Inside Anthology-Making: An Interview with Sarah Robbins (Part II)

By Sanjana Chowdhury

Sarah Ruffing Robbins is the Lorraine Sherley Professor of Literature at TCU. She has published ten academic books, including the Choice-award-winning monograph Managing Literacy, Mothering America (2004); The Cambridge Introduction to Harriet Beecher Stowe (2007); a co-edited award-winning critical edition of Nellie Arnott’s Writings on Angola (2011); and a monograph building links between archival research and public-oriented humanities projects, Learning Legacies: Archive to Action through Women’s Cross-Cultural Teaching (2017). She is presently co-editing a special issue of English Journal on the impact of current curriculum wars on secondary education in the US; serving as the coordinator of selection and assessment for Building a More Perfect Union, a major NEH grant supporting over three dozen participatory humanities projects; and doing preliminary research for a monograph on the role of the arts in the construction of counter-histories addressing justice issues. With Andrew Taylor and Chris Hanlon, she co-edits the book series on “Interventions in Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Culture” for Edinburgh University Press

Sanjana Chowdhury spoke to Dr. Robbins about the 2022 anthology Transatlantic Anglophone Literatures, 1776 – 1920, which was another collaboration with Dr. Taylor, also including Dr. Linda K. Hughes, Adam Nemmers, and Heidi Hakimi-Hood as additional team members. Dr. Robbins is serving as faculty sponsor for that project’s companion website, which is managed by a team of graduate students and alumni from TCU.

Read the first part of the interview here.

Sanjana Chowdhury: It is really great that the Teaching Transatlanticism website exists, and, unlike a print edition, digital space is unlimited and perfect for featuring the ever-expanding conversation around Transatlantic literature. It is also on the web, which means it is accessible to anyone anywhere across the globe. Providing the Transatlantic literature resources to readers and scholars everywhere for free is a great political statement too. Since we did talk about categories like race and gender, I would like to hear your thoughts on how education depends so much on social class, race, and gender, and other intersections of identities that are placed on us by society. It appears that the Transatlanticism website is taking a stand that education and knowledge should be free and accessible irrespective of one’s identity categories. 

Sarah Ruffing Robbins: Yes, I think this digital space will bring more people into the work of the digital anthology. I am also really excited about how the website is generating some types of texts on its own, like the “Image of the Month” feature. Again, Edinburgh University Press was very generous in letting us have sixty illustrations from the print anthology to publish on the website. It is vital to understand that culture and cultural change did not just happen in words but also in imagery. I think the website has the capacity to make that even more, pardon the pun, visible. As an editorial team, we are beginning to devote more time to seeking out images to include in our presentation of primary texts on the web. One good example is Saffyre Falkenberg’s engaging treatment of a story by Frances Hodgson Burnett, “Little Betty’s Kitten,” which includes a set of illustrations from one of the editions of the story. Saffyre also addresses the role of the illustrator and his place in Transatlantic publishing culture.  

SC: As part of the web team, I think the website also provides a particularly inviting space for conversation about issues that remain relevant in the present day, such as questions of gender or race. The fluidity of the digital environment reminds us that culture is ever-changing, even as it reflects the influences of past events, movements, and social issue. For instance, there is the ongoing debate on abortion right now. How do we read and teach texts that contain the history of the Transatlantic Anglophone world as we navigate through and possibly even resist current political changes? As we look for more individual texts to add to the digital anthology, I hope we can also inscribe intertextual connections across texts, themes, and writers; marking those movements with techniques like listing the same entry in more than one theme, or directing users from one text to a related one (such as saying “see also…”), we can help spotlight the various genealogies of ideas and social practices across time and space.

The editor-in-chief of the Teaching Transatlanticism website, Soffia Huggins has recently chimed in on this subject. She stated, “I definitely see the website as an ongoing archive, and with that, I constantly am thinking of what archives ARE and what they DO. Because of the ease and fluidity of the web, I think that keeping in mind how archives craft narrative is perhaps less intuitive than in print but it is just as essential. In building the anthology in particular, I often consider that what we don’t include is as important to that narrative as what we can and do include. As for tracing radical genealogies, I think that is my personal hope for the website. The affordances of the digital anthology to show how texts are connected makes this particularly exciting. The connections between radical and roots come to mind, especially when you think of the ways in which texts are part of larger systems AND the way a website is put together, connected through an intricate series of roots and branches of code.”

SRR: One of the things I love about Transatlanticism as a field is the way it helps us see cultural movements  like women’s rights and racial justice across time. Sometimes we feel like our moment is unique, and it might in fact be uniquely terrible – or wonderful – in a certain way, but rarely is it unique and instead have connections to other moments in history. A past period can help us think through strategies for engaging with these important issues.  

For example, the anthology was envisioned pre-COVID and the pandemic was not on our mind. The Spanish Flu of 1918 fell out of our cultural memory until we looked for answers in the past during COVID. So, coming back to the question of women’s right to their own bodies and reproductive rights, the anthology does not have a theme specifically labeled “medical”, but we have a few texts scattered across the ten themes. We need to bring attention to certain topics like “medicine” and “disability/ability” in the digital space, and I look forward to doing that. Similarly, one colleague who’s taken a close look at the anthology commented to me recently that she’d like to see us bring together and highlight texts about education–and not just non-fiction ones–in nineteenth-century Transatlantic culture. She was speculating that some of the current curriculum wars – especially in the US, where the political Right is attacking frameworks like Critical Race Theory – might have antecedents in the long nineteenth century.   

SC: These are very relevant topics to feature on the website, and also to bring to the classroom. I think the Transatlantic anthology is a great resource for teaching. What do you think are the best ways of adapting the anthology for teaching undergraduate courses, both literature courses and non-literature (for example, Women and Gender Studies, or Race and Ethnicity Studies) courses? 

SRR: In a course I was preparing to teach in fall 2022, I found my own work on the digital anthology team led me to consider what texts I’d learned about from that work could be added to my class, especially texts that would be particularly helpful and relevant to my students. We have, for instance, a couple of pieces by Mary Seacole, but I might use more of her book Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole, especially the section on Crimea. One of the things you see right away when you open that book is a map of Ukraine. That is a space that was not geographically familiar to many people three or four years ago, but now it is going to be on everyone’s mind, and people want to be supportive of the experiences of folks who are undergoing the stress of warfare. So, I developed plans to teach from the online anthology – and excerpts from the print one – to touch on some current topics.  

