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Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Sven Reichardt on Fascism as a Process-Concept

Sven Reichardt is Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Konstanz. He works on the history of global fascism, on social movements, and civil societies in the 20th century as well as on the history of war, civil war, and terrorism. For issue 82.1 of the Journal of the History of Ideas, he contributed an article titled “Fascism’s Stages: Imperial Violence, Entanglement, and Processualization,” which describes the radicalizing practice of the Italian, German, and Japanese regimes in the 1930s and conceptualizes fascism as a global phenomenon.

Contributing editor Jonas Knatz interviewed Reichardt about the interpretation of fascism as a political process-concept and the relevance of such a concept for contemporary debates about fascism as historical analogy.

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Jonas Knatz: In your article, you argue that fascism “cannot be defined as a static entity or a catalogue of ideas” but “must be understood as a political process-concept.” (88) With reference to scholarship on National Socialism as an empire and by analyzing fascist warfare and imperial settler policies, the essay shows fascism as a radicalizing process in which the Italian, German, and Japanese regimes of the 1930s engaged in both inter-imperial collaboration and competition that successively radicalized the ideas of a “grand-area imperialism.” Additionally, in line with Anson Rabinbach, you conceptualize fascism as a “political Haltung” (ethos), a commitment to subscribe to an often-incoherent worldview characterized by a “conglomerate of nationalist, racist, anti-socialist, right-wing populist, anti-feminist or male chauvinist, and imperialist” ideas. (89) What is the connection between this political Haltung and the process of radicalization? And what are the advantages of understanding fascism as a political process-concept?

Sven Reichardt: Fascism has often been defined as something static. Whether with the help of a list of characteristics or one-sentence definitions: again and again, this made auxiliary constructions such as “para-fascist,” “proto-fascist,” or “semi-fascist” necessary. In the long run, this is a tiring game of deciding between “not yet,” “almost” and “already fascist,” but it can be overcome or at least mitigated by using a process-term. Fascism as a movement, acting within a democratic system, should be understood as fundamentally different from a state carrying out a genocide in the exceptional situation of the Second World War. Moreover, a process-concept can better capture the inherent radicalization dynamics of fascism, because fascism had a tendency to dissolve boundaries through its polycratic power structures. This is true at both the national and the global level, as both competition within national parties and among fascist regimes led to the violent dissolution of fascism’s boundaries. This tendency to transgress boundaries can be better understood as a habitus or Haltung than as an ideology—even though these two notions cannot, of course, be neatly separated.

JK: The presidency of Donald Trump sparked a wide-ranging debate about the applicability of the label of fascism to cotemporary politics in general and the US in particular, which gained even more steam after the Capitol riots on January 6. Michael Wildt tweeted that one could see “modern fascism” on this day, while Robert Paxton overcame his previous hesitation to call Trump a fascist and argued that “the label now seems not just acceptable but necessary.”  Previously, others had been more reluctant about the precision of the term fascism, seeing the fascism debate as a distraction from a debate about the structural causes that paved Trump’s way into office or reflecting more generally on the political consequences of historical analogies. How can understanding fascism as a “political process-concept” contribute to these debates?

SR: Most historians emphasize the differences between Trumpism and interwar fascism. The constitutional structure of the United States is more stable than that of young democracies during the interwar period. Economically, the contemporary United States has been in a much better position (at least before the Corona crisis) than the Weimar Republic ever was. In foreign policy, the US is also less isolated; it is still well-integrated and internationally respected. Left- and right-wing extremism lead a primarily extra-parliamentary existence. In one respect in particular, today’s right-wing populism differs (at least quantitatively) from the anti-system protest of the interwar period: despite the storming of the Capitol, it is not a primarily violent movement, unlike the interwar fascist movements that were shaped by World War I and the bloody street battles with socialists. Undoubtedly, there are numerous instances of violence in the present; consider the hundreds of right-wing extremists, neo-Nazis, and Ku Klux Klan supporters who converged on the small college town of Charlottesville, VA in August 2017 and turned violent on a massive scale. In the US, the propagators of violence among “white supremacists,” such as former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and alt-right ideologue Richard B. Spencer, have had a significant boost since Trump’s election. But brutality and militancy were far more widespread in the interwar period, and the legacy of World War I continued to operate in the virulent interwar paramilitarism. Murder rates, anger, and the general acceptance of violence were also significantly greater in the interwar period.

I do see parallels between the past and the present in how society has become divided, marked by hatred and attitudes of “unconditionality” (Unbedingtheit) that, in the case of the Weimar Republic, destroyed democracy. In the US, we have witnessed the formation of antagonistic camps. This is at least true of racism and the political-cultural divide between the metropole and the provinces. In the present, there is a renewed upsurge of nationalism and populism in international politics, from de-tabooed political language to the rise of targeted assassinations of individual politicians by right-wing extremists, or the emergence of a heavy-handed police state.

