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The Mahabharata in Modern Intellectual History: Perspectives from South Asia, Europe, and East Asia

By Contributing Writer Michael Kinadeter

The conference “The Mahabharata in Modern Intellectual History: Perspectives from South Asia, Europe, and East Asia” organized by Milinda Banerjee at LudwigMaximilians-Universität Munich on 24 November 2018, addressed the dearth of academic engagement with the Indian epic, the Mahabharata, from the perspective of modern global intellectual history. The edited volume Political Thought in Action (S. Kapila, F. Devji: 2013) constitutes a rare exception in this regard, given that the bulk of scholarship on the Mahabharata (subsequently Mbh) tends to concentrate on premodern Indian history. Academic research on the Mbh in its many written, oral, and performed versions not only has historical value, but contemporary relevance, given that the Mbh has profoundly influenced modern politics in South Asia; in fact, it still significantly shapes public discourses in the subcontinent and intellectual-cultural debates globally. To analyze the manifold reception histories of the epic, scholars need to weave together approaches from multiple disciplines, including global intellectual history, Indology, philosophy, literary studies, and political theory.

Paulus Kaufmann (University of Zurich) and Philipp Sperner (Munich University) examined the transnational significance of the Mbh as evident from its reception in German philosophy. Kaufmann noted the tendency to neglect non-Western philosophers in German histories of philosophy, with the ambivalent reception of the Mbh providing a paradigmatic exemplar. Kaufmann chose Hegel as an example of a critical, yet informed, philosopher interested in Indian thought. Hegel’s main critiques of the Mbh, which Kaufmann identified as the “argument from lack of freedom and the argument from lack of systematicity,” led to vivid discussions during the workshop regarding the distinction of philosophy from other areas of intellectual creativity.[Unbekannt1]  Kaufmann argued that discussions on systematicity and traditions of dialectical reasoning can offer insight into how a philosophical corpus can be distinguished within the vast amount of (Indian) literature; in the process, misperceptions about Indian philosophy in Hegelian and European thought can also be more comprehensively addressed.

Sperner chose a deliberately achronological approach to point out not only the possible influences from India on German Romanticism and vice versa, but also how the Mbh was “considered as a quintessential example of a national epic, even before most other European nations discovered their national epics in the course of the 19th century.” He focused on the understanding of the Mbh as a national epic and the subsequent political implications. His comparison was based on Friedrich Schlegel’s On the language and wisdom of the Indians (1808) and Maithilisharan Gupt’s Bharat Bharati (1912). Schlegel not only significantly shaped debates about cultural nationalism in Europe and the role that German romanticism and folk literature played in its formation – which, according to Sperner, prefigured the emergence of similar ideas later in Indian nationalism –, but was himself foundationally inspired by his engagement with Indian history and textual culture. Similarly, Gupt, the first Hindi poet to be called rashtra kavi (national poet), put major emphasis on anti-colonial themes of Indian identity and national unity. He deployed ‘historical’ examples from the Mbh to place the concept of the epic at the center of Indian nationalism in Hindi-language discourses.

Meanwhile Egas Moniz-Bandeira (Autonomous University of Madrid) and Melanie J. Müller (Munich University) dealt with the uses and representations of the epic since the turn of the 20th century. Moniz-Bandeira traced its philosophical impact among intellectuals in China and Japan, where Okakura Kakuzō, Liu Shipei, and others examined the historical relationship between India and East Asia. Interest about India was fostered by several factors such as its colonial status, seen as a warning to East Asians, and the wish to find common traditions in the face of European imperialism. Several intellectuals maintained private exchanges with Indians, in which they discussed politics. International connections like these led to publications in Tokyo, where Indian and Chinese students gathered and authors such as Su Manshu and Liu Shipei wrote about Indian classics, while revolutionary authors among them emphasized India as the origin of cultural goods and philosophy.

Müller examined the “production of the ideal woman” through the Mbh. She alluded to Gandhi’s movement, which included women in the non-violent struggle for independence, although Gandhi dismissed the importance of education for women and failed to adequately consider their economic situation and their position within the family and in broader society. Gandhi emphasized the supposed ability of women to suffer silently, their non-violence as well as their alleged moral superiority over men. In contrast, the entrance of women into the public sphere required stronger prototypes to inspire, shape, and revise the ideas of gender roles. Here, the figure of Draupadi from the Mbh offered a powerful exemplar for women seeking a more active role in society and politics. Müller emphasized how Draupadi and other female characters from the Mbh motivated the fashioning of women’s voices and feminist literature in India. Such characters inspired women with values such as an activist sense of justice and self-determination. A typical example of a feminist retelling of the Mbh, as Müller pointed out, can be found in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions (2009).