SC: That is a very relevant topic and I am sure the students would find it helpful to see historical and literary perspectives about Crimea, Ukraine, and those regions. Since we are on the subject of current events and relevant texts, I would like to touch on the question of race and racial justice. The anthology is very sensitive to and respectful of various issues surrounding race in the long nineteenth century. How do you think the reader should approach the racial topics discussed in the book, especially given the current environment of racial tension in the Western world? 

SRR: As you said earlier, we have questions of race woven through the entire anthology. I am  especially thinking about texts in anticipation of the Phillis Wheatley anniversary in 2023 – it is the 250th anniversary of her 1773 collection of poetry, the first such collection by an Black American poet, who at the time of her initial publications, was actually a Transatlantic British subject. I want to do some work beyond what is already in the print anthology, that would encourage us to bring more material on to the digital space

In addition to that, I have been thinking recently about mixed-race identities, and about different strategies of interacting with the questions of race in the light of the anti-CRT movement currently going on in US schools. I want to foreground that a bit more in class, so I picked out two texts from Pauline Johnson. We have one piece by her in the print anthology – a long memoir that appeared in a newspaper that tells her own story of being mixed race and traveling and moving in and out of different cultural spaces. In my class, I wanted students to read more of her short stories, not just the poetry, since I think her critique of how race limits social agency is often more pointed in the prose.  

I was excited to have them read some texts that are not in the print anthology or the website yet. And, at the time of this interview, I am starting to work with the members of the class to support their selection and development of new entries, their own new contributions for the digital anthology. Linda and I have used materials from the anthology in the recent graduate seminars, but fall 2022 would the first time for me to teach with the actual physical copy of the book. At the point when we are having this conversation, Sanjana, I’m framing questions to share with those undergraduates. I want to know from my students what they think of the themes and what they think of who’s there and who they might feel is not there, and really encourage them to use the course to think about the way that systems of knowledge get organized. To use John Guillory’s term, the syllabus becomes a culture maker and creates cultural capital. I really want to encourage my students to understand the way those systems get artificially constructed and how they might exercise agency to resist the very structures that are presented to them in any literature class. I hope the way the anthology is organized and the way the introductions to the various sections and annotations are crafted will encourage people to view the anthology as an ever-dynamic process of thinking and learning. 

SC: I am sure that would be a very valuable learning experience for your students. It is a wonderful way of being on the inside and outside at the same time, as they see how systems of knowledge are created and what they can do to resist it from within. That is an effective political strategy, and I am very excited to see how this class unfolds. 

SRR: I hope you will come visit the class! And I think the “inside-outside” description is a very generative one that I will borrow for the class. 

SC: I will certainly come to your class! I have one last question as we wrap up our wonderful discussion today. We have talked about the digital anthology and thinking of it as a dynamic growing organism, but I was wondering if there any future projects you are envisioning in terms of Transatlantic literature of the long nineteenth century or maybe even transoceanic literature.  

SRR: We talked a little bit about the Wheatley anniversary in 2023. I am also teaching a diaspora literature course for the first time in spring 2023. There is certainly a lot of nineteenth-century material to look at, but I am also thinking of “transtemporal” literature that will go forward as well as back in time. Of course, when you tear down fences like time periods and other categories, there is always a danger that you get lost in the sheer quantity and possibility of texts, and you also worry that you are going beyond the area where you have knowledge and expertise. 

  Connecting to your earlier question about teaching Transatlantic literature in a Women and Gender Studies class, I was thinking of how we can teach it when we take “gender and sexuality” as a broader category. It is important to consider how folks who would identify with LGBTQ+ identities are underrepresented in the current version of the anthology, and addressing that limitation is certainly a future project. I think one of the ways that I can imagine using the anthology in a future graduate course is by constructing some alternative anthologies. In the NEH project I mentioned earlier, Making American Literatures, that I did with folks from UC-Berkeley and the University of Michigan, one of my favorite secondary school educators who was part of the learning and teaching team, charged her 11th graders to reorganize their own anthology. I thought that was such a wonderful thing to do. One of her strategies that I have always tried to model on, is never to start at the beginning, but always start with the “now”, with something contemporary to the moment that is important and has roots in the previous periods. I am working on a new monograph, Telling Histories, and I am thinking about what is in the current moment that encourages us to creatively construct engagement with the past. These kinds of texts are not seeking to do factual reporting, but rather a carrying out a creative engagement with the past that admits to being rhetorical and that tries to intervene in the contemporary culture through that imaginative, aesthetic process. I am curious to see how we might use new literature and other artistic productions to rethink some things from nineteenth-century Transatlantic culture more broadly in ways that would be useful to us today and would help us live our lives more thoughtfully and productively.  

Sanjana Chowdhury is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at Texas Christian University. She has also completed a graduate certificate in Comparative Race and Ethnicity Studies. Sanjana is the copy editor of the digital humanities project Teaching Transatlanticism, an online resource for teaching nineteenth-century Anglo-American print culture. Her peer reviewed essay on Hinduism has been published in the Palgrave Encyclopedia of Victorian Women’s Writing (ed. Dr. Lesa Scholl), 2022. Her research interests include Long Nineteenth-Century literature, marxist theory, postcolonial theory, critical race theory, and British Empire history. She is currently researching foodways of the British Raj.

Edited by Shuvatri Dasgupta

Featured Image: Élisée Reclus (1873) Ocean, Atmosphere, and Life, being the Second Series of a Descriptive History of the Life of the Globe, New York City, NY: Harper & Brothers, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Inside Anthology-Making: An Interview with Sarah Robbins (Part I)

By Sanjana Chowdhury

Sarah Ruffing Robbins is the Lorraine Sherley Professor of Literature at TCU. She has published ten academic books, including the Choice-award-winning monograph Managing Literacy, Mothering America (2004); The Cambridge Introduction to Harriet Beecher Stowe (2007); a co-edited award-winning critical edition of Nellie Arnott’s Writings on Angola (2011); and a monograph building links between archival research and public-oriented humanities projects, Learning Legacies: Archive to Action through Women’s Cross-Cultural Teaching (2017). She is presently co-editing a special issue of English Journal on the impact of current curriculum wars on secondary education in the US; serving as the coordinator of selection and assessment for Building a More Perfect Union, a major NEH grant supporting over three dozen participatory humanities projects; and doing preliminary research for a monograph on the role of the arts in the construction of counter-histories addressing justice issues. With Andrew Taylor and Chris Hanlon, she co-edits the book series on “Interventions in Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Culture” for Edinburgh University Press

Sanjana Chowdhury spoke to Dr. Robbins about the 2022 anthology Transatlantic Anglophone Literatures, 1776 – 1920, which was another collaboration with Dr. Taylor, also including Dr. Linda K. Hughes, Adam Nemmers, and Heidi Hakimi-Hood as additional team members. Dr. Robbins is serving as faculty sponsor for that project’s companion website, which is managed by a team of graduate students and alumni from TCU. 