Presumably, liberal democracy will be further weakened by the Covid-19 crisis, because well before 2020, liberalism, prosperity, freedom of movement, the standing of democratic parties, consensus politics, and social justice had already come under massive pressure from a new authoritarianism. Jürgen Habermas‘ thesis that right-wing populism forms the “breeding group for a new fascism” is worth considering. The Viennese historian of Eastern Europe Philipp Ther prophesies in Der Spiegel that “existential crises like the current pandemic have strengthened xenophobic nationalists and right-wing radicals” several times in history. As is well known, there are no simple, automatic repetitions in history. However, a “Fortress Europe” already seems to manifest itself against asylum seekers. Non-European migrations to Europe will continue to be limited in the future. It is an entirely open question whether crisis-ridden Europe, in the face of tendencies toward re-nationalization since the 2010s, the recently adopted entry barriers by individual nations, and the massive prospects for over-indebtedness and recession, will continue to hold together.


Jonas Knatz is a PhD Candidate at New York University’s History Department. He works on a conceptual history of the automation of work and Modern European Intellectual History more generally.

Featured Image: Luigi Russolo, La Rivolta, 1911

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Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Dagmar Herzog & Stefanos Geroulanos on the Afterli(v)es of Fascisms

Dagmar Herzog is Distinguished Professor of History and the Daniel Rose Faculty Scholar at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. She has published extensively on the histories of sexuality and gender, psychoanalysis, theology and religion, Jewish-Christian relations and Holocaust memory, and she has edited anthologies on sexuality in the Third Reich, sexuality in twentieth-century Austria, and the Holocaust. Her most recent books include Unlearning Eugenics. Sexuality, Reproduction, and Disability in Post-Nazi Europe, and Cold War Freud: Psychoanalysis in an Age of Catastrophes. With Chelsea Schields, she has coedited The Routledge Companion to Sexuality and Colonialism, forthcoming 2021. For issue 82.1 of the Journal of the History of Ideas, she has served as guest editor of a cluster of articles on ‘Fascisms and Their Afterli(v)es’.

Stefanos Geroulanos is Professor of History at New York University and a Co-Executive Editor of the Journal of the History of Ideas. He is working on a book on conceptions of human prehistory since 1800 and a shorter book on Napoleon and the institution of the Civil Code in France. His most recent books include The Human Body in the Age of Catastrophe (with Todd Meyers) and Power and Time (edited with Natasha Wheatley and Dan Edelstein). With Herzog, he recently co-edited and introduced the important collection of essays by Anson Rabinbach, Staging the Third Reich.

Herzog and Geroulanos spoke with contributing editor Nuala P. Caomhánach about “Fascisms and Their Afterli(v)es: An Introduction,” the introduction to the cluster of articles on fascism in the current issue of the JHI

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Nuala P. Caomhánach: In your introduction, you refer to the opportunism of fascism to take advantage of the slipperiness and unstable status of truth. If fascism is a process moving between ideas, actions, and truths that mutate in unexpected ways, becoming redundant, deniable, and recycled, are you suggesting that the plasticity of historical “facts” destabilizes the field of intellectual history and is forcing it to move outside of conservative methodologies? Put another way, is this a reckoning for the field of intellectual history with fascisms’ amorphous and plastic ability to absorb and disregard ideas? Indeed, does the discomfort and “peculiar resistance to thinking [about] fascism together with ideas” reflect on the limitation of intellectual history (and the disciple of history itself) to integrate fascism, as opposed to anomalize it as a deviation from the centre, all the while up until today, it is still a viable alternative vision of modernity for ordinary people “on the ground”? 

Dagmar Herzog & Stefanos Geroulanos: Yes. There is a conventional way of interpreting fascism as this stable body of racialist, statist, tyrannical, and hierarchical ideas. It has sustained intellectual history with endlessly replicable and important-sounding questions like “was Heidegger a Nazi? Discuss!” (now updated to “is Trump a fascist? Discuss!”) and with attention to the obvious anti-democratic ethos of fascism, the Führerprinzip and so on. Intellectual historians have also often sustained it, not so much by anomalizing fascism but by replicating the conventional approach in a pedagogy that focuses on particular thinkers, big concepts, rigid ideologies, and historical overviews. 

Part of our purpose was to foreground process-ideas and translations of ideas that do not allow for such comforting discretions and do not simply identify fascism with 1930s Italy, Germany, and some other “maybes.” Scholars of fascist culture have long shown the complexity, contradictoriness, and syntheses generated by fascist ideas, the ways these ideas clothe everything from dull everydayness to management rhetoric to international competition to regeneration plans. To look at this in intellectual history means we need a better understanding of what ideas are, how they do not reside high up in some clouds, to be observed at a distance from the rest of some “reality,” how they are woven into everything from self-justification to fantasy. The recognition that ideas are meshed in such a way as to mangle and “regenerate” what fascists understand as life—this should help intellectual history more broadly, as truth isn’t something that simply exists and falls as fascism’s first casualty; this is a good place to start. 

NPC: Wilhelm Reich and Hannah Arendt set the stage for the reader to your thought-provoking challenge to scholars, “[I]f ideas mattered, how did they matter?” Reich and Arendt seem to offer an evolutionary argument over whether fascism is innate human nature or inherent nurture.  What advantage does reframing “ideology and form of rule” within a global context offer when analyzing fascism to move beyond this type of nature/nurture argument? How would a global context provide a more stable footing on which to think about fascism “across the 1945 line” when by its very nature fascism is unstable?

