Intellectual history Think Piece

Body and Soul: Dualist Anthropology in the Christian Tradition

By Carolyn Mackie

“You have bewitched me, body and soul, and I love–I love–I love you.Jane Austen’s character Mr. Darcy never actually utters this line in her 1813 masterpiece Pride and Prejudice but placed in the mouth of Matthew Macfadyen in the 2005 movie adaptation, this line has become iconic among fans, spawning fan art, t-shirts, and whole lines of giftware. Although the meaning of Mr. Darcy’s sentiment is still clear to contemporary viewers—his whole person is completely under Elizabeth Bennet’s thrall—the framework of “body and soul” as an account of the human person would have already been out of date in philosophical circles by 1813. The rise of materialism in the last several centuries has made claims to such a framework tenuous. However, the concept and language of the “soul” as a more-than-physical element of human personhood continue to linger in popular culture and in many religious and spiritual traditions. Christianity, in particular, has a long, complicated history with the soul and played an important role in advancing this dualist body/soul anthropology in Western thought.

Birthed out of Judaism and heavily influenced by Greco-Roman thought, Christianity drew on these traditions as it established its own unique identity and doctrines. The concept of a separable, immaterial soul is not found in the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew word nefesh, usually rendered as psuchē in the Septuagint and “soul” in English translations, is closely tied to the terms for “breath” and “to breathe,” particularly the breath that God breathed into the first human (Gen: 2.7). Benjamin P. Blosser describes nefesh as referring to “the  totality of conscious, bodily life” (208), a definition that is consonant with the biblical text’s focus on the human as “embedded in a community, and a communal history” (208). Under Hellenistic influence, Jewish thought eventually expanded to include the idea of a soul, but this was always couched within this fulsome concept of an embodied, embedded human person (209).

In contrast to Jewish thought, Greek philosophy had well-established notions of a separable, immaterial soul, particularly in the Platonic tradition. As Christianity developed, its thinkers borrowed from Greek traditions and adopted a body/soul anthropological structure. Yet this did not entail a wholesale acceptance of Greek anthropology. Christianity’s Jewish roots, as well as its central claims of incarnation and resurrection, resisted body/soul dualisms, at least to the extent that these were hierarchical, denigrating the body and elevating the soul, or prone to divide the human person too sharply. The Christian Gospel of John opened with the outrageous (to Greek ears) affirmation that the logos had become sarkos—flesh—in the person of Jesus Christ (John 1:14), thereby granting flesh an essential significance in the new religion. The equally startling contention that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead, so central to the proclamation of the new faith, meant that bodies had enduring importance after death, a claim that ran counter to prevailing Greek anthropologies, which tended to see death as releasing the soul from the encumbrances of the material world. That bodies were good had to be accepted to make sense of these new Christian beliefs. This did not stop groups such as the Gnostic sect from arising within Christianity and asserting that human bodies were inherently evil; however, the doctrines of orthodox Christianity were formalized and articulated against such claims.

As early church fathers formulated these official doctrines, their claims about Jesus Christ were closely intertwined with ideas about human nature. Judaism has always held human beings to be created imago Dei, in the image of God (Gen. 1:27), providing an explicit rationale for human dignity and the sacredness of human life (Gen. 9:6). New Testament writers such as St. Paul stated that Jesus Christ was the image of God (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15), and early Christians were quick to draw the connections between the two ideas. A common theme was that one of the purposes of the incarnation was to renew the imago Dei in human nature, and correlations between Christology and human nature were explicitly forged early on. Church fathers drew on body/soul anthropologies to grapple with the complexities of articulating the incarnation, and the idea that a human being is a union of body and soul was frequently used as an imperfect analogy with which to explicate the union of divine and human in Jesus Christ. In a strange circularity of ideas, this doctrine of Christ’s two natures, which had been explicated in part by appealing to dualist anthropology, was later used to reinforce this same anthropological framework. For example, Augustine (354-430) pointed to Jesus Christ’s two natures in order to affirm the soul-body harmony of the human person. This kind of argument demonstrates how intimately body and soul were understood to be connected to one another. 

Although Christian thinkers drew on body/soul dualism to help clarify their understanding of Jesus Christ, their anthropological ideas also led to some very specific Christological difficulties. One of the big controversies was whether Christ had a human soul or whether he was just divine nature in a human body. Early ecumenical councils affirmed that to be fully human, Jesus Christ must have both a human body and a “rational soul,” in addition to a full divine nature. Similarly, the third Council of Constantinople (680-681) affirmed that Christ had a divine and a human will and a divine and a human “energy” (energeia).     

Christians in the second through fifth centuries wrestled with the question of how and when souls were created—a difficulty that Greek philosophers had contended with previously. Some Christian thinkers (such as Origen) adopted the idea, common in Platonic thought, that souls are already pre-existent before conception. (The Pixar movie Soul provides a good contemporary depiction of this theory). This was often resisted, primarily because it was associated with Gnosticism and was, frankly, too dualistic for Christian sensibilities. Another theory, traducianism, held that the soul is inherited from one’s parents and generated naturally through biological processes. This theory was popular with early church fathers (such as Tertullian and Gregory of Nyssa), but as Neoplatonism gained in popularity among Christian thinkers, traducianism was looked on with increasing suspicion.

The earliest evidence of a third theory, creationism, dates to the beginning of the fourth century, in the writings of Lactantius (250-325). Innovating beyond existing Greek concepts, creationism credited God with directly creating and implanting individual souls within bodies. While this theory eased Neoplatonist concerns about organically produced souls, it created new theological problems. Many church fathers believed that sin (and thereby mortality) was an inherited quality; some went so far as to specify that it was passed down through the sexual relations that resulted in conception. (In this framework, the virgin birth of Christ was crucial to the belief that Christ was without sin.) While this theory of biologically inherited sin and mortality worked well with traducianism, it sat uneasily with creationism, which posited a divine origin of the soul without the aid of biological processes. Despite this inconsistency that could not be satisfactorily resolved, figures such as St. Jerome (c. 342-420) and Pope Leo I (c. 400-461) advanced creationism, and it became the dominant theory by the end of the fifth century.

In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas and other prominent thinkers drew heavily on Aristotelian thought. For Aristotle, the soul informs the body as form does matter (hylomorphism). Medieval thinkers who adopted hylomorphism struggled with whether each body can be said to have a unique soul, rather than being informed by a universal soul. Although some, such as Aquinas, maintained that each person has a unique soul, there was lingering uncertainty amongst others as to how or if this could be adequately proved. Unlike the Platonic soul, Aristotle’s conception of the soul does not lend itself as readily to having a separable substance of its own. John Holdane argues that, for Aquinas, “a living human being is not a conjunction of two substances – body and soul – but a single unitary subject” (300). Caroline Walker Bynum affirms that “medieval people understood the self as a psychosomatic unity” and that “the specificity of person was understood to be carried not by soul but by body” (xvi). At the same time, we can see ways in which body and soul were sometimes divided conceptually in such a way as to legitimize horrific abuse of the body even while claiming the good of the soul. For example, the papal bull Romanus Pontifex (1454), one of the bulls that laid the foundation for the Doctrine of Discovery, expresses the hope that “the souls” of those enslaved “will be gained for Christ.”

With the advent of the Enlightenment, ideas about human nature shifted significantly. Many scholars have noted the “turn to the subject” that characterizes modernity, with Descartes as an obvious critical juncture in this movement. Jürgen Moltmann explains how old ideas about the soul were translated within this changing modern landscape: “Following the Christian tradition in its Augustinian form, Descartes no longer understands the soul as a higher substance: he sees it as the true subject, both in the human body and in the world of things. He translates the old body-soul dualism into the modern subject-object dichotomy” (250). Additionally, Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen notes that in Descartes’ sharpened dualism, “soul” becomes essentially equated with “mind”—the climax of a longstanding urge to link the human person’s “rational” capacities with the soul and with the imago Dei.