Sanjana Chowdhury: What was the inspiration/motivation/starting point for the Transatlantic Anglophone Literatures anthology? 

Sarah Ruffing Robbins: There are several strands there that are worth mentioning. One inspiration came from teaching a Transatlantic Literature course with Dr. Linda Hughes. We got the idea not too long after I came to Texas Christian University (henceforth TCU) in Fall of 2009. Since we both worked in Nineteenth-century Studies, and we were both aware that Nineteenth-century Studies was becoming increasingly global, both in research and teaching, we thought we might be well positioned to envision a Transatlantic course. So we started meeting and planning the class and thinking what it might look like. We were fortunate enough to get an Instructional Development Grant from TCU, which allowed us to bring a series of scholars to the first offering of the course. So we developed the first version of the syllabus, and we got it ready to run, and we had several visiting scholars come to our class at different times during the course. One of them was Dr. Meredith McGill, who has done amazing work on the culture of reprinting. One was Dr. Kate Flint, who has that wonderful book on the Transatlantic Indian, and another was Barbara McCaskill, who works on the Black Atlantic. Having those scholars come in was doubly helpful because they each taught a seminar session with us, and they also reflected with us on the syllabus, on what was there and maybe what was not there the first time and how we could make it better. From those conversations we began to realize that everyone who was trying to do transatlantic pedagogy was hoping to have more infrastructure and guidance for their work, and that is how we got the idea for the first book, a collection of essays called Teaching Transatlanticism. We approached Edinburgh University Press about publishing it because we knew that they had already done work in Transatlantic studies. They were enthusiastic, and published that first collection entitled Teaching Transatlanticism: Resources for Teaching Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American Print Culture (edited by Linda K. Hughes and Sarah R. Robbins, Edinburgh UP, 2015). The Table of Contents and the Introduction of  collection are available on the website Teaching Transatlanticism. That book did well, and it led the press then to approach us about maybe doing a primary text anthology. So it was an iterative process, growing out of our teaching and also out of a wonderful connection we made with an interested press that has a sustained interest in the topic. Andrew Taylor, our co-editor, had already done a lot of work with the Edinburgh University Press, and he came on board. So the three of us – Linda, Andrew, and I – started thinking about the anthology. That was kind of the starting point.

SC: That is such an interesting backstory! It is amazing that the Transatlantic Anthology came out of creating a course, because I always imagined it to be the other way around since we tend to follow a book to teach a course.

SRR: That is often the general assumption, but I think it is important for people to know that teaching really came first for us. The learning, however, goes back even further. When I was at the University of Michigan for my doctoral studies, my very first course was a Transatlantic Literature course with Dr. Julie Ellison. So I was certainly trained in and encouraged to envision the possibilities for Transatlantic Studies. Even before that, when I did my Masters at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill many years ago, I took two courses with Dr. Richard Fogle, who was a nineteenth-century specialist. I would not say he organized his courses as transatlantic, but he worked on both sides of the pond, as it were. Edgar A. Poe, Henry James, and Nathaniel Hawthorne were the main figures in one of the courses I took with him, and in that class he did present such authors in transatlantic terms. (I also took a marvelous course with him on British Romantics, wherein he made connections between those poets and American writers. I guess you could say that I have been thinking of and working with Transatlantic literature and pedagogy for multiple decades. 

SC: The entire process behind your anthology is very informative. I completely agree that we should be cognizant of how anthologies shape fields of study. Are the organizational categories of the Transatlantic Anthology also a product of the thought process about formative powers of anthologies? When you organized different authors and works under different categories, what was the reasoning behind the decision? How do you think this organization helps the reader?

SRR: When you organize materials for teaching or scholarship, what you are doing is constructing an artificial system. It is not a material object that exists in the world, but rather a deliberate construct. Our collection of ten themes came out of collaboration among the three lead editors – Linda, Andrew, and me, as well as the associate editors and advisory board members. 

There is a story that Linda loves to tell, and I want to credit her for it.  In a really pivotal moment in the early envisioning of the anthology, we were able to get together in person in Washington, DC, during a very early stage of our work. We were all three presenting together at the American Literature Association (henceforth ALA). It was so generous of Linda to go to ALA because it is not one of her regular conferences, and Andrew flew over from Edinburgh. We spent a whole day in my daughter’s condo in DC while she and her husband were off at work, and we literally sat at the kitchen table all day talking about how we wanted to organize and why we wanted to organize that way, and our initial idea that it should be thematic. We tried to blend chronology and themes for the anthology, but we could not see an easy way to do it quite as smoothly as a straightforward chronological listing as in some anthologies, and we did not really want to. We spent some time thinking really hard about what the most important topics were that people would probably want to teach and we literally argued, in the academic sense, over those different themes. Some of them were obvious, like “Migration and Settlement”. “Abolition of Slavery” initially seemed like an obvious organizational theme, but after some thought, we realized that we needed to think of the aftermath too. This was well before the 1619 Project (initiated by The New York Times in 2019) that marked the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery and that focuses on the contribution of Black Americans to the national narrative of America. I think that, in a sense, we were anticipating the argument of the 1619 Project that slavery as well as anti-slavery does not have a neat start and end date. It has a long life, broad consequences, and cultural legacies. So one thing that we were trying to do by organizing thematically was to resist the very chronology that we were using. Although we wanted to focus on the nineteenth century, and that is the time period we co-editors work in for much of our scholarship, we immediately undermined our chronology by starting with 1776 and ending with 1920. To say “Long Nineteenth Century” is not a new thing, but we had to put some thought into what should be the starting point, and how we were going to trace the thematic threads across this long time period we were working on. 

By the end of that day in DC, we had about seven or eight themes, and the advisory board was extremely helpful in separating some of the themes. For example, “Migration” and “Travel” became separate themes, because the kind of travel you do when you are Henry James or Edith Wharton going on a trip is very different from the migration for settler colonialism. We also received important advice from the board about categorization of authors. Barbara MacCaskill, for instance, told us to make a commitment that Black writers would not just be in the expected categories but across all ten themes. So we were attentive that Black writers and Indigenous writers – First Nations and Native American authors – would not be cubby-holed. That is how we began to think of potential primary texts to go under particular themes. 

