Intellectual History and Global Transformations

By guest contributor Timothy Wright

During the final weekend of this last October, eighteen graduate students from a variety of history and literature departments gathered at UC Berkeley for the “Futures of Intellectual History” graduate conference to workshop dissertation chapters and to think more deeply about the sub-discipline of intellectual history, its future, its methodology, and its relevance in an age of global history. This year’s conference, organized by Gloria Yu (UC Berkeley) and Ari Edmundson (UC Berkeley) continues a format began last year by a trio of graduate students—Alexander Arnold (NYU), Justin Reynolds and Asheesh Siddique (both from Columbia)—allowing history graduate students interested in intellectual history to more self-consciously address the methodological aspects of their projects in a small conference setting. The themes of the panels themselves offered much food for thought as topics ranged from early modern theology and vegetarianism, late 20th-century debates in France and the US on technology and AI, and to the circulation and diffusion of Adam Smith’s political economic theories in various colonial settings. A recurring theme of the conference, from this observer’s perspective, was how intellectual history as a sub-discipline, with its indebtedness to a rarefied strand of western European philosophical output, can continue to speak with any relevance to other historians and disciplines who are now engaging with increasingly diverse and global intellectual traditions and contexts.

After two days of lively—sometimes anxious—discussion on such issues and the future of intellectual history, participants received a timely reminder of the sub-discipline’s past successes in overcoming skepticism about its relevance in the concluding remarks offered by Professor Martin Jay of UC Berkeley. Specifically, Jay recounted some of the scornful critiques of his first book, The Dialectical Imagination (1971) penned by philosophers contemptuous of the historical method. These critics averred that Jay’s book displayed the weaknesses of contextualization and genealogy of ideas in that it declined to engage with the contemporary and political ramifications of the ideas in question. One philosopher had written that Jay’s historical reconstruction of the Frankfurt School was “a mile long but an inch deep” while another had remarked that “he had brought the pot to a boil but didn’t cook anything” (Alan Montefiore in conversation). By giving a historical account, Jay was reducing the potency of the ideas in the present in favor of a noxious act of contextual delegitimization.

Jay’s subsequent remarks served as a refutation of sorts to this attack on contextualization. Intellectual history can and does have an immediate impact on contemporary affairs, practical and political, as evidenced by the way visual artists used his 1988 essay “The Scopic Regimes of Modernity” as well as the cautionary tale of how right-wing extremists misused The Dialectical Imagination in their anti-Marxist propaganda. More broadly, Jay made the case that intellectual history should not be seen as an activity distinct from the philosopher’s conceptual theorizing or critical analysis but rather as an integral component of it. As Randal Collins observed in The Sociology of Philosophies (pg. 19), the intellectual has always been someone who believes his ideas transcend context and origins and the intellectual historian plays an important role in helping him or her see the idea in a new light, excavating new relationships and resonances inherent in any original intent. For young intellectual historians today, the moral was clear: engaging ideas through their historical contexts, development, and diffusions is not a quietist step away from politics and relevance but a positive, interventionist act in its own right.


Photo © Timothy Wright

In various ways, Jay’s comments tied together a number of important themes dominating the conference’s six panels. Participants were asked to consider not only how their papers would play for historians, but for much wider audiences across disciplines and even beyond academia. Professor Cathryn Carson, for example, pleaded with the presenters on the “Technology and Instrument” panel, and especially Daniel Kelly (“Herbert Simon and the Image of the Future”) to intervene and shape Silicon Valley’s discourse in the area of artificial intelligence. And Lilith Acadia’s paper on the long genealogy of the problematic “consent-based” theories of rape asked what centuries’ old intellectual traditions could mean for public and legal policy. But Professor Carson also noted that intervening in debates of contemporary significance does not simply mean rethinking how we apply the fruits of intellectual inquiry, but also requires adjusting the methods themselves. How might we have to rethink the basic premises of contextualization and time if we want to truly engage with the qualitative disjuncture that Big Data and AI (for example) represent in technological modernity?

When it comes to the them which dominated the conference more than any other, that of what the rise of global history means for intellectual history, the necessity to rethink methodological commitments felt even more pressing. Conference participants explored what methodological or theoretical challenges the intellectual historian interested in global history might have to confront. Some of these challenges involve avoiding one-way reception histories (ideas emanating from Europe which shape the global south), empirical disconnects when applying larger conceptual ideas to local contexts, as well as how to precisely theorize the idea of ‘global’ itself. Several panels, such as Friday afternoon’s “Utility, Usefulness and the Reality of Ideas, and Saturday’s “Political Economy and Intellectual, Colonial Encounters” revolved around such challenges. David Delano (UC Berkeley), in his paper “Of ‘Real’ Abstraction: Social Theory and the ‘Objects’ of Intellectual History” introduced, intentionally or not, the conference’s leitmotif and working theory of the ‘global’, Andrew Sartori’s (NYU) assertion that global intellectual history should take the “spread of capitalist social forms and social relations” as its object. Sartori has posited in various publications that global history shouldn’t be about scale or the increasingly interconnectivity of the world (i.e., the world market), but rather about the global penetration of specific types of abstractions rooted in capitalistic social forms, such as the commodity, or “real abstractions.” “Global intellectual history is what intellectual history becomes once it begins to grapple with the problematic of real abstraction” writes Sartori in the 2014 edited volume, Global Intellectual History (p. 128) edited by Sartori and Samuel Moyn. Delano’s paper, although primarily interested in contextualizing Sartori’s theory within the Frankfurt School and Marxian discussion of how conceptual abstractions emerge from social practices, nevertheless spurred the conference-goers to think more deeply about the theoretical underpinnings of the many transnational projects on display at the conference.

But Sartori’s model of global history had its fair share of objections as well. One faculty commentator, Jonathan Sheehan, pointed out that the discourse of political economy, on which Sartori’s particular reading relies, had begun well before the emergence of the “social.” On a more theoretical level, participants asked whether global intellectual history should really start from the privileging of western, Marxian theoretical constructions (not to mention the western origins of capitalist forms itself). One paper that took such questions seriously was Susanna Ferguson’s (Columbia) paper on pedagogical practices in nineteenth-century Lebanon and how this might advance our understanding of wider, transnational developments and movements within pedagogical thought in a “non-western intellectual history.” In her paper “Tracing Tarbiya: The Political Economy of Pedagogy in Ottoman Mt. Lebanon,” Ferguson positioned her methodology self-consciously against that of Sartori’s in arguing that “local social transformations” explain how pedagogical reforms became the vehicle for a variety of actors and institutions (Catholic missionaries, American Protestant schools, and Sunni Maqasid schools) to pursue their vision of personal and communal transformation amidst modernization in Ottoman Lebanon. These groups were responding to anxieties about social transformation specific to the Ottoman empire and the role of education in bringing about progressive, not revolutionary change. Ferguson emphasized that local contexts must have priority since endogenous corollaries to western ideas might in fact go further in explaining the rise of conceptions of pedagogy, for example, rather than assuming that this must be owed to the diffusion of western ideas. Concepts, as we know, might emerge at the same time in different places.

The other major approach considered by the conference in writing transnational global intellectual history was, of course, that of the diffusion of ideas through translation, transnational intellectual exchange, and comparative analyses. Several papers explored transnational intellectual trends by these methods such as Kaitlyn Tucker’s (Chicago) “Experience as Device: Traces of Russian Formalism in the Ljubljana School of the 1970s,” and Colin Jone’s (Columbia) “The Rise of Social Legal Theory in Interwar Japan.” Colin’s paper and the discussion afterward about Japan’s absorption and reformulations of European theories on “social law” underlined just how difficult it is to write a reception history where the non-western nation (Japan) isn’t simply a receptacle for western ideas. In the case of legal theory, there was very little awareness in the west of Japanese legal theories whereas Japanese thinkers read widely in European thought. This presents a tendency, even when endogenous practices and theories are clearly present but deeply influenced by the new ideas, to formulate the question with an orientation to the European sources. Some ideas explored as to how to nevertheless write a reception or translation history that presents the ‘receiver’ of translations as an agent in its own right was to conceptualize the nature of intellectual transfer as more about a multilayered, and contingent process involving a power dynamics as opposed to a mere set of equal choices in the mind of the translator, intellectual, or members of the public. What about the local context makes some ideas more alive than others? Or what specific choices made in translation can shed light on how the receiving nation shapes, and forms so-called ‘western’ ideas. Aren’t they picking and choosing from the west what they think corresponds to their context? While the global influence of modern western intellectual traditions through colonialism and economic might cannot be ignored, the emphasis must still be on the rich systems into which these ideas were introduced, and the relative impact they had.

Summaries do no justice to the range and depth of the substantial issues emerging in each paper and in the discussions afterward. For example, an issue lurking within many papers but especially in Gili Kliger’s talk “Philosophy from the Margins: Durkheim on the Science and Art of Morality” and the above-mentioned talk by David Delano, was the ever relevant question of the ontological status of ideas themselves and what the ‘object’ of intellectual history should be. Are ideas ultimately reducible to economic and material realities, à la Timothy Mitchell, or should we, following Peter Gordon, pursue a ‘limited’ or ‘restricted’ contextualizing method that references social factors but ultimately maintains a stance of causal indeterminacy to allow for the flexibility and potency of the ideas themselves? It may be telling that most faculty commentators insisted on “more context” from each panel, even if many papers presupposed underlying shifts in economic and political conditions as the origins for the “ideas” in their papers. But even as the tensions over the “grounds” or ultimate “object” of historical inquiry were on full display at this conference and the discussions it engendered, it was also clear from the vibrancy of the debate that intellectual historians will continue to play an indispensable role in precising and elucidating the broader stakes and implications of intellectual output.

