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Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

David E. Dunning on Information Management in the Victorian Era

David E. Dunning is a historian of science, technology, mathematics, and computing in modern Europe. His research aims to understand the material and social dimensions of abstract knowledge. He is currently a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the History of Mathematics research group at the Mathematical Institute of the University of Oxford, and an affiliate of the Oxford Centre for the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology.

Dunning spoke with contributing editor Pranav Jain about his essay “The Logician in the Archive: John Venn’s Diagrams and Victorian Historical Thinking,” which has appeared in the current issue of the JHI (82.4).

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Pranav Jain: You have done an admirable job of situating Venn’s work in relation to similar projects such as the Dictionary of National Biography which astonishingly is still with us. My own forays into early modern English history began with obsessively reading entries from what has now become the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Were there other projects that Venn looked up to or which might help us better understand his work? I am thinking of endeavors like Crockford’s Clerical Directory among others.

David E. Dunning: Yes, Venn surely must have admired Crockford’s; I can’t think of a place where he says so explicitly, or names other models for that matter, but he cites it several times as a source of information on nineteenth-century subjects. More importantly, there is an undeniable resemblance between the projects. Both are huge collections of short individual entries, and the entries consist mostly of highly abbreviated sequences of career milestones and, when applicable, a list of selected publications. The style and conventions are extremely similar, and the likeness between many individual entries can help us situate both projects in an enormous growth of information management practices. Both compilers are converting people into facts—not for any overtly governmental or managerial purpose, but in a schematic manner that certainly resonates with large imperial and business efforts to harness information in the Victorian era. All of these projects respond to and reinforce a context in which it is accepted as possible and productive to render human lives as compact textual information.

That summarizing process presumes a degree of homogeneity among the relevant facts. The extreme abbreviation that Venn and Crockford’s rely upon is possible only because the same kinds of milestones, in the same set of places, recur again and again in these men’s stories, whether we are talking about Venn’s Caius men over the centuries or the living clergy who populate Crockford’s. This homogeneity had to be plausible in the first place for these texts to work on a typographical level. But then these massive tomes are structured around that homogeneity in a way that serves to strengthen it, reaffirming that these are milestones that matter, that the men who achieved them deserve to be gathered, known, and remembered.

But there are also important difference in purpose and practice between Venn and Corckford’s. The latter is a directory of contemporary clergy; it provides information about the present and could be produced by correspondence with subjects. It then becomes a historical resource only as its volumes age. But Venn’s project was historical from the start, and he could only turn to Crockford’s as a resource for the most recent parts of his research. His aim was to show change over time, to reveal a previously hidden perspective on English history through these numerous, directory-style entries. This explains why he finds room for more narrative glimpses of life and character than would make sense in a directory. For example, Venn tells us how in 1857, a physician named Ferguson Branson “owing to weak health … retired to Baslow, Derbs., where he spent the rest of his life, devoted to literary and artistic pursuits. He was an accomplished painter, and much interested in science” (vol 2., p. 206). There is a bit of a humanizing arc fit into what is still quite a concise entry. One of my favorites such details, which I quote in the article, is when Venn tells us that James Hartstongue, a student of the 1540s, became a lay rector whose diocesan authorities once reported, “The seates in [his] churche are very fowly kept, with birdes and fowles” (vol. 1, p. 33). Venn had an eye for these moments of interest and humor. He knew how to insert a sentence or two that would give the reader much more than dates, professions, and place names. Venn insists that a story emerges from what looks at first glance like a directory, and along the way he also uses these occasional narrative details to give it texture.

PJ: You argue that “the twin problems of historical knowledge, for Venn, were to locate the long-dead individuals who constituted particular elite series, and to know those series themselves through their distantly discernible members.” What happened to these problems in the twentieth-century, especially when writers such as Lytton Strachey approached Victorians themselves from this angle, albeit in an extremely subversive way?

DED: With Strachey, as you mention, there is this striking shift of tone to a deeply subversive form of historical memory. There is also a huge difference in the balance between sample size and detail. That difference of scale seems, on the surface, less interesting, but I think it is crucial to understanding the tonal shift as well. The subversiveness of Strachey’s portraits depends on their size and on his subjects’ stature. Eminent Victorians comprises just a handful of extended prose portraits of well-known figures. Imagine if he had written a critical prosopography with Venn’s structure: a few unflattering sentences a piece about thousands of basically unknown people. That would be a strangely uncharitable exercise, and it would fail to be interestingly subversive because most people do not have posthumous reputations to subvert.

The example of Strachey, next to Venn, illustrates the really wide range of projects that fall under this heading “prosopography.” Why do we consider Strachey’s readable little volume to belong in some sense to the same genre as Venn’s enormous, sparsely detailed collective biographies? There seems to be something that feels sufficiently similar to form a stable category in this pairing of biography with multiplicity: the decision on the one hand to focus on individual subjects, but on the other hand to focus on more than one of them, to line them up in a sequence. Whether the sequence contains four members or four thousand members, we still call it prosopography.

PJ: Are there Victorian figures apart from Venn who embody the themes that you have discussed? If so, how do they differ from or are similar to Venn?

DED: In the article I discuss the thematic similarities I see between Venn’s historical work and Leslie Stephen’s Dictionary of National Biography. Stephen doesn’t make the epistemic value of scale explicit, but I think very similar commitments are visible in both of these efforts to assemble relatively concise versions of the lives of thousands of people. To invoke Strachey again, this collecting impulse is part of what he mocks in the preface to Eminent Victorians: the Victorian production of “so vast a quantity of information that the industry of a Ranke would be submerged by it.” In the article, I quote Venn celebrating this vastness, asserting that an exhaustive collective biography of a single Cambridge college is “sufficiently large to claim the steadiness and generality which may be called statistical, and therefore to furnish a tolerably fair sample of what was going on throughout the country.” The DNB tilts a little farther toward exhaustive coverage rather than representativeness in its ambition to describe “all noteworthy inhabitants of the British Islands and the Colonies (exclusive of living persons) from the earliest historical period to the present time.” But there’s still an unstated assumption that so-called “noteworthy inhabitants” will adequately represent British history. Venn’s and Stephen’s approaches to the past hinges on scale, on the sheer number of lives considered, and yet neither emphasizes anything that a twenty-first-century researcher would recognize as statistical analysis. We have instead a basically non-quantitative way of finding epistemic value in the quantitative characteristics of a body of information.

So Stephen is a historical writer worth considering here, and there are relevant comparisons on the logic side as well. Perhaps most importantly, Venn had much in common with the mathematician George Boole, who saw logic and probability as properly a unified set of tools for understanding the world, including human affairs. Boole’s Laws of Thought (1854), a book that influenced Venn enormously, is deeply concerned with sorting individuals into appropriate compartments defined by overlapping classes. And it is full of example problems that indicate he saw this method as a way of analyzing social and moral categories. For instance, early on Boole cites Nassau Senior as defining wealth to “[consist] of things transferable, limited in supply, and either productive of pleasure or preventive of pain.” He then translates this definition into an algebraic equation, “w = st {p(1 – r) + r(1 – p)}.”  That formula then serves as a recurring example throughout the book. For Boole as for Venn, logic existed in the same sphere of inquiry as the moral sciences. But it remained on the level of an instructive illustration of whatever formal logical idea Boole was discussing. The big difference between Boole and Venn from this angle is that Venn actually put these ideas into practice by doing historical research in a manner informed by the logical ideas they shared.

In his specific constellation of spheres of activity—probability, logic, and history—Venn may well have been unique. But in context, the underlying commitments that made his approach to these areas cohesive spoke to widespread Victorian attitudes concerning human affairs, processes of deduction, and the scale on which we collect information.


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

Featured Image: Frontispiece to the Biographical History of Gonville and Caius College, vol. 1 (Cambridge: at the University Press, 1897).

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Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Jenny Andersson on the History of Future Research

Jenny Andersson is professor in the history of ideas and science at Uppsala University. She is on leave as research professor at the CNRS and affiliated with the Centre d’études européennes et comparées de Sciences Po. She works on the transformation of social democracy and Third Way policies, future research and the economy of knowledge. In 2018, she published “The Future of the World: Futurology, Futurists, and the Struggle for the Post Cold War Imagination” with Oxford University Press.

Andersson spoke with contributing editor Jonas Knatz about her essay “Planning the American Future: Daniel Bell, Future Research, and the Commission on the Year 2000,” which has appeared in the current issue of the JHI (82.4).

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Jonas Knatz (JK): Comparing the social transformation of the 1960s to that of the 1930s, the American social scientist Lawrence K Frank considered it imperative to renew what he deemed  the “traditional culture” of the United States and to reorient the “social order as a deliberately planned process.” Taking up this idea, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences initiated the Commission on the Year 2000 under the chairmanship of Daniel Bell in 1964. Your article “Planning the American Future: Daniel Bell, Future Research, and the Commission on the Year 2000” traces the history of this working group that featured illustrious members of neoconservative and New Left background alike, such as Samuel Huntington, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Hermann Kahn, Erik Erikson, Daniel P. Moynihan, and Margaret Mead. Yet, despite its widely-received report Toward the Year 2000: Work in Progress (1967), you argue the Commission never really finished its task and that its trajectory instead illustrates the transformation that the concept of future planning underwent. What was the concept of planning at the commission’s onset, and how did it develop over the course of the following eleven years?

