Dispatches from the Archives

Why Emerson Admired Bentham But Rejected His Utilitarianism

By Christopher Porzenheim

While it’s become increasingly common since 1970 for scholars to study Ralph Waldo Emerson as a philosopher and evaluate his relationship to canonical philosophers, no one has thoroughly analyzed Emerson’s numerous remarks upon Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, which is now one of the most influential contemporary schools of moral philosophy. This is odd. Emerson says at least as much, if not more, about Bentham than he does about Immanuel Kant, yet a vast amount of attention has been devoted to Kant’s influence on Emerson while very little ink has been spilled on Emerson’s relationship to Bentham. Indeed, so far as I know, Neal Dolan and Bhiku C. Parekh are the only scholars who have published anything on this subject.

Ultimately, I believe an analysis of Emerson’s remarks confirms Dolan and Parekh’s claim that Emerson rejected Benthamite utilitarianism, but also reveals something new—why he rejected his ethics. Understanding why Emerson disagreed with Bentham’s ethics matters because it will help anyone who wishes to compare John Stuart Mill and Emerson, characterize the nature of Emerson’s own moral philosophy or determine where he fits in the philosophical canon. As we shall see, Emerson was likely hostile towards Bentham’s “stinking” and “vulgar” utilitarianism because of the important role virtue and character plays in Emerson’s ethics.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, although quite accurately, Emerson recognized Bentham as one among many of the reformers making “accusations of society” in the 19th century (W 1: 228) whose proposed reforms focused on the subject of “Civil Law.” (EL 3: 225-26)

In addition, Emerson had some unambiguously complimentary things to say about Bentham. For example, Emerson is grateful Bentham coined words like maximize, minimize and “international.” (J 7: 69-70) Emerson also believes we should mimic one of Bentham’s habits. According to Emerson, if we wish to have excellent friendships we should primarily spend one on one—rather than group—time with our closest friends, just like how Bentham would only admit one person at a time into his study. (EL 2: 289) More generally, Emerson admires Bentham as a man of ideas (J 8: 465) unseduced by “too fanciful refinements” (EL 2: 289) who loved the truth (J 2: 501-502) and prophetically saw the need to advocate for “systematic Moral Education” in response to the “dark times” of his era. (J 3: 348, EL 2: 97) The rest of Emerson’s praise for Bentham is more ambivalent in its tone.

While Emerson admires Bentham’s aims and intellect, he is also unsettled by the idea that Bentham’s philosophy will be idolized. Emerson thought that Bentham, just like Charles Fourier or Emanuel Swedenborg, was a reformer armed with “a mind of uncommon activity and power” which would allow him to easily impose his philosophical “system” and “classification[s] on other men”. Therefore those with “unbalanced minds” will likely idolize Bentham’s philosophical system and mistakenly think of it as an “end” rather than “a speedily exhaustible means” of reforming society. (W 2: 79-80, EL 3: 140-141, LL 1: 356)

Why is Emerson worried about Bentham becoming idolized? There are at least two reasons. The first is that, as a rule, Emerson believed uncritical hero worship was vicious, whether for writers and poets like Shakespeare or Goethe, philosophers like Plato or Aristotle, or religious figures like Jesus. (W 1: 88, 130-131, 4: 18). The other reason Emerson was uneasy with Bentham is more unique to Bentham. Emerson was always suspicious of very systematic theoreticians like Fourier, Swedenborg, or Bentham: “The more coherent and elaborate the system, the less I like it.” (W 4: 135) This dislike follows from the first reason. Emerson believed that the more comprehensive a theoretical system was, the more likely it would be uncritically worshipped by intellectually complacent pupils. (W 2: 79, EL 3: 140)

Despite Emerson’s concerns there is little evidence that Bentham had anything like a cult following. As Bhikhu C. Parekh relevantly observed in his reception history of Bentham: “If one surveys the controversial writings and the systematic political treatises of the first six or seven decades of the nineteenth century, one finds that the leaders of thought [in America] were untouched by or were unfriendly to Benthamism.” Thus, it seems Emerson’s worry Bentham’s philosophy would be idolized by many of his American contemporaries was unwarranted.

Perhaps the safest general characterization of Emerson’s estimate of Bentham was that he saw him as a positive and negative role model. For, on the one hand, Emerson appears like he may have wished to emulate what he perceived to be Bentham’s life-long focus popularizing one idea. In a journal passage, Emerson asked himself “what do you exist to say?” after approvingly noting that Bentham existed to say one thing “The greatest good of the greatest number”. (J 8: 422) This passage, alongside others, suggests Emerson may have believed he should, like Bentham, focus on popularizing one idea. (JMN 4: 348-349) But, on the other hand, Emerson seems uncomfortable with what he perceives to be Bentham’s monomaniacal focus. As Emerson thought Bentham was “insane on one side” and simply as “crazy” as the popularizer of phrenology Johann Spurzheim for being so eager to repeat one idea over and over again (J 3: 505, EL 3: 140); Bentham “pound[s] on one string till the whole world knows that.” (J 7: 186)

Yet, while Emerson was of mixed minds about Bentham himself, he had no love for his moral philosophy. Emerson’s earliest judgments of Bentham’s philosophy occur in his prize winning Essay on the Present State of Ethical Philosophy. In this youthful scholastic essay, the 18 year old Emerson is dismissive of Benthamite consequentialism, but not openly hostile. Emerson claims that those looking to advance the “science” of ethics should ignore Bentham’s utilitarianism because his “moral arithmetic” is not “necessary” for the “science” of ethics to discover the proper moral “precepts”.

Later, when the mature Emerson judges Bentham’s moral philosophy in his private journals and public lectures his judgements become harsher. Emerson’s outright contempt for Benthamite utilitarianism is well summarized by Bhikhu C. Parekh

in 1831 he [Emerson] wrote in his journal: ‘The stinking philosophy of the utilitarian! Nihil magnificum, nihil generosum sapit, as Cicero said of that of Epicurus.’ [J 2: 455] Two years later, however (a year after Bentham’s death), he [Emerson] wrote to his brother from London: ‘I have been to see Dr. Bowring, who was very courteous. He carried me to Bentham’s house and showed me with great veneration the garden walk, the sitting room, and the bed chamber of the philosopher. He also gave me a lock of his gray hair, and an autograph.… He is anxious that Bentham should be admired and loved in America.’ [L 1: 392] Emerson contributed nothing to that end. He rejected utilitarianism with the same contempt as did his friend Carlyle, by whose views on this subject he was greatly influenced. In 1836, he [Emerson] wrote: ‘I had rather not understand in God’s world than understand thro’ and thro’ in Bentham’s. [L 1: 450]’

This passage from Parekh makes clear that Emerson considered Bentham’s philosophy stinking, ignoble and ungodly, but not so clear why. Some philosophical context can help clarify.

To justify his specific criticism of Bentham’s “stinking philosophy” Emerson appears to be invoking one of Cicero’s arguments from De Finibus; a dialogue written by Cicero in which an Epicurean and Stoic spokesperson defend their ideas about virtue. One of Cicero’s many criticisms of the Epicurean position is that he thinks the Epicureans are mistaken for only valuing virtue instrumentally as a means of securing pleasure, rather than for its own sake. (Cicero. DeFinibus. Bk2.69-73) By invoking Cicero on this point, Emerson implies that this same Ciceronian criticism can be applied to Benthamite utilitarianism. Emerson is right to think so. Like the Epicureans, Bentham’s ethics does not value virtue intrinsically. Bentham’s utilitarianism values actions and things instrumentally insofar as they are conducive to utility (i.e the greatest happiness principle.) Thus, as the Epicureans only value virtue for the sake of pleasure, Bentham can only value virtue for the sake of utility. In contrast, as Jonathan Bishop has noted, Emerson believes that virtue is valuable for its own sake. (W 2: 94-95, 102-103, 121-123, 255) Therefore, Emerson seems to reject Bentham’s ethics because it necessarily denies virtue has intrinsic value (i.e. that virtue is its own reward.) 