Milinda Banerjee (Munich University) traced the role of the Mbh in the emergence of sovereignty in modern Bengal from the late 19th century. After the Imperial Assemblage in 1877 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s assumption of the title of Empress of India, British and pro-colonial Indian writers often legitimized the British colonial state as the restoration of the kingdom of Yudhishthira, described in the Mbh. In response, anti-colonial writers started their dialectical engagement, unwilling to submit to the unrighteous and exploitative British rule. This struggle gave rise to modern Bengali ideas of national sovereignty, partly based on the Mbh: a law-based national state, where law represented the codified will of God. Many Bengali intellectuals imagined the Indian nation on the basis of dharmarajya, the ideal ancient kingly state, unified by one king, one God and one law. From the 1910s, the Mbh became a source for political theories of social contract, as Indian thinkers demanded democratic rights on the basis of (supposedly ancient) constitutionalist ideas. Simultaneously, the epic inspired peasants and anti-colonial revolutionaries in their class-fight and struggle for political freedom. Bengali feminist writers and dramatists also re-interpreted the Mbh from the 1970s onwards, to seek women’s autonomy. Banerjee argued that the political interpretations of the Mbh opened up a gap between sovereignty and justice in their very attempt to locate what was right and just; it was through this epistemic opening that new notions of autonomy and demands for social progress could arise. Banerjee rounded up the discussion by noting how Bengali thinkers associated with the Subaltern Studies and postcolonial thought – especially Ranajit Guha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak – have brought the MBh into conversation with Hegel in recent decades, to produce new horizons of critical political and social theory.

In his presentation, Simon Cubelic (Heidelberg University) described the “political idiom in Nepal’s time of crisis” during the first half of the 19th century, a period often wrongly portrayed as “prepolitical”. Considering the struggles in Nepal due to unstable politics, infant monarchs, territorial expansion, and British colonial politics, Cubelic examined how Nepalese intellectuals responded to the crisis through the lens of the Mbh. The royal preceptor and later prime minister Ranga Nath Poudyal alluded to the Sanskritic state theory of the saptangas, describing the ideal qualities of the king and his ministers, to justify the restoration of the righteous monarch. He propagated his ideas of kingship based on descriptions from the Mbh; later the same text was used to determine the relationship between Brahmins and the king, and to reject polemics against Brahmins and to provide justification for their status, in a political situation when land-giving to Brahmins was problematized. Both presentations, by Banerjee and by Cubelic, described how the ancient classic was used on purpose to justify and re-define political concepts and relationships in modern South Asia.

Finally, Shuvatri Dasgupta (University of Cambridge) chose to combine the overlapping angles of literary studies, ethics, anthropology and history. She used the Mbh to raise the question of how the representation, translation, the selective reproduction, and adoption of a text like the Mbh shapes the reception, understanding, and function of the text. The Mbh exists in manifold versions, from being a popular love-story for a broad audience to a modern, educational version as “Gita for Girls”, or “Mahabharata for Boys” in the 20th century. Drawing specific attention to the obliteration of Draupadi’s menstrual politics in these retellings of the Mbh, Dasgupta indicated ways to rethink the concepts of the ‘political’ in the Mbh. Through constant and ever-changing re-creation, Dasgupta argued, a text leaves its past behind in the process of constant re-invention and re-interpretation. This ultimately dissolves the binary between the reader and the author within the larger discursive space.

The idea of taking into account different aspects and new angles on the Mahabharata was constantly present throughout the workshop. Its significance was discussed in terms of political, literary, and gender- or class-based terms, even though only a fractional amount of its extensive modern representations and reception could be covered. However, the task at hand was primarily to highlight the benefits of studying the Mbh in the broader context of Global Intellectual History, rather than providing sufficient answers. To invite the academic audience to join in and further develop this research on the Mahabharata, a publication is currently being planned.

Michael Kinadeter is a PhD student in Japanese studies and Buddhist
studies at Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich. His research interests are Japanese history and East-Asian religions (Shinto, Buddhism). His current dissertation project is a comparative study of Buddhist commentaries and their reception, based on Medieval manuscripts of the Buddhist Sanron school in Japan. You can reach him via email to

Classics Conferences JHI

May 3, 2019 Lovejoy Lecture (Philadelphia)

For those in Philadelphia on May 3rd, feel warmly welcome to attend the 2019 Lovejoy Lecture, sponsored by the JHI. Professor Joy Connolly will discuss “Agency and Imagination in the Making of Classical Canons,” harmonizing with the theme of the JHI Graduate Symposium taking place that day.



Conferences JHI

Inaugural JHI Graduate Symposium

With the support of the Penn History Department and Penn SASGov, we are delighted to announce the program for our inaugural graduate symposium. All are warmly invited to attend the three panels as well as the afternoon workshops, which will convene small groups to focus on workshopping article-length papers for a given panel. To attend one of these workshops and receive its pre-circulated papers, please RSVP by April 29 to

JHI Graduate Student Symposium Program

Conferences gender German history Human Rights Right wing

Unlearning Eugenics in Post-Nazi Europe

By guest contributor Jonathon Catlin

The New York Consortium for Intellectual History recently hosted Dagmar Herzog (CUNY) for a discussion of her new book, Unlearning Eugenics: Sexuality, Reproduction, and Disability in Post-Nazi Europe (Wisconsin, 2018). Three scholars offered responses: Danilyn Rutherford (Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research), Johanna Schoen (Rutgers), and Moira Weigel (Harvard), all introduced by Stefanos Geroulanos (NYU). A recording of the event provided by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s George Mosse Program appears at the end of this article. Herzog’s recent discussion on New Books Network is linked here.

