Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Misha Tadd on the Macro-History of the Laozi

Misha Tadd is an Associate Professor in the College of Philosophy at Nankai University. His research addresses pre-Qin and Han Daoist philosophy, comparative religion and philosophy, Traditional Laozegetics, and Global Laozegetics (a concept he developed). He has edited and translated multiple books (Parasites, Worms, and the Human Body in Religion and CultureOrder in Early Chinese Excavated TextsComprehensive Summary Collection of the Classics of Chinese Philosophy) and published in English journals like Diogenes and Religions and top Chinese journals like Philosophical Research, History of Chinese Philosophy,and Xinhua Digest. His recent focus is on cataloguing all the Laozi translations in the world (currently 2012 works in 95 languages) and establishing a worldwide network of scholars to study this Global Laozegetics.

Tadd spoke with contributing editor Grant Wong about his essay “Global Laozegetics: A Study in Globalized Philosophy,” which has appeared in the current issue of the JHI (83.1).


Grant Wong: In your article, you argue for considering Laozegetics (“the reception and interpretation of the Laozi in Chinese commentaries”) from a “global, transcultural, and interlinguistic” perspective. What do you feel we are missing in traditional studies of the Laozi when we constrain ourselves to a strictly Chinese approach? You also note that “with its shocking quantity and variety of translations, [the Laozi] indisputably belongs to the entire world.” What does it mean for a text like the Laozi to belong to a global heritage?

Misha Tadd: To start with, most research on the Laozi does not even consider the text’s evolution and transformation within the rich Chinese commentarial tradition and simply engages with intra-textual or historically contextualized analysis. Much is lost by not engaging the broader developments of the use and meaning of the text beyond its earliest beginnings. By imagining that the “original” is all that matters, we actually misunderstand how this foundational classic has impacted individual thinkers and cultural phenomena within Chinese civilization.

This observation is even more significant when we consider the text beyond the Sinographic-sphere—the historical East Asian world that used Chinese and could engage with the Laozi untranslated. If we want to fully comprehend the impact of the Laozi and its philosophy, we must investigate the different versions or interpretive transformations represented by various translations and who was reading which ones. For example, Kafka once wrote that “Laozi’s aphorisms are adamantine nuts. I am spellbound by them, but their kernel remains concealed from me” (Hellen Zhang’s translation). But which Laozi did he mean? Studying the “original” helps little in identifying what type of text people like that celebrated author have encountered. To do so, we must ascertain what translations they read and what philosophical visions were embedded therein. Without this foundational work, the rich life of the text and its travels will remain shallowly understood.

The question of the globalized status of the Laozi, or its “belonging to the entire world,” also relates back to the first question. The common methods of Laozi research miss our current reality. To pretend that this work is only a Chinese classic and not something that has grown much larger is to erase one of the most notable examples of textual translation, transmission, and transformation in human history. We might for example consider how the dissertation by Lucas Carmichael “The Daode jing as American Scripture” asserts that the Laozi (or Daodejing) has become functionally American according to how people produce and engage its many translations and adaptations. This manifestation of the classic reveals one instance of the text “belonging” to a society or community beyond China.

Of course, my claim of the Laozi’s global status relates to the text’s variety of different ways and forms it has engaged with people and places around the world. For example, in Indonesian the Laozi often appears as a work tied to the Chinese diaspora, like with the translations of the Tridharma Association, but also becomes localized via retranslating English versions (e.g. Filsafat Kehidupan Dalam Perspektif). In Iran, a country that enthusiastically engages the Laozi, with 43 translations in Persian, one finds the influence of Seyyed Hossein Nasr and his brand of Traditionalism. Nasr actually just published his Persian Laozi translation Tā’ū Tih Chīng: Ṭarīq wa Faḍā’il-i Ān, but it is based on a manuscript from the 1970s. That work represented the first translation into Persian and was part of a period of collaboration that introduced this classic to Iran. Also involved in this project was Toshihiko Izutsu, who wrote the related groundbreaking comparative philosophical work: Sufism and Taoism. Both Nasr and Izutsu engage the Laozi as a storehouse of human wisdom and not just a culturally specific record. It is this more universalist view that has propelled the Laozi to its global status and enabled people from all backgrounds to make the text their own.

GW: In your article you speak to an ever-widening “plurality of Global Laozegetics” created by repeated translations of the text which, in turn, create new meanings for the Laozi at a global scale. As these meanings continue to accrue through varying transcultural contexts, will it still be possible to recognize common intellectual threads among the differing interpretations? At what point is the original intent behind the Laozi overshadowed by our modern understandings of the text?

