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.

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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.  

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