Dagmar Herzog’s provocative new book is based on the George L. Mosse Lectures she delivered at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in December 2016. In the acknowledgements, Herzog makes a fitting homage to Mosse’s pioneering work on European cultural history and the history of sexuality. Yet Herzog breaks new ground by illuminating the under-studied—but, as she shows, decisive—subject of disability rights. Unlearning Eugenics is a politically shrewd and empathetically attuned culmination of the distinctive critical approach combining attention to sexuality, religion, and the politics of memory we have come to recognize in Herzog’s work since her landmark Sex after Fascism: Memory and Morality in Twentieth-Century Germany (Princeton, 2005). It also proves as essential as her Doktormutter Joan W. Scott’s recent intervention Sex and Secularism (Princeton, 2017) for understanding the complex nexus of religion and sexuality in contemporary Europe.

Unlearning Eugenics tells the surprising story of how two progressive and traditionally allied causes, women’s reproductive rights and disability rights, have become pitted against one another. Since the 1990s, anti-abortion activists across Europe (and now in the U.S. as well) have successfully promoted “restrictions on sexual and reproductive self-determination as justice for the physically and cognitively disabled” (3). Taboos about Nazi eugenics have become a key weapon in the arsenal of the religious right’s campaign to restrict abortion access by conflating abortion on the grounds of fetal anomaly with Nazi eugenics and mass murders of the disabled. Herzog provides a convincing genealogy of this this false association (after all, the Nazis restricted and penalized abortions), with each turn of her narrative unraveling this dubious connection stitch by stitch. In the process, she illustrates the “contrapuntal relationship between different moments in time” and profound “ricochets and repercussions” of the Nazi past in contemporary Europe (10).

Antiabortion demonstrators in Warsaw, June 2011, with banners of bloody fetuses and Adolf Hitler as an abortionist. In the foreground, a feminist counter-demonstrator raises a poster declaring, “Life for fetuses / Death to women,”  feminist activists’ summation of the new law proposed in Poland that would have banned all abortions without exception.

The epicenter of these debates was postwar West Germany, where among Protestants and Catholics alike “early pride in having protested the so-called euthanasia murders was generally combined with the message that sexual conservatism needed to be restored and that above all abortion—on any grounds—must remain criminalized” (4). From Germany, to Italy, to France, völkisch anxiety about falling birthrates carried over from the fascist era and in some respects even intensified. Meanwhile, other religious groups defended reproductive self-determination as a moral right in itself, arguing that “‘wantedness’ is a foundational condition of the human quality of human life and that this condition cannot be forced via the threat of punishment” (27). On both sides of the debate, arguments about abortion were haunted by “the persistence of contempt for the disabled” and an inability “to argue straightforwardly for women’s rights to sexual pleasure without reproductive consequences. Abortion quite evidently was never just about itself” (16).

In the 1960s, thousands of highly publicized cases of birth defects caused by the morning sickness pill thalidomide helped legalize abortion in the UK, the first country in Western Europe outside of Scandinavia to fully decriminalize abortion in 1967; they made the “eugenic indication” for fetal health included in the law “appear to be imperative and self-evidently moral” (29). Yet such campaigns shot themselves in the foot with their often “disdainful, unempathetic tone, treating disability as a tragedy for families and a burden for societies” (9). Decades later, fetal anomaly went from being a widely accepted ground for abortion to being “a new entry point for regenerating a sense of moral conflictedness about abortion in general.” By the 2000s, “it was becoming unmistakable that unreflected insensitivities inherent in the prochoice rhetoric of the 1960s–1970s had come to haunt the abortion politics of the twenty-first century.”

The 1989 “Singer Affair” explored in Herzog’s second chapter was a high point of these debates. German disability rights advocates invited the Australian philosopher and animal rights activist Peter Singer to discuss his defense of infanticide for severely disabled infants on the grounds of preventing unnecessary suffering. The tremendous backlash that ensued ended in all but one of Singer’s appearances in Germany being canceled due to protestors—ranging from religious groups to an AIDS victims’ organization—who invoked the lessons of Nazi eugenics. Singer’s host retorted that “it was the critics’ refusal to let Singer speak that was best compared to the Nazis’ ‘burning of books.’” (Singer’s parents were Jewish refugees from Vienna and three of his grandparents were murdered in the Shoah.) For some, the Singer affair revealed “the immaturity of moral reasoning abilities in West German society in comparison with the rest of the West, a lamentable and inappropriate oversensitivity that led to ‘thought and discussion taboo[s],’ an incapacity to confront the genuine and inescapable challenges brought by technological advances and crises of extremity of suffering at either end of life” (49).

