What We’re Reading: Week of 12th February


For those who’ve already raced through the latest issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas and are still in need of intellectual history, here’s what our editorial board has been reading this week:


Some Valentine’s themed reading:

William Jankowiak, Shelly Volsche, and Justin R. Garcia, “The Half of the World That Doesn’t Make Out” (Sapiens)

A fiery debate for those interested in military strategy, links to oppositional pieces included:

Adam N. Weinstein, ““No, We Can’t Kill Our Way to Victory Despite What 2 Misguided Lieutenant Colonels Might Think” (Task & Purpose)

Franz-Stefan Gady, “Has the US Military Really Lost ‘The Art of Killing’?” (Diplomat)

Marina Koren, “What Color Is a Tennis Ball?” (Atlantic)



Carol J. Adams, “The Hamburger: An American Lyric” (The Paris Review)

Anton Martinho-Truswell, “To automate is human” (Aeon)

Jennifer Hassan, “Meet Cheddar Man” (Washington Post)

Lisa Bitel, “The ‘real’ St. Valentine was no patron of love” (The Conversation)



Hisham Aidi “L’anti-orientalisme ambigu de Juan Goytisolo” (Orient XXI).

Ibram X. Kendi “The Soul of W.E.B. Du Bois” (The Paris Review).

Adam Tooze, “Democracy’s Twenty-First-Century Histories” (AdamTooze).

Quinn Slobodian, “Neoliberalism’s Populist Bastards” (Public Seminar)



Francis Gooding, “Feathered, Furred or Coloured” (LRB)

Thomas Morris, “Circle of Life(TLS)

Amanda Dennis, “Life Writing(LARB)

Jason DeParle, “When Government Drew the Color Line” (NYRB)

Dan Piepenbring, “The Enthralling, Anxious World of Vladimir Nabokov’s Dreams(New Yorker)

JHI 79:1 Available

The latest issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas, volume 9 number 1, is now available in print, and online at Project Muse. The table of contents is as follows:


Tricia M. Ross, “Anthropologia: An (Almost) Forgotten Early Modern History,” 1–22

Albert Gootjes, “The First Orchestrated Attack on Spinoza: Johannes Melchioris and the Cartesian Network in Utrecht,” 23–43

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins and Kevin Brookes, “The Many Liberalisms of Serge Audier,” 45–63

Elías Palti, “Revising History: Introduction to the Symposium on the Bicentennial of the Latin American Revolutions of Independence,” 65–71

Jeremy Adelman, “Empires, Nations, and Revolutions,” 73–88

Francisco A. Ortega, “The Conceptual History of Independence and the Colonial Question in Spanish America,” 89–103

Gabriel Entin, “Catholic Republicanism: The Creation of the Spanish American Republics during Revolution,” 105–23

Elías Palti, “Beyond the ‘History of Ideas’: The Issue of the ‘Ideological Origins of the Revolutions of Independence’ Revisited,” 125–41

Federica Morelli, “Race, Wars, and Citizenship: Free People of Color in the Spanish American Independence,” 143–56

João Paulo Pimenta, “History of Concepts and the Historiography of the Independence of Brazil: A Preliminary Diagnosis,” 157–68

Journal authors are always encouraged to submit a blog post about their article—or anything else—to JHIBlog. And if you’re a reader of JHIBlog, why not consider subscribing to the Journal? Subscription information is available at the Penn Press website, including information about special rates for students.

One Thousand Gophers: Information and Emigration in the Early U.S.

By guest contributor JT Jamieson

I have been to Illinois

A braggadocio writing in The New-England Magazine in 1832 asked his Northern audience, “Is it possible that no one in these parts has seen a Gopher? I have seen a thousand; and some other animals, too, that are not to be found in New-England[.]” Having apparently spent time “somewhere between the Mississippi and the Missouri,” the author was eager to bring all the “rare beasts” he had encountered in the West to New Englanders. Unable to deliver the actual specimens, though, he resolved to rely instead on print and gave his readers a virtual tour among the beasts of the West: “I cannot bring them to you, reader, and, therefore, I must e’en carry you, in imagination, to them.” The author nonetheless asserted his credibility, reliability, and expertise along his virtual zoological tour – and once more, of gophers, reminded readers of the thousand he’d seen (“Rare Beasts,” New-England Magazine, March, 1832).


“The Camas Rat”, from John James Audobon’s The Quadrupeds of North America (1851-4).

His emphasis on sight and first-hand experience was likely designed to allay the suspicions early nineteenth-century Americans harbored concerning the transmission of information about the West. Two months earlier, The New-England Magazine had taken up the topic of gophers in order to question the veracity of a Western guidebook author’s geographical information. Reviewers of J.M. Peck’s A Guide for Emigrants, Containing Sketches of Illinois, Missouri, and the Adjacent Parts nitpicked a passage on gophers because Peck, though he described the animal and its dirt mounds, failed to adequately verify his empiricism and expertise:

although one would suppose from this description that the author had inspected the animal, yet we shall venture to say that he knows it only by the works of which he speaks…he does not intimate that he has ever seen one, nor do we know that any of the many Western historians have been so fortunate as to discover the animal before describing it; and the nearest approach we have been able to make towards certainty, after wondering over many of their mounds, is the word of a friend in Illinois, who was told by a neighbor that his father had seen a hunter, who had the skeleton of a Gopher.

The precariousness of knowledge, in a guidebook, no less, coupled with Peck’s “enthusiasm” for Western geography would likely cause the New Englander to “read…with a smile of incredulity”(New-England Magazine, January, 1832).

I have been to Ohio

Believability was one important tool for early nineteenth-century Americans’ mental maps of the West. A sizeable portion of Easterners’ geographic imaginations came from the information for prospective Western emigrants inundating newspapers, periodicals, satires, advertisements, and of course guidebooks. In the press, boosters and anti-emigrationists argued about what emigrants might find in the West. The volume of deceptive, hard-to-believe, and incomplete information generated a dynamic conversation about credulity, distortion, and objectivity in geographic representation. Boosters extolled the West in a typically cartoonish fashion. Anti-emigrationists, who often fretted about their population draining to the West, promoted incredulity as a means to keep enterprising inhabitants east of the Appalachians. Guidebook authors published erroneous information but also found a market in objectivity. Despite the fact that print took on new dimensions of authority in the early nineteenth century, Americans were still living in a world where “books as well as men are fallible,” as an 1839 guidebook put it (Steele’s Western Guidebook and Emigrant’s Directory, 1839). Demonstrating the objectivity of one’s own guidebook made it stand out among the crowd of misleading or untruthful information.