If Descartes and his peers began to understand the soul as the true subject in opposition to the world of objects (including the soul’s own body), soon enough the idea of a “soul” itself began to be questioned. Instead of a substantial, immaterial soul, philosophers began to think about personhood in terms of a “self.” English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) represents one of the major shifts in this direction. Yet for Locke, who retained his Christian faith even as many of his philosophical beliefs changed, this shift brought weighty ethical concerns along with it. Locke worried that without the concept of a substantial soul, it would be difficult to account for the continuity of personal identity across time, particularly across the dissolution and reassembling of matter that would need to take place in the resurrection. Without maintaining personal identity, individuals could not stand before the Judgment Throne of God after death and be held accountable for their actions in life. In light of these concerns, Locke began to consider new ways of assigning identity across time, such as consciousness and memory. Locke suggested that matter might be capable of thought, paving the way for other thinkers to consider that consciousness itself might be an emergent property of matter. (Although Locke’s suggestion sparked horror among many of his peers, it arguably holds similarities to the much older Christian tradition of traducianism.)

The problem of maintaining personal identity across time and change has proved to be a thorny philosophical issue, one of the major losses incurred by the absence of a substantial, immaterial soul. The last few centuries of Western thought have seen a flowering of theories of identity, with recognition of the significance of material conditions, other selves, linguistic communities, narratives, and so on, for the establishment of personal identity. Yet despite these significant shifts, the concept of an immaterial soul still lingers in odd places in popular consciousness and continues to carry weight in such conversations as the ethics of abortion or AI. In Christian theology, the concept of the soul still persists in many quarters, even though physicalist accounts of the human person are becoming more widely accepted. It remains to be seen whether Christian churches will incorporate these physicalist accounts doctrinally, or whether the idea of an immaterial soul will ultimately prove too bewitching.

Carolyn Mackie is a PhD candidate at the Toronto School of Theology, University of Toronto. She focuses her research on the connections between Christian theology of incarnation and philosophical anthropology in the writings of Søren Kierkegaard. She is a regular contributor at the Women in Theology blog.

Edited by Parker Cotton

Featured Image: British Library digitised image from page 22 of “The Lamentable Vision of the Devoted Hermit (written of a sadly deceived soul and its body) [Translated by William Yates. With woodcuts.]”

Intellectual history Think Piece

Biography Under Scrutiny

By Paula Bruno

The last two decades have seen the publication of works that, when read together, make it possible to map the state of the art of what I choose to call “biographical studies”. Most of these works were published in European countries: Spain, France, England, and Italy. Thus, today we can, to contemplate a bibliographic corpus comprising the works of François Dose, Hermione Lee, Sabina Loriga, Isabel Burdiel and Roy Foster (free to download), and complement these contributions in volume format with a selection of dossiers from academic journals published in recent years. Furthermore, it is also quite common to read that the genre of biography has been renewed in different academic circles, an observation borne out by rising output rates and the recurrence of optimistic comments on the subject.

Most of the diagnoses of biography available today, as well as the space taken up by the genre within the different spheres of knowledge production, spring from a specific historical moment:  1989. The explanation? Is a familiar one: the crisis of great explanatory paradigms opened up a field that was at once chaotic and fertile, offering an opportunity to revisit political, social, cultural and historical issues. As is already known, the idea of crisis per se prompted readings colored by both pessimistic and optimistic hues at the same time. From another point of view, this seemed to be a historical moment with the possibility of a new foundation. In such a context, biography offered a way of escape or renewal.

Many of biographies’ writers have an active experience of this historiographical scenario. In fact, practically all of them have developed their careers in university lecture rooms and social spaces where the great explanatory paradigms of the 20th century (mainly, marxism, social history and structuralism) were never questioned. And yet, as the century advanced, in parallel with its scholarly output, the idea of crisis, chaos, and confusion became commonplace. These biographical marks may well appear in several of the published texts outlining post-1989 diagnoses, and, in turn, they share many optimistic assertions. It is as if the genre of biography had operated, in some cases, as an antidote to chaos and confusion. In fact, the idea of renewal and a fresh direction associated with the biographical genre seems to be a formula enabling various authors writing about biography to conjure up the ghost of the historiographical crisis. Whereas there was an attempt to recover the individual and the subjective in passing from the macro to the micro, and the historian tried to give room to faces and voices that had faded into the context of all-encompassing umbrella labels; that is to say, whereas the writer made an effort to “humanize” the Social Sciences and the Humanities, biography as a formula presented as an effective way of restoring the human visage buried by the study of collective actors. In this way, the individual or collective biography offers something akin to a redemptive logic in the passage from macrosocial history to the valuation of the micro, the individual and the subjective, in its different expressions. Thus, the expansion of biographical forms began to convey a certain confidence in the attempt to respond to a paradigmatic crisis.

Combining the arguments expressed above enables us to observe that biography as a form was considered a response to two issues. Firstly, it provided an answer to the crisis of historiographical and academic production, and secondly, it was a way of releasing academics from scientism and the parochial world of their peers. It gave them an opportunity to cross the bridge and ensure that this historical discipline, like some irreducible mandate, would definitively reach the market of readers, one that had expanded due to its interest in the past. The discipline seemed capable of responding to certain demands made by society as a consumer of historical knowledge, by offering biographical accounts, a trait that generally tends to be naturalized, as if it were obvious that there exists a common sense of widespread historical curiosity. In some diagnoses, therefore, the link between the market and academic output is key to considering the role of biography in recent decades. There seems to be an overriding optimism regarding the sentence uttered in 1989 by Marc Ferro: biography has never been a taboo subject for the general public, although it has been for professional historians.

Some of the contributions published since the late 1980s to the present have stressed the need to denature the concept of biography, and not consider it from an innocent point of view. In 1989, Giovanni Levi warned about the multiple ways in which it could occur, and only a short while later, Sabina Loriga drew attention to the concept of the biographical form as a problem. A few years ago, I attempted to deepen this analysis in the Hispanic-American sphere with the coordination and publication of a dossier in a specialized journal, entitled Biografía e historia. Reflexiones y perspectivas (Biography and history. Reflections and perspectives)”. In the introduction, I pointed out the need to establish whether, when referring to the concept of biography, one was making reference to a genre, a method, or a resource—or to some combination of these possibilities. I consider that making this differentiation is central, essentially, to thinking about the relationship between biography and history.

In some of the panoramic texts referred to above, the distinctions between biography as a genre, method, and resource overlap or are otherwise indistinguishable. Although perhaps it is somewhat schematic to state this, I think that the distinction can serve to drive a reflection on the subject. If we take biography as a genre—the biographical genre—we can group together in particular those writings that take biography as a narrative form. Starting from this main/central consideration, one can consider both the market of the broad audiences interested in reading about the past, and the relationships between different biographic and literary forms. I believe that the question of biography as a genre prompts debate about narrative forms and about the relationship—not necessarily always friendly in nature—between reality and fiction. In fact, in much of the output examining biographical studies, appeals are made to historians who turn their hand to the biographical genre, enjoining them to read more novels in order to gain additional sensibility, improve their style, enhance their attention to plot, characters, and suspense, among many other tips concerned with writing a good biography. These issues lead to the already classical debate on the relationships between content and form, and accentuate the importance of the second aspect of this formula when thinking about the effectiveness of the narration of a person’s life.

On the other hand, if we think on biography as a method, it is possible to articulate considerations about biographical issues with debates linked to the possibilities of knowledge. At this point, I think the question that arises is deceivingly simple: What, and to what extent, can be known through the study/narration of a person’s life? Telling the story of a life tells us about certain issues lying in the past; in this sense, biography is a tool of knowledge and understanding, and of course we should contemplate its scope and limits.

As a third modulation, and perhaps the most widespread, biography appears as a resource or an “excuse”. That is, profiles, character sketches or careers are used as a way of explaining historical processes or more general issues, rather than as an end in themselves. In several texts, there is an abundance of metaphors referring to biography as a “window” shedding light on an era, as a “viewpoint” from which to approach a given process, as a “magnifying glass” able to home in on certain aspects of the context, for instance. In fact, biographical portraits very often illustrate some aspect already taken as valid, in order to support regularities or generalizations—or, at the other extreme, to highlight exceptional cases and possibilities arising on the sidelines.