MT: Even if we bracket the general critique of the notion of original intent, it is quite common to understand this text as something edited and compiled over hundreds of years. Therefore, “original intent” might be only traced to the last major editor, but even if we accept this type of limited intent, it did not remain as the dominant voice of the work for long. This is why I use the language of Laozegetics. Even before the finalization of the canonical text, people were already transforming and interpreting its content in radically different ways. The Laozegetics perspective emphasizes that this is not a question of classical versus modern or East versus West. Rather, this is a circumstance where we have a particularly flexible and abstract work that draws out many different understandings.

To answer your question more directly, the initial usage of the text was overshadowed quite quickly, though exactly what that might be is still obscure. The earliest Laozi commentaries, “JieLao”and “Yu Lao,” are identified with Hanfeizi (c. 280–233 BC), a political thinker sometimes called the “Machiavelli of China.” They present a very hard-nosed political exegesis that is quite distinct from most contemporary readings of “the original.” But that is because the majority of modern scholars understand the Laozi through the lens of commentaries written hundreds of years later. Increased awareness of the impact of the commentarial and even translation tradition on how we imagine the original meaning is one of the great values in this broad research. To pretend to engage the text with untainted eyes is counterproductive, and the remedy is investigating all types of interpretations and their historical impacts.

GW: Throughout your article you detail how different philosophers have interpreted the Laozi from varying political perspectives. It seems as if many translators and readers have read their own meanings into the Laozi without regard to the original intent behind the text. What, then, makes the Laozi distinctive in its numerous translations? In other words, what makes the Laozi, across these translations, the Laozi?

MT: While I’m suspect of the concept of an “original,” there are degrees to which the commentators and translators either more closely follow the exact contents of the text or venture in more creative directions. I do not pass judgment on these different approaches, and I’m not sure why one philological hermeneutic is necessarily superior to any other. Certainly, if we take into consideration the Chinese pre-modern tradition, that is not the approach that would be considered “authentic.” For example, the Daoist priest Du Daojian (1237-1318) explained that the Laozi is not static but transforms with the times: “Han dynasty commentators produced the Han Laozi, Jin dynasty commentators produced the Jin Laozi, and Tang and Song dynasty commentators produced the Tang and Song Laozi” (Xuanjing yuanzhi fahui). This suggests the true “original” Chinese text was conceived as a living transforming manifestation of the Dao in the world.

Of course, in the midst of so many transformations, what remains the same? Why refer to the translated or reinterpreted texts by the same name? There are two sides to this question. First is the issue of content; second is the question of form. Regarding content, it is possible to read the text against its more literal meaning, but at certain points this becomes quite difficult without completely rewriting the work. Most frequently the radical interpretations identify a few concepts or passages as the core and read everything from that perspective. For a text like the Laozi, this is almost a necessity. As I mentioned before, there are different layers of material edited together, and as a result the reader must construct coherency. Still, continuity remains. Regardless of the different metaphysics or political ideologies seen within the text, there exists a consistency in regard to the hidden nature of things, a subversion of language or logic, a critique of selfish humanity, a tendency away from violence, and an ideal of indirect use of power. Regarding form, there is a point in translation especially when the text becomes something different, it becomes rewritten or reimagined to a degree that the result can only be called Laozi-inspired. The exact border between these two manifestations remains murky. To be honest, I have not yet found the perfect standard to delineate the more creative translations from merely related works. For now, I consider the traditional eighty-one chapter divisions, or the basic content of said chapters, to be a useful measure. However, not all Chinese texts and editions include that full content, so this is a topic that deserves continued reflection.

GW: As you note in your article, there exist to your count “2000 translations in 94 languages” of the Laozi. This is a massive base of sources for any one scholar to study, especially given the translations’ varying philosophical, temporal, cultural, and linguistic contexts. Considering these challenges, where do you see yourself taking future research on the Laozi? Are there any particular intellectual trends within these translations that you plan to focus on?