For those interested in a complete overview of the panels and participants, please see the conference poster here.

Timothy Wright studies early modern European intellectual history, with an emphasis on the relationships between theology, ritual practice, and secularization. He is currently finishing a dissertation at UC Berkeley on dissident Protestant communities in early enlightenment Germany.  

Indefatigable Polyphony, or Alexander Kluge’s Narration in Complete Thoughts

by guest contributor William Stewart

Consider the oeuvre of the German filmmaker, writer, theorist, and general aesthete Alexander Kluge (b. 1932), and the word indefatigable springs to mind. The scale of Kluge’s work—thematics as much as sheer expanse and literal length, that of his individual efforts and that of the oeuvre as a whole—appears matched only by how quickly he produces it. Perhaps for this reason he explained to American author Ben Lerner that he normally sleeps ten to twelve hours a night. “Is that true?” Lerner shot back incredulously. “Yes,” answered Kluge, “I’m a specialist.”


Ben Lerner, Devin Fore, and Alexander Kluge (© author)

Such was the exchange typical of Alexander Kluge’s recent two-day residency at Princeton University: at once playful, absurd, and personal, yet nonetheless deeply honest, deceptively insightful, and surreptitiously poetic. Coinciding with this visit, Princeton’s Department of German—the home of the Alexander Kluge Research Collection and, along with Cornell University and the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, one of three repositories of Kluge’s archive—hosted an event on the theme of ‘Narration,’ a concept that the gathering’s lectures, readings, conversations, films, and performances probed and stretched. The format was as practiced (including academic talks) as it was spontaneous: Kluge often veered from script, reverting to German and demanding that whoever happened to be sitting nearest to him serve as interpreter. Kluge himself worked, so to speak, as much as he was worked on. In a style reminiscent of the audial dialectics of the simultaneous translation found in programming produced by Kluge’s German television channel, dtcp, Princeton’s event engaged in a literal polyglossia, where diversity of both speakers and format served to create a veritable thematic polyphony.

Klugian narration is heterotopic. He transmits on multiple channels simultaneously: personal anecdote, theory, story, allusion, axiom, commentary. Yet despite its volatility, Kluge synthesizes this ensemble with astounding dexterity and forcefulness in the mind of the audience. The granularity of Kluge’s material suggests a swarm of disjunctive monads. Individual moments—clips from his films, passages from his theoretical work, the short prose of his fiction, or quotations from his lectures—capture fragmented arguments and apparently unrelated transitions. Only with distance, with separation does this logic of sampling reveal the greater beauty of its vision. Kluge narrates, as it were, not in complete sentences but in complete thoughts.


Devin Fore and Alexander Kluge (© author)

An exercise in this narration in complete thoughts, the October event opened with a conversation between Kluge and Devin Fore, editor of the English translation of Geschichte und Eigensinn (History and Obstinacy, Zone, 2014). Kluge and sociologist Oscar Negt, both former students of Theodor Adorno and peers of Jürgen Habermas, originally composed this theoretical text collaboratively in 1981. Fore posed questions about the book’s difficult form, suggesting that its penchant for extreme detail created conditions for a “non-productivity” and a resistance to being taught. Kluge responded that the book had no interest in any kind of abstract theory; Negt, in fact, had insisted that the book involve no metaphors. “A concept without experience,” Kluge noted to Fore, “is void. An experience without concept is blind.” For Kluge, this “challenge of concepts” has to do with content’s being so “heavy”—schwer, lästig—a point whose metaphorical validity matches the literal weight of the thousand-plus-page Geschichte und Eigensinn. Kluge then sprung deftly to an ambivalent critique of the “grandchildren of the flower children in Silicon Valley,” parsing their perceived desire for total digitalization, that is, the desire to think the world solely in algorithms, as a kind of modern-day Dornrösschen. If Silicon Valley can be understood in the terms of Sleeping Beauty, then its algorithms are the spells that enchant the castle (or attempt to). Content may be thus relieved of its weight, but perhaps it is just this weight, qua spatial specificity and material constraint, that, when considered in Marxist terms of labor capital, previously allowed workers to “brake,” to perform their own kind of obstinacy against the forces of history. The algorithmically enchanted castle of Kluge’s Dornrösschen may fantasize and even promise a total dissolution of labor’s material specificity, but this comes at the cost of the laborer’s material specificity, as well.

In many ways a demonstration par excellence of the thematic expansiveness of Geschichte und Eigensinn, a program of “narration” concluded Thursday evening. Kluge’s curated event, with participation by Mike Jennings and musical accompaniment by Jamie Rankin, combined prose readings, film clips, poetry recitation, and live piano recital. Filmic ruminations on the material history of the Bataclan building in Paris were accented, for instance, by Schubert’s setting of Mayrhofer’s ‘Wie Ulfru fischt’; Kluge emphasized Mayrhofer’s verse—“Die Erde ist gewaltig schön / Doch sicher ist sie nicht”—as a prism through which to consider the Verschränkung (interlacing) that occurs between, one, the orientalism of Jacques Offenbach’s operetta, Ba-ta-clan, which inspired the theatre building’s architecture and, two, the horrifically violent events of November 13, 2015. Indeed, this Verschränkung remained a topic of interest throughout the narration, and Kluge went to great lengths to distinguish it from any notion of causality. The evening fixed on the ways turmoil links historical moments large and small, and the legibility that this Verschränkung provokes. For Kluge, history operates not like a river, but like a glacier, as Lutz Koepnick explained in his lecture on “Kluge’s Moments of Calm.” The move of history for Kluge is thus an erasing one, eroding as it roves, and yet nevertheless leaving behind clear, interpretable stratification. As Koepnick’s analogy suggests, whatever calm exists in Klugian narrative cannot be separated from the turmoil that defines modernity.

The polyphonic quality of Kluge’s own narrative style endowed the conference with space for less orthodox encounters, the highlight of which was Friday’s conversation and collaborative reading between Kluge and Ben Lerner, American author of 10:04 and recent MacArthur Fellow. Kluge and Lerner presented poetry that they had composed in response to each other’s texts, a form that resonated with Kluge because, as he phrased it, one cannot help but write always to the side of what one sees. Kluge’s attraction to Lerner arose from the latter’s collection The Lichtenburg Figures, but Lerner’s later remark on Kluge’s defining stylistics provides perhaps a more telling affinity: Kluge’s work, in Lerner’s eyes, employs a clinical or scientific and therefore cold gaze, and yet simultaneously maintains the wildest of metaphysical possibilities. In fact, this obstinacy of the metaphysical or fantastic against the clinical had been considered earlier in the day during a lecture by Richard Langston, the lead translator of Geschichte und Eigensinn. For Langston, who examined the thematic pertinence of the recent collaborations between Kluge and the German visual artist Anselm Kiefer, Kluge’s work always contains at its core a “protest of feelings,” a kind of innate human criticality that endows scientific subject matter with an “alchemical” aesthetics and renders the subjective legible within the perceived natural world.

This subjectively sourced power is a clear motif of Kluge’s, evidenced by the title of his 1983 film Die Macht der Gefühle (The Power of Feelings). Philipp Ekardt highlighted scenes from the film to demonstrate the degree to which emotions and feelings are the target of an ongoing investigation in Kluge’s oeuvre. Within Kluge’s narratives, he argued, individual feelings aggregate to produce historically driving forces, a process through which the subject is transformed from analyst to agent. Kluge presents such powerful protest of feelings as a necessary response given the complicated role of hope and the utopic in his critical thought: unlike his predecessors Walter Benjamin, whose utopic visions were rooted in the past, or Theodor Adorno, for whom hope arrived from the future, Kluge relies on the counterfactual as a mode in which to access and practice potential futures, an observation that Leslie Adelson presented in her lecture “Making Time with Alexander Kluge in ‘Saturday in Utopia’.” Feelings of dissatisfaction with and criticality toward the present situation act as a powerful engine for Kluge’s narration, in which it is the future, not the past, that is rewritten as utopian reality.

Kluge concluded the event with a concrete consideration of this counterfactual future through a lecture and a film screening, which posed questions of political ethics and responsibility to the public sphere. Against the ever-increasing isolation allowed by what Kluge termed the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” and the rise of an Internet of Things; against the growing tendency for the “public realm” to become more and more mediated through the non-materiality of interfaces, algorithms, and a globalized, automatized world; the subject must more and more stake the validity of her experience as a moment of possible public interchange. This requires what Kluge called a “counter public sphere,” one that can be narrated only by poetry, can think in both singularity and probabilities, and is capable of dealing in both algorithms and anti-algorithms—a new polyphony for the modern day.