In short, although the three options—genre, method and resource—can coexist harmoniously in research experiences, I believe that any debates on these would be quite prolific. In other words, there is a kind of false consensus that biography is such-and-such-a-thing, or that it serves one purpose rather than another, essentially resting on gray definitions. At this point, it is convenient to draw attention to a clue lying in the name of the academic network handling these issues in Europe, whose members are the authors of works included in the Burdiel and Foster compilation; it is the “European Network of the Theory and Practice of Biography”. The compilation assembled by Burdiel and Foster, including contributions by the members of this network, explicitly takes a stand on these points of view by inverting the notion of “historical biography” and referring instead, to a “biographical history”. This approach attempts to resolve some of the more prominent methodological and narrative issues by referring to “biographical” as an adjective rather than “biography” as a noun. That is to say, the “biographical history”—a term coined by Sabina Loriga—would become yet another historical area, viz. political, cultural, social, intellectual, or biographical. In a complementary direction, authors such as Bernard Pudal have called attention to the use of the words biography as a noun and biographical as an adjective when working in the field of Humanities and Social Sciences.

The notions generally attributed to the biographical genre, and to the biographer as an author, suggest a tension intrinsic to the analysis of the relationship between the marginal and the central within academic fields. It is quite common to find references to the genre of biography as the bearer of the attractions of “all things rare and unusual”, meaning unique and particular. This idea gives rise to considerations about biographers as if they were the only ones capable of attaining certain privileges when dealing with the past. The metaphors used tend to be recurrent: it is often pointed out that biographers are passionate, they deploy investigative, even detective-type operations, they are capable of donning the garb of mediums able to tune into a deep understanding of the intentions and emotions of those who are the subject of the biography. Sometimes, it is even suggested that biographies produce an intimate experience, at once unique, exciting, and full of rewarding surprises. Some of these aspects are emphasized and deepened, particularly when issues related to some form of “identification” enter the scene; for example, sharing a gender, the same profession, or a special form of aesthetic sensibility. There is also the idea that writing about other people’s lives arouses certain sensations and feelings, creating a vicarious sense of living certain experiences, and deciphering the intricate depths of the human soul. Accordingly, the act of composing a biography is punctuated by expressions linked to adventure, challenge, kinship and passion. In short, some considerations would suggest that the epistemological or cognitive experience prompted by biographical research is in fact a unique privilege. In tension with this view is the emphasis on the marginal importance afforded to the biographer in the academic world, sometimes expressed in the selfsame texts. I believe that this tension between attribute and stigma is sometimes indicative of the failure to take a stand concerning the claim that the study of a life—or a group of lives—can be a form of understanding or accessing the past. That is to say, perhaps, that by insisting on the particular and intimate bond established between the biographer and their subject, one omits the explicit mention of which kinds of questions lead to a certain form of biographical investigation.

In short, there is a tension between marginality and privilege, conditions inherent to a long history of biography as a genre, amply sustained by both its admirers and detractors, and reconstructed in exemplary fashion by Sabina Loriga. This means that in some way, those interested in biographical studies end up trapped in debates designed for the few, instead of decisively intervening in more general issues linked to the production of knowledge. As Arnaldo Momigliano pointed out decades ago: “biography has acquired an ambiguous role in historical research: it can either be an instrument of social research, or it can be an escape from social research.” These words shine a light on what is possibly the main challenge facing the biographer: deciding whether biography is enough in itself as a way of understanding past events and developments, or assuming that biography must be problematic to provide an insight into the past.

Paula Bruno holds a PhD in History from Universidad de Buenos Aires. She has been a visiting researcher at School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (Paris), European University Institute (Florence), Complutense University of Madrid, University of Barcelona, University of Girona, “José María Luis Mora” Research Institute (Mexico City), National Autonomous University of Mexico, Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, University of Verona, Ibero-American Institute of Berlin, Madrid Institute for Advanced Study (MIAS), among others. 

She is founder and current Academic Director of the Network for Biographical Studies of Latin America (REBAL). Also, she has founded the first Public History Laboratory in the Southern Cone.

She has published Paul Groussac. Un estratega intelectual (2005), Travesías intelectuales de Paul Groussac (2004), Pioneros culturales de la Argentina. Biografías de una época, 1860-1910, (2011), Martin García Mérou. Vida intelectual y diplomática en las Américas (2018 ), Embajadoras culturales. Mujeres latinoamericanas y vida diplomática, 1860-1960 (whit Alexandra Pita y Marina Alvarado, 2021), among other books, and many academic articles.

Edited by Pablo Martínez Gramuglia

Featured Image: Empty Frames, courtesy of the author.

Intellectual history Think Piece

A Positivist Critique of “Positivism”: Re-reading Auguste Comte

By Giovanni Minozzi

In one of the first ever television broadcasts devoted to the teaching of philosophy, French philosopher Georges Canguihem argued that one cannot distinguish between “true” and “false” philosophies, but only between “great” and “modest” ones; and that, in the end, “a great philosophy is a philosophy that left behind an adjective in popular language”. If we adopt this criterion, we must recognize that if there is one philosophy that was influential for the socio-political reality of his time as well as ours it is that of Auguste Comte (1798-1857). Despite having introduced the words “altruism” and “sociology”, as well as the motto “Order and Progress” which can still be read on the Brazilian flag, the adjective we tend to associate with Comte, and for which he is so (in)famous, is another: positivist. But why, then, is he such an obscure, misunderstood, if not entirely forgotten character?

Since Stuart Mill’s interpretation and its surreptitious conflation with neo-positivism, the term has been progressively reduced to a doxastic meaning and identified with empiricist epistemologies, scientistic conceptions of politics as technocratic administration, or with an optimistic, determinist and evolutionary ideology embedded in the “solutionist” faith in the technological capabilities of mankind. By adopting a historico-conceptual perspective, this piece will discuss how Comtean thought departs from this simplifying picture. Contrary to common representations of positivism, it will reactivate what the epistemologist Gaston Bachelard called the “sense of the problem” that originally animated Comte’s thought.  Namely, the all-modern problem, at least since Hobbes, of conceiving a political thought that is able to reflect in scientific terms while accounting for the political role of such science(s). In this respect, we will contend that Comte himself provides us with the tools to critique the form of “scientism” with which positivism has been equated.

In fact, Comte can be defined the “first modern epistemologist”, insofar as he refused to identify this discipline with the psychological description of a fixed set of cognitive operations ascribed to a universal subject, or with a theory of “science” (in the singular), conceived as a metalinguistic and normative paradigm to which the empirical sciences should conform. On the contrary, Comte advocated his positive philosophy was a historical and pluralistic model for understanding the sciences. In his eyes, defending the specificity of their objects and the diversity of their methods was a prerequisite for grasping their constitution and their mutual influences, as well as their convergence towards a “positive method” that, against Descartes, could only be known a posteriori.

Although Comte claimed that “ideas govern the world”, and that the progress of the sciences was the key for comprehending history, his conception of the latter was by no means intellectualistic. Sciences emerged from the complex interplay of social, political, economic, and technological processes with the increasing capacity to re-orient such processes. Though the evolutionary and teleological traits of Comte’s philosophy have often been reduced to a caricatural form of historicist eschatology, his account of the history of sciences was actually much more akin to what Althusser would call an “overdetermined” process. The “progress” of sciences is therefore neither neutral nor linear and, to that extent, positivism is actually the opposite of a scientism, insofar as it was able to anticipate some crucial themes of what would become the sociology of knowledge, as Norbert Elias noted.

This has important consequences for the “politics of science” that positivism seems to imply, which is surrounded by some major misunderstandings. Since Comte was the first to systematically describe the ideological function that the sciences and scientists had come to play in post-revolutionary societies, that is, as social forces capable of replacing the hegemony of theological thought, his vision has often been mistaken as that of a counterrevolutionary thinker, proposing an authoritarian cult of science.

The misunderstanding stems from the fact that, as he developed his sociology, Comte was actually building a radically critical science that discussed the conceptual impasses of representative democracy. The “logical mechanism” it built through concepts such as the sovereignty of the people, unlimited freedom of conscience, social contract, general will, were for Comte mere reversals of the dogmas of theological thought. Such pivotal concepts for western constitutionalism as well as for current political imagination were originally mobilized by the metaphysical rationalism of jurists [légistes] and philosophies of natural right –noticeably that of Hobbes– to disrupt an increasingly oppressive traditional authority. Rather than build a lasting political order, Comte believed these concepts gave rise to a new “despotism” that sprang from the tension between the absolute nature of laws enacted by parliaments, as representatives of the will of the people, and the increasingly unchallenged assertion of private interest, theorized by political economy which sought to be the sole regulator of society.

