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Intellectual history

Reinhart Koselleck at One Hundred

By Jonathon Catlin

On April 23, 2023, one of the pioneers of German conceptual history, Reinhart Koselleck (1923–2006), would have turned one hundred years old. Born in Görlitz, in Eastern Germany, Koselleck became one of the leading German historians of his generation and a founder of historical studies at the University of Bielefeld, where he taught for most of his career and trained a generation of conceptual historians who continue to carry on his legacy at universities around the world.

Between 1972 and 1997, Koselleck co-edited, together with Werner Conze and Otto Brunner, the eight-volume Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe: Historisches Lexikon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache in Deutschland (Basic Concepts in History: A Historical Dictionary of Political and Social Language in Germany). The irony is that while Koselleck is perhaps best known for his central role as the theoretical force behind this massive undertaking, by the time it was underway, he already began to cast doubt on some of the premises on which it had been initiated. Amidst the heyday of the linguistic turn and deconstruction’s critique of logocentrism, it became increasingly apparent that traditional Begriffsgeschichte, with its top-down focus on elite political expression, inherently obscured other aspects of social reality. Koselleck soon turned his attention to formerly overlooked stockpiles of historical meaning, including visual and material culture, “political iconology,” and “political sensuality” involving the body and the senses, especially as regards memorials, monuments, and the “political cult of the dead.”

The early Koselleck of his dissertation book Critique and Crisis (1959), a work indebted to his mentor Carl Schmitt (Suhrkamp published their correspondence, edited by Jan Eike Dunkhase, in 2019), studied the high political discourse of the philosophes and Jacobins leading up to the French Revolution. He found in their moralization of history and their utopian and ideological prognostication the roots of the violent totalitarian ideologies of his own time, namely Nazism and Stalinism. In his 1960 review of the book in Merkur, Jürgen Habermas was sharply critical of Koselleck’s proximity to the disgraced Nazi legal theorist Schmitt in privileging of the power of the absolute state over critical social rationality; Habermas’s review also previews the thesis of his 1962 habilitation, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, with its argument that the “private views” Koselleck had criticized as inappropriate moralizing about politics are fundamentally “changed in their substance by being mediated into public opinion through the public sphere” (471). Koselleck, for his part, continued to pander to Schmitt, writing to him in 1961 of the “revolutionary awakening of 1933” which “was gambled away” (191). Both of Koselleck’s co-editors on the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe were formerly committed Nazis, and their sometimes apologetic politics are visible in places like Ernst Nolte’s entry on “Fascism.”

Koselleck’s mature work explored more metaphorical and sensual aspects of historical experience, developing such pioneering concepts and theories as “the non-simultaneity of the simultaneous” and modernity as characterized by acceleration and the widening gap between the “space of experience and the “horizon of expectations,” “futures past,” “repetition structures” and “possible histories,” “layers/sediments of time,” and the absurdity or meaninglessness of history. Koselleck died in 2006, but interest in his work has been renewed in recent years by the unveiling of his 30,000-object (largely digitized) photograph archive at Marburg and the opening of his papers and personal library at the Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach.

As Stefan-Ludwig Hoffman shows in his 2017 article, “Koselleck in America,” Koselleck also enjoyed considerable success in the Anglophone world, taking up guest positions at the University of Chicago (where he rubbed elbows with François Furet and Michael Geyer) and the New School for Social Research. Thanks to the efforts of the New York historian of political thought Melvin Richter, Koselleck’s approach to conceptual history was put into dialogue with the approaches of such luminaries as J. G. A. Pocock and Quentin Skinner. As Richter observes, the editors of the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe’s critiques of the old history of ideas and their turn instead to studying concepts as repositories of embedded social experience resonates with Skinner’s claim that “there can be no histories of concepts; there can only be histories of their uses in argument” (quoted in Richter, 135). While Richter observes that “Pocock and Skinner have seldom ventured beyond the late eighteenth century,” the period of the emergence of modernity and the Sattelzeit with which Koselleck’s work began, in a more theoretical register, “the title of Pocock’s collection, Politics, Language, and Time, could have served as the title for the English translation of Reinhart Koselleck’s Vergangene Zukunft [Futures Past]” (125).

In his later years, Koselleck contributed to German public debates about the memory and memorialization of the Third Reich and the Holocaust. He argued that Germans had a moral duty to remember all victims of the regime, including still forgotten groups such as the more than three million Soviet prisoners of war murdered by the Nazis; he thus opposed the “hierarchy of victims” with Jews at the top established by official national memory and the central memorial in Berlin designed by Peter Eisenman. In this work, he drew upon his own “lava” (untransmissible) memories of his time as a Wehrmacht soldier on the Eastern Front who was captured and sent to Auschwitz and the interior of the Soviet Union as a prisoner of war from 1945–46. In 2005, on the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe, Koselleck reflected that he “built up [his] entire studies through the experience of the war.” However, he also emphasized the individuality of his experience, claiming that “each person has the right to their own memory.” In his case, May 8, 1945 was not a day of “liberation” (as Weizsäcker famously proclaimed in 1985) but rather marked the beginning of his “slavery.” Koselleck did not identify as a liberated “victim” of the regime because he fought to the end; “we Germans were also perpetrators in a very clear sense, whether as concentration camp guards or as soldiers.” After the war, his “re-education” officer was none other than the young British historian Eric Hobsbawm, of whom Koselleck also published a caricature in Vorbilder – Bilder (1983).

Koselleck’s sketch of the British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who taught Koselleck at a reeducation center at Göhrde castle in 1947. Published in Vorbilder – Bilder (Bielefeld, 1983). Republished with permission from the Koselleck estate.

Niklas Olsen’s indispensable 2012 intellectual biography of Koselleck centers on the basic thesis on which all of his work rests: the inescapable plurality and plurivocity of historical experience and, therefore, of historical writing, which makes historical memory and historiography sites of perpetual reinterpretation and conflict. This lends Koselleck’s writing admirable humility, longevity, and contemporary resonance.

Over the years, the JHI Blog has published pieces on Koselleck’s work from a variety of angles, ranging from his early work on the notion of crisis, to his late work on war memorials, to his photographs. We are glad to feature these pieces here on Koselleck’s centennial:

Back in the Sattel(zeit) again” by John Raimo, 2015.