While the backlash was excessive, Singer courted it with his inflammatory conclusions. His radical utilitarianism led him to insist that pre-intelligent infants and severely cognitively disabled adults were not “persons,” while intelligent non-human animals were; hence “the life of a newborn baby is of less value than the life of a pig, dog, or a chimpanzee” (59). Singer had in fact used growing moral acceptance of abortion fought for by feminists as a “springboard” for his defense of ethical cases of infanticide; but by his then “actively blurring the boundary between abortion and infanticide,” Herzog writes, “feminists would lose the ability to retain the—morally crucial—distinction between an abortion on grounds of anticipated disability and an infanticide.”

Memorial for the Victims of National Socialist Euthanasia Killings (2014), Berlin, designed by Ursula Wilms, Heinz Hallmann, and Nikolaus Koliusis. Image courtesy of DPA.

Throughout the book, Herzog applauds the struggles of radical disability rights activists to have Nazi eugenics, euthanasia, and forced sterilization recognized as “racial” policies, which would grant their victims recognition as part of the Holocaust and make them eligible for reparations.

In this ongoing struggle, many disability rights activists rejected being “instrumentalized” by anti-abortion groups, who they accused of indifference toward the “‘social euthanasia’ stigmatizing disabled adults” (p. 60). Gisel Hermes, an activist in the German “radical cripple” movement, denounced the way “we are so apparently being used as show-pieces for an action that trivializes the fascist crimes against the disabled” and the fact that “for the opponents of abortion, only the unborn, and not the born life, appears worthy of protection” (p. 61). Herzog is quick to note the hypocrisy here: many on the right calling for abortion restrictions in the name of disability rights also advocate austerity that undermines social programs enabling differently abled adults to live flourishing lives. Thus it is not easy to determine where disability rights are “sincere” or have been “instrumentalized” (p. 34). In both cases, Herzog criticizes “romanticized” depictions of disability, noting that many activists with firsthand experience of the burdens disabilities may carry advocate a woman’s right to make an informed choice about abortion, taking into account her circumstances and resources. Against paternalistic moral dogmatism, Herzog emphasizes that disability is not only a matter of conception and birth; it has lifelong consequences for differently abled people, their network of family and caregivers, and the welfare states that support them. Eschewing simplistic solutions, Herzog calls for information, understanding, and empathy amidst the anguishing personal decisions many women are faced with in the course of pregnancies.


Cartoon by John Francis Borra for the American Christian anti-abortion group Operation Rescue (2007)

Unlearning Eugenics also delves into the “post-secularism” debate by illustrating “the growing success of an energetically politicized postmodern religiosity in advancing its agendas in secular moral language” (6). Religious political parties played a strong role in postwar West Germany, where, “to legalize abortion… opponents of abortion had contended in the 1970s, would be ‘the most disturbing attack on the moral foundations of our society since 1945’ and ‘the largest Auschwitz in European history’” (28). In France, the republican doctrine of laïcité (secularism) compelled analogous movements to frame their moral crusade in secular terms, and so oftentimes “reference to the horrors of Nazism fulfilled the moral function” (29). Yet Herzog argues that such cases are not so much indications of secularism as of “postmodern” “religious renewal” (17).

Herzog’s final chapter explores how activists turned to strains of psychoanalysis and French poststructuralist theory that reconceptualized agency for differently abled lives. For example, the notions of “supported decision-making” and “assisted freedom” may support the right of disabled individuals to vote (85). Similarly, “the locus of… personhood is dispersed” when individuals may require assistance to realize their human right to sexual pleasure (78). For Herzog, disabilities challenge “long-cherished Enlightenment ideals of individual autonomy—even as the Enlightenment heritage remains indispensable for advancing the cause of disability rights in numerous realms” (11). After all, the point of disability “coordination… is preciselyso that the disabled individual is ‘able to flourish as an individual’” (78–79). This aim fit well with the “schizoanalysis” of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and psychoanalyst Félix Guattari, coauthors of the 1972 classic Anti-Oedipus, which emphasized the “rhizomatic” interconnectivity of human lives, as well as with the “intimate and vulnerable” style of psychoanalysis pioneered by Sigmund Freud’s longtime associate Sándor Ferenczi (13). The forms of utopian communal disability care Herzog commends in her conclusion emphasize the particularity of disabled experience in order to challenge normative assumptions of “ordinary” life as well—opening up what Eve Sedgwick called a dialectic of “minoritizing” and “universalizing” views of difference.


In her response, Moira Weigel situated Unlearning Eugenics amidst wider crises of care and social reproduction seen around the world today, in which the temptation to find a “usable past” for one’s cause—enabled by social media—can be a dangerous one. Ultimately, the “moral and strategic failings” of past movements for reproductive rights “raise the question in the present of whether it is not a mistake not to be more ambitious in our feminist and emancipatory politics to make claims from the basis of female autonomy and even a right to pleasure on its own terms as an end in itself, not something that needs to be rationalized in relation to other moral ends.”