In other words, since the very first development of his positive philosophy, Comte became aware of the organic link between the establishment of democracy, the consolidation of the bourgeoisie and the accumulation of capital. He witnessed how the societies that emerged from the French Revolution tended to remove the question of political authority by dissolving it into that of democratic legitimacy. As a political system based on a consensual concept of public opinion and on the disparity of material assets, it emerged from the aggregation of individual interests. While such historical and political transformations took place, Comte perceived that science could provide humanity with the means to progressively overriding such kinds of representative legitimacy. His positivist philosophy sought to pave the way for the construction of a new kind of authority at a time when science was gradually contesting and disagreeing with the ideal of an abstract “freedom of thought” and the decision-making mechanisms characteristic of modern democracies.

At first, Comte seemed to pin all his hopes on a new class of scientists. He attributed sociologists with the capacity of positively studying social phenomena and, consequently, orienting the political decisions of rulers. This has led notorious liberal critics such as Hayek to reduce Comte’s positivism to a technocratic and authoritarian form of “social engineering”. Following such line of thought, we could affirm Comte actually foresaw a trend that was destined to explode in the 20th century, even foreshadowing current debates that question the relationship between scientific knowledge and political decision-making today, such as discussions on epistocracy. If we attend his writings, however, we notice that Comte never proposed a simplistic idea of “scientific rule”. In fact, he saw the populist implications of sovereignty and the elitist tendencies of Guizot’s (but also Mill’s and Tocqueville’s) capacity-based liberalism as two sides of the same coin. The sociology he was conceiving had other was of interplaying and dialoguing with the transformations of power mechanisms and their relation to the society of his time.

Recovering the medieval distinction between temporal and spiritual power, which had been apparently overcome by modern democracy, Comte entrusted sociologists, “specialists of generalities” who should have a monopoly on education, with a role of intellectual guidance of the people and moral restraint towards rulers. But as he advanced in his work, he gradually became more critical of the scientific class. Indeed, scientists themselves were prey to the contemporary division of labor. Abandoned to its dynamics of self-regulation as conceived by political economists, scientific work ended up isolating science’s individuals more and more from the rest of society. Far from justifying a neutral idea of science, or a sectarian conception of “expertise”, Comte insisted on the social nature of all sciences. With an extravagant clarity, he posed the problem of articulating the relationship between their necessary autonomy while posing the need for them to respond to social concerns that could respond and be accessible to common sense.

This insistence on the “popular nature of spiritual power” became crucial during the Revolution of 1848, when Comte went so far as to propose a “spiritual coalition” between philosophers, proletarians, and women. As the classes which were systematically excluded from participation in political government, his concept of spiritual power sought to render them the source of moral authority, according to which the new “sociocracy” ought to be governed. Paradoxically, this invocation of a spiritual dimension of politics, which Comte takes up in part from counterrevolutionary thinkers but mainly from his earliest Saint-Simonian collaborations, has nothing nostalgic about it: there is no turning back from the modern revolution. On the contrary, his sociology even showed how the supposedly “secular” democratic concepts fell victim to an implicit theology, which assigned them a providential and absolute character. Rather than advocating a form of technocracy, Comte denounced it in advance as a risk inherent to the conceptual structure of nascent democracies, caught in the contradiction between the formal nature of sovereignty and the concrete exercise of power.

It is nonetheless undeniable that after the bloody June Days of 1848 and the 1851 coup d’état, Comte’s thought took a more authoritarian turn. During the first years of Napoléon III’s Empire, he increasingly placed his hopes in a form of dictatorship that would enable humanity to overcome the “great crisis” of the modern transition. Although the dictatorship could be headed by a proletarian elite, it would forcibly have to be enlightened by a growing control of spiritual power, coordinated by a positivist pope, who would be none other than Comte himself. But even in this sort of “mental degeneration”, Comte undoubtedly grasped some decisive issues, whether by anticipating debates that took place during the 20th century, or even contemporary problems that only today are appearing to us in their full extent.

As the last phase of his intellectual production shows, Comte presented the need for a new science, which he called “morality” or “anthropology”, capable of bridging the individual to his society, as well as understanding man in his complexity. This implied the need to conceive mankind’s symbolic production as a manifestation of universal laws that cut across cultures. By doing so, Comte increasingly broke with the evolutionary premises of his (in)famous “law of the three stages” (or rather states). Instead, he emphasized the role of fetishism, conceived no longer as a “primitive” form of thought, but as a logical-affective power of comprehension and invention that lingers even in the self-proclaimed advanced societies, therefore seeking to reconciling it with positivism. This may explain why an author like Lévi-Strauss would see in Comte the forerunner of a structural approach to anthropology, capable of confronting what Mauss called the “total social fact”.

Such an appreciation of fetishism, coupled with the value he attached to the life sciences as a historical threshold (let us not forget that the first Société de biologie was founded by two of Comte’s own disciples), also makes him an forerunner of ecological issues. Between science and religion, it is biology that both provides the basis for the study of the human species and establishes the limits of its actions upon a given environment without irreparably altering its “conditions of existence”. Comte’s biology was thus conceived as a modern form of cult which does not forget its scientific roots, incorporating fetishism to establish a relationship of harmonic polarity between humanity as a transformative agent and the “Great-Fetish” that is the Earth. A topic that seems to reappear, without being explicitly noticed, in the work of contemporary sociologists like Latour. Finally, by envisioning a sociocracy that would finally enable humanity to govern itself on a global level, Comte’s critique of democracy essentially turned out to be a fervent anti-slavery and anti-colonialist critique of that very “metaphysical” notion of progress with which we tend to associate it. In his eyes, such an abstract notion of progress was nothing more than an ideology that conceived of its relationship with the other in terms of predation and assimilation. As humanity united on a spiritual level, he predicted that the very modern States responsible for such policies were destined to crumble into a federation of small homelands.

In short, it is in the very movement of Comte’s thought that the critique of scientism, usually associated with positivism, is manifested. And if all his philosophy is animated by the question of what it means to be modern, we might say that positivism is, in the most proper sense, the symptom of this unresolved tension within modernity: that between sciences, and social sciences in particular, as vectors of society’s self-understanding and emancipation, or as instruments of their disciplining and technocratic control.

Giovanni Minozzi holds a joint PhD degree in political philosophy by the University of Padova and the Laboratoire interdisciplinaire d’études sur les réflexivités – Fonds Yan Thomas (LIER-FYT) at the EHESS (Paris). His dissertation focused on the relationship between epistemology and politics in the thought of Auguste Comte. His main areas of interest are French historical epistemology, the history of social sciences, and the concept of ideology.

Edited by Matias X. Gonzalez

Featured Image showing Auguste Comte by Rocco Taglialegne (Courtesy of the author).

Intellectual history

“Never Again Auschwitz” or “Never Again War”? An Interview with Andrew I. Port

By Jonathon Catlin

Andrew I. Port is a Professor of History at Wayne State University, the former editor-in-chief of Central European History, and the author of Conflict and Stability in the German Democratic Republic (Cambridge, 2007). His latest book, Never Again: Germans and Genocide after the Holocaust (Harvard/Belknap, 2023), examines how divided postwar Germany mobilized the memory of its National Socialist past as it confronted other genocides abroad. From the mid-1970s, as harrowing reports of mass killings in Cambodia, Bosnia, and Rwanda reached Germany, different political factions recognized aspects of their history and drew often-conflicting lessons from it: Germans had to collectively ask whether “Never Again” meant “Never Again Auschwitz,” and thus entailed support for humanitarian military interventions to prevent genocide, or “Never Again War,” proposing “total peace” as the antidote to “total war.” The question was: “Did the Nazi past oblige Germans to take action to prevent atrocities—or compel them to refrain from intervening at all?” (27). Port’s timely book appears amidst debates about the meaning of Holocaust memory in a diversifying Germany, especially regarding historical comparisons, and at a moment when Western states and commentators have compelled Germany to take a stronger stance against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Contributing editor Jonathon Catlin interviewed Port about his new book.


Jonathon Catlin: Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann has argued that “we can first speak of individual human rights as a basic concept (Grundbegriff ), that is, a contested, irreplaceable and consequential concept of global politics, only in the 1990s,” which saw the first “political or military intervention that was justified through human rights” (282, 285). To put this Carl Schmitt- and Reinhart Koselleck-inspired claim more bluntly: concepts only realize their true force when they are used to kill. Your book offers a parallel argument about the notion of “Never Again” in German politics, which similarly begins with the Bosnian genocide in 1995. Can you begin by explaining why the 1990s are such a pivotal period in your narrative?