Jenny Andersson (JA): In 1964, it was still widely thought that social developments could be planned, in ways that also seemed to suggest that the results or the outcomes of the planning process were predictable to at least some extent. Future research boomed in the 1960s, which is when it was transferred from military planning structures and technological research to civilian affairs and public administrations. There are equivalents of the Commission on the Year 2000 (CY2000) in many Western countries at this time, and across Eastern Europe five-year plans were complemented with attempts to think about the future of the ‘system’ more broadly. But in several ways, the mid-1960s mark the apex of future research as a concern for social science and planning, and the history of the Commission illustrates the limits embedded in such research. If I add a comparative argument here, I would remind the reader that in Eastern Europe, many attempts to think and plan the future were crushed after the Prague revolt in 1968, because the idea that the future could be opened up into an inherently pluralistic space explicitly challenged political regimes. The American context was wildly different—but interestingly, the CY2000 ran into exactly the same problem in terms of the profound plurality of  social developments. Value change in the American 1960s was such that it left many of the intellectuals on the Commission bewildered, and they reacted with proposals that oftentimes contained suggestions for more control, for instance a pharmacological ‘treatment’ of the Beatniks or ways of cybernetically considering feedback loops between politics and social reactions. In other words, the Commission started with the idea that social change could and should be planned toward expected outcomes, but it ended up with the conviction that certain forms of change were deeply undesirable and that forms of foresight were needed to avoid them. That was a very different idea of planning from that which marked the early 1960s—it was cautious of social change and concerned with protecting a certain, and increasingly conservative, idea of the American future from developments that were understood as carrying a transformative potential.

JK: In your article, you trace the work of the Commission through a particular focus on Daniel Bell. Taking him as a representative of US Cold War liberalism, you argue that the failure of the commission illustrates that this theoretical strand had “no ideological or epistemic space for understanding the fundamental divergence in future horizons of the late 1960s.” What characterized this historical moment in the late 1960s and made it so difficult for Cold War liberals to navigate? And how was this liberal helplessness related to the ascent of neoconservatism?

JA: It is old news, of course, that the events of the 1960s shook up the relationship between social science and the future. What I show in my article is that the Commission is representative of something broader than Cold War liberalism—really, of a central heritage in American social science—namely the idea that a defining purpose of social science is to make an active commitment to an overarching idea or image of American society. To many of the liberals on the Commission, who were properly speaking Cold War liberals in the sense that their idea of liberalism was profoundly shaped by the confrontation with the USSR, this image was a self-evident ideal and they saw themselves as its custodians. But in the late 1960s, many of the things that to them were the pinnacles of that ideal came under scrutiny. For instance, it became questionable whether there was in fact a privileged link between a certain notion of rationality (in many ways deduced from Cold War social science) and a specific idea of individual freedom. Their hope that a future consensus, a new image of the future American society, could be found, was rooted in the feeling that this link was self-evident, and so their shock when this particular link between social science and freedom was questioned is palpable. The question of race relations is very important here, because to many of the intellectuals on the Commission, desegregation did not just mean the end of Jim Crow: they were concerned that racial integration and equality of opportunity threatened the assumed link between rationality and freedom. The late 1960s were a time of fragmentation in the social sciences, in which some came to back more narrow views on the social, political or cultural sphere while others pursued much broader and reflexive engagements. Within the Commission, it rapidly became impossible to hold these different stances together, and so from 1967 and 1968 onward, there really was no shared idea of the American future. This put Bell in a probably quite difficult position as chair, and he consequently played a really interesting role by constantly trying to reconcile divergent views and hold afloat what surely sometimes felt like a sinking ship. I think that this idea of bridging different views and identifying the common ground is central in Bell’s social theory, which was often shaped by first considering one alternative and then the other. But by the early 1970s, it became clear that Bell did not really believe that any kind of societal consensus was possible anymore; he rather perceived a complete breakdown in societal rationalities and a gulf between social science and popular values. This impression corresponded to an increasingly pessimistic and culturally conservative stance, as he described a lot of the cultural changes of the 1960s as hedonism and rejections of bourgeois culture, even though he rejected the label neoconservatism in terms of political identification.

JK: The economic sciences underwent a development that seems to resemble the trajectory of the Commission, albeit a few years later, as recently traced by Quinn Slobodian in Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism. In the late 1960s, reformists tried to scale up the idea of Keynesian planning to world level and Wassily Leontief won the 1973 Nobel Prize in economics for his model of the world economy. Only one year later, Friedrich August von Hayek won the Nobel Prize and used his acceptance speech for a rejection of the very idea of economic planning: “To act on the belief that we possess the knowledge and the power which enable us to shape the processes of society entirely to our liking, knowledge which in fact we do not possess, is likely to make us do much harm.” Is there a connection between the rise of neoliberalism in the 1970s and the change that the concept of planning underwent in the Commission on the Year 2000?

JA: Yes, in a broader sense, there is. It would make no sense to call the CY2000 neoliberal, but I do argue that the Commission moves onto a terrain that, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, is marked by debates on the end of foreseeability and the crisis of planning that only some years later turn to the topics of ungovernability and malaise. It also seems to me that the Commission is a central site for introducing certain themes into a wider policy-oriented American debate, such as the idea of individual rational choice or the idea that all decisions have negative consequences and that social policies create ‘stakeholders’ in a feedback effect that must be taken into account for planning purposes. It is important to remember that the shift from Keynesian thinking to neoliberalism was not clear-cut or sudden but happened on many fronts, in many in-between spaces, and through gradual evolutions. There were no Hayekians on the Commission, but several intellectuals on it were keenly interested in rational choice and Bell himself was deeply concerned with how a new welfare statist logic in American society could be made compatible with the preeminence of individual rational choices. This, I argue, is at the root of his ideas about social forecasting. And that, finally, is a very different type of planning than the one that the Commission started out with in 1964, because the idea of social forecasting contains a certain notion of temporal control but also the sense that welfare statism had no simple outcomes, and that all political decisions would have unintended consequences. A developing welfare state logic in American politics therefore had to be curtailed, so that one could be sure that its consequences did not disturb the idea of freedom. If one could find ways of integrating an awareness of future consequences into the logic of political decision-making, then there would be a sense of limitation to welfare statist ambitions. This is not per se neoliberal, but it is infused with a latent critique of public action, and so the idea of planning in the CY2000 really bridges a new New Deal world of American welfare statism and the neoconservative revolution. Actually, the methods and technologies of future research intersect with the history of neoliberalism on several noteworthy occasions – the scenario technique, for instance, was important for developing the idea that setting an image of desirability and outlining a set of expectations was a better way to think ahead than trying to plan an increasingly volatile economic cycle. One of the scenarios developed by Herman Kahn at the Hudson Institute in the early 1970s, which is where he went after the development of his nuclear scenarios at RAND, was called the “Belle Epoque,” and it was about reinstating the market at the center of new and harmonious economic relations—with the US at the heart of the global economy. 


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: Cover image of Toward the Year 2000 : Work in Progress, edited by Daniel Bell, 1969.

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Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Nicholas Heron on Kantorowicz’s Dante

Nicholas Heron is Research Fellow in the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is the author of Liturgical Power: Between Economic and Political Theology (Fordham UP, 2018) and the translator of Giorgio Agamben’s Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm (Stanford UP, 2015). He is currently researching the intellectual and cultural history of the “end of history” thesis.

Heron spoke with contributing editor Shuvatri Dasgupta about his essay “The Superhuman Origins of Human Dignity: Kantorowicz’s Dante,” which has appeared in the current issue of the JHI (82.3). 

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Shuvatri Dasgupta: The existing literature on Kantorowicz’s ideas on sovereignty and monarchy have focused on questions of history-writing, nationalism, and the interplay between politics and theology in his understandings of the European Renaissance. Your article takes a step back from that and looks at the politico-affective crisis of a twentieth-century intellectual, caught between Germany and America, between atomistic liberalism and atheistic communism, and between the model of the modest ethical human, on one hand, and the transcendental superhuman, on the other. The article tells a riveting story of an ideological maneuver conducted by Kantorowicz through his readings of Dante’s ideas of sovereignty: first as a defense of imperial sovereignty, and later as a formulation of individual sovereignty. You argue that this shift in his understanding of Dante remains the key to his conceptions of sovereignty that were formulated in his seminal text The King’s Two Bodies. Let me start by asking you to elaborate on the intellectual polarities in which Kantorowicz’s found himself, and the context in which these polarities were produced, over the course of the twentieth century, since as you illustrate in the article, they played a seminal role in shaping his understanding of Dante.