Koselleck and the Image” (review of the Bielefeld exhibition) by Jonathon Catlin, 2018.

Reinhart Koselleck on Modernity, Memorials, and the Meaninglessness of History” by Ella Myer, 2019.

Crisisⁿ or, Rebooting Conceptual History for the Twenty-First Century” by Alex Langstaff, 2019.

Begriffsgeschichte’s History: Between Historicization of Concepts and Conceptual Politics” interview with Falko Schmieder by Jonas Knatz, 2019.

Begriffsgeschichte’s Methodological Neighbors and the Scientification of Concepts” part two of Jonas Knatz’s interview with Falko Schmieder, 2019.


To celebrate the anniversary, a conference is planned at the University of Bielefeld on Koselleck’s birthday, April 23, at which a number of new projects will be presented. These include a forthcoming volume, Vom Ding und Unding der Geschichte (Transcript, 2023), edited by Lisa Regazzoni, on Koselleck’s collection of hundreds of figurines (especially of soldiers and horses). There is also a new anniversary blog entitled Komposita, whose name evokes the composite metaphors and meanings Koselleck employed in his studies of historical semantics. Komposita is hosted by the existing blog Theory of History at Work. On January 24, Komposita began publishing entries, in multiple languages, on new and old concepts related to Koselleck’s work or conceptual history, with the aim to build a new lexicon or glossary of conceptual history from a younger and more international generation of scholars. Komposita continues to invite contributions on concepts not yet covered by the blog, which can be classics of Koselleck’s work (crisis, progress, futures past) or entirely novel and non-European concepts whose study his work can inform (see Margrit Pernau’s reflection on jinns). In the spirit of international exchange and to expand this project to an English-speaking audience, the JHI Blog will cross-publish a small number of Komposita entries in the coming weeks and months.

The logo of the Bielefeld-based blog Komposita, featuring an item from Koselleck’s collection of figurines: a toy horse with Koselleck’s face on the rider, a gag gift from his students.

In October 2023, the Bielefeld event will be followed by the conference “Mit Koselleck über Koselleck hinaus: Perspektiven zu einer Begriffsgeschichte des 20. Jahrhunderts” at Berlin’s Leibniz-Center for Literary and Cultural Studies, home to the ongoing project on an interdisciplinary conceptual history of the twentieth century in Germany. This project’s leaders, Falko Schmieder and Ernst Müller, have together authored two important works on conceptual history. First, the 2016 Begriffsgeschichte und historische Semantik, which historicizes the project of Begriffsgeschichte amongst other related methodologies, from Frankfurt School critical theory, to Foucauldian genealogy, to Hans Blumenberg’s metaphorology, and about which the JHI Blog’s Jonas Knatz conducted a trenchant two-part interview with Schmieder in 2019. Second, in 2020, a new introduction to Begriffsgeschichte. As Schmieder emphasized at the History of Concepts conference in Berlin in the spring of 2022, Begriffsgeschichte for the twentieth century has to look—in a word—a lot more postmodern. Picking up where the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe left off, and coming after the linguistic and global turn, Schmieder and his collaboratorshave more distance between themselves and the twentieth century than Koselleck did, but they nevertheless confront an era in which meaning became increasingly fragmented, mediatized, and democratized, and in which the somewhat bounded national linguistic communities of the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe mixed, transformed, and eroded.

A few of Jonathon’s Koselleck books.

No doubt these new commemorations and reinterpretations of Koselleck’s rich and wide-ranging corpus will continue to reinvigorate conceptual history for a younger, more international cohort of scholars no longer beholden to the original aims and methods of Koselleck and his generation. To give just one recent example, Jennifer L. Allen’s history of “utopia” in Germany since the 1980s looks not to high political rhetoric, where this lofty and totalizing concept was indeed predictably faltering amidst the collapse of real existing socialism, but rather to thriving “sustainable” and grassroots notions of utopia that were embedded in everyday social practices and activism. (Koselleck, for his part, claimed that his “basic attitude was skepticism as the minimum condition for reducing utopian excess—including the utopian excess of 1968.”) In our time of unrelenting pandemic, ongoing climate catastrophe, and the end of the end of history following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, terms like “permacrisis” and “polycrisis” have entered critical and political discourse in force. At such moments, Koselleck’s canonical attempts to historicize such fundamental modern concepts as “crisis” and “progress,” “revolution” and “history” may seem particularly timely. In contemporary deployments of modern “semantic stockpiles” such as these, we see, in Anson Rabinbach’s words, that “not only are concepts capable of synthesis, they’re also capable of explosion and they create shockwaves that keep reproducing themselves” (470). But, following Schmieder and Müller’s suggestion, we must also historicize Koselleck himself, thinking with him in order to ultimately think beyond him.


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 in twentieth-century European thought. He has contributed to the JHI Blog since 2016 and served as a contributing editor since 2018. He is also an editor of Komposita, the Koselleck anniversary blog based at the University of Bielefeld. He tweets @planetdenken.

Edited by Tom Furse

Featured Image: Cover and complete collection of the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, by Otto Brunner, Werner Conze and Reinhart Koselleck (eds.). Picture by Mika Federley, published on the website of the University of Helsinki, 2017. Wikimedia.

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Think Piece

Haitian Terror in Italian Eyes

By Elena Barattini

It was the 19th of April 1840. The Villanueva, a packet boat flying the Spanish flag, dropped anchor in the flocked harbor of Havana. Fifteen passengers disembarked and stepped foot on Spanish territory. Among them, there was an Italian traveler, getting acquainted with the bureaucratic procedures of the colonial government and the two routine British inspections of the vessel. In fact, as all male passengers were requested to present a papeleta (document) to reach the mainland, two groups of British officers had already fathomed the craft, looking for dreadful proofs of “dealers in coal”: slavers with human cargo.