Literature anthologies tend to be chronological, and thematic periodization, such as Romanticism or Realism, seems to be confined to specific time periods, when in fact modes of thinking are not actually constrained to and fenced off in a particular period of time. So, one of the things our anthology is actively trying to resist is the practice of assigning a firm starting and ending point to a literary and/or political movement. One of the ways we carried out our resistance is by organizing the anthology in the ten themes (which are now also mirrored on our companion website). Within each theme, we did organize texts somewhat chronologically, but twisted that a bit too by having clusters of texts that were responding to each other not necessarily presented exactly chronologically. We want readers to have those moments of surprise and to see the places where we have resisted our own structure. 

We did the same thing with “Anglophone”. We are not experts in multilingual dimensions of transatlantic study. For instance, I speak and read French and Italian. But I do not work in other languages that were important to the culture of Transatlanticism in the nineteenth century, such as Spanish or Portuguese So we had to recognize the limits of our own expertise, but, at the same time, we wanted to acknowledge that the Anglophone textual exchange was constantly interacting with other languages. There are several instances in the anthology where we are presenting a text in English but it comes out of translation, and we discuss in the headnote for such texts the role of translation and the translator. We are inviting our readers to think about the way “Anglophone”, just like time periods, is not a clearly marked-off territory of knowledge, but rather there are people and discourse moving back and forth across different languages. Even when transatlantic authors are publishing in English, they are interacting with other languages. Overall, I would say that in each of the words in the title of our anthology – “Transatlantic” and “Anglophone” and “Literature”, we are trying to honor but resist each category. 

SC: It is very enlightening to hear about how your academic practice of resisting constructs shaped the organizational themes of the anthology. I especially liked how the various writers of color appear across all ten themes, which is frankly unlike any other literary anthology. Usually, we tend to read authors of color when we are discussing race and racism, or women authors when we talk about gender issues. The Transatlantic Anthology, I believe, is setting the tone for literary anthologies by consciously not putting authors into historically predetermined boxes.

SSR: This is where I want to send a shout-out to generous colleagues like a wonderful cohort of Black scholars—such as Koritha Mitchell and Joycelyn Moody—who came to a luncheon I arranged during a conference on women’s literature and spent that hour-plus spinning out recommendations of Black Atlantic writers, especially women, whose texts should appear in the anthology. Our advisory board members were essential; we asked them to make suggestions for individual texts, and that is how we generated such a wealth of varied literary works. I am also going to go back to something you said earlier about scholarship preceding teaching. There were, of course, pivotal pieces of scholarship, such as Jace Weaver’s The Red Atlantic (2014), which served as a kind of scholarly “Bible” for helping us think about who were major First Nations and Native American writers that we should read and incorporate. We were also thinking about the women writers who had worked their way into important positions in the scholarship on nineteenth-century literature and transatlantic culture. We were thinking in terms of intertextuality, so that individual texts within a section would speak to each other, in addition to how the texts from one section would interact with other sections. This is why certain authors appear in multiple thematic spaces. 

It was extremely beneficial that we already had the Teaching Transatlanticism website, and we knew that taking out a text did not mean it was not part of the conversation, since we could feature the text on the digital anthology. In fact, we came to recognize that some texts might be better positioned on the website, where they could appear under multiple categories, and need not be excerpted as much as is necessary for the print anthology. We were trying to make thoughtful decisions in that regard, and also invite people to think conceptually to bring more texts to the website in the long term. Anyone who teaches with the Transatlantic Anthology will probably think it should have a particular text or author that does not appear there, and the Teaching Transatlanticism website provides us the space to insert that text or author and facilitate further conversation, helping the field continue to grow organically. 

Sanjana Chowdhury is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at Texas Christian University. She has also completed a graduate certificate in Comparative Race and Ethnicity Studies. Sanjana is the copy editor of the digital humanities project Teaching Transatlanticism, an online resource for teaching nineteenth-century Anglo-American print culture. Her peer reviewed essay on Hinduism has been published in the Palgrave Encyclopedia of Victorian Women’s Writing (ed. Dr. Lesa Scholl), 2022. Her research interests include Long Nineteenth-Century literature, marxist theory, postcolonial theory, critical race theory, and British Empire history. She is currently researching foodways of the British Raj.

Edited by Shuvatri Dasgupta

Featured Image: Élisée Reclus (1873) Ocean, Atmosphere, and Life, being the Second Series of a Descriptive History of the Life of the Globe, New York City, NY: Harper & Brothers, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Cassirer and Heidegger in Davos: An Interview with Simon Truwant

By Isabel Jacobs

Simon Truwant is a postdoctoral researcher (funded by FWO – Flemish Research Council) at the Husserl Archives, Center for Contemporary Continental Philosophy of the Institute of Philosophy at KU Leuven. He previously edited the companion Interpreting Cassirer: Critical Essays at Cambridge University Press, and has published articles on Cassirer, Kant, Levinas, and Frankfurt.

Isabel Jacobs is a primary editor at the JHIBlog. She spoke to Simon Truwant about his new book, what the Davos debate can tell us about Cassirer and Heidegger’s respective projects, and why their disagreement remains relevant today. Truwant argues that the key topics in Davos (diverging readings of Kant, the human condition, and the task of philosophy) were central to both Cassirer and the early Heidegger. In his book, Truwant wrestles with the possibility of genuine philosophical dialogue and explores the significance of an existential quest for orientation.

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Isabel Jacobs: Today, when hearing Davos, we might imagine how once a year global movers and shakers jet off to the small town in the Swiss Alps. A century ago, Thomas Mann set his novel The Magic Mountain in a tuberculosis sanatorium in Davos. On 2 April 1929, two major philosophers of the twentieth century, Ernst Cassirer and Martin Heidegger, met for a philosophical dispute that was described by Emmanuel Levinas as ‘witnessing the end of the world.’ First off, could you briefly tell us how you became interested in the Davos debate and what it was all about? 

Simon Truwant: The ‘Davos debate’ was a public discussion in 1929 between Cassirer and Heidegger, two of the most prominent European intellectuals at the time, that formed the culmination point of a three-week ‘Internationale Davoser Hochschulkurs’—something like a summer school, we could say. The express intent of the organizers was to reignite intellectual cross-fertilization between French and German philosophers but the irony is that it became famous for the opposite reason. According to eye-witnesses, including Levinas but also local newspapers, Cassirer was no match for the younger Heidegger, who outshone him in a philosophical, sociocultural, and personal way.

Heidegger swayed the audience with his charisma, but he also embodied the Zeitgeist much better than the erudite but reserved Cassirer, who was known to defend the Weimar Republic as well as the Enlightenment ideals of rationality and progress. As a result, for many decades Cassirer was mainly remembered—if at all—as a historian of philosophy rather than a relevant thinker in his own right. And the Davos debate has always been viewed as a historical moment signaling a large shift in twentieth-century thinking but not a profound philosophical interaction.

