, that it is almost a sacrilege to investigate it; all this, however, does not prevent it from possibly being meaningless.”[3] This quote seems to closer fit with my own definition of revolution. A revolution does not have to be on a large scale or even successful. Often times, revolutions are incomplete, or as Weil says, “meaningless.” They almost never end with the intended result.  Revolution is not always a “sudden, radical, or complete change” [4] and doesn’t have to involve “the overthrow of a government or ruler.”[5]

In his “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King argues that revolution “never rolls in on wheels of inevitability.”[6] The word “wheels” is often associated with circles and cycles, which refers to the continuation of oppression in the United States. Wheels also relate to the idea of repetition and how people repeat the same mistakes. They are a symbol of technology and higher understanding. King uses this to propose the question: Are technological advances worsening inequalities in the socioeconomic divide? He ironically uses this image, which is usually seen as a symbol of progress, to portray the way the oppressed are being crushed beneath the wheel. He tells the white moderate not to rely on time for social change while standing idly by, but to exploit their privilege to help push the movement along. This aspect of revolution demonstrates that change is never comfortable, convenient, or effortless.

By researching the artifact, Dance, by Henri Matisse, I realized that artifacts can be artistically revolutionary, but not necessarily socially revolutionary.[7] Can a revolution ever be complete, or is it always dependent on certain social circumstances? My definition of revolution tries to encapsulate all possible characteristics of even the most diverse types of revolution.

Conceptual schemes are defined as “general systems of concepts which shape or organize our thoughts and perceptions”. This relates into humanities, the “study of how people process and document the human experience”. It studies the process of human imagination, offers opportunities of self- reflection, and tends to help us make connections between different texts that both implicitly and explicitly speak to each other. Humanities is the study of the organization of knowledge and conceptual schemes. One example of a conceptual scheme in our class is the Map of the System of Human Knowledge. This was made in an effort to classify all the new knowledge that was accessible. It organized different studies and concepts under three branches: memory, reason, and imagination. Humans categorize things originally as an instinct for survival. Categorization and labeling has now become a social norm because they comfort us by making unexplainable aspects of life slightly less intimidating. This is what leads to the development of conceptual schemes. As we learn more and develop fresh opinions and ideas through the study of humanities, we are able to create new conceptual schemes.

Throughout this course, I have learned that revolution is sometimes necessary for human progress, but can also oppress groups of people who are initiating the revolution or are victimized by the revolution. It can be violent or non-violent, complete or incomplete, gradual or sudden. So, what unites political, social, scientific, industrial, and artistic revolutions?

My definition:

Revolution is the replacement of one conceptual scheme with another that incites change and destabilizes a seemingly-secure structure of society.

[1] Lewis H Lapham. Lapham’s Quarterly: Crowd Control. New York, NY: American Agora Foundation, 2008.

[2] Goldstone, Jack A. Revolutions: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

[3] Lewis H Lapham. Lapham’s Quarterly: Crowd Control.

[4] Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary (10th ed.). (1999). Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Incorporated.

[5] Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary (10th ed.). (1999). Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Incorporated.

[6] Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Jonathan Rieder, Gospel of Freedom. Bloomsbury Press, 2013, 178.

[7] See my research paper: Mattise’s Dance is initiated the artistic revolution of Fauvism, but Matisse’s repetitive portrayal of the manipulation and exploitation of women in his paintings makes this Dance not socially revolutionary.