Never object of a systematic study, quoted, and read just by a few scholars, Carlo Barinetti’s Voyage to Mexico and Havana provides in-depth, although extremely biased, descriptions of the everyday management of economic activities in Tampico, Mexico City, Veracruz, Puebla, Havana, and New Orleans. Carlo Barinetti’s work might be described as a detailed first-hand traveler account of the political landscapes of some of the main trading posts in the Americas in the first half of the 19th century. Skillfully mixing his critique of the present situation of pre-unitary Italy, and his juvenile aversion to the Austrian control of his homeland, the Lombard-Venetian Barinetti defined himself as a convinced liberal. A young enthusiast for the cause of a united and self-governed Italy, he then moved to the pre-Civil war United States, where he taught modern languages, and eventually obtained citizenship.

From there, he sat sail south. Ending up in Havana in the 1840s, his travel accounts are a powerful harbinger of positions which legitimized the Escalera repression, a mass-punishment of free people of color that followed a summary trial that raised alarm of a suspected plan to end slavery and Spanish rule in Cuba in 1843. Quintessentially political in the observations of what in his opinion did and did not work in the territories he visited, his text represents a key and underrated source for the study of ideas, political forms, and their circulation in the first half of the 19th century Atlantic world. Still intimately linked to the history of power, his literary production reflects his take on that crucible of happenings capable of keeping a privileged, educated, white man awake all night: the Haitian Revolution. As he provided details on the extremely severe measures implemented to police non-white subjects on the island, his words are deeply informative on the broader, generalized, sense of panic surrounding the long wake of happenings that linked La Escalera to the 1791 revolutionary experience.

Walking around Havana, “a place so well known to the Americans”, Barinetti took notes on the “kind of prosperity which shows itself at every step, which render that city highly agreeable and interesting”. The prosperity in question was all bloodstained, made by enslaved people’s hands and sweat. The tons of sugar once produced in French Saint-Domingue were now put on the market by Cuban ingenios (sugar mills) owners. Thousands of enslaved people, who would have once been principally deported a few maritime miles south, were now directed to Cuba, amid what has been defined as  “second slavery”.   

In the intertwined histories of the Haitian Revolution – the largest slave uprising the world has ever seen and the only one that led to the formation of an independent state in 1804 – and the sugar revolution in Cuba, concern and optimism influenced the behaviors of enslavers, travelers, and property owners. On the one hand, in the era of the Saint-Domingue uprisings, there was a “common wind” among the men and women of the African diaspora, characterized by the diffusion of empowering concepts, such as freedom and the abolition of slavery. On the other hand, the recurring metaphor of the fear of contagion, and a constant terror of retaliation meandered through the cities and the plantations of the Caribbean. This constant state of panic went hand in hand with the increase of the enslaved population, especially as the wealth that could be destroyed during such uprisings grew.

Haiti was thus instrumentally invoked to ideologically reinforce slavery in Cuba, emphasizing a “dangerousness” intrinsic to the individuals deprived of their freedom. This was reflected in the strict regulation and the increased surveillance imposed on the free and enslaved population of color on the island. Four years before the Escalera repression, the clase de color (people of color) of Cuba after a given hour had to “be at home, while no assembly of colored people is allowed after sunset; not even two can walk together or stand in the streets” as Barinetti attentively wrote down in his notebooks. The Haitian specter hovered around the island of Cuba, and the constant worry of a mass gory riot of the enslaved affected the very act and portrait of traveling as depicted by the Italian. A “sudden rising” was expected at every corner of the island. Travelers wandered armed, counting on a steady intervention on the part of “a couple of Spaniards or Creoles on horseback” who could “attack and subdue a band of fifty or more slaves, though the latter are generally armed with machetes, or long knives, which they use to cut the sugarcane”.

Not surprisingly, the liberal Barinetti spent several pages on the virtues of the free States in the North of the Union, on free trade and labor. Indeed, his thoughts on abolition are exemplary of the gradualist positioning shared at the time. Recurring to different sets of notions which were structured according to racial precepts, Barinetti shivered at the thought of a black population outnumbering the white one. When describing the misery of the enslaved in Cuba, Barinetti also invoked family separations, the hideous travel across the ocean, the severe physical punishments, and the constant noise of the lash hitting somebody’s back. However, these abolitionist topoi were not mobilized to advocate for immediate emancipation, quite the opposite.

Broadly referring to Cuba and the south of the United States, Barinetti argued slavery simply could not be abolished at that moment: time was not yet ripe.

Come! come here abolitionists! emancipate them, spread knowledge among them, give them equality of rights, and you will see the result. Release them from the natural bonds which form the bulwark behind which the whites feel sheltered, and then what makes me shudder if I only think of it will happen.

Echoing Barinetti’s warnings, from the 1810s to the 1840s the different governors of the Capitanía General de Cuba (General Captaincy of Cuba)put in place harsh preventive measures, safeguarding the nights of sleep of the enslavers, the plantation owners, and colonos (settlers). These policies severely impacted the already constrained agency of enslaved men and women, and free people of color in Cuba. Being black, in the eyes of planters, creole thinkers, and travelers among which Barinetti was no exceptional teller, equated to being on the verge of plotting a Haitian-style fierce uprising. Nonetheless, the relentless rules detailed by Barinetti and his peers were only the beginning.

The mere presence of enslaved and free people of color, walking on the streets of Havana, busy in their numerous occupations, progressively became a serious threat posed to the maintenance of the colony’s social order: the terror took over. Barinetti was not the only one “shuddering”, and the colonial elite was unwilling of taking other risks. The number of deported people from the African continent was augmenting, notwithstanding the treaties with the British and their navy, as the Italian traveler repeatedly underscored. Measures were to be taken, locally. Cuba became a relatively safe harbor for slave owners (and their lucrative economic activities), for it offered an escape from their plantations in Saint Domingue which were quite literally burning since the end of the 18th century. All the while, networks of formerly enslaved and free-born people of color (libres de color) who traveled around the Caribbean were formed. With them, so did ideas of liberation, of living according to one’s own terms. However, they did not level the Haitian terror, together with its harsh social and economic consequences, hunting the very existence of black people around the globe for centuries.