Andrew Port: The 1990s are so important because they marked the first time since World War II that Germans soldiers participated in combat missions abroad, most famously—or infamously, depending on your point of view—in the Balkans in 1999. Kosovo was in a league of its own, but the Rubicon had already been crossed earlier that decade. German military medics and border guards were sent to Cambodia from 1991 to 1993 following the end of a decade-long, post-genocidal civil war. This was the first major deployment of the Bundeswehr since 1945, as well as its largest “out-of-area” assignment beyond NATO territory up to that point. The deployment to Bosnia in 1995 marked an even greater break involving active participation in noncombat military measures, a novum solemnly and sometimes angrily acknowledged by leading German politicians. Not by chance, these missions involved countries that had recently experienced the scourge of genocide, and they would have been unimaginable before the end of the Cold War.

There were good reasons, to be sure, why unified Germany assumed a more interventionist political, humanitarian, and military role on the world stage at precisely this point in time. Unification was a watershed moment, and the now fully sovereign country had greater room for maneuver. This allowed it to be more self-assertive and more interventionist. That said, German leaders remained committed to the same core principles that had guided the Federal Republic’s foreign policy since its inception: caution and a commitment to working together with others in a multilateral framework. Nevertheless, leading public figures in Germany and abroad began to call for—and the Federal Republic proved willing to assume—greater international responsibility and a more robust role on the world stage.

All of this coincided with the emergence, as you note, of a post–Cold War “liberal consensus” about a duty to defend human rights and use military force to protect civilians. The decade also witnessed an explosion of NGOs dedicated to humanitarian work around the world. Germans who wished to make a difference had greater opportunities to participate in the global maze of transnational networks and connections. That desire, in turn, had a great deal to do with the relationship of many Germans to their country’s past—precisely at a time when most Germans had come to feel deep shame for the extermination of the Jews, and to recall their own suffering and sense of victimhood during the 1940s.

JC: You devote considerable attention to the West German Green Party, formed in 1980, whose changing orientation toward pacifism is particularly striking because of its roots in the dissident student radicalism of the Cold War. In 1995, its leading figure Joschka Fischer called for Germany to offer a “military guarantee” for Bosnian-Muslim safe zones and to use “all means at their disposal” to confront this new “fascism,” or risk a “political and moral failure” like their complicit forebears under National Socialism (3). “For Fischer,” you write, “the primary lesson of National Socialism was ‘Never Again Auschwitz,’” whereas his opponents’ dictate was “Never Again War” (3-4). Was Fischer a unique or exemplary voice in this debate?

AP: Joschka Fischer’s call for a “military guarantee” came after the Srebrenica massacre of July 1995. When the true extent of the carnage became known that fall, the future foreign minister upped the ante and called on the international community to adopt a “genocide clause” that would oblige the UN to intervene militarily whenever the threat of genocide arose.

His proposals caused a storm within the party, which reached its climax that December at a major conference in Bremen. As I recount in the Prologue, Fischer’s genocide clause failed to carry the day, but it did receive support from almost 40 percent of the delegates. He and his supporters considered this a victory of sorts, given previously lopsided Green Party votes rejecting the use of military force under any circumstances.

There was certainly considerable support for Fischer’s views within the party leadership and even the leftist press. The situation at the grassroots looked much different, and I know this from the many letters to the editor published at the time, as well as from the stack of protest letters I found in the archives accusing Fischer of “selling out” the party’s pacifist principles for supposedly venal political purposes. All of this foreshadowed the nasty debates between so-called Realos and Fundis that would tear the party apart later that decade, when Fischer, now serving as foreign minister, came out strongly in favor of German military action in Kosovo.

Fischer was a dissenting voice for much of the 1990s, then, but the Greens as a whole gradually moved in his direction. Take the current German foreign minister, Green politician Annalena Baerbock, who commented last year, just days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, that NATO was the “guarantee for our security and freedom.” That must have come as a shock to her party’s founding generation, which, let’s not forget, had called for the dissolution of the Western military alliance in the 1980s! Fischer and his supporters may have lost the battle in Bremen in 1995, but they eventually won the war.

That said, most Germans—including the Greens—felt and feel ambivalent about the use of military force and especially the deployment of German soldiers. Differences of opinion went straight through all the mainstream parties and their constituencies in the 1990s—and, as one Green parliamentarian commented in 1995 following Srebrenica, “also through many of us” individually (278). And that continues to be the case today.

JC: You also pay close attention to distinct waves of Holocaust memory in the two Germanies. While there was in fact significant attention to Nazi crimes in both East and West Germany in the immediate postwar decades, until the 1970s, it tended to overlook the specific persecution of Jews and to relativize it against the wartime suffering of bombed German cities and expellees from the East. In the first section of your book on Cambodia, you note that the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime was driven from power the very same month the miniseries Holocaust, which was watched by nearly half of West Germans, first aired in January 1979. In the West German press, especially on the anticommunist right, analogies abounded between Pol Pot and Hitler and descriptions of the atrocities as “Asia’s Auschwitz” and Holocaust in Cambodia. Beyond this episode becoming “an ideological Cold War cudgel (63), I also see it as illustrating Michael Rothberg’s notion of “multidirectional memory.” Following Croce, it’s clear that aspects of the past always achieve new significance in light of present concerns, but Rothberg goes further in emphasizing the potential for revisiting traumatic histories, in particular, to generate new intersectional solidarities. You seem a bit more circumspect, noting the dangers here as well.

AP: I’m not sure I understand the negative response, in some circles, to Rothberg’s concept of “multidirectional memory.” To suggest that there are potential (scholarly) benefits to “cross-referencing” different types of historical violence strikes me as eminently reasonable—almost banal. But Rothberg’s larger point is a different one: There is no need for an “ugly contest of victimization.” Oppressed groups can learn from the experiences of others, not least to articulate—and cope with—memories of their own painful past. The fear (and danger), as Rothberg realizes, is that this will lead to a relativization of the other group’s experiences, and concerns on that score seem greatest when it comes to the Holocaust. As I have argued elsewhere, these debates are often about inferred intent and supposed subtexts, frequently leading to claims that those who compare the Final Solution to other atrocities do so to diminish Jewish suffering. That is no doubt the case in some instances, but not always and not (necessarily) in the main.

Holocaust comparisons in Germany are particularly instructive in this context. The evocative imagery and jarring language used to describe foreign genocides—stark references to gas and ovens, the use of loaded terms like concentration camp and extermination: All of this contained unmistakable echoes of the past. But to what end? Germans made such allusions to convey their shock in the most effective and damning way available to them: by associating horrific developments abroad with what was commonly considered the worst crime in the history of humanity. Motivations varied. Some hoped to appeal to emotion to compel their government and fellow citizens to act. Foreign genocide could also serve as a cudgel to score points against political adversaries at home. For others, comparison was a form of Vergangenheitsbewältigung by proxy, an indirect way to “come to terms” with their country’s dark history through the prism of other genocides.

Did the inflationary invocation of the Final Solution run the risk of “trivializing” the Holocaust? The common use of superlatives to describe foreign atrocities as “unprecedented”—including, by implication, ones committed during the Third Reich—seemed to veer in that direction. There were certainly concerns in Germany, especially on the Left, that frivolous comparisons and the use of loaded terms were reckless and dangerous. But my impression is that there was no exculpatory undercurrent, by and large—at least on a conscious level.

JC: Your epilogue discusses the relevance of this history for Germany’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year. You’ve noted that Germany now has a Green Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock, a strong supporter of Ukraine in both words and arms, who belongs to generation ’89, not ’68. She and Chancellor Olaf Scholz have rallied Germany against Russia’s war of aggression. At the same time, figures such as Jürgen Habermas have repeatedly opposed military support for Ukraine, arguing that it will prolong the war’s bloodshed; acknowledging his own generation’s fears of another world war, he instead calls for “Besonnenheit” (prudence) and negotiations. Timothy Snyder and others have lambasted the provinciality of Habermas’s stance, which directly relates to his generational German identity and its incumbent taboos. Both sides invoke German historical responsibility—in Habermas’s case, to minimize global conflict, in Snyder’s case, to support Ukraine given Germany’s past brutal occupation of the country. I heard echoes of these debates about Germany “paying” rather than “playing” in your chapter on Germany’s moral duty to militarily intervene to prevent further atrocities in Bosnia, which Germany also invaded during the Second World War, and Rwanda, which had been part of Germany’s East Africa Colony. Could you discuss this ambivalence of historical responsibility?

