Categories
Virtual Issues

Non-Human Intellectual History: Virtual Issue 1.1

Looking back at Non-Human Intellectual History from the Journal of History of Ideas

Over its more than 80 years in print, the Journal of the History of Ideas has accumulated a pretty large archive. Oftentimes, that archive is representative of the history of intellectual history—its trends, priorities, methods. Sometimes, it involves scholarship that, by virtue of appearing once-in-a-while, cannot quite get either the visibility or the relevant context in which to be seen. 

With the Virtual Issues initiative on the JHIBlog, we propose to recall earlier articles from the JHI that fit with a particular subject or theme, and to place them in a new and current context. We do not pretend that the JHI could ever be comprehensive on these themes, and we are well aware of the limits of the journal’s success in addressing particular subjects. But as with every archive, all sorts of surprises await. With Virtual Issues, we bring out work that has some connection to current concerns, and to recall ways in which authors engaged a particular theme, including ways that may now be out of fashion but that are suggestive of past trends. Each Virtual Issue—the first being Nonhumans in Intellectual History, to appear in several installments—features an introduction that resituates these articles. Anyone interested in curating such an issue together with us should contact the lead JHIBlog editors with a proposal and a list of relevant articles. 

     — Stefanos Geroulanos, on behalf of the Executive Editors 


By Shuvatri Dasgupta

How can we think of nonhuman intellectual histories, in times such as ours, which has been rightly characterized as the Age of the Capitalocene? An attempt at defining what nonhuman intellectual history may look like as a discursive field within intellectual history and political thought, is a task akin to Penelope’s robe-making. It is a definition that needs to be continually made and unmade, until the well-being of all beings have been ensured. Much like Penelope who weaved in her attempt to buy time till the end of the Trojan war, we must weave till our climate crisis has been mitigated! The installments in this Virtual Issue on non-human intellectual histories, consisting of articles published in the Journal of History of Ideas, curated by the journal’s executive editor Stefanos Geroulanos, and introduced here by the blog’s primary editor Shuvatri Dasgupta, is one such initiative. Through these virtual issues on the JHI blog, we hope to provide some methodological indications of what nonhuman intellectual history may look like, and what its stakes would be. 

  • Chaplin, Joyce E. “Can the Nonhuman Speak?: Breaking the Chain of Being in the Anthropocene.” Journal of the History of Ideas 78, no. 4 (2017): 509-529. doi:10.1353/jhi.2017.0029
  • Shyovitz, David I. “Christians and Jews in the Twelfth-Century Werewolf Renaissance.” Journal of the History of Ideas 75, no.4 (2014): 521-43. doi:10.1353/jhi.2014.0033
  • Coen, Deborah R. “Big Is a Thing of the Past: Climate Change and Methodology in the History of Ideas.”  Journal of the History of Ideas 77, no. 2 (2016): 305-201. doi:  10.1353/jhi.2016.0019

Starting with an overview of the epistemicide of anthropocentrism, our introductory set of articles seek to ask and answer: Can the non-human think/speak? Joyce Chaplin’s article highlights, how the failure of intellectual historians to engage with non-textual archives in an attempt to take nonhuman cognition seriously, results from the history of the discipline itself, which took its present form by valorising text, and human speech. It is through this logocentric prism that the epistemic violence of anthropocentric intellectual histories have functioned. Richard Serjeantson’s article explores the debates on nonhuman speech, and shows us how European philosophers in medieval and early modern times grappled with deciphering how humans were different from and superior to other beings on earth. By historicising anthropocentrism and critiquing its textual and logocentric bias, these articles leave us with the firm conclusion that nonhumans can and must think and speak, alongside humans.  