Just three years after the publication of Barinetti’s travel accounts, authorities in Cuba put on an exemplary mass punishment, to the detriment of the libres de color, and particularly targeted to once and for all discourage potential efforts of aligning Cuba’s destiny with that of the former French colony. Gone down in history as the Conspiracy of La Escalera, a scheme supposedly plotted by libres de color of African descent, as well as slaves, creoles, and British abolitionists to burn the bridge built by Spanish rulers in Cuba through the institution of slavery, the 1843 event went down in history as a bloody massacre that ended the lives of thousands. Taking its name from the “ladder” (escalera) employed to break down potential suspects, the alleged insurgency, with the enslaved revolts in western Cuba, have been given great scholarly attention, as has been the case, more recently, with the unutterable repression that followed in January 1844.  

Far from being an isolated, blood-soaked, singular episode in the history of Cuban slavery, the terrain around the repression specifically dedicated to the Escaleraconspiracy had been prepared for years, as Barinetti’s notebooks display. The increased militarization of the island began with the 1837 Constitution – expressly stating  the will to administer Cuba through so-called “special laws” –  the curfew, the unbearable working conditions on the plantations, and the construction of the barracoons all contributed to the muscular violence enforced in repressing the potentially revolutionary Escalera plan. In this respect, Barinetti’s work, printed in New York, circulated in the United States and, most likely, in Italy as well, is particularly significant because of its capacity of foreshadowing future Atlantic happenings. Indeed, his “tremors” were widely shared. Captain General Leopoldo O’Donnell, for example, would make sure he did all he could to eradicate any revolutionary febrility plaguing the island. A dramatic break for the libres de color’s relative autonomy, La Escalera repression was the result of a longstanding repressive apparatus which had been patiently built by Spanish and other foreign viewers who reproduced systematic racism. Works like Barinetti’s shed light on the context surrounding the upcoming repression and emphasize the ideological and material preparation that was enacted through institutions and actors who actively prompted the growth of a rampant anti-black and anti-slave sentiment.

In the aftermath of the Escalera repression, the libres de color in Cuba lost almost all their economic stability, military standing, and everything related to their already precarious social status. However, the impressive resilience shown by the Afro-descendant community in Cuba strenuously proved the weaknesses of O’Donnell and the slave owners’ attacks on black populations.

Indeed, ideas on freedom and emancipation from masters and mistresses, which were far from mild and reconciliatory, did stick around. They dot the juridical transcripts presented to the courtrooms by the enslaved and were embodied in everyday forms of resistance.  In the interstices of standard wording, and formal juridical formulas, enslaved men and women in Cuba spoke up in the tribunals, asserting their rights to be heard. Presenting family reconstruction lawsuits, negotiating the time and conditions of their labor, protesting the vexations of their enslavers, their petitions brought conflicts over race, gender, and power relations directly into the seats of colonial institutions. Over this unequal jurisprudential terrain, gradual emancipation, albeit partial, fragmented, and precarious, was being constructed well before the official royal proclaims that sanctioned a transition out of slavery in 1870 with the free womb law, and ending in 1880 with the abrogation of the patronato (forced apprenticeship) institution.

Barinetti’s travel writing is thus a privileged lens for exploring the entanglements between the Haitian Revolution’s heritage and the Escalera repression. Presenting conversations with doctors, slave and property owners, as well as functionaries, Barinetti’s text reconstructs the extremely abusive context that configured black people’s everyday lives in 19th century Cuba. However, by reading his work against the grain, the actions of the enslaved themselves stand out all the more, forged by experiences of coercion and violence, while being projected towards the construction of an aftermath that eventually tore down the legitimacy of such institutions.  


Elena Barattini is a Global History of Empires Ph.D. candidate at the University of Turin, Italy. Her work examines the legal petitions filed by formerly enslaved women in Cuba, within the Patronato law framework. Her primary research interests are the history of labor and coercion, the place of gender in it, Atlantic slavery and the colonial history of the island of Cuba.

Edited by Matias X. Gonzalez

Featured Image: Entrada del Puerto de La Habana tomada desde el Colegio de Sn. Carlos. (Entrance to the Port of Havana taken from San Carlos School). Artist: Mialhe, Frédéric, 1810-1881 Lit. de la Rl. Sociedad Patriótica, 1839. Courtesy of University of Miami Library Digital Collection.

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In Theory: The JHI Podcast

Sex, Law, and Sovereignty in French Algeria: Disha Karnad Jani interviews Judith Surkis

In this latest episode of In Theory, Disha Karnad Jani interviews Judith Surkis, Professor of History at Rutgers University, about her book Sex, Law, and Sovereignty in French Algeria, 1830-1930 (Cornell University Press, 2019). 

Surkis’s book interrogates how the French colonial state used its construction of Muslim law to reconfigure property and sovereignty in Algeria. Through fantasies of Algerian men’s sexual practices, a re-arrangement of Algerian women’s legal status, and a re-location of Muslim law from the realm of property rights to the realm of sex, the French colonial state used its notion of legal difference to expropriate Algerian land. Surkis shows how this took place in the spaces of law, intimacy, and fantasy. This book puts into practice the deep theoretical and methodological relationship between legal history, gender and sexuality studies, and the history of ideas, showing the consequential stakes of carrying out such a study for contemporary French and international politics. 


Disha Karnad Jani is a postdoctoral researcher in the Research Training Group on World Politics at Bielefeld University, Germany. She received her Ph.D from the Department of History at Princeton University in April 2022. Her dissertation is an intellectual history of the League Against Imperialism (1927-1937), and her research interests include global intellectual histories of mass movements, political economy, and state-making. 

Edited by: Kristin Engelhardt

Featured Image: 1877 map of the three French departments of Alger, Oran and Constantine, by Alexandre Vuillemin. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Intellectual history Think Piece

“Zamanawi-Seletane”: Three Intellectual Responses to Modernity in Ethiopia

By Fasil Merawi 

This piece has the goal of introducing three groups of intellectuals who hold distinct views on Ethiopia’s venture into modernity. If one wants to understand the general spirit of Ethiopian notions of modernity, zamanawi-seletane [modern civilization] emerges as a major concept. Used to characterize the nature of Ethiopian modernity, zamanawi-seletane signifies adopting instrumental rationality in the face of a threat posed by Western colonizers, while simultaneously recognizing the backwardness of one’s nation. It also implies introducing the latest achievements of the Western world in order to uphold the independence of the Ethiopian state. Realizing zamanawi-seletane to this extent requires the introduction of strong institutions, systems of education and forms of administration. In this think piece, I argue that modernity in Ethiopia did not emerge within the moral fabric of the community; however, it was not also animated by the attempt to introduce a direction for a nation’s development from above. 