Nicholas Heron: Kantorowicz’s personal and intellectual itinerary exerts an undeniable fascination. The key events are well known, and richly detailed in Robert E. Lerner’s recent biography, but allow me quickly to recount them here. Prior to 1933, he was, among other things, an enthusiastic volunteer combatant in the violent liberation of Munich from the short-lived Soviet Republic (he later claimed to have killed communists); a member of the erotically charged circle of young men gathered around the austere figure of the elderly poet Stefan George, whose spiritual yearnings were directed toward a “Secret Germany” that inhered behind the official one; and the author of a charismatic biography of the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, whose front page was adorned with the characteristic insignia of the Blätter für die Kunst imprint of the Bondi publishing house—a swastika—and was rumored to have been admired at the highest echelons of the Nazi party. A meteoric academic rise to a professorship in Frankfurt was then brought to an abrupt halt in 1934 after a single semester when he was debarred from teaching on account of his Jewish heritage. Finally, in 1950, after forced emigration from Germany to the United States, he became embroiled in the loyalty oath controversy at Berkeley, where, in the context of the escalating Cold War, he bravely refused to sign the oath disavowing communism, and was consequently dismissed from his academic post—for the second time in a career spanning less than two decades. This amazing sequence has led some commentators to speak of an ideological transformation and even of a conversion: from anti-communist militant to communist sympathizer.

Compelling as this narrative may be, however, there’s little evidence to support it. (The Fundamental Issue, the self-published pamphlet where Kantorowicz outlined his opposition to signing the oath, and whose argument draws on the same intellectual resources I examine in my piece, tells a very different story.) For my part, I was more interested in the continuities that extended across this tumultuous period. Arguably no figure looms larger here than Dante, who occupies a prominent place in the Frederick biography (1927) and is the subject of the luminous final chapter of The King’s Two Bodies (1957). Between the two, he is a recurring reference in the lectures Kantorowicz presented at Berkeley in the intervening years. Focusing on a subtle shift in Kantorowicz’s use of Dante, I offer a more modest explanation for the apparent change in his commitments. His youthful participation in the hero worship that characterized the activities of the George Circle, I argue, made him unusually attentive to what could be described as the liturgical, ceremonial and, indeed, affective dimensions of power. This was what subsequently became the focus of his scholarly investigations.   

SD: In the introductory section of the piece, you note very interestingly that in the recent biographies of Kantorowicz, his chapter on Dante has been employed to separate him from a shared genealogy with Schmitt on the concept of political theology. Whilst for Schmitt political ideas (as well as the concept of the political itself) were secularized theological formulations, you show how Kantorowicz’s formulation of the concept of sovereignty in The King’s Two Bodies is an attempt at the reverse—”a spiritualization of the secular.” What does that tell us about Kantorowicz’s conceptualization of the political, and how did this notion evolve with his understanding of sovereignty? 

NH: Political theology is a highly contested term, which can mean very different (and even opposed) things. For example, it can be religious or non-religious; prescriptive or non-prescriptive, etc. In Schmitt himself, it functions both normatively and empirically: on the one hand, as an index of the ungrounded character of modernity; on the other, as an instrument of conceptual-historical method. To the extent that this term is useful for historians, it is in the latter respect. And here Kantorowicz’s work offers an interesting example.

It is difficult to establish with any precision how Kantorowicz understood this term and where he drew it from, since he is quite evasive, perhaps for good reason, on precisely this point. But he certainly did not view the relationship between theology and politics, or between church and state, either as unidirectional or as normatively weighted toward one or the other side; instead, he always stressed the interplay between the two, the mutual “borrowings” and “exchanges,” to use his own terms. I think we can draw a more general observation from this approach: that intellectual innovation, whether at the level of conceptual formation or institutional design, does not take place in a vacuum, but by means of the specific and finite intellectual resources available for manipulation at a given moment. And that this applies in both directions. When Kantorowicz speaks of “a spiritualization of the secular,” I don’t think we should overdetermine this apparent inversion of the secularization thesis, as if it were intended somehow to unsettle a competing model of political theology. Rather, I think we should take it as a genuinely historical claim, which argues that putatively secular political concepts and institutions can also in turn be invested with spiritual contents.   

SD: What I also found extremely thought-provoking in your piece was your methodology in tracing the shift in Kantorowicz’s arguments, and the ease with which you illustrate the complex interrelationship which ideas share with their contexts. In your essay, not only did you situate Kantorowicz’s works in their historical context, but you also located his biographers, commentators, and intellectual interlocutors in a shared web. What challenges did you encounter in your conceptual exploration of Kantorowicz’s formulation of sovereignty, in terms of recovering this dense transcontinental and transtemporal context?

NH: In a footnote to his 1955 essay “Mysteries of State,” Kantorowicz refers tantalizingly to the “genealogy of ‘superman’.” Based on my analysis of his Berkeley lectures, I knew that it was possible to reconstruct the key points in this genealogy. I also knew that this genealogy provided the critical frame for understanding his evolving interpretation of Dante. But I didn’t want to commit myself to this history, which, while of considerable interest, is certainly not above criticism. Nor did I want to present myself as a dantista, something for which I felt (and still feel) completely unqualified. The solution, as I saw it, was to emphasize Kantorowicz’s own context and to make his reception of Dante the focus of my study. As someone with a PhD in literature, I have a broad interest in how intellectuals used literary sources during this period. As it turned out, it was the reference to Jacques Maritain’s dialogue Théonas from the same footnote that suggested the larger argumentative context to me. It was Maritain’s attempt to reclaim the superman idea for his Christian humanism that helped me to position Kantorowicz’s account of Dante’s “Man-Centered Kingship” (and the competing genealogy in which this formed a part) in relation to a wider set of debates regarding the so-called crisis of man from the period in which he was writing and teaching. 

I’d like to add something further here about how I view contextualization. My sense is that too strong a dichotomy between contextual and exegetical approaches to texts (broadly conceived) is often insisted upon, as if one were permitted to explore the one only in the absence of the other. The same could also be said, in the literary sphere, for the supposed opposition between historicist and formalist approaches. I’m much more interested in the relationship between the two. Recovering the context in which a text was written and, more importantly, received, invariably opens a new perspective on it. In this sense, contextualization––far from entailing historical reductionism––becomes intellectually enabling, insofar as it allows one to read a text that we think we know very well under an entirely new aspect. That’s part of what I wanted to achieve here.   

SD: Let me turn away from questions of sovereignty for my final question, and instead turn to the category of human dignity. In your piece, you narrate how dignity bridges the gap between human and transcendental realms of being in Kantorowicz’s readings of Dante. How do you as an intellectual historian, through your investigation of this moment in the larger global histories of sovereignty in the twentieth century, intend to contribute to the ongoing conversations on state power and human dignity? In other words, could you elaborate on your concluding sentence in the article: “it is humanity that is identified with dignity, rather than, as we hear more often today, dignity with humanity”?

NH: Human dignity is a notoriously elusive concept. In the nineteenth century, Schopenhauer famously called it “the shibboleth of all clueless and thoughtless moralists.” Whoever utters this lofty expression, he argued, can count on it remaining uninterrogated, for their interlocutor is typically more than happy to have it attributed to them! Since that time, its ubiquity has been firmly established, yet without (though perhaps this partially accounts for its success) its meaning necessarily being clarified. Something of the difficulty, as Schopenhauer already intuited, is captured in the semantic history of the term. In contemporary usage, it means something like inherent value or worth. But the Latin dignitas, from which it stems, refers to an elevated position or rank—and hence to something external to whoever is identified with it. How to account for such an extraordinary semantic transformation?

Kantorowicz’s “genealogy of superman,” as I reconstruct it, offers one possible explanation. Namely, that the progressive loosening of the highly restricted model of imperial and papal sovereignty, which culminates in the omnipresent theoretical sovereignty of the modern individual, passes through a decisive intermediary phase: Dante’s elaboration of a dignity of “man” as such, understood here as a paradoxical sovereignty of the individual apart from the office. What’s fascinating about this account, as you’ve already touched upon, is that it entails not just a secularization of the spiritual, but also what Kantorowicz calls a spiritualization of the secular. That is, it sees Dante and his Renaissance interpreters already participating in what could be characterized as a divinization of humanity, one that is neatly captured in the invented Latin formula—homo instrumentum humanitatis—through which Kantorowicz epitomizes his presentation of Dante’s moral-political views. If nothing else, I think this serves as a timely reminder that dignity is always a relative, and never an absolute, concept, even (and especially) when it appears to be otherwise. That is what I was trying to convey in the final sentence of my article.


Shuvatri Dasgupta received a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in History from Presidency University, Kolkata, India. She was also an exchange student and Charpak Fellow at Sciences Po Paris (Reims campus). She is currently a doctoral candidate in the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge, and is funded by the Cambridge Trust and Rajiv Gandhi Foundation Fellowship. Her doctoral dissertation is tentatively titled “A History of Conjugality: On Patriarchy, Caste, and Capital, in the British Empire c.1872-1947.” By using the lens of Social Reproduction Theory (and Marxist-feminist scholarship in general), it attempts to establish the importance of uncovering histories of marriage not just as legal or gender histories, but as the origin point of private property ownership and capitalist exploitation. Her general research interests include global history, gender history, intellectual history and political thought, histories of empire, histories of capitalism, Marxist and Marxist-Feminist theory, and critical theory.