Emerson also offers what seems to be a different but related criticism of Bentham’s ethics, namely that it fails to show enough interest in cultivating our character (i.e. in cultivating virtues like temperance, courage, justice, or wisdom.) As Emerson puts it, Bentham is an advocate of a “vulgar utilitarianism” which aims merely at “political or external freedom” and neglects an appropriate concern for “inward freedom also”. (EL 2: 67) Now, it’s undeniable Emerson is objecting to what he perceives to be Bentham’s ethical vulgarity, but not necessarily why. A quick conceptual detour can clarify Emerson’s ire.

Emerson’s critique of Bentham assumes a distinction between what contemporary philosophers sometimes call “positive liberty” and “negative liberty.” Put plainly, I lack some positive liberty if I am an alcoholic, because I cannot freely choose among courses of action; an alcoholic has an intemperate (hence vicious) desire to get drunk all the time which shapes all their decisions. Whereas, I lack some negative liberty if the government imprisons me for drunk driving, because it has interfered with my ability to freely choose among courses of action; I am now constrained to one location.

Because Emerson derides Bentham’s utilitarianism as “vulgar” for focusing its concern on our “political or external freedom” (negative liberties) and not also our “inward freedom” (positive liberties) this suggests that Emerson thinks that ethics should be concerned with helping us cultivate the kind of intellectual or moral virtues that allows us to exercise “inward freedom”. Therefore, Emerson seems irked by Bentham’s utilitarianism because he thinks it neglects an appropriate ethical concern for cultivating a virtuous character. 

We can now safely say a few things about Emerson’s remarks on Bentham. There are at least three patterns. One, Emerson tends to be slightly more kind to Bentham in public lectures and essays, and slightly less in his private letters and journals. Two, Emerson admires and criticizes Bentham for the same quality: a monomaniacal, systematic, and lifelong focus popularizing one idea. Three, while Emerson somewhat admired Bentham as a person, he had no admiration for his consequentialist ethics, which he saw as unnecessary moral arithmetic at best, and ignoble and ungodly at worst.

Ultimately, Emerson appears to have been hostile towards Bentham’s “stinking” and “vulgar” utilitarianism because he believed it considered cultivating character relatively inconsequential and subordinated virtue to utility, rather than valuing virtue as its own reward. Thus, it seems as if the important role virtue and character plays in Emerson’s ethics is driving most of his hostility toward Bentham’s consequentialist moral philosophy.

Christopher Porzenheim is a writer, scholar, and masters student in the philosophy program at Georgia State University. Chris is interested in researching the legacy of Greco-Roman and Classical Chinese philosophy, in particular, how Ralph Waldo Emerson wielded Stoicism and Confucianism to create his philosophy of Self-Reliance—with which he supported the abolitionist and women’s rights movements. When in doubt, Chris usually opens up a copy of the Confucian Analects or Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations for guidance.

Featured Image: Abacus Patent Application filed by Andrew F. Schott. 1964. US Patent Office, US110564A.

Dispatches from the Archives

The Woman as “Work-Machine”: Gender and Anticommunism in Postwar Germany

By Yanara Schmacks

Historians of postwar West Germany have long noted the centrality of anticommunism in the formation of the early Federal Republic in the 1950s. Already in 1974 Richard Löwenthal argued that the “development of the Federal Republic of Germany is simply not understandable when not paying attention to the deep impact that a broad anticommunist and anti-Soviet groundswell exerted in the formative years” (355). Likewise, and most recently in 2017, the Berlin-based critical scholars group Jour Fixe Initiative has described anticommunism as “the historical key to the 20th century” (11).

Yet, systematic research on anticommunism as a phenomenon and an ideology in the post-1945 period is still wanting, as the most recent publications on the topic unanimously contend (Creuzberger & Hoffmann, Frei & Rigoll, Jour Fixe Initiative). Historians and political scientists exploring anticommunism in the Adenauer era (1949-63) have generally focused on two central dimensions: West Germany’s unique geopolitical situation in the aftermath of World War II, and the importance of questions pertaining to postwar national identity in structuring anticommunist tropes.

In the context of geopolitics, historians have pointed to the real danger that the existence of the newly founded GDR and Soviet expansion politics posed to West Germany’s existence as a democratic state. Despite this undeniably unique historical constellation West Germany was faced with, political scientists and historians like Stefan Creuzberger and Bernd Greiner also assert a paranoid dimension of anticommunism, arguing that “the perceived and real danger were disproportionate to each other” (94) and pointing to a “moral panic” (29) spreading through Adenauer’s Germany. Beyond the question of real or imagined danger, historians agree upon the doubly integrative function that anticommunism fulfilled in stabilizing and legitimizing the newly founded FRG in both domestic as well as foreign political terms, providing “political glue” (politischen Kitt) (229) across party politics on the one hand, and firmly rooting the young republic in the Western world on the other.

Election poster of the CDU for the federal elections in 1949. Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg, Abt. Staatsarchiv Freiburg, W 110/2 Nr. 0144.

Likewise, anticommunism in its anti-totalitarian variant provided a new, respectable identity that demarcated the FRG as a decidedly democratic state against both the Third Reich and the GDR, while allowing West Germans to cling to one of the most characteristic elements of National Socialist ideology. In a similar vein, the notion of anticommunism as an “Occident ideology” (Abendlandideologie), most prominently put forward by historian Axel Schildt, emphasizes both the anti-Bolshevist and anti-Slavic racist dimension of the overly popular image of a unified Occident that defends Western civilization against a primitive “Slavic storm from the East” (21). This approach, as Siegfried Weichlein has demonstrated, further points to the centrality of religion, specifically political Catholicism, in postwar manifestations of anticommunism (124-138).

Despite the central importance and multidimensional manifestation of German postwar anticommunism that these findings indicate, I argue that it was also—and quite significantly so—characterized by a gendered dimension. The general nexus between gender and the anticommunist outlook of the early Federal Republic was established in pioneering works by Robert Moeller, Elizabeth Heineman, and others. However, their groundbreaking scholarship has mostly looked at how West German gender and family politics were drawn into conservative and reactionary directions in an effort to re-establish social order after the war and mark a clear distinction from the GDR—without inquiring into anticommunism’s specific historical Gewordenheit (development) or the reasons for its extensive appeal which, as I contend, critically hinged on fantasies and fears about gender and sexuality.

In order to demonstrate the importance of gender for postwar anticommunism, I draw on a small set of transcripts from 137 group interviews that members of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research conducted in 1950 and 1951 under the aegis of Friedrich Pollock, Theodor Adorno, and Max Horkheimer. Upon their return to Germany from US-exile in 1947, the German-Jewish Frankfurt School scholars aimed at getting a deeper insight into the legacies of Nazism in West German public opinion than would have been possible through ordinary opinion polls. The group interviews were meant to approximate realistic conditions as nearly as possible, thereby serving “to provoke the so-called nonpublic opinion” (23).