DH & SG: Just as one cannot simply end fascism’s history in 1945—Elisabeth Åsbrink shows well how fascist networks mutated fascist ideas afterward, to the point of treating overt racism as uncouth in order to better perpetuate it—one really cannot begin with a checklist that starts from famous tenets. That’s just virtuous self-distancing from evil. So if instead you are looking at the pleasures fascisms offer their followers, the construction of enemies internal and external, the practices and disavowals of violence (see here Matías Grinchpun’s study of Holocaust revisionism and its influence in Argentina), the (mendacious but always again seductive) promises of racial and social regeneration and war—all these are shared, albeit not with the same gusto or in the same ways. This is part of our point: there’s no prototype and copies, rather, there are particular ways in which the general dispositions that fascisms learn from one another (and from their stumbles) serve them to pursue highly similar projects. So it matters to look at the global dimension, and also to think of fascism as a dynamic potentiality and forcefield rather than persisting via any simple replication or “survival.” 

NPC: I was struck by the cluster of essays moving between the macro- and micro-scales adding richness and depth to our understanding and analysis of fascism. You offer an entry way into the kinds of actions undertaken, the processes set in motion by these said actions, and “what institutional and legal structures are created, what truths are devised.” In what ways will these approaches offer a way to move beyond “the ambiguous fit between the contents of those ideas and their most devastating effects,” particularly when thinking about institutional gaslighting, legal and governmental corruption and white-washing?

DH & SG: As you say, essays move from the micro (Elissa Mailänder on a Nazi chemistry professor’s bigamous home life) to the macro (Sven Reichardt’s study links ideas, movements, imperial processes, and annihilationism in the intertwined development of Italian, Japanese, and German state practices). We think that intellectual history can make its mark by considering fascist thought as it belongs in the in-between these two—between the structural, broad levels and the everyday behaviors. If we look at ideas as mutable, lived, at times theorized, as ambiguously perched, at times less than effective, at others as guiding lights, we can begin to explain regimes, practices, worldviews, and behaviors that have eluded historians. 

After the Second World War, ideologies were blamed in order to absolve individuals, including large groups who did more than simply participate and even did so enthusiastically. Our intent is to go the opposite direction—not to let liberals use a limited notion of ideology to proclaim themselves safe from it, and not to let historians turn that same limited notion into a generalized failure to account for all sorts of problems ranging from “everyday life” to violent enthusiasm, or even the diverse particulars of fascist intellectuals. Instead, we think of ideas as the connective tissue between these different levels or orders, and—leaving aside the frame specific to fascism—between power, violence, justification, and behavior. 


Nuala P. Caomhánach is a doctoral student in the Department of History at New York University and evolutionary biologist at the American Museum of Natural History. Her research focuses on the concept, meaning, and construction of biological Time and Space across three bodies of scientific knowledge—Ecological, Malagasy, and Phylogenetic– as applied to conservation ideology and policy from the late nineteenth century to present day. In short, her dissertation aims to understand how Madagascar became the botanical museum to save all of nature (and thus, humankind).

Featured Image: The City Rises, Umberto Boccioni, 1910.

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Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Polly Ha on the Social Reach of Freedom in the New Model Army

Polly Ha is a Reader in Early Modern History at the University of East Anglia. Her research focuses on religion and politics in Britain from the late sixteenth through the mid-seventeenth century. She has written several articles on freedom and toleration in early modern England and its empire. Her first book is English Presbyterianism, 1590-1640, from Stanford University Press in 2010. She is interviewed by contributing editor Pranav Jain about her article, “Revolutionizing the New Model Army: Ecclesiastical Independence, Social Justice, and Political Legitimacy” that appeared in the most recent issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas (October, 81.4).


Pranav Jain: In his study All Can Be Saved, Stuart Schwartz suggested that seemingly elite ideas about religious toleration were, in fact, widespread. In his view, this represents the intriguing possibility that these ideas, instead of following a top down model of circulation, might instead have travelled upwards to a select group of thinkers from various segments of society. Is there any evidence to suggest that conceptions of freedom as the absence of the possibility of arbitrary interference in civil war England might have followed a similar trajectory? 

Polly Ha: Stuart Schwartz’s fascinating study fits into a wider scholarship about how popular notions of freedom informed seemingly elite ideas. These could range from appeals to ancient custom to the practice of religious coexistence and toleration. There is still room to explore how the social circulation of independent views informed elite debates in the English Revolution. Take John Milton’s early anti-prelatical tracts. These were closely tied to other independent treatises. But they are more often studied within the corpus of his own work than within the longer history of anti-episcopacy. Like anti-clericalism more generally, anti-episcopal polemic has a popular history that stretches back well before the seventeenth century. Its public expression in the Elizabethan Marprelate Tracts introduced a new genre of satire. Even before the first ‘paper bullets’ were fired during these late Elizabethan literary wars, clerics endlessly complained about how the masses, and especially women, harboured anti-epsicopal sentiments.

But I wouldn’t necessarily characterise Independent ideas as following a bottom up trajectory. Nor did they trickle down from the top in a straightforward direction. I see elite and popular views working together in a synergistic way as the idea of non-dependence expanded through ecclesiastical debate. I deliberately refrained from telling a story about origins. The more interesting question for me is how ideas about freedom which were by definition reserved for an elite class of men in classical antiquity transformed over the course of the seventeenth century to apply more broadly across the social order and began to extend even to women. This gives us a more synoptic approach.