Featured Image: Photos, Ernst Kantorowicz Collection, AR 7216, Leo Baeck Institute I, 1/12.

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Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Joseph Streeter on Ancient Concepts of Tolerance

Joseph Streeter is a historian of late antiquity with a side interest in the anthropology of religion. He is the co-editor, with Michael Whitby, of a collection of G.E.M. de Se. Croix’s essays entitled Christian Persecution, Martyrdom, and Orthodoxy for Oxford University Press, and of the essay “Should we worry about belief?” for the journal Anthropological Theory.

Streeter spoke with contributing editor Pranav Jain about his essay “Conceptions of Tolerance in Antiquity and Late Antiquity,” which was published in the current issue of the JHI (82.3) and is currently available open access. 

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Pranav Jain: In your article, you sometimes use the words tolerance and toleration interchangeably. In early modern history and historiography, the two are often treated as distinct. Toleration is about belief whereas tolerance is more about daily practices. Even if Locke or Bayle believed in a particular form of religious toleration, the lived reality was, of course, more complex. Can one make a similar distinction when discussing Antiquity? 

Joseph Streeter: I doubt that there is a clear distinction between tolerance and toleration, whether in ordinary language or in the historiography of toleration, and historians who distinguish between the terms often do so in different ways (and they tend not to maintain the distinction consistently throughout their work). So, for example, Benjamin Kaplan stipulates a definition of toleration as a practice of “peaceful coexistence with others who adhered to a different religion” and I think implicitly identifies tolerance with something more principled, while Stuart Schwartz distinguishes “the history of religious toleration, by which is usually meant state or community policy” from the history of religious tolerance, which he describes as a history of “attitudes or sentiments.”  

For my part, I modify a distinction drawn by Jeremy Waldron and distinguish the disposition of tolerance from the political principle of toleration and suggest that people in antiquity could conceive of the former but not the latter. I focus on ‘tolerance’ because the term seems to me to have a broader and less exclusively normative use in ordinary English than ‘toleration.’ We can talk of someone as having a ‘tolerance’ for spicy food or pain or alcohol, and it does not seem right to me to think that the word has a different sense in these contexts from its sense in, say, talk of religious tolerance (in defining ‘tolerance’ as a ‘personal virtue,’ Waldron gives the concept an ethical content that it does not really have). So it is conceptions of, and attitudes toward, tolerance in the broad and not necessarily moral sense of ‘putting up with’ something that I have in mind in the article.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that I suspect that the distinction you describe, which is one between tolerance/toleration understood as an informal and not necessarily principled practice of ‘getting along’ or coexisting, and tolerance/toleration understood as a more principled stance toward normatively objectionable views or practices, does not map in any settled way onto a distinction between tolerance and toleration. As such, any iteration of this distinction will be more or less stipulative in respect of the use of the terms ‘tolerance’ and ‘toleration.’

The distinction itself is certainly important and relevant to the study of late antiquity, although the notion of ‘practices of toleration’ or of toleration/tolerance as a practice is a difficult one to pin down. Often what historians are trying to explain by recourse to these terms is why we do not see more inter-religious or inter-confessional violence, given the radically exclusionary terms that religious ideologues use in articulating their differences with others. And what they look at are practices or contexts of social interaction in which religious differences do not, for whatever reason, ‘show up’ or are not salient, or where some other set of norms governs behavior. Some of the most important work on this subject in the historiography of late antiquity is Peter Brown’s discussions of the norms of conduct inculcated in elite education (paideia), which cut across religious differences and, he suggests, to some degree mitigated the effects of the more strident rhetoric that we see in our sources (especially Christian ones). And from ancient letter collections and elsewhere we see how elite ties can cut across religious differences. So while I doubt that there can be coherent late antique conceptions of religious toleration, I do not mean to imply that there is nothing that we can call religious toleration in the period.  

PJ: You effectively show how early modern writers sometimes misread ancient thinkers in their search for arguments that supported their own positions. Naturally, one can also argue that 20th-century historians did something similar to early modern thinkers. Though this leads to distortions and misinterpretations, is there something that we can still learn from such misreadings? 

JS: I am not sure that they tell us anything about intellectual life in late antiquity, at least not directly. But we can learn a great deal from thinking about them, both about late antiquity itself in coming to see that they are misreadings, and about the ideological forces that shape our own ways of thinking about late antiquity in understanding why they arise. For they are expressions of deep ideological forces, and not just errors. 

To generalize, I think the modern intellectual historiography of late antique religious toleration has a strongly anachronistic character, both in respect of its central claims and its methods. This is manifested most obviously in the sometimes wildly anachronistic language used to characterize the late antique arguments: consider Hubert Cancik and Hildegard Cancik-Lindemaier’s talk of the emperor Jovian’s “liberale Religionspolitik” and of Themistius’ “demand for state neutrality in matters of religion” (“die Forderung des Themistios nach Neutralität des Staates in Religionsangelegenheiten”). It is also, I think, manifested in the repeated claims that a given late antique thinker has ‘anticipated’ some doctrine commonly associated with the enlightenment or with the work of a 19th-century liberal. Quentin Skinner’s strictures against such talk may have been too strong, but I think he was right to regard it as fishy. At least, it seems to me implausible on its face that Tertullian anticipated Constant or the enlightenment, or that a piece of propaganda by Themistius may have shared ‘something of the spirit’ of a treatise by Mill, especially when we consider the radical differences between the social, political, and intellectual contexts in which these texts were produced. 

There are also subtler anachronisms. Thus historians have tended to treat as clear certain familiar-looking expressions or claims which, if read in relation to their contemporary linguistic contexts, are anything but. In the article I use the example of Tertullian’s expression libertas religionis, and more can be said about the way scholars have read and excerpted the passage in which this expression occurs. But I could equally have used his claim, at Ad Scapulam 2.2, that “the religio of one neither hinders nor profits another” (nec alii obest aut prodest alterius religio).  If we translate this as “the religion of one neither hinders nor profits another” it may look unexceptionable, and this is how historians routinely take it. But Tertullian’s claim is about religio, and it looks extremely strange when read against earlier and subsequent usage of that term (including by Christians). Yet it has received little attention, even though Tertullian does not appear able to maintain it within the text itself. For later in Ad Scapulam—which is a short text—he boasts about the benefits to the empire as a whole from the fasts and prayers of Christians.        

The question, then, is why the historiography of late antique religious toleration should have this character. My own view, which I hope to develop more fully soon, is that this historiography has been shaped by, and is therefore in a sense part of, two related ideological projects. The broadest we may call the project of liberal self-definition. There has been some interesting work on the history of definitions of the liberal tradition, especially by avowed liberals—I’m thinking particularly of Duncan Bell’s 2014 article “What is liberalism?,” but also of the discussion of liberalism in Raymond Geuss’s History and Illusion in Politics. As both authors argue, these definitions are almost inevitably pieces of advocacy, which seek to incorporate as part of the liberal tradition as many established or attractive principles or concepts as possible. Another way to put this is to say that there is a strong tendency toward anachronism in liberal definitions of the liberal tradition. Bell’s interest is in how thinkers like Locke came to be classified as liberals, but it should not surprise us that late antique thinkers also came to be treated as, in effect, proto liberals, especially when we remember that quite prominent liberal thinkers have themselves contributed to the historiography of late antique religious toleration (I cite Ernest Barker in the text, but one might note also that the Italian liberal and later prime minister Luigi Luzzatti claimed that Themistius’ defence of ‘libertà di coscienza e dei culti’ was superior to the arguments for toleration in the work of Montaigne, Spinoza, Locke, Voltaire, Vinet, and Mill).  

The second and earlier ideological project is that of the first proponents of freedom of conscience, and later of religious toleration. The now standard canon of late antique tolerationist texts—Tertullian’s Apology 24.5-6 and Ad Scapulam 2, Lactantius’s Divine Institutes 5.19, Themistius’s Fifth Oration, and Symmachus’s Third Relatio—is the creation of these thinkers/political actors. The methods they employed in creating this canon were not the holistic and contextualist methods that guide modern historical scholarship, but were more akin to what is now sometimes called ‘quote-mining’: the opportunistic excerption of superficially familiar and useful pieces of text, with little consideration for the linguistic and textual contexts that gives these textual units their sense (at least as historical texts). Of course, none of this would matter if modern scholars had shown that these texts advocate freedom of conscience/religious toleration/freedom of religion using modern historical methods. But it seems to me that they have not done this, and that scholarship on late antique religious toleration tends to recapitulate the methods of early modern scholarship as well as the themes. Discussions tend to focus very narrowly on the standard passages, with little consideration for their textual and linguistic contexts. My suspicion is that modern historians confront these texts ‘knowing’ that they contain arguments for freedom of conscience/religious toleration/freedom of religion—it is not uncommon to see this treated as a settled piece of historical knowledge. But the circumstances under which it became settled should give us pause, and it seems to me that when we read these texts historically, it becomes both much less clear what the authors are arguing—this is true particularly of Tertullian and Lactantius—and much less clear how we should describe what the authors were doing in making their arguments. To say that Themistius and Symmachus ‘argued for’ freedom of religion or ‘advocated’ freedom of religion seems to me to imply that that notion already had a place within contemporary thought, and I think that is not right. 