MT: My article is a preliminary macro-history of the Laozi in translation that emerged while building a bibliography of all such translations. That bibliographic work continues with a plan of publication in 2022. Since I submitted the article’s final draft, I’ve already identified twelve new translations and one new language (Kyrgyz). The finalized bibliography will provide a foundation for all people interested in such research, the numbers of which are already growing. Last year, I hosted “The International Conference on Global Laozegetics” at Nankai University; it included over 40 scholars from 12 countries. The goal was to initiate a large dialogue between scholars of the Laozi text from China and those operating in all types of languages like Slovakian, Danish, Thai, Urdu, and Latin. This project brought together experts in language, translation studies, cultural studies, philosophy, and philology. Bridging these disciplinary divides presented challenges, but the event was quite successful. As a result, Nankai University’s College of Philosophy is planning to establish “The Global Laozegetics Research Center.” This platform will facilitate the gathering of people from around the world to investigate the totality of the history and philosophical significance of the Laozi in its many forms.

Therefore, the future of this research relates both to building a new field of study and to developing my own individual projects. For the former, I will be guest editing a special issue for the journal Religions on “Global Laozegetics” in May this year to more fully begin the conversation. For the latter, one of many examples is a study of Stanislas Julien’s 1842 French Laozi, called Le livre de la voie et la vertu,that traces which traditional commentaries inspired the translations of individual passages and then tracks the lineages of those interpretations trans-lingually. Basically, this means mapping interconnections between Chinese and non-Chinese Laozegetics. In summation, Global Laozegetics is a quickly developing direction of research that offers rich opportunities for scholars from multiple specialties using varied methodologies. All are encouraged to participate in this expansive endeavor.

Grant Wong is a Ph.D. student of twentieth-century American popular culture at the University of South Carolina. He is particularly interested in how popular culture in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s manifested itself in all aspects of American life, especially within music, capitalism, thought, and youth culture. Grant’s writing can be found in Slate and PopMatters.

Featured Image: Nicholas Roerich, “Laozi,” 1924. Courtesy of WikiArt.

Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Karie Schultz on Early Modern University Education

Karie Schultz is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of St Andrews (2021-2024) with research interests in the relationship between theology and political thought in early modern Britain and Europe. Her current project examines seventeenth-century Catholic and Reformed student mobility from the British Isles to Europe with a specific focus on confessional and national identity formation. She completed her PhD at Queen’s University Belfast in 2020, followed by a nine-month fellowship at the British School at Rome. Her first monograph, Protestantism, Revolution and Scottish Political Thought: The European Context, 1637-1651 is forthcoming with Edinburgh University Press.

Schultz spoke with contributing editor Pranav Jain about her essay “Protestant Intellectual Culture and Political Ideas in the Scottish Universities, ca. 1600–50,” which has appeared in the current issue of the JHI (83.1).


Pranav Jain: I appreciated the point in your article that historians should look beyond printed sources, especially to student notebooks and theses. Apart from the themes that you have covered in this essay, what else can we glean from such sources about early modern universities and other subjects?

Karie Schultz: Although sources from the early modern universities—student notebooks, lecture notes, disputations, and philosophical theses—are linguistically and paleographically challenging, they are highly valuable for several reasons. First, they provide critical insights into multiple aspects of university education in the early modern period. Although I use these sources in the article to examine the teaching of ethical and political doctrines, this material provides information about other university subjects (philosophy, theology, logic, and metaphysics). They are an incredibly rich source base for understanding how Scottish intellectual culture developed across multiple disciplines, and they help us situate Scotland within broader European intellectual trends. Lecture notes, student notebooks, and theses also reveal similarities and differences in how regents taught their students about philosophical, theological, and ethical doctrines. They demonstrate how multiple strands of Protestant thought arose within a shared Aristotelian curriculum, especially as Scots attempted to forge a confessional orthodoxy after the Reformation of 1560.  

Second, although this article focuses specifically on the Reformed universities and Protestant intellectual culture, such sources also exist for Catholic institutions across Europe. For example, lecture notes, student notebooks, and disputations survive from the Collegio Romano (the precursor to the modern Pontifical Gregorian University), a Jesuit-run institution that trained Catholic students of different nationalities who came to study in Rome. Upon completing their education, these Catholic students took up careers of political or religious prominence, often in diplomacy, the mission field, or the priesthood. An emphasis on Aristotelian texts and a sustained interest in doctrines about civic life (similar to those advanced in sources from the Scottish universities) also appeared within lecture notes and student notebooks from the Collegio Romano. These sources therefore provide a valuable perspective on similarities and differences in how Reformed and Catholic students were educated to think about politics, theology, ethics, and philosophy in the early modern period.