AP: There was indeed a keen awareness of historical responsibility, but it was a two-edged sword, especially in the debate about “proper” responses to Bosnia. Most striking to me was the fungible quality of that history. Both sides of the debate—those vehemently in support of, and those just as adamantly opposed to, German participation in some sort of humanitarian military mission in the Balkans—drew on the supposed lessons of the past to advance diametrically opposed arguments.

The substance of those lessons remained a matter of spirited dissension. In response to those who believed that German criminality during World War II imposed a “special restraint” on their country, especially in the Balkans, those in favor of some sort of German military participation argued that it was precisely Germany’s past that obliged them not to shirk from such missions. “It is correct that German soldiers were misused in the past by a shameful terrorist regime to break international law and disrupt peace,” one politician argued. “But can that mean that we, as a democratic country dedicated to human rights, offer excuses today by saying we are not prepared to defend international law and secure and serve the cause of peace? That, I believe, is a completely erroneous interpretation of our history” (203).

I should add that the Third Reich was not the only past that mattered. Many focused as well on Germany’s experiences after 1945. For some, Germany now had a “special responsibility”—as a formerly divided nation itself—to oppose the division of Bosnia along ethnic lines. Others, pointing to the support the Federal Republic had received from its allies after 1945, argued that they could not now leave their partners in the lurch if military action were taken there.

The Rwandan genocide elicited a different response, especially when it came to a sense of historical responsibility. Few Germans seemed to be aware that contemporary Rwanda had been a part of German East Africa, the Wilhelmine empire’s largest colony from 1885 to 1919. The focus instead was on Belgian and especially French responsibility. I suspect that the discussion might look different today, as German scholars and the media pay more and more attention to their country’s colonial past—including its past colonial atrocities.

JC: Zooming out a bit, your book seems to harmonize with Samuel Moyn’s Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War (2021), the publication of which happened to coincide with the U.S.’s sudden withdrawal from Afghanistan after twenty years of fruitless and destabilizing “forever wars.” This seemed to signal the end of an era of the postwar “liberal consensus” that crystallized in the 1990s regarding support for humanitarian interventionism—that was until less than a year later, the Russian invasion of Ukraine brought about “the end of ‘the end of history.’” Did the German counterparts of Samantha Power and Barack Obama also get seduced by the false promise of “humane” military intervention? How global is that story?

AP: I’m not sure it’s a global story per se, butsupport for humanitarian intervention in the 1990s was certainly a Western one. My first exposure to that aspect of this story was Paul Berman’s Power and the Idealists (2004/2007), which looks at the evolution of French and German politicians like Bernard Kouchner, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, and Joschka Fischer, from their “radical” student days in the 1960s and 1970s, to their later espousal of “humanitarian intervention” in the 1990s. Berman’s book was a major inspiration for my own work, as was Samantha Power’s “A Problem from Hell” (2002).

But I take issue with the word seduced. Power revisited her earlier “idealism” in a recent memoir, and one might, in hindsight, be critical of those “forever wars.” But my impression is that most who called for some form of humanitarian intervention did so with noble motives. That was certainly the case in Germany in the 1990s. I was repeatedly impressed by the elevated level of discussion on both sides of the issue of humanitarian intervention using force. Proponents and opponents offered compelling arguments, with solemn recognition of the potential consequences of one’s position—and with an eye to the burden of German history.

German politicians and pundits have revisited the very same issues and rehashed many of the same arguments since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, though, as I argue in my Epilogue, the Third Reich seems to weigh less heavily in the current debate. In a bizarre twist, Nazi crimes now serve as an admonition for others, for Russia. As one SPD parliamentarian declared last February, right after the invasion began, the “blood toll” paid by the USSR during World War II “compels us” to say to Putin, “Never again war!” That said, sending arms to Ukraine has roiled Germany like no other place in the West, and that in itself shows just how much the country’s conflicted past continues to count.

JC: In recent years, scholars have revisited the formation of the concept of genocide and its creator Raphael Lemkin, and cast doubt upon the efficacy of the concept itself. You write that Lemkin advocated the early German adoption of the Convention by appealing not only to its responsibility for the Holocaust, but also to support issues of national concern, including the expulsion of ethnic Germans from the East and the return of those held captive in the Soviet Union. Later, the designation of genocide in Bosnia clearly functioned as a bright line in favor of intervention. How does your book relate to this broader wave of critical scholarship?

AP: It is easy to criticize the concept of genocide as set forth in the 1948 UN Convention. It resulted from political haggling at the start of the Cold War, and the two emerging superpowers desperately wanted to avoid language that might be used on behalf of certain oppressed groups at home. (That is why, incidentally, the U.S. was one of the initial signers, but did not ratify it until forty years later—and also why Moscow insisted on excluding “political groups” from the official definition.) Until the 1990s and the creation of international criminal tribunals for former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the Convention remained a dead letter. It certainly never did much to prevent genocide, even though that task was given pride of place in the document’s very title. In a sense, it was not unlike the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 “outlawing war,” which one American Senator dismissively referred to at the time as an “international kiss”—a nice gesture that failed to stop major wars from erupting the following decade.

What I found especially striking when conducting research for Never Again was how little Germans debated whether developments in Cambodia, Bosnia, and Rwanda actually constituted genocide. The question of why such atrocities were taking place preoccupied Germans much more than that issue. At the same time, they focused on parallels to the Holocaust—or, in the case of the East Germans and the Khmer Rouge, on how it had been possible for self-styled communists to have committed such horrendous deeds. There was also very little discussion about the UN Convention and its significance. As you mention, the focus, from the very beginning, was on the potential benefits that might accrue to Germans. The (admittedly inchoate) obligations were a non-issue and remained so for the next four decades, until the early 1990s. The silences on that score likely explain why German leaders invoked the term with such alacrity. There seems to have been little awareness of or concern about the legal implications of its usage. At the very least, policymakers must have suspected it would have no real-world consequences, when no major power was acting to prevent, much less stop, genocide.

My own “criticism” of the term genocide stems from a different issue—one that has little to do with Lemkin or the Convention itself. In popular parlance, also in Germany, there was and is a tendency to equate genocide with Auschwitz and the Final Solution. The term is more elastic than that in international law, but the connotation has become industrialized mass killing. And that is why many instances that could be categorized as genocide are not perceived as such, because they fall short of that awful threshold. Just to take one contemporary example: Russia’s abduction of Ukrainian children would certainly fulfill Article II of the Convention. But, as we know, applying the term is no guarantee of action either.

JC: I want to end with a methodological question about ways you try to get at the complex “internal values and beliefs” of Germans regarding their unsavory past. Suggesting that “talk is cheap” (23) and that actions can say much more than “carefully crafted speeches at orchestrated unveilings” (13), you look instead to German strategies of “Vergangenheitsbewältigung in der Tat,” coming to terms with the Nazi past through deeds. You also suggest that German foreign policy was a form of “Vergangenheitsbewältigung by proxy,” a “way to ‘come to terms’ with their country’s dark history in a roundabout manner, through the prism of other genocides” (304). Can you say more about this “indirect, roundabout” method as a way of digging beneath clichés and settled platitudes and achieving a more “unvarnished” view of German Holocaust memory?

AP: One of the most innovative books I read as a graduate student was Hartmut Zwahr’s 1978 study about the formation of working-class identity in nineteenth-century Leipzig. Zwahr meticulously compiled mounds of data about whom working-class parents chose as godparents for their children. He found a remarkable shift over a forty-year period: They increasingly switched from choosing so-called Honoratioren (local dignitaries) to manual workers from their own factories and economic sector to, eventually, manual workers from other factories and economic sectors. Zwahr interpreted this as an indirect indication of growing working-class identity and solidarity. I’m not sure his interpretation was correct—one could explain the shift differently. But the approach inspired me, and it was what I tried to do when I wrote my first book about workers and farmers in the German Democratic Republic. I was interested, among other things, in popular opinion about the communist regime, and, inspired by Zwahr—and knowing full well the mendacious quality of official East German sources—sought similarly indirect indicators of what East Germans had thought au fond.