When Western education was introduced in Ethiopia, the previous focus on church teaching was effectively sidelined. With the arrival of Ethiopian modernity, there was a shift from church education to modern Western education that was inspired by the need to develop an instrumental form of rationality. I follow here Paulos Milkias who characterizes Ethiopian modernity as the emergence of societal rationalization that displaced the power of religion and existing societal beliefs. Being guided by the goals of zamanawi-seletane, Ethiopian intellectuals wondered, in a country that once had a refined ancient civilization, why they were lagging. How can we introduce a conception of Ethiopian modernity that can restore our cultural pride and dignity while also learning from the instrumental achievements of the Western world? Besides the developmental ventures that were carried out by Ethiopian rulers, the question of Ethiopian modernity mainly occupied Ethiopian intellectuals. In the following, I discuss three major groups of thinkers who were involved in shaping the notion of Ethiopian modernity. 

The first group of intellectuals saw their task in explaining the cultural lag found in their nation. They believed that a country which was once known for the Aksumite civilization is currently in a state of backwardness. The believed that one is able to lay the foundations for a process of societal modernization through an appropriation of the instrumental rationality of the western world. The solution they believed in was to simultaneously preserve our cultural values and to learn from the material, scientific, and technological advancements of the West. These intellectuals, including Gebrehiwot Baykedagn (1886-1919), used the cultural lag thesis in order to explain the underdevelopment of Ethiopia. They also suggested that instrumental rationality was a unique contribution of the West to human civilization. Bahru Zewde argues that most attempts by Ethiopian intellectuals to learn from the instrumental rationality of the West tried to adopt the model of “Japanization,” which was a movement spearheaded by few Ethiopian intellectuals in the 1930s. 

Japan was considered the perfect model by intellectuals like Kebede Michael (1916-1998) because it was seen as the only nation that had attained instrumental progress without necessarily embracing Westernization. Nevertheless, Bahru makes the important point that attempts to emulate Japan’s developmental model lacked a sufficient understanding of its particular history and context. Regarding the impact of the works of the intellectuals Bahru admits that it is difficult to determine and that their works were mostly inaccessible to the masses. Still some reformist ideas suggested by intellectuals like Gebrehiwot were introduced within government policies later on. Among the major reformist intellectuals that tried to learn from the instrumental advancements of the West was the doctor, economist, and intellectual Gebrehiwot Baykedagn.

Gebrehiwot’s visions of societal modernization are brought forth in his works አጤምኒልክናኢትዮጵያ (The Emperor Menelik and Ethiopia; 1912) and መንግስትና የህዝብ አስተዳደር (State and Economy of early 20th century Ethiopia; 1924). I argue that two main motives dictate Gebrehiwot’s conception of modernity in The Emperor Menelik and Ethiopia. The first one is the need to learn from the success that colonizing nations attained in introducing modernization. Gebrehiwot believed that independence alone cannot lead into modernity and that one could learn even from the colonized. Secondly, there is the need to realize material development without necessarily abandoning one’s own cultural tradition. To meet the goals of a modern project that is founded on a sense of cultural pride, Gebrehiwot suggests there is a need to introduce a new form of history writing that shows a commitment to one’s cultural values. He further contends that there is a need to establish a modern government in Ethiopia that recognizes societal enlightenment as the foundation of processes of democratization. 

As part of his modernization program, Gebrehiwot generally lists ten radical measures that must be practically implemented. First of all, the wealth of the nation and the ruler’s private property must be separated from one another so as to avoid a possible conflict of interest. Secondly, there must be a parallel relation between the level of income of citizens and the amount of taxation levied on them. Thirdly, a uniform form of currency needs to be implemented. Fourthly, there must be a serious effort to further promote the Amharic national language. Fifthly, there is a need to harmonize existing and modern laws. Sixthly, there is a need to establish a modern army. Seventhly, there is a need to introduce a more functioning economic system. Eighthly, the economy needs to be regulated by law. Ninthly, there must be a strong central government and tenthly, the freedom of religion needs to be realized.

In his second work State and Economy of early 20th century Ethiopia, Gebrehiwot argues that human history is characterized by the dominance of the powerful over the less fortunate. I think that a Eurocentric view manifests itself in three major ways in Gebrehiwot’s approach. First of all, Gebrehiwot’s understanding of human history as a movement from a state of potentiality into actuality uses an analysis of cultural lag and underdevelopment in order to explain Ethiopia’s predicaments. Secondly, again in using the cultural lag thesis, Gebrehiwot seems to assume that there is a universal path to progress and that Ethiopia is lagging behind. Thirdly, Gebrehiwot also implicitly assumes that the West had an exclusive possession of instrumental rationality and that we need to learn from this. I therefore suggest that Gebrehiwot’s analysis is founded on a Eurocentric conception of modernity and that he did not pay enough attention to alternative conceptions of modernity found in the different parts of the world. Having identified the ideas of the first group of intellectuals, now let us move to the second group.

The second group of intellectuals shared the assumption that ancient Ethiopia, which rivaled the achievements of the greatest civilizations of the world, could provide inspiration for a process of cultural revival and renaissance. One of the intellectuals in this group is Asres Yenesew. In his  1958 work ጠቃሚ ምክር (Useful Advice), Asres develops a theory of modernization that is founded on ascribing a unique role to the Ethiopian intellectual. The task of such writers is to resist Western modernization and to provide the intellectual edifice for a cultural renaissance. They should particularly expose the ideological functions of Western education. Asres thinks that the role of a writer is to enlighten the masses. By evoking an analogy between a bee and the writer he argues that just like a bee needs a flower to produce honey, the masses also need the writer in order to realize societal progress. He still cautions that the writers and critics should be careful so as not to propagate Western ideology to the masses in the name of providing knowledge. 