Discerning a ‘truth’ was important to several genres of early nineteenth-century American writing, from gazetteers and censuses to histories to personal narratives. The preoccupation with authenticity, objectivity, or impartiality in these genres reflected the growth of numeracy, an influence of Scottish Common Sense Realism, the marketability of honest and true stories, and, for emigrants, the want of practical or useful information. Emigration commentators engaged in a war of words and Wests, convincing readers either of rosy western fantasies, or of the ruination inevitably awaiting emigrants who strayed from home. Was New England land really as stony and unproductive as boosters said? Did the West – or, could it – have schools? Churches? Locals with sufficient geographic knowledge? Food amenable to Eastern bellies? Ghosts? On that last point, at least, James Hall seemed to give a definitive answer to magazine readers in 1828: “No respectable and truly aristocratic ghost would put up with a log cabin,” no spirit would bother to endure the daily discordant music of Western settlements – the axe and rifle echoing incessantly and annoyingly. Nor would specters be so stupid as to room with the “backwoodsmen, who would as soon scalp a ghost, if a ghost could be scalped, as they would shoot a panther or an Indian” (Letters from the West, 1828).

Western Emigrant Society circular to Andrew Jackson

For the prospective emigrant, Western information was fragile – it was debatable and prone to errors, with a general air of uncertainty and incompleteness. Guidebooks might acknowledge – and apologize for – any errors readers detected. An Ohio gazetteer noted that Western states and territories were, after all, too large to describe with “perfect accuracy” – the best the reader could hope for was that the “work may generally be pronounced correct”(John Kilbourn, The Ohio Gazetteer, 1831). If reading newspapers, Easterners would have been aware that Western geographic information was always in a volatile state of becoming. Emigration societies’ advertisements demonstrated that their first task was to build a public archive of geographic knowledge. The Western Emigrant Society requested information by mailing questionnaires around the country, information that would then be reproduced in the press. Other emigration societies exhibited their dearth of geographic knowledge by naming their destinations with as much specificity as “the West.” In 1819, the New York Emigration Society stated that if it had to choose a more specific location based on “all the sources of information to which your committee have had access,” it would be Illinois. That opinion, however, “would be given with much hesitation and subject to be changed as their information should increase” (“Emigration Society,” National Advocate, August 4, 1819).

If information was uncertain, erroneous, or deceptive, then credulousness, according to anti-emigrationists, was the only rational explanation for emigration from the East. Maine’s American Advocate concluded that if Easterners indeed “hurried away from a comfortable home,” it was only because they’d “swallowed every strange report with a credulity unexampled.” Hoping to enlighten “the eyes of the credulous,” the Advocate asserted that upon an examination “into the real facts…opinions will change into a sober admiration of our own favored territories, and the desire to migrate will die away with the credulity and ignorance that produced it” (“Reflections on Emigration,”  American Advocate, October 18 and November 8, 1817). Often, as was the case with Peck’s Illinoisan gophers, the “real facts” could only be furnished from personal observation, not from the books and accounts of others. Too often Western information was derived in the forms of “fancy” or “whim” from the scheming and interested speculator. So, the author of A Caution to Emigrants clarified in 1819 that “fancy or whim…can neither produce or destroy a fact.” His ultimate caution to readers was this: “let no man, on any condition, or under any circumstances, whatever, be induced to remove his family to a distant country, until he has seen, examined and judged of it for himself” (John Stillman Wright, Letters from the West, or, A Caution to Emigrants, 1819).

Some guidebook authors took advantage of the fact that deceptive or insufficient material came into readers’ orbit. Authors justified writing guidebooks by stating that others writing about Western geography offered either unsatisfactory or untruthful information. In doing so they promised untainted accuracy in their own works. William Darby, a surveyor who penned a major early emigrant guide in 1819, was among the most ardent of guidebook authors to embrace objectivity. Even friendly reviewers of his Guide noted the “difficulty of acquiring satisfactory information” and the “suspicion with which we are obliged to view all accounts of the different parts of the United States,” and derided his failure to clearly point out what information wasn’t derived from personal observation (North American Review, July 1818). Nevertheless, Darby asserted his hatred of the erroneous and untruthful. He engaged in an angry debate in 1817, for example, with Hezekiah Niles, well-known editor of Baltimore’s Niles’ Weekly Register, over mistakes in their descriptions of Louisiana. As the two got in a spat over topographical errors and misrepresentations in each others’ work, Darby took the opportunity to proclaim his philosophy of geographic writing: “In every stage of my advance as a writer, however humble may be my attempts, I have constantly endeavored to present facts as they really are in nature. The mischief is incalculable that has been done by high wrought pictures of rapid gain held out to persons moving into the Ohio and Mississippi valleys. There seems to exist a kind of mania to swell every thing relating to those places beyond the measure of common sense” (“Darby’s Louisiana, &c.” Niles’ Weekly Register, November 22, 1817).

It’s true that in many cases words won the West in the nineteenth century. But early emigrant propaganda never reached readers without first being filtered through a series of public debates about the veracity and usefulness of information. As much as the creation of the Euro-American West depended on far-flung readers’ aspirations and dreams, it depended too on their suspicions, on trials and errors.

J.T. Jamieson is a PhD candidate in history at the University of California, Berkeley and studies nineteenth-century America.

A conversation with Prof. Surekha Davies: From our occasional podcast series

In our inaugural podcast, Contributing Editor Cynthia Houng speaks with Prof. Surekha Davies about her book, Renaissance Ethnography and the Invention of the Human: New Worlds, Maps and Monsters (Cambridge University Press, 2016), winner of the 2016 Morris D. Forkosch Prize for the best first book in intellectual history.

Below, you’ll find some of the maps and objects that we discuss in our conversation. Follow the links to explore each object in greater detail.

Vallard Atlas Huntington

Vallard Atlas, 1547, Map 2, Terra Java. The Huntington Library, HM 29.


Pierre Desceliers, Detail of World Map (Mappe monde), 1546. The University of Manchester Library, FR MS 1*.

Explore other parts of this large map (it is 260 x 130 cms in size!).


J. Hondius, Nieuwe Caerte van het wonderbaer ende goudrijcke landt Guiana, gelegen onder de Linie Aequinoctiael tusschen Brasilien ende Péru. nieuwelick besocht door Sir Water Ralegh Ridder van Engelandt in het jaer 1594, 95 ende 1596 (New Map of the Wonderful, Large and Rich Land of Guiana…), Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Cartes et plans, GE D-14317.

Explore this map on Gallica.

Screenshot 2018-02-05 19.05.08

Detail of the frontispiece to J. Hondius, Kurtze wunderbare Beschreibung. Dess Goldreichen Königreichs Guianae im America, oder newen Welt, vnter der Linea Aequinoctiali gelegen: so newlich Anno 1594. 1595. vnnd 1596. von dem wolgebornen Herrn, Herrn Walthero Ralegh…, Nuremberg, 1599. The John Carter Brown Library, Accession Number 0918.

Explore the entire book.


