Author: jhiblog

Norse fantasies and American foundings

By Editor Derek Kane O’Leary

Leif photo

The monumental, bronze face of Leif Erikson gazes westward from Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue toward the nearby Charles River, which wends by Cambridge toward its modest source in Hopkinton. Since 1887, Leif has towered there as a pioneer in contrapposto, powerful, jaunty, and lightly arrayed in a nineteenth-century rendition of Medieval chic. Leif’s red sandstone pedestal rests on the prow of a diminutive knorr, the infamous Norse vessel of commerce and warmaking. In Old Norse runes, “Leif the Lucky, son of Erik” is engraved on the block’s front. On its back, in English, “Leif the Discoverer, Son of Erik, who sailed from Iceland and landed on this continent, AD 1000.” On one side of the block, Leif in miniature holds the same pose atop the craggy shore of the New World, as his crew clambers behind him. We peer out with him upon the continent. As the late nineteenth century contemplated the eleventh, we contemplate both from the twenty-first.

Leif stands along the central axis of the entrancing neighborhood of Back Bay. Lined with manicured Victorian brownstone houses, shaded by its nineteenth-century elms, Back Bay is the version of Boston that travel guides feature and visitors seek out. A mile away, a row of monuments begins at the Boston Commons. An imposing equestrian statue of George Washington heads a series of significant Bostonians–Phillis Wheatley, William Lloyd Garrison, Samuel Eliot Morrison, among others. The monumental path ends with Argentinian President Domingo Faustino Sarmiento and the Norseman, Leif.

The statue owes much to Eben Norton Horsford, an outstanding nineteenth-century American chemist and Harvard professor, who in his last decades immersed himself in the history and archaeology of the area. With the considerable wealth generated from his chemical patents (including a reformulation of baking soda and lucrative Civil War contracts with the government), he commissioned, donated, and dedicated the statue of Leif with great fanfare in the nearly-completed Back Bay. At the dedication, elite Bostonians, Scandinavian societies, and eager lookers-on heard celebratory speeches at  Fanueil Hall before proceeding across the city to the statue’s unveiling. With this, Horsford realized what a coterie of like-minded Bostonians had dreamed of over the preceding decade (a fine discussion of the creation, form, and reception of the statue, here).

But why should late nineteenth-century Brahmins be so compelled by an eleventh-century Norseman? Horsford was convinced that Leif had once alighted on Boston’s shores. In nearby Watertown (a short walk from Horsford’s own home), Leif would have planted the obscure settlement of Norumbega, whose location had been a mystery to scholars for centuries. Horsford wrote several books on local archaeology, which superimposed this story of Medieval European settlement onto Boston’s backyard. (As Patricia Jane Roylance insightfully explains, he reinterpreted a local landscape through the prism of Norse settlement, placing the mundane within this compelling past.) Leif became the metonymy for this settlement and the alternative hemispheric history that it furnished.

In the late nineteenth century, it was not a uniquely Boston or Brahmin phenomenon to announce the Norse as the first European settlers of North America, at some beachhead or another on the jagged coast between Newfoundland and New England. The American fascination with the antecolumbian Norse settlement emerged earlier, cultivated by the Dane Carl Christian Rafn, the guiding force of Denmark’s Royal Society of Northern Antiquaries. From the society’s founding in 1825, Rafn built a network of American readers in key literary and scientific institutions along the East Coast. He also undertook an extended publicity campaign about his research into the Norse settlement of North America.

John farmer certificate

Carefully preserved, the large 1838 recognition of leading American genealogist John Farmer’s membership in Denmark’s Royal Nordic Society of Northern Antiquaries, led by Carl Christian Rafn. It represents the paper rituals that connected historians and antiquarians around the Atlantic, as well as the cachet that Rafn’s institution and its version of antecolumbian Norse settlement attained in the antebellum U.S. Over the years, Rafn was also inducted as corresponding member in many, including the American Antiquarian Society and the New England Historic Genealogical Society.

One of his many correspondents, New Hampshire historian-genealogist John Farmer received word from Rafn in 1828 via the Danish minister resident in the U.S. Farmer was the seminal American genealogist of the nineteenth century. His years of soliciting masses of dispersed biographical data from a network of eager, meticulous New Englanders coalesced into his 1829 Genealogical Register of the First Settlers of New England. Farmer was obsessed with situating his contemporaries vis-à-vis their puritan progenitors, “those who first landed on the bleak and inhospitable shores of New England” (iii). However, Rafn’s claim about a far older and non-English historical narrative resonated with him. “From a very early period of our history,” he responded to Rafn, “it has been the opinion of some of our learned men that America was known to Europeans long before it was discovered by Columbus…but materials for such a work being few at that time in our country, and there being but little intercourse between our learned men and the learned bodies in Europe, the work was necessarily small and imperfect.”

Rafn's Mass Bay

Carl Christian Rafn’s 1841 Supplement to his Antiquitates Americanae, which depicts Massachusetts and Rhode Island within the sweep of the Norse’s Vinland colony.

For Farmer and others, this moving Norse past could displace the narrative of American founding anchored in Columbus’ voyages and the depredations of Spanish colonialism. Through his correspondence and eventual publication of Antiquitates Americana in 1837, the Dane introduced Farmer and a range American history writers and readers to this counter-narrative of the hemisphere.

Longfellow's skeleton

Walter Crane, “The Skeleton in Armour” (1883). “Four sketches, ink and graphite on board, for a six-panel mural frieze designed for Catherine Lorillard Wolfe as a room decoration for Vinland, her Scandinavian-style house at Newport, Rhode Island.” (Beinecke Rare Book and Manscript Library). Rafn projected the lost Norse colony of Vinland over the familiar landscape of New England, inspiring New Englanders to imagine a new history for themselves. In his 1841 poem “The Skeleton in Armor”, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow recast Newport Tower, a colonial windmill in Rhode Island, as a Medieval Norse edifice (center-left). Before it, an armor-clad skeleton previously unearthed in nearby Fall River, Massachusetts is reanimated as a medieval Norse settler. (For most contemporaries, the skeleton was clearly an indigenous American.)

American children watched the Norse sail into their schoolbooks in the 1840s as the first European settlers of the continent, among other firsts (see figure 2). Into the 1850s, audiences pondered prolific lecturer Asahel Davis’s query: “it is not a laudable curiosity that leads one to ascertain what white men first trod regions in which the modest wild flower waster its sweetness on the desert air?” Emanuel Leutze, famed German-American artist “Washington’s Crossing” (1851), “Departure of Columbus from Palos (1855), and “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way” (1860), preceded those dramatic passages of American history with another: “The Landing of the Northmen” in 1845 (since disappeared, it seems). After the Civil War, historians along New England’s coast disputed the location of Norumbega. Yet in all such expressions of national history, Leif’s endeavors along the early eleventh-century New England coast could predate Columbus on the first page of national history: the first European born on the continent, the first Christian mission to the natives, the first commercial exchange and productive use of the land–all pivotal moments in the narrative of seventeenth-century puritan settlement, too.

Norse landing

In his 1844 Pictorial History of the United States, secondary school educator John Front positioned Norsemen in tableaux paradigmatic of the seventeenth-century Puritan colonies on those very shores.

All agreed that the Norse settlement of America was fleeting, leaving no human lineage on the continent. The New England settlers documented by Farmer remained the genealogical touchstones that many Americans turned to. Nonetheless, American historians, authors, artists, and audiences could conscript the Norse into their national story. Through the second half of the century, the early Christianity and seemingly free government of the Norse were increasingly cast as historical antecedents to the founding of the Anglo-Saxon nation, which for nineteenth-century readers seemed destined to steward world history forward.

At the 1887 celebration of Leif’s statue, Harper’s Weekly mused that in his gaze gleamed the

prophetic of the future, of the later republic founded by kinsmen of the Icelanders, who for love of liberty dared the harshness of the bleak New England, as the Norsemen before them had braved the rigors of that uninhabited Iceland, with its geysers and jokuls, in the ninth century, to establish their republic of law and letters. The knit brow and noble bearing of Leif tell not only of the firm resolve and daring of the explorer, but also that he was a worthy forerunner of the Pilgrims.

Here, the Norse are placed in the Pilgrim mold, and the Pilgrims are themselves depicted as intrepid, freedom-seeking individuals (as opposed to long-standing critiques of their religious extremism). Horsford argued as much himself, lauding that Leif’s “ancestry were of the early pilgrims or Puritans who, to escape oppression, emigrated 50,000 of them in sixty years from Norway to Iceland, just as the early Pilgrims came to Plymouth” (quoted in this fascinating discussion of the broader appeal of Medieval history and aesthetics in the second half of the century, by Robin Fleming). If this late nineteenth-century depiction of New England’s settler generation could be used to rarefy the image of rapacious Norsemen, the revision of Norse identity could also affirm the values and identity espoused by Americans claiming descent from it. More specifically, as Fleming argues, it linked a socially, culturally, and racially-select cohort of the living to an imagined Teutonic past, conceived as the Old World origin of the exceptional institutions and ideals brought to fruition in the U.S.

Back bay in 1857

View of Back Bay, to the upper left, from the dome of the Massachusetts State House in 1857.

Alongside this longer transatlantic intellectual tradition and historical revisionism, three decades of colossal land reclamation had made Leif’s 1887 placement in Back Bay possible. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Boston’s population strained both the capacity of its scant landmass and, with the influx of impoverished Irish immigrants, the sensibilities of the native-born Protestants population. In Back Bay, city planners and proponents envisioned an orderly suburb that would staunch the migration of affluent Protestant Bostonians beyond the Charles River and craft a physically and morally pristine space within Boston. In its special planning committee’s words, the neighborhood would “secure upon the premises a healthy and thrifty population and business, and by inherent and permanent causes, forever to prevent this territory from becoming the abode of filth and disease” (In Stephen Puleo, City So Grand : The Rise of an American Metropolis, Boston, 1850-1900, Beacon Press, 2010, 87-88). Stately, rectilinear streets were laid over six hundred acres of formerly fetid, briny tidal basin to house the city’s Anglo-Protestant elite. Much of the labor was performed by the very immigrants Back Bay was supposed to be purified of. As Back Bay neared completion and Leif’s statue appeared in 1887, a new influx of diverse European immigrants to the region stoked old racial and class anxieties. Many of these were Italians, who could claim some lineage with Columbus as the quadricentennial of his landing in Hispaniola approached. In contrast to them, Scandinavian immigrants appeared the “fairest among the so-called white races”, having “been trained to industry, frugality and manly self-reliance by the free institutions and the scant resources of their native lands” (Professor H.H. Boyeson, “The Scandinavian in the United States,” North American Review, Nov., 1892).