In 1955, Pollock edited the volume Gruppenexperiment (Group Experiment), providing insightful yet mainly quantitative analyses of the interviews. Pollock’s analysis confirms the centrality of anticommunism in postwar German society and politics: 83% of the participants exhibited a radically negative attitude toward “the East” (188) and “no other topic had such a low level of ambivalence” (82). Interestingly, Pollock also notes that the topic of “the East” is the only theme in which opinion is independent of gender (191). However, my cursory qualitative analysis of four female-only group discussions and two male-only group discussions indicates that anticommunism in 1950s West Germany was in fact heavily informed by normative images of gendered identities that the participants saw threatened: in their imagination, communism embodied the reversal of the gendered social order.

This is demonstrated by various statements from both sets of groups. For example, when the conversation in a group of fourteen women at a convalescent home for mothers turned to the topic of “the East,” one woman, Schaefer (a pseudonym), recounted what one of her friends had experienced in Russia:

The mothers and the women – this is really true – when they are expecting a child, they are all in the factory, right. They work until the last day. There are halls in the factory, the doctor comes there, right, they are examined until – when there’s no other way – she gets there, gives birth, the child is taken away from her and put into a children’s home, and the mother continues to go to work.[i]

In Schaefer’s interpretation, anticommunism was fundamentally rooted in fantastic imaginations about the status of women and the state’s role in the configuration of the family in Soviet Russia. To her, this dystopian vision of the separation of mother and child, depriving the woman of her “natural” role as a mother and caretaker and forcing her into alienated forms of labor when she returned to the factory immediately after giving birth, was what most substantially distinguished “the East” from “the West.”

This theme comes up repeatedly during the conversations of the Gruppenexperimente, indicating the importance of gender in anticommunism. In a discussion among twenty-one women in a camp of barracks— some of them Ostvertriebene (Germans who fled or were expelled from Eastern and Central Europe), some of them homeless after having been “bombed out”—a woman referred to as Illing showed herself to be equally appalled by the purported conditions in the GDR (or, as the women still called it at the time, the “Eastern zone”):

The women are also not allowed to go outside. And then the worst thing is, the men are unemployed, and the women have to toil on the construction site (auf dem Bau schaffen), have to carry two hundred weight bags and so on. This is men’s work and not women’s, and when the women have an accident, no one cares, they don’t receive a penny of support or anything else. And if you’re a woman with children, you won’t make it at all.

Another woman joined in, calling out “That’s right,” and a third woman contended: “Just like in Russia, there the women also have to work, right.”[ii]

For Illing, as for some of her fellow interviewees, “the worst thing” about the GDR was the proposed reversal of the conservative gender order, with the woman being forced into a traditionally male role. Further, this imaginary development was clearly in conflict with the “laws of nature.” Explaining why it was especially the putting to work of women (Fraueneinsatz) that made her suspicious of Russia, one woman in the group from the convalescent home for mothers argued:

(…) because the woman more and more becomes a work-machine (Arbeitsmaschine) and that is not her purpose in nature. And this can make me tremendously sad, although I am usually not like that, when I see and hear something like that. We have to get away from these things – women in the factory and so on. The woman does not exist to excel in the workplace. It says very clearly: The occupation and the vocation. When she is forced too much into an occupation, she loses her vocation, indeed.[iii]

The interviewees’ primary association with Soviet-style communism was evidently the notion that the “natural” order between men and women had been upset, an idea that seemed to question their very identity as women. The woman, in their narrative, ceases to be a woman and instead takes on a male role when carrying heavy bags and working on a construction site, when being separated from her newborn, when not living or being allowed to live in compliance with her “natural” purpose. The role that projection played within German anticommunism becomes especially apparent here: having to work in a factory was precisely what many of these women experienced during World War II, when the Nazi war effort required women to join the workforce and thereby upset pretensions of a gendered division of labor that confined women to their “natural” role as mothers and wives.

Interestingly, the theme of rape comes up only very incidentally in the all-female interview groups, with a few of the women hinting at what was a common experience at the Eastern front with expressions like “one has heard bad things about the Russian and the women”[iv] or the warning to “not fall into the hands of the Russians.”[v] By contrast, in all-male interview groups, the purported rapes of German woman by officers of the Red Army at the end of the war constitutes the main reason for why they find it necessary to remilitarize Germany and defend it against “these masses” in Russia. For example, in a group of dentistry students, a young man labeled Ettinger argued: “And for every single one – in case it comes that far [in case the Soviet Union invades West Germany] – for every man – let’s say – a point of honor. Or do we want to witness yet again that our women are seen as whores or fair game. Because what happened in this area is, I believe, worth a defense. And he who does not understand this, he—” At this point another participant joined in: “… is beyond remedy!” And Ettinger agreed: “… is really beyond remedy.”[vi]

The men’s fierce opposition to the Soviet Union is thus also strongly linked to issues of gender and sexuality. Preventing the Russians from invading West Germany is here framed as a defense of the sovereignty of the German female body and as a matter of male honor. “Real men,” those who are not “beyond remedy,” would have to understand the threat the Russian soldier posed to what was inherently theirs: German women, and by extension their identity as “real” men.

In light of the version of anticommunism that had been prevalent during the Third Reich, the prominence of gender in these early 1950s discussions seems curious. While the Jour Fixe Initiative has claimed that “as the central ideological continuity, anticommunism marks the Federal Republic of Germany as the successor of the NS state” (15), this continuity is not without limits, considering for example the relative absence of the virulently antisemitic image of a Judaeo-Bolshevik conspiracy that was characteristic of and rampant during National Socialism. Indeed, research on anticommunist propaganda in the early 1950s notes that postwar anticommunism was much less antisemitically loaded, with anti-Slavic racism usually taking the place of antisemitism (45). No doubt, this decline in antisemitic discourse within anticommunism was to a certain extent a result of mere political opportunism. However, in the Gruppenexperimente, antisemitism as such was not tabooed at all; in most conversations, “the Jew” was at some point blamed for the Holocaust because of his alleged “workshyness,” “haggling” (Schacherjuden), warmongering, and “bloodsucking.”[vii]

Attempting to understand the specific configuration of anticommunism that characterized postwar Germany and the role that gender played in it, Claude Lévi-Strauss’ concept of bricolage can be illuminating. Rather than constituting a direct continuity of National Socialist ideas, postwar anticommunist images were composed of assumptions and attitudes that German society, like a bricoleur, had collected over a much longer time. This aligns with Axel Schildt’s notion of postwar anticommunism as an occidental ideology (Abendlandideologie) as well as with Ulrich Herbert’s suggestion that early 1950s West Germany was marked by substantial references to the traditional bourgeois culture of the Kaiserreich and, relatedly, constituted a more general, cultural-critical rejection of modernity (as embodied by both National Socialism and communism). While some of these ideas remained latent during the Weimar years and National Socialism, concepts like a Judaeo-Christian Occident and the pertaining social norms that focused on the gendered order of society made a comeback in the early 1950s (or at least figured as “invented traditions” that functioned as imagined continuities with the past) as they were positioned in opposition to the Godless, anti-Christian communist enemies without and within. And at the contingent nexus between anticommunism and Abendlandideologie in the specific configuration of postwar anticommunist imagination, gender and the family took center stage.

[i] “Protokoll Nr. 79: Frauen aus einem Müttererholungsheim,” Gruppenexperimente (Frankfurt am Main, December 19, 1950), 36, Institut für Sozialforschung.

[ii] “Protokoll Nr. 91: Frauen in einem Barackenlager,” Gruppenexperimente (Frankfurt am Main, January 4, 1951), 24–25, Institut für Sozialforschung.