Asres also warns us against equating Ge’ez education, which he saw as a particular form of education, with church education and makes a plea for studying Ethiopian history and texts. He criticized a new generation of Ethiopians for only being interested in studying the modern Western canon and gradually securing a position in the government offices. Asres also criticized his society for entertaining negative attitude towards craftsmanship and at least not being able to attain self-sufficiency. Primarily he thought that Ethiopians need to study our language for it gives us an access to our wisdom and also the hidden medical knowledge that is found in our forests. Asres saw those intellectuals who are educated in the West as the allies of the colonizers. I argue that among Ethiopia’s intellectuals Asres stands out as a unique scholar in developing an explicit criticism of Western modernity. He demonstrated that Western modernity is antithetical to the Ethiopian lived reality and that there is a need to develop a new foundation for social progress that is founded on the revival of the past. 

The third group of intellectuals unites those that tried to attain a unique synthesis between what they perceived as Ethiopian values and Western progress. Modernizers like Eguale Gebreyohannes aimed to develop a new conception of progress that equally accommodates Ethiopian cultural values and Western science and technology. Eguale believed that such a conception of progress should be primarily carried out in the field of education. In his 2003 የከፍተኛ ትምህርት ዘይቤ [Yekefitegna timihirt zeyibe], Eguale argued that if a nation has a system of education that balances different intellectual traditions, then all the problems of our society will be resolved. Using Plato, Eguale argues that knowledge is the foundation of virtue and societal justice. In such an effort to meet the goals of education and enlightenment, Eguale credits Emperor Haile Selassie, who ruled the country from 1930 to 1974, for making a lasting contribution to modern education. Eguale believed that our program of modernization must allow us to determine the social functions of knowledge. 

The Athenians, Eguale suggests, embodied the principle of an intrinsic interest in knowledge as the foundation of societal progress. Based on a comparison between Western and Ethiopian systems of education, he argues that one problem in our knowledge system is that oral wisdom is not easily transferred from one generation to the other. He saw Ethiopian education as mainly being founded on oral tradition. Furthermore our existing system of education is founded on hostility towards modern Western scientific education. European modernity, according to Eguale, was able to learn from different intellectuals traditions although its primary gaze is oriented towards the controlling of the natural world. Eguale argues that technology is the unique possession of the West. He believed that we need to learn from Western system of education and that the task of the Ethiopian intellectual is to identify the limitations of Western and non-Western, material and immaterial forms of knowledge to then form a creative synthesis. 

Eguale’s approach differs from the modernizing programs brought forth by Ethiopia’s reformist intellectuals like Baykedagn in that what he is trying to attain is not the defense of the nation by the appropriation of Western knowledge. He also differs from the renaissance and revivalist intellectuals in that he does not try to elevate Ethiopia’s cultural past as the source of perfection. Despite such differences, just like most Ethiopian intellectuals, Eguale believed that modernization can be attained by instituting a new system of education. I argue that Eguale was not able to attain a synthesis between Ethiopian and Western conceptions of knowledge since his approach, just like other Ethiopian and third world intellectuals, presupposes that technology and instrumental rationality are unique capacities of the West. 

Rather than ascribing a particular form of orientation to a given culture, Eguale tried to recount for the pragmatic interests that animated different forms of knowledge in various parts of the world. Once there is transcultural contact, there is a need for a creative synthesis. Eguale seems to assume that there is a single trajectory that dictates the developmental paths of different societies of the world. He views the instrumental rationality of science and technology as an exclusive possession of the Western world. I argue that we need to instead explore alternative approaches that assume that there is the simultaneous existence of different paths towards modernity.


Fasil Merawi holds a PhD in philosophy from Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia. His areas of interest include post-metaphysical thinking, ontological pluralism, and multiple modernities. Currently, he is an Assistant Professor and the Chairperson of the Department of Philosophy, Addis Ababa University. Some of his recent publications include “Reflections on Glock’s Conception of Analytic Philosophy” (2021), “An Analysis of Hountondji’s ‘The Struggle for Meaning, Reflections on Philosophy, Culture and Democracy in Africa’” (2021), and “The Sage and Philosophy in Africa: Revisiting Marcel Griaule’s Conversations with Ogotemmeli” in Ethics, Epistemology, and Philosophy of Development An Evaluation, edited by Abdul Shakil (2021).

Edited by Isabel Jacobs

Featured Image: Mar Di Aethiopia Vulgo Oceanus Aethiopicus, 1650. Wikimedia Commons.

Categories
Think Piece

The Ethiopian Socrates on the Shores of Lake Sagatagan 

By Jonathan Egid

Where would you go if you wanted to consult the largest collection of Ethiopian philosophical manuscripts anywhere in the world? Addis Ababa might be a good guess, at the national library or one of the universities. Perhaps elsewhere in the Ethiopian highlands, in the scriptorium of an ancient monastery – Debre Libanos or Abba Garima or one of the hundreds of monastic communities that line the shores of Lake Tana. Or, knowing something of the history of the expropriation of Ethiopian manuscripts, you might think to journey to one of the great libraries of Europe: the Bodleian and British Library both have large collections of manuscripts pillaged during the Napier expedition of 1867-8; or the Bibiliothèque Nationale in Paris, where the Irish-Basque explorer, geographer and linguist Antoine d’Abbadie assembled the largest collection of Ethiopian manuscripts of his day in the late 19th century. None of these however would be quite right. 

If you want to study the broadest, most comprehensive collection of Ethiopian philosophical manuscripts, you would need to travel to rural Minnesota. The campus of Saint John’s University is set in acres upon acres of green and blue. Located two hours west of Minneapolis, there are no towns of any size to the west until North Dakota, and no cities until the Pacific coast nearly one thousand miles away. The landscape is all lake and prairie and thick, primordial forest. There are chipmunks, deer and red squirrels, eagles and orioles and in the evenings the haunting cry of the common loon – Minnesota’s state bird and the creature which adorns the number plates of huge cars dotted across vast, empty parking lots. Saint John’s university grew out of Saint John’s Abbey, established in the mid-19th century to minister to German migrants, and today over one hundred monks still live there, taking daily mass in the hulking concrete spaceship of a church designed by the Hungarian modernist Marcel Breuer.

The Abbey Church at St John’s. Photo: Jonathan Egid.