Johanna Schoen aptly condensed another key lesson from Herzog’s book: “moral reasoning” surrounding reproductive choices like abortion “shifts as our positionality changes.” An unfortunate effect of taboos about the Nazi past in her native Germany, she reflected, is that it has “limited not only reproductive choices, but also conversations about these choices.” Indeed, “From an American feminist perspective, Germans’ inability to concede full reproductive decision-making authority speaks to the very erasure of women as moral agents.”

Danilyn Rutherford’s response centered on a question illuminated by the different dependencies of pregnancy and disability: “To whom do we make ourselves vulnerable?” “In a world where there is more support for those who care for the disabled,” she said, “prospective parents facing a prenatal diagnosis might make different kinds of decisions. Without contempt for disability, people’s dreams and nightmares might change.” As Weigel similarly asked: “How would the world have to change to create the conditions under which a person could desire a disabled child differently?” What work might be done “to collectively, politically, desire better, to build a better desire?”

Herzog concludes that until now it has been “apparently quite hard to unlearn eugenic thinking” (32). At the same time, as Weigel remarked, the process of unlearning Herzog’s book initiates means working through the past in a way that opens up understanding and dialogue rather than retreating into the safety of taboos: “To unlearn means first engaging… To unlearn we must first do the work of having known.” In this sense, unlearning is the opposite of forgetting.

Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at Princeton University. His dissertation in progress is a conceptual history of “catastrophe” in modern European thought, focusing on German-Jewish intellectuals including the Frankfurt School of critical theory.

Conferences philosophy Theory

How do we understand each other? The Contemporary Relevance of Cassirer’s and Heidegger’s Historic Disputation at Davos

By contributing editor Andrew Hines

How do human beings understand each other? This question has both a linguistic and a political dimension. Last month, as world leaders gathered at the Swiss town of Davos for the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, key faces were absent. Both Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron sent their excuses.It is a dark, but increasingly common irony that a geopolitical event designed to promote collaborative problem solving is disrupted by a dramatic lack of understanding in the domestic politics of major western nations.

This lack of political understanding seems to be about the clash of viewpoints or worldviews. A clash, for example, like the wildly different views on a Mexican border wall that fuelled the US government shutdown and kept Trump from his Davos visit. The question of understanding, in this political sense, seems to be fundamentally different from the question of understanding in a linguistic sense. In linguistics, we often think of understanding in terms of semantics, or how we convey meaning to each other through language (viii). While there is a clear difference between conveying meaning with words and disagreeing with someone, so much political rhetoric of the moment is continually framed as ‘subjective’ and ‘irrational’. This appeal to subjectivity and rationality suggests more basic issues typically associated with semantics. As it is increasingly associated with contemporary political rhetoric, a re-assessment of the link between political and linguistic understanding is needed.

Often associated with sociolinguistics or perhaps critical theory, the idea of a basic connection between language and politics has a particularly poignant moment in the history of ideas. Almost ninety years ago in March 1929, another event designed to promote international collaboration was held in Davos, Switzerland, the second annual meeting of the Internationale Davoser Hochschulkurse (International Davos Conference). Attended by influential twentieth century academics such as Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice de Gandillac, Joachim Ritter and Rudolf Carnap, it is perhaps most famous for its debate between Ernst Cassirer and Martin Heidegger on the question “what is the human being?” The debate is at times portrayed as a titanic clash of worldviews or as an epochal shift. As one of Heidegger’s students said of Davos, ‘from here and now a new epoch of world-history begins’ (2).

Ernst Cassirer (left) and Martin Heidegger (right) in March 1929 at the second annual meeting of the Internationale Davoser Hochschulkurse (International Davos Conference)

To understand this ‘epochal shift’, the debate is often framed by the conceptual presuppositions with which Cassirer and Heidegger begin their philosophical questioning. Heidegger asserts that his philosophy is concerned with the terminus a quo(from where) of a philosophical question, and that Cassirer’s is concerned with the terminus ad quem (to where) of a philosophical question (202 – 203). This characterisation has stuck. Many commentators, including Peter Gordon in his intellectual history of Davos, have used this framing, and while more nuanced than a simple binary opposition, Cassirer’s and Heidegger’s position have come to be associated with objectivity and subjectivity respectively. While very helpful in understanding much of the debate, there is an often-overlooked section in Cassirer’s closing reply that frames his theme in a different manner. Here, Cassirer marvels that, despite the fact that each of us speak in our own subjective language, we still manage to negotiate a common linguistic understanding through language (205). It is here that an implicit link between linguistic and political understanding emerges.