When Horsford convened the Bostonian elite to sanctify Leif’s statue and the historical arc it embodied, he aligned this rendition of the nation’s past with the geographic reimagination of ethnicity and class within the city.  In Leif, a version of the nation’s past coincided with the meaning embedded in that contemporary urban geography.

Back Bay disentangled the local Anglo-American and Protestant elite from a city transformed by the influx of struggling Irish and, by late century, Italian and Eastern European immigrants. And the statue consecrated a historical arc from Leif the New England settler, through the seventeenth-century colonists, and toward the individuals embedded in that very neighborhood.

Many thanks to Brendan Mackie for his thoughtful editing of this.

From our archive: Personal Philology

by guest contributor Richard Calis (April 2015)

For those who care to look closely enough, the world of early modern philology has many treats in store. Contrary to its reputation as nit-picking, dull scholarship, philology is in fact a discipline full of love, strife, passion and emotion. One such passionate and dedicated, yet now sadly unknown practitioner was Pieter Fontein (1708-1788). A student of the renowned Dutch philologist Tiberius Hemsterhuis in Leiden, Fontein became a teacher at the Mennonite Church in Amsterdam in 1739 and would remain so until his death some fifty years later. Over his career, Fontein amassed an impressive collection of Latin and Greek classics, all of which he bequeathed to his church, except for a small group of related books on the Greek philosopher Theophrastus. It is this collection of forty-three Theophrastiana (currently in the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam) that brings back to life the philological achievements of a scholar who never made it into the annals of classical philology.

Casaubon's annotated copy of Theophrastus. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM: Hs VII D17.

Casaubon’s annotated copy of Theophrastus. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM: Hs VII D17.

It is still unclear when exactly Fontein amassed his books, but our story begins in 1754, when he was spending his days reading a rather special book from the collection of the then-famous botanist and Professor of Anatomy Willem Röell (1700-1775). The book that Fontein found so absorbing was a 1542 edition of Theophrastus’ Opera Omnia, printed at the famous Froben press in Basel. Moreover, the book was nothing less than a working copy of that great Theophrastus scholar Isaac Casaubon (1559-1614), who, over a century earlier, had adorned its pages with numerous notes and annotations.

In 1591, Casaubon had published his own edition of Theophrastus’ Characteres, a lively set of character sketches known for its problematic text and manuscript transmission yet also the philosopher’s most popular work. Ever since, Casaubon was known to the world of scholarship as the single most important authority on Theophrastus, a reputation that was not lost on Fontein. In fact, the primary reason that Fontein took an interest in Röell’s book was because of Casaubon’s marginal notes. This, at least, is suggested by the way in which Fontein treated them: when he went to examine the book, Fontein bought and brought with him his own clean copy of the same 1541 edition —no mean feat more than two centuries after its publication— and herein copied nearly every single annotation that Casaubon had left in his book. For pages on end, Fontein faithfully transcribed Casaubon’s notes in his own beautifully regular eighteenth-century hand.

Casaubon's notes. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM: Hs VII D17.

Casaubon’s marginal notes. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM: Hs VII D17.

Fontein's transcription of Casaubon's notes. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM: Hs VII D19.

Fontein’s transcription of Casaubon’s annotations. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM: Hs VII D19.














We may pause for a moment to appreciate the great intimacy of this —to my knowledge— unique practice of relocating marginalia from an annotated copy to a pristine one. To Fontein, these were not only notes explicating a text, but also the material evidence of the reading and annotating practice of one of his greatest predecessors. We know of scholars who organized their information in commonplace books but buying a two hundred year old edition to copy notes in was not everyday practice; not even for Fontein, whose book collection does not seem to include any other such inscribed copies. It will come as little surprise then that Fontein would even go on to buy Röell’s book in 1767, when the latter found himself in rough financial waters. After all, a transcription of Casaubon’s annotations was surely no replacement for the original.

By then, Fontein had steadily collected more and more Theophrastus editions dating from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Some of them were densely annotated. This collecting spree was undoubtedly aimed at gathering every bit of information on Theophrastus that was available. As another copy from his library attests, Fontein was concurrently working on his own edition of the Characteres, Originally, he drafted his material in a small, handy octavo reprint of Casaubon’s edition, published in Cambridge in 1712. Yet today it can hardly be recognized as such: the edition is now completely interleaved with huge folio-sized pages, all of them awash with Fontein’s corrections, notes and interpretations. From these ‘additions’, one can observe how he continuously reworked the text. Fontein crossed out sentences, rewrote entire paragraphs, emended or explicated words, and crammed new notes in the margins of the margins. There are at least four drafted introductions to the work and its author, some prolegomena and countless comments and notes on the Greek; horror vacui takes on a whole new meaning.

Fontein's working notes on Theophrastus. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM Hs. XVI A5.

Fontein’s working notes on Theophrastus. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM Hs. XVI A5.

Sadly, the project came to nothing, as Fontein died before its completion. But even in his final days, the philologist’s passion for the project burned steadily. In his will —made in 1769, specified in 1775, and now in the Amsterdam City Archives— Fontein gifted all his books to the Mennonite Church with the sole exception of the Theophrastiana, which he wanted to keep to himself. We can almost see how the elderly Fontein with only a handful of necessary books unceasingly fine-tuned his views on a notoriously elusive text, while continuously adding new material to his already massive commentary. Again and again he kept revising, never gave up, and continually worked on a more accurate edition, with Theophrastus on his mind and his cherished Casaubon on his desk. What a character he was.

Richard Calis is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in history at Princeton University. He has worked for Annotated Books Online (ABO)—which provides online access to three of Fontein’s books— and is predominantly interested in books and their readers, antiquarianism, and the history of scholarship. His dissertation offers a microhistory of Martin Crusius (1526-1607) and his ethnographic interests in the Ottoman Greek world.


‘The Pins, the Joints, the Binding’: Textual Materiality and ‘Encyclopaedic Forms’

By guest contributor Marianne Brooker

Material textuality has been both the condition and the limit for encyclopaedism throughout its long history. Ephraim Chambers’ alphabetised Cyclopaedia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences loomed large over the efforts of later compilers. It was first published in two extra-large volumes in 1728, then republished six times before Abraham Rees produced an enlarged five-volume edition between 1778 and 1788. Later, in the British romantic period, revisionary takes on the scope, shape and function of the encyclopaedia reached a fever pitch. By 1819, Rees’ Cyclopaedia had reached thirty-nine volumes; it was completed in 1820, having reached a staggering forty-five volumes. The fifth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica was completed in 1817 in twenty volumes; eleven volumes of Brewster’s Edinburgh Encyclopaedia had been published by 1817, to be completed in 1830 in eighteen volumes; and the second edition of the Encyclopaedia Perthensis was published in weekly instalments from 1796-1806, when it was republished as a set in twenty-three volumes.

Encyclopaedism had long been characterised by voluminous heft but in the early nineteenth century more experimental plans began to arise. Samuel Taylor Coleridge sketched out his abortive plans for the Encyclopaedia Metropolitana in 1817, and in the same year Jeremy Bentham mapped out an entirely new encyclopaedic nomenclature in his fourth appendix to Chrestomathia.

Many of these projects begged, borrowed or stole from the same pool of entries. In the ‘Publisher’s Address’ to what would become the twenty-two volume London Encyclopaedia (1829), the publisher Thomas Tegg wrote that his materials had been proudly ‘purloined’ from other sources, and argued that the encyclopaedist’s ‘occupation is not pillaging but collecting’ – such ‘works are supposed, in great measure, assemblages of other people’. Encyclopaedias were the work of multiple compilers, where ‘compile’ registers both aspects of the word’s dual meaning: ‘to make, compose, or construct’ on the one hand and, from the Latin, to ‘plunder, pillage, rob, steal, snatch together, and carry off’ on the other (OED Online).

Chambers had set the precedent for this logic of assemblage in his first preface: ‘the reader here will have Extracts and Accounts from a great Number of Authors of all Kinds’. His encyclopaedia tests and amplifies the relationship between composition and compilation: the nature of the authorship impacts upon the nature of the text. Collecting and pillaging by turns, Chambers sought to depart from previous lexicographers by bringing a ‘structure’ to what was otherwise a mere collection: thus the ‘cento’ was transformed into a ‘system’.

In the course of this professed transformation, Chambers articulated a problem that would persist for over a century: ‘the chief Difficulty lay in the Form; in the Order, and Œconomy of the Work: To dispose such a Variety of Materials in such manner, as not to make a confused Heap of incongruous Parts, but one consistent Whole’. Here, profuse, heterogenous ‘materials’ must be brought into order by a certain ‘form’, ‘manner’, or process: a method. The resulting system arises not only from the interaction between an author and a community of editors, compilers, and sources, but through an internal ‘Communication […] between several Parts of the Work.’

Chambers elaborates this process through a material textual metaphor: ‘In any other Form [here, a dictionary], many thousand Things must necessarily be hid and overlook’d: All the Pins, the Joints, the binding of the Fabrick must be invisible of course; all the lesser Parts, one might say all the Parts whatsoever, must be in some measure swallowed up in the Whole’. In the Cyclopaedia these ‘parts’ are the ‘matter of knowledge’ and must be made visible by explicit cross-referencing. Chambers’ metaphor relied on his readers’ awareness of the architecture of the material book – ‘the pins, the joints, the binding’ – to shore-up his epistemological argument. Such an awareness would only increase as the eighteenth century progressed. The Encyclopaedia Britannica, for example, was published between 1768 and 1771 in slim, sixpenny instalments then bound by readers into a three volume set replete with 160 engravings.

After a century of controversial innovations in encyclopaedic practice, critics of Chambers’ venture and its legacy flipped his language on its head. For Chambers, the ‘Form’ of the encyclopaedia was a relatively simple question of the ‘Order, and Œconomy of the Work’; by the 1820s, an essay in the Edinburgh-based Blackwoods Magazine called ‘encyclopaedic forms’ into question. This inversion shifts its emphasis from the practical ordering of the encyclopaedia to a particularly encyclopaedic thinking or method.

The Blackwoods piece, written by the little-known philosopher Alexander Blair and published in 1824, begins with a broad-brushed invective: ‘All attempts at bringing knowledge into encyclopaedic forms seem to include an essential fallacy. Knowledge is advanced by individual minds wholly devoting themselves to their own part of inquiry’. Rather than the bloated encyclopaedia and its persistent diffusion and ‘confusion’ of knowledge, Blair argued for a ‘speculative’ knowledge economy, an ‘ideal community’ or ‘imaginary community’. Such an ideal economy was ‘restrained and embarrassed’, ‘unavoidably confined’ by the close, material bounds of encyclopaedism. Blair’s ideal knowledge must ‘transcend by almost infinite degrees – the capacity and means of knowing’ – the ‘Pins, the Joints, the Binding’ that Chambers pulled into the foreground.