So we can learn a lot by attending to these misreadings, above all in becoming aware of the historical and ideological forces that, often unbeknownst to us, shape our sense of particular texts and of the positions that people could take in these texts. And I suspect this is as true for early modern scholars as for scholars of late antiquity. 

PJ: You dwell a great deal on the notion of insult. It is not one that scholars of early modern religious toleration talk about a lot. What can they learn from it? In other words, can we read someone like Locke differently if we think more about insult and social status?

JS: I must preface my response to this question by emphasizing that I am not an early modernist, but a historian of late antiquity with an interest in early modern intellectual and cultural history. What I say here therefore is just what seemed striking to me as a fairly well-informed outsider to the field—I do not claim for it anything more than that.

I came to the subject of insult through the subject of tolerance. The genesis of this article lay in a study of the ancient vocabulary that is somewhere in the semantic neighborhood of our term ‘tolerance,’ terms or expressions which involve some notion of putting up with something uncomfortable, painful, or unpleasant (one of the terms—anexikakia, or ‘putting up with bad things’—seems to me a pretty good synonym for ‘tolerance’). That is, I wanted to look at the contexts in which ancient authors talked of something like ‘tolerance,’ and to see what might count as an object of tolerance for them—rather than starting from our own conceptions of religious tolerance/toleration and seeing what (if anything) the ancients might have to say about these. And it quickly became apparent that insult, and the question of how to respond to insult, was extensively thematized in ancient and late antique literature. In particular it was a locus around which people articulated their conceptions of honor, as well as the transcendence of the ethics of honor (in the case of the Stoics) or the overturning and redefinition of the ethics of honor (in the Christian case).

With respect to Locke in particular, the focus on insult perhaps helps us to see what he leaves out. One of the consequences of the Christian conception of slavery to God that I discuss is that it tends to make discourse about God highly personal: it is, in a sense, discourse about oneself, insofar as one is a slave of God, or at least it is discourse to which one has a fundamentally interested relationship, since one’s standing is wholly bound up with and dependent upon God. One of the things that is very striking about reading Locke after reading anything by a late antique Christian, is the disinterestedness of his attitude toward what had hitherto been central doctrinal issues. As Locke treats them, theological claims about, say, the trinity are just expressions of opinion, whereas in the late antique context they were expressions of belief and much more—expressions of praise, contempt, etc.—and they are apprehended first under these more emotive terms, and only after some abstraction as expressions of belief.  My suspicion is that it is Locke’s framing of the question of tolerance that allows him to adopt this attitude much more than any argument that he makes, that the—to us innocuous—phrase “mutua inter Christianos tolerantia” is doing a lot of work, and that excluding God from the question of tolerance makes it much easier for him to make his case. That he is in some way gerrymandering the question of tolerance seems especially apparent if we look at, say, heresiological texts from the mid-17th century, which seem much closer to late antique authors like Ambrose and Chrysostom than they do to Locke, insofar as they draw very close connections between heresy and blasphemy, or offenses against God (this is clear from only a brief look at a work like Thomas Edward’s Gangraena). For the authors of these works, God is very much within the social context in which questions of tolerance arise.   

As I said, these observations may or may not be pertinent. But one issue I would like to think about more, and about which early modernists are much better qualified than me to examine, is how the framings of the human relationship to God current in early modern Europe shaped the possibilities for tolerance. In the translation of the Letter to the Romans in The King James Bible, Paul introduces himself as a “servant of Jesus Christ,” whereas in the Greek New Testament he is a ‘slave,’ a doulos. Now I assume that to be a servant in early 17th century England was to have a much less degraded status than a doulos in the early Roman Empire (and by implication, that to be a master in that context is to have a much less exalted status). What are a servant’s obligations to his master? Presumably they are not as binding or all-consuming as those of a doulos to his master.       


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

Featured Image: William Blake, “The Blasphemer,” ca. 1800. Courtesy of Tate.

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Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Lisa Hellman & Birgit Tremml-Werner on Translation in Early Modern Diplomacy

Lisa K. Hellman works in the intersection between social, cultural, maritime, and global history, with a special interest in gender. Her first project focused on the everyday life of Europeans in the ports of Canton and Macau. In her second project, she compared their experiences with those in other Asian ports, primarily Nagasaki. In her current project, she follows 18th-century prisoners of war in Siberia and North Asia. The core question driving her is how intercultural interaction changed the lives of the men and women involved.

Birgit Tremml-Werner is a researcher at the Centre for Concurrences at Linnaeus University, Sweden, where she teaches in the Master programme in Colonial and Postcolonial Studies and works on a project entitled “Encountering Diplomacy in Early Modern Southeast Asia”. She received her PhD in History from the University of Vienna in 2012 and worked as postdoctoral fellow at the University of Tokyo and the University of Zurich. Her research includes Tokugawa Japan’s foreign relations, the social history of colonial contact zones in maritime South East Asia and global intellectual history.

Hellman and Tremml-Werner spoke with contributing editor David Kretz about “Translation in Action: Global Intellectual History and Early Modern Diplomacy,” the introduction to the cluster of articles on translation and diplomacy in the current issue of the JHI (82.3). 

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David Kretz: For the special issue of JHI 82.3, you have assembled a series of articles on the role of translation in Early Modern diplomacy, combining New Diplomatic History’s focus on actors outside the official diplomatic corps in foreign relations with an intellectual history focus on the cross-cultural migration of concepts. You emphasize three findings in particular. First, that a number of go-betweens—missionaries, merchants, scholars, prisoners of war, etc.—functioned as translators in an expanded sense, that includes inter-lingual, inter-medial, and inter-cultural translations. Secondly, that power differentials between actors, languages, and media everywhere need to be taken into account when considering translations. Thirdly, that mutual understanding was only one goal and often not the primary one. The careful management of vagueness and misunderstanding was often just as crucial, if not more important both to the actors themselves and for our historical understanding.

My first question concerns the importance of trust, which you also stress. Could you tell us a bit more about how trust was established, both between official and non-official actors and between different polities? How did the translators you look at gain trust; how did they themselves further it? Do we know of interesting cases when trust was lost, or lost and then restored?

Lisa Hellman: Trust is really an exciting issue when it comes to both translation and diplomacy, and one which I think will have to be considered in terms of its emotional and political layers when translation and diplomacy are combined. A basic understanding of practices of translation is that someone wants to be comprehended by someone else. If you do not manage to present your translation as credible, the translation fails and the interaction will falter. But this is just one part of the story of trust building. What attention to the on-the-ground processes shows, is not only that there could be a rather big acceptance of distrust: cases when the two parties openly distrusted one another and, for example, the wording of a document but still managed to establish a working relationship. Even more interestingly, there are times when friendship and trust were evoked, but on what one might call a superficial level, as part of a diplomatic ceremonial.

Rather than reflecting an emotional trust of the involved actors, phrases evoking “trust” could be called upon to show the earnestness of the intentions. In fact, the involved parties might have felt nothing of the kind, nor did the other party expect it. Translators naturally combined these different types of, and expectations placed on, trust. It is not uncommon to find lamentations of the doubtful nature of a translation (that a traduttore was a traditore was a trope even outside diplomatic relations) coexisting with a reliance on the fact that this person who produced it could find the right words.

Birgit Tremml-Werner: I agree on the point that the importance of trust can hardly be overestimated for processes of translation, when unfamiliar parties interacted with each other. Trust had a material dimension and was thus often created on a non-verbal level, for instance through gestures, bodily comportment, sign language or ritual practices involving the support of objects. Trust building in cross-cultural settings often benefited from repetition of acts proving the good intention of negotiation partners, as these intentions were hard to assess otherwise. The Dutch East India Company merchants who submitted to the rigid foreign policies of the Tokugawa shogunate in exchange for long-term trading privileges are a good example in this regard.

In many cases intermediaries were also essential: Early Modern actors gathered information to evaluate and test the available knowledge of a translation or a translator by interrogating someone they trusted more because of a common language, religion or experience. In other words, the element of personal relations was key in the translation business. This point also calls to mind the example of Jesuit translator João Rodrigues, who is also mentioned in one of the articles in this special issue. Rodrigues became the trusted translator and interpreter of the Japanese ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi after several years in exile and despite Hideyoshi’s anti-Catholic sentiments. It is believed that Hideyoshi was deeply impressed by Rodrigues’s command of several languages and scripts. Once the Jesuit had gained the despot’s trust, his multilingual expertise made him a powerful broker in many diplomatic incidents on the Japanese archipelago.  