Pranav Jain: Given their focus on preventing the possibility of interference and domination in the future, did these notions of freedom and independence draw upon the prevalent eschatological thinking of the time? 

Polly Ha: Thank you for asking this question. There is an older historiography which used to identify puritanism with a broad sociological definition of millenarianism to explain their revolutionary impulses in the seventeenth century. Having long identified the Pope as the Antichrist, puritans began to heighten their millenarian pitch as the British Isles spiraled into civil war. More recent work has drawn attention to nuances in contemporary eschatological views. Millenarianism was expressed in numerous ways and was never reserved exclusively for puritan radicals. For example, it was espoused by the conformist Joseph Mede. Samuel Hartlib, John Dury, and their circle appealed to it in leading ecumenical efforts for universal reform.

Puritan or not, millenarianism was useful for urging moral improvement and prompting political action. This is where it overlapped with ecclesiastical Independents. There is a clear historical consciousness that informed the emergence of ecclesiastical independence in the early seventeenth century. Apologists positioned themselves within the wider context of the church throughout history. Their concern for protection against future domination was tied to their sense of urgency. It fueled the moral imperative of extending English Protestantism beyond its sixteenth century expressions. They were even self-consciously willing to push reformation beyond Calvin and Geneva.

This expectation of progressive change could easily dovetail with some of the radical apocalyptic thinking that emerged during the revolutionary circumstances of the mid-seventeenth century. The association stretches further back to early Radical Reformation in Europe which was characterized by its anticlericalism and apocalyptic thought. But early independence is instructive. It reminds us that English independents were initially driven by their ecclesiology, not their eschatology. What changed by the mid-seventeenth century in England was that millenarian ideas began to play a more prominent role. It became useful as a political tool and it appealed to a wider range of thinkers.

Pranav Jain: There has recently been a renewed interest in civil war radicalism, as seen in the work of David Como and other historians. How does your argument relate to the broader historiography of civil war radicalism?

Polly Ha: We are very much indebted to David Como for uncovering underground networks in pre-Civil War England. He has more recently explained the development of coalitions among radical parliamentarians, nonconformists, and printers during the English civil wars. My argument fits into this recent interest in civil war alliances by identifying ideological views among radicals that connect their shared interests.

Revisionist scholarship recovered diversity and nuances in the New Model Army’s politics. It disabused us of simplistic readings that lumped them together with other radicals in a generic and homogenous way. But as that façade began to crumble, we were left with the impression that their driving concerns were overwhelmingly pragmatic in nature. From material demands to political interests and religious allegiances, there is a lingering tendency from the revisionism of the late twentieth century to read grievances in the New Model Army in a reductive way. The ideological connections I am seeking to recover in my essay give us a wider context for reconsidering isolated strands within civil war radicalism.

It also offers a corrective to the broader interpretation of the nature of the English Revolution. By challenging the ideological coherence of the New Model Army, previous scholarship was also calling into question its arguments for political agency and legitimacy. This shaped wider interpretation of the nature of the English Revolution at its most revolutionary moment. My essay seeks to open up alternative readings of the nature of the English Revolution by recovering the internal logic of the New Model Army as they organised themselves into a self-authenticating political body. Some historians like Michael Winship are content with identifying parallels between godly ideas and republicanism. But there is still so much more that can be said on the matter. My work is about how the godly transformed those classical ideas, expanded their social reach, and opened up new possibilities in the English Revolution.

In this way the essay builds on Michael Braddick’s recent work on the creative impulses in the English civil wars. It examines the evolution of ideas among the godly. But it also argues for dynamic change in the idea of freedom itself along with its new application across the social order and both genders.


Pranav Jain is a PhD student at Yale University working on early modern Britain, and a contributing editor at the JHI Blog.

Featured Image: “The Royal Oake of Brittayne,” from Clement Walker, The compleat History of Independency, 1661. Courtesy of the British Library.

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Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Bill Jenkins on Ghosts and Apparitions after the Scottish Enlightenment

Bill Jenkins is Research Fellow in the School of History at the University of St Andrews. He is working on the natural philosophy strand of the After the Enlightenment: Scottish Intellectual Life, 1790-1843 project with the School of History. He is the author of Evolution Before Darwin: Theories of the Transmutation of Species in Edinburgh, 1804–1834,  published by Edinburgh University Press in October 2019. He is interviewed by contributing editor Brendan Mackie about his article, “Physiology of the Haunted Mind: Naturalistic Theories of Apparitions in Early Nineteenth-Century Scotland” that appeared in the most recent issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas (October, 81.4).

This interview was conducted, edited and condensed by Brendan Mackie then reviewed by Bill Jenkins.


Brendan Mackie: So, so to start off, set the scene for me. Tell me about nineteenth-century rationalist Scotland, and why they have problems with ghosts?

Bill Jenkins: First we need to go back to the previous generation of Enlightenment scholarship. There were a number of very big names in the philosophy of the time, including the disciples of the Common Sense philosopher Thomas Reid, like Dugald Stewart and Thomas Brown. They were still alive in the early years of the century when a lot of the protagonists of my story were students in Edinburgh. The important part of their legacy was this belief that reason was the key to unlocking the secrets not only of the natural world, but also the human mind as well.