I first got fascinated by this debate more than a decade ago when writing my master’s thesis at KU Leuven about Kant and Levinas’ claims about the primacy of practical over theoretical philosophy, or ethics over ontology. I stumbled upon an article that connected this philosophical dialogue—​​in which I was trying to breathe some new life—to one that had actually taken place and that appeared to have a legendary as well as a dramatic status.

I immediately liked everything about it: the discussions about Kant (the first philosopher I was really drawn to) and the human finitude, the mix of a clash of ideas with one of personalities, the forgotten but intriguing figure of Cassirer, the presence of Levinas whose affinities would later shift, but perhaps most of all the generally acknowledged contradiction between the importance of this encounter for philosophy and the failure of an actual philosophical debate. Upon reading the transcripts of the debate, I wasn’t convinced by that last part, and there was so much at stake that the Cassirer-Heidegger dispute seemed like an ideal dissertation topic to me. To be honest, there would come many moments later on when I regretted the size of the project that I had taken on.

IJ: In fact, your book is the first comprehensive philosophical analysis of the debate which builds on and breaks with previous scholarship. For me, it was eye-opening how you work out that, despite substantial disagreements, there are some shared, complementary premises that motivate both Cassirer and Heidegger’s projects. In a few words, how would you describe your approach towards the debate and how does it differ from previous undertakings? 

ST: Well, the main novelty of Cassirer and Heidegger in Davos is that it focuses exclusively on the philosophical content of the Davos debate. I decided to bracket all sociocultural but also all historical interpretations of this event. Many commentators have of course offered philosophical analyses of certain topics discussed in Davos, but the few takes that tackled the debate as a whole focused not so much on its inner dynamics but on the meaning that it had taken on later. For instance, Peter Gordon’s Continental Divide (2010), which has been an invaluable resource for me, is ultimately a work in the history of ideas: it details how certain interpretations of the Davos debate developed throughout the twentieth century, and how that process of ramification is characteristic of continental philosophy.

The main thesis of Michael Friedman’s A Parting of the Ways (2001) is also about the further history of philosophy: Friedman argues that Cassirer’s failure to convince the audience at Davos would lead to the split between analytic and continental philosophy. I adopted a Husserlian stance and attempted to ‘go back to Davos itself’ in order to figure out what was at stake for the protagonists themselves.

Aerial view of Davos.

Within this approach, I could tackle the question whether the Davos debate was not a philosophically rich and coherent conversation after all. This too breaks with most of the existing literature which predominantly accounted for the substantial disagreements between Cassirer and Heidegger. I by no means want to deny or even downplay these disagreements. But I have tried to paint a broader story of mutual philosophical engagement between two great thinkers, within which the full meaning of these quarrels can first come to light.

I was motivated by the fact that the Davos debate was only one moment in a much longer conversation that lasted from 1923 until 1946. During my research, I found out that the key topics in Davos—Kant, the human condition, and the task of philosophy—were related to each other in a way that also propelled this 23-year long conversation and Cassirer and Heidegger’s own philosophies.

IJ: This is so interesting! Even though your book goes into the heart of this debate, you also make an important commentary on the history of ideas: that going back to Davos radically shifts our view on the development of continental philosophy. As you indicate, the different parts of your book reflect three interrelated issues that were crucial for Cassirer and Heidegger’s philosophical Auseinandersetzung. First, the lasting impact of Kant’s philosophy; second, different conceptions of the human being; third, the task of philosophy. 

Let’s start with your first point. You argue that both thinkers depart from the same ground while interpreting it in different ways. Where Cassirer incorporates Kant’s project into a universal philosophy of culture—elaborated in his monumental Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (1923-29)—Heidegger argues that Kant’s critical method foreshadows his own phenomenological ontology. Can you elaborate a bit on the role the contested legacy of Kant plays in the Davos debate? 

ST: Although I am sure that they were very serious about it themselves, I find the way in which Cassirer and Heidegger try to claim ownership over Kant’s project of transcendental philosophy quite amusing. Already in the independent lectures that each thinker gave in Davos on the days prior to their debate, they deliberately step into the other’s domain: Cassirer, who otherwise rarely discusses the human condition or confronts other contemporary thinkers, criticizes the way Heidegger and Lebensphilosophie emphasize the limitations of human nature.

Heidegger, in turn, provides a highly original interpretation of Kant that challenges the foundations of Neo-Kantianism, the then popular philosophical school to which Cassirer belonged. Yet during the first back-and-forths of the Davos debate, they are so polite to each other that it leads to a situation in which Cassirer labels Heidegger as a Neo-Kantian while Heidegger does not dare to identify Cassirer as such.

As a consequence, the difference between their readings of Kant actually remains very unclear in Davos. Heidegger defends an ‘ontological reading’ of the Critique of Pure Reason that he opposes to the epistemological reading advanced by the Neo-Kantians, but it is not explained what such readings entail. Moreover, Cassirer rejects the epistemological label anyway, and with reason, since his philosophy of symbolic forms offers a broad theory of cultural meaning. Similarly, their famous disagreement about the either spontaneous or receptive nature of the power of transcendental imagination according to Kant’s first Critique is actually barely mentioned in the transcripts of the Davos debate.

Rather than taking this as a cue that Cassirer and Heidegger were talking past each other, I however argue that it shows how their disagreement about Kant’s legacy serves another goal, namely their more fundamental disagreement about the finitude or infinity of human existence. That being said, Kant’s influence persists throughout their thought on the human condition and the task of philosophy, so his role in the background of the Davos debate cannot be overestimated. It is just not where you would expect it.

IJ: Following your analysis of Cassirer and Heidegger’s readings of Kant, you describe their impact on each thinker’s respective worldview. You speak of a kind of “hidden anthropology” in Cassirer’s work. I found it fascinating how you retrace that, while Cassirer repeatedly emphasized the anthropogenic nature of symbolic forms—stating that they are expressions of human culture—he never systematically completed this task. As a consequence, you argue, his conception of the human being, or subjectivity, is not as clear-cut as one might think. What is the task of Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic forms and what does it tell us about human consciousness?

ST: Cassirer abides by Kant’s claim that we cannot have any knowledge of things in themselves. Objectivity, for him, is a product of transcendental or symbolic consciousness, and all that we can examine is the process through which cultural meaning comes to be. Thus, the philosophy of symbolic forms sets out to examine the various ways—mythological, religious, linguistic, scientific, political—in which cultural objects are formed. But the flip side of Cassirer’s premise is that we also cannot have any access to a human subject either: we can only know what it produces. This means that his entire philosophy of culture is grounded on a transcendental subjective principle or mechanism that itself can be neither directly nor fundamentally understood.