DK: My second question concerns the relation between translation and empire. We hear a lot about how empires impose linguistic, metrical, chronological, legal, etc. standards with the aim of assuring translatability broadly speaking: the unimpeded flow of goods material and immaterial between different parts of the empire, particularly between center and periphery (e.g. Wintroub 2015). In contrast, you stress that “practices of translation … are incompletely understood if translation is seen only as a one-way tool of power through which the metropole reaches and creates the periphery” (457). Translation, by creating and maintaining spaces of ambiguity, just as often protects particular identities and polities from forced homogenization. Could you tell us more about how you see the relation between translation and empire? Are most of the cases you looked at either distinctly serving empire or counteracting it, or is it almost always something in-between? What factors pull it towards either end of the spectrum?

BTW: Indeed, for no empire in history did imperial language policies result in the intended homogenization. Imperial language was often only used for bureaucratic and educational purposes; enforcement of the use of the metropolitan language or prohibitions of not using native languages ended where the private space began. And yet, the loss and extinction of thousands of languages and linguistic practices over the past two hundred years are an undeniable proof for epistemic violence caused by both empires and modern nation-states. However, indigenous language revival campaigns (which often started as grassroots movements) in the Philippines, Taiwan, and many other countries are a reassuring sign for a new trend.

New imperial history and indigenous studies have moreover shown that in many aboriginal societies and first nations, knowledge was disseminated through oral and/or ritual practices rather than in a written form. This very fact needs to be taken into consideration when we want to understand the linguistic, material, and legal impact of language policies of empires. As non-written practices were of an ambiguous nature in the eye of the colonizers, they were better fit to escape the destructive impact of hegemonic language politics.

Lastly, we should also recall the importance of migration in relation to the imperial worlds of translation and language policies. An integration of mobile actors helps us to get away from a binary thinking of translation processes exchanged between a sending metropolitan center and a receiving colonial periphery and instead develop an understanding how ambiguity was a by-product of multi-linguistic and polyvocal encounters and how it contributed to the ever-changing nature of languages.

LH: You are quite right—translation was also a struggle for empires, and the way it unfolded helps us follow the way empires themselves evolved. Eighteenth-century Russia, despite its reputation for ‘looking west’, had more translators for Asian than European languages. I do not think one can see translation as strictly either in the service of empire or subversive, partly because not all empires used unity as a strategy. Consider, for example, the concept of diglossia, used in historical studies to analyze and explain the language strategies of the Habsburg empire: the conscious separation between different languages while keeping a centralized power over translation. What we wanted to emphasize is rather that translation inherently has the potential for both. It certainly can and has been used to create an imperial norm, either for spoken or written language, or both. Another example would be the Qing empire and its application of a written norm. That norm came with a power dimension in the sense that it determined whose language, whose script, and whose words were used, read, and heard.

As we expand the view of who was a diplomatic actor, we also find those who are making use of imperial frameworks in their own way, perhaps in completely different ways than envisioned by the metropole. Looking broadly at practices of translating such foreign relations, we see how power is fractured. A final example would be the Central Asian go-betweens and informants used in negotiations between the Russian and the Qing empire. This is not to say imperial domination did not happen or was not the aim, but that it was not a straightforward and linear process. For us as researchers, looking at the twists and turns translation took within and for empires is also to reveal other actors of translation and diplomacy than those normally given center stage. That, I think, could also be very fruitful going forward. Then we can find those times when translation was a key cogwheel for imperial homogenization or separation, as well as the times when it worked to undermine political processes. I think they are all equally fascinating.

DK: My own research tries to make the concept of translation useful beyond the confines of comparative literature (for philosophy of history and political theory). I am very enthusiastic about your efforts to make use of the concept in diplomatic and intellectual history and similar efforts for example in anthropology (Severi & Hanks 2014). One thing I often worry about with such attempts to translate—in the literal sense of ‘carrying-over’—the concept of translation itself, is conceptual inflation. ‘Translation’ sometimes seems to be expanded until it includes, in the end, virtually every act of communication and creation in any medium. Are you ever worried about over-expanding the concept in a way that makes it, ultimately, a rather thin notion that explains everything and nothing? If so, how do you think one might go about ‘thickening’ the concept?

LH: I very much sympathize with your worry that the widening of a concept—albeit one that is absolutely necessary, such as here in the inclusion of visual and verbal diplomatic communication alongside written treaties—certainly carries with it the danger of inflating the concept until it implodes and starts being used for everything and nothing. There are, of course, many ways in which one could go about thickening such a concept. One aspect of that thickening, I think, could be through considering comprehensibility. Here I do not mean in the sense of something being a translation only when it has become comprehensible; in the field of diplomacy, commensurability (or incommensurability) has been discussed for decades, but we have seen far too many cases of conscious or unconscious mistranslations, misunderstandings, and silences to evaluate something on the basis of whether it became truly comprehensible to another party or not. I would, however suggest that translation is the intentional act of passing from one form of understanding to another. That passing can be incomplete, it can be faulty, it can be near seamless, but it would be an intentional change. That notion excludes any creation that does not have one (or many) perceived source(s), but rather starts fully new, and such communication that keeps within one form or frame. But this is an issue where there is much that historians can and should learn from anthropologists, and not the least also translation studies, when theorizing past practices.

BTW: I would add that the risk of over-extension of the concept and potential conflation exists not only for ‘translation’ but has also widely been discussed for the concept of ‘diplomacy.’ Using diplomacy to describe nearly any type of negotiation between any two parties, regardless of the characteristics of the entities, the means of interaction or the agenda of the encounter, is highly problematic. At the same time, I am not too worried that scholars interested in nuancing our understanding of past relations would subscribe to such an approach, as it will not produce meaningful results. Popular history, political propaganda, and public opinion present a very different story. Just think of the numerous terms and phrases including the word ‘diplomacy’ that have been coined in relation to the global coronavirus crisis, rendering the use of the label meaningless. To thicken the concept for historical studies, I would suggest strong theoretical underpinnings and clear definitions based on a given historical context. To get a better grip on ‘translation’ and ‘diplomacy’ of the past, it is moreover useful to consider the language of the sources and their original authors.


David Kretz is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Germanic Studies and the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. His current project contrasts poets and translators as complementary paradigms of historical agency in times of crisis.

Featured Image: Map of Zungharia by Johan Gustav Renat. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Bruce Buchan & Silvia Sebastiani on Race in the European Enlightenment

Bruce Buchan is an intellectual historian whose work traces European political thought through the experience of empire and colonization in the era of Enlightenment. His recent publications include, An Intellectual History of Political Corruption (2014), and Sound, Space and Civility in the British World, 1700-1850 (2019), as well as special issues of Cultural Studies Review (2018), Republics of Letters (2018), and History of the Human Sciences (2019). His most recent papers appear in the Journal of the History of IdeasIntellectual History ReviewModern Intellectual History, and Cultural History. Bruce has held visiting professorships at the University of Copenhagen (2015-16), the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (2017), and most recently was a Fernand Braudel Senior Research Fellow at the European University Institute in 2021. His forthcoming books include a new edited collection, Piracy in World History (Amsterdam University Press, 2021), and a monograph with Linda Andersson Burnett entitled, Racing Humanity: Education, Empire and Ethnography in Scotland’s Global Enlightenment, c. 1770-1820 (in late 2022).

Silvia Sebastiani is associate professor at the Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) in Paris, where she teaches research seminars on Enlightenment historiography and on race in early modern period in Europe and European empires. Her publications include The Scottish Enlightenment. Race, Gender, and the Limits of Progress (2013), awarded of the “István Hont Prize” for intellectual history, and the co-editon of Negotiating Knowledge in Early Modern Empires: A Decentered View (2014), Simianization. Apes, Gender, Class, and Race (2015), L’expérience historiographique (2016), as well as the “Forum” on  “Closeness and Distance in the Age of Enlightenment” in Modern Intellectual History (2014) and the special issue on Les vitrines de l’humanité in Passés Futurs (2019). Sebastiani has spent the academic year 2017-2018  at the Institute of the Advanced Study, Princeton, as a member of the School in Historical Studies. Her new book on Race et histoire dans les sociétés occidentales (15e-18e siècle), co-authored with Jean-Frédéric Schaub, will be published in September 2021. She is now completing a monograph on the boundaries of humanity in the Enlightenment, focusing on how the great ape contributed to the shaping of human and social sciences.

Buchan and Sebastiani recently spoke with Nuala P. Caomhánach about their article “‘No distinction of Black or Fair’:The Natural History of Race in Adam Ferguson’s Lectures on Moral Philosophy,” which has appeared in the most recent issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas (April, 82.2) and is currently open access.