There is a certain violent relationality in Kluge’s ideas, one inherent already to the late-capitalist objects of his critical scrutiny, but also in the way his notions connect to each other. His thinking moves quickly, shifting abruptly and never pausing to second-guess a remark. As a form of critique, such a breakneck mode of narration can be perilous, and it is certainly not without its pitfalls. But as Kluge himself quipped on the precariousness of his thinking: whoever skates on thin ice will not fall through as long as he skates as fast as he can. Perhaps. What cannot be denied is Kluge’s unique gift for associative faculties, for collage and assemblage, for articulating valences that might otherwise be missed as conceptually absurd, ideologically contradictory, or temporally incongruous.

And indeed, attending “A Narration” often left one with a strange inability for temporal judgment: it was difficult to say whether Kluge’s material felt so passé as to be dated or so thoroughly resistant to the vogue as to, in fact, be avant-garde. Likely, the better answer is neither. Klugian narration enacts a sort of Auszeit, a state exterior to categories of normal time, be that in its form—the easy Verschränkung of styles, sources, and chronologies—or in its aim—the kind of contra-factual futurity observed by Adelson. In a previous conversation with Kluge, Joseph Vogl has described the revolutionary as one able to “dissolve and stitch together different times,” one who “assembles history,” “a vessel for temporal states.” As Princeton’s event demonstrated over and over, Klugian narration exemplifies this move of dissolving and stitching together again. His work is nothing if not an assembly, an assembling, an assemblage of history, and, as a narrator, he is nothing if not an indefatigable vessel for temporal states.

William Stewart is a PhD student in Princeton’s Department of German, which he joined after working for a number of years in the studio of Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. He is interested by the ways in which cultural-historical moments appear reflected in works of visual art, film, and literature, especially in the years following 1968.

What We’re Reading: December 3rd

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.


Jeremy Adelman, “The Mortal Marx” (Public Books)

Dirk Baecker, »Wozu Kulturwissenschaft« (Kultur/Reflexion –

James Esposito interviews Benjamin Martin on his new book The Nazi-Fascist New Order for European Culture (Harvard Univ. Press, 2016; New Books in History)

Susanna Ferguson interviews Eve Troutt Powell on narratives of slavery in late Ottoman Egypt (Ottoman History Podcast)

Walter Grasskamp on André Malraux (The Getty Research Institute)

Benjamin Herman, “The debate that won’t die: Havel and Kundera on whether protest is worthwhile” (Radio Free Europe)

Stefan Krankenhagen, »Von der Kunst, Auschwitz darzustellen« (Merkur)

Madison Mainwaring, “The Eye of Baudelaire” (The Paris Review)

Armando Massarenti, “Spesso il male di scrivere ho incontrato” (Il Sole 24 Ore Domenica)

Finally, take a peek at the wonderful resources of “Socialism Realised: Life in Communist Czechoslovakia 1948-1989


For all the modern British historians out there, Birmingham Modern British Studies’ CFP for its summer 2017 conference has now dropped.

Amber K. Regis, The private writing of J. A. Symonds (TLS)

David Runciman, Is this how democracy ends? (LRB)
Mike Davis, Not a Revolution — Yet (Verso Books)
Andy Seal, Why Richard Rorty Was Not a Prophet (S-USIH)
Ian Buruma, The End of the Anglo-American Order (NY Times)

Timothy Snyder reviews Peter Fritzsche, A New Look at Civilian Life in Europe under Hitler (LRB)

Nakul Krishna, How the thought acts of the Oxford don J L Austin live on (Aeon)

A.N. Wilson, No sex please, we’re Bensons (TLS)

Ben Thomas, Edō Ergo Sum: Foodie Hipsterism in the Roman Empire (Eidolon)

Owen Hatherley, Strange, Angry Objects: The Brutalist Decades (LRB)

Eleanor Parker, The Coming of Christ, the Golden Blossom (A Clerk of Oxford)

And finally, the BBC dramatized Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped and it was one of the best things that happened to me in the last two weeks.


Dossier on upcoming constitutional referendum in Italy. (LSE)

Kwame Anthony Appiah “There is no such thing as western civilization” (Reith Lecture – The Guardian):

Clément Cadoret, “Revenu universel: halte à la pensée magique”  (La vie des idées)

Frans van Lunteren, “Clocks to Computers: A Machine-Based ‘Big-Picture’ of the History of Modern Science” – with responses, open. (ISIS)

Amia Srinivasan on Martha Nussbaum “A Righteous Fury” (The Nation)


Martin Garbus, “America’s Invisible Inferno” (NYRB)

Michael P. Lynch, “Fake News and the Internet Shell Game” (New York Times, “The Stone”)

Thomas Pakenham, “What the Trees Say” (NYRB)

Jacob Siegel, “The Alt-Right’s Jewish Godfather” (Tablet)


Thomas Powers, “The Private Heisenberg and the Absent Bomb” (NYRB)

Ursula Scheer, Im Westen hat das Antlitz eine andere Bedeutung als im Orient: Ein Gespräch mit Kunsthistoriker Hans Belting” (FAZ)

Daniel Zalewski, “Factory of Fakes” (The New Yorker)


The Historian Rudolf Hospinian

by guest contributor William Theiss

The 1517 book On Gems by Erasmus Stella, a doctor and mythologist from Leipzig, never enjoyed a wide readership—though two hundred years later it was enough in demand to merit a reprint. It takes its reader on a brisk journey through the world of precious stones, their distinguishing features, and their most famous uses. It was first printed together with the passage on stones from Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, on which Stella’s book is largely based.

The passage on smaragdus, or emerald, contains commonplace allusions to famous emerald structures: an emerald spear in a temple to Hercules in Tyre, an emerald Seraphim in a mythological Egyptian labyrinth (p. 17). Stella lingers on one object the longest: an emerald cup in a church in Genoa said to be the one used by Jesus at the Last Supper. We then hear a genealogy of this cup, cobbled together from accounts by medieval romancers: it had first belonged to a set of dinnerware owned by Herod, who had sent it from Galilee to Jerusalem in time for Passover; it was diverted by “divine providence” into the hands of Jesus. Stella, who might well have seen the cup during one of his many travels to Italy, waxes poetic: “Nobody ever saw a more precious cup, a more dignified stone, or more marvelous craftsmanship!” This is not an idle argument: if Jesus at the Last Supper drank from one of the most valuable gems known to the entire West, a gem now residing in an Italian church, controversial things are implied about what kind of man Jesus was, and about which countries could claim the correct worship of him.

Of a different view about the cup’s provenance was Jean Brodeau, a French courtier known, if at all, for his interpretations of Greek poetry. In a chapter of his 1555 Miscellanea (c. 5.19, pp. 193-194) he tried to set straight what he knew about the kinds of vessels used in ancient sacrifices. From Ovid he gathered that the oldest Romans were too poor to use anything other than earthenware or beech. And Porphyrius and Dionysius of Halicarnassus convinced him that even when the wealth of the empire grew, the pious Romans never graduated to fancier equipment. All of this, plus some passages from Apuleius and Cicero, was enough evidence for Brodeau to reject Erasmus Stella’s genealogy of the Genoan cup. Since Jesus lived in the ancient world, his Passover sacrifice must have proceeded by ancient rules, and those called for fictilia, or humble earthenware.

Rudolf Hospinian related this minor scuffle over an Italian cup in his two-part Historia Sacramentaria (1598 and 1602, p. 7). Hospinian adds his own erudition to the mix: according to him, the word for the cup in the Luther translation, Kelch, misleads, since a Kelch is a particular kind of cup. But a poterion, as the Greek New Testament has it, means any old cup, and indeed the Latin word calix should be interpreted the same way. After all, Plautus once wrote the line, “Aulas calicesque confregit”—“He shattered all the pots and cups [of any kind]”—and Erasmus recorded the saying, “Multa cadunt inter calicem supremaque labra”—“Lots of things fall out between the cup and the lips.” Plautus and Erasmus knew the exact weight of each word they used. Ipso facto, Jesus drank from an ordinary cup.

Lucas Cranach the Elder's Wittenberg Altarpiece with a Last Supper. A close friend of Martin Luther, Cranach here represented the administration of the sacrament directly into the mouth of the participant. Whereas some of Luther's Protestant opponents suggested that the minister might simply hand over the body of Christ to the congregation for them to break and eat, Luther always maintained the propriety of the old practice.

Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Wittenberg Altarpiece with a Last Supper. A close friend of Martin Luther, Cranach here represented the administration of the sacrament directly into the mouth of the participant. Whereas some of Luther’s Protestant opponents suggested that the minister might simply hand over the body of Christ to the congregation for them to break and eat, Luther always maintained the propriety of the old practice.

This Rudolf Hospinian was born as Rudolf Wirt in Fehraltorf, near Zurich, on November 7, 1547. His biographer points out that this made Hospinian only nineteen days younger than the far more famous Justus Lipsius. But “if not in genius, then certainly in piety, theological erudition, and even constancy—for that man wrote and professed many things, rather prettily, de Constantia, but never matched his words with deeds—our Hospinian was leagues ahead of Lipsius.”