Lastly, these sources are valuable beyond the university context and help us to better understand the transmission of ideas on a broader social basis. While printed works instrumentally shaped public opinion and created spheres for popular debate in the early modern period, focusing only on printed texts provides little analysis of how religious and political orthodoxies were taught to a significant proportion of the population. The focus on printed works has thus left a fundamental gap in our understanding of early modern intellectual culture, especially regarding how university-educated individuals thought about political duties in a century dominated by instability and civil strife. Furthermore, early modern universities were wealthy, powerful, and culturally significant institutions. Like their Catholic contemporaries, students in Reformed universities frequently took up prominent positions in the community as statesmen, diplomats, lawyers, ministers, or university regents. Through these positions, they could transmit the ideas they learned in the universities to the wider population through sermons, print, and ordinary conversations. For this reason, examining the doctrines that university students were taught about ethics, philosophy, and theology (whether in Scotland or beyond) is essential for understanding the establishment of confessional and political orthodoxies after the Reformation.

PJ: Both historically and historiographically, does your interpretation of Protestant intellectual life in the early seventeenth century apply to educational institutions beyond Scotland, especially those in continental Europe?

KS: Yes, the interpretation of Protestant intellectual life that I advance in the article—one characterized by complex Augustinian and Aristotelian strains of thought about human engagement in politics—applies to educational institutions beyond Scotland. Reformed universities across Europe had a shared Aristotelian framework for the curriculum, even though methodologies might differ. Students educated in European institutions engaged with the same philosophical, theological, and political ideas as students educated in the Scottish universities. Although historians of the Scottish universities have long confronted the misconception that these institutions were intellectually stagnant prior to the Enlightenment, we are increasingly acknowledging that they operated on the cutting edge of the philosophical and theological debates taking place within the British Isles and in continental Europe. Early modern universities were also highly transnational with significant amounts of student mobility. Students from Scotland frequently traveled abroad to receive part (if not all) of their education at universities in Europe. For example, John Forbes of Corse, the leader of the so-called ‘Aberdeen Doctors,’ studied at Heidelberg under David Pareus where he began to develop his ideas about religious irenicism and the unification of the Protestant nations of Europe. The movement of students and regents across the continent meant that the students and regents at the Scottish universities participated in a shared Protestant intellectual culture that extended beyond their own borders.

Furthermore, the political and ethical doctrines considered by students and regents in the Scottish universities have connections to broader Reformed intellectual traditions across Europe. Scholars have long been interested in the relationship between early modern Reformed intellectuals and the political ideas underlying the modern secular state. In this article, I argue that complex Augustinian and Aristotelian strands of thought about human nature and political life permeated university education. Even though students in Scotland studied at confessionalized universities and were taught Reformed theology, they were not predetermined to think about human nature and the purpose of the temporal kingdom in one specific way. This was also certainly the case in Europe where Reformed students received a similar education in theology, philosophy, and ethics which resulted in multiple perspectives on human nature and political life. Importantly, this challenges the notion that there was one consistent body of Reformed political thought emerging from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that laid the foundations for the modern secular state.

PJ: At the end of the essay, you suggest that “the teaching of ethics and politics within the Scottish universities therefore provided students with a variegated intellectual framework for approaching political life, one that they adapted to create their own languages of political legitimacy during the civil wars of the 1640s.” Can you elaborate on what these languages were, and whether they survived the upheavals of the civil wars? 

KS: One primary purpose of university education in seventeenth-century Scotland was to teach students how to live as good and godly subjects in the temporal kingdom. Above all, Scots aimed to establish a nation covenanted with God, and they used university education to instill godly values in their students. However, what it meant to be a godly subject who obeyed God’s commandments for political life varied for Scots, especially during the civil wars of the 1640s. On the one hand, some Scots emphasized human depravity and the need for obedience to civil government, a position that reflected the profound influence of Augustinian ideas on Reformed intellectual culture. Many Scottish royalists, such as John Maxwell, the Aberdeen Doctors, and John Corbet, argued that God ordained government to control human sinfulness and wickedness. As a result, subjects had a primary duty of obedience in the temporal kingdom, whereby they obeyed all laws and the king as God’s regent on earth. Such ideas about obedience and passivity in political life, ones which were derived from viewing government as a tool for restraining sinfulness, thus resonated with the Augustinian emphasis on human depravity that circulated in the Scottish universities.