Nuala P. Caomhánach: Although predominantly known for his contribution to the civic tradition of Scotland’s Enlightenment, your essay highlights how Adam Ferguson’s pedagogical activity, as a professor of moral philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, was a site of ongoing reflection, reorientation, and a testing ground for his studies on the boundaries of human variation and diversity especially with regard to the category of race.  The focus on analyzing lecture notes is striking as you demonstrate how Ferguson’s thinking on race vacillates over time, is suggestive rather than conclusive, and stands in sharp relief to how he omitted this category from the Principles of Moral and Political Science (1792). In thinking about the placement of Ferguson within the intellectual tradition, the focus on his lecture notes suggests a desire to decolonize his published works. First, why do you think race as a category has been dismissed as a minor thread in Ferguson’s thought? Does this reflect on the historical field itself as a whole, and/or does it highlight the kinds of archival material that are examined and are more “acceptable” within the field? In providing ample evidence of how his lecture notes reveal the tension about racial categories for Ferguson, are you suggesting that key historical actors in intellectual thought need to be re-evaluated, and if so, to what end?

Bruce Buchan & Silvia Sebastiani: It would be fair to say that race has tended to be marginalized in the history of Europe’s Enlightenment, not just in Ferguson’s own thought. Although there have been studies, since the post-World War II period and in particular since the 1970s, highlighting how racial categories are constructed at the very moment when the universal and natural rights of “man” are affirmed, it is only in recent years that the racial question has been placed at the center of research on Enlightenment. Our interpretation of Ferguson is not just a matter of decolonizing intellectual history by drawing greater attention to race in Enlightenment thought, as important as that is. For us, race was part of elaborate patterns of thought linking it with historical categories (such as civilization, savagery, and barbarism), and with natural historical frameworks for taxonomizing nature, connecting human populations with climates, geographies, and diseases. Race therefore is not just an important concept in its own right. In the eighteenth century, “man” was included in natural history, and classified as the rest of natural world, such as flora and fauna. This “naturalization” of humankind went hand in hand with its historicization. By emphasizing race, paying greater heed to its articulation in the period and to the questions it raised for intellectuals such as Ferguson, for us is crucial in the continuing quest to properly interpret Enlightenment thought in general. 

Silvia has been working on the implications of this approach for some time, and has made such a significant contribution to the intellectual history of Scottish Enlightenment thought in her The Scottish Enlightenment: Race, Gender and the Limits of Progress (2013). Here she elaborated the connections between race and a range of other concepts, such as gender and nation, that were used to distinguish between human groups, and to make hierarchical prioritizations of some over others. This is what makes the concept of race in Ferguson’s teaching so important for us. Ferguson has previously been interpreted, as you suggest, as a distinctive contributor to a civic tradition of thought by integrating virtue and corruption with stadial historical schemes that charted universal stages of progress from savagery to civilization. Ferguson has also been read, as he was by Karl Marx, for his early formulation and criticisms of the division of labor, and thus of the “progress” of civil society. In both cases, Ferguson’s thought has been viewed through a politico-economic lens, tending to obscure the pivotal contribution of natural history in his construction of knowledge. What we want to show in our paper is that Ferguson’s approach was built on models of natural history then developing in Enlightenment Europe, and that the dialogue with Buffon’s work was central. This shift of emphasis, we believe, has important consequences in the interpretation of Ferguson’s thought.

It was Ferguson’s natural history of the species that enabled him to connect virtue and progress, savagery and race, and this was the framework that he presented so vividly in his lectures on moral philosophy. While it is true to say that race does not occupy a central place in Ferguson’s published works, its prominence in his teaching is a feature of his intellectually distinctive blending of natural history with stadial historical thinking. And we know, as we suggest in our conclusion, that this is precisely how Ferguson was read by those who made colonial voyages and sought to interpret non-European and First Nations peoples according to ideas of race drawn from natural history, and presumptions of savagery dependent on stadial history. This is unfolding research that Bruce Buchan has also been conducting with Linda Andersson Burnett (at Uppsala University), and some of that work can be accessed here.

To return to your question about methodology, our paper is a contribution to the extension of intellectual histories that seek meaning from more fragmentary sources. It would be fair to say that conventionally, intellectual history has sought to trace repertoires of meaning in sources that were made available in quite restrictive contexts. One restriction has been the overwhelming focus on published or unpublished manuscripts—complete works that can be traced to distinct authorship and identifiable readerships. It is not hard to understand why intellectual historians should prioritize such sources, because they offer concrete conceptual or argumentative formulations that allow influence and interpretation to be reconstructed. Nonetheless, this focus reinforces a spatial confinement matched by the preference for complete products of thought, typically published texts. This approach to intellectual history has been extremely fruitful, but it tends to treat its subject as an existential whole, a finished product that allows sources of influence to be traced from histories of development toward that finality. We don’t for a moment suggest this approach is misguided. We endorse and apply this technique, but we also see the potential in less conclusive and more fragmentary sources (such as Ferguson’s lecture notes) to broaden the interpretive possibilities for intellectual historians. This necessarily involves more tentative conclusions, but for us the value of such sources lies in their ability to peer behind the monumental figures of intellectual history, the great minds or influential texts, to engage with the persistent doubts and the frank speculations retailed to other audiences. In Ferguson’s case, to his students.

There is a growing literature focusing on the importance of handwritten notes in the Enlightenment era, alongside the printed text, and on the need to take into account the materiality of different ways of constructing knowledge. Compared to the printed text, the notes reveal other elements of knowledge construction. We don’t mean to say that the notes allow historians to see things better; but to see them otherwise. This is why it is useful to combine the two approaches together. The educational dimension of the notes is another crucial aspect to be stressed, as Craig Smith has masterfully demonstrated. Indeed, his book on Adam Ferguson and the Idea of Civil Society (2019) is a fundamental contribution to this field. We could only use the book marginally because it was published when our article was already written, but we would like to acknowledge our debt to his work and the parallels between our approaches and arguments. Historians of the Scottish Enlightenment have long emphasized the crucial contribution made by Scotland’s universities in providing an institutional framework for the intellectual dynamism of the era, but scholars are yet to fully explore the content of what was taught, how it was taught, and what former students did with the ideas they imbibed. And here we think it is important to emphasize that today as much as in the past, the widest audience that most scholars ever reach is made up of the students they teach. Ferguson was evidently proud of his achievements as a teacher, which we think is at least implied in Henry Raeburn’s portrait of the then retired Professor in the early 1790s (see above). Here Ferguson chose to be painted flanked not only by his various elegantly bound publications, but by two very thick volumes of his manuscript lecture notes on moral philosophy. For us, paying heed to teaching makes empire and colonization (and hence race) unavoidable features of the intellectual history of Enlightenment thought.

A last point should be emphasized. Until recently, historiography has focused almost exclusively on An Essay on the History of Civil Society, which indeed was a crucial contribution, but not the only one Ferguson made. He construed history in different ways and with different tools, including lectures, while addressing diverse audiences. He was more versatile than is often acknowledged. In his long life, Ferguson pursued a varied career as soldier, clergyman, librarian, and professor both of natural philosophy and moral philosophy, also joining clubs and debating societies. We believe it is important to take into account the multiplicity of contexts in which Ferguson participated. This also means that intellectual historians need to articulate how the Scottish, the British, the European, the imperial, and colonial dimensions all nourished Enlightenment debates on humankind and its history. Our own and others work on Ferguson appears to confirm that natural history shifted into raciology in the years between 1780 and 1800. By then, race had become a major concern all over Europe and throughout European empires. Yet Enlightenment thought provided no single solution to the question of race (and there has probably never been agreement on this imaginary, but terribly powerful category). The tension about racial categories that runs through Ferguson’s work can be found in other literati, more or less explicitly. Despite that uncertainty, race emerges in this period within natural histories and taxonomic classification, as much as within philosophical and universal histories of civilization, as an attempt to explain the unequal progress of human societies. These approaches are entwined and should be studied as such. It is within this complex and heterogeneous framework that we suggest the need to re-evaluate key historical actors in Enlightenment thought. Our aim is to show that there is an unresolved tension between universalism and hierarchy in Enlightenment thinking, which continues to spark controversy around the world today.

NPC: In what ways did incorporating natural history imbue a scientific authority to Ferguson’s arguments? Why was Ferguson so reluctant to articulate a theoretical framework without having all the “facts” or empirical data, as he seemed to want to stay within the descriptive and collecting stage? Was he, in essence, waiting for all the data to be gathered before leaping from speculation to empirically supported theory? I am curious in what ways Ferguson’s Christian beliefs were filtered through a natural history lens, for example, the compatibility of a Biblical insistence on monogenesis, and whether this was in part a reaction to  Rousseau’s dismissal of the authority of the biblical account of Man in Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes (1755).