Brendan Mackie: So why are apparitions—ghosts—a problem for this rationalist project? Personally, I don’t think ghosts exist. So I don’t feel the need to have scientists and philosophers try to ‘solve’ the problem of ghosts and go off to haunted houses with ectoplasm detectors or whatever. But why were ghosts in nineteenth-century Edinburgh a problem for these people who believed in the power of reason to explain the natural world and the human mind?

Bill Jenkins: This was a period when there was a lot of interest in the supernatural. In Scotland there were a large number of people who genuinely believed that ghosts did actually exist, and that other spiritual beings did visit us from time to time.

We can think of this a period when faith in the rational order had been undermined, to a certain extent. Some thinkers, for example, linked the rationalism of the eighteenth century to the French Revolution, and the threat of breakdown of the social order in Britain and Scotland in particular. This led to a breakdown in the faith that reason was the answer to everything. People were more open to ideas about ghosts and other forces that were not amenable to rational explanation.

Brendan Mackie: So we have this eighteenth century rational project where people like Thomas Reid are saying that the whole world—both natural phenomena and social phenomena—can be understood rationally. But after the excess of the French Revolution, people get freaked out. Maybe explaining every single thing in the world rationally both doesn’t work—and can lead to excesses like the guillotine. As a response people are more open to the idea that both the natural and social worlds are resistant to reason. But did this have a practical effect? Were people seeing ghosts all the time? Talking about ghosts? Writing about ghosts?

Bill Jenkins: Now, I think it was something that was very much in the public mind in terms of the, let’s say, more intellectual middle class. There were ghosts stories and other supernatural tales in periodicals like Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, for example. The work of Sir Walter Scott contained a strong supernatural element. And James Hogg one of Scott’s contemporaries—who is, to my mind, a much more interesting writer—wrote stories with a very strong supernatural theme running through them, including some of his best known ones like the Brownie of Bodsbeck or the Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, his most famous book. So people were being confronted with the supernatural through literature to quite a significant extent.

There’s also the influence of evangelical religion, which was strong at the time. Evangelical religion places a much bigger emphasis on God’s intervention in the world and also the intervention of other spiritual beings. Many Evangelicals believed that the angels and demons actually made their presence felt in the world and had certainly made their presence felt in the past.

Brendan Mackie: So evangelicals were committed to the existence of the supernatural because it shows that God is alive in the world. This is in contrast to the rationalist god, who is constrained by the same rules everyone else has to follow. In the paper you quote the historian John Henry, who describes the god of these rationalist moderates as a “God who is hidebound by the laws of logic, whose omnipotence is compromised by the need to obey the same ineluctable laws as mankind, whether laws of logic, of nature, or of morals.”

Bill Jenkins: Yes, the distinction here is between what my colleague John Henry describes as the conflict between intellectualist and voluntarist interpretations. An intellectualist believes that God is actually constrained by the laws of reason—He doesn’t have absolute freedom to do anything he wants. Whereas a voluntarist believes that God actually makes the laws of reason, so he can break them, too. He can make two and two to equal five, if he wants to. God can act in the natural world completely without any reference to reason at all. Evangelicals tended towards that view. Whereas their opposition within the church, called the Moderates, tended to believe the opposite: that God works through secondary laws. He works with natural law, generally, and is bound by reason.

Brendan Mackie: What were some of this rationalist moderate responses to the problem of ghosts, then? How did they explain ghosts rationally?

Bill Jenkins: The most common response was to say that ghosts are a real phenomenon, but they are a phenomenon caused by dysfunction of the mind and the visual apparatus, caused by physiological dysfunction, that are in a sense a manifestation of mental illness, as we would now call it. They were looking at ghosts and apparitions as a medical issue, not a spiritual one. This was developed in various levels of sophistication, but Samuel Hibbert’s view and also the view of David Brewster, the natural philosopher who was one of Hibbert’s friends and who very strongly agreed with him on this, was that what effectively was happening was that when people saw ghosts, the visual organs were going into reverse. So instead of showing you what was happening in the outside world, images were actually being projected from the mind onto the retina of the eye from the brain via the optic nerve. That’s literally how they imagined it.

The Magic Lantern was a popular technology of the time and they imagined that this worked very much like a magic lantern: that the retina was a screen that you can project images onto. They could either come from the outside world through the eye or they could come from the other direction, from the brain, from the memory. This meant that they believed that if you looked into somebody’s eye while they were seeing a ghost, you would see the ghost on the person’s retina, being beamed out from the person’s brain.

Brendan Mackie: So the rationalist answer to ghosts is: look, these people who are saying that they see ghosts—they really are seeing ghosts. But they’re not seeing the spirit of a dead person, instead they’re having some problem with the plumbing of their eye. Instead of having the outside world go in, they have the inside world go out.

Bill Jenkins: Yeah. And this has some interesting implications. You tend to think of the subconscious mind has been something that comes along with Freud at the very end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, but actually some of these ideas are in some ways quite analogous to the idea of the subconscious mind. Because this theory of apparitions assumes that there was always this stream of consciousness going on in our minds that we aren’t aware of, below the surface of thought. There’s this free association of images going on all the time in our minds, and every time it pops up to the surface, somebody sees a ghost.