In my opinion this is a consistent philosophical position but it leaves some very interesting questions unanswered. For example, how can we, as symbolic animals, switch between an artistic and a political perspective of a certain building, or between a scientific and religious explanation of a sign? We are clearly capable of doing so in our daily lives, and it’s a very relevant question for philosophy of culture, but Cassirer’s ‘functional account of human consciousness’ cannot account for it.

IJ: I agree, there is a kind of blind spot regarding the translation between these different perspectives or ‘ways of worldmaking’ if you want. In which sense is Cassirer’s concept of consciousness comparable to—and fundamentally different from—Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein? And what does Heidegger mean by Dasein’s being-in-the-world in your reading through the lens of Davos?

ST: Their views on the human condition are comparable in so far as both Cassirer and Heidegger take the human being to be a being that is at its core, as in: that is what we are, in search of meaning. Negatively put, no fixed or stable meaning exists, and it is therefore up to us to continuously constitute meaning or to project it into the world. Viewed more positively, both Cassirer and Heidegger have a lot of confidence in our capacity to do so.

This is of course not a view of the human condition that is exclusive to these two thinkers, but it does establish a common ground between them. The main difference, as I take it, is that Cassirer’s central question is how we can bring forth cultural meaning in a variety of ways, while Heidegger’s thought is spurred by the question why we need to do this in the first place. It is these different viewpoints that lead them to emphasize the infinite and finite nature of the human being respectively.

IJ: These different conceptions of human subjectivity seem to be at the core of the Davos debate. It’s convincing how you trace back Cassirer and Heidegger’s thought to one fundamental issue: the existential concern for orientation in the world. Can you tell us a bit more about what you mean by orientation? Where does the term come from and why is it so important for both thinkers?

ST: You can indeed rephrase what I just said in terms of existential orientation: to project cultural or existential meaning is to orient oneself in a human world. Thus, Cassirer and Heidegger consider the defining characteristic of the human being its capacity to establish for itself a meaningful position towards other worldly beings and events on the basis of some intelligible experiences. According to Cassirer, we do this through symbolic imagination, according to Heidegger this is possible thanks to Dasein’s care structure. What makes things really interesting is that both thinkers distinguish an everyday orientation within a world from a reflective orientation towards that world.

I would even say that Cassirer and the early Heidegger’s philosophies gain depth and complexity once they try to explain the interplay between these two modes of orientation. In Cassirer’s case, you have his descriptions of how symbolic consciousness effortlessly orients itself within a mythological, religious, scientific, etc. cultural sphere on the one hand, and how humanity resides in the capacity to navigate between these different domains on the other. Heidegger’s existential analytic first explains how we always already orient ourselves in the world by means of our circumspective, pre-ontological understanding of beings, and then how Dasein can own itself by realizing that its potential cannot coincide with any worldly self-understanding.

Ernst Cassirer (left) and Martin Heidegger (right) in Davos, March 1929

For Cassirer the interesting question is how we can balance the dogmatic claims of each cultural domain with the awareness that their worldviews are plural and hence relative. For Heidegger the issue is how, given that we will always be pulled back into the world by ‘the they’ (his philosophical notion for the public opinion, one could say), we can nevertheless aspire to live an owned life. This is, by the way, also where Kant’s influence pops up again. His extraordinary essay ‘What does it mean to orient oneself in thinking?’ explains how to navigate ourselves within and between theoretical and practical reason; it was praised by Cassirer and discussed by Heidegger in Being and Time.

IJ: At one point, you describe how you ‘wrestled’ with two very different worldviews while also searching for your own philosophical voice. When reading your book, I could feel this process of oscillating between two poles, on a kind of dialectical path towards your own position. While you convincingly unveil that there is plenty of common ground between Cassirer and Heidegger, you never fully reconcile the tension between the two of them. Can you tell us a bit more about your method? How was it to comparatively work with these two thinkers? And how did this process of ‘wrestling’ change your way of doing philosophy?

ST: To stick with the model of two-tier orientation, the struggle was real because I simultaneously wrestled to find my way within Heidegger’s thought, with its particular terminology, within Cassirer’s writings, deceptively accessible but void of key definitions, and between these thinkers without subsuming the one to the other. But precisely that struggle has been the most formative aspect of this research for me as a philosopher, because—and I only realized this as time passed by—it is the enactment of what I find the most worthwhile subject of philosophy. Let me try to explain that. 

Across different research projects, I have always been interested in the possibility of thoughtful and productive conversation between people with radically different viewpoints, and I seek that possibility in shared motivations or struggles that underlie these viewpoints. I first tried this in my earlier research on Kant and Levinas, then in this book on the Davos debate, and it is now the thematic topic of my current research on ‘post-truth.’

I wouldn’t really know how to describe my method, if I even had one, but the key may have been not to want to reconcile the tension between Kant and Levinas, between Cassirer and Heidegger, or between scientific facts and lived experience, but rather to make the genuinely distinct viewpoints that constitute this tension be heard through it, so that they can nevertheless inspire each other. That has been my aspiration, at least.

IJ: In contemporary scholarship, Cassirer and Heidegger seem to occupy almost diametrically opposed positions. While there’s some sort of Cassirer revival—not least because of your important essay collection—Heidegger continues to polarize, especially after the anti-semitism accusations following the publication of his “Black Notebooks” in 2014.

I think that as philosophers and intellectual historians today, we must critically engage with and shape the reception of ambivalent legacies—without falling into the trap of simply ignoring someone who does not fit into our Zeitgeist. At the same time, maybe we need some sort of research ethics for intellectual historians? 

That being said, in my view, one of the many achievements of your book is the following. You approach these two very different figures truly philosophically, through close readings and concise reasoning, and without entering prejudiced, ideological battles or coming to an easy conclusion of who “won” the Davos debate. And even more importantly, you make a strong case for productive debate as a crucial motor of philosophy. I sometimes feel that philosophers today tend to avoid all kinds of moral gray zones, controversies, and ambiguities. Maybe you disagree, but I would be interested in your opinion about that. In other words, to loosely quote Part III of your book, what is the task of philosophy today?

ST: It was very important for me to not pick a side in the Davos debate, because I’m personally fascinated by both Cassirer and Heidegger’s ideas and ways of thinking, but also because I am convinced that that would lead to a philosophically less interesting story. 