Jon Klancher has argued that the essay’s ‘extravagant formal gesturing’ – the way in which its persistent anaphora and catalogues create a sense of burgeoning excess – mimics the essay’s own claim that ‘the Human Mind is extending its empire’. Can we extend Klancher’s reading to take material textuality into account? What relationship do ‘the pins, the joints, the bindings’ have to the particular kind of knowledge economies that Blair participates in, advocates for, and repudiates; what relationship do these material constructions have to the formal and to the ideal?

Blair’s chief criticism of the encyclopaedists is that they have neglected the ‘practical connexions’ of the Sciences and deluded themselves with their ‘imaginary conjunction … as if this must needs [sic] to be found somewhere, embodied and real […] as if that circle of the Sciences, […] did not yet truly exist unless it were materially constructed’. Here, proof of construction is evidence of negation: by their very embodied nature, forging connections between finite articles, encyclopaedias eclipse the world of knowledge beyond their reach. This seething hypothesis, and the long and diverse history of encyclopaedism it rejects, underscores the complex relationship between the practical and imaginary, material and ideal, multitude and individual.

For Blair, the bound volume comes to symbolise the paradoxical pretension of capacious encyclopaedias: the material book enables, even encourages readers to ‘look beyond [their] own minds’, yet ‘We have found that within our own circle we follow a receding circumference. […] The art in which we have no skill appears to us all-accomplished. The knowledge for which we have no measure, has to our eye reached its bounds’. The apparent expanse of the encyclopaedia distracts from a lack of depth.

According to Blair, attempting to ‘exhibit all Science in one body […] to one mind […] are two forms of the attempt to encyclopaedize knowledge’. Unintentionally, this formulation – encyclopaedizing – rehabilitates and vivifies the encyclopaedia: its materials become themselves a method with transformative verbal force. Chambers’ project, then a century old, was not merely a fusty repository, but harboured a threatening efficacy, one that might diffuse and diversify knowledge at the same time as rendering it static and bounded. Moreover, Chambers professed that his Cyclopaedia would ‘contribute more to the propagating of useful Knowledge thro’ the body of a People than any, I had almost said all, the Books extant.’ As the definite article opens out into an indefinitely capacious ‘a’, ‘People’ cohere together in an enormous, embodied assemblage.

Current scholarship on encyclopaedism has focussed in very different ways on the shape and status of ‘complete’ knowledge: Seth Rudy has read seventeenth- and eighteenth-century encyclopaedism in relation to epic poetry, while Tilottama Rajan, focussing on German romanticism, has focussed on the ‘tangled’ systems upon which ‘ideal’ encyclopaedism has been modelled. In both cases, the possibility and potential of complete knowledge is brought into question. Rajan argues that in Chambers’ ‘material encyclopaedia’, the cross-references and talk of systems are merely an internal ‘logic of unification’ – they are supplementary, ‘strictly indexical and not conceptual’. The rhetoric of encyclopaedists and their critics tempts us into emphasising a binary in which the ideal and the material are starkly opposed, yet reading the reception of Chambers’ project through more experimental examples from the early nineteenth century reveals some of the ways in which the formal or ideal is enshrined, reified and visualised through the ‘Order, and Œconomy’ of material assemblage.

Marianne Brooker is a PhD student in English & Humanities at Birkbeck, University of London, and a sessional lecturer in Romanticism at Canterbury Christ Church University. Her research explores the ‘materials of method’ and fugitive knowledge in the romantic period, particularly in relation to encyclopaedias, poetry collections, bookkeeping ledgers, artists’ manuals, and museum guidebooks.

Theory Revolt and Historical Commitment

By contributing writer Jonathon Catlin. This and John Handel’s “The Principle of Theory; or, Theory in the Eyes of its Students” respond to the May 2018 “Theses on Theory and History” by Ethan Kleinberg, Joan Wallach Scott, and Gary Wilder.

Theory Revolt has initiated a session of analysis with history’s collective unconscious; it presents a timely occasion for critical reflection not only about the discipline’s current practices and institutions, but also its most fundamental aims and commitments. In that spirit, I’ll start by placing my own theory cards on the table: I research and am deeply invested in Frankfurt School and French critical theory. I worked at the theory journal Critical Inquiry for several years. I wrote a sympathetic review of Ethan Kleinberg’s most recent book, Haunting History: For a Deconstructive Approach to the Past for the JHI Blog earlier this year. I also attended two theory of history programs this summer that featured Kleinberg prominently: The Bielefeld and Wesleyan Summer School on Theories for Historical Research in Bielefeld, Germany, which could be considered the education arm of Theory Revolt, as well as the third International Network for Theory of History Conference in Stockholm, where Theory Revolt was invoked approvingly as a testament to the enduring legacy of the late Hayden White (1928–2018).

Critiques of Theory Revolt are already many. Scott McLemee captures the basic objection in Inside Higher Ed. “In Yogi Berra’s haunting words,” he writes, the theses left him feeling “déjà vu all over again.” Many of its points were made decades ago—and in some cases more provocatively—by the likes of Hayden White, Dominick LaCapra, and Joan Scott herself. This time around, the authors “rely on the old tropes to rally new forces.” For McLemee, the theses represent a Baudrillardian nightmare: “What came after the End of History was post-postmodernity: social reality as tape loop, life as an eternity of reruns… The only thing really new about ‘Theses on Theory and History’ is that it comes with a hashtag.” But Theory Revolt has no pretense of faddish novelty: it argues that many of those lessons were not learned the first time, or were engaged briefly only to be handily dismissed, as if theory’s relevance passed together with its heyday in the 1980s and ’90s. The authors wrote this manifesto now because new subfields widely regarded as the future of the historian’s craft—digital humanities, Big Data, global history—are, in their view, simply repackaging the “ontological realism” that has long stifled “objectivist” history. As a rearticulation, a synthesis, a call to arms, and a gadfly probing the discipline for self-consciousness and criticality, this manifesto is both necessary and welcome.

According to the Wild On Collective, the contemporary historian’s anti-theoretical bias starts early: doctoral training in history tends to neglect theory and emphasize historiography and producing original research from primary sources, “as if ‘doing history’ is a self-evident technical undertaking and students need simply to develop the methodological habit of gathering factual evidence to be contextualized and narrated” (I.8). At the broadest level of the discipline, this conclusion is spot-on. At the Bielefeld summer school I attended, students from around the world agreed that it is difficult to find courses in theory of history, and even more difficult to do research in this field. To study theory, one often has to go to a philosophy department or repackage one’s work as intellectual history. The Bielefeld program attempts to correct this dearth of theory by offering participants—all students of history—a week of courses on practice theory (Pierre Bourdieu, Anthony Giddens, Theodore Schatzki), actor-network theory (Michel Callon, Bruno Latour, John Law), systems theory (Nicholas Luhmann), discourse theory (Foucault), and a general introduction by Kleinberg ranging from Droysen and Dilthey to Reinhart Koselleck, Hayden White, Joan Scott, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and Ewa Domanska. Yet at the level of graduate pedagogy, this theory revolt is not the first. I hope that exploring a distant predecessor may help us understand the current revolt’s aims, limitations, and importance.

At Princeton University—one of the allegedly conservative and anti-theoretical bastions of the discipline—my cohort-mates and I can claim that Hayden White’s Metahistory was the first book we read in graduate school. It typically kicks off the syllabus of the required introductory course “HIS 500: An Introduction to the Professional Study of History” (a relatively recent course title that no doubt reflects the problematic “guild” mentality described in the manifesto). The syllabus regularly includes thinkers such as Marx, Weber, Foucault, Scott, Chakrabarty, and Michel-Rolph Trouillot alongside a wide range of historiography old and new.

The first iteration of this course, proposed in 1964 and held in the 1965–66 academic year, was conceived and taught by Professors Arno Mayer and Lawrence Stone. (Professor Mayer shared his course documents with me.) The two sought funding from bodies like the Social Science Research Council for the course “Theories, Concepts, and Methods of the Social Sciences for Historical Studies,” which aimed, according to their proposal, “to sensitize first-year graduate students in history to the contribution the social and behavioral sciences can make to formulating sharply focused analytic and topical questions for historical investigation.” They complained that among graduate students, “both enthusiasm for and professional commitment to history seemed disappointingly weak.” The culprit: “Part of the trouble appeared to lie in their struggle to cram their minds with vast masses of information from broad fields in preparation for the General Examination…a deadening process, intellectually as well as psychologically.” Students thus confronted with the pressures of mastering their subfields “seemed reluctant to use this mass of information to think about history analytically or comparatively.” They lacked the intellectual courage and theoretical innovation of some of the first guest speakers Mayer and Stone brought in to teach the course: Thomas Kuhn and Clifford Geertz. (Scott was also brought in later, but, according to Mayer, soon clashed with the Princeton “boys club.”)

HIS 500 1968 Syllabus

HIS 500 Syllabus from Spring Term 1968

Mayer and Stone’s theory is quite different from Theory Revolt’s theory. The former also invited speakers to present then-in-vogue positivist social-scientific “techniques” including demography, statistics, and economic history—the Big Data of that time. Yet while they valued such developments in adjacent disciplines, they also found “that the classical social scientists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries like Max Weber, speak more effectively to the concerns of our students and ourselves than do many contemporary practitioners of sociology and political science.” Hence they determined that “incoming students are now asked to spend part of their summer before arrival at Princeton reading from the works of Marx, Freud, Weber, and Durkheim.”


Lawrence Stone and Arno Mayer, Early proposal for HIS 500

Despite Mayer’s own radical Left politics, this theory revolt did not aspire to be a theory revolution. It attempted to shake up the Rankean house but leave it standing, to keep the old but destabilize it with the new. The seminar, Mayer and Stone wrote, “does not try to persuade students to adopt new approaches at the expense of traditional ones. Historical truth can be approached fruitfully from many angles, and a healthy department is one in which a diversity of methods and viewpoints coexist, mutually stimulating and criticizing one another. The primary aim of the seminar is rather to extend the range of methodological and conceptual choice.”

Theory Proposal 1

Lawrence Stone and Arno Mayer, Early proposal for HIS 500

Writing in 1964, Mayer and Stone taught well before the sweep of the linguistic turn—Derrida and Foucault in particular—that motivates Theory Revolt. Yet they wrote on the cusp of a theory wave symbolized by Hayden White’s landmark article “The Burden of History.” Published in History and Theory in 1966, it became a touchstone of debates about the role of theory in history—even if its impact was not as enduring as the Wild On Collective would have preferred.