[iii] “Protokoll Nr. 79: Frauen aus einem Müttererholungsheim,” 37.

[iv] “Protokoll Nr. 9: Frauengruppe,” Gruppenexperimente (Frankfurt am Main, October 10, 1950), 79, Institut für Sozialforschung.

[v] “Protokoll Nr. 79: Frauen aus einem Müttererholungsheim,” 34.

[vi] “Protokoll Nr. 74: Dentistenschule,” Gruppenexperimente (Frankfurt am Main, December 14, 1950), 39, Institut für Sozialforschung.

[vii] For example, “Protokoll Nr. 86: Studentengruppe,” Gruppenexperimente (Frankfurt am Main, December 18, 1950), 1, 7, 9, Institut für Sozialforschung; “Protokoll Nr. 70: Abiturientengruppe,” Gruppenexperimente (Frankfurt am Main, December 5, 1950), 2, Institut für Sozialforschung.

Yanara Schmacks is a PhD candidate in Modern European History at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York. Her article “‘Motherhood is Beautiful’: Maternalism in the West German New Women’s Movement between Eroticization and Ecological Protest” is forthcoming in Central European History. She is working on a dissertation project that explores the politics of motherhood in the three German states from the 1970s to the early 2000s.

Featured Image: Udarnitzi (Record Breaking Workers) at the Factory Krasnaya Zaria. Pavel Filonov, 1931.

Dispatches from the Archives

Emerson on Kant: A Metaphysician Not Worth Reading

By Christopher Porzenheim

Joseph Urbas has recently argued that since the 1970s that there’s been an ongoing effort on the part of philosophically minded Emerson scholars to rehabilitate Emerson as a canonical philosopher. John Lysaker has relevantly observed that one strategy some of Emerson’s advocates use is arguing there is a close relationship between Emerson and Kant (because most professional philosophers would consider Kant a canonical philosopher.) But there are a few problems with this approach, the least of which is the lack of evidence Emerson ever read Kant.

Robert Richardson correctly noted that there is no evidence Emerson ever read Kant, only evidence he encountered Kant second hand, through various sources like Dugald Stewart, Madame de Stael, Thomas Marsh, Joseph Degerando, Victor Cousin, Samuel Coleridge, Thomas Carlyle, and Frederick Hedge. On the basis of this second hand evidence, many have influentially argued that Kant exercised a profound philosophical influence on Emerson, such as Stanley Cavell, David Van Leer, and Gustaaf Van Cromphout. Oddly, even though it is obviously relevant evidence, no one has analyzed Emerson’s numerous remarks on Kant as a philosopher.

Ultimately, I believe Emerson’s remarks suggest we should be wary about attributing any substantial influence upon Emerson to Kant, for, as we shall see, Emerson believed that Kant wasn’t someone he should bother to read.

Emerson undoubtedly has generous praise for Kant. Kant is on Emerson’s short list as a philosopher any “scholar” should have the “courage” to criticize (W 8: 311), who alongside Hegel is a modern master of German metaphysical speculation skilled in the art of wielding classifications and categories (J 10: 53) which has allowed them both to have “made the best catalogue of the human faculties and the best analysis of the mind” (W 10: 327-328). Kant is a “seer” of the “interior realities” and “master” of “the substantial laws of the intellect” (W 8: 347), a philosopher who could easily discover any “secret doctrines” in Plato’s writings (W 2: 146-147). He is a man who “predicted the [movement of the] asteroids” (J 6: 145, 9: 296, 10: 211), an advocate of “pure reason” (W 10: 248) and “the intellect” (W 10: 306) whose thinking was marked by “extraordinary profoundness and precision” which has “given vogue to his nomenclature” (W 1: 339-340) and which made it no less popular than the vocabulary of phrenology in Emerson’s era. (J 4: 94). 

But, alongside his praise, Emerson has much criticism for Kant. For example, Emerson considered Kant an overvalued modern restatement of ancient philosophy of Parmenides, Heraclitus, and Xenophanes (W 1: 160, 172, J 4: 472-473), only “a more or less awkward translator of things in our own consciousness” (W 2: 343-345), and a philosopher who, unlike Socrates, spoke in a “tone” too “arid” to be considered “true philosophy” (J 9: 524). Furthermore, Emerson considers it a sign that philosophical thought in his era has not reached its “meridian” (the widest circle that can be drawn inside a sphere) because people mistakenly overvalue Kant as a “great analyst”, when, in fact, “Kant is rather a technical analyst than an universal one such as the times tend to form.” (J 5: 306). In short, Emerson’s claim is that it is proof that the philosophy of his era is too circumscribed (in its scope, level of detail, or focus) because Kant is commonly mistaken for a great philosopher. That said, Emerson’s bitterest comment about Kant is perhaps that Emerson himself sees no need to read Kant because of how impractical a metaphysician he is. (J 8: 528-530).

Two trends are apparent in Emerson’s thoughts on Kant.

For one, Emerson shows little explicit awareness of any of the details of Kant’s ethics and is almost exclusively concerned with him as a metaphysician. What little Emerson does say about Kant’s moral philosophy only amounts to an abstract and vague appreciation of the categorical imperative (W 7: 27, 301, 10: 92-93). For, in striking contrast to the normal assumptions of present day ethical philosophers, Emerson sees no important differences between Kant’s categorical imperative, the Utilitarian greatest happiness principle, or the ideas of a virtue ethicist like the Stoic Marcus Aurelius. (W 10: 92-93) Emerson’s vague knowledge of Kant’s ethics might well be the result of the fact Emerson did not feel the need to read Kant.

The second trend in Emerson’s remarks is that Emerson (usually) praises Kant in his published work while (usually) confining his critical remarks to his private journals. Reading his journals side by side with his public work reveals that just as much as Emerson praises Kant in lavish hyperbolic terms, he is also willing to boldly make irreverent critiques; to claim Kant was derivative of ancient philosophy, overvalued by the public, too impractical a metaphysician to be worth reading, and not someone who produced true philosophy.

Taken together, these trends suggest the conclusion that Emerson generally saw Kant as a clever metaphysical theoretician with influential terms of art, but not one practical enough to be worth reading or seriously studying. This conclusion may appear more controversial than it is.

Some might object to the fact that I have given equal hermeneutic authority to Emerson’s published public works and his private journals. For, this might unduly undercut the authority of Emerson’s essays in favor of his journals, or vice versa. But, so far as I am aware, Emerson does not make contradictory claims about Kant in his journals and published essays, thus I have not undercut either source’s authority by granting them equal hermeneutic authority. 

 Others may worry I have not given a representative sample of Emerson’s remarks on Kant, insofar as I have not considered Emerson’s sermons, his unpublished early or late lectures, or the more recent and complete edition of his journals and notebooks. I have only relied on the sources that are digitally word searchable (the 1909-1914 edition of Emerson’s journals and the 1903-1904 edition of Emerson’s works.) Nonetheless, my sample is by no means an insignificant portion of Emerson’s corpus, and so long as we take my conclusions as provisional, and thus in need of future confirmation, the concern my sample may be unrepresentative can be dismissed.  

In the end, if we want to determine Kant’s philosophical influence on Emerson, it would help to know Emerson’s thoughts on Kant as a philosopher. Emerson’s remarks certainly can’t settle this issue, if only because philosophers may be influenced by other philosophers without knowing, or even in spite of their best efforts to the contrary. That said, if we were to judge only by Emerson’s own words, it does not seem likely that Emerson himself would claim Kant had a substantial influence on him. After all, as we saw earlier, Emerson decided not to read Kant.