Jan van Kessel, America (from The Four Continents), 1666, oil on copper. Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek, Munich, inv. no. 1913

A note on the music in this podcast:

The music on this podcast was recorded by Paul Bowles in Morocco in the late 1950s.

Today, we remember Bowles as the author of The Sheltering Sky, but he was also a composer with an interest in ethnomusicology. That interest, coupled with his belief that Moroccan musical traditions were threatened by post-Independence modernization efforts, led Bowles to propose, in 1957, that the Library of Congress sponsor a project to record Moroccan music in all of its breadth. The project was, in Bowles’s words, “a fight against time.” In 1959, with the support of the Library of Congress and a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, Bowles criss-crossed Morocco, setting up recording sessions in towns all over the country. He would make three more trips between 1959 and 1961. Bowles had no formal training in ethnomusicology, and his choices were guided by the contingencies of geography and travel–and by his own aesthetics.

In that sense, Bowles shares something with early modern travel writers and cartographers. They made forms of knowledge that bear some resemblance to modern-day academic disciplines, but belong, properly, to their own times. Bowles once told an interviewer, “I’ve always wanted to get as far as possible from the place where I was born. Far both geographically and spiritually. To leave it behind. One belongs to the whole world, not just one part of it.”

The Library of Congress maintains the Paul Bowles Music Collection. If you like what you hear, some of these recordings are available from Dust-to-Digital as a four-CD set, the Music of Morocco.

What We’re Reading: Week of 5th February


Here are a few interesting articles and pieces we found around the web this week. If you come across something that other intellectual historians might enjoy, please let us know in the comments section.


David P. Goldman, “A Sea of Blood at the Met: Race theory, Aryan purity, and a Jewish purge in Wagner’s ‘Parsifal’” (Tablet)

Jia Tolentino, “The Mesmerizing Spectacle of North Korea’s “Army of Beauties” at the Winter Olympics” (New Yorker)

Don Piepenbring, “The Enthralling, Anxious World of Vladimir Nabokov’s Dreams” (New Yorker)

Ian Bostridge, “God’s Own Music” (NYRB)



Jill Lepore, “The Strange and Twisted Life of “Frankenstein,” (New Yorker)

Josephine Livingstone, “Losing the Twentieth Century,” (New Republic)

Andrew Rice, “The Fight to be a Muslim in America,” (Guardian Longreads)

Robert Wood, “On Guilty Pleasure: A Response to Reading Joyce Carol Oates,” (overland)



Amanda Giracca, ““Consider the Rooster” (Aeon)

Shaan Amin, “The Dark Side of the Comics That Redefined Hinduism” (The Atlantic)

Laura Spinney, “How the 1918 Flu Pandemic Revolutionized Public Health” (Smithsonian)



Terence Tiller, “Political Prisoner(TLS)

Ian Bostrige, “God’s Own Music(NYRB)

Caroline Crampton, “Caroline of Ansbach(New Statesman)

Allison C. Meier, “Illustrating Carnival(Public Domain Review)

Robert Cremins, “Ishiguro’s Orphans” (LARB)

A Book of Battle: Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo and La ciencia española

By Editor Spencer J. Weinreich


Statue of Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo at the Biblioteca Nacional de España

Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo’s La ciencia española (first ed. 1876) is a battlefield long after the guns have fallen silent: the soldiers dead, the armies disbanded, even the names of the belligerent nations changed beyond recognition. All the mess has been cleared up. Like his contemporaries Leopold von Ranke, Arnold Toynbee, or Jacob Burckhardt, Menéndez Pelayo has been enshrined as one of the nineteenth-century tutelary deities of intellectual history. Seemingly incapable of writing except at great length and in torrential cascades of erudition, his oeuvre lends itself to reverence—and frightens off most readers. And while reverence is hardly undeserved, we do a disservice to La ciencia española and its author if we leave the marmoreal exterior undisturbed. The challenge for the modern reader is to recover the passions—intellectual, political, and personal—animating what Menéndez Pelayo himself called “a book of battle [un libro de batalla]” (2:268).


Gumersindo de Azcárate

La ciencia española is a multifarious collection of articles, reviews, speeches, and letters that takes its name from its linchpin, a feisty exchange over the history of Spanish learning (la ciencia española). The casus belli came from an 1876 article by the distinguished philosopher and jurist Gumersindo de Azcárate, who argued that early modern Spain had been intellectually stunted by the Catholic Church. Menéndez Pelayo responded with an essay vociferously defending the honor of Spanish learning, exonerating the Church, and decrying the neglect of early modern Spanish intellectual history. Azcárate never replied, but his colleagues  Manuel de la Revilla, Nicolás Salméron, and José del Perojo took up his cause, trading articles with Menéndez Pelayo in which they debated these and related issues—was there such a thing as “Spanish philosophy”?—in excruciating detail.

The exchange showcases the driving concerns of Menéndez Pelayo’s scholarly career: the greatness of the Spanish intellectual tradition, critical bibliography, Catholicism as the national genius of Spain, and an almost-frightening sense of how much these issues matter. This last is the least accessible element of La ciencia española: the height of its stakes. Why should Spain’s very identity rest upon abstruse questions of intellectual history? How did a group of academics merit the label “the eternal enemies of religion and the patria [los perpetuos enemigos de la Religión y de la patria]” (1:368)?

Here we must understand that La ciencia española is but one rather pitched battle in a broader war. Nineteenth-century Spain was in the throes of an identity crisis, the so-called “problem of Spain.” In the wake of the loss of a worldwide empire, serial revolutions and civil wars, a brief flirtation with a republic, endemic corruption, and economic stagnation, where was Spain’s salvation to be found—in the past or in the future? With the Church or with the Enlightenment? By looking inward or looking outward?


Karl Christian Friedrich Krause

Menéndez Pelayo was a self-declared neocatólico, a movement of conservative Catholics for whom Spain’s identity was indissolubly linked to the Church. He also stands as perhaps the foremost exponent of casticismo, a literary and cultural nationalism premised on a return to Spain’s innate, authentic identity.  All of Menéndez Pelayo’s antagonists in that initial exchange—Azcárate, Revilla, Salmerón, and Perojo—were Krausists, from whom not much is heard these days. Karl Christian Friedrich Krause was a student of Schelling, Hegel, and Fichte, long (and not unjustly) overshadowed by his teachers. But Krause found an unlikely afterlife among a cohort of liberal thinkers in Restoration Spain. These latter-day Krausists aimed at the intellectual rejuvenation of Spain, which they felt had been stifled by the Catholic Church. Accordingly, they called for religious toleration, academic freedom, and, above all, an end to the Church’s monopoly over education.