Mayer and Stone’s attempt to destabilize ossified historical methodologies with new theoretical approaches from other disciplines shares the spirit of this new revolt, even if it was not yet equipped to fully articulate it with the deconstructive tools of the linguistic turn. Yet for this reason it also lacks Theory Revolt’s force: the call for self-critical reflection on history’s own “conditions of possibility,” on how evidence, arguments, concepts, and theories themselves become normatively constituted as legitimate in the first place (I.9). Mayer and Stone don’t step back far enough from their practice as historians to ask one of the fundamental questions of Theory Revolt: What are we really doing when we do history, and why do we do it?

The Theory Revolters rightly combat the most familiar “dismissal of theory”—“The charge that theory—any theory—involves the distorting imposition of fixed ideological categories on self-evident facts” (II.7). As Wesleyan’s Gary Shaw aptly glossed the philosopher Nelson Goodman in Bielefeld: “Behind every fact is a small theory.” In the language of Theory Revolt, “History’s anti-theoretical preoccupation with empirical facts and realist argument… entails a set of uninterrogated theoretical assumptions about time and place, intention and agency, proximity and causality, context and chronology” (I.11). On the contrary, the manifesto proclaims, “Critical history recognizes all ‘facts’ as always already mediated, categories as social, and concepts as historical; theory is worldly and concepts do worldly work” (III.4). If history is the study of change over time, then this manifesto reminds us that the categories, facts, and questions that make up historical research must themselves be historicized and left open to critical contestation. Only thus can we stay attuned to our work’s temporal contingency, institutional situatedness, and relation to power both within the academy and in society at large.

Theory Revolt calls for more theory not as a superfluous garnish to be sprinkled over the meat of real historical work. Rather, it proposes a fundamental re-imagining of what history is for and how we should practice it. On some level, it shares a rather conventional and unobjectionable goal with Mayer and Stone: to move beyond the “impotent story-telling” brought about by disciplinary fixation on facts, empiricism, and objectivity. Theory Revolt’s target is the geographically diverse but theoretically “homogenous” articles published in the AHR, whose “guild”-like disciplinary policing strips the field of innovative methodological approaches: “Only that which is already familiar typically finds its way into the pages of the journal” (I.5). Given such sweeping critiques of “conventional” historical writing, the stakes are high for Kleinberg’s forthcoming book The Myth of Emmanuel Levinas, on the Talmudic lectures the French-Jewish philosopher presented in postwar Paris. Kleinberg claims in the conclusion of Haunting History that this subsequent work will put his deconstructive approach into practice by telling two accounts of the same phenomenon, what Levinas’s onetime assistant Jacques Derrida called a “double session.” Each account can destabilize the authority of the other and leave the past open to alternative meanings: the one a conventional secular intellectual history and the other a theological account inspired by “Levinas’s own counterhistorical claim that divine and ethical meaning transcends time” (Haunting History, p. 147). Kleinberg hopes to stretch the limits of what counts as history, in this case moving beyond assumption that historical scholarship must be secular and operate within the framework of what Walter Benjamin called “homogenous empty time.” An earlier article of Kleinberg’s on these themes published in History and Theory bears the telling subtitle “Deconstruction and the Spirit of Revision.” This idea seems compatible with history as both a theoretical and “scientific” enterprise: being open to critique, revision, the contestation of textual meaning, and, yes, even to deconstruction.

The Weberian and social-scientific focus Mayer and Stone shared with much of their era remains to a large extent trapped within what Max Horkheimer called “traditional theory,” or conventional social science, held back from the self-reflexivity of “critical” theory. They thus remain within the paradigm that Theory Revolt criticizes, whereby disciplinary history tends “to artificially separate data from theory, facts from concepts, research from thinking. This leads ‘theory’ to be reified as a set of ready-made frameworks that can be ‘applied’ to data” (I.9). By contrast, Theory Revolt’s critique of empiricism rests upon an insight clearly articulated in Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s 1947 Dialectic of Enlightenment: In the words of the Wild On Collective, positivist historians rest far too heavily upon mere “reified appearances” and “supposedly given contexts.” In his 1938 essay on “Traditional and Critical Theory,” Horkheimer likewise disdained traditional theory, which encompasses the empirical social sciences, for attempting to grasp the external world “as it really is.” Part of this distinction is captured in Theory Revolt’s critique of the historical discipline producing “technocratic” knowledge and “scholars rather than thinkers.” By uncritically condensing that reality into timeless theories and laws, traditional theorists or mere scholars commit the fallacy of thinking that the present world is the only world, operating on the false and conservative assumption that everything has to be the way that it is. For Horkheimer and Adorno, genuinely critical theory did empirical work and attempted to ascertain the ways the social world worked, but always with an eye to how it might also be otherwise—to its fuller realization and emancipation. The Theory Revolters’ final thesis comes to a similar conclusion through the related insights of Foucault’s method of genealogy: “Critical history aims to understand the existing world in order to question the givens of our present so as to create openings for other possible worlds” (III.10).

Fetishizing purportedly “tangible” or “concrete” facts—as if they were self-evidently knowable—traps us in the flattened horizon of our own troubled social world, falsely granting it a quasi-natural status. To thus privilege “the real” over the theoretical—what Theory Revolt phrases in the subjunctive as “the dream”—is to come under what Adorno called the “spell” of reification, the downward pull into crude materialism that leaves us trapped in the lifeless circle of late capitalism and sanctioned state violence. Adorno’s negative dialectics bars positively developing alternatives—the error of Nazism, Stalinism, and other prescriptive utopianisms—but it does enable us to determinately negate spaces of unfreedom in the world as it is, severing our psychic ties to the world in which we find ourselves and opening up theoretical space in which alternatives might eventually be developed. To invoke a line from Negative Dialectics, history—like the metaphysics that preoccupied Adorno—“must know how to wish” (p. 407).

The Theses end with a call for historians to seek out “the navel of the dream.” Dreams push against the ontological realist historian’s sensibilities because they are inherently personal and nonobjective. One of Theory Revolt’s related final points seems closely inspired by the psychoanalytic insights of Dominck LaCapra: “psychically, historians should acknowledge and try to work through, rather than simply act out, their unconscious investments in their material.” In philosophy (which I was trained in) such investments are quite often made manifestly clear: It is widely understood that many people who work on Kant, for example, would identify as “Kantians” and attempt to think and even live their lives within the framework of Kant’s thought. When they speak on contemporary issues, they often do so explicitly and self-consciously from the position of their philosophical background and personal commitments; they then feel free to critique, revise, and dispense with aspects of such traditions that no longer hold or appeal to them.

Working in a history department for the past two years, I’ve found it curious that historians on the whole seem to lack this self-consciousness. They tend to repress the fact that most of us do the research we do because it interests us—which is to say, because we have a psychic investment in our material that is rationalized rather than rational. Either we see something in the past that “speaks” to us today or, on the contrary, we seek out something in the past that gives us distance from the weight and all-encompassing spell of our own moment. It is no surprise that the historian’s identity, life experiences, and politics often shape their choice of research subject. Yet unlike disciplines such as anthropology that productively theorize and “work through” these relations of implication, cathexis, and transference, historians often resort to the pseudo-objective refrain that their subject is simply “important.” But why do we really need to know it? What justifies the time and expense of researching it? Sometimes, to be sure, there’s just a good story to be told. But more often than not there are investments, both personal and collective, that undergird our choice of projects, subconsciously dictate their frameworks, and hence drive them to certain conclusions. Hayden White famously concluded in Metahistory that there were at the end of the day no “objective” or “scientific” reasons to prefer one way of telling a story to another, but rather, in the “ironic” mode he graced us with, only “moral or aesthetic ones” (p. 434). My greatest hope for Theory Revolt would be that it presses more historians to such self-conscious reflection about the relation between themselves, their world, and their work. If “critical history is a history of the present,” that present surely includes ourselves.

Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. student in the Department of History at Princeton University. His work focuses on intellectual responses to catastrophe, especially in German-Jewish thought and the Frankfurt School of critical theory.

The Principle of Theory: Or, Theory in the Eyes of its Students

By contributing writer John Handel. This and Jonathon Catlin’s “Theory Revolt and Historical Commitment” respond to the May 2018 “Theses on Theory and History” by Ethan Kleinberg, Joan Wallach Scott, and Gary Wilder.

“It is impossible, now more than ever, to dissociate the work we do, within one discipline or several, from a reflection on the political and institutional conditions of that work. Such a reflection is unavoidable. It is no longer an external complement to teaching and research; it must make its way through the very objects we work with, shaping them as it goes, along with our norms, procedures, and aims. We cannot not speak of such things.”

-Jacques Derrida (1983)

In 1967 Jacques Derrida famously asserted that “there is no outside-text.” This was not a literary formalist screed against historical context, it was rather that context as such was an unstable category–that context itself was endlessly shifting and was never a stable given. Derrida’s injunction to us, as scholars, in whichever discipline we worked, was to question and deny these categories of certainty, to see things in their most capacious sense, to know that our own sight was always already constrained and limited. It was imperative to constantly question the adequacy of our vision. Theory Revolt is a welcome, deconstructive, reminder on this front, as it lays bear many of the central assumptions of the epistemology of the historical profession and what they problematically overlook. Yet, despite its protestations that “Critical historians are self-reflexive,” and “recognize that they are…implicated in their objects of study,” there is little impetus on the part of Theory Revolt to question this further, to turn its sights inwards to the institutional site of knowledge production: the university (III.6). Bringing the ethics of deconstructive criticism back to the university especially in the context of the colonialist, military-industrial, production of post-war American knowledge, was a critical move for Derrida, and likewise, is a necessary mode of critique that Theory Revolt must take up if it is to effect the radical change in the profession that is desires.

Without actively thinking through the institutional forms of power and politics that structure the production of historical knowledge they wish to critique, Theory Revolt’s project itself is implicated in perpetuating them. “Structures of…politics, or even identity that do not conform with convention are ruled out or never seen at all,” they write. Indeed. In focusing so intently on assaulting the “guild” mentality of the current historical profession and its epistemological assumptions and practices, Theory Revolt misses what constitutes their central problem, for it is impossible to explain why we stopped arguing about theory without attending to the political economic transformation of the university: the collapse in undergraduate humanities enrollments, the implosion of the academic job market, and the subsequent proliferation of the precarious labor which manages to keep the university afloat.

This is, in large part, a generational blindness. Theory Revolt argues that the historical profession sees “theory as one more turn (a wrong one) in the ever-turning kaleidoscope of historical investigation. The lure of theory is taken to be an aberrant stage in the intellectual history of the discipline, happily outgrown, replaced by a return to more solidly grounded observation.” (II.3) But, as James Cook has argued in an essay entitled “The Kids Are Alright: On the ‘Turning’ of Cultural History,” “turning” becomes synonymous with a generational rite of passage—most typically, from the new social history of the 1970s to the new cultural history of the 1980s.” Theory Revolt’s emplotment of its own intellectual history rests on the specters of a generational revolt, in particular on the radical critique of post-structuralism that lost the generational fight to a new empiricism. But it is hard to have a generational revolt when your generation has been systematically excluded from the academy. The kids are definitely not alright.