On the other hand, many Covenanter leaders embraced a form of limited or constitutional monarchy, whereby Parliament and civil law ruled above the king. They emphasized rational human participation in political life, arguing that God allowed human beings to mediate his original power by electing and deposing their magistrates using their reason. The king’s power was legitimate only insofar as he upheld his covenant with God and the people to be a godly and just ruler. If he failed to do so, God called subjects to resistance and active engagement in reconstituting governments. The different perspectives on human nature and political participation that were discussed in the universities therefore gave royalists and Covenanters the language necessary to debate the legitimacy of political authority during the civil wars. The political ideas that emerged from these conversations (absolute sovereignty, consent of the governed, the right of self-defense) are now regarded as the building blocks of the modern secular state. As such, the languages of political legitimacy advanced in the civil wars (ones which were intrinsically connected to the teaching of ethics in the universities) persisted beyond the 1640s, making an awareness of how ideas about human engagement in political life were taught in the universities all the more vital.

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

Featured Image: Glasgow University around 1650. From James Howie, The Scots Worthies (1876). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Daniele Iozzia on Faith and Philosophy in Late Antiquity

Daniele Iozzia is Research Fellow of History of Ancient Philosophy, Department of Humanities, University of Catania, Italy, where he also teaches ancient philosophy and aesthetics at the MA level. He has published widely on Plotinus and his legacy, Christian Platonism, and art history.

Iozzia spoke with contributing editor Elsa Costa about his essay “A Beginner’s Success: The Impact of Plotinus’s First Treatise among Christians,” which has appeared in the current issue of the JHI (83.1).


Elsa Costa: Your fascinating article alludes to two schools of historiography regarding “Patristic Platonism,” the literary and philosophical-theological allusions to Plato and Platonism in the Church Fathers. One faction focuses on the essentially instrumental use of Plato and Plotinus by the Fathers, emphasizing that despite the deployment of “Hellenic philosophical tools,” the early Christians stayed ideologically pure, as it were, avoiding Platonic beliefs which would be problematic for Christian cosmology, such as the eternity of matter or the preexistence of the soul. The other faction stresses the intellectual porousness and sociological interchange between early Christianity and Neoplatonism throughout late antiquity. You acknowledge the truth in both points of view: while the Fathers did not attempt to rationalize the Neoplatonic beliefs which were most incompatible with Christianity, Platonic thought introduced early Christians to entirely new areas of philosophical inquiry, most notably speculation on beauty and its relationship with goodness. The article demonstrates the presence of the Plotinian theory of beauty in Gregory of Nyssa, his brother Basil of Caesarea, their friend Gregory Nazianzen, and also in Augustine. Let me start by asking you how you came to settle on the question of beauty and, as an extension of this question, asking you what would have been different in the greater development of Christianity if the Cappadocian Fathers had not given such weight to Plotinus’s On Beauty (Enneads I.6).

Daniele Iozzia: Thank you Elsa, I think that you capture the essence of the issue quite accurately. In my opinion, the sort of distinction that we use between faith and philosophy does not apply to Late Antiquity, especially if we consider the strong influence of religious texts and notions in Neoplatonism after Plotinus. The general syncretism of the age does not apply only to pagan philosophers but also to Christian thinkers. In this sense, at least starting with Origen, my impression is that some Christian thinkers felt the need to step up their game, so to speak, in order to adopt a language and some concepts which were philosophically sound. The publication of Plotinus’ writings was in this sense instrumental, as a good part of what was in them could be adapted to a Christian vision of the world. The issue of beauty, in particular, must have had an appeal which was connected in the first instance with the effect that it has on the soul, that is with eros, the desire for the divine beauty which is one of the focuses of Gregory of Nyssa’s speculation and also of Augustine’s. I have been interested in these themes since I started studying Gregory of Nyssa and have been fascinated by how Plotinus’ language has been assimilated into Christian mystical reflection. It does make one wonder how much the development of certain Christian themes, in particular regarding ascetic life and the rejection of the material world, would have been different if it wasn’t for Plotinus and in general for a Platonism based on the dualistic approach of the Phaedo. I guess, for example, that the use of an erotic language to describe the mystical union of the soul with the divine might have been less acceptable if the Christians hadn’t read a similar approach in Plato and Plotinus. It is certainly true that this theme can be found in Paul’s letters but the tone in Gregory of Nyssa and, to a lesser extent, in Augustine is distinctly Platonic and Plotinian.