I took a similar approach when researching and writing Never Again. We have numerous studies about what Germans—primarily elites—have said about the Holocaust, the importance of “atonement,” and the need to ensure such atrocities happen “never again.” We also have wonderful work on monuments, cultural artifacts, and other forms of Vergangenheitsbewältigung. My book certainly looks at what Germans from all walks of life said about their country’s past, when responding to and reflecting on genocide elsewhere in the world. But it is equally interested in how Germans actually acted, in the belief that this offers a, yes, more unvarnished perspective on “memory work.”

That is why I focus so much on what German officials and citizens could and did do short of, say, sending combat troops: providing various forms of humanitarian assistance, welcoming large numbers of refugees to Germany, exerting diplomatic pressure behind the scenes, enforcing economic sanctions, trying to bring the perpetrators to justice. In short, reports of mass atrocities goaded Germans into action. They certainly failed to prevent genocide, but what they did went far beyond high-sounding speeches meant to abjure or atone for past atrocities. That is significant because it reveals a great deal about German values, mentalities, and “lessons learned” after 1945—lessons that should be of interest to Americans and others searching for effective ways to reckon with the more sordid aspects of their country’s past.

Jonathon Catlin is a Fellow in the Berlin Program at Freie Universität Berlin and a PhD Candidate in History and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities at Princeton University, where he is writing a dissertation on the concept of catastrophe. He has contributed to and edited for the JHIBlog since 2016. In the fall of 2023 he will join the Humanities Center at the University of Rochester as a Postdoctoral Fellow. He tweets @planetdenken.

Edited by Tom Furse

Featured Image: Nie wieder Krieg! (Never again War!), 1930s, promotional material for the German Peace Society (Deutsche Friedensgesellschaft, Bund der Kriegsgegner), by the artist Bruno Rügemer, Würzburg, Germany.


Announcing the JHI’s 2022 Selma V. Forkosch Prize Winner

The winner of the JHI‘s Selma V. Forkosch Prize for the best article published in Volume 83 (2022) is Dan Edelstein, for “A ‘Revolution’ in Political Thought: Translations of Polybius Book 6 and the Conceptual History of Revolution.”

The judging committee provides the following statement:

This paper excels in historical erudition, philological rigor, and conceptual clarity. It traces the history of the concept of revolution as a political category down to ancient times, to Polybius’s Book 6 and Aristotle’s notion of anacyclosis where it already stood for political change. In Aristotle, the political dimension of the concept was still related to the ideas of revolt and sedition, and not yet conceived as indicating a world-historical event. Likewise, all of the elements of the modern concept of revolution were already in Polybius and his many commentors, although with the implication that revolution had to be avoided and mixed government was the way to keep this danger at bay.  It was the re-interpretation of Polybius’s ideas that, for Edelstein, paved the way to incorporate a new temporal dimension to it and eventually conceive of revolutions as the means of solving political problems and improving the future. Revolution is thus transformed from a disturbance of social life into the solution to the ills of modern politics. This article helps us rethink Koselleck’s theory of the temporalization of concepts between ca. 1750 and ca. 1850. Overall, this is an article that straddles the history of scholarship and political theory in a grand way one does not often see.

Dan Edelstein is the William H. Bonsall Professor of French, and Professor of Political Science and History (by courtesy) at Stanford University. He studied at the University of Geneva (BA) and the University of Pennsylvania (PhD). He is the author of The Terror of Natural Right: Republicanism, the Cult of Nature, and the French Revolution (Chicago, 2009), The Enlightenment: A Genealogy (Chicago, 2010), and On the Spirit of Rights (Chicago, 2018). He is the co-editor of seven volumes, most recently (with Stefanos Geroulanos and Natasha Wheatley) Power and Time: Temporalities in Conflict and the Making of History (Chicago, 2020). He is currently working on an intellectual history of revolution, tentatively entitled The Revolution Next Time (Princeton, forthcoming).

Last year, Edelstein spoke about his prize-winning essay with contributing editor Glauco Schettini as a part of our Broadly Speaking interview series. You can read their conversation here.

The JHI Blog extends its deepest congratulations.

Intellectual history Think Piece

A Friendship Built on a Crisis of Foundations

By Dustin M. Taylor

In February 1939, the Société Française de philosophie organized a discussion in Paris between two young philosophers who had both recently defended their dissertations. These two philosophers were Jean Cavaillès (1903-1944) and Albert Lautman (1908-1944). The subject of their discussion was the foundations, or life [la vie] of mathematics, a popular and controversial topic amongst philosophers and mathematicians at the turn of the 20th century. The simultaneously clairvoyant and obscure nature of that debate was representative of the two thinkers’ lives. Intellectual rivals and good friends, Cavaillès and Lautman were original and passionate thinkers of the primordial reality of mathematical experience; however, both men had their bright careers cut short. In 1944, following their respective arrests for being members of the French resistance, both men were executed by Nazis.

Both Cavaillès and Lautman trained with the tragically forgotten philosopher and historian, Léon Brunschvicg (1869-1944), who assisted in organizing their debate. Brunschvicg encouraged and inspired their joint historical interests in philosophy and mathematics; however, he also harbored an idiosyncratic idealism that neither student kept up. Determined to break with both Brunschvicg and the more traditional approaches to the philosophy of science at the time (Neo-Kantianism, logical positivism, phenomenology), Cavailles and Lautman were part of an alternate current of philosophy in France known as épistémologie historique. Like the other members of this generation, their individual research was based on technical inquiries within specific branches of their field—for instance set theory, class field theory, and mathematical physics—but the common background of their investigations was a concern for the historical and everchanging nature of scientific truths.

Albert Lautman. Courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons.

While working towards their doctorate degrees in the mid-30s, they both put forward rigorous and original work of “philosophie mathématique,” combining their philosophical training and expansive knowledge of contemporary mathematics. These recently completed doctoral works, which they were expected to articulate in the debate, confronted similar issues regarding the current state of mathematics which was thought for a while to be in ‘crisis’ due to ongoing questions of its foundations. Cavaillès and Lautman felt that the most recent attempts to grasp the foundation of mathematics had missed the mark, and they endeavored to recover the grounding reality that generates mathematical thought over time.

Cavaillès’ principle thesis, Methode axiomatique et Formalisme (1938), constituted an ambitious reconstructive history of the supposed “crisis of set theory,” and aimed to reveal an inner continuity and necessity behind the appearance of antinomies within mathematical activity. Lautman’s Essai Sur les notions de structure et d’existence en mathématiques (1938) attempted to “present a metaphysics of logic,” and took up Jaques Herbrand’s notion of “structure” as well as a number of other theories and concepts such as Galois’ Theory of algebraic equations and its relation to both class field theory and “Riemannian Space.” In the essay, Lautman argued for a complex and productive, or problematic, dialectical movement of ideal notions which allow for the articulation of concrete theories.

Jean Cavaillès wearing a French lieutenant uniform, 1939. Courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons.

These represented two unique attempts to resolve the problem of la vie, but Cavaillès and Lautman were by no means the first to take it up as an issue. Among mathematicians, questions of “foundation” had been of growing interest since at least the early 19th century. There were issues which had been left unresolved, some since ancient Greece, and they began to pull the rug out from certain long held presumptions regarding the nature of and relation between mathematical objects, theories, and techniques. At the turn of the 20th century these issues were articulated to the point of crisis by a series of antinomies known as “the crisis of set theory” (Russell’s antinomy, Burali-Forti paradox, etc.).

There were valiant and productive attempts to resolve this crisis around the turn of the century—most notably in the formalist approach of David Hilbert, the Principia Mathematica system of Bertrand Russell and A.N. Whitehead in 1910, and the intuitionism of L.E.J. Brouwer—however, new difficulties and unresolvable issues continued to arise, such as Skolem’s paradox in 1922, and Gödel’s incompleteness theorems in 1931. These developments continued to expose hidden difficulties regarding the internal validity and fertility of mathematics.

If, for example, a formal deductive system cannot absolutely demonstrate its completeness and its consistency simultaneously, as Gödel shows of effectively generated arithmetical systems, then our overall goals or understanding about mathematical activity might be threatened. In Gödel’s wake, both the Principia and Hilbert’s famous ‘program’ of formalization were considered by some to be irretrievably compromised. The crisis of the foundation appeared to be over, and everybody had lost.