In keeping broadly within the theme, “what is the human being”, a question arose in the debate relating to human finitude. Cassirer and Heidegger clashed over how the human imagination, which aids cognition in concept generation, was related to finitude. Here the traditional division of objectivity and subjectivity is useful. In keeping with the key thesis of his magnum opus, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (1923), Cassirer asserted there must be some objective symbolic forms, like language, art, and myth that functioned as ‘synthesising activities of human reason’ (319). Heidegger rejected the idea that something like language, art or myth could be objective and instead, asserted that all the concepts we produce with our human activities are radically conditioned by our finitude (197). In keeping with the thesis of Being and Time (1929), Heidegger asserted that any attempt at objective description misses the real question, which, for Heidegger, is the conditions of our finite existence that allow for such a question in the first place. As the reader may know, for Heidegger, this was the question of Being (31). Cassirer agreed that Being was the fundamental question of metaphysics, but in his final reply to Heidegger, he wondered how it is that, despite, our radically subjective, finite experience, we still manage to communicate. In response to Heidegger Cassirer says,

each of us speaks his own language, and it is unthinkable that the language of one of us is carried over into the language of the other. And yet, we understand ourselves through the medium of language. Hence there is something like thelanguage. And hence there is something like a unity which is higher than the infinitude of the various ways of speaking. Therein lies what is for me the decisive point. And it is for that reason that I start from the Objectivity of the symbolic form, because here the inconceivable has been done (205).

While it is obvious that Cassirer’s response is framed, first by the objective, terminus ad quem (to where) of a philosophical question, there is a second framing in this response that is overlooked.

The question implicit in Cassirer’s reply is “how do we understand each other?” This second framing wonders at the inconceivable fact that we understand each other despite it being unthinkable that we could overcome our subjective experiences of finitude. Looking at the ‘inconceivable’ fact of communication between radically subjective languages, puts linguistic understanding on a political footing.

In the year before he died, while living in exile in the United States, Cassirer continued work on this question in An Essay on Man (1944). In it, Cassirer radically interprets lines 368c -369b of Plato’s Republic. Here, Socrates and his interlocutors are attempting to understand the nature of justice. In the end, they decide that, to understand justice in the individual, it needs to be understood on the level of a just republic. Cassirer reads Plato as suggesting that “philosophy cannot give us a satisfactory theory of man until it has developed a theory of the state” (63). For Cassirer, this also connected linguistic understanding and political understanding. From an anthropological perspective, before human beings had discovered the state as a form of social organisation, language was one of the key attempts to organise feelings, desires, and thoughts on a communal level. Therefore, for Cassirer, the historical evolution of language is closely connected with the development of the state (64). Here in this late essay, whether intentional or not, Cassirer is echoing his implicit question from Davos.

Whether we agree with Cassirer’s characterisation of historical evolution or his appeal to objectivity, his awareness of the social and political aspects that shape linguistic meaning are a reminder that neither a subjective finite experience of language nor an objective unifying symbolic form of ‘The Language’ accounts for the muddle that is understanding each other. Today, this is relevant because we often feel a common understanding is under threat and have a tendency to frame the crisis as a battle between a quasi-objective rational debate and subjective popular rage. However, I fear it is unhelpful to demonise populist rhetoric as purely subjective and irrational. It is certainly worrying but it is still communication however much we may object to it. The liberal academic may not ‘understand’ populist rage in the political sense, but he or she certainly does linguistically. How else would such umbrage be taken to the content of that rhetoric? Therefore, the 1929 Davos disputation poses several timely questions for us.

Philosophically and politically, it suggests a need to revisit an interlinking of a theory of language with a theory of the state. Linguistically, it prompts us to ask, just what does it mean when communication doesn’t seem to work, and understanding is a struggle to achieve. Part of what is so inconceivable about language is the fact that understanding is accomplished even when we don’t follow the rules and seem bound by our own radically subjective languages. Perhaps this is the political and linguistic mystery we must turn to in this time of crisis. What does it mean to understand ourselves, and the state, when the rules we thought we knew, don’t quite tell the whole story. The way that Cassirer frames the question is so brilliant because it allows for multiple answers and continual re-evaluations. Cassirer’s answer may have been objectivity, but at Davos, we see a glimpse of the mysterious fact that understanding persists despite our radically subjective experiences and use of language.


The Cold War Counter-Enlightenment

By guest contributor Jonathon Catlin

Nicolas Guilhot (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique) spoke on his new book, After the Enlightenment: Political Realism and International Relations in the Mid-Twentieth Century (Cambridge, 2017) at the New York University Intellectual History Workshop on May 16, 2018. He was introduced by Stefanos Geroulanos (NYU), while Gisèle Sapiro (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales) and Hugo Drochon (Cambridge) provided responses. An audio recording of the discussion is available at the bottom of this post.


After the Enlightenment
Nicolas Guilhot, After the Enlightenment: Political Realism and International Relations in the Mid-Twentieth Century (Cambridge, 2017)

After the Enlightenment is a collection of six essays that have been reworked to tell an intellectual history of realist political thought in twentieth-century America. It tracks a gradual displacement within American political science and foreign policy in the mid-twentieth century: the triumph of “political realism” and the fledgling discipline it took hold of, International Relations (IR). Initially premised on the contingency of power and decision, the field ultimately became wedded to “rational choice,” a “new basis on which political decisions could be taken without democratic mandate” because they promised potentially “unanimous consent” (24). Guilhot convincingly argues that even as the rationalized field of IR moved toward systems theory and cybernetics, it never fully abandoned its roots in Christian values and aristocratic traditions of decision-making and leadership. Realism earned the backing of powerful institutions like the Rockefeller Foundation—the “midwife” of IR—and turned out to be one of the most enduring offspring of the rationalistic social sciences’ heyday in the early Cold War era (42).