EC: One subplot in the article is the “asceticizing” of Platonic thought over time, which, while an important contribution to early monasticism, began as a pagan phenomenon and later took place across both pagan and Christian vectors. Plotinus, writing in the third century, sharpened the part of Plato’s thought that defines union with the divine as the culmination of eros, downplaying other, “lower” forms of love between human beings. This makes his work a practical manual on how to achieve philosophical henosis as well as a set of cosmological claims. Even in On Beauty, as you say, he’s recommending a particular ascetic lifestyle at the same time as he’s defining beauty. This is very attractive to the Cappadocian Fathers a century later as philosophical reinforcement for the Christian tradition of prayer and contemplation. Can you elaborate on the “ascetic turn” in late classical antiquity that influenced Plotinus and led to his work becoming so popular among both pagans and Christians?

DI: Indeed it is an issue which we need to address from a fresher perspective, trying to be impartial and not to support one or the other of the factions that you mentioned before. There are many elements at stake here, some historical, some anthropological, and some subtly psychological. It would be interesting, for example, to address the issue of asceticism and mysticism from a gender perspective, not in the sense of the different attitudes to ascetic life according to gender (which is fascinating in itself) but from the point of view of the identification of the individual soul with a feminine principle. Origen, Plotinus, Gregory of Nyssa, they all approach the reflection on divine union from the perspective of the eros of the soul—and the soul is described in feminine terms. For the Christians, this is also a consequence of the allegorical exegesis of the Song of Songs, while in Plotinus it could be the result of what we would now call a heteronormative re-reading of Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus. It is all open to discussion, of course, but I think that it’s worthy of a deeper investigation. In general, that unease with the material world that is such a feature of Late Antique civilization is quite clearly found in Plotinus’ thought. We cannot ascertain where and why it initially started, but we can see that it spread to every aspect of life and culture, from philosophy and religion to visual art, where the preference for effects of light and color as opposed to volume and perspective is startling and in line with Plotinus’ view on beauty.

EC: Since Late Antiquity, there have been moments at which the beauty of creation and the wonder aroused by it have become disproportionately important in Christian writing, for example during the Renaissance of the Twelfth Century and then again, perhaps more culturally than philosophically, during the Renaissance proper and into the Baroque. Today, however, when scholars and public figures talk about beauty, it often seems to be a shibboleth for a certain strain of reactionary thought, mostly secular, which only seems to see beauty in the cultural output of the recent European past. At times we also see a vulgarized version of this discourse on the far right. But we almost never see progressives talk about beauty, and it is also uncommon to see it given much attention in mainstream Christianity. Amidst this polarization, do you think that it could be beneficial for Christians and others to reclaim beauty as something political neutral and culturally universal?

DI: Thank you so much for this question, as the issue strikes me personally. The contemporary kalliphobia, to borrow a term from Arthur Danto, is the (almost pathological) result of the complex attitudes of the avant-garde artists in response to the failures of society at the beginning of the twentieth century. It is sad that, as a consequence of this, appreciation of beauty has become tainted with an ideological association. This has happened also to the notion of classicism, nowadays interpreted as a conservative aesthetic preference, while in fact in the past (I think of the mid-eighteenth century, for example) it was connected to progressive policies and visions of the world. Beauty is part of human experience and still remains, for example, one of the most powerful tools in marketing and advertising. In Platonic terms, it provokes a desire which is not simply of the senses but of the entire being. We would live in a very sad world indeed if we were to be deprived of the right to enjoy beauty. Beauty, of course, comes in a huge variety of guises, which is something that maybe a Platonic view fails to understand, as the experience of what is beautiful, in Plato, seems to be objective and always the same, while we know that this is not the case. Plotinus, in fact, meant to widen our perception of beauty. Nowadays, the striving for diversity and inclusion in the canons of beauty, even in entertainment and marketing, I think, goes in the right direction. In art and architecture, the problem is much more complex, and it’s hard to find common ground for an evaluation of beauty. However, if we consider the original sense of the Greek term kalon, we can see that it expresses a combination of function and appropriateness which, for example, can still be applied to architecture. It is interesting, after all, that in Plato’s Hippias Major we can see a discussion, although somewhat ironic, of the beauty of what we would now call the design of a functional object (Hipp. Major 288d-e). Despite the fact that nowadays the connection between beauty and art is lost and deemed meaningless, we still use the attribute of beauty for an object of design, a film or a song, because beauty is intrinsic to human existence and experience. In this, Plato and the Platonists, pagan and Christian, still have something relevant to say.

Elsa Costa is a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University, where she also received her Ph.D in 2021. Her research focuses on the evolution of theories of sovereignty in the early modern Ibero-American world, and she has published on a range of topics in the history of European and Latin American philosophy.

Featured Image: Portrait of Plotinus, courtesy of Wikimedia.

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).


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).

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).


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.

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). 


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.