Christopher Porzenheim is a writer, scholar, and masters student in the philosophy program at Georgia State University. Chris is interested in researching the legacy of Greco-Roman and Classical Chinese philosophy, in particular, how Ralph Waldo Emerson wielded Stoicism and Confucianism to create his philosophy of Self-Reliance—with which he supported the abolitionist and women’s rights movements. When in doubt, Chris usually opens up a copy of the Confucian Analects or Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations for guidance.

Featured Image: Left: Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1857. Right: Immanuel Kant, portrait by Johann Gottlieb Becker, 1768.

Dispatches from the Archives

On the Trail of the Paranoid Style

By Andrew McKenzie-McHarg

An astute sense of timing has undoubtedly guided the Library of America (LOA) publishing house in recently deciding to reissue Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style of American Politics” as part of a volume that collects his mid-career writings and that has been edited by Princeton historian Sean Wilentz. After all, the United States is currently in the throes of an unusually consequential electoral campaign and, with the mantras of the “deep state” and “fake news” still ringing in voters’ ears, it is not a stretch to claim that, in some sense, the paranoid style is itself one of the issues on the ballot. In fact, this unsettling situation  mirrors the circumstances under which Hofstadter in 1964 originally presented his essay to the American reading public. In an introductory paragraph that uses broad brushstrokes to sketch the profile of a distinctive form of political irrationality, Hofstadter also reveals a willingness not only to get specific but to do so in ways that were highly topical. He does this by pointing to the “Goldwater movement” and the attendant “animosities and passions” (3) that made this movement, the most striking, contemporary manifestation of the eccentricity he was striving to comprehend.

This reference to the presidential campaign fronted by the Republican senator from Arizona also served another purpose. It alerted Hofstadter’s readers to the way in which the paranoid style, although subsisting mostly at the fringes of American politics, could at times come frighteningly close to its command posts. Liberal-minded readers could nonetheless partake of a collective sigh of relief when they opened the November 1964 issue of Harper’s Magazine that contained “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”; in this same month, Goldwater was trounced at the polls by the incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson. And yet, recalling this context forces us to note how the alignment of 2020 with 1964 contains a jarring inversion: in the current contest, incumbency is on the side of the candidate who is recognized by not a few commentators as the paranoid style’s most recent avatar. The nightmare scenario that haunted Hofstadter in 1964, namely that this pathology might entrench itself at the heart of political power, has since become the reality to which Americans (and non-Americans like myself) wake up each day.

Of course, all of this only holds true if one agrees that President Trump’s politics really do bear the hallmark signs of the paranoid style. There are valid grounds on which one might call such a characterization into question. Hofstadter spoke of the compulsion under which adherents of the paranoid style labored in “leaving nothing unexplained and comprehending all of reality in one overreaching, consistent theory.” (36-37) Such a need for coherence seems lacking in Trump, who, as the occasion suits, denounces “deep state” bureaucrats who undermine his administration, journalists who peddle “fake news,” Democrats who hate America, Antifa activists who spread anarchy, and the Chinese who first concocted the hoax of global warming and then blighted the world with a pandemic. There seems to be no prospect of these vituperations ever congealing into a coherent account that precisely delineates the culprits behind America’s alleged fall from greatness. Here some of the recent observations made by Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum in their book A Lot of People are Saying about a new strain of conspiracism—“conspiracy [theory] without the theory”—seem pertinent

Yet even before the question of applicability is addressed, it is necessary to take a step back and consider those voices who have raised more fundamental questions about the validity of Hofstadter’s concept. Measured in terms of uptake and longevity, Hofstadter’s coinage seems to qualify as a resounding success. This success has, however, been fueled not only by the recurrence of movements and moments whose profile seems to match the diagnosis put forward by Hofstadter. It is also, perversely, a reflection of the contentiousness of the approach he adopted by introducing a psychological diagnosis into the realm of political debate in the first place. This controversy plays its own part in ensuring that the paranoid style remains a “live issue.” As a result, two attitudes have consistently come into play—and into conflict—in the discussions spawned by Hofstadter’s essay: on the one hand, there are those who are happy to invoke his concept whenever the political body is convulsed by a new fit of unhinged fearmongering; and on the other hand, there are those who challenge the concept’s legitimacy and argue, not without some justification, that it effectively gives license to a liberal orthodoxy to dismiss alternative viewpoints by casting aspersions on the mental state of those who express them.

Amid this controversy, one assertion is relatively uncontroversial: to the degree that one feels compelled to take a position on these issues, one should attempt to take an informed position. As such, it would be helpful to reach a more nuanced appreciation of what Hofstadter was actually trying to do when he originally posited the “paranoid style” as a term denoting a collection of recurring patterns of speech, action, and agitation within American political history. With this in mind, for some time now I have been collecting pieces of evidence that help us to reconstruct more fully the story of how Hofstadter alighted upon this particular collocation. The results of this research form the basis of a forthcoming article in JHI.

Beatrice and Richard Hofstadter, circa 1958-59. Photograph courtesy of the SUNY-Buffalo Archives.

The first major point is that the 1964 political contest between Johnson and Goldwater was not the original historical context within which the concept of the paranoid style first emerged. Eliminating this context from contention requires us to do nothing more than consult the re-printing of “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” in the 1965 book to which the essay lent its title. Collating other essays that Hofstadter had written over the preceding years, the book prefaced these texts with remarks on their specific motivations and publishing histories. The note for “The Paranoid Style” is particularly succinct and confines itself to informing readers that the essay was based on the Herbert Spencer lecture that Hofstadter had delivered in Oxford in November 1963. In fact, there was an ominous quality to the exact date because of its proximity to another event that unsettled Americans, in particular those of a liberal persuasion—and indeed did so some months before they were troubled by the prospect of a Goldwater Presidency. After delivering the lecture in Oxford on November 21, Hofstadter spent the following evening at a dinner party in Cambridge with colleagues he had come to know from the sabbatical he had spent there as a fellow of Gonville and Caius College in the 1958-59 academic year (see the image above of Hofstadter with his wife Beatrice in one of the college’s courtyards). The levity occasioned by the reunion abruptly gave way to consternation as news arrived that President Kennedy had been shot and killed in Dallas.

By the time that Hofstadter came to reprint the essay in the 1965 book, he saw fit to integrate a reference to the conspiratorial speculation beginning to accrete around Kennedy’s assassination; obsession with the mystery of Dealey Plaza would indeed go on to engender new iterations of the paranoid style. Yet none of this is relevant to the attempt to understand why and how Hofstadter had arrived in England in 1963 with the manuscript of a lecture documenting his awareness of how, long before Kennedy’ assassination and Goldwater’s candidacy, American politics had been visited by frequent bouts of enthusiasm for a political style that traded in notions of conspiratorial subversion and was flavored by a sense of apocalyptic urgency. Why in 1963, at a time when post-war liberalism was riding high and was buoyed by its personification in a charismatic president, was Hofstadter preoccupied with what he called the paranoid style?

Of course, Hofstadter had never been under any illusion that, since the downfall of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the collapse of his anti-Communist crusade, liberalism’s preeminence might go unchallenged forever, or that the ultra-conservative American Right had been vanquished once and for all. In the years since McCarthyism had offered Hofstadter a first real-time, up-close encounter with the mode of politics he later denoted as the paranoid style, he remained aware that the resentments McCarthy had so effectively channeled continued to circulate, perhaps not over the nation’s cultural and psychic highways but certainly along its more obscure byways. By the early 1960s, media reports of organizations such as the John Birch Society induced a growing awareness among liberals that the American Right was once more stirring from its post-McCarthy slumber. This awareness informed the decision taken in 1962 by some of Hofstadter’s colleagues to reissue and update The New American Right, their earlier response to McCarthyism. Hofstadter contributed to the reissue, appearing now under the slightly revised title The Radical Right, by supplementing his earlier essay “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt” with a postscript that explored possible revisions to his earlier interpretation based on the observations he had made of the American Right in its post-McCarthy manifestations.