To Menéndez Pelayo, Krausism threatened the very wellsprings of the national culture. The Krausists were “a horde of fanatical sectarians […] murky and repugnant to every independent soul” (qtd. in López-Morillas, 8). He acidly denied both that Spain’s learning had declined, and that the Church had in any way hindered it:

For this terrifying name of “Inquisition,” the child’s bogeyman and the simpleton’s scarecrow, is for many the solution to all problems, the deus ex machina that comes as a godsend in difficult situations. Why have we had no industry in Spain? Because of the Inquisition. Why have we had bad customs, as in all times and places, save in the blessed Arcadia of the bucolics? Because of the Inquisition. Why are we Spaniards lazy? Because of the Inquisition. Why are there bulls in Spain? Because of the Inquisition. Why do Spaniards take the siesta? Because of the Inquisition. Why were there bad lodgings and bad roads and bad food in Spain in the time of Madame D’Aulnoy? Because of the Inquisition, because of fanaticism, because of theocracy. [Porque ese terrorífico nombre de Inquisición, coco de niños y espantajo de bobos, es para muchos la solución de todos los problemas, el Deus ex machina que viene como llovido en situaciones apuradas. ¿Por qué no había industria en España? Por la Inquisición. ¿Por qué había malas costumbres, como en todos tiempos y países, excepto en la bienaventurada Arcadia de los bucólicos? Por la Inquisición. ¿Por qué somos holgazanes los españoles? Por la Inquisición. ¿Por qué hay toros en España? Por la Inquisición. ¿Por qué duermen los españoles la siesta? Por la Inquisición. ¿Por qué había malas posadas y malos caminos y malas comidas en España en tiempo de Mad. D’Aulnoy? Por la Inquisición, por el fanatismo, por la teocracia.]. (1:102–03)

What was called for was not—perish the thought—a move away from dogmatism, but a renewed appreciation for Spain’s magnificent heritage. “I desire only that the national spirit should be reborn […] that spirit that lives and beats at the base of all our systems, and gives them a certain aspect of their parentage, and connects and ties together even those most discordant and opposed [Quiero sólo que renazca el espíritu nacional […], ese espíritu que vive y palpita en el fondo de todos nuestros sistemas, y les da cierto aire de parentesco, y traba y enlaza hasta a los más discordes y opuestos]” (2:355).


Title page of Miguel Barnades Mainader’s Principios de botanica (1767)

Menéndez Pelayo practiced what he preached. He is as comfortable discussing such obscure peons of the Republic of Letters as the Portuguese theologian Manuel de Sá and the Catalan botanist Miguel Barnades Mainader, as he is in extolling Juan Luis Vives, arguing over the influence of Thomas Aquinas, or establishing the birthplace of Raymond Sebold. Menéndez Pelayo writes with genuine pain at “the lamentable oblivion and neglect in which we hold the nation’s intellectual glories [del lamentable olvido y abandono en que tenemos las glorias científicas nacionales]” (1:57). His fellow neocatólico Alejandro Pidal y Mon imagines Menéndez Pelayo as a necromancer, calling forth the spirits of long-dead intellectuals (1:276), a power on extravagant display in La ciencia española. The third volume of La ciencia española comprises nearly three hundred pages of annotated bibliography, on every conceivable branch of the history of knowledge in Spain.

I am aware how close I have strayed to the kind of pedestal-raising I deprecated at the outset. Fortunately, we do not have to look far to find the clay feet that will be the undoing of any such monument. Menéndez Pelayo’s lyricism should not disguise the reactionary character of his intellectual project, with its nationalism and loathing of secularism, religious toleration, and any challenge to Catholic orthodoxy. His avowed respect for the achievements of Jews and Muslims in medieval Spain is cheapened by a pervasive, muted anti-Semitism and Islamophobia: La ciencia española speaks of “the scientific poverty of the Semites [La penuria científica de los semitas]” (2:416) and the “decadence [decadencia]” of contemporary Islam. When he writes, “I am, thanks be to God, an Old Christian [gracias a Dios, soy cristiano viejo]” (2:265), we cannot pretend he is ignorant of the pernicious history of that term. Of the colonization of the New World he baldly states, “we sowed religion, science, and blood with a liberal hand, later to reap a long harvest of ingratitudes and disloyalties [sembramos a manos llenas religión, ciencia y sangre, para recoger más tarde larga cosecha de ingratitudes y deslealtades]” (2:15).

It is no coincidence that Menéndez Pelayo’s prejudices are conveyed in superlative Spanish prose—ire seems to have brought out the best of his wit. “I cannot but regret that Father [Joaquín] Fonseca should have felt himself obliged, in order to vindicate Saint Thomas [Aquinas] from imagined slights, to throw upon me all the corpulent folios of the saint’s works [no puedo menos de lastimarme de que el Padre Fonseca se haya creído obligado, para desagraviar a Santo Tomás de ofensas soñadas, a echarme encima todos los corpulentos infolios de las obras del Santo]” (2:151) “Mr. de la Revilla says that he has never belonged to the Hegelian school. Congratulations to him—his philosophical metamorphoses are of little interest to me [El Sr. de la Revilla dice que nunca ha pertenecido a la escuela hegeliana. En hora buena: me interesan poco sus transformaciones filosóficas]” (1:201). On subjects dear to his heart, baroque rhapsodies could flow from his pen. He spends three pages describing the life of the medieval Catalan polymath Ramon Llull, whom he calls the “knight errant of thought [caballero andante del pensamiento]” (2:372).

At the same time, many pages of La ciencia española make for turgid reading, bare catalogues of obscure Spanish authors and their yet more obscure publications.

*     *     *

Menéndez Pelayo died in 1912. Azcárate, his last surviving interlocutor, passed away five years later. Is the battle over? In the intervening decades, Spain has found neither cultural unity nor political coherence—and not for lack of trying. Reactionary Catholic and conservative though he was, Menéndez Pelayo does not fit the role of Francoist avant la lettre, in spite of the regime’s best efforts  to coopt him. La ciencia española shows none of Franco’s Castilian chauvinism and suspicion of regionalism. Menéndez Pelayo chides an author for using the phrase “the Spanish language [la lengua española]” when he means “Castilian.” “The Catalan language is as Spanish as Castilian or Portuguese [Tan española es la lengua catalana como la castellana or la portuguesa]” (2:363).

Today the Church has indeed lost its iron grip on the Spanish educational system, and the nation is not only no longer officially Catholic, but has embraced religious toleration and even greater heterodoxies, among them divorce, same-sex marriage, and abortion. We are all Krausists now.

If the crusade against the Krausists failed, elements of Menéndez Pelayo’s intellectual project have fared considerably better. We are witnessing a flood of scholarly interest in early modern Spain’s intellectual history—historiography, antiquarianism, the natural sciences, publishing. Whether they know it or not, these scholars are answering a call sounded more than a century before. And never more so than when they turn their efforts to those Menéndez Pelayo sympathetically called “second-order talents [talentos de segundo orden]” (1:204). In the age of USTC, EEBO, Cervantes Virtual, Gallica, and countless similar resources, the discipline of bibliography he so cherished is expanding in directions he could never have imagined.