I also was never interested in who won the debate, my focus was on the conversation and whether and when and why it was a productive one. All I further hoped for was that there does not need to be a philosophical loser—and in view of that, that my book will aid the rehabilitation of Cassirer’s thought. But this not-picking-a-side was not easy, because many Heidegger scholars still find Cassirer superficial and boring, while many Cassirer scholars find Heidegger a dangerous thinker, so they just don’t engage with him. I hope my book can also help remedy this a bit, because I think they are two original and complementary thinkers.

More generally, I have very little patience with the hagiographic approach to the history of philosophy, by which I mean attempts to just render a past philosopher’s thought or writings internally consistent, as if that provides us with any useful insights. On the other hand, I think we should be able to continue studying philosophers with questionable ‘lifestyles.’ I understand everyone who decides that, given the amount of interesting thinkers one can devote one’s research time to, they are not going to spend it on a Nazi. But I personally find Heidegger’s early thought very appealing, and there is no denying that it has had an enormous impact on contemporary continental philosophy.

I consider it the task of philosophy to enable dialogue, by which I mean to open up spaces for reconsiderations about the basic presuppositions of our thinking and acting. We can rely on insights from past thinkers for this, but in my view we should thereby always steer towards mutual, more inclusive understanding. In a book like Cassirer and Heidegger in Davos, two historical figures take the foreground, but even then what motivated me was figuring out the conditions of possibility for thoughtful, productive conversation.

IJ: You wonderfully describe the tension between Cassirer and Heidegger’s conception of philosophy as an ethical divide: they fundamentally disagree when it comes to ‘the question how the human being should orient itself in and towards the world’ (220). You argue that Cassirer strives towards self-realization, or what you call Enlightenment, whereas Heidegger understands philosophy as therapy. What do you mean by these two conceptions of philosophy? 

ST: This is, in my view, the key to the entire Davos debate and to the entire 23-year long dispute between Cassirer and Heidegger. In the end, Cassirer believes that self-knowledge can lead to progressive self-realization through fuller participation in the formation of culture or humanity. The task of philosophy, specifically philosophy of culture, is to guide this process, to be ‘the caretaker of reason.’ Heidegger, on the other hand, is less optimistic: the existential analytic is therapeutic in the sense that it only aims at self-awareness for the sake of self-acceptance. His idea of the task of philosophy is to help Dasein reconcile itself with its finite nature. Their respective views on the human condition follow from these different philosophical and existential aspirations, and these views in turn inform their interpretations of Kant.

IJ: I would be curious about your new project. What comes after Davos?

ST: I am not entirely done yet with the triadic relationship between Kant, Cassirer, and Heidegger. Cassirer and Heidegger’s well-known interpretations and appropriations of the first Critique are almost exclusively based on readings of its Transcendental Analytic. But my sense is that the Transcendental Dialectic has been just as instructive for either thinker. Cassirer at one point describes the clashes between symbolic forms as ‘antinomies of culture’ and Heidegger hints at a similarity between Dasein’s striving for owned existence and Kant’s notion of transcendental illusion. I could not fit this into the book but it would support my theory of the two modes of orientation, so I would like to pursue this further connection some time.

My main research project at the moment is however on truth pluralism. I examine the diverse ways in which we take things to be true in our everyday lives as well as in public debates. Depending on the context and motivation, we shift between different notions of truth: as factual accuracy, as coherence with a worldview, as pragmatic success, or as lived truth. For example, we can meaningfully and truthfully discuss the problem of criminality on the basis of statistics, ideological vision, feasible policies, and sentiments about a changing society.

In the current so-called ‘post-truth era,’ we however all too often fail to properly distinguish and appropriately invoke these notions of truth, all of which have legitimate uses but all of which can also be abused or their criteria violated to sow confusion and sabotage productive debates. By disentangling these notions and the corresponding forms of untruthfulness (such as fake news, conspiracy theories, irony, populism, or ‘both-sideism’), I hope to develop a new ethics of conversation for the post-truth era.

Featured Image: Book cover of Simon Truwant’s Cassirer and Heidegger in Davos, May 2022. Courtesy: Cambridge University Press.


Political Economy, Liberalism, and Foucault: An Interview with Upal Chakrabarti (Part 2)

By Osama Siddiqui

Upal Chakrabarti is an Assistant Professor in the Sociology Department at Presidency University in Kolkata. His research interests focus on intellectual history, colonialism, political economy, agrarian studies, science studies, and governance. He received his PhD in History from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and has been a Fellow at the Institute for Critical Social Inquiry at the New School for Social Research. His research has been published in journals like Modern Asian Studies, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, and South Asian History and Culture. He is currently working with the British Library and the University of Chicago in preparing an archive of the institutional records of the Hindu/Presidency College, the first institution of western education in Asia, and editing a collection of essays on institutional micro-histories, science, disciplinarity, and pedagogy in colonial south Asia.

Osama Siddiqui spoke to him about his recent book, Assembling the Local: Political Economy and Agrarian Governance in British India, published in 2021 with the University of Pennsylvania Press as part of the Intellectual History of the Modern Age series.

Osama Siddiqui:  You’ve argued that one instance of this reorientation can be seen in debates over rent. As you show, the category of rent in colonial India was reconceptualized, moving away from a Ricardian definition that was rooted in the differential fertility of soil to thinking of rent as a way of regulating political power. What implications did this have for the way in which the colonial state saw the relationship between sovereignty and property?

Upal Chakrabarti: One of the things I’ve argued in the first chapter of the book that it’s not the case that all professed anti-Ricardians were necessarily self-conscious critics of Ricardo. I place critics of Ricardo even among those who were self-styled devotees of Ricardo. This is something we need to keep in mind when thinking about what was happening to Ricardo’s ideas. For example, someone like James Mill, despite being an ardent devotee of Ricardo, ended up having an impact on the transformation and displacement of Ricardian ideas in the Indian context because of his great investment in empire and his close studies of Indian history, society, religion, custom, and so on. In other words, many of them, Ricardians as well as anti-Ricardians, irrespective of their self-stylings, could be read as contributing to this epistemological reorientation of political economy.

The epistemological reorientation I’ve discussed is more explicit in Jones, who argued that history, tradition, politics, and religion all have to be taken into account when we think through political economic categories in contexts outside Britain. Interestingly, if one reads Jones carefully, what one can notice is that ultimately Jones is not even saying that Ricardo’s universals work in Europe. So, it’s not a simple, or typical, case of Europe versus Asia. Jones discusses many other European nations, such as Greece, Hungary, Russia, Italy, France, and so on. In each of these contexts, he ultimately shows that there are very specific social fabrics with different political systems and different religious ideas, which together produce different economic conditions. In other words, he can’t even identify what is the real authentic place for the universality of Ricardian ideas. So, when he enters Britain, he starts talking about different parts of Britain as coming close to or being distant from the ideas that Ricardo is talking about. What I’m trying to suggest is that there seems to be no authentic center at which Ricardian ideas can be held as applicable and then the rest considered as digressive spaces. The entire world is opened up to the inapplicability of these categories in terms of the specifics of each society.