How have we historically thought of the nonhuman?: Through an etymological excavation of the term ‘vampire’, Katherina Wilson’s article shows us how we can incorporate insights from comparative philology, and linguistics, within the field of nonhuman intellectual history. Similarly, Steven Nadler’s article has indicated how both literature and philosophy can shape the writing of nonhuman intellectual history, by juxtaposing the works of Descartes and Cervantes’. Similarly, David Shyovitz in his article, illustrates how humans have thought with, and thought through, the nonhuman-ness of nonhumans, by looking at constructions of monstrosity in relation to werewolves within Christian and Jewish polemics from late twelfth century Northern Europe. Lastly, directly intervening into the debates on methodology, Deborah Coen’s article illustrates how nonhuman histories, and more broadly, histories of climate change, must take into account seemingly incommensurable temporalities, and spatialities. Written over a span of four decades, this set of articles illustrate the diachronic development of our ecological crisis, by tracing how articles by historians such as Wilson, Shyowitz, Steven, and Serjeantson, have culminated into the questions posed by Coen, and Chaplin, and addressed by us in this forum. 

In an attempt to center the nonhuman and chart out a space for conceptualizing their intellectual histories, this forum will also bring to light gaping holes in the existing intellectual history scholarship. In this introductory section, it is imperative to point out  that historians of ideas have not taken into account the question of political economy, during their engagement with the climate crisis, and nonhuman histories, as can be seen in this small set we have curated here. Simply put these articles do not ask: how did capitalism bring about the present environmental crisis?  By overlooking the question of capital, they have only partially traced the causality of anthropocentrism, and have downplayed its potential for epistemic violence. In an attempt to address this, in my research, I argue that the unhappy consciousness of the dialectic of colonial capitalism manifests through a lack of care (yatna) for the humans and nonhumans within the household, in colonial India. Similarly Milinda Banerjee and Jelle Wouters look at how histories of multispecies beings and their thoughts on social and political organization, hitherto obscured by the vampire-like tendencies of capital, can actually help us conceptualize mutually interdependent ways of being. David Wengrow in his global historical exploration of monsters argued that they originate in human cognition in response to, and alongside urbanization, and cosmopolitan trade networks. 

What defines the ‘human’, and differentiates it from those beings that are not humans? How do we move beyond anthropocentrism, and start thinking with them, for writing nonhuman intellectual histories? What would those multi species and multibeing histories look like? How can we imagine a methodological framework for hearing, translating, and comprehending the nonhuman? In this task, our pathway has to be interdisciplinary, as we learn from anthropologists, and biologists, amongst others. Eduardo Kohn in his monograph shows us how human thought on forests is informed by ways in which forests actually think. Similarly, Marisol De La Cadena in her soul stirring work shows us ways in which we can move beyond the human, by thinking with Quechua concepts such as “earth beings”. Merlin Sheldrake’s study of fungal organization, Thomas Van Dooren’s attempt to think with crows, all provide inspiring indications of what a nonhuman history of ideas might look like.

In the following installments of this forum, we intend to delve deeper into these questions, and reflect upon the adequacies and inadequacies of the existing scholarship, in our collective attempt to chart out a framework for imagining nonhumans as actors within their own (hi)stories.  


Shuvatri Dasgupta received a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in History from Presidency University, Kolkata, India. She was also an exchange student and Charpak Fellow at Sciences Po Paris (Reims campus), studying for a certificate programme in European Affairs and B1 French. She is the editor of the Journal of History of Ideas blog, and a doctoral candidate in the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge, funded by the Cambridge Trust and Rajiv Gandhi Foundation Fellowship. Her doctoral dissertation is tentatively titled “A History of Conjugality: On Patriarchy, Caste, and Capital, in the British Empire c.1872-1947”. Her general research interests include global history, gender history, intellectual history and political thought, histories of empire, histories of capitalism, Marxist and Marxist-Feminist theory, and critical theory. For the academic year of 2021-22 she is the convenor of the research network ‘Grammars of Marriage and Desire’ (GoMAD) supported by CRASSH, Cambridge, and the Histories of Race Graduate Workshop, at the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge.

One reply on “Non-Human Intellectual History: Virtual Issue 1.1”

Honestly, I never knew there was a non-human intellectual history. For eighty years? Or more? So, who ARE the nonhuman intellectuals? And, how do we know? Are you folks just pulling our leg here? Sometimes, for a laugh, I sign off on an email with AMPI. Those initials are for a Midwest public intellectual. My friends and associates get a hoot out of it, because where we live and or work, there are precious few public intellectuals. And the public does not care. Well, carry on. We wish you well.

Leave a Reply