Think Piece

Can we do this in English? Scandinavian Idéhistorie and the Language Question

By Guest Contributor Vigdis Andrea Evang

By Vigdis Andrea Evang

Who has not, at some point, been frustrated by a language barrier? An article with a tantalizing abstract in English but no translation; a Spanish book reviewed in Italian; a 19th-century German-language tome hiding, somewhere within its vast bulk, just the one date you need… In moments of frustration like these, we often ask ourselves why anyone would publish a brilliant piece of scholarship in a language inaccessible to most of their colleagues. What use is an article in Bulgarian, say, to me? Why not just publish in English?

As I set out to write about idéhistorie, the Scandinavian cousin to English-language intellectual history, I will display works and publications ensconced behind a particular language barrier, one which allows for Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian to communicate while holding most other languages at bay. In doing so, I intend to familiarize the Anglophone reader with a field that has grown on the other side of that barrier, shielded there the way a wall may shield a garden from the wind. Today, the increased use of English opens breaches in that barrier, allowing more people access – but, perhaps, putting the garden at risk.

What, then, is idéhistorie? What is its relation to intellectual history? What the two disciplines share is a propensity to raise just that question, searching for a self-definition without necessarily arriving at a definitive answer. Idéhistorie has been used to refer to a vast vestige of the old university Bildung: a vibrant and venerable branch of the history of science, a critique of modernity, a high school subject, a student-led Marxist initiative in the spirit of ’68, a useful master’s degree for aspiring journalists and editors, and finally whatever one imagines Michel Foucault was doing, as the latter is frequently given the epithet idéhistoriker; one who practices idéhistorie (In fact, Foucault is technically a failed idéhistoriker, as his doctoral thesis at the University of Uppsala was rejected by professor of idéhistorie Sven Lindroth).

If the above description seems more eclectic than most, it is because it refers to not one scholarly tradition but several. Idéhistorie is practiced throughout the Nordic countries in related yet different ways. It emerged in Sweden first, then Norway, then Denmark (I regret I cannot discuss Finland here; the Scandinavian languages are mutually intelligible and form a language spectrum, whereas Finnish comes from a different language group). However eclectic, all forms of idéhistorie share an interest in past thought, in the ways how people have sought to understand the world. As a student, I learned that an idéhistoriker should make the unfamiliar familiar, seeking to understand past ways of thinking now foreign to us, and thereby make the familiar unfamiliar, denaturalizing the givens of the world of today.

To summarize the approach of idéhistorie, if we want to understand something, we should look less at how it is defined and more at how it has been and is currently being practiced. However, before we consider the paths idéhistorie took in the Scandinavian countries, it is necessary to clarify how similar and how different the three languages are.

By analogy, the relationship between Norwegian and Swedish can be compared to that between Scots and English. In this analogy, Norwegian would be Scots, as it is the smaller and historically the less institutionally grounded language. Norwegian and Danish have a relationship not unlike that of modern English to the way English was written in the 18th century. Norwegians historically used Danish as a written language and, from the 19th century onwards, instituted a series of language reforms. The speakers of each language can understand each other with relative ease. This intelligibility allows for the existence of a radio program likeNorsken, svensken og dansken, in which a Swedish, a Norwegian, and a Danish journalist discuss current events, each from their particular point of view, for a mixed Scandinavian audience. The boundaries between the three languages are fuzzy.

Regarding idéhistorie, when the journal Lychnos was first published in 1936, serving as a yearbook for the field of idéhistoria in Sweden, it was with clear inspiration from history of ideas as practiced in the US. Its reach surpassed national borders, as the Scandinavian language spectrum allows for a wider readership than the national one. However, despite this connection, the development of idéhistorie in Norway and Denmark would follow quite a different path from that of Sweden.

In Sweden, from its inception in the 1930s, idéhistoria was closely connected to the history of science. Anton Jansson writes of idéhistoria in its early period as “a relatively broadly conceived discipline, with connections to positivist history of science as well as hermeneutic historiography.” He adds that “a literary but accessible style was expected from a budding idéhistoriker” and that many found their place as public intellectuals. This type of idéhistoria was particularly representative of the University of Uppsala. In Lund, the professor of theoretical philosophy Gunnar Aspelin practiced a more historically grounded approach to his field than the analytical approach of most of his colleagues. Through him, Swedish idéhistoria gained a connection to the history of philosophy; an element, as we shall see, much more present in Norway and Denmark than in Sweden.

In Norway, the first professor of idéhistorie did not have a background in philosophy but in European literature. Andreas H. Winsnes became a professor of idéhistorie in 1946. His aim was to counter the positivist-adjacent turn taking place in the philosophy department and to preserve a classical European university education in which Christianity and Antiquity played a pivotal role. From this rather conservative starting point, idéhistorie in Norway later maintained its critique of modernity while changing its ideological tenor. By the time the journal Arr (“Scar”) was created in 1989, idéhistorie had become a place where students read Lyotard, Foucault, and McLuhan on the dissolution of modernity.