Brendan Mackie: There’s a way that this rational explanation for supernatural phenomenon undermines the power of rationality itself. It explains ghosts as just this physiological quirk of your malfunctioning brain. But this makes the workings of the mind itself a lot more ghostly by saying that there are always ghosts in your head, but we just aren’t paying attention to them.

Bill Jenkins: Yeah, in this account, ghosts are literally coming from the unconscious mind.

Brendan Mackie: So why should you read your article? What does this tell us about other big ideas and intellectual life or the world around us?

Bill Jenkins: It’s actually very topical because we’re now going through a period when people are challenging the power of reason. We only have to look at the prevalence of the term fake news and the current distrust in experts in general to see that there is a contemporary challenge to the power of reason to explain the world. We’re seeing as well a rise in “irrational” beliefs like we saw in the beginning of the nineteenth caused I think by social dislocation of one kind or another. In the early nineteenth century it was the aftermath of the French Revolution and the threat of radicalism at home and people were reaching around for sort of answers to these questions and reason seemed to fail them. The social order didn’t seem to be rational and explicable in rational terms anymore. They couldn’t just dismiss the people seeing ghosts and say that these people were mad. They saw that reason itself was under threat.


Brendan Mackie is a PhD candidate at University of California, Berkeley, writing his dissertation on clubs and societies in 18th century Britain. You can find his podcast at historian.live. Subscribe to his mailing list to get updates whenever he writes a thing!

Featured Image: Engraving representing a “Phantasmagoria” from Mémoires récréatifs, scientifiques et anecdotiques du physicien-aéronaute E.G. Robertson : connu par ses expériences de fantasmagorie, et par ses ascensions aérostatiques dans les principales villes de l’Europe (1831). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Pannill Camp on the Theatre and Theory of Moral Sentiments

Pannill Camp is Associate Professor and Chair of the Performing Arts Department at the Washington University of St. Louis. He has written on French theatre and dramaturgy in the eighteenth century, and he is currently at work on projects focusing on performance and freemasonry in eighteenth-century France and on the long history of theatrical ideas and social theory. He is interviewed by contributing editor Max Norman about his article, “The Theatre of Moral Sentiments: Neoclassical Dramaturgy and Adam Smith’s Impartial Spectator” that appeared in the most recent issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas (October, 81.4).


Max Norman (MN): In “The Theatre of Moral Sentiments,” you argue that Adam Smith drew on French neoclassical theories of drama in theorizing his figure of the impartial spectator in the Theory of Moral Sentiments. How can we be sure that he was using a theatrical metaphor, and not merely interested in a more generic third-person perspective on first-personal experience?

Pannill Camp (PC): Scholars working on Smith have taken widely different positions on this question. As you might expect, scholars with a literary bent, but also philosophers such as Charles Griswold, have interpreted Smith’s spectator as a sign of a deeply embedded theatrical metaphor. But D. D. Raphael rejects this outright, arguing that Smith would have used the language of “actors” more than he did if the metaphor were intended. Raphael is right that there’s scant hard evidence that Smith overtly relied on a theatrical metaphor, but what is clear is that spectator terminology infiltrated British moral philosophy from Shaftesbury on, and its source was most likely the morally inflected theatre criticism that proliferated in the first decades of the eighteenth century. Polemics concerning the morality of the stage by Jeremy Collier and others produced abundant critical and moral discourse. Strands of that were picked up by Richard Steele and Joseph Addison. You can see in eighteenth-century moral philosophy that the term spectator comes to serve a more or less technical purpose, signifying precisely a third-person morally-attuned perspective, but there’s no reason to believe that the freight of theatre association has been stripped away. When Smith and Hume privately debate finer points of the Theory of Moral Sentiments, they invoke problems in dramatic theory. So I think that in fact, the concepts of dramatic criticism were part of the foundation of British moral thought. 

MN: How does the specifically French intellectual genealogy you trace change the way we read the Theory of Moral Sentiments?

PC: There are unique features of French neoclassical dramatic literature. Adam Smith was a proud partisan of French model, and not a fan of Shakespeare. Besides the familiar “unities” of time, space, and action, French playwrights and critics were invested in the convention of rigorously separating stage action from the world of facts. It was important to prevent the audience from losing track of the boundary between the bounded truth of the theatrical representation, and the greater world in which the people you are watching are actors. So for example in the plays Smith admired most, you could not have a soliloquy, because it could be taken for direct address to the audience, and trouble the ontological barrier between the two worlds. This concern with not blending fact and fiction had implications for the way Smith understood sympathy, and impartiality. Smith’s understanding of sympathy (in which we imaginatively project ourselves into the circumstances of others, rather than partaking somehow of direct communion with their feelings) is distinct in part because it does not rely on the real existence of the feelings of others. Just as we can sympathize with someone who is unaware of their pitiable state (Smith cites the insane and the dead as examples), we can feel intense sympathy with actors, who may or may not really feel anything. We can sympathize with entities that don’t exist. And regarding impartiality, Smith repeatedly formulates that relationship as that of having no particular connection with someone. Theatrical representation is an ideal, common sense example of this. My moral feelings about Phedre, for instance, cannot be tilted by my relationship to her. This was precisely the reason why Smith’s French contemporaries, including Diderot, thought that the theatre provided moral education. Even people who were corrupt and unjust in life were thought to get their moral bearings when watching a play, because they couldn’t be influenced by any selfish or indirect interests.  