BB & SS: Some elements of this question have already been addressed in our previous answer: the relationship between natural history and stadial history is both complex and crucial. We’ll just make two observations here, but our answer could be much longer! First, the historiographical revolution during Europe’s Enlightenment is based on providing “evidence,” that is, verification borne out of the critical analysis of sources. This is an aspect of Enlightenment thought that Arnaldo Momigliano emphasized many years ago. The aim of Enlightened historians, certainly those in Scotland such as Adam Ferguson, was to write “scientific” history, which responded (as they saw it) to laws of nature and was based on “facts.” Ferguson participated here in a larger reflection in which the Bible was questioned as a historical document (despite its centrality in Scottish Calvinist society).

On the other hand, however, the defense of biblical monogenism remains crucial, as you rightly point out, but this was not done on the basis of the authority of the sacred text itself, but on scientific reasoning. This was why Ferguson placed such an emphasis in his lectures on seeking to trace on the effects of climate, diet, and terrain on human individuals and their societies. By doing so, Ferguson once again blended diverse sources, combining speculations derived from Montesquieu’s climatic theory, with the archaic Hippocratic-Galenic doctrine of temperament, and very contemporary medical suppositions about the environmental determinants of sensibility. By drawing on and coordinating such sources together Ferguson presented human beings, and human races, as subjects for natural historical inquiry—the model for which was supplied by Buffon. Identifying Buffon’s influence on Ferguson enables us to pay closer attention to the complex relationship between race and history. There is a tendency, thanks to the pernicious influence of the doctrine of scientific racism in the late nineteenth century, to regard race as immutable, as resistant to historical malleability. The relationship between race and history is more complex in the late eighteenth-century context, and especially in Ferguson’s teaching. The complexity emerges when we pay attention to Buffon’s key concept of race as a product of degeneration from an initial prototype. Degeneration and improvement are articulated together in Ferguson’s history of civil society. Understanding their connection means that we need to confront race as a key concept in Ferguson’s history, and in Enlightened historiography more generally.

That Ferguson could engage so closely with natural history might also be seen as a feature of his Presbyterianism. Long before he won fame as a Professor of moral philosophy and exponent of Enlightened history, Ferguson served almost 10 years as a chaplain to one of the most famous Highland regiments raised to keep watch on the rebellious clans. His first publication was a sermon, delivered in Gaelic to the troops, on the need for loyalty to the Hanoverian dynasty and the British state. Right at this early stage in his career, Ferguson saw no inherent conflict between Christian faith and a commitment to history, or more specifically, to the civilization he believed history had unfolded and embodied in the British state.

If there was no inherent tension between history and faith, he did not see one between history and nature either. This is where the figure of Rousseau looms into view. Ferguson’s disagreement with Rousseau, as Iain McDaniel has shown, was drawn out over a number of objections, yet for us the key point of rupture is over the question of a dichotomy between nature and history. Such a separation was affirmed by Rousseau, for whom human sociality is an artefact of the history of society rather than part of the nature of human beings. By contrast, Ferguson followed Buffon and Montesquieu in reaffirming the social dimension of humanity. It was one of Ferguson’s foundational convictions, reiterated again and again in his lectures, that “man” is born into society and is only capable of realizing “his” humanity in networks of social interactions. These relations could be either harmonious or antagonistic (indeed, his thinking mirrored Kant’s formulation of the “unsocial sociability” of humankind), but in both cases affirmed the inherently and inescapably social nature of “man.”  Ferguson followed in Buffon’s footsteps in distinguishing “man” by both physical and moral characteristics, and by a need for society, outside of which “he” would never be able to survive. It was thus useless to multiply conjectures and hypotheses, as Rousseau had done: society was neither artificial nor contractual, but grounded in nature. Human progression did not need any external or accidental circumstances to set it in motion. This is why art is “itself natural to man,” as Ferguson stated at the outset of his An Essay on the History of Civil Society. In so doing, the distinction between nature and artifice, upon which Rousseau had constructed his entire system, was annihilated: civilization did not produce anything which was not already contained in human nature (an aspect on which Silvia is doing some further work now).

Timeline of history in Ferguson’s 1780 article History (2nd edition of Britannica).

NPC: Ferguson’s time as secretary to the ill-fated Carlisle Commission highlights the role of colonial policy and sources in his thinking about the nature of humanity and race. It was striking how Ferguson confirmed that warfare was an index of historical progress. Do you think that Ferguson was justifying colonial violence in the Americas? It is clear that the peoples of America were troubling within Ferguson’s schema, and it required him to question the role of latitude, the temperate zone, and name these peoples as savage. This outlier seems to highlight his unwillingness to question the supremacy of white Europeans. How was Ferguson so certain about delimiting Europeans as superior, yet have such immense uncertainty in classifications of race? Did the debates about colonial spaces and humanity concern Ferguson about the future of the colonies, and (white) mankind?

BB & SS: Ferguson’s attitudes to empire and colonization were troubled and troubling, to say the least. On the one hand, his publications evince a healthy skepticism toward the moral claims made by empires, seeing in them engines of moral corruption, domestic tyranny, and rapacious conquest abroad. There are many passages in his works that might also suggest that he made claims against Britain’s Empire. Yet Ferguson’s career exemplified a consistent, indeed persistent, attachment to the material interests of Britain’s Empire. At least part of the reason for his prevarication, we think, is that Ferguson had a life-long attachment to war, and a deeply sentimental appraisal of the moral character of warriors, ancient and modern. This is a complicated story (on which Bruce has done some work in the past and is doing further research at the moment), but to cut a long story short, Ferguson viewed warfare as an index of civilization arguably more reliable as a guide to historical progress than mores, manners, or systems of government. If, in the course of historical progress, the brutal wars of Europe’s archaic, Homeric past had been civilized by modern laws and “lenitives” (to use Ferguson’s own phrase), warfare had also become less personal, detached from martial virtue. This was the challenge that Ferguson confronted in the “militia debate” of the 1750s and 1760s (about which John Robertson and Richard Sher have written): how to integrate the virtues of the archaic warrior in the context of modern civilized war? It was a challenge that spoke to his own experience as a Scotsman of Highland birth, a Gaelic speaker, who served in a Gaelic-speaking Highland regiment in service to the British imperial state. It was a challenge posed by European colonization in the Americas, and by conflict with First Nations warriors, who, Ferguson reflected repeatedly in his An Essay on the History of Civil Society, represented a model of “savage” martial virtue that “civilized” Europeans had lost. Ferguson did not say too much more than that about European pretensions to any rights of conquest, or about its actual conduct in the Americas or elsewhere, but it would be fair to conclude that he was aware that colonization was as much a moral as a military challenge; one in which the claims of First Nations warriors deserved to be taken seriously.

Against that backdrop, then, his late career sojourn to America with the Carlisle Commission presents another aspect of Ferguson’s thinking on war. Though the Commission deserves to be seen as a failure and a farce, Ferguson’s role in it deserves careful consideration. Whether or not he was an active participant in the Commission’s deliberations, he later explicitly affirmed its members’ decision to threaten a suspension of the laws of war in Britain’s conflict with its former American colonies. As Ferguson saw it, the colonists were “rebels” who had allied themselves with Britain’s archrival, France, and therefore had placed themselves beyond the bounds of the laws of war. Ferguson did not expand on this reasoning in his lectures, but his interpretation of the European tradition of writings on the laws of war since Grotius did make clear that “rebels” had no status among legitimate belligerents at war.  Here again Ferguson took part in a more general debate to be taken into account in Scotland, Europe, and beyond.

Ferguson had more to say about the conduct of the American war for independence much later in his career, but we think it is significant that his American sojourn left an imprint in his lectures in respect to his presentation of race. In this connection we would draw attention to two features of his thinking. First, that his manifest interest in the climatic determinants of race (though he frankly admitted uncertainties on this score) made him amenable to the already centuries-long anxiety that colonization would expose Europeans bred in more temperate climes to degenerating heat, cold, or humidity. Ferguson accepted the legitimacy of this concern, but he used his lectures in particular to emphasize the advantages presumed to accrue to the “European race” from their temperate climate, above all in supposing it bestowed greater ingenuity. It was for this reason that he argued Europeans were able to modify the worst effects of climate and thus to temper the potential for racial degeneration.

While these arguments can hardly be described as novel, we think their significance lies in their connection to a second aspect of Ferguson’s thought after he returned from America: his interest in the historic role of colonization. He was, of course, later to write on this in his celebrated History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic (1783). In his lectures, however, he elevated the ability of humans to form “settlements,” and to colonize new terrains, as an integral feature in the natural history of humanity—an exemplification of the progress humans were fitted by nature to make in taming nature, securing themselves, and extending their conquests. This is why we see Ferguson’s lectures on moral philosophy as such an important source of insight into his thinking at a time of considerable conceptual change in Scottish thought generally. It was here, in his lectures, that Ferguson taught cohorts of students to approach the great moral questions of their times, about war, colonization, and the fate of empire, through dual lenses of both history and natural history. By drawing them together and presenting them to his students, Ferguson sought nothing less than to illuminate the capabilities as well as the limitations of the races of “man.” 


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: Portrait of Adam Ferguson (1723–1816) by Henry Raeburn, c. 1790. Courtesy of the University of Edinburgh.