My own brief trajectory at Berkeley provides some anecdotal evidence for this shift. I arrived at Berkeley in the fall of 2015 for graduate school, excited to come to the place that was the birth place of cultural history. I expected to find a place that was the center of radicalism in the United States for so long, the place that founded the journal Representations, that prided itself on being “happily at the margins” of the mainstream historical profession. Instead, I found an institution that was rife with crises. From a culture of systemic sexual harassment to a structural budget deficit that seemed to spell the end of the public research university; from an endemic housing crisis to a campus that was overrun by right-wing trolls and heavily armored police. These were inauspicious years to be at Berkeley.

Somewhere amid the institutional decay that blighted the landscape of Berkeley (not to mention the rest of higher education), the Berkeley of the cultural turn had also seemed to disappear. Where I thought I would find intellectual iconoclasm, all I found was methodological malaise. For instance, at the institution whose connection to Foucault helped bring his work into the mainstream of U.S. academic culture, one of the professors teaching the department’s “Historical Methods & Theory” course notoriously refused to read Foucault with us. “You’re all more or less cultural historians at Berkeley,” the professor informed us, “you all need to read Foucault in chronological order, start to finish on your own, anyways.” What was the use of actually discussing it in a seminar?  The next year this course was replaced with one on professionalization—on using twitter in academic contexts, on building a CV, on networking at conferences, etc. Professionalization for an almost non-existent academic job market had replaced theoretical stakes.

And therein lies the unseen problem of Theory Revolt’s critique of the mainstream practice of history. In ignoring the neoliberal transformation of the university, they miss the reason we stopped arguing about theory in the first place. It is hard to engage in a collaborative rethinking of historical methodology when most of your generation will not end up in the academy. The disciplinary and professional pressures of the historical guild weigh especially heavy when you are fighting for one of the few jobs available in your field. In the midst of institutional crisis, how can we orient ourselves to address both that crisis and the epistemological malaise of the historical profession that Theory Revolt rightly critiques? Ben Mechen argues that as graduate students we can use our precarious position in the university to inform both a new politics of solidarity and critique of the power structures that produced such precarity. Can Theory Revolt’s critiques be joined to this purpose?

One way Theory Revolt’s mode of critical history might work itself in and through its objects of study is in relation to the New History of Capitalism. HoC was a field born in direct response to the new political realities after 2008, as well as a response to the new institutional directives within universities. But the History of Capitalism remains notoriously under theorized. In a programmatic state-of-the-field essay in 2014, Seth Rockman claimed that HoC “has minimal investment in a fixed or theoretical definition of capitalism,” and that “the empirical work of discovery takes precedence over the application of theoretical categories.” In the words of Theory Revolt, this type of empiricism only serves to “reinforce disciplinary history’s tendency to artificially separate data from theory, facts from concepts, research from thinking. This leads ‘theory’ to be reified as a set of ready-made frameworks that can be ‘applied’ to data.” (I.9) Theory is not a lens that can be applied to historical work, it is rather the political stances that every historian, whether implicitly or explicitly, brings to their attempts to understand the past. Despite our protestations to the contrary, we can never get outside theory.

One of the most prescient and enduring critiques of this type of empiricism, especially as it relates to the history of capitalism and the economy, is from none other than Joan Scott, one of the authors of Theory Revolt. In her canonical Gender and the Politics of History, Scott performed a brilliant reading of mid-19th century French statistical reports. Rather than viewing these reports as “irrefutable quantitative evidence,” Scott argues that in merely using these reports in a purely empirical sense, we “have accepted at face value and perpetuated the terms of the nineteenth century according to which numbers are somehow purer and less susceptible to subjective influences than other sources of information.” These statistical reports were neither neutral representations nor sheer ideological constructions, she argued, but were rather “ways of establishing the authority of certain visions of social order, of organizing perceptions of “experience.” Scott’s project constituted a major post-structural attack on the categories that undergirded the basic assumptions of the dominant strains of Marxist and social history at the time and problematized what could be taken and used as historical “facts.”

Years later, Adam Tooze would revisit the ways in which economic historians in particular might make use of numbers as historical facts. “The polemical energy involved in tearing up the empirical foundations of economic and social history, to reveal them as rooted in institutional, political, and indeed economic history, overshot its mark,” he argued. Rather than jettisoning numbers as usable historical facts, Tooze argued that we should adopt a “hermenutical quantification,” where we “move from a generalized history of statistics as a form of governmental knowledge to a history of the construction and use of particular facts.” In other words, we could be attentive to the contingent, cultural construction of numbers, while also acknowledging that those numbers were operationalized and did work in the world for those who used them.

Tooze’s move from questioning the category of statistics to thinking about the particular moments & conjunctures by which certain quantitative facts, once constructed, gain authority is consonant with the radical strains of cultural history influenced by STS & ANT. Revealingly, Tooze takes most of his theoretical cues in that article from Bruno Latour (see for instance notes 51 and 52). Latour’s radical constructivism finds sympathetic allies in Scott’s post-structural wing of the cultural turn, for instance, Patrick Joyce’s insistence on not conceiving “culture” as an essentialist superstructure, but culture as a process, “as for or around practice,” and “located in practice and in material forms.” This continual attendance to the process of knowledge production, rather than ever taking forms of knowledge either in the past or presence as givens, is what I take Theory Revolt to be stressing in their insistence on a “Critical history (that) recognizes all ‘facts’ as always already mediated, categories as social, and concepts as historical; theory is worldly and concepts do worldly work.” (III.4). This kind of critical history, when brought to the history of capitalism and the economy, seems well positioned to cut through the endless methodological stand-offs between economic historians and historians of capitalism.

A critical history thus positioned is also poised to make sense of the broader political moment within which we live. In his 1987 work, Science in Action Bruno Latour asked: “Given the tiny size of fact production, how the hell does the rest of humanity deal with ‘reality’?” In our moment of Trumpian politics that has witnessed the collapse of post-war America’s key sites of fact and knowledge production—from universities to the media—it becomes clear that the answer to this question is “not well.”  Plenty of pseudo-intellectuals have been quick to proclaim that post-structuralism bears at least some responsibility for the collapse of these institutions and the  rise of Donald Trump. It did not take long for critics to marshal these claims against Theory Revolt, and rehearse the “dismissal oftheory as dangerous relativism.”(II.6).

Yet it is precisely here that the type of radical constructivism—a post-structuralist critical history that is always methodologically self-conscious—can make a key intervention in our current political moment. There is no doubt, for instance, that Donald Trump has launched a dangerous assault on facts and facticity, but post-structuralism didn’t cause Trump’s rise, it can help explain him. As Nils Gilman has argued, in the current maelstrom of fake news, “dry fact-checking does not work in the face of a deliberate assault on facts as such.” A critical history that refuses to take any fact as a given, and insists on historicizing how facts are constructed and operationalized, is far more politically exigent than a dry empiricism that attempts in vain to fact check those who refuse the very premise of factuality.

In the age of Trump, knowledge is up for grabs in ways previously unimaginable. On one hand, this is profoundly terrifying, as those in the highest offices of political power seemingly refuse to share the same factual reality with the world around them. But instead of driving us to a knee-jerk and uncritical defense of our universities, it should push us to further critique. The knowledge production of the academy has thus far not been up to facing the challenges within or without. This should force us within the academia to rethink not only the epistemological practices of our discipline but the institutional structures that created them. As the structures of the post-war university crumble, we can, finally, begin to imagine new collectivities, institutions, and forms of professionalism that do not have to replicate the neoliberal logics that have hollowed out these institutions to begin with. Theory Revolt’s critique of historical epistemology is a welcome part of this project, but rather than being a radical move forward, it is too often a nostalgic look backward to the generational revolts of the 1980s and 90s, obfuscating the tectonic shifts in the structure of our institutions and professions that have occurred in the meantime. But it doesn’t have to be. The critical history it advocates can and should be positioned not just to bring its critique to bear on histories of capitalism and neoliberalism, nor just on the high politics, but on the academic institutions that not only have failed to stop these transformations but have, in ways, been complicit in them. For Theory Revolt’s critiques to take shape, and to work their way into our practices of history, they cannot limit themselves to a critique of their own self-proclaimed outside Other—empiricist epistemology—but they must also turn inside, and examine their own sites and sights of power within the university itself.

John Handel is a Ph.D Candidate at UC Berkeley.

A Case for Learning to Read Seventeenth-Century Dutch

By guest contributor Julie van den Hout


Officer and Laughing Girl, Johannes Vermeer, ca. 1657. Wikimedia.

Do you ever get an uneasy feeling that something is missing from your wider scholarly realm, even though, on the surface, you have everything covered—and while this nagging sense seems to come and go, you can never quite put your finger on what it is? While I am no psychologist, recent developments have led me to believe that this intangible void could be a lack of seventeenth-century Dutch history in your academic toolkit. This idea came to me after launching the blog,, an online resource for researchers learning to read and translate seventeenth-century Dutch. The site offers learning strategies, tips on grammar and orthography, handwriting guides, sample manuscripts for paleography practice, links to dictionaries and courses, and a forum for posting questions. The blog has been more popular than I imagined and I might know why. Think about it. Have you ever been away from home and overheard Dutch being spoken? The Dutch seem to turn up everywhere. The truth is, the Dutch do not simply seem to be everywhere—they actually are everywhere, and have been for several hundred years. In fact, it is almost impossible to avoid them. And that brings us to the crucial question: Why would you want to? As deeply rooted players in the global marketplace, the Dutch—especially the seventeenth-century Dutch—left an impression, and a paper trail, on almost every continent. Learning to read seventeenth-century Dutch opens the door, not only to the language and history of a small country, but to everywhere the Dutch have traveled and to everything they touched.

The seventeenth-century Dutch impacted history around the globe through trade, exploration, and conquest. On their home continent, commerce took them to the Baltic for grains, to Russia for furs, and to Norway for hardwood. The accessibility to timber coupled with innovations in engineering propelled the Dutch to maritime dominance with the fluytschip, efficient for navigating the shallow river tributaries of Europe with its flat, wide hull and low crew-to-cargo ratio. It was not long before these ships ventured into wider waters, carrying trade goods, building materials, passengers, livestock, and provisions to newly conquered lands. The Dutch East India Company frequented the Indonesian archipelago for highly marketable exotic spices such as nutmeg and cloves. From there, trade took them to India for cotton and silk, to China for tea and porcelain, and to Japan, where they enjoyed exclusive access from the man-made island of Deshima. From Indonesia, explorer Abel Tasman mapped the coast of Australia, eventually touching down in New Zealand. Documents from the Dutch East India Company are now scattered throughout the world, including those occupying 1.3 kilometers of space in the Dutch National Archives.