There was, however, most likely another, more narrowly biographical reason for why Hofstadter chose to use the invitation to Oxford in 1963 as an opportunity to discuss the paranoid style. Effectively, he was picking up from where he had last left off in England by reprising a conceptual approach to the American Right that he had first experimented with in a BBC radio lecture from 1959. Recorded shortly before his return home to New York after his Cambridge sabbatical, the lecture, now published for the first time in the LOA volume edited by Professor Wilentz, demonstrates that the reflections that incubated Hofstadter’s notion of the paranoid style actually revolved around McCarthyism and the American Right in its moment of post-McCarthy retrenchment.

One reason why this discovery is important is that the focus on McCarthy helps to clarify the specific kind of work that Hofstadter assigned to “style” in constructing his new concept. This is because Hofstadter was of the opinion that, despite all the bluster of his grandstanding, McCarthy was not overly invested in anti-Communism as an intellectual position or an ideological commitment. In Hofstadter’s own words:

Oddly enough, I don’t think McCarthy himself took most of the right wing views very seriously. He was a complete moral nihilist, playing the political game for the fun of it: he could never understand that real moral issues were involved or that some people took seriously what for him was simply a problem in crafty manoeuver.

This same opportunism could not be attributed to the subsequent devotees of the American Right, who tended to the flames of the movement after McCarthy’s campaign had ignominiously fizzled out. Those who signed up to the John Birch Society and those who were emotionally and politically invested in Goldwater’s candidacy were not acting out of opportunism. It was also not possible to use this charge to belittle Goldwater himself, whom Hofstadter saw as a “true believer” who only begrudgingly made concessions to the norms of moderation and compromise, observance of which was seen by many as a precondition for any prospect of electoral success in the competition for the presidency.

This brings us back to the current incumbent in the White House. In Michael Wolff’s Siege: Trump under Fire, a successor to the journalist’s earlier Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, the following summation of the president’s mental character was distilled from the reports of staff and co-workers in the White House: Trump “wasn’t paranoid. He was self-pitying and melodramatic, but not on guard.” (55) Such a diagnosis does not, however, undercut the acknowledgment of Trump’s mastery of the paranoid style. This point has been appreciated by the political scientist Roderick P. Hart: “No matter what Mr. Trump’s own mental state might be, the more relevant point is that he performs paranoia brilliantly, selling its depredations to others.” (134)    

Hart’s observation is consonant with Hofstadter’s insistence that the expression “paranoid style” was not meant “in a clinical sense”; rather, he was “borrowing a clinical term for other purposes” (3). The historian Leo P. Ribuffo has echoed a frequent criticism of Hofstadter’s conceptual innovation when, in a 2017 statement on “Donald Trump and the ‘Paranoid Style’ in American (Intellectual) Politics,” he asked in a tone betraying a note of exasperation: “if ‘paranoid’ was not being used ‘in a clinical sense,’ why use the word at all?” However, Hofstadter’s point was that, as a pattern of perceiving the world and acting in it, paranoia need not be rooted in a biochemical imbalance in the brain (as a neurologist might claim) or disturbances in psychosexual development (as the Freudian psychologist could suggest). Rather, its patterns repeat themselves on the level of rhetorical tropes and the accompanying performative postures. This becomes most obvious when we consider a figure such as McCarthy in whom, in Hofstadter’s estimation, there was a disconnect between the private personality and the public self-aggrandizement. In cases where there is such a disconnect, the paranoid style as a style truly comes into its own.

This insight is present in the 1959 BBC radio lecture, over which McCarthy casts a long shadow—his name appears on half of the pages of the original transcript. It becomes somewhat more diluted and more abstract in Hofstadter’s later presentations, in which McCarthyism was absorbed into a long lineage of the paranoid style’s former and subsequent instantiations. It is, however, an insight worth holding onto for those who wish to deploy the concept of the paranoid style in their attempts to understand what Americans have experienced under the current president for the last four years—and what (at the time of writing) they might be experiencing for some time yet, should Trump win re-election or should the paranoid style, after attaching itself to the highest office in the land, demonstrate an unwillingness to let go of it.

Andrew McKenzie-McHarg is a research fellow at the Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry (IRCI) of the Australian Catholic University (ACU). His interests range from anti-Jesuit polemic through radical currents of Enlightenment thought to modern intellectual history.

Featured Image: From cover of Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays, First Edition (Knopf, 1964).

Dispatches from the Archives

Annulling the Marriage of Two Men: A Marginal Note in a Yemeni Manuscript

By Shireen Hamza

Please see the note at the end of the original post for an update by the author on 06/20/2020. A change to the original text is indicated in the post.


During my second week of research at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, last September, I found a note in a manuscript that made my heart race.

Most of the Arabic manuscripts at the Ambrosiana are from Yemen, purchased from a single collector, Giuseppe Caprotti (1869-1919 CE). Many of these share physical and stylistic traits, like similar kinds of handwriting and the convention of using a larger pen for title-headings (more on the topic in the Chroniques du manuscrit au Yémen). I had become used to these conventions as I studied Yemeni manuscripts with medical content over the last several months, and was thus comfortable reading these manuscripts. But on this day in September, while sleepily flipping through page after page of manuscript Arabi Nuovo Fondi E437 and waiting for my next espresso break, a short note at the bottom of the page caught my eye: 

فسختُ النكاح بين الذكورين و اشهدت على صدور ذلك اعني و انا بمجلس القضى من وضع اسمه بعد خطي هذا بتاريخ اخر ربيع الاخر سنة اربع و ستين و الف ١٠٦٤

I annulled a marriage between two men, and I called upon a witness to its issuance*, while I was in the court. By [the witness] I mean, one who puts his name after my note here, at the end of Rabī’ II 1064.

Jolted out of my afternoon haze, I read and reread the note. It was written in a clean, clear نسخي / naskhi handwriting towards the end of the manuscript. The rules against photography at the Ambrosiana precluded me from taking a photograph, but there was no doubting the clarity of the handwriting. Not a single letter was smudged or otherwise harmed by worm or wear,  and the first word even had a vowel marked, clarifying that this sentence is written in the first person. It seemed to be a note penned by someone who had cancelled the validity of the marriage ceremony, نكاح / nikāḥ, between two men. There are two plural words used in this note which I find unusual. The word used for the beginning of the court proceedings صدور / ṣudūr, which is also a word which can refer to the head or leader of a gathering, usually occurs in the singular. Another possible reading is that the judge summoned a witness to the joint leadership of the ruling. Also, the word for the two men, ذكورين / dhukūrayn, appears to be the dual form of a word that is already a plural—the word ذُكور / dhukūr means “males” in the Quranic verse 42:49, and is the plural of ذكر / dhakar, or male. Despite these peculiarities of language, which is often a feature that manuscript researchers encounter, it is quite possible to make sense of this note.

Examples of marginalia from a Yemeni medical text. Digital collection of The Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin.