Charles II of Spain

Spain’s decline continues to inspire debate among historians—and will continue to do so, I expect, so long as there are historians to do the debating. The foreword to J. H. Elliott’s still-definitive survey, Imperial Spain: 1469–1716, places the word “decline” in inverted commas, but the prologue acknowledges the genuine puzzle of explaining the shift in Spain’s fortunes over the early modern period. Menéndez Pelayo could hardly deny that Charles II ruled an altogether less impressive realm than had his great-grandfather, but would presumably counter that whatever the geopolitics, Spanish letters remained vibrant. As for the Spanish Inquisition, his positivity prefigures that of Henry Kamen, who has raised not a few eyebrows with his favorably inclined “historical revision.”

La ciencia española is at once the showcase for a prodigious young talent, a call to arms for intellectual traditionalism, and a formidable if flawed collection of insights and reflections. As the grand old man of Spanish letters, a caricature of conservatism and Catholic partisanship, Menéndez Pelayo furnishes an excellent foil—or strawman, for those less charitably inclined—against whom generations can and should sharpen their pens and their arguments.

La lutte continue.

The challenge of contingency and Leibniz’s cybernetic thinking

By guest contributor Audrey Borowski


Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, painted by Christoph Bernhard Francke

According to the philosopher of science Alexandre Koyré, the early modern period marked the passage ‘from the world of more-or-less to the universe of precision’. Not all thinkers greeted the mathematization of epistemology with the same enthusiasm: for the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, this marked a watershed moment when modern nihilism had taken root in the shape of the reduction of the world to calculation and recently culminated with the emergence of cybernetics. One of the main culprits of this trend was none other than the German mathematician and polymath Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), who in the late seventeenth century invented the calculus and envisaged a binary mathematical system. Crucially, Leibniz had concerned himself with the formalization and the mechanization of the thought process either through the invention of actual calculating machines or the introduction of a universal symbolic language – his so-called ‘Universal characteristic’– which relied purely on logical operations. Ideally, this would form the basis for a general science (mathesis universalis). According to this scheme, all disputes would be ended by the simple imperative ‘Gentlemen, let us calculate!’


A graphic representation of second-order cybernetics by Mark Côté

For having mechanized reasoning, cyberneticist Norbert Wiener touted Leibniz as a ‘patron saint for cybernetics’ (Wiener 1965, p. 12) in the ‘Introduction’ to his 1948 seminal work Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. In it, he settled on the term ‘kybernetes’, the ‘steersman’ to describe a novel type of automatic and self-correcting reasoning which consisted in the deployment of mathematics, notably via a feedback mechanism, towards the domestication of contingency and unpredictability. Cybernetics does not ‘drive toward the ultimate truth or solution, but is geared toward narrowing the field of approximations for better technical results by minimizing on entropy––but never being able to produce a system that would be at an entropy of zero…. In all of this, [it] is dealing with data as part of its feedback mechanism for increasing the probability of a successful event in the future (or in avoiding unwanted events).’

Cybernetic applications are ubiquitous today from anti-aircraft systems to cryptography; an anti-aircraft system, for instance, receives input data on a moving target and delivers the navigation of bullet to the target as output after a computing process.  Cybernetics’ aim is first and foremost practical and its method probabilistic: through the constant refining of the precision of a prediction, it helps steer action through the selection between probabilities. Under those conditions, a constant process of becoming is subordinated to a weak form of determinism; real infinite complexity is deferred in favour of logical symbolism and ‘disorganization’, that ‘arch-enemy’ endemic to intense mutability as Nobert Wiener put it, gives way to ontological prediction.

In his works The Taming of Chance and The Emergence of Probability Ian Hacking traced the emergence of probabilistic thinking away from deterministic causation. In fact and against commonly-held positivist narratives of the triumph of objective rationality, historians of mathematics generally acknowledge that the seventeenth century witnessed the birth of both probability theory and modern probabilism perhaps most famously epitomized by Pascal’s Wager. With the emergence of contingency, the question of its conceptualization became all the more pressing.

Perhaps no thinker was more aware of this imperative than Leibniz. Leibniz is often portrayed as an arch-rationalist and yet he did not view pure deduction as sufficient for reasoning; the ‘statics’ inherent to his characteristic (Leibniz, 1677) were simply ill-suited to a constantly evolving practical reality. Finite calculation needed to be complemented by probabilistic reasoning (1975, p. 135) which would better embrace the infinite complexity and evolving nature of reality. Although the author of a conjectural history of the world, The Protogaea, Leibniz did not merely conjecture about the past, but also sought to come to grips with the future and the state of mutability of the world. To this end, he pioneered the collection of statistical data and probabilistic reasoning especially with regards to the advancement of the modern state or the public good (Taming of Chance, 18). Leibniz had pored over degrees of probability as early as his 1665 law degree essay De conditionibus and the ability to transmute uncertainty into (approximate) certainty in conditions of constant mutability remained a lifelong preoccupation. More specifically, he set out to meet the challenge of mutability with what appears as a cybernetic solution.


An example of Leibniz’s diagrammatic reasoning

In a series of lesser-known texts Leibniz explored the limits and potentially dangerous ramifications of finite cognition, and the necessity for flexible and recursive reasoning. In 1693 Leibniz penned The Horizon of the Human Doctrine, a thought experiment which he subtitled: ‘Meditation on the number of all possible truths and falsities, enunciable by humanity such as we know it to be; and on the number of feasible books. Wherein it is demonstrated that these numbers are finite, and that it is possible to write, and easy to conceive, a much greater number. To show the limits of the human spirit [l’esprit humain], and to know the extent to these limits’. Building on his enduring fascination with combinatorial logic that had begun as a teenager in 1666 with his De Arte Combinatoria and had culminated ten years later with his famous ‘Universal Characteristic’, he set out to ‘show the limits of the human spirit, and to know the extent to these limits’. Following in the footsteps of Clavius, Mersenne and Guldin, Leibniz reached the conclusion that, through the combination of all 23 letters of the alphabet, it would be possible to calculate the number of all possible truths. Considering their prodigious, albeit ultimately finite number, there would inevitably come a point in time when all possible variations would have been exhausted and the ‘horizon’ of human doctrine would be reached and when nothing could be said or written that had not been expressed before (nihil dici, quod non dictum sit prius) (p. 52). The exhaustion of all possibilities would give way to repetition.

In his two later treatments on the theme of apokatastasis, or ‘universal restitution’, Leibniz took this reasoning one step further by exploring the possible ramifications of the limits of human utterability for reality.  In them, he extended the rule of correspondence between possible words to actual historical events. For instance, since ‘facts supply the matter for discourse’ (p. 57), it would seem, by virtue of this logic, that events themselves must eventually exhaust all possible combinations. Accordingly, all possible public, as well as individual histories, would be exhausted in a number of years, inevitably incurring a recurrence of events, whereby the exact same circumstances would repeat themselves, returning ‘such as it was before.’ (p.65):

‘[S]uppose that one day nothing is said that had not already been said before; then there must also be a time when the same events reoccur and when nothing happens which did not happen before, since events provide the matter for words.’