Letter from Peter Schagen to the Dutch West India Company reporting the sale of Manhattan to the Dutch by the Indians, November 7, 1656. Dutch National Archives.

In an attempt to gain control of the spice trade by securing a faster route to Asia, The Dutch East India Company commissioned Henry Hudson to search for the fabled Northwest Passage. Hudson tried four times before failing miserably, cast off in a dinghy by a mutinous crew in the bay that bears his name. An earlier voyage, however, had taken him into the mouth of the Hudson River, where he claimed the area for the Dutch. Though the Dutch did not appreciate this little piece of waterfront property until it was too late, the States General gave a monopoly on the fur trade there to the newly formed Dutch West India Company. Predominantly tasked with disrupting Iberian concerns in the Atlantic under the auspices of trade, the Dutch West India Company wasted no time doing just that, plundering forts in the Caribbean and Brazil that they turned into military outposts and plantations, and seizing Portuguese strongholds in Africa that stimulated their engagement in the slave trade. The colony they founded in what is now New York was short-lived, though digitized records in the New York State Archives testify to the colony’s rich and colorful history and challenge Anglo-centric narratives of seventeenth-century America.

Seventeenth-century Dutch expansion fueled advances in science and philosophy that were instrumental in defining the broader intellectual world. The prosperity, dynamism, and comparative tolerance of the Dutch Golden Age attracted thinkers from throughout Europe. Celebrated Flemish mathematician, Simon Stevin, whose family had fled the Catholic Spanish Low Countries, introduced the mainstream use of fractions, along with music theory and military engineering and design. While a certain Italian astronomer usually gets credit for the invention of the telescope, Dutch lens maker Hans Lippershey applied for the first patent in The Hague in 1608. On the other end of the spectrum, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek developed the microscope, documenting observable microorganisms in letters to the Royal Society in London. Law prodigy Hugo Grotius wrote Inleidinge tot de Hollandse Rechtsgeleerdheid, or Introduction to the Jurisprudence of Holland in 1631, ushering in a new era of practical standards for the application of natural law. Astronomer and physicist Christiaan Huygens studied wave theory, identified the rings of Saturn, created the pendulum clock, and wrote mathematical treatises. As one of the movers and shakers of the Scientific Revolution, Huygens was a member of seventeenth-century Dutch intellectual circles that included French philosopher and ex-pat René Descartes. Letters written between Grotius, Van Leeuwenhoek, Huygens, Descartes, and other scholars have been transcribed and made available online through the collaborative project, Circulation of Knowledge and Learned Practices of the 17th-Century Dutch Republic, at Oh, to have been a fly on the wall.


The sail wagon of Simon Steven, 1602. Rijksstudio Amsterdam.

Learning to read seventeenth-century Dutch also facilitates access to Dutch religious history that has bled into several disciplines. Distinctively grounded in the Eighty Years’ War, the tug-of-war between Spain and the Dutch Republic over the Catholic South and the Protestant North ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, but not before internal conflicts inspired the Synod of Dort that anchored Calvanist Protestantism in Europe. On the advice of the Synod to make the bible accessible to everyone, the Statenbijbel (States Bible) was commissioned and translated from original manuscripts in 1637 as the first authoritative Dutch-language Protestant book. Jews fleeing Spanish and Portuguese persecution also played an active role in seventeenth-century Dutch history. Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, the son of Portuguese Jews, was both influential and controversial for his outspoken views on religion, eventually excommunicated from the synagogue in Amsterdam. Even the Pilgrims settled temporarily in the relatively tolerant Dutch Republic between leaving England in 1608 and establishing the Plymouth colony. Dutch records of their twelve-year stay in Leiden are kept at the Pilgrim Museum there.

Perhaps the most visible representation of the seventeenth-century Dutch is the art of the Dutch Golden Age. Artists such as Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer, and Frans Hals reflect the era’s prosperity and expansion of theoretical boundaries as timeless foundations of the art world. Works like Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, set in the Anatomy Theater of Leiden University, graphically displays the scientific curiosity of the era, while Vermeer’s Officer and a Laughing Girl suggests the application of mathematics and science, more subtly, in its geometric and optical effects. The map in Vermeer’s painting is a strikingly accurate rendition of the original, published by renowned seventeenth-century Dutch mapmaker Willem Janszoon Blaeu. True to Vermeer’s representation, such maps graced the walls of many affluent seventeenth-century Dutch households, their popularity spurred by fascination with the New World, superior Dutch mapmaking, and the flourishing print industry in Amsterdam. While, in the words of Art Historian Mathilde Andrews, “you can’t write a painting,” there are primary sources aplenty for researchers delving into the Dutch Masters and their work. More than 500 documents related to Rembrandt are housed at the Municipal Archives in Amsterdam, including an inventory of goods in his home at the time of his death.

Prophetically, the words, “If you build it they will come,” floated through my mind like I was Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams. The enthusiastic response to the blog’s launch confirmed what I already suspected—that researchers are interested in accessing the primary sources of the seventeenth-century Dutch, if they can find help reading them. Whether your field is Early Modern Europe, Early America, Colonial History, Atlantic History, African Studies, Asian Studies, Religion, History of Science, Philosophy, or Art History—the list goes on—the Dutch were there, for better or for worse. The rich and prolific history the seventeenth-century Dutch produced crosses geographic borders and resonates deeply into surrounding temporal spaces, but much of it lies understudied in archives around the world. It is accessible with a basic foundation in Dutch or German, and now, with online support for learning. Twenty-three million people speak Dutch today as their primary language. If you feel you are somehow missing out, or find you are suffering from a vague, unsettled feeling that something is lacking from your scholarly endeavors, perhaps it would help if you looked into what the Dutch have been talking about all this time. It just might be exactly what you have been looking for.


Popular depiction of a ship on a seventeenth-century Dutch tile. Rijksstudio Amsterdam.

Julie van den Hout is a graduate student in History at San Francisco State University focused on the seventeenth-century Dutch, Early America, and the Atlantic. She is currently working on a digital humanities project, through a grant from the New Netherland Institute, on ships that made port in New Netherland. She is the author of Adriaen van der Donck, A Dutch Rebel in Seventeenth-Century America, published April, 2018 from The State University of New York Press. She can be reached at


Colonial Knowledge, South Asian Historiography, and the Thought of the Eurasian Minority

This is the fifth in a series of commentaries in our Graduate Forum on Pathways in Intellectual History, which is running this summer and fall. The first piece was by Andrew Klumpp, the second by Cynthia Houng, the third by Robert Greene II, and the fourth by Gloria Yu.

This last piece is by contributing writer Brent Howitt Otto, a PhD student in History at UC Berkeley.

It is hard to overstate the contemporary and enduring impact of British colonialism on the Indian Subcontinent. Bernard Cohn compellingly argued that the British conquest of India was a conquest of knowledge, as much as it was of land, peoples and markets. By combining the disciplinary tools of history and anthropology, Cohn helped birth a generation of historiography that has examined how the discursive categories of religion, caste and community (approximate to ‘ethnicity’ in South Asian usage) were deeply molded and in some instances created by the bureaucratic attempts to rationalize and systematize the exercise of colonial power over diverse peoples (Nicholas B. Dirks, Castes of Mind). These colonial knowledge systems not only helped colonial officials to think about India and Indians but has subsequently affected how Indians of all classes, castes and religions came to think about themselves in relation to one another and to the state. The anti-colonial nationalism of the late British Raj, far from freeing India of colonial categories and divisions, demonstrated their enduring and deepening power.

When discontent with British rule began to ferment in various forms of nationalist organizing and mobilization in the late nineteenth century, a preoccupation among Indian minorities—Muslims, Untouchables, Sikhs, and even the relatively small community of Eurasians (later known as Anglo-Indians)—emerged, that swaraj (self-rule) or indeed Independence would ultimately create a tyranny of the majority. Would the British Raj simply be replaced by a Hindu Raj, in which minorities would lose their already tenuous position in politics and society?


B. D. Ambedkar

Fear ran deepest among Muslims, who had been scapegoated by the British as the group responsible for the Sepoy Rebellion in 1857. Their fears were not irrational, for the Indian National Congress, as the largest expression of the nationalist movement, struggled to appear as anything but a party of English-educated elite Hindus. Despite Gandhi’s exhortation of personal moral conversion to a universal regard for all people, his message came packaged in the iconic form and practice of a deeply religious Hindu ascetic. Gandhi famously disagreed with the desire of B. D. Ambedkar, a leader of the Untouchables, to abolish the caste ‘system’. Muslims and other minorities called for ‘separate electorates,’ protected seats and separate voting mechanisms to ensure minorities were represented.

In part to pacify the anxieties of minorities and in part to further a ‘divide and rule’ agenda to prolong colonial rule, the British responded with a series of Round Table Conferences from 1930-32 in which India’s minorities represented their views. This resulted in the Communal Award of separate electorates for Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Indian Christians, Anglo-Indians, Europeans and Depressed Classes (Scheduled Castes). Gandhi’s opposition rested on the principle that Separate Electorates would only impede unity and sow greater division, both in the movement to end British rule and the hope of a unified nation thereafter. Yet in the Poona Pact of September 1932 Gandhi acquiesced to Separate Electorates while coercing Ambedkar through a fast unto death to renounce them for Dalits.


Mohammad Ali Jinnah

British colonial knowledge had constructed blunt categories of India’s minorities, which failed to acknowledge their internal diversity. Muslims included numerous sects, schools of jurisprudence, regions and languages. Eurasians were divided internally by region (north, south, Burma), occupation (railways, government services, private trade and industry), lineage (Portuguese, English, Dutch, French) and class. The same was true for other minorities, and yet the British insisted upon dealing with each group by recognizing an organization and its leader as the ‘sole spokesman’ for that ‘community’s’ interests. For Muslims it was Mohammad Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League (Ayesha Jalal, The Sole Spokesman). For Eurasians (Anglo-Indians) it was the president of the All India Anglo-Indian Association, under the leadership of Sir Henry Gidney (1919-42) and Frank Anthony (1942 onward), which by no means could claim membership sufficient to represent the interests of a majority of Anglo-Indians.

Who is allowed to speak for the group? Which voices are suppressed or silenced? These are crucial questions for historians who seek to make an accurate reconstruction of the textures and contours of a group’s thinking over time, of their unity and disunity, internal dynamics, the ways they see themselves and others. Otherwise the scholar will only be able to conjure up an historical narrative that coheres with the sympathies of power, but gets no closer to representing the group on its own terms. The archive is often limited in what it can say, for it too is a construction of power: the editorial discretion of a newspaper, the policy and practice of record keeping and classification in an organization or a government, and the status and education implicit in any literary production. This has been a foremost concern and debate of Subaltern historiography in South Asia (see the journal Subaltern Studies and Gayatri Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?“), and a motivating problem addressed by Anthro-History.

