Mobility in Context and the Global Intellectual

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. 


  1. A gorgeous post, full of bloggy goodness and things to meditate on. Two thoughts leap to mind. The first is a comment: many Warburgians were very aware of the circulation of ideas through space as well as through time, and at their richest, their studies embrace both perspectives. To read Rudolf Wittkower on ancient travelers and the creation of the tradition of monstrous races (“Marvels of the East: a study in the history of Monsters,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 5, 1942, 159-97) or Erwin Panofsky on how Piero di Cosimo used ancient ideas about the evolution of society, which he encountered in texts, and contemporary Netherlandish ways of representing landscape and people, which he encountered in painted form, is to see that their practice included more than the textual longue durée (and that they were well aware that movement can refashion ideas). The second is a question. I love the idea of the intellectual as Simmel’s Stranger, and it works wonderfully for your erudite travelers. But I wonder if travel had to take place literally for an early modern polymath to become such a Stranger. In an age when books also traveled in large numbers—including books from very alien worlds—and when reading itself was often experienced as a powerful, even wrenching experience, could a thinker’s context be transformed by the encounter with them? Could we think of Scaliger and Casaubon, Selden and Kircher as Strangers in their own way, changed not by actually exploring worlds outside the Europe they knew but by exploring texts that came from those worlds? Of course they didn’t abandon all of their preconceptions. But neither did most travelers. Coelum non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt, as the man said.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Dear Tony, thank you so much for your comments! I had a chance to look at the Wittkower and the Panofsky and I am again, not surprisingly, amazed at the wonderful things that come out of Warburg. The strengths of those two accounts reflect my own views about global history, which is that one need not use the explicit label of “global history” to accomplish the same ends. As to your point about travel: no! I completely agree that one need not physically move around to become a Stranger, though it certainly helps! Though I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, I believe this is the force behind Simon Schaffer’s “Newton on the Beach.”

      I discussed this idea briefly with Professor Beaver and I think one of the advantages to not relying on the mobility of the individuals alone, but also on the books and ideas themselves is that this is the space within which historical decisions are made over what gets transferred and what does not. What I mean is, if we take a learned traveller as a go-between, the locals who inhabit the contexts into which he/she moves don’t have a say over what aspects of his identity are potentially “strange.” He comes as he is, so to speak. But with encounters to migratory books, that’s where we might find actual negotiations over what gets adapted or ignored. And then we try and figure the reasons why. The strange things encountered via texts are the virtual go-betweens, like the Copernican models from my senior thesis research, although necessarily bound in material texts.


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