MN: Does it have implications for Smith’s economic theory in the Wealth of Nations?

PC: I believe so. In the Theory of Moral Sentiments Smith suggests that a felicitous moral order can arise from impersonal dealings with others. If my ability to sympathize with you doesn’t rely upon my knowing your inward state, or knowing you or your circumstances intimately, and if my ability to be impartial toward you is in fact bolstered by my ability to regard you as if I had no particular connection to you, then a spontaneous moral order is possible for even a very large society where members don’t all know each other. This is true, critically, because I also need to be able to represent an impartial view of my own conduct in order to guide my own actions, rather than relying upon what others may actually tell me. There’s a long tradition of understanding Smith’s moral thought and his political economy as opposed, if complementary–one concerned with benevolence and the other with self-interest. To the extent that we understand Smith to think that the French ontological boundary between actors and spectators can be applied to real life, as the ideal version of what happens when we engage in social action regarding multitudes of people who we can’t know personally, we can interpret that specific influence upon Smith as an element of his faith in impersonal dealings in general.  

MN: As you remind us, Dryden famously believed that theater could provide moral education to its viewers. To what extent does Smith view the act of moral spectatorship as educative or edifying? For Smith, does moral spectatorship merely inform our actions, or does it also work on our moral sensibility?

PC: This is a good question, because it requires us to imagine what Smith would have written about theatre-going itself. There are abundant theatrical citations in the Theory, but they are almost always used as examples of the more general principle he is trying to illustrate about a sort of moral action, and specifically how the mechanics of sympathy operate in that sort of case. So for example he claims that dramatic examples prove that we feel stronger sympathy with emotional suffering than with physical pain. He is concerned with the spontaneous coordination of sentiments based on fundamentally inborn tendencies in human beings, or what arises in social life in general, so we have to guess what he might say about the educational benefits of theatre. But I believe he would say that theatre provides moral education, and not just because the French dramatists like Diderot and Louis-Sébastien Mercier, with whom he agreed on other points, did. Smith claims that if we have had a particular experience, like falling in love, we are more disposed to sympathize with others when we observe them having that experience. This suggests that our moral dispositions are malleable. Furthermore, he believes that we feel intense pleasure when we sympathize with others–even when we sympathize with painful emotions, such as grief. On this basis I would imagine that he would expect that when we are surrounded by an audience feeling benevolent feelings toward a stage protagonist, that we are naturally inclined to indulge in those same feelings. And because Smith believed that we need to engage in a complicated imaginative exercise, summoning the “impartial spectator” to view our own conduct, it makes sense that direct experience with the perfectly impartial perspective the theatre supports would habituate us to seeing real actions in the same way. 


Max Norman studied comparative literature and classics in America and England, and now writes often on art and literature for magazines in both countries.

Featured Image: Louis Binet, Foyer du Théâtre Montansier au Palais-Royal. 18th Century. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Joris van Gorkom on Racial Hierarchies in Kant’s Thought

Joris van Gorkom has published numerous articles on Immanuel Kant, Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, and Jean-Luc Nancy. At the moment, he is working on Kant’s racial thinking and on the topic of evil. He recently spoke with JHI Blog editor Luna Sarti about his article “Immanuel Kant on Race Mixing: The Gypsies, the Black Portuguese, and the Jews on St. Thomas,” which has appeared in the most recent issue (81.3, July 2020) of the Journal of the History of Ideas.

Luna Sarti: In your article, you describe how Immanuel Kant’s “unsettling endorsement of racial hierarchies” was inseparable from his commitment to defend monogenism as a theory accounting for the origin of the human species. Monogenism is often associated with both the Christian creation myth espoused in the Bible and scientific racism. Can you describe what kind of monogenism Kant defended, particularly in relation to the growing tendency in 18th-century natural sciences to view humans as one species among other organisms?

Joris van Gorkom: References to the Christian tradition are also present in Kant’s views on monogenesis but, unsurprisingly, he did not want to base his conception of the physiological unity of mankind on a religious foundation. If we don’t consider polygenic theories and the idea that multiple local creations would explain human differences, one can say that there were two dominant scientific views on the unity of species. The first relied heavily on a principle that had often been associated with the famous French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon: a species is a group of animals that can produce fertile offspring. The great advantage of this rule was that a specific unity resulted from organic nature itself. The other position was more interested in morphological characteristics: the unity of species had to be determined on the basis of the appearance of organisms. Kant defended the first position, probably because of its law-like character. It seemed to abandon all contingencies in the determination or formation of a species. 
However, Kant must have noticed that there were good reasons to question this principle. Buffon had already expressed some doubts regarding this rule, for he had observed exceptional cases where two organisms that allegedly belonged to different species were able to have fertile offspring. Not all mules are infertile. Kant ignored these reservations, and some of his contemporaries who would adopt important aspects of his racial theory were just as uncritical regarding this principle. But this does not mean that Kant’s racial theory had eventually gained popularity because of his reliance on Buffon’s rule. The position of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach is also important in this regard. He not only managed to popularize Kant’s concept of race, but also had a clear interest in a more morphological comprehension of the notion of species. Thus, he thought that the invariable inheritance of racial characteristics did not demand Buffon’s interfertility criterion for the determination of the unity of a species. And yet, he adopted Kant’s notion of race as of the late 1790s.