The scholarship on the mixed-race of colonial South Asia manifests some of these problems. Some histories have been written by important Anglo-Indian leaders and politicians, such as Herbert Alick Stark and Frank Anthony, constituting less an academic history than their own rhetorical attempt to shape Anglo-Indians’ view of themselves and of others’ views of Anglo-Indians. Indeed, these constitute primary sources that portray particular dominant, though not representative perspectives of the community. Even serious academic studies have erred by leaning too heavily on official sources to substantiate the community’s attitudes (e.g., Alison Blunt, Domicile and Diaspora) or by inordinate attachment to a social scientific theory such as “marginality” to explain the social position and self-consciousness of Anglo-Indians, at times entertaining untenable generalizations and ignorance of facts (See Noel P. Gist and Roy Dean Wright, Marginality and Identity, or Paul Fredrick Cressey, “The Anglo-Indians“). Other studies are too narrowly focused on Anglo-Indians of a particular place and time to include very much dialogue with the greater Anglo-Indian community or with other interlocutors such as the state (e.g., Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt, In Search of a Homeland, or Robyn Andrews, Christmas in Calcutta).

The new monograph by Uther Charlton-Stevens, Anglo-Indians and Minority Politics in South Asia: Race, Boundary Making and Communal Nationalism (London: Routledge, 2018) is a deeply textured historical study of the Eurasian community over its lengthy history. Uninterested in presenting a uniform narrative, Charlton-Stevens digs deeply into diverse sources to show the various interlocutors that Anglo-Indians and their leaders had, and the often discordant opinions they took with respect to their own history, concepts of race, Indian nationalism, the colonial state, and plans for their post-colonial future. Anglo-Indians were neither univocal, nor insular. Views among Anglo-Indians were diverse and power over them was contested. Skillfully Charlton-Stevens traces these various crisscrossing strands that shows Anglo-Indians were embedded in a web of local, colonial and international discourses, and were interacting with and speaking about concepts as diverse and far reaching as notions of nation and national self-determination, Zionism, and eugenics. Although the community had a sole spokesman as far as government was concerned, the voices of dissenting and contesting positions were louder and clearer than prior scholarship has ever made out.

Charlton-Stevens refreshingly situates the question of Anglo-Indian identity in the crucial context of race and eugenical theories current from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries. He explores in depth the writings of two Anglo-Indian figures who were not community leaders, yet had complex articulations of mixed race. Millicent Wilson of Bangalore wrote arguing that Anglo-Indians’ whiteness (and thus superiority) should be acknowledged on the supposed grounds of the dominance of white genes, and thus their predominance in mixed-race people. Wilson regarded Americans and Australians as exemplars of the success of whitening an admittedly hybrid race. In effect she argued against extreme theories of racial purity, while continuing to support a concept of a racial hierarchy that presumed the relative superiority of whiteness (Charlton-Stevens, 177–79, 194–96). Though seldom referenced in other studies on Anglo-Indians, Charlton-Stevens shows that Wilson’s work was read and responded to by Anglo-Indians, and that she engaged in disputes with Anglo-Indian leaders and critiqued those who promoted Anglo-Indians emigration from India. Though not conforming to the official positions of the Anglo-Indian Association, Wilson surely represents a strand of Anglo-Indian thinking on race.

Quite different from Wilson’s belief in a racial hierarchy into which she wanted to insinuate Anglo-Indians as ‘white,’ stand the writings of Anglo-Indian social scientist Cedric Dover. Contesting the alleged superiority of racial purity, Dover argued instead hybridization promoted genetic vigor. He predicted that mixed races would therefore define the future and spell the ultimate end of racial difference. He was a vocal opponent of the Nazi eugenics of racial purity, while himself promoting the eugenics of genetic mixing. As for his own community of Anglo-Indians, Dover believed they should identify as ‘Eurasians,’ a more expansive category than ‘Anglo-Indian,’ and forge a pan-Eurasian solidarity with other Eurasians outside of British India. This view was largely at odds with the stated aims and positions of official leaders of the Community. While Dover’s book, which was most explicitly directed at Anglo-Indians, is noted in the historiography, Charlton-Stevens goes further to demonstrate the effects and resonances of Dover’s ideas and other works on Anglo-Indian discourse about themselves and their future. At the same time, by drawing on the work of Nico Slate’s Colored Cosmopolitanism: The Shared Struggle for Freedom in the United States and India (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012) he shows how Dover saw through his academic work in the United States and the examples of W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, a model of mixed-race success which supported his claims and which he recommended to Anglo-Indians (Charlton-Stevens, 191–96).

Then Charlton-Stevens carefully explores the numerous projects Anglo-Indians undertook as they prepared for a post-colonial future. Several schemes proposed for domestic colonial settlements—Abbott Mount (1920s), Whitefield (1882), McCluskigunge (1933) (Charlton-Stevens, 179–91). Others suggested overseas colonization—of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (in 1922–3 and 1946), or the creation of an “Eurasia” in the former German New Guinea with League of Nations support, an idea which surfaced in the 1930s and then again in the 1950s (196–206). The Anglo-Indian promoters of these projects envisioned a degree of self-sufficiency, “emancipation” from dependency and colonial oppression, a “national homeland”.  Through a close reading of correspondence, committee reports, organization records, and letters to the editor in Anglo-Indian and English-language church sponsored newspapers in India, Charlton-Stevens shows that these aims do not only have incidental resonance but direct connection with the larger international discourses on race, the post-World War I “balkanization” that came with ethnic or racial conceptions of nationality and national self-determination, and drew on foreign models such as the Zionist success in the Palestine Mandate. Finally, numerous other associations and individuals promoted emigration, contrary to the stated position of the All India Anglo-Indian Association to remain in India—especially in the two years between the end of World War II and Independence. This even included as unlikely a destination as Brazil: ideologically branded as “Mestizism,” its promoters believed that as a mixed-race Christian people they would be accepted in a largely mixed-race Christian country. Others mainly sought to settle elsewhere within the British Commonwealth.

These are but a few of the most significant contributions of Charlton-Stevens’ book, which I have selected because they break new ground by foregrounding that Anglo-Indians were diverse in their thought, despite being forced to accept a sole spokesman who at times was the target of considerable resistance. Moreover they engaged with broader Indian and international discourses. Charlton-Stevens achieved this textured treatment of the ideas of Anglo-Indians on their own terms by a close, broad and critical reading of the archive as well as (in parts not mentioned above) ethnographic work and oral history that highlights the value of non-textual sources to a thoroughgoing historic account that interrogates power, expects diversity, and eschews easy generalizations.

Brent Howitt Otto is a graduate student in UC Berkeley’s Department of History.

What We’re Reading: September, Part 2


While generally accustomed to questions more politically utilitarian than philosophical, my recent studies have led to a new forest of questions which I am having all too much fun exploring.  These questions surround the concept of leadership. In a world with so many challenges to face, what does it mean to be a capable leader? Which qualities are understood to be the most beneficial in a leadership position?  Which behaviors might be observed to indicate the degree to which these qualities are present in an individual?

In this exploration of qualities and behaviors indicating an aptitude for leadership, Shih-ying Yang and Robert J. Sternberg’s co-authored article, “Conceptions of Intelligence in Ancient Chinese Philosophy(Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology 17, no. 2 [1997])  has been a fascinating and highly informative read.  Drawing from a cultural tradition in which intelligence is immensely valued as a sign of leadership potential, Yang and Sternberg detail the concept of intelligence as described by ancient Confucian scholars, and as a separate group, ancient scholars of the Daoist tradition.  After a lengthy analysis of philosophical texts, the co-authors reflect on the influences of these two distinct understandings of intelligence on the modern Chinese education system and leadership culture.

With textual roots and analysis strong enough to attract Sinologists and a writing style which renders the material accessible to those more generally interested in the intellectual history of intellect itself, “Conceptions of Intelligence in Ancient Chinese Philosophy” is a work offering insights on questions of political, philosophical, and historical natures.  



Frantz Fanon, Alienation and Freedom (Bloomsbury, 2018).

Previously unpublished writings by Frantz Fanon have been gathered in English in a new volume edited by Jean Khalfa and Robert J.C. Young (translated by Steven Corcoran). Alienation and Freedom contains much literary and psychiatric work, which, when read alongside Fanon’s canonical texts on colonialism, revolution, and Blackness, should offer a new portrait of the man as well as of the oeuvre which has been so critical for thinking through what it means to be oppressed and what it might mean to be free. I’m looking forward to working through this volume in tandem with a seminar on Capital, as part of a methodological deep-dive on writing about twentieth century anti-imperialism as I move into the prospectus phase of my degree.

Reading Theory, by the Canadian writer Dionne Brand, will be a continuation of this year’s happy regimen of first-person narratives by women, and should arrive in time for me to finish Ottessa Mossfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. In Theory, an unnamed narrator labors on a dissertation that is supposed to be monumental, while being interrupted by the transformative messiness of encounters with other people:

In retrospect, I loved Selah for reasons anyone can understand. First, she loved herself more than she loved me. And this led me to think that I would get some respite from the world, and at the same time receive the little affections I required to complete my life’s work: my dissertation.

I haven’t read it yet, so I can’t say much more than that, but I suspect that September is a good time to turn to books about writing, scholarship, and academic work that allow us not to take this whole enterprise too seriously, all the while underscoring the immense seriousness of even that attempt. Last year at this time I was spending a lot of time with Selin, the undergraduate narrator of Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, and I think Brand’s narrator will also be good company.


At a workshop and in recent articles, I’ve encountered philosophers and intellectual historians grappling with the work of Bernard Williams to understand what we’re doing when we write the “genealogy” of ideas, and why such history matters to the way we think about those ideas. I’ve been interested in the philosophical underpinnings of such stories of the origins and development of ideas for some time, so after reading the philosopher Amia Srinivasan talk about Williams’ thoughts on the topic, I decided to read for myself.


Bernard Williams

Bernard Williams (1929–2003) was a British philosopher who garnered a reputation for refreshingly elegant prose and an attention to the history of ethical ideas that is uncommon to the tradition of analytic philosophy from which he came. In his essay “Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline,” Williams challenges philosophers (and by extension intellectual historians) who build normative claims through concepts to recognize that “in many cases the content of our concepts is a contingent historical phenomenon.” Even though our concepts gain their meaning through history, they often don’t feel like it. Our commitment to the natural equality of people, for instance, seems itself natural and beyond the scope of debate, even though we know that there was a time when no one subscribed to it. Even since people began to subscribe to it they’ve meant very different things by “equality” and “persons.” This orients research toward the explanatory question of why some ideas seem natural, and what conditions perpetuate them.