Opposite the church, across an immaculately manicured lawn is the university’s Alcuin Library, an elegant, if rather more understated building which houses the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library (HMML). The Manuscript Library began life as a repository for the preservation of at-risk manuscripts. Father Colman Barry, having witnessed the destruction of two world wars in and despairing for the bibliographic heritage of Europe if the worst fears of the Cold War came to pass, decided to begin a massive project of microfilming and acquisition from libraries in Austria, Spain and Germany. Over the years the focus of preservation was extended from Europe to the Middle East and Ethiopia, and then to the rest of the world. Today there are collections from Egypt, India, Iraq, Italy, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Malta, Nepal, Pakistan and Syria. The manuscript library hosts 400,000 digitized or microfilmed manuscripts.

I was at the HMML to study its Ethiopian Manuscript Microfilm Library (EMML), a collection of 8,000 Ethiopian manuscripts – by some distance the largest in the world – photographed throughout Ethiopia from 1973 onwards. In particular I was after the collection of Fälasfa (philosophy) texts that had been gathered from collections all over the world, including the Vatican libraries and the Austrian National Library. The text itself, sometimes referred to as the Book of Wise Philosophers, is a compendium of philosophical maxims which seems to be a translation of a Christian Arabic gnomologium, now lost, entitled the Kitāb al-Bustān. This text is probably itself based on the Nawādir al-falāsifa, of the 9th century Nestorian Christian Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq. It may have a Greek original, now lost to us, but by now this is little more than speculation.

Over the years the text developed, or rather expanded, with subsequent generations adding or revising material such that earlier texts are far larger than earlier ones. All versions are written in Gə’əz, the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox church and the major literary language of Ethiopian Christian history, spoken in northern Ethiopia from antiquity until approximately the 13th century but which survives today only in the church.

Unusually for a Gə’əz text, the identity of the translator and date of the translation is known. Between 1510 and 1522 one abba Mika’el ‘the translator’ translated the text “by mouth”, that is, by orally translating the Arabic text into Gə’əz, with this text being copied by a scribe. Early modern Ethiopians evidently had a quite different notion of what counted as philosophy and who counted as a philosopher that contemporary academia, with not only familiar figures like Socrates, Plato and Diogenes dispensing wisdom, but also David, Solomon and the Ethiopian Saint Yared – the holy man who according to tradition founded traditional poetic composition (qene) and was taught the holy hymns of the Ethiopian church by three white birds sent from God. Much of the text is made up of back-and-forth question and answers between the wise man or wise men and the crowd:

ይቤልዎ፡ ለዲዮጋንዮስ፡ ጠቤብ፡ እፎኑ፡ ይእቲ፡ ሞት፡ 

And they said to Diogenes the Wise: how is this death?

ይቤ፡ መደንግዕት፡ ይእቲ፡ ለአብዕልት፡ ወመፍቅድ፡ ይእቲ፡ ለነዳይን። 

He said: astonishing to the wealthy and necessary to the poor

Many of the philosophical reflections have the flavor of Greek philosophy viewed through the prism of Eastern Orthodox spirituality. One particularly striking example is the Ethiopian retelling of the story of Diogenes and Alexander the Great, in which the former rebukes the latter for stepping into his light. In the Ethiopian version, the details have all changed. Diogenes has become Socrates, and Alexander has become a nameless king. Diogenes-Socrates does not ask the king to move out of his light, but complains of losing the heat that is so vital for his thinking. But it is not only the details, but the overall atmosphere and tone of the passage that has changed. 

Whereas earlier versions showed Diogenes-Socrates bluntly demanding the ruler step out of his light, the Gə’əz version delights in a kind of ironic misunderstanding: the philosopher explains to the King that the only real life is the spiritual life. The King fails to understand, believing that Socrates is complimenting him in speaking of the temporal world of power and riches. Indeed, the philosopher and Ethiopianist Claude Sumner exaggerates only a little when he says that “one seems to be listening to an Oriental monk speaking through the mouth of Socrates” (30).

Other sections of the Book of Wise Philosophers focus on more traditionally philosophical topics like human nature and what makes human beings distinctive from other natural beings:

ይቤ፡ ፩እምጠቤሃን፡ እስመ፡ ሰብእሰ፡ ኢይትሌለይ፡ ወኢይክብር፡ እምነ፡ እንስሳ፡ ዘእንበለ፡ በንገብ፡ ወልቡና፡ ወእመሰ፡ አርመመ፡ ወኢለበወ፡ ኮነ፡ ከመ፡ እንስሳ። 

One of the wise men said: ‘because a man is no better and no more honorable than an animal except with speech and intelligence, if he is silent and does not think, he becomes like an animal’

The interest in animals recurs throughout the Fälasfa, and is apparent too in some of the earlier works translated from Greek into Gə’əz like the Physiologos, a compendium of nature mysticism most likely composed at the turn of the 3rd century in Alexandria. The Physiologos treats in each of its 48 chapters an animal, plant or mineral, describing its appearance, habitat and its natural and spiritual properties, often providing an allegorical interpretation of these properties along Christian lines: the phoenix rises from the ashes like Christ, the pelican that sheds its own blood that its progeny may live again. The work was almost certainly translated directly from Greek into Gə’əz in the Aksumite period, and thus constitutes the earliest work of natural history, and of philosophy in the broad sense, in Gə’əz. 

Some sections of the Fälasfa however use the picturesque adaptation of philosophy to an Ethiopian context in order to make less savory points:

ይቤል ለሰቅራጥ፡ አይኑ፡ አንበሳ፡ የአኪ፡ እምነ፡ አናብስት፡ 

Socrates said: “which lion is most evil from among the lions?”

ይቤ፡ አንስታያዊት። 

He said: the female

Given the rather mixed bag of insights to be gleaned from the text – why bother with the Fälasfa? Why travel to Minnesota to read the Fälasfa, an Ethiopian translation of an Arabic work that recounts apocryphal stories about Greek philosophers? On the one hand it is a fascinating example of how a text metamorphoses as it crosses geographical and linguistic boundaries. It is a fascinating example of the reception of Greek thought in a part of the world rarely assumed to have much of a philosophical heritage at this early date, and of the processes of the indigenization of cosmopolitan knowledge.