In a passage he later decided to omit, Leibniz even muses about his own return, writing once again the same letters to the same friends.

Now from this it follows: if the human race endured long enough in its current state, there would be a time when the same life of certain individuals would return in detail through the very same circumstances. I myself, for example, would be living in a city called Hanover situated on the river Leine, occupied with the history of Brunswick, and writing letters to the same friends with the same meaning. [Fi 64]

Leibniz contemplated the doctrine of Eternal Return, but it was incompatible with his metaphysical understanding of the world. Ultimately, he reasserted the primacy of the infinite complexity of the world over finite combinatorics. Beneath the superficial similarity of events – and thus of description- lay a trove of infinite differences which superseded any finite number of combinations: paradoxically, ‘even if a previous century returns with respect to sensible things or which can be described by books, it will not return completely in all respects: since there will always be differences although imperceptible and such that could not be sufficiently described in any book however long it is.’. [Fi 72]’   Any repetition of event was thus only apparent; each part of matter contained the ‘world of an infinity of creatures’ which ensured that truths of fact ‘could be diversified to infinity’ (p. 77).

To this epistemological quandary Leibniz opposed a ‘cybernetic’ solution whereby the analysis of the infinite ‘detail’ of contingent reality would open up a field of constant epistemological renewal which lay beyond finite combinatorial language, raising the prospect of an ‘infinite progress in knowledge’ for those spirits ‘in search of truth.’ (p. 59) The finite number of truths expressible by humans at one particular moment in time would be continuously updated to adapt itself to the mutability and progress of the contingent world. ‘Sensible truths’ could ‘always supply new material and new items of knowledge, i.e. in theorems increasing in length’ in this manner permitting knowledge to approach reality asymptotically. In this manner, the theoretical limits which had been placed upon human knowledge could be indefinitely postponed, in the process allowing for incrementally greater understanding of nature through constant refinement.

Leibniz thus set forth an ingenious solution in the shape of a constantly updated finitude which would espouse the perpetually evolving infinity of concrete reality. By adopting what may be termed a ‘cybernetic’ solution avant la lettre, he offered a model, albeit linear and continuous, which could help reconcile determinism and probabilism, finite computation and infinite reality and freedom and predictability. Probabilism here served to induce and sustain a weak form of determinism, one which, in keeping with the nature of contingency itself as defined by Leibniz, ‘inclined’ rather than ‘necessitated’.

Audrey Borowski is a historian of ideas at the University of Oxford.

What We’re Reading: Week of 29th January


Here are some pieces from around the internet that have caught the eyes of our editorial team this week:


Garbage, Genius, or Both? Three Ways of Looking at Infinite Jest” (LitHub)

Editors, “Debating the Uses and Abuses of ‘Neoliberalism’: Forum” (Dissent)

Sean Wilentz, “The High Table Liberal” (NYRB)

Karen Kelsky, “When will we stop elevating predators?” (Chronicle of Higher Education)



Nick Richardson, “Even What Doesn’t Happen is Epic” (LRB)

Frederic Raphael, “Aryan Ghetto of One” (TLS)

David Dabydeen, “From royal trumpeter to chief diver, Miranda Kaufmann uncovers the Africans of Tudor Britain” (New Statesman)

Mark A. Michelson and John Ryle, “Remembering Paul Robeson” (NYRB)

Alex Ross, “The Rediscovery of Florence Price” (New Yorker)

Bennett Gilbert, “The Dreams of an Inventor in 1420” (Public Domain Review)



Charlotte Higgins, “The Cult of Mary Beard,” (Guardian)

Cressida Leyshon, “Jhumpa Lahiri on Writing in Italian,” (New Yorker)

Erik Moshe, “What I’m Reading: An Interview with Historian Ashley D. Farmer,” (History News Network)

Susan Pedersen, “One-Man Ministry,” (LRB)



Bridget Minamore, “Black Men Walking: a hilly hike through 500 years of black British history” (The Guardian)

Gavin Walker and Ken Kawashima, “Surplus Alongside Excess: Uno Kōzō, Imperialism, and the Theory of Crisis” (Viewpoint Magazine)

The Origins of Autonomy: Not as Lonesome as You Might Expect

By Contributing Writer Molly Wilder

Autonomous man is–and should be–self-sufficient, independent, and self-reliant, a self-realizing individual who directs his efforts towards maximizing his personal gains. His independence is under constant threat from other (equally self-serving) individuals: hence he devises rules to protect himself from intrusion. Talk of rights, rational self-interest, expedience, and efficiency permeates his moral, social, and political discourse. (Lorraine Code 1991, What Can She Know? Feminist Theory and the Construction of Knowledge, p78)

Thus Lorraine Code describes the conception of autonomy in the popular imagination–and often in the academy as well. This conception of autonomy is obsessed with the self, as evidenced by the language Code uses to articulate it: “self-sufficient,” “self-reliant,” “self-realizing,” and “rational self-interest.” And the word ‘autonomous’ originally meant “self-rule” (derived from the Greek αὐτόνομος, from αὐτο-, ‘self’, and νόμος, ‘rule, law’). The image of the self that Code evokes is that of a citadel, forever warding off external attacks. These attacks are characterized as coming primarily from contact with other people—suggesting that relationships with other people are in themselves dangerous to the self. Though relationships may be valuable in some ways, they are a constant threat to the self’s interests.

Feminist philosophers have largely found this conception both accurate and deeply problematic. Though some feminists have therefore rejected the value of autonomy all together, many have instead sought to reclaim autonomy as a feminist value. Since the late 1980s, feminists have proposed and argued for a myriad of alternative conceptions of autonomy, which have collectively come to be known as theories of “relational autonomy.”

Theories of relational autonomy vary widely. Some, like Marilyn Friedman’s, still recognize the value of independence and conceive of autonomy as an internal procedure that is available to people of many different beliefs and circumstances. Such an internal procedure requires some sort of critical reflection on attitudes and actions, but places no limits on the outcome of the procedure. Thus, this sort of procedure makes it possible for a person to count as autonomous even if she endorses attitudes or actions that may seem incongruous with a liberal Western image of autonomy, such as discounting her own right to be respected or remaining in an abusive relationship.  In contrast, theories like Mariana Oshana’s put stringent requirements on the kind of actual practical control necessary for autonomy, significantly limiting those who can count as autonomous. Such theories might consider a person autonomous only if her circumstances meet certain conditions, such as economic independence or a wide range of available social opportunities—conditions that might not be met, for example, by a person in an abusive relationship.