Guilhot opens with pressing stakes for why we should care about political realism’s enduring legacy:

We are still…capable of great uprisings against a recognized threat or danger. But we are so confused in our thoughts as to which positive goals should guide our action that a general fear of what will happen after the merely negative task of defense against danger has been performed paralyzes our planning and thinking in terms of political ideas and ideals. (1)

John Herz

These words were written in 1951 by John Herz, a German-Jewish refugee scholar, yet they “nonetheless resonate uncannily with our present situation.” After 9/11, Guilhot writes “we too have become engulfed by our own concern with security and confused about the more general meaning and purpose of politics.” In the wake of that catastrophe, “security has become the universal framework of political thinking and the primary deliverable of any policy, foreign or domestic, often overriding well-established constitutional rights and provisions.” Yet the pursuit of this narrow goal ultimately displaces normative political theory, the construction of positive ideals, and the pursuit of a more just world. Realism thus amounts to a form of anti-politics.

One hardly needs to look far for instances in which “facing and confronting ‘a recognized threat or danger’ has become the essence of government as well as a new source of legitimacy” (2). Guilhot’s native and adoptive countries, France and the United States, are home to two of the most egregious biopolitical defense and surveillance regimes today. In such states, “references to a permanent state of exception now sound like academic platitudes glossing over the obvious.” When “the notion of security has expanded to become the all-encompassing horizon of human experience,” he writes, “security itself has become an ideal—maybe the only ideal left.”

Nicolas Guilhot (CNRS)

Guilhot’s work exemplifies a new wave of intellectual history bringing together political theory, policy, and institutional history of the Cold War. This includes work by Daniel Bessner, with whom Guilhot co-edited The Decisionist Imagination: Sovereignty, Social Science, and Democracy in the Twentieth Century (Berghahn, forthcoming 2018). Bessner is also author of Democracy in Exile: Hans Speier and the Rise of the Defense Intellectual (Cornell, 2018) and a forthcoming history of the RAND corporation (Princeton). It also includes the work on the “militant democracy” of Karl Loewenstein by Jan-Werner Müller and Udi Greenberg, with whom Bessner authored a popular critique of “the Weimar analogy” in Jacobin in the wake of the 2016 election of Donald Trump.

After the Enlightenment also engages present debates on the origins of neoliberalism such as Quinn Slobodian’s Globalists (Harvard, 2018). These works track how domains of social life in the mid-twentieth century, from international relations to market economics, fell under new regimes of scientific and technological management that shielded them from democratic contestation—and hence from politics itself, according to an ancient line of political theory equating politics with deliberative rationality and public speech running from Aristotle, to Arendt, to Habermas. As a recent review of Globalists aptly characterized one of its key insights: “the neoliberal program was not simply a move in the distributional fight, but rather about establishing a social order in which distribution was not a political question at all. For money and markets to be the central organizing principle of society, they have to appear natural—beyond the reach of politics.”

Carl Schmitt

The anti-democratic thrust of mid-century realism stems from its foundational premise, what Herz called the “security dilemma”: the ever-present possibility of conflict as “a basic fact of human life” (3). Herz is fairly unique in having tried to resist the most cynical and conservative implications of this premise; he strove “to strike a balance between the grim necessities of power and the striving for ideals,” alternately calling his project “liberal realism” or “realist liberalism.” Yet like many other realists, Herz ultimately capitulated to conservatism, abandoning liberalism, socialism, and internationalism. He was a student of Hans Kelsen, the Viennese legal positivist and author of the interwar Austrian constitution. Both were assimilated Jews who fled Europe for the United States after 1938 and found homes in American universities and policy circles. In her response, Gisèle Sapiro rightly pressed Guilhot to reflect on the significance of the experiences of exile and Judaism—even in secular, assimilated forms—for his thinkers’ realism. Herz gradually drifted away from Kelsen towards his arch-rival, Carl Schmitt, identifying his realist liberalism with Schmittian decisionism. For Guilhot, the failure of Herz’s liberal project is instructive: “It suggests that realism places limits upon the kind of political goals that one can pursue and indeed makes it difficult if not impossible to pursue positive or transformative goals” (4).