This note seemed to indicate that a Muslim jurist, or قاضي / qāḍī, likely the author of this note, married two men, before 1064 AH / 1654 CE. As much as I would want to believe this to be possible, I think there is a more likely explanation. Someone officiated a marriage ceremony between two people: one person was a man and the other was either a woman or a خنثى / khunthā, meaning someone whose gender was ambiguous to others, usually because of the person’s genitalia and/or sex characteristics. Later on, a court decided that this latter person was actually “a man,” perhaps by calling on relevant witnesses or physicians to examine the person, and thus the marriage between these two “men” was annulled.

A compendium of treatises on various legal and religious topics, manuscript codex Arabi Nuovo Fondi E437 also includes a medical text. It was the kind of manuscript that would have been of interest to, and could have been owned by, a student of the law, a jurist (قاضي / qāḍī), or another functionary of the court. There was no name included after the note, though there was plenty of space at the bottom of the page for one. The rest of the page is covered in miscellaneous notes and remedies in an informal handwriting. There is no official signature, because this was not an official document—perhaps the person who wrote this was practicing on a spare bit of paper before copying it on an official document, or a court register. While my explanation for the note occurring at the bottom of the page cannot move beyond an educated guess, I believe this kind of “documentary” source, which records the practice of law, is a crucial resource for historians of gender and sexuality as well as for feminist scholars of Islamic law.

A Qadi and the Court. From the Maqamat-i Hariri.

In Disability in the Ottoman Arab World, 1500-1800, historian Sara Scalenghe writes of several accounts of the court intervening in marriages to rule on the gender of a person, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. She describes the case of Ali/Aliyya, a teenage boy whom physicians found to be a girl, after it came to the court’s attention that a man, Abd al-Rahman, was in love with Ali. In another case, a pious man named Muhammad was married to a “woman who was an obvious khuntha” (امراة خنثى واضح / ‘imra’a khunthā wāḍiḥ) but a cousin and rejected suitor of Muhammad’s wife brought their marriage to the attention of the city’s ruler. After women medical practitioners found “her” to be a man, the Amir punished them both publicly—and unjustly, in the opinion of the chronicler who first recorded this episode. The note I found at the Ambrosiana may point to a case such as these.

Many questions remain unanswered. What prompted an inquiry into this marriage? Were any questions raised at the initial marriage ceremony as to the gender of the participants? How was it determined that these were “two men”? Finding queer and trans ancestors in the archives is extremely important to LGBTQI+ people today. But there is also another reason for drawing special attention to this marginal note which regards histories of gender and sexuality in the Islamic world, broadly. We can’t write the history of women—or practice feminist Islamic legal studies—if we impose biologically determined, binary gender on the past in our search for women.

Scholarship on the medieval Islamic world, from medical and legal theory to social and legal history, supports the idea that gender existed beyond a male-female binary. From the 1970s onward, a rich field of scholarship on the history of gender and sexuality has explored non-binary “identities,” like khwaja sira خواجه سرا and khunthāخنثى (an Islamic legal and medical category), and the ways these complex identities are present today. The field has investigated the ways that class, religious identity, devotion and slavery could gender people. Critical studies of Islamic masculinities are emerging, and scholars have long argued that beardless boys are treated as a separate gender than mature men in both literary and legal contexts.

However, few references to this literature can be found in recent debates about feminism in Islamic Legal Studies. Suggesting ways to move beyond the “patriarchal” and “White Supremacist” modes of Islamic Studies which focus exclusively on Muslim male scholars in the premodern world, Ayesha Chaudhry pushes for a progressive “Intersectional Islamic Studies,” in which modern Muslims (especially women) are also authoritative and authentic. Others, like Sohaira Siddiqui, argue that there is a longer history to this kind of critique, and that Chaudhry’s program curtails the agency of scholars, especially those approaching the complexity of the premodern Islamic world. Focused on Islamic law, neither Chaudhry’s article nor Siddiqui’s response engages with work on the history and anthropology of gender and sexuality in the Islamic world. Similarly, historians of sexuality rarely suggest the impact their work could have on contemporary Muslims—let alone speak to and advocate for these communities. Muslims of marginalized gender and sexual identities seek examples of accommodation and acceptance in the Muslim past, as they navigate homophobia and transphobia in their communities, and seek to repeal the European colonial laws which imposed these realities. Histories of gender and sexuality can provide insight into precolonial social lives that Islamic legal studies currently do not. Two ships, feminist Islamic Legal Studies and the history of gender and sexuality, are passing each other, to the detriment of both fields—and many Muslims today.

Part of the reason for the siloing of these two fields is the difference in the kinds of sources they draw on, and the ways they analyze them. Generally, scholars of Islamic Legal Studies, and feminists within that field, are interested in doctrine: the Quran and its hermeneutical traditions, jurisprudential texts of Islamic law, and prophetic traditions. Some historians of gender and sexuality, especially those working on early Islam, have worked with these sources as well—especially jurisprudence. However, their primary archive has been ادب / adab, or literary texts (poetry, biography, chronicle, travelogue), as well as the bread and butter of social history: government archives. The richest of these for the Islamic world are those of the Ottoman Empire. And rarely does a single scholar possess the ability to read across all of the relevant languages and genres; collaborative research practices will help in this regard. As Khaled El-Rouayheb noted in his Review of Elyse Semerdjian’s book, Off the Straight Path: Elicit Sex, Law and Community in Ottoman Aleppo, “These different approaches and competencies are often reinforced institutionally: scholars who work on court registers are often “Ottoman historians,” whereas those who work on Arabic religious and literary texts are usually in “Arabic-Islamic studies.”Gender categories were constructed and debated across different textual genres in the Islamic world. Jurisprudential manuals constructed legal ideals, but these ideals did not always match up with court practice. The same could be said, for example, about theoretical medical texts and practices, as represented by case histories.

This division is also alive in the question of whether only legal doctrine should determine what we consider Islam to be, or whether the lives of Muslims—all Muslims, not just علماء / ‘ulamā’ or scholars—should also constitute a valuable source for understanding what Islam is, and can be. This question is one that has animated the debate represented by Chaudhry’s work and its critics discussed above, but Chaudhry is advocating mainly for the inclusion of the ideas of modern and contemporary Muslim women in Islamic legal studies; she does not urge us to think of people outside the gender binary, or of the lives of premodern women. Perhaps the numbers of Islamic texts written by premodern women are limited, but we can also draw on the growing social histories of the Islamic world to learn of—and from—non-literate people, as we seek to address key questions as scholars of Islam today.

I may have found a trace of a non-binary person and “their” partner, marginalized people in a marginal comment on Arabi Nuovo Fondi E437. And I believe that feminist research in Islamic studies should be as attentive to non-binary Muslim peoples as it is to Muslim women, past and present. To understand the category of “woman” in Islam, we must study all textual genres, as well as genders, including masculinities, trans- and nonbinary genders, and the many names, forms or silences which these may have outside of modern LGBTQI+ identities. To do so, Islamic Studies should make good use of the work done by those studying documentary sources and social history. Adopting a research mode which integrates legal theory, legal practice and social history may yet help us learn how to understand this marginal comment, the people about whom it was written, and may bring more such events as this possible نكاح / nikāḥ annulment to our attention.

*In the original publication of this post, ṣudūr was translated as commencements rather than issuance. This, though nothing else in the post, has been amended. See the update below for more information.