If the subjects that historians choose are predetermined by their upbringing, then it is telling that as a child Hospinian watched his father imprisoned and tortured, and his uncle executed, for heresy. He was educated in nearby Zurich, and quickly ascended academic and ecclesiastical ladders. For a time, he taught in Heidelberg. Already as a young man, says his biographer, Hospinian conceived of a way of doing history that would put ecclesiastical truths in an “immovable citadel,” far from the reach of the crowd of everyday pamphleteers: “Our Hospinian believed that the false dye of antiquity could be shaken off [of the arguments of others] if the first origins of their errors, the incunabula themselves, as if tiny fibers placed beneath the sun and so shining through more clearly, could be distinguished from all the rest.”

Each of Hospinian’s works told the story of the Church from its prehistory in paganism and Judaism, through its foundation, up until its perversion in Rome and its pristine restoration in Germany. These themes tie together his book On Temples, his book On the sacred days of the Jews and Gentiles (encompassing also the Greeks, Romans, Turks, and Indians), his Historia Sacramentaria, the magnum opus, and even his works on the history of monasteries and on the strange, new Society of Jesus.

Hospinian makes no secret about which side he is on. The only segment of his work to appear in English describes how the Jesuits train their students to assassinate Protestant kings. The Historia Sacramentaria helped Hospinian come to be regarded as the most qualified Protestant writing ecclesiastical history—which meant, in the first decade of the seventeenth century, the most qualified to refute the history written by Cesare Baronio. Thomas Holland, the Oxford scholar who helped make the King James Bible, tried to recruit Hospinian for just that task. But he was already over sixty, and, as he wrote in a letter to England, “I am alone in this study, having nobody to converse with about such dark and difficult matters, nor am I so outfitted with libraries here as you are there in Oxford, not to mention other things I would need for such a work.” This was for the better: trying to refute Baronio made quick work of Isaac Casaubon, Hospinian’s junior by twelve years, if one accepts the popular account that Casaubon’s body (that is, his bladder) failed under the strain of his work.

Hospinian wrote the Historia Sacramentaria after he had been given a post in Zurich that was, his biographer admits, largely ceremonial, and so admitting of a lot of free time. His reputation hangs on this work more than any other. The first volume narrates the history of the Eucharist from the night of the Last Supper up through the Middle Ages. In the second, published four years after the first, two characters loom the largest: Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli. We read, year by year, as they retreat into separate camps and send missiles back and forth.

The history of Eucharist doctrine in the early sixteenth century—the structural center of Hospinian’s diptych—can be a rebarbative subject. It is the story of theologians closing their minds, of talented thinkers expending huge energy on behalf of unbelievably subtle dogmas that seem unworthy of them. But Hospinian’s history is capacious, and it has room for other portraits than this one. Because the chronology of the history places Luther and Zwingli into the unbroken tradition of the early Church, these characters assume the aura and drama of antiquity. The arguments they propose, change, and propose again take on a humanity that other histories of the period do not offer. Jean Brodeau and Erasmus Stella are not the only ones in Hospinian’s history to think with creativity and imagination.

Hospinian humanizes the history of dogma, above all, by including humanists: the personalities whose friendships, rivalries, and passions enliven the march of escalating pamphlets and futile colloquies. He writes piercingly on the symbiosis between Luther and Philip Melanchthon—how the irascible Luther needed the melancholy, slow-thinking Melanchthon to endear him to the authorities. Or, to answer the charge that these theologians lacked self-awareness to a laughable degree, one could supply the passage Hospinian drew from a dinner conversation in Nuremberg in 1526:

That year Philip Melanchthon was in Nuremberg. In those days he was still of the same mind as Martin Luther, on whose behalf nobody fought more strongly than Pirckheimer, a senator in Nuremberg, whose sharpness of mind, force of character, and wide-ranging erudition Melanchthon noticed at every turn of the conversation. And at the same drinking table sat Albrecht Dürer, the artist and learned man… again and again, disputes about the recent Eucharist controversy broke out between Pirckheimer and Dürer. The painter, since he excelled in his mind too, faced off fiercely against Pirckheimer; what the latter proposed, the former rebutted, fully up to the task; Pirckheimer grew heated; indeed he was quick to anger, not to mention his severe case of gout. At last Pirckheimer exploded: “What you’re saying, that couldn’t be painted!” “Ah,” responded Dürer, “but your views can’t be clearly said, or even imagined.” And Dürer went on to recall the stupidity of a certain Doctor Lempius, at Tübingen, who used to attempt, in the course of his lectures, to draw the transsubstantiation on a white canvas.

So goes the Reformation, as it unfolds in Hospinian: heated, yes, but softened somewhat by the ironic humor of those in the very center of it. That is the lesson to draw from the Historia Sacramentaria. To approach the Sacrament, one needs fine distinctions and a nose for metaphysics; to approach the history, one needs people and their stories.

William Theiss is an M.Phil. student in history at the University of Cambridge, where he is a Gates Cambridge Scholar. His dissertation examines aspects of the Eucharist controversy in the Reformation.

Ideas of Attachment: What the “Postcritical Turn” Means for the History of Ideas

by contributing editor Daniel London

In the early 1990s literary scholar and queer activist Eve Sedgwick broke rank and attacked what Paul Ricoeur called the “hermeneutics of suspicion” that dominated her discipline. Her early critique of Critique as ontologically rigid, morally cruel, and politically ineffective is now being taken up by a growing number of humanities practitioners, mostly within English departments. How can historians of ideas learn from, and contribute to, this nascent movement towards a “post-critical” sensibility? A fruitful way to begin is to analyze this movement’s most cogent and comprehensive manifesto thus far: English Professor Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2015.

While the methodologies of Critique might encompass a wide range of particular practices, from Foucauldian genealogy to Freudian analysis to Marxist materialism, Felski believes that the purported radicalism and rigor of these practices derives from a singular premise: that the meaning of a text is not based on its empirical form or content, but the “intentions” of those broader social contexts which produced it. The relevant contexts here might be macro structures as revealed by “standing back” from the text (as Marxists or other structuralists might do) or they might be the hidden motivations of the texts’ producers as unveiled by “digging deeper” into the text (as Freudians and gender theorists have long practiced). In either case, the text – whether it be a novel, a painting, or a statistic – is not assumed to speak for itself.

Felski makes short work of the notion that this approach is inherently progressive: climate change deniers and the FBI are both self-identified experts at uncovering “the truth” behind seemingly translucent prose. She also mirrors Sedgwick in questioning the political efficacy of Critique’s pose of absolute resistance, a pose that derives from its more general skepticism of any positive “text” whether it be novels or social legislation. To quote Sedgwick at length and with pleasure,

Reparative motives, once they become explicit, are inadmissible in paranoid theory both because they are about pleasure (“merely aesthetic”) and because they are frankly ameliorative (“merely reformist”).’ What makes pleasure and amelioration so “mere”? Only the exclusiveness of paranoia’s faith in demystifying exposure: only its cruel and contemptuous assumption that the one thing lacking for global revolution, explosion of gender roles, or whatever, is people’s (that is, other people’s) having the painful effects of their oppression, poverty, or deludedness sufficiently exacerbated to make the pain conscious (as if otherwise it wouldn’t have been) and intolerable (as if intolerable situations were famous for generating excellent solutions).

Equally debilitating, however, are the limitations of Critique as a means of understanding texts in the first place. Much of these limitations, argues Felski, derives from its incapacity to identify how different texts, even those purportedly produced within the same “context”, could take such different forms and spark such different reactions among readers.  If all Victorian novels are unredeemably tainted with the patriarchal/racist/bourgeois sins of its context, why is it that we continually focus our readings around some texts– say, the works of Sherlock Homes – instead of others, such as his innumerable hack imitators and predecessors? Why do some texts seem to attract, surprise, and summon something from us in ways that others do not? Why are some texts adopted and appropriated across time and space, while others remain trapped as antiquarian prisoners of their birth?  The drive to contextualize, writes Felski, often cannot explain such differences in the operation, reception, and transmission of particular texts. As Bruno Latour  has cynically noted, practitioners of critique are perfectly realist in their appreciation of things they inherently enjoy – movies, exercising, fishing, etc. Only when discussing texts they do not like do they move beyond the text in question to a (much more articulate) talk of the hidden inputs and outputs that purportedly give it significance.

What is to be done? Felski does not recommend a return to discussing texts as self-sufficient units of analysis, as formalists and new aesthetics have recommended. Nor does she advocate a more gracious form of “surface” or “reparative” reading, however therapeutic. Rather, her stab at a solution proceeds from a redefinition of texts as co-producers of social reality, rather than as entirely reflective or autonomous from it. In language explicitly borrowing from Actor-Network Theory, Felski argues that the discrete characteristics of a text can, under certain circumstances, actively generate certain qualities – identification, empathy, inspiration – among readers. Felski urges literary scholars to attend to these circumstances, to trace the social interconnections, attachments, and productions that emerge through the interaction of readers and texts. Under this paradigm, writes Felski, “interpretation becomes a coproduction between actors that brings new things to light rather than an endless rumination on a text’s hidden meanings or representational failures.”

Felski does not explicitly spell out the broader consequences of such a methodology on the politics and mores of the academy. Nonetheless, her call for scholars to pay greater attention to what texts can enable or allow in their readers seems to echo a political vision that , in the words of Jeff Prunchnik, “places a higher priority on strategies for seizing on the constrained possibilities present within existing systems of social power than on critique as traditionally understood”. Her agenda also offers, I believe, a partial solution to the spiritual and ethical malaise felt by many graduate students (including myself) deriving from Critique’s tendency to “burn through whatever is small, tender, and worthy of protection and cultivation”, in the words of Lisa Ruddick’s must-read essay When Nothing is Cool. Critique is quite proficient at deconstructing and damning expressions of compassion or empathy based on the sins of those who have articulated them in the past. It is quite silent, however, as to why and how we come to generate, cherish and care for certain values and artistic expressions that are not entirely based on ego or interest. A hermeneutics of attachment, along the lines Felski advocates, seems to offer an intellectually responsible way of gaining such an understanding.

How novel, familiar, or challenging should all this sound to historians of ideas or intellectual historians more generally? We should begin by stressing the close kinship of these disciplines to that of literary studies. In both cases, their defining methodologies seems to me a) a close reading of individual texts (novels, philosophical treatises, pamphlets) and b) a spiraling out towards the relation of these texts toward a broader set of contexts (either intellectual “communities of discourse”, institutional structures, other ideas, social/cultural fields, etc). Both disciplines were equally vulnerable to criticism in the 1960s and 70s that their preferred texts and contexts were overly narrow as compared with the more open-ended fields of social and cultural history. And both fields responded by reframing the contexts of their texts to encompass yet broader arrays of texts and contexts, and in so doing reframe their own significance.

Protected by their discipline’s stubborn empiricism, I suspect that historians of ideas have remained, with some notable exceptions, generally uncontaminated by the more totalizing strains of Critique that Felski lambasts within English departments. I also suspect, with less certainty, that histories of ideas as narrative forms possess a thicker vocabulary for defining “context” and explaining the transmission of text-actor attachments over time than can be found in their critique-driven counterparts. Whether their methods are complementary to the Actor-Network Theories Felski vouches for is the subject of another essay. Nonetheless, I am certain that she and many other post-critical theorists can learn a lot from the rich (though often theoretically under-developed) work of intellectual historians. Recent Developments in Book History, and bibliography particular, are also complementary to Felski’s agenda.


Robert F. Westbrook, Joseph F. Cunningham Professor of History at the University of Rochester.

At the same time, I believe the topics historians of ideas pursue can become more aligned with the concerns of post-critical theorists.  This can be seen in the way such scholars attempt to study one topic of seemingly shared interest: the history of morality. In an excellent review essay in Modern Intellectual History, Robert Westbrook identifies several approaches intellectual historians have developed to chart the appearance and disappearances of ethical “oughts” over time. Such methods have generally taken either an “internalist” (tracking changes in the conceptual vocabulary of morality over time) or an “externalist” (examining how the ethical principles of a particular community both informed and were transformed by their own lived experiences) tact. I suspect that Felski would ask for a subtly different explanandum: why do some texts, and not others, summon different moral responses and allegiances from their audience? To answer this question would require examining such audiences and texts in a far more comparative manner than most have done so far.

“Why are we so hyperarticulate about our adversaries and so excruciatingly tongue-tied about our loves”? Felski asks at the beginning of her work. I don’t believe the humanities can unilaterally prescribe what we should love today, but their practitioners  are awakening to the fact that one of the chief values of the humanities lies in asking how these loves have developed, died, and survived in the past and in our own time with self-consciousness, empathy, and rigor.   I believe Historians of Ideas can play a crucial role in this collective moral inquiry, and should take inspiration from the post-critical turn that their efforts will have a waiting audience in the academy – and likely beyond.  

An Intellectual History of Their Own?

by guest contributor John Pollack

‘Tis the season. Not that season—but rather, the curious period in the United States between the holidays of “Columbus Day” and “Thanksgiving” when, at least on occasion, the issues confronting America’s Native peoples receive a measure of public attention. Among this year’s brutal political battles has been the standoff at Standing Rock Reservation, where indigenous and non-indigenous peoples from the entire continent have gathered to support the Standing Rock Sioux’s opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline, the construction of which would threaten sacred lands. Although this conflict will not be a subject of discussion at every Thanksgiving table, at the very least the resistance at Standing Rock serves as a reminder of the very real environmental and political battles that continue to play out in “Indian Country.”


Standing Rock Protestors. Image courtesy of The Lakota People’s Law Project.

On October 13, 2016, I attended a lecture given by Winona LaDuke to open the conference “Translating Across Time and Space,” organized by the American Philosophical Society and co-sponsored by the Penn Humanities Forum. I was in an auditorium at the University Museum at the University of Pennsylvania, but Ms. LaDuke did not attend the conference in person. She spoke instead from an office at Standing Rock, where she is leading resistance to the pipeline. Ms. LaDuke’s remarks at a conference focused upon the study and revival of endangered Native languages were a reminder to me and other audience members that being a “Native American Intellectual” means being a political figure, a public voice speaking and writing in contexts of imperial expansion and ongoing legal, military, and economic conflicts over territory. We may date the creation of the term “intellectual” to the late 1890s, with Emile Zola’s public attack upon the French military for covering up the innocence of Alfred Dreyfus—but it is arguably the case that Native American public leaders, whatever labels we assign them, have been speaking truth to power since 1492.

Over the past year, a team at Amherst College, in conjunction with the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums; the Mukurtu project; and the Digital Public Library of America, has been planning a framework for a “Digital Atlas of Native American Intellectual Traditions.” This exciting initiative promises to develop a new set of lenses through which we may observe and connect the intellectual histories of America’s indigenous peoples, across time and across territories. All students of the “history of ideas” should welcome this extension of the boundaries of the field in new directions.  

From Collection(s) to Project

Collectors of books and documents can play surprising roles in shifting scholarly attention in new directions, and this project is a case in point. In 2013, Amherst College Library’s Archives and Special Collections acquired the Pablo Eisenberg Native American Literature Collection. Known now as the The Younghee Kim-Wait (AC 1982) Pablo Eisenberg Native American Literature Collection, after its collector and the donor whose gift enabled the purchase, the collection, Amherst suggests, is “one of the most comprehensive collections of books by Native American authors ever assembled by a private collector.” (I would add that this is really a collection of mainly Native North American authors.) Few of the titles in the Eisenberg Collection are unknown or unique exemplars—but their assembly by one collector into one collection motivated Mike Kelly, Kelcy Shepherd, and their Amherst colleagues to investigate how such a collection might help reshape discourses about Native Americans and their intellectual histories.


Kim-Wait/Eisenberg Native American Literature Collection

Click to view Amherst’s Flickr gallery of images from the Kim-Wait/Eisenberg Native American Literature Collection.


Working outward from this impressive body of material, their project will create a framework drawing together “Native-authored” materials held in widely scattered repositories. They seek a digital solution to one of the problems researchers working in digital environments regularly confront: the difficulty of connecting related items across institutions. The authors note:

Search and retrieval of individual items allows for only limited connections between related materials, erasing relevant context. Tools for visualizing and representing these networks can ultimately provide even greater access and understanding, challenging dominant interpretations that misrepresent Native American history and obscure or de-emphasize Native American intellectual traditions.

Digital projects, I would add, can often exacerbate rather than reduce this effect of disaggregation and de-contextualization. Working online, we can easily fail to comprehend a collection of documents or printed materials as a collection, in which the meaning of individual items may be shaped by the collection as a larger whole. Some online projects select out particular items, extracting and featuring them—much as an old-style museum might present an artifact in a display with a rudimentary label, disconnected from its cultural origins. Others provide digital results in an undifferentiated mass. The immediate benefit of finding new materials online can feel impressive, but the tools for interpreting what we access can feel strangely limited.

The Digital Atlas, the authors argue, will fill a void, the current “absence of a national digital network for Native-authored library and archival collections.” Here they invoke that recurring librarians’ dream—the search for the perfect search tool. This can take the form of “union” catalogs that gather information from many places into one data source and make them easily searchable; or of “federated” searching, the creation of tools that straddle multiple data platforms and present results for researchers in a single, coherent view; or of the “portal,” an organized launching point that gathers disparate research materials together. Still to be negotiated, I imagine, is how this “national digital platform” will connect with other such “national” platforms, including the Digital Public Library of America.

Searching protocols represent only one of the challenges; the work of classification itself must be subjected to scrutiny. One of the project’s partners is Mukurtu, an open source Content Management System (CMS) that has been designed to encourage the cooperative description of indigenous cultural materials using categories designed by Native peoples themselves. Mukurtu, which describes itself as “an open source community archive platform,” provides tools allowing repositories to rethink the ways in which materials by or about Native peoples are categorized, cataloged, and accessed.

This new methodology will make “Native knowledge” more visible in collections held by libraries, archives, and museums:

The project will develop methods for incorporating Native knowledge, greatly enriching public understanding of Native culture and history. It will identify approaches for enhancing metadata standards and vocabularies that currently exclude or marginalize Native names and concepts. We will share this work with the digital library community and with Native librarians, archivists, and museum curators.

The project will “include both tribal and non-Native collecting institutions, building relationships between the two.” This promise to create new partnerships between academic and institutional collections and Native communities is a welcome vision of sharing and exchange. A number of institutions are redefining what the “stewardship” of Native documents or artifacts means and reconsidering the thorny question of who “owns” the cultural productions of Native peoples. At the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, for example, the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research has embraced a community-based methodology that actively shares indigenous linguistic collections with Native peoples and invites Native researchers to take intellectual if not physical ownership of these collections, wherever they reside.

This proposal’s creators have, for now, chosen to avoid a discussion of what is, and what is not, “Native-authored.” Authorship and authority are always contested domains, and Native authorship has been a subject of debate since the eighteenth century. Like African American writers, Natives have had to work with or against non-Native editors, printers, publishers, and of course readers. I hope that the Digital Atlas will give us new tools for studying these tensions and new ways to chart the impacts of Native author-intellectuals over time, in printed books, in periodicals and newspapers, at public events, and in letters.

Mapping an “atlas”

Another argument behind the Digital Atlas is that Native writing must be understood in its relationship to place: to location, to land, to social memory, and to the environment. At the same time, the authors insist that we cannot adopt a static spatial view but instead must focus on mobility—that is, on the connections between authors, texts, and routes.

The proposal poses this question: “What tools, methodologies, and data would be required to visualize and represent the networks through which Native people and authors traveled and maintained/produced Native space?” Data “visualization,” the use of mapping software to show nodes of activity and networked connections, has become a standard tool in the field of digital humanities and a frequent complement to scholarship in fields including book history, medieval and renaissance studies, and American literary studies. Indeed, Martin Brückner has recently argued that literary studies is in the midst of a widespread “cartographic turn,” noting the pervasive language of cartography—the map as tool and the map as metaphor—throughout the field.  

Given the project’s focus upon geography, visualization, and mobility, though, I confess that I find the Atlas’s emphasis that it will be a “national” product disappointing, if understandable—with its suggestion of a continuing focus upon the old familiar geography of the nation-state. I suspect that the project’s authors are well aware of this tension. Scholars like Lisa Brooks (an advisor to the Digital Atlas) and others have pushed us to think about the many routes along which Natives and their words have circulated: through territories shaped by geographic features and personal connections; along riverine networks; and over trading and migration paths that long antedate and overlap the national, state, or territorial borderlines drawn by European surveyors and colonial agents. Will the Atlas help us follow the movements of ideas along non-national paths and across networks other than those circumscribed by nations? I hope so.

Intellectual traditions, Intellectual histories

With its focus on assembling and mapping intellectual traditions, the Atlas proposal also makes the implicit argument that it is time to move beyond the old debate about the influence of the “oral tradition” and the impact of “written culture” upon Native peoples.

As Brooks and others have persuasively argued, anthropologists in the nineteenth and early to mid twentieth centuries often ignored the ways in which Native peoples used various forms of writing, including European ones, for their own purposes (cultural, literary, and legal), preferring instead to search for presumably older oral traditions that were somehow isolated from and uncontaminated by writing. Historians of Native America now question the dichotomy between oral and written. We must be particularly cautious about identifying the former as essentially Native and the latter as essentially Western or European.

In the European context too, the dichotomy has been questioned. Scholars including Roger Chartier and Fernando Bouza have pointed out the permeability of oral and written discourses within the European context and shown that these categories were both unstable and contested in the early modern period. Texts and images circulated through the social orders in complex ways, and oral, written, and visual forms maintained overlapping kinds of authority.

To be sure, European colonists, missionaries, and political leaders sought to create colonial regimes in which the written and the printed word would be dominant, even as orality continued to occupy an important place within their own cultures. Yet Native peoples in many regions, from Peru, to Mexico, to Northeastern North America often successfully retained their own highly developed cultures of oratory. And rather than classifying indigenous populations as peoples “without writing,” we have come to understand that the definitions of communication must be broadened to include the range of semiotic systems Native peoples used to share and exchange goods and information, and to preserve narratives and historical memory. Native peoples also adopted, adapted to, appropriated, or resisted European writing and print culture in a wide variety of ways.

But why, I wonder, will this be an atlas of intellectual traditions and not of intellectual histories? With this title, the project softens its potential impact upon the field known as intellectual history or the history of ideas. It seems to locate the project in an anthropological and not a historical mode. Native peoples, like peasants, workers, lower class women and other so-called “peoples without history” (to borrow Eric Wolf’s ironically charged phrase), are still too often relegated to the realm of tradition, and locked into a static past.

In 2003, Robert Warrior pointed out that the field of American Studies had only just begun to include the voices of Native American Studies scholars. We might now extend his point to encompass the field of the “history of ideas” or intellectual history. A search across the content of the Journal of the History of Ideas turns up not a single reference to Warrior or his work, and I am hard pressed to find a discussion in its pages of the “history of ideas” in Indian Country. Rather than assuming that the field’s concepts are too Euro-centric and have no bearing upon an equally complex but distinctly different realm of Native ideas and philosophies, I would prefer to work toward more common ground. We can expand the history of ideas to encompass Native American intellectual histories—while respecting Warrior’s call to maintain the “intellectual sovereignty” of Native America (Secrets 124).

I eagerly await the results of the Digital Atlas of Native American Intellectual Traditions. I look forward to studying its reimagined maps of American intellectual history, and to hearing more voices of the public intellectuals of Native America, past and present.

John H. Pollack is Library Specialist for Public Services at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania. He holds a Ph.D. in English from Penn; he has published on colonial writings from New France and edited a volume of essays on Benjamin Franklin and colonial education. He is currently working on a monograph about the circulation of Native words in early European texts on the Americas.

What We’re Reading: Nov. 14-19

We have a couple of announcements to make with this week’s links round-up. We’re proud to have two new contributing editors joining our team: Disha Karnad Jani and Eric Brandom. Full bios for Disha and Eric are available on our Masthead, along with information about the rest of our editorial team.

Please also take a look at the October issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas, which is available to all via Project Muse.


Zeynep Tufekci “Mark Zuckerberg is in Denial” (NY Times)

Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (Haymarket Books)

Rhon Manigault-Bryant, “An Open Letter to White Liberal Feminists,” (AAIHS)

Max Nelson, “The Intrusion Artist” (Public Books)
New York Cinephiles: A great series of the Bresson’s films just wrapped up at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.  The swanky new Metrograph has its own series of Bressons on from Nov.23 to Dec. 1. At Anthology Film Archives, an unrelated series of the films of Borges and Casares is on through Nov. 22.

I was disappointed not to attend “What’s Next? Exploring New Ways to Use Digital Early American Manuscripts,” an un-conference sponsored by the Colonial North America at Harvard Library Project.  Details here, or follow the conversation on Twitter, #WhatsNextHarvard.


Max Weber, “Politics As a Vocation” (1919) is apposite reading in our times. So is the 1886 parliamentary debate over Gladstone’s first Irish Home Rule bill, which I taught this week.

James McDougall, No, this isn’t the 1930s—but yes, this is fascism (The Conversation)

Wendy Lesser, The Battles over Julia Ward Howe (NYRB)

Allison Miller, Contrary to Popular Belief: Recovering the Grassroots History of American Atheism (Perspectives)

Samuel Moyn, Freud’s Discontents (The Nation)

Andrea Rottmann, Gay Berlin? No, Queer Baden-Württemberg (Notches)

And not least, the BBC’s TV adaptation of Zadie Smith’s NW.


Martin Filler, “Building Dreams and Nightmares” (NYRB)

Richard Florida, “It’s Still about Class and Geography” (CitLab)

Judith Stein, “A Losing Coalition” (Jacobin)

Adolph Reed, “Splendors and Miseries of the Anti-Racist Left” (

Michael J. Lewis, “The Genius of Winding Paths” (First Things)


Simone Lässig, “The History of Knowledge and the Expansion of the Historical Research Agenda” (Bulletin of the GHI)

Thorsten Benner, “Germany Can Protect the Liberal Order: Damage After Donald Trump’s Election” (Foreign Affairs)

James Cortada, “Were Farmers America’s First High Tech Information Workers?” (OUP Blog)

Finally, this week I have been enjoying some time with Tony Judt’s take on what has gone wrong with social democracy in the past thirty-six years in Ill Fares the Land, which I would recommend to anyone else still reeling from last week’s election.


Toni Morrison, “Mourning for Whiteness” (New Yorker)

Geoff Manaugh, “Why Catholics Built Secret Astronomical Features into Churches to Help Save Souls” (Atlas Obscura)


James Schmidt, “Images of the Enlightenment: The Lamp and the Sun” (Persistent Enlightenment)

Robyn Spencer, “‘Revolt at the Source’: Cedric Robinson’s Archive of Resistance” (AAIHS)

Sarah Phillips Castell, “Caribbean LIterature, Jewishness, and Global Holocaust Memory” (AAIHS)

John Lancaster, “Can We Escape from Time?” (NYRB)

Kyle Walker, “9 Great Novels about Anthropologists” (Public Books)

Joshua Cohen, “After Trump” (Boston Review)



Pushing at the Seams: US Intellectual History

by guest contributor John Gee

Intellectual historians, I’ve heard it said, are people who argue about what intellectual history is. The field of US intellectual history has been marked in recent years both by growth—one might even say rebirth—and by persistent concerns about its boundaries: between the US and the world, between ideas and politics, and between professional “intellectuals” and others. The Society for US Intellectual History’s annual conference, which took place October 13–15 at Stanford University, once again justified this conversation’s continuance by demonstrating the vibrancy of the histories at these crossroads.

Several panels revolved around connections between the intellectual histories of the US and those of other places. This is an enduring concern (as the society’s current and past book award winners demonstrate), and it pops up even when not explicitly the subject of discussion. For instance, in the roundtable discussion “Whither Puritanism?” Chris Beneke, David Hall, Mark Peterson, Sarah Rivett, and Mark Valeri spent a good deal of time not on the origins of American Puritanism in Europe, but on its ongoing Euro–American basis. While there was lively discussion of the legitimacy of looking to Puritans for “origins” (of modernity, democracy, etc.), they can clearly no longer serve as a nationalist origin story.

Transnational perspectives were also on display in back-to-back panels on international politics. “Intellectual Bases of American Hegemony” revolved around the transition from World War II to the Cold War. Tightly-connected papers from Daniel Bessner, Stephen Wertheim, and Anne Kornhauser examined justifications of a US-led global order, and the increasing permanence of “states of exception” justifying otherwise-extraordinary reductions of liberty at home and abroad. These are familiar themes, but they received careful attention and usefully raised the question of what made this moment such a turning point. Next up was “American and European Internationalisms, 1920-1940,” which showcased persistent ambiguities rather than decisive transitions: the Vatican’s challenge to the Wilsonian vision (Giuliana Chamedes), the ambivalent Russophilia of many liberal Protestant internationalists (Gene Zubovich), and the left’s attempts to rethink international solidarity in the wake of World War I (Terence Renaud). These two panels not only offered a thoroughly transatlantic perspective on their subject matters. They also bridged the gap, thankfully no longer so wide, between histories of internationalism and international histories.

Other preoccupations of US intellectual historians have been their fuzzy boundary with cultural historians and their putative elitism—both of which were subjects of discussion at another plenary roundtable, “The Many Faces of Gender in American Thought.” Mia Bay, Kimberly Hamlin, Deborah Dinner, and Daniel Wickberg called on the field not merely to include women’s voices more prominently in their research and teaching, but also to incorporate gender more thoroughly as an analytical tool. While women may not have participated in every conversation, for instance, gendered metaphors are everywhere in the texts we tend to study. We would do well, the panelists suggested, to borrow more from the methods of women’s and gender studies in exploring these dynamics. (Would that I had more detailed notes, but that’s asking a lot for an evening panel held after an open-bar reception.)

One panel featuring both gender and women prominently was “Historicizing Morality in the Nineteenth-Century United States.” Andrea L. Turpin presented work from her recently-published book, A New Moral Vision: Gender, Religion, and the Changing Purposes of American Higher Education, 1837-1917, showing how the increasing presence of women in higher education caused colleges and universities to change their mission. Rather than prepare students to be good Christians, the rising progressive generation would prepare them to be good men and women. Laura Rominger Porter, meanwhile, took a close look at the dynamics of church discipline in the antebellum upcountry south, where white men resisted impositions on their masculine and republican independence with a vision of “republican” rather than “monarchical” church governance—a rhetoric that would later transition smoothly into arguments for secession from the United States itself.

Another panel pushed at the boundaries of religious history by examining “The Search for a Democratic Religion.” Amy Kittelstrom discussed James Baldwin’s atheist attachment to Christianity, which she argued revolved around moral agency and an insistence on seeing each person as fully human. She related these ideas to Emersonian self-reliance, to Gunnar Myrdal’s American Creed, and to broader currents in African-American religiosity. Natalie Johnson, meanwhile, discussed Louis Finkelstein’s attempt to theorize a Jewish religion/way of life that would be fully compatible with world religions and pluralist democracy. Finkelstein, part of the general midcentury interfaith movement, represented both inclusions and exclusions: while he successfully pushed social scientists to be more respectful in their explanations of religion, he also enabled critical or dismissive evaluations of indigenous religious practices left out of the “world religions” basket.

Near and dear to my heart as a historian of social science was the roundtable on “The Work of Dorothy Ross and its Significance for Intellectual History.” A powerhouse crew of colleagues and students went well beyond the usual encomiums to present a remarkably coherent view of Ross’s oeuvre. To a person, they spoke not only of her sensitivity to the ideological dimension of thought—the ways formal, disciplinary work never fails to connect to wider currents in aesthetics, religion, politics, etc.—but also the rigor and care of her portraits of individual thinkers. One can, Ross has proven, be a faithful interpreter of the most technical of arguments without confining oneself to narrowly disciplinary ways of thinking. (One can also, the panelists concurred, do this while being a first-class mentor of younger scholars—which the Society for US Intellectual History has recognized with the new Dorothy Ross Prize for the year’s best article by an “emerging scholar.”)

In the spirit of the Dorothy Ross roundtable, I would suggest the eclecticism of the conference helps to remind us of the connectedness of historical phenomena. It is difficult, of course, to move from religion to philosophy to social science, from gender to race to international politics. But when the basic question we ask is how our historical subjects thought about the events they were a part of, we owe it to them to be capacious in our response. We may not all live up to Dorothy Ross’s example, but it is a fine one to follow.

John Gee is a Ph.D. Candidate in History at Harvard University, where he studies modern social thought in the Americas. His dissertation project examines how US and Mexican anthropologists used theories of culture to engage with indigenous politics from the 1930s to the 1960s.

Mandatory Reading: The Novel and the College Course in the Early American Republic

by guest contributor Rob Koehler


Daniel Tompkin’s collegiate essay. Image courtesy of the HathiTrust Digital Library.

Like a lot of college students today, Daniel Tompkins (1774-1825) spent much of his four years at the newly named Columbia College [now University] writing essays.  Foreshadowing his later political commitments as New York Governor from 1807-1817, he wrote about topical issues, pressing problems of social justice, and more abstract problems like the persistence of prejudice. Tompkins proved to be quite liberal in most of his sentiments, as in his arguments for the abolition of slavery, the end of capital punishment, and the demotion of the classical curriculum in the collegiate course.   Yet, for the purposes of this essay, Tompkins most interesting piece is “On Novels,” in which he defends fiction reading as a valuable part of an education.  Tompkins begins his essay by noting he was taught that novels were “solely for the amusement of puerile minds” but eventually came to realize that simply accepting this opinion was like being a child who “by [his] catechism [was] taught to admit principles as true without being convinced of the truth of them as [he] ought to be by [his] own reason”.  And Tompkins’ reason taught him to enjoy novels; in fact, he was willing to go so far as to relate the reading of novels to that of his own formal education at Columbia, writing:

It is further remarked, that novels have a bad tendency, by possessing a power of alluring the reader and cause him to devote his whole attention to them.  Mathematicks it is observed have the same tendency to those who have a relish for the pleasure arising from that study, yet in my humble opinion, this is not a sufficient demonstration to shew, that Mathematicks ought to be avoided.

Writing after having completed the mandatory two years of Mathematics required of Columbia students, Tompkins had the academic experience to make the comparison. It seems unlikely that most young men—who would have studied arithmetic as an effort to better their employment prospects during apprenticeship or after the work day had ended—would have shared Tompkins’ perspective on the subject and its more than practical purposes. It was his privileged position as a college student that made the comparison both sensible and useful.

In the early United States and in the Anglophone world more generally, criticism and praise of novels centered around their moral qualities and their impact on young women, not on young men.  In her magisterial study of early American novels and novel readers, Cathy Davidson focuses almost exclusively on the uses of novels as an informal—and somewhat subversive—education for young women in the dangers and possibilities of heterosociability, courtship, sexual relationships, and marriage.  A wealth of letters, diaries, and other sources back up Davidson’s claim, showing how female characters and the narrative frameworks of novels were taken up by young women to discuss their misgivings, fears, and hopes about their futures.  Yet, how did novel reading impact the intellectual lives of young men?

After all, no early American cultural pundit decried the deleterious impact of novel reading on young men or espoused his or her fear that it would lead to their seduction, ruin, and premature death.  This gap emphasizes the sexist and overtly regulatory functions of this kind of criticism of the novel, but it does not answer the question of whether young men read novels as avidly as young women, or what exactly that activity meant to them.  Some scholars—such as Bryan Waterman and Robb Haberman—have noted that, like young women, young men also used the literary language of the novel when engaging in romantic and sometimes sexually charged relationships and thus it became one mode of conducting a romance in the early Republic.

Based on Tompkins’ essay though, I suggest that the novel was also a part of the informal education of young men that became for many a lifelong interest.   The records of the New York Society Library from 1789-1792 document the reading of nineteen unmarried young men—all of them, like Tompkins, students or recent graduates of Columbia—who all checked out and read novels in addition to the history books, Latin translations, and reference books that they were likely using to accompany or supplement their courses. This cohort of young men such as John L. Norton, Samuel Jones, and James Parker showed many of the behaviors decried by critics of young women’s novel reading.  They regularly selected the newest rather than the best, they read salacious scandal fiction like Retribution or The Convent, and they read very quickly, often returning a volume of a novel the day after they checked it out.  But, they did all of this while also taking out a steady stream of works like Robertson’s History of America and Adam Ferguson’s History of the Roman Republic.  These habits show that, just like teenagers today, college students in the early Republic were multi-tasking, moving fluidly between various tasks and types of reading.

This is not to say that reading novels was not important but to say that it took place in a larger context of engagement with the printed word; for these privileged young men of the early Republic, novel reading was, as much as Mathematics, a part of a liberal education. What is perhaps most interesting is that for readers in this cohort, novel reading remained a pursuit after the end of their educational careers in a way that the reading of other types of works, many of which had been required for their educations, did not.  Because the library’s records between 1792-1797 are lost, there is a particularly jarring difference in borrowing for many of these men between their college days and their adult reading.  In their adult years, novels predominate in almost every reader’s record. While this might be evidence that a wife or child is using the account, the preponderance in so many accounts suggests that it is the men themselves.


Governor and Vice President Daniel D. Tompkins. Image courtesy of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library.

And this returns me to Daniel Tompkins and a peculiarity in his comparison of reading novels to studying Mathematics.  Tompkins ends by commenting that “Mathematicks. . . have the same tendency to those who have a relish for the pleasure arising from that study, yet in my humble opinion, this is not a sufficient demonstration to shew, that Mathematicks ought to be avoided.” Tompkins is as much complaining about the dullness of Mathematics for most students as he is highlighting the enjoyability of reading a novel.  As the reading habits of others his age and background suggests, higher education did not generally invoke a passion in early American students to pursue learning for the love of it, instead they embraced novel reading as both educative and pleasurable. More generally, I think Tompkins’ defense of novel reading makes clear that whatever their more intimate and immediate purposes for young people during this period, novel reading often became—and still becomes for many young people—a steady habit, one that continued after  reading required for other purposes fell away. None of these men—unlike Tompkins himself who later became a Governor and then Vice President—would become particularly famous or well known in a field of endeavor in the early Republic, and most would lead lives that left little trace.  They all, however, seem to have made separate yet unquestionably linked decisions to embrace the reading of novels over other forms of improving intellectual pursuits that had formed a part of their formative education.

In an earlier post for this blog, I suggested that as scholars we have yet to consider what it would mean to develop a history of reading for pleasure instead of for purpose, or to develop a history of reading that did not place these two objectives in tension but, as these Columbia students did, instead in purposive relation.  Reading for pleasure is not an act of non-purposiveness but an act of a different purpose altogether.  The life of the mind does not solely originate in planned study and courses of reading, in the aggressively organized, disciplinary spaces of universities and learned sociability; it also develops in the intimate and complex relationships between individuals, texts, and lived experience that persist as much because of their often inexplicable enjoyability as their expressed purpose or lack thereof.

Rob Koehler is a PhD. candidate in English at New York University. He works at the intersections of education, literature, and publishing in early America, examining the political, legal, and cultural origins of schools and libraries as public institutions.

Religion in Late-Nineteenth Century American Life?

by contributing editor Yitzchak Schwartz


Gilded Age America saw an uptick in the construction of spaces like Boston’s Trinity Church. They are often referenced as expressions of their builders’ wealth and status, but what can they tell us about their religious lives and ideas?

Henry Adams (1838-1918) returned home from his Grand Tour in 1860 and came of age in American elite society as the American bourgeoisie underwent the most profound cultural, social and intellectual shifts it had experienced since the Revolution. A prominent historian and writer, and a grandson of Presidents John and John Quincy Adams, Adams’ posthumously published autobiography documented his experience of these changes. Among them he counted the disappearance of religion.

Of all the conditions of his youth which afterwards puzzled the grown-up man, this disappearance of religion puzzled him most. … The religious instinct had vanished, and could not be revived …. That the most powerful emotion of man, next to the sexual, should disappear, might be a personal defect of his own; but that the most intelligent society, led by the most intelligent clergy, in the most moral conditions he ever knew, should have solved all the problems of the universe so thoroughly as to have quite ceased making itself anxious about past or future  seemed to him the most curious social phenomenon he had to account for in a long life.—Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (1907)

The published claims of Adams and his contemporaries have led many historians of the late-nineteenth century to characterize the period as one of religious decline. This narrative is reflected in many foundational histories of the period, which see the Gilded Age as a time of secularization.  In his 1981 cultural history of late-late-nineteenth century antimodernism, historian T.J. Jackson Lears sees religion as taking on a primarily therapeutic rather than spiritual role during that time as Biblical Criticism, Darwinism and the social injustices wrought by industrial progress undermined religious authority. In The Feminization of American Culture (1977), Ann Douglas argues that the clergy became politically impotent as a result of the secularization of American life in the Gilded Age. Instead of focusing on politics, she argues, they turned their focus to the “feminine” arts and literature, abandoning efforts to speak to the American public on more pressing issues. Similarly, in his classic 1982 study of gilded age society and culture, historian Allen Trachtenberg references religion only as a source of division among the working classes and an arena of oppression for native Americans except for considering it marginally as an arena within the pursuit of culture and refinement. This narrative has deeply influenced more contemporary accounts of the period as well. In his 2003 cultural-economic history of the New York bourgeoisie, Sven Beckert only discusses religion in the context of arguing that the class transcended religious difference.

Many historians of the progressivism go even further in relegating religion at the sidelines of their narratives. Since the 1940s, historians of American religion have seen the social gospel, a late-nineteenth to early-twentieth century American religious movement that stressed social justice, as the progenitor of the progressive movement. Recent histories of the progressive era, however, do not consider religion as a force in the foundation of the progressive movement. Daniel T. Rodgers’1998 Atlantic Crossings, for example, which argues that American progressive movement was largely based on the importation of European ideas, does not consider the social gospel as a force in the movement. Many more recent works and textbooks on the progressive era similarly omit religion from their narratives. This can perhaps be partly explained by the fact that religion plays very little role in either of the two foundational studies of American progressivism, Richard Hofstadter’s 1955 Age of Reform and Robert Wiebe’s 1967 The Search for Order. More recent work on progressivism is reversing this trend. Ian Tyrell’s 2010 Reforming the World argues that American imperial expansion in the late-nineteenth century was an effort to “remake the world in terms of Protestant cultural values” that was inspired by progressive and social gospel politics. Most historians, however, continue to position religion as marginal in their work on American society and culture during the period.

This trend is unwittingly encouraged by the religious historical work on the period, which, since the 1970s, consists mainly of studies of the liberal and fundamentalist schism. Historians of American religion writing on the late-nineteenth century are primarily concerned with this period as the origins of fundamentalism. As a result, their work focuses on theologians’ reactions to scientific innovations such as Darwinism and Biblical criticism rather than religion’s place in the society and culture of the period.

How fair is this narrative of religious decline during the late nineteenth century? It is fair and accurate to argue that religion began to play a less vocal role in late nineteenth century bourgeois politics and that it occupied less time in the life of many bourgeois and working class individuals. As the historians cited above document, during this period many Americans Americans became more theologically liberal and embraced religious movements that demanded less time in Church and less restrictions outside of it. Religion certainly did not play the same kind of role it had in antebellum pro-slavery/ abolitionist politics. That said, according to sociologists Roger Finke and Rodney Stark’s 2005 study of American religious demography, the combined population of people affiliated with the three largest Protestant denominations— Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists–  in 1890 was close to fifteen million, almost a quarter of the population. This was a large market share increase from 1870 when it was close to seven million and only about seventeen percent of the population—despite that Catholics were a much smaller percentage of the population then. Lears and Douglas’ arguments that religious liberalism was a symptom of secularization do not preclude that many individuals still chose to affiliate with religious denominations. Discounting religion entirely from any narrative of late-nineteenth century culture, then, would seem unwarranted. Religion was very relevant to that society, even if its role in society changed.

screen-shot-2016-11-13-at-5-50-59-pmHenry Adams’ first cousin, the Episcopalian minister Phillips Brooks (1835-1893), is an example of a figure that can open a window onto how religion functioned in late-nineteenth century American society. Brooks was a scion of one of the richest families in Boston. His Unitarian parents converted to Episcopalianism when he was a boy, and after graduating from Harvard, Brooks pursued ordination and eventually was asked to lead Boston’s Trinity Church. Brooks’, a theological liberal with strong evangelical leanings, was one of the most popular preachers of his age and his published sermons were bestsellers. When he died, the City Council of Boston sponsored a small book chronicling his years in the city. Brooks did indeed live in a time of secularization. However, he had an avid following and his ideas and the ideas of similarly popular religious figures who lived at the same time can serve as valuable sources on nineteenth century thought and culture.

Historians ought to follow the lead of historians like Douglas and Lears, who explore the function and impact religious live and religious ideas in American society as it became more secular. This is a project that few recent scholars have engaged with. Many of the few studies that do this are studies of material culture. Historian Peter Williams, for example, argues that the nineteenth century gospel of wealth had a corollary in the gospel of art, which saw the wealthy as having a duty to patronize the arts in religious institutions. In her Material Christianity (1998), religious studies scholar Colleen McDannell explores how Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery reflected religious ideas about landscape.

For historians of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century material culture, the religious nature of their corpus is hard to ignore. During that period, Americans erected many of the country’s largest churches and religious monuments and produced a great deal of religious paintings, prints and works of decorative art. Historians who use written sources also stand to gain a great deal from considering religious texts from this period more carefully in their work, if not to challenge narratives of secularization, at least to enrich our understanding of its inner life.