And there are theories that aim somewhere in the middle, such as Andrea Westlund’s, whose conception of autonomy requires some accountability and connection to the outside world, but does so in a way that provides latitude for many different belief systems and social circumstances. Specifically, on Westlund’s account, a person is autonomous only if she holds herself open to criticism from other people. While this dialogical accountability is not a purely internal procedure like Friedman’s, as it involves people other than the agent herself, it does not inherently limit the outcome of the procedure as Oshana’s does. See this collection of essays for more on the theories of Friedman, Oshana, and Westlund, as well as other contemporary theorists of relational autonomy.

These theories, while diverse, share a rejection of the idea that autonomy is inherently threatened by relationships with others. On the contrary, they argue that certain relationships are in fact necessary to the development of autonomy, its maintenance, or both. These theories have provided a much needed new perspective on the concept of autonomy, and continue to provide new insights, particularly with respect to understanding the effect of oppression on selves.

But their core idea, that autonomy requires relationships, is an old one. Long before autonomy became so closely aligned with the protection of the self from others, a prominent strain of philosophy recognized relationships with others as crucial to the well-being of the self—rather than as a threat. To illustrate, consider these excerpts from an ancient philosopher, Aristotle, and a modern philosopher, Spinoza.

For Aristotle, the ultimate good in life, a kind of long-term happiness, is a self-sufficient good. The word he uses is ‘αὐτάρκης’ (derived from αὐτο-, “self,” and ἀρκέω, “to suffice”). He clarifies: “And by self-sufficient we mean not what suffices for oneself alone, living one’s life as a hermit, but also with parents and children and a wife, and friends and fellow citizens generally, since the human being is by nature meant for a city.” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1097b9-11, tr. Joe Sachs) Aristotle, then, explicitly understands self-sufficiency with respect to happiness to require certain kinds of relationships—those of family, friends, and political compatriots.

Though Aristotle does not discuss the concept of autonomy, this passage and others suggest that his ideal of independence was one that required intimate relationships, rather than being threatened by them. Aristotle famously wrote of humans as “political animals.” On a first reading of this phrase, it is apparent that humans are political simply in the sense that they tend to form social institutions by which to govern themselves. But the phrase might also be read to suggest that even at their most independent, humans are the kind of animals that rely on one another.

Spinoza, likewise, identifies the well-being of the self with happiness, and he argues that happiness consists in having the power to seek and acquire what is advantageous to oneself. One might reasonably summarize Spinoza’s view of happiness as the achievement of one’s rational self-interest. For a contemporary reader, Spinoza’s language naturally evokes the conception of autonomy articulated by Code, a conception in which the wellbeing of the self is naturally threatened by others.

Yet Spinoza explicitly argues that “nothing is more advantageous to man than man.” (Ethics, P18, Sch., trans. Samuel Shirley) On Spinoza’s view the only effective, and therefore rational, way for individual to seek her own advantage is with the help of others. In general, Spinoza criticizes those thoughts and emotions that push people apart—and he argues that when we fall prey to these things, we not only lose power, but we fail to act in the interest of our true selves. An individual’s true self-interest, he argues, is necessarily aligned with the true self-interest of others.

The examples I’ve given remind us that, despite the apparent radicalism of arguing that the concept of autonomy is inherently relational in our contemporary cultural context, the conjunction of terms of self and terms of relationality is both ancient and long-lived. The very concepts that Code uses to describe the kind of autonomy that sees relationships as a threat—self-sufficiency and rational self-interest—were once thought of as concepts that in fact required relationships.

Thirty years after she wrote it, Code’s depiction of autonomy as an atomistic individualism threatened by others still well-captures the general sense Americans have of autonomy. Although feminist philosophers have been fairly successful in gaining wide recognition of the importance of relationships to autonomy among philosophers who study autonomy, their impact has not been as wide as might be expected given the strength of their arguments. One major exception has been the field of bioethics, in which the discussion of feminist theories of relational autonomy is quite lively. Yet these theories have not been robustly taken up in other professional fields such as business or legal ethics. Nor have they been taken up in a pervasive way in mainstream philosophical ethics or political theory.

Moreover, they have been decidedly less successful in changing the popular conception of autonomy, particularly within the United States, where the threatened-self conception of autonomy is so revered in the nation’s mythology. Indeed, many Americans might be surprised to learn about the history of this conception and its relative novelty. While some philosophers are already doing this, perhaps it would be fruitful in going forward for people in all fields to spend some time tracing the development of their conceptions of autonomy and self—they might be surprised at what they find.

Perhaps one reason relational theories haven’t been taken up is because of their feminist origins. Some of the wariness, surely, is simply sexism, both explicit and implicit. But beyond that, there may be a perception that the theories are specifically tied to the interests of women. Yet, to borrow a delightfully biting phrase from Spinoza, if someone were to pay a modicum of attention, they would see that is not the case. The historical precursors of their ideas demonstrate this. While the contemporary standard bearers of relational autonomy may be feminists, the basic ideas are as old and general as philosophy itself, and if the ideas are true, they should prompt Americans to seriously reconsider their national assumptions and priorities. If autonomy is in fact relational, it calls into question standard American justifications and understandings of a huge array of policies and practices, everything from gun control to education to marriage.


Molly has just received her law degree from Georgetown University Law Center and is currently developing a dissertation that brings together the professional ethics of lawyers, neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics, and feminist theories of relational autonomy. She wants to know, can you be a (really) good person and a (really) good lawyer at the same time? Beyond her dissertation, Molly has varied philosophical interests, including philosophy of tort law, children’s rights, privacy, and communication. When not philosophizing, Molly enjoys reading children’s fantasy, finding places to eat great vegan food, and engaging in witty banter.

Silencing the Berbers

By guest contributor Rosalie Calvet

 A little less than a year ago, a prestigious American university hosted a conference about French-Algerian history, gathering the leading specialists of the topic.

A prominent French scholar closed his presentation by opening the debate to the audience. Immediately, one of his North American fellows asked “Since you do not speak Arabic, do you feel somewhat limited in your work on French Algeria?”

“I see what you mean,” he replied, “but fortunately, we have the archives of the colonial administration, so French is enough.”

Suddenly, a man, sitting on the first row of the audience, stood up, and, speaking in French, replied “I am Algerian. I was born before the Independence. You taught us French and nothing else. We had to learn Arabic after the War of Liberation. Arabic must come back to Algeria.”

And then, another man, sitting next to him, added “Arabic … and Berber. Nobody talks about Berber. Historians have forgotten that North Africa is the land of the Berbers.”

Who are the Berbers?