LS: You describe how Kant relied on three cases that he viewed as examples of “race mixing” to argue for a natural history of humans that was unaffected by empirical complexities and that could support a theory of knowledge based on “knowing in advance what to look for.” Recently, in debates on networks of knowledge such as the Republic of Letters, scholarly research has demonstrated how exclusion from access to empirical knowledge on a broad scale might influence the decision to support theories that could bypass not only the complexity of the world but also the perception of European absurd claims of universalism. Could Kant’s position be linked to a similar sense of uneasiness with the limits of (his own) knowledge?

JvG: It seems to me that Kant’s case is a little bit different or at least more complex. Access to certain sources of information must have been more difficult than it is today, but the point that I try to make in my article is that Kant had enough opportunities to come to a different opinion of non-white populations. Too often Kant insisted on his ideas when others questioned his notion of invariable racial traits or his disturbing conceptualization of race. What is even more problematic and needs to be stressed is that Kant was not merely a passive recipient of information. This becomes very clear in his emphasis on race instead of language in the study of the Romani people. Although others were studying their origin on the basis of their language, Kant expressly wanted to shift the focus to skin color. He encouraged his contemporaries to view them as belonging to a certain race. Others who expressed very questionable opinions about the Romani people also searched for possibilities for them to integrate in European communities. Their solutions were often morally reprehensible, but for Kant this attempted integration marked an impossible task. Since the Romani people should, according to Kant, be categorized as a non-white race, one could not reasonably expect them to integrate into European societies. Even when Kant’s colleague Johann Daniel Metzger expressed his concern about this racialization of the Romani people, Kant held on to this view.
And Kant was to a certain extent successful in shifting the attention of contemporaries to his notion of race. Although there are some studies that deal with Kant’s views on the Romani people, they primarily focus on the influence of others on his work. However, these studies often ignore Kant’s impact on his contemporaries. So, to come back to the question, the study of Kant’s racism should not focus merely on certain limitations of his knowledge. He had access to other views, and others certainly expressed their doubts about the consequences of his racial theory. However, he not only insisted on his views but managed to shape the ideas of others. Their study of Kant allowed them to express their questionable views of, for instance, the Romani people in terms of race.  

LS: Most debates on the origin and diversity of the human species as reported in the article reveal that the concept of climate had a crucial role in theories accounting for variance in elements of human physiology. You describe how Kant opposed the view that external conditions had a role in shaping human characteristics. Can you comment on Kant’s understanding of climate, particularly in relation to the newly forming disciplinary boundaries that characterized the separation between biological and cultural approaches to human history? In other words, was Kant’s climate a set of material or cultural conditions—or both?

JvG: Kant indeed objected to the idea that climatic conditions alone accounted for human differences. But this does not mean that he saw no role for the climate in his ideas on race. His view was more nuanced. A specific climate did not bring about a certain racial trait but formed, he argued, the occasion for the development of predetermined possibilities in an organism. He believed that the first human beings had the conditions to adapt to the climate in which they lived. But, according to Kant, this adaptability ceased as soon as human beings developed their racial characteristics. And since Kant distinguished four different climates (humid cold, dry cold, humid heat, and dry heat), he thought that there had to be four races. This allowed him to account for an essential aspect of his concept of race: that a racial trait is invariable. Kant thought that once a race formed, it could not be altered by climate, diet, ways of life, or other “artificial modifications”. In Kant’s view, the only possibility left for changing racial traits was thus intermixture.
Accordingly, in the context of his racial theory, Kant considered the climate primarily as a set of material conditions. However, in his view, the climate had consequences for the moral, cultural, and mental characteristics of people. For instance, he believed that laziness was a racial trait associated with climates and thus one could not expect it to change. Thus, he also linked the idea of racial differences to that of a racial hierarchy. The assumption of a hierarchy was not new, but Kant provided a new explanation for it. His racial theory allowed him to argue that nature itself determined racial differences and a racial hierarchy.  
One aspect that I want to stress in this regard is the following: many contemporary readers of Kant think that in his late work he (radically) changed his view on racial hierarchy. He supposedly abandoned his opposition to what he called “race mixing.” He allegedly opposed slavery. However, there is no support for these interpretations. Kant never explicitly and unambiguously objected to the institution of slavery as such. He never explicitly retracted his earlier views on what he perceived as “the dangers of race mixing.” In fact, as I try to show in the article, Kant influenced the views of contemporaries on race. He even explicitly endorsed the work of one of the main advocates of his theory, Christoph Girtanner, without expressing any reservations about the adoption of his own disquieting theorization of race.


Featured Image: Immanuel Kant. Stipple engraving by J. Chapman, 1814. Wellcome Library no. 4962i.