But despite the intrinsic interest of the text, in truth, I was not here for this book alone, but on the trail of another, even more enigmatic work. My doctoral research focuses on the century-long debate over the authorship of the Hatäta Zär’a Ya‛ǝqob, a philosophical autobiography set in 17th century Ethiopia, that has been acclaimed both as the ‘jewel of Ethiopian literature’ and as a fake. The Hatäta is a work which has over the last century become embroiled in a seemingly intractable and highly emotive debate about its authorship, namely whether it is the authentic product of a 17th century Ethiopian scholar, or a later 19th century forgery by a lonely Italian monk, stranded in Ethiopia 

Sumner, who took the Fälasfa as the topic for the first volume of his magisterial, five-volume Ethiopian Philosophy, and the Hatäta Zär’a Ya‛ǝqob as the second, suggested that in these early works we see the trickle that would eventually become a great river. Even as translations, the Book of Wise Philosophers is an Ethiopian work, he argued, on account of the way that it was transformed in the process, acquiring a distinctively Ethiopian character: “this work is Ethiopian, not by the originality of its invention, but by the originality of its style and presentation.” This is, according to Sumner, because “Ethiopians never translate literally: they adapt, modify, add, subtract. A translation therefore bears a typically Ethiopian stamp: although the nucleus of what is translated is foreign to Ethiopia, the way it is assimilated into an indigenous reality is typically Ethiopian.” 

I was in Minnesota to examine the development of a philosophical lexicon in Gə’əz, the language of the texts and the dominant literary language of Ethiopia for most of its long history. I wanted to see if there were traces in these earlier text of the ideas expressed in the masterwork of Gə’əz philosophy, the Hatäta Zär’a Ya‛ǝqob. The  debate over the authorship of the text had until recently become bogged down in accusations of bad faith on either side, and I hoped to open up a new avenue of exploration by examining the philosophical vocabulary (basically the set of terms that do the philosophical ‘heavy lifting’) employed in the text, and seeing whether this vocabulary could be better explained as translations of European philosophical terms (which would be the case if the text were a 19th century forgery), or the developments of earlier Ethiopian works like the Book of Wise Philosophers (if it was the ‘authentic’ [product of a 17th century Ethiopian scholar). In particular I was looking for the word that is the lynchpin of the philosophical system of the Hatäta Zär’a Ya‛ǝqob, the word ልቡና (Lebuna), denoting the faculty of reason, intelligence or understanding. 

I was in luck. The term was used no less than four times on the very first page of text, in ways that seemed, if not identical, at least recognisably similar to what I had been expecting. Of course, the appearance of a single term proves nothing, and even the appearance of many is inconclusive, but it begins to lay the ground for an argument that the text could have been from 17th century Ethiopia as the relevant concepts were already in use in Gə’əz, that they were not on the one hand, totally unthinkable in the context of 17th century Ethiopia, nor created ex nihilo by an individual genius living alone in a cave. 

My only regret is that I was unable to consult a resource at least as great as the manuscript collection. For most of the last half century, Collegeville was home also to one of the greatest scholars of Ethiopian manuscript culture, the late, great Getatchew Haile who died in 2021. Getatchew was one of those thinkers whose scholarly output beggars belief: hundreds of catalogs, editions, articles, translations into and from Ethiopian and European languages.

Getatchew Haile (1932-2021). Wikimedia Commons.

Born in Shewa in 1931, just a few years before the Italian invasion, Getatchew studied Semitic philology in Cairo and then Tübingen, returning to his home country on the eve of epoch-making changes – the first coup had been attempted against the government of Haile Selassie. The ancient Solomonic dynasty of which that emperor was to be the last was not long for this world. After the revolution of 1974 brought the Derg regime to power, Getatchew found himself on the wrong side of the junta, and during a shootout with their forces was paralysed in the lower back. With the help of friends he escaped his hospital, then his homeland, fleeing first to London and then to the United States, where he settled in a small town just outside the St John’s campus. I can only imagine what this Ethiopian-born, Egyptian-educated scholar must have made of his first Minnesota winter. 

Over eighteen years between 1975 and 1993, Getatchew took to the 8000 microfilmed manuscripts from the EMML project, which he meticulously cataloged and made available to the scholarly community. The final part of this project was supported by the MacArthur ‘genius’ grant, making him the first African to receive this coveted award. Most interestingly for me, Getatchew agreed for many years with the prevailing scholarly consensus on the Hatäta Zär’a Ya‛ǝqob, namely that it was a forgery, until late in his life something made him change his mind. 

In 2017, Getatchew published an article in a collection dedicated to his friend, the Amharic language poet Amha Asfaw, arguing in favor of an Ethiopian authorship of the Hatata. I had hoped to speak with him about his change of heart: was it just reviewing the evidence, or was there some deeper hunch informing his opinion? What did he think about recent work on the topic (selfishly I wanted to know what the great man thought of my own small contributions)? Did he think there was any way of settling the problem once and for all? But as it stands, with regard to both the Hatata debate and Getatchew’s own thoughts on the matter, we have nothing but the words on the page, and no option but to advance his work in our own small way. Getatchew Haile’s tombstone rests in the cemetery just outside the St John’s campus, with Gə’əz letters in a peculiar, ornate style carved into the smooth reddish granite opposite Lake Saganatan. This quiet, peaceful place, a land of plains and lakes and forests, has become in the twenty first century a repository for the traces – in handwriting, stone, in lines of code – of the literary and philosophical traditions of an Ethiopia that is in many ways its opposite.

The Tomb of Getatchew Haile. Photo: Jonathan Egid.

Jonathan Joshua Egid is a graduate student at King’s College London. His research explores philosophy and its history in a global orientation with a special interest in the methodologies of intercultural comparison and the historiography of philosophy. He is currently writing about the Hatata Zera Yacob, an enigmatic philosophical autobiography from Ethiopia, and the century long controversy over its authorship. His latest article ‘How does philosophy learn to speak a new language?‘ appeared in Perspectives.

Edited by Isabel Jacobs

Featured Image: Lake Sagatagan. Photo: Jonathan Egid.