The indigenous population of North Africa, the Berbers call themselves i-Mazigh-en, “free-men” or “noble” in Tamazight. If over the centuries, the Berbers have split into smaller communities, the Chleus in Morocco, the Touaregs in Libya and the Kabyles in Algeria, they have remained faithful to a clear sense of unity. The history of the Berbers is that of an identity constantly reshaped by internal and external mutations, of cultural blending and ongoing intellectual developments and innovations. Invaded by the Phoenicians around 800 BC, the Berbers were incorporated into the Roman Empire in 200 BC and their land constituted the cradle of European Christianity. The Arab Conquest of the seventh century led to the merging of Berber and Arab culture, the conversion to Islam and the fall of the Christian Church. Between the eighth and ninth centuries, a series of Muslim-Berbers dynasties ruled over the Maghreb (the Arabic name for North Africa) achieving its territorial and political unity. Most of the region, except for Morocco, passed under Ottoman domination in 1553 and remained part of the empire until the nineteenth century. During this period, the three political entities composing modern North Africa emerged. While Tunisia and Morocco were to become protectorates of France, in 1881 and 1912 respectively, Algeria was to be French for over a century.

During the first decades of colonial rule (1830-1871), the French authorities privileged Berbers over their Arab fellows (8). The main goal of the administration was to eradicate Islam from Algerian identity (23). According to French observers, the Berbers seemed keener to renounce their Muslim legacy, as they more closely resembled the French and shared their Christian roots.


Eugène Delacroix, Fantasia Arabe (1833), Städelscher Museums, Germany. One of Delacroix’s most famous representations, of a “fantasia” (a traditional Berber military game played on horseback) he witnessed in North Africa. The composition, centered on three moving figures, reflects Delacroix’s fascination with the ‘wildness’ of the cultures he depicts.

To fuel this narrative, the French progressively constructed the “Kabyle Myth.” In 1826, the Abbé Raynal claimed that the Kabyles were of “Nordic descent, directly related to the Vandals, they are handsome with blues eyes and blond hair, their Islam is mild.” Tocqueville wrote in 1837 that the “Kabyle soul” was opened to the French (182). Ten years later, the politician Eugène Daumas claimed that the “Kabyle people, of German descent […] had accepted the Coran but had not embraced it [and that on many aspects] the Kabyles still lived accordingly to Christian principles” (423). This the reason why French colonial officer Henri Aucapitaine concluded that: “in one hundred years, the Kabyles will be French” (142).

The situation shifted in 1871 when two hundred and fifty Kabyle tribes, or a third of the Algerian population, revolted against the colonial authorities. The magnitude of the uprising was such that the French decided to “fight the Berber identity […] which in the [long-run] empowered the Arabs.”

From then on, the differences between the Berbers and the Arabs became irrelevant to France’s main priority: to maintain its control over the local populations by fighting Islam. The idea emerged that to be assimilated to the French Republic, Algerian subjects needed to be “purified” from their religious beliefs.

By the Senatus-Consulte of July 14th, 1865, the French had ruled that “Muslim Algerians were granted the right to apply for French citizenship […] once they had renounced their personal status as Muslims”(444). This law, which had established a direct link between religion on the one hand and political rights on the other, now further reflected the general sense of disregard towards the diversity of cultural groups in Algeria, all falling into the same overarching category of Muslim. After the 1880s, the French gave up on the Kabyle myth, marginalizing the Berbers who had become a source of agitation.


Henri Rousseau, La Baie d’Alger (1880), Private Collection. In this view of the Bay of Algiers, the Douanier Rousseau pictures a Berber tribe.

As the independent Republic of Algeria triumphed in the Fall of 1962, the newly funded regime identified the Berbers as posing an “existential threat to the Arabo-Muslim identity of the country” (103).

Repeating the French practice of destroying those regional identities allegedly challenging the legitimacy of an aggressively centralized and centralizing state, the leaders of Algeria denounced the political claims of the Berbers as a “separatist conspiracy,” and after 1965 the Arabization policy became systematic throughout the country.

To assess the respective impact of colonization, nineteenth and twentieth century nationalist pan-Arab ideologies and the role of post-independence Algerian leaders upon the persecution of the Kabyles after 1962 constitutes a somewhat limited debate.

It is, however, critical to acknowledge the responsibility of the French state in the marginalization of the Berbers after the 1871 Kabyle riot. Progressively, the colonial administration changed a model of mixed and complex identities strongly rooted the Maghreb tradition into a binary model (235). Within this two-term model, people could only define themselves on one side or the other of a rigid frontier separating authentic French culture from supposedly authentic colonized culture. As Franco Tunisian Historian Jocelyn Dakhlia argues in Remembering Africa, “the consequence of such a dualistic opposition of colonial identities was [… ] that the anticolonial movement stuck to this idea of an authentic native Muslim Arabic identity,  excluding the Berbers” (235).

The very existence of the Berbers thwarts any attempt to analyze Algerian society in a way that resorts to a rigid griddle, whether in racial, cultural or religious terms.

This is probably the reason why the French, and after them the independent Algerian state, have utterly repressed the legacy of Berber culture in the country: for the Berbers could not exist in the dualistic narrative underlying both colonial and anti-colonial. As historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot, would argue, they became unthinkable, and were silenced and excluded from History.

Yet, the most curious factor in this non-history is the paucity of French scholarship on the issue. (50). While some academics do focus on creating conversations and producing literature on the question of Berber identity, the most renowned French scholars systematically fail at doing so. As a direct consequence, most French academic discourses reproduce and maintain the somewhat convenient imperial division opposing the “Arabs” in the North to the “Blacks” in the South of Africa, thereby forgetting that the Sahara is not a rigid racial frontier, and that for centuries the Berbers have been circulated throughout the region.


Centenaire de l’Algérie – Grandes Fêtes Sahariennes, Affiche, Musée de l’Immigration, Paris. This poster, issued by the French government in 1930, is an invitation to a military parade featuring colonial soldiers to commemorate the centenary of the 1830 conquest of Algiers.

Ultimately, the Berbers blurry the lines between colonial and post-independent notions of identity in North Africa. To acknowledge the Berbers would require scholars to accept their fluidity – a direct threat to the Western appeal for systemic and pseudo-universalist thinking, still prevalent in French academia despite the emergence post-colonial studies in the 1960s.

Recognizing the Berbers necessitates first, as claimed by Algerian scholar Daho Djerbal, to ask: who is the subject of History? This is the only way in which one can hope to put an end to the overly simplistic politics of identity imposed by the political power—on both sides of the Mediterranean Sea, on both shores of the Atlantic Ocean.

Rosalie Calvet is a paralegal working in New York City, freelance journalist and Columbia class of 2017 graduate. As a history major, Rosalie specialized on the historiography of French imperial history. Her senior thesis, “Thwarting the Other: a Critical approach to the  Historiography of French Algeria” was awarded the Charles A. Beard History Prize. In the future, Rosalie wishes to continue reflecting on otherness in the West—both through legal and academic lenses. More about Rosalie and her work is available on her website.