Update by the author on 6/20/2020

Many scholars of Islamic legal history have taken the time to read and engage with my original post and suggested that the word I read in the margins to mean “two men,” al-dhukūrayn, should be read as al-madhkūrayn, “two aforementioned people.” I acknowledge that I misread what was likely a subtle lām-mīm ligature at the beginning of the word, and appreciate those scholars who have reached out to me in the spirit of care and generosity. However, no rules of Arabic grammar prevent the possibility that one of the madhkūrayn, the two aforementioned people, could refer to a khunthā, a person who is neither a man or a woman, whose presence in the Islamic world is well attested to by a variety of sources. This point was lost on those who claimed that this mistake disproved the argument of the post. The larger question of how scholars have brought heteronormative assumptions to their interpretations of texts is one that feminist scholars of Islam have long taken up in their work.

Who is worthy of being considered the subject of madhkūr—and a subject of history? I take my misreading to be generative, and true to the intention of the post—for scholars of Islamic law and history to remember that there were more than two genders in the medieval Islamic world as they read and interpret their sources. From what I have learned in the last week, Mohammad ibn Sallāma and his spouse were likely referred to as al-madhkūrayn in their wedding contract — though his spouse is described to have a variety of genders by different sources, including a “woman who was an obvious khuntha” (امراة خنثى واضح / ‘imra’a khunthā wāḍiḥ). The note I found in Arabi Nuovo Fondi E437 is certainly not a legal document, like a marriage contract, nor is it the kind of note that people leave in the margins of their books to take note of current events. The note was devoid of any relevant context, like location or names, which madhkūrayn (or the later ismahū) could refer back to. If it was left by someone practicing writing a sentence about annulling a marriage before making an official copy, what was the reason for this marriage to be annulled? Much remains mysterious about this note, but the possibility of it referring to a non-binary person is not one of them. 

There are decades of scholarship on the khunthā in fiqh (Islamic law), as well as the lack of a strict gender binary in medical discussions, for example, about the generation of humans. But there should be much more—and scholars should do their best to make technical training increasingly available to students interested in gender and sexuality. We need careful readings of texts to understand the variety of discourses on gender and sexuality in medicine, law, literature and other genres of texts composed in the Islamic world. These careful readings should be based not only on sound philology, but a critical understanding of our own analytical assumptions. Let us look inward and ask why we, as scholars, continue to ignore the possibilities of these non-binary lives in our archives, especially when doing so has ongoing impacts on LGBTQ+ Muslims today. 

Shireen Hamza is a doctoral candidate in the History of Science at Harvard University, working on the history of medicine and sexuality in the premodern Islamic world. She is also a managing editor of the Ottoman History Podcast and editor-in-chief of Ventricles, a podcast on science, religion and culture.

Featured Image: Qadi and the Court. Wikimedia Commons. Yahya ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti / Public domain.

Dispatches from the Archives

Dispatches from Princeton’s History of Science Colloquium: Jutta Schickore’s “Contributions to a History of Experimental Controls”

By Guest Contributor Alison McManus

Prof. Jutta Schickore

Princeton’s History of Science Colloquium series recently welcomed Jutta Schickore, professor of History and Philosophy of Science at Indiana University, to present a talk titled, “Contributions to a History of Experimental Controls.” In addition to her position at Indiana University, Schickore is a member of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study for the 2017–18 academic year. As I listened to her talk earlier this month, I found myself fully immersed in uncharted territory. Experimental controls are themselves an under-studied problem, but Schickore’s attention to the practice of experimental controls rendered her project a truly novel intervention. Though her project remains in its early stages of development, it no doubt pinpoints the need to historicize the “controlled experiment,” and it lays further claim to the established strategy of examining experimenters’ practical concerns prior to grand scientific theories.



John Stuart Mill

Schickore’s scholarship is better defined by theme than by scientific discipline. Her previous monographs examine the long history of the microscope (2007) and a yet longer history of snake venom research from the seventeenth to the twentieth century (2017). Both monographs emphasize debates about scientific method, and the latter is particularly attentive to nonlinear, contingent methodological developments, which stem from the intricacies of experimental work rather than unified theory. Schickore’s current project extends this approach to new territory. Despite their manifest importance to scientific work, experimental controls have rarely been a topic of inquiry for historians and philosophers of science. The unique exception is Edward Boring’s 1954 paper in the American Journal of Psychology, in which he distinguished between colloquial and scientifically rigorous uses of the term “control.” In a further move, he identified John Stuart Mill’s “method of difference” as the first notion of a controlled experiment, a concept that Mill outlined in A System of Logic (1843). Boring’s identification of a theoretical rather than experimental origin of “control” reflects the state of the field prior to the “material turn” of the 1990s, and the time has come to integrate the controlled experiment into studies of scientific practice.


Even with a precise definition of the term, any effort to identify the first controlled experiment will likely end in failure. Probing the origins of the term’s modern popularity is a far more productive exercise. A preliminary Google search indicates that the term rose to prominence in late nineteenth-century scientific scholarship, and the same is true of its German counterpart (Kontrollversuch/Controllversuch). In order to identify the roots of its popularity, Schickore selects case studies from ostensibly marginal German agricultural field trials nearly one century before the “controlled experiment” took a prominent position in the scientific literature.

Wilhelm August Lampadius

The German pharmacists Sigismund Friedrich Hermbstädt and Wilhelm August Lampadius both sought to apply their chemical expertise toward agricultural production in the early nineteenth century. Both men had engaged with Lavoisier’s chemistry in their work, albeit to differing degrees. Whereas Lampadius was a staunch advocate of Lavoisier’s theory, Hermbstädt remained closer to the German chemical tradition, despite having published translations of Lavoisier’s work. Hermbstädt and Lampadius conducted near-contemporaneous field trials on fertilizer, both seeking to minimize product loss and thereby improve Germany’s economic position. However, theirs and others’ experiments reveal an inconsistent, multivalent use of the term “control.” Schickore notes that “control” occasionally served its now-familiar function as an unmanipulated unit of comparison, as in the case of Hermbstädt’s comparative category of “infertile land.” Yet Hermbstädt and Lampadius also used the concept in conjunction with other management terms. A third notion of control emerged as improved apparatuses for organic analysis began to circulate in the mid-nineteenth century. In addition to making Lavoisier’s approach less costly for agricultural scientists, these novel instruments enabled scientists to perform repeat analyses and apply different analytic methods to the same problem.



Sigismund Friedrich Hermbstädt. Line engraving by G. A. Lehmann, 1808 (Wellcome Collection).

To add to this already complex terrain of meanings, Schickore notes that even in its most familiar scientific usage, the controlled experiment poses an implicit epistemological problem. When designing an experiment, each researcher must select which features shall remain unmanipulated, according to their own worldview. In the case of Hermbstädt’s experiments, his aforementioned category of “infertile land” meant land devoid of organic matter—a reflection of his vitalist notion of plant nutrition. Schickore’s observations identify a dire need to historicize both the text and the subtext of experimental controls.


The experience of my young career has led me to approach historical questions with a sort of inverse Occam’s razor, which holds that the more nuanced and heterogeneous causal accounts are the better ones. By turning away from theorists’ concerns and engaging instead with experimenters’ array of pragmatic preoccupations, the historian of science vastly expands her sites of methodological and conceptual production. Given Hermbstädt’s and Lampadius’s keen sensitivity to economic exigencies and technological innovation, I imagine that the larger field of nineteenth-century European agricultural science also developed its methods in conjunction with site-specific economic and instrumental circumstances. Schickore’s approach promises to extract a fruitful bounty of experimental practices from this uneven terrain of pragmatic concerns.

Alison McManus is a Ph.D. student in History of Science at Princeton University, where she studies twentieth-century chemical sciences. She is particularly interested in the development and deployment of chemical weapons technologies.