Dana Goldstein, The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession (Penguin Random House, 2014).

Williams points the way toward the natural assumptions that stay with us as phenomena in need of explaining, and we can take him further to question the sources of the perennial problems that arise when those assumptions diverge. This is the kind of framework in which Dana Goldstein, a reporter at the New York Times, approaches her subject in The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession (2014). In this compelling and accessible history of the teaching profession in the United States, Goldstein illustrates the continuities in debates, separated by centuries, about the professionalism of educators, democratic control of schools and equality of students’ education. She links arguments among nineteenth-century education reformers and early feminists about the professionalization of a teaching field associated with women’s work with contemporary debates about Teach for America and the meaning of a “professional” teaching force. Goldstein doesn’t just remind us that debates that seem new actually aren’t, but also leads the reader to think about whether these disagreements emerge from a recent history of feminization, unionization or integration, or from some deeper national commitment to democratic relations in all institutions. 

How did Catholics Embrace Religious Liberty?

By guest contributor Udi Greenberg

This post is a companion piece to Prof. Greenberg’s article in the most recent issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas, “Catholics, Protestants, and the Tortured Path to Religious Liberty.”

A series of recent controversies in Europe and the United States have sparked intense interest in the scope and limits of religious liberty. Can governments make sure everyone has the right to freely practice their faith? Should they protect this right even if it clashes with other priorities and principles, such as national security imperatives or anti-discrimination statutes? While almost all the participants in these debates—politicians, jurists, commentators, and social thinkers—claim to be defenders of religious freedom, they assign profoundly different meanings, goals, and consequences to this term. Progressives have invoked it to decry anti-Muslim measures such as anti-veil laws in Europe or the “Muslim ban” in the United States, while conservatives have used religious liberty to defend the right to discriminate against single-sex couples, deny access to birth control, and ban displays of certain religious faiths. Perhaps because it is so heavily contested, the language of religious liberty has acquired a significant aura in contemporary public, political, and legal discourse. Like “democracy,” “justice,” and “freedom,” it is a term that radically different camps seek to claim as their own.


Pope Gregory XVI

It can therefore be surprising to remember how recent religious liberty’s popularity is. Few institutions reflect this better than the Catholic Church, which as recently as the early 1960s openly condemned religious freedom as heresy. Throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, Catholic bishops and theologians claimed that the state was God’s “secular arm.” The governments of Catholic-majority countries therefore had the duty to privilege Catholic preaching, education, and rituals, even if they blatantly discriminated against minorities (where Catholic were minority, they could tolerate religious freedom as a temporary arrangement). As Pope Gregory XVI put it in his 1832 encyclical Mirari vos, state law had to restrict preaching by non-Catholics, for “is there any sane man who would say poison ought to be distributed, sold publicly, stored, and even drunk because some antidote is available?” It was only in 1965, during the Second Vatican Council, that the Church formally abandoned this conviction. In its Declaration on Religious Freedom, it formally proclaimed religious liberty as a universal right “greatly in accord with truth and justice.” This was one of the greatest intellectual transformations of modern religious thought.

Why did this change come about? Scholars have provided illuminating explanations over the last few years. Some have attributed it to the mid-century influence of the American constitutional tradition of state neutrality in religious affairs. Others claimed it was part of the Church’s confrontation with totalitarianism, especially Communism, which led Catholics to view the state as a menacing threat rather than ally and protector. My article in the July 2018 issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas uncovers another crucial context that pushed Catholics in this new direction. Religious liberty, it shows, was also fueled by a dramatic change in Catholic thinking about Protestants, namely a shift from centuries of hostility to cooperation and even a warm embrace. Well into the modern era, many Catholic writers continued to condemn Luther and is heirs, blaming them for the erosion of tradition, nihilism, and anarchy. But during the mid-twentieth century, Catholics swiftly abandoned this animosity, and came to see Protestants as brothers in a mutual fight against “anti-Christian” forces, such as Communism, Islam, and liberalism. French Theologian Yves Congar argued in 1937 that the Church transcends its “visible borders” and includes all those who have been baptized, while German historian Joseph Lortz published in 1938 sympathetic historical tomes that depicted Martin Luther and the Reformation as well-meaning Christians. This process of forging inter-Christian peace—which became known as ecumenism—reached its pinnacle in the postwar era. In 1964, it received formal doctrinal approval when Vatican II promulgated a Decree on Ecumenism (1964), which declared Protestants as “brethren.”


Pope Pius X

It was in this context that Catholic leaders also shed their opposition to religious liberty. Catholic thinkers had long demonized religious liberty as a Protestant conspiracy that allowed Luther’s heresy to thrive. This was the spirit in which Pope Pius X, in his famous 1910 encyclical Editae saepe, decried Protestants for “pav[ing] the way for modern rebellions and apostasy.” But after the Church embarked on its quest for cooperation with Protestants, it also reconsidered its approach to state institutions. They no longer required Catholic countries to impose Catholic education and practices. Indeed, for many Catholic writers, interdenominational peace required a new approach to the state, where no church held formal legal hegemony; they believed that the two intellectual projects—making peace with Protestants and revising Catholic teachings on the use of state power—were ultimately inseparable. It was no coincidence that the thinkers who drafted Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom also penned the Decree on Ecumenism. Both texts also emerged from the same organ, the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity.

This story may seem like a scholastic dive into arcane theological debates, but it has broader implications for our own debates about religion and politics. It raises questions about the origins of contemporary laws that regulate religion in Europe and the United States. Reflecting on recent controversies, some scholars have often attributed religious liberty laws to the ideology of “secularism” (or laïcité in French). If countries like France, they have asserted, routinely discriminate against Muslims through actions like banning the veil, it is in part (though not exclusively) because of an obsession with secular public affairs cannot digest certain religious behaviors or open displays of faith. Yet as this story of Catholic thinking reveals, religious liberty is not simply the product of secularist ideas. In some cases, it was the product of inter-confessional peace between Catholics and Protestants, whose architects had no aspirations of promoting universal religious equality. On the ideological level, ecumenical religious freedom in fact sought to maintain religious dominance in the public sphere by joining forces against “anti-Christian” enemies. It thus may be that religious liberty is best understood not only as the product of secular ideas and conditions. Rather, it was also the work of religious actors and ideas—a legacy that continues to profoundly shape contemporary political and public life.

Udi Greenberg is an associate professor of European history at Dartmouth College. He is currently writing a book titled Religious Pluralism in the Age of Violence: Catholics and Protestants from Animosity to Peace, 1879–1970. Together with Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins, he edited a special forum on Christianity and human rights in the latest issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas; the introduction to that forum can be found here.

Introduction: Special Forum on Christianity and Human Rights

By Udi Greenberg (Dartmouth College) and Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins (Yale University)

We are delighted to bring you the Introduction to the Special Forum on Christianity and Human Rights that appears in the latest issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas, by kind permission of the Journal, the University of Pennsylvania Press, and Project MUSE. You can find the Project MUSE page for this introduction here, and the entirety of volume 79, number 3 here.

The intellectual roots of human rights have been a source of much debate, but Christianity’s role in shaping the language of universal equality has been especially controversial. Historians agree that prominent Catholic philosophers, such as Jacques Maritain, were crucial in crafting and popularizing theories of rights, and that Protestant activists, such as American Protestant Frederick Nolde, were instrumental in drafting the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet the lessons that scholars draw from this genealogy are diverse. For some, such as John Nurser, history reveals Christianity as the crucial engine of the modern era’s most celebrated concept. Christians may have engaged in countless brutalities over the centuries, but the Gospel’s universal aspirations also helped bolster peaceful endeavors. Others, such as Samuel Moyn and Joan Scott, have instead claimed that the marriage of Christianity and rights reflect how deeply the language of universal equality preserved traditional hierarchies. Human rights and religious freedom, they claim, were forged by Christian Western Europeans, and were meant to combat Marxists, feminists, Muslims, and anti-colonial activists. In this provocative narrative, the concept of rights was never an equalizing force. Rather, it helped—and still helps today—sustain political, gender, and social inequalities.

This recent debate has centered on the nature of rights, but the essays assembled in this forum seek to push the discussion in a new direction. The authors explore Christian engagement with the idea of rights to better understand the scope and evolution of Christian thought over the last two centuries. Indeed, if the project of mapping human rights’ origins and ascendancy may be now reaching its conclusion, scholars still have much to say on Christianity’s seminal role in shaping modern politics, ideologies, and culture. Having long stood on the margins of modern intellectual history, thinkers who self-identified foremost as Christian—theologians, philosophers, and social theorists—have received growing attention. Protestants and Catholics alike developed comprehensive visions of economic, social, and sexual relations, and repeatedly sought to explain the Gospel’s message regarding varied topics such as Judaism, racial tensions, marriage, and international politics. These projects—which often defied the secular categories of left and right—enjoyed considerable influence, especially in Europe and North America where Christianity remained dominant. They often resonated well beyond theological seminaries and churches, inspiring state laws and policies in a variety of regimes, in colonial, democratic, fascist, or authoritarian settings. Rights often figured prominently in these efforts, as thinkers sought to explain who has what rights and under what conditions. The concept of rights therefore provides a crucial window to an expansive and ongoing intellectual effort.

What is more, exploring the ways in which Christian thinkers grappled with rights helps chart the dramatic shifts that characterized Christianity in the modern era. While the nature and meaning of Christianity had never been stable and was always contested, the centuries that followed the French Revolution brought a new kind of turmoil. Protestants and Catholics confronted a proliferation of ideological projects rooted in non-religious and even atheist assumptions, such as utilitarian morality, racial science, and socialist revolution. For many Christians, secularism’s assumed corrosive impact necessitated a recalibration of Christian life. Many came to believe that if the Gospel were to triumph, the churches would have to rethink their approach to state institutions, foster new alliances with other Christian denominations, and even treat other religious groups (such as Jews or Confucians) as legitimate. Debating the scope and nature of rights stood at the heart of these efforts. Tracing the trajectories of these disputes helps shed light on the complex redrawing of Christianity’s content and borders.

The following essays uncover diverse Christian reflections on rights, from their first sustained appearance in the late eighteenth century until their zenith in the mid-twentieth century. They examine how a panoply of thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic, largely Catholic but also Protestant, utilized rights to rethink Christianity. Taken together, they offer new ways of understanding the transformations of Christian thought in one of its most dynamic and fascinating periods.

Udi Greenberg is an associate professor of European history at Dartmouth College. He is currently writing a book titled Religious Pluralism in the Age of Violence: Catholics and Protestants from Animosity to Peace, 1879-1970.
Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins is a lecturer at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. He is currently writing a book for Columbia University Press titled, The Neoconservative Moment in France: Raymond Aron and the United States