In its shift to the left among idéhistorikere, Denmark went further than Norway. The appointment of the theologian Johannes Sløk as professor of idéhistorie at the University of Aarhus in 1967 similarly took place against a backdrop of an analytical turn in the philosophy department, which intellectual history was meant to balance or counter. However, this kind of classical Bildung clashed with the spirit of 1968. By 1972, Marx was an obligatory reading, and Sløk took a leave of absence. When he returned in 1974, it was not to decide the ideological profile of his department but to teach Kierkegaard. In 1983, when idéhistorie struggled to stay afloat, the journal Slagmark (“Battlefield”) was created. There, Habermas and Lyotard first appeared in the Danish translation: a sign of changing times.

What does this short survey of the history of the discipline in the three countries tell us? First, there is a great deal of variety within this area of study; more, I believe, than many Scandinavian idéhistorikere are aware of. Second, idéhistorie is a field of long-standing and deep roots, one which is more frequently associated with philosophy than with history departments – even as it defines itself in opposition to the former. Consequently, in Scandinavia, it would not be unusual to invite “historikere og idéhistoriere” to attend a conference. In Anglophone academia, it would make less sense to invite “historians and intellectual historians.” Idéhistorie is very much its own discipline.

Another thread to pick out from this short history of idéhistorie is that which connects the journals Lychnos, Slagmark, and Arr. As language is much under consideration in this essay, and as much has been made of the linguistic overlap between the Scandinavian languages, the reader might wonder whether these journals live up to expectations and publish in their neighboring languages. Indeed, they do, though they could stand to do it more often. Yet that is not the most intriguing thing about them.

Lychnos, as a yearbook, is a useful window into the world of Swedish idéhistoria, as it includes not only articles and book reviews but also descriptions of PhD dissertations. One finds the most English here out of the three journals, including abstracts and some articles in the language. Lychnos is usually, but not always, themed. Last year’s issue was dedicated to the baroque, the one before that to Latin America and Europe, preceded by internationalization. The Danish journal Slagmark appears more frequently, always with a given theme. The last few issues have been dedicated to medievalism, the materiality of the life sciences, and Karl Marx. Norwegian Arr, too, has themed editions, offering its readers such diverse topics as education, travel, the countryside, emotions, and the pig.

While the reader will hopefully be able to discern something of the tone and tenor of these publications, this is not the most interesting thing about them either. Their most intriguing trait is that they are read by people who are not academics.

Let us return to the question that I opened this essay with: what use is an article most academics cannot read? While an article in Bulgarian may be of no use to me or one in Norwegian of no use to my Bulgarian colleague, this, I believe, is looking at the situation from the wrong angle. Rather than ask what use an article is to us, we should ask what use it is to readers of Norwegian and Bulgarian – most of whom are not academics. The humanities cannot thrive in a closed circuit, passing from one academic to the next. What good does it do society if a small, isolated group is highly knowledgeable about its past?

To fill their public function, humanists must be able and encouraged to make themselves accessible to the public. “The public” is not some nebulous mass but consists of many groups of people who read and listen to certain things through certain channels, in certain languages. This need not be prohibitive. Journals with a close connection to academic and non-academic audiences in a smaller language than English can allow English-speaking scholars, too, to reach those audiences through translation. When Lychnos functions as a nexus for idéhistoria in Sweden, or Arr receives an award for its style and accessibility, that is a potential boon for all who publish there, no matter what their first language might be.

Even if we were all to agree that it is best to write both in English and our many other languages, we should choose which language to use for each publication only after careful consideration of who will benefit the most from reading it. Even if we were all to pledge to translate more often and explore the many gardens half-hidden by language barriers, it is not enough to appeal to the virtue of individuals when larger forces are in play.

Nobody is calling for abolishing all languages but the lingua academica. Yet smaller languages may still lose ground as academics feel a growing pressure to publish in renowned international journals – that is, almost invariably in English. The ability to write academically in one’s first language is not inherent but a skill that must be cultivated and maintained. If academics become incapable of expressing themselves in a given language, that language will suffer the lack. No idéhistoriker is blind to the importance of concepts, nor are intellectual historians deaf to the relevance of language. Do we think it is unimportant whose words must be italicized?

The increased use of English in an era of digital connection means there are now many formerly secret gardens to explore. The precedents we set now, the practices we adopt, are likely to cast long shadows. There is a danger; that a future generation of English-speaking academics will find themselves cut off from many of the societies they are supposed to serve, unaware of the loss that has taken place just on the other side of the linguistic garden wall. The possibility is that of opening a door in that wall, connecting without destroying.

Vigdis Andrea Evang is a PhD Researcher at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy.

Edited by Artur Banaszewski

Featured Image: Geiranger in der Tiefe. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Leave a Reply