In order to retain the appearance of a politics of ideals, realism rewrote the history of political thought, appropriating the “glorious lineage” of Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Hobbes as realism’s forefathers. By linking a new politics of decision to the tradition of political “republicanism,” realists came to develop a school of thought that could justify “dictatorial measures in the defense of freedom” (26). Political realism thus conflated two distinct forms of realism in order to establish its “historical legitimacy.” First, the ethical realism of Machiavelli, which does not “imply a pessimistic anthropology or a regressive social ontology,” but simply proposes “prudential conduct” that is “naturalistic, pragmatic, and concrete.” The cunning of political realism in the mid-twentieth century was to wed this practical wisdom to the needs of Cold Warrior ideology. The hybrid that resulted is by definition a “conservative realism” insofar as it “stifles the capacity to elaborate any political project beyond the maintenance of order.” Realism is an exact reaction to utopian aims of the Atlantic revolutions and the rise of mass democracy. It was its era’s most influential representative of the Counter-Enlightenment.

Guilhot’s critique of realism targets not only its vision of global power, but especially the ways it perpetuates an “exhaustion of alternatives” (5). He thus remains deeply skeptical of those today turning back to early realism “as a potentially progressive intellectual project.” Realism is considered one of the only “grand narratives” still standing, even by some on the Left. Notably, it has been invoked to critique of America’s slip from “soft-power” “democracy promotion” in the 1980s into costly militarized intervention under recent administrations. Realism has also been hailed as one of the last genuinely “political” responses to neoliberal globalism that can still be voiced in policy circles. Yet Guilhot reveals that the progressive attempt to reclaim realism today “to oppose neoliberal depoliticization fundamentally misunderstands realism and ignores how much it has in common with neoliberalism” (6). Already in his 1955 essay “The Political Thought of Neo-Liberalism,” Carl J. Friedrich, a German refugee, argued that neoliberalism was nearly indistinguishable from realism; Guilhot calls them “twin ideological movements born in the crisis of the 1930s that reacted to the crisis of liberalism and to the rise of totalitarianism.” Both were essentially defensive movements, sharing a neo-Burkean anthropology. Both thought liberalism could only be saved by illiberal means and saw themselves as building a “concretely managed order” that sought to “insulate from democracy core domains of decision-making, including foreign and economic policy, and to entrust them to a select elite of expert decision-makers” (7). Like Bessner, Guilhot argues that “decisionism” had appeal across the political spectrum and was hardly evidence of Schmitt lurking behind every realist thinker. One of the early realist’s most influential ideas was their conception of politics as an art, not a science; in genuinely political circumstances, there are no rational answers, only force and the wisdom of experience and leadership required to execute it. Yet their belief in the irrationality of public opinion led them to a new God, rational choice, “to legitimate economic and political decisions.”

Hans Morgenthau

Hans Morgenthau is often considered the father of realism. He was a German Jew forced from Europe by Nazism, and ended up as a professor of political science at the University of Chicago. He was also one of realism’s most explicit critics of the dangers of mass democracy. For Morgenthau’s generation, “Even their analysis of totalitarianism was premised upon a critique of its democratic origins” (15). “Fascism,” he wrote in a 1966 review of Ernst Nolte’s Der Faschismus in seiner Epoche, “can be considered the consummation of the equalitarian and fraternal tenets of 1789.” As the Harvard political theorist Judith Shklar—yet another Jewish refugee—wrote of the realists, “rationalism sooner or later must and did lead to totalitarianism” (67). Yet Guilhot shows that realism’s success ultimately lies in its deviation from this initial opposition to rationalism and liberalism toward compromise with these leading values of its era.

While Morgenthau became the figurehead of IR, Guilhot shows that he shared much of his worldview with figures in very different fields, including the Isaiah Berlin and the German theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (who went so far as to call Augustine the first realist). Together they forged “a powerful intellectual program that blended anti-liberal and Christian conservative elements”—especially a lapsarian Christian negative anthropology and suspicion of science—“with a rhetoric of the defense of liberalism” (15). As Hugo Drochon put it, for Guilhot’s realists there was a natural affinity between the Christians’ “we have only God” and the decisionists’ “we have only the nation state.” While Carl Schmitt actually reviewed Morgenthau’s first book, Drochon argued that the realists didn’t really need him; as the example of Niebuhr illustrates, religion could have grounded realism on its own. Extending realism’s Christian and conservative lineage back to earlier reappraisals of Machiavelli such as Friedrich Meinecke’s 1924 Die Idee der Staatsräson in der Neueren Geschichte, Drochon challenged Guilhot’s framing of realism as a postwar, Cold War phenomenon.

Considering American political culture bereft of the necessary moral resources to combat totalitarianism, the realists, many of them witnesses to the collapse of Weimar, argued that “liberalism, if left to its own devices, was incapable of ensuring its own survival.” Given similar anxieties today, Guilhot’s critical reassessment of mid-century realism could not be more timely. By reconstructing the rich beginnings of realist ideas still influential today, he reveals their latent commitments to be complicit with technocratic and unrepresentative forms of politics under fire today. Once hailed as a scientifically unimpeachable solution to democratic crisis, Guilhot leads us to see realism rather as partly responsible for our present crisis of democratic representation.

Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. student in the Department of History at Princeton University. His work focuses on intellectual responses to catastrophe, especially in German-Jewish thought and the Frankfurt School of critical theory.