This crisis of foundations came on with a special acuteness and urgency in those decades, and it is traditionally recounted as having split the field of mathematics into three primary camps, logicism, formalism, and intuitionism. Some philosophers like Husserl and Heidegger, furthermore, saw this fracturing as a symptom of a deeper crisis within western scientific culture. In this larger crisis, the European sciences had lost touch with their “meaning for being”, and relegated themselves to the sterile practice of quantifying or “mathematizing” nature for human’s use. Science was thus stripped of any creative autonomy, and philosophy was correlatively isolated, being increasingly detached from the speed and complexity of scientific innovation. If such a crisis did in fact exist, one might credit the opaqueness of their debate to the fact that Cavaillès and Lautman bridged this double isolation with rigor and breadth that few others could achieve at the time.

When reading the transcript of their debate, it seems clear that the two participants understood each other quite well, each spiritedly defending and delineating his own position against the other. Cavaillès argued in favor of an internalist conceptual necessity as the driving force for mathematics’ movement from theory to theory. He regarded mathematics as a properly autonomous being, defined by its movement, which spontaneously generates new objects and techniques as mathematicians deal with the singular intimate difficulties of their practice. He thus argued for a “dialectic of the concept” as the best way to understand the becoming of mathematics since its movement was not contingent on the conditions or decisions of any given “consciousness.”

Lautman opened by saying: “Après avoir entendu M. Cavaillès, je suis encore plus convaincu que je ne suis pas d’accord avec lui” [After having heard M. Cavaillès [just now], I am even more convinced that I do not agree with him], and went on to emphasize the “structural aspect of contemporary mathematics” which is constituted by a dynamic and reciprocal, though “dissymmetrical,” relationship between realized theories and their constitutive notions. This process, for him, situates mathematics in relation to meta-mathematics (coming from Hilbert) in a way that motivates a continuous reflexive passage from essence to existence for each singular actualized theory. While Lautman also conceived of this becoming as “dialectical,” his dialectic is motivated by the structural insolubility of “problems” and “solutions.”

During the conversations following their presentations, it seemed that the two philosophers were not fully understood by their audience, even though it was largely comprised of their elders and colleagues. Commenters from mathematics, like Elie Cartan and Paul Lévy, expressed concern about the strange philosophical renderings of concepts which to them were mainly concrete and practical. Commenters from philosophy, such as Jean Hyppolite and Paul Schrecker, claimed to have a hard time understanding each thinkers’ use of certain mathematical notions, and struggled to determine their theories’ points of contact and divergence. As an example, both Cavaillès and Lautman had an interest in Hilbert’s formalist method; however, neither accepted it wholesale. Additionally, they each found special importance in Gödel’s incompleteness theorems but they did not appear to use those influences in the same manner. Mathematician René Maurice Frechet began his own engagement:

“I will begin by agreeing with an observation that has been made before me, successively…: for a mathematician who dedicates the principal part of his activity to mathematics, it is extremely difficult to follow in all their nuances the expositions of M Lautman and Cavaillès, which were nevertheless most instructive.”

While fascinating for all involved, the discussion could not reach a high enough level of detail in so little time, and came to a close before anyone was satisfied. The spectators’ perplexity may have been slightly exaggerated, for it could simply have been the wrong time and place for a detailed critique of the proposed perspectives; however, their criticisms also may indicate that the studies of philosophy and abstract mathematics had drifted slightly too far apart for persons at the forefront of each field to communicate with each other.

Cavaillès and Lautman’s corpora are limited due to their involvement in the war, so we are unable to fully reconstruct a ‘system’ or doctrine to attribute to them. Nevertheless, it is clear that neither man entertained any kind of mathematical nihilism or relativism. Both wrote extensively on the different attempts to ground mathematics and they agreed that the established approaches were so far insufficient, but they did not see an essential deficiency or sterility signified by the supposed crisis of set theory. Instead, in the appearance of antinomies, they saw the very heart of mathematical activity as an ongoing process.

The ultimate shortcoming of an undertaking such as Russell and Whitehead’s, for example, was that their project aimed for a final and total systematization. They did not account (following standard logicist tendencies) for the historical reflexivity that generates scientific theories and concepts, and thus rejected mathematics as a creative and dynamic becoming. Such a totalizing systematization sets out what and how mathematics can be, beforehand (a critique that Cavaillès also levies against Husserl, Brouwer, and Hilbert to an extent). For Cavaillès and Lautman, the ruptures or difficulties within a system are what motivate the movement of mathematics in general, forcing it to reevaluate its objects and methods of systematization. While they characterize this process differently, both Cavaillès and Lautman attempt to reveal the nature of that movement.

Cavaillès’ necessitarian vision of autonomous mathematics is based on a productive and paradoxical incompleteness at the heart of scientific knowledge that is constantly referring to and building on itself to deal with underlying technical difficulties. A primary reference for this model of thought is Gödel, as well as Spinoza and Bernard Bolzano, since they were able to properly conceive of scientific thought as both incomplete and perfectly unified in itself. He is mainly critical of a tradition of dualism that he sees running from Descartes and Kant up through Husserl and Brouwer, an irreconcilable dualism which preserves the distinction between the act and the object of mathematical thought, concealing their generative unity.

Lautman, on the other hand, sees mathematics as comprised of interdependent levels which facilitate a simultaneously vertical (asymmetrical) and reciprocal relationship of causality between dialectical ideas, or structures, and actualized theories. Lautman was considered a mathematical Platonist but was deeply indebted to Jacques Herbrand’s developments of Hilbert’s formalism, and mentioned a strong resonance with Heidegger’s conception of the ontological difference as well. Curiously, he also cites Gödel’s incompleteness theorems as supportive of his own framework—although, while Cavaillès sees Gödel as deconstructing the distinction between mathematics and metamathematics, Lautman sees the distinction as gaining a newly vibrant function in which the two levels establish a communicative and productive relationship of becoming. Also, opposed to Cavaillès’ internalism, Lautman was convinced that mathematics and metamathematics were open to interaction and exchange with other fields like physics and metaphysics.

Both perspectives, in short, render the “limited” or incompletable nature of mathematics as the source of its productive power, and both men therefore seem to evade the issue of the “crisis” of set theory. Lautman sees Herbrand and Gödel as simply marking a new “critical” era in mathematical logic, moving away from the “naïve” period of Cantor and Russell; for Cavaillès it is apparently both ambiguous and unimportant whether or not the crisis of set theory constitutes a “proper” crisis since mathematical objects are in fact constituted by difficulties. If mathematics is truly autonomous, it will be fine on its own. For them, it seems, the only crisis of mathematics would be one that stops its spontaneous progression.

As mentioned, neither Cavaillès nor Lautman managed to be particularly productive once the German occupation started; nevertheless, their friendship and voracious interest in the life of mathematics persisted. Prior to the arrests in 1944 that led to their executions, each was imprisoned on earlier occasions. During Cavaillès’ first imprisonment, Lautman visited his comrade, bringing him books to aid in the writing his final work, titled and published posthumously, Sur logique et la theorie de science (recently translated).

Despite their tragically short careers, Lautman and Cavaillès retained a lasting reputation and influence throughout the French academy. Since that mercurial debate, the “life of mathematics” has fallen out of fashion as topic of inquiry for philosophers, but their contributions were key to later 20th century insights regarding of the reality and efficacy of thought. Their notions have been taken up, for instance, and expanded by thinkers such as Gaston Bachelard, Georges Canguilhem, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and Alain Badiou. Beyond that, Jean Cavaillès and Albert Lautman brought a seriousness, militance, and rigor that they applied to all aspects of their lives and thus should serve as examples for philosophers and scientists of any kind.

Further reading:

Duffy, Simon (Ed.).Virtual Mathematics: The Logic of difference

Peden, Knox. Spinoza contra phenomenology: French Rationalism from Cavaillès to Deleuze

Dustin M. Taylor is a doctoral student at the University of Memphis where he works on early modern and 20th century philosophy, specifically rationalism and French epistemology. His current research focuses on questions of truth and history in both Cavaillès and Heidegger. He does not tweet.

Edited by Kelby Bibler

Featured Image: The construction of the Basilica of Sacré Coeur de Montmartre by Maximilien Luce. Courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons.