by Maryam Patton
If ideas are the most migratory things in the world, as Arthur O. Lovejoy suggested in 1940, then why have intellectual historians proven less eager to adopt the precepts of global history in comparison to their colleagues in other disciplines? In a recent essay, David Armitage posits that it has something to do with intellectual history’s origins as a discipline inherently international in scope. For instance, early modern debates in the history of ideas often held that ideas were independent of their origin. The Warburg Institute was established in the 1940s with a view towards history that emphasized studying the ways in which texts (among other things) travelled across linguistic and cultural borders. And figures like the Austrian O. Neugebauer worked tirelessly to show that Hellenistic science, often viewed as a uniquely Greek development, also grew out of a Near Eastern tradition. As richly contextualizing and important as these kinds of studies were, they were usually diachronic studies highlighting the diversity of our intellectual heritage over lengthy periods of time.
By contrast, when historians today refer to the global turn, the implication is less a concern with charting change through time, than with change in time but through space. This is true even within particular flavors of global history, be it transnational, comparative or international. Naturally there is a rich debate over what these categories constitute. Armitage prefers international turn as the umbrella category. I prefer global since international, by its very name, presumes the existence of national entities, and calls to mind the whole separate discipline of diplomatic history. So as flattering as it may be to suggest that intellectual historians were doing it all along, in reality the considerable differences between the earlier diachronic and modern synchronic approaches warrant another explanation for modern intellectual history’s lukewarm response towards the global.
Another possibility is the view that intellectual history is more immaterial than other sub-disciplines. As a result, this makes it more difficult to track the transmission and exchange of ideas than it is to track to the movement of goods and peoples. But this assumption ignores the advancements made by the history of books and their readers, and the social dimensions associated with the history of printing like commercial utility. Furthermore, the history of science might be considered only slightly more material than the history of ideas, particularly in the early modern period, and yet it has already produced a variety of responses to the global question. The current dominant method within global history of science is the metaphor of circulation.
Circulation seeks to correct earlier Eurocentric perspectives, which largely asserted that modern science emerged ex nihilo in the West and spread outward from center to periphery. It promotes a geography of knowledge suggesting modern science developed along bidirectional paths of transmission. Furthermore, this science was not just passively adopted in the ‘periphery’ as if it were a tabula rasa, but underwent active transformations via local knowledge and practice. Much of the recent historiography in Atlantic and imperial history, which shares many concerns with global history, argues along a similar trajectory. Circulation goes beyond a simple geographic model of mobility and strives to show that knowledge was fashioned by its circulating. In a sense, circulation was not just the relocation of knowledge that had been produced previously in a separate context; the very act of circulating was what ultimately fashioned the universal science we recognize today.
This emphasis on mobility is a common feature of global history more generally beyond the history of science. It illustrates my comments above concerning the tendency for global history to hold time relatively still while examining the density of movement (or lack thereof) within various geographic zones. But as Armitage rightly points out, spatial metaphors like circulation
do not indicate any substantive engagement with questions of space and place. They are instead shorthand indications that ideas lack material determinants and that they need to be placed into contexts construed almost entirely as temporal and linguistic, not physical or spatial. (Armitage, “The International Turn in Intellectual History,” 240)
It is this struggle over how to account for context that poses the greatest challenge for intellectual historians wishing to engage with the global turn. While global history strives to undo the notion that national boundaries dictate the limits of spatial contexts, it hasn’t proposed a suitable alternative. And if ultimately what is meant by ‘global context’ amounts to concentric circles of geographic space that grow until they encompass the whole of earth, then perhaps it isn’t surprising that intellectual historians have simply carried on as usual, never hindered in the first place by the emphasis on national boundaries. I am nevertheless optimistic that the issues surrounding context will find a solution in the near future, but I think it will come about not by questioning what global history can offer intellectual history, rather what intellectual history can offer global history.
As immaterial as an idea may seem, it always begins in the mind of an individual embedded in a particular place. (Anthony Grafton, “The Power of Ideas” in A Concise Companion to History, 358.) Yet as an intellectual historian-in-training, I find we often strive to downplay the centrality of these individuals in our narratives. It strikes me that one way to push the envelope for defining the global context would be to historicize the very idea of such a context in the minds of global individuals. These could be the learned travellers from my own research, such as Edward Pococke or John Greaves, cultural intermediaries like ambassadors, go-betweens like the Ottoman translators known as dragomans, or any number of figures who moved between cultural contexts, picking up bits and pieces here and there and carrying those contextual understandings with them. Like Georg Simmel’s phenomenon of The Stranger, these individuals signify someone who “is fixed within a particular spatial group…but his position in this group is determined, essentially, by the fact that he has not belonged to it from the beginning, that he imports qualities into it, which do not and cannot stem from the group itself.” Intellectual history is well equipped to study such strangers in order to uncover how self-conscious they were of their global identity, and to uncover those qualities which moved with them on their journeys. Those qualities would have emerged from the subtle impressions made on them as they moved through contexts, like the relief on a page out of a letterpress. The impressions could then reveal the contexts that created them.
Further reading: This was a necessarily brief reflection on global history’s potential role for intellectual historians. For more comprehensive studies, see in particular the Journal of the History of Idea’s volume on “Intellectual History in a Global Age,” Carol Gluck and Anna Lowenhaupt-Tsing’s edited volume Words in Motion, and David Bell’s article criticizing the overuse of network theory.
Maryam Patton is a first-year MPhil student at the University of Oxford studying the early modern intellectual history of Europe and the Near East. She is particularly interested in the ways books and ideas moved between cultures, especially those concerning the history of astronomy, and her dissertation focuses on 17th-century British Orientalism.