So, to come back to the earlier point about Mill’s anti-Ricardianism, even though Mill was a devotee of Ricardo and had an agenda of introducing Ricardian ideas into colonial governance, he unknowingly undercut Ricardian universals by drawing on arguments rooted in the specificity of Indian history and society. For example, when he wrote the History of British India, he argued that Indian society prior to British rule was very antithetical to the kind of modern governance that the British had introduced. In making such an argument – that is, in drawing on materials from Indian history and society, and displacing Ricardian categories by the specificities of that material – he too was acting as a critic of Ricardo in a certain sense.

The category of rent is a good example of this. By saying that sovereignty-property equations had historically been different in India, Mill was suggesting major changes in the use of Ricardo’s categories. He was arguing, essentially, that rent had to be understood not as fertility differential, but as power differential. In other words, when Mill tried to graft Ricardian categories to the Indian context of colonial administration, he referred to the governance of property in a way that makes us observe a shift from Ricardo’s understanding of rent as fertility differential to Mill’s use of Ricardo’s understanding of rent as something different in India’s context (i.e. as marking different kinds of sovereignty-property equations).

There were, of course, finer differences between how Mill would take up these displacements of Ricardo’s ideas and how, say, Jones or colonial administrators would take them up. These differences were in terms of the relationship between the state and the different kinds of tenurial subjects. For example, Mill argued that the state should be paramount and should regulate rent, which would also mean that the state would be the sole regulator of political power. In contrast, Jones or other Indian administrators understood the equation between the state and landholders in different combinations. Some administrators argued that because originally there used to be a co-sharing of property between the state and the peasant cultivator, the regulation of power should also be shared between the two, even if the state had the greater right. Meanwhile, other colonial administrators would try to figure out who was more suitable for the role of the regulator of political power – were the actual tillers of the soil more suitable, or were certain dominant peasant groups or big landholders more appropriate for the role.

As a result of this debate, we did not end up having Mill’s prescription of a complete division between the state as the sole centralized body for regulating political power and all subordinate landholding bodies remaining subordinate and robbed of any right to regulate political power. We actually witness the emergence of a far more distributed field of power where the state, of course, had a paramount role, but then all different kinds of landholders also retained different kinds of rights and, therefore, the powers to regulate and administer rent.

So, to sum up, because of the epistemological transformation in political economy, the Ricardian concept of rent transformed from being a fertility differential to a power differential. But, as I’ve pointed out, this transformation was not uniform or straightforward and was itself subject to different understandings and combinations as it played out in this field.

OS: I want to turn to your reading of Foucault. One of the most theoretically exciting contributions of the book is the conversation you stage between Foucault’s reading of the birth of political economy and his lectures on liberal governance. Can you explain how the local fits into this?

UC: Yes, in the book, I was quite keen on forging a link between Foucault’s treatment of political economy in The Order of Things and his use of political economy in his liberalism lectures. The key point for me in The Order of Things was the shift that Ricardian political economy effected in the structure of discourse whereby there was a shift from representation as surface distribution to representation as depth and as a kind of vertical plumbing of particularities. This shift happened through labor emerging as the focal point of political economy in the nineteenth century in the Ricardian moment.

What I realized while reading Jones was that even as Jones was displacing Ricardo’s categories, he was not moving away from the idea of production being the mainstay of political economy, but was reinserting production into very thick social contexts. He was talking about how production would be organized in different societies and how that organization would depend on history, politics, religion, and on the various social conditions of these nations.

In his liberalism lectures, when Foucault talks about governance drawing from political economy the logic of economy and the language of the management of power, he talked about a self-limitation of power that such management entailed. This is also what I saw in my material. Both in the political economic works I studied as well as in the archive of colonial governance, there seemed to be a reflexive spirit at work. There seemed to be everywhere – be it in the critique of political economic universals or in the discussion on the inapplicability of particular revenue policies in colonial India – a way in which government was trying to look back at itself and introduce new limitations. It is important to keep in mind that these limitations were all transformative ventures. These limitations did not simply imply that governance stopped functioning or that governance obstructed itself or withdrew. In fact, the language of limitation was the language through which the question of governance was being extended.

So, essentially, there is a primacy of production noted in Foucault’s early works and a principle of self-limitation – which I interpret as a new form of restructuring of power-relations – of that primacy in his later works. Now, if we look at how the category of production is being mediated in terms of its critique by the anti-Ricardian, inductivist challenge, we find that the primacy of production is being mediated by particularities. These particularities then, in turn, are bringing in their fold the question of the limitation of governance that production is dependent on social conditions.

What this means is that governance has to effectuate a management of these social conditions – that is, a setting up of the field of these various social conditions in such a way that they eventually facilitate production. In other words, governance is invested in a certain management of the different kinds of power equations, which make up this field. This management necessitates a self-reflexive look for governance. It requires that administrators ask questions such as: What are we doing as administrators? Are we pushing through policies which are inapplicable to specific situations? If so, then we need to change our policies. This reflectivity is always pitched in the language of a limitation of government and, I argue, can only be achieved if the local is taken into account as the factor that produces such a limit. And, what is the local? The local is the marking of political economic categories in terms of social particularities.

So, to sum up, in Foucault there is an argument about production and its primacy, but there is also an argument about governmental limitation. My question was: how can production and its primacy reach the problem of governmental limitation? I argued that it can reach the problem of governmental limitation through the mediation of thinking about particularities. Particularities act as the epistemological-historical force that recasts production and turns it towards a management of differences, which links production to governance and brings us to the question of the limitation of governance. So, this is how I read the connection between Foucault’s early works and later works and used the category of local to bridge these two disparate points in his writings.

OS: In the last couple of decades, the history of Indian liberalism has been a particularly vibrant field. It seems to me that there have been two dominant approaches to thinking about the rise of liberalism in India. On the one hand, there’s a “diffusionist” approach, which argues that liberalism emerged in India because of the global circulation of texts and ideas. Chris Bayly’s Recovering Liberties might be an exemplar of this approach. On the other hand, there’s a sociohistorical approach that argues that liberal categories emerged as a result of social transformations from within Indian society. Andrew Sartori’s work is most notably an exemplar of this latter approach. I wonder how you situate yourself in relation to these two approaches, if indeed you read the historiography in this way at all.

UC: I do agree that these two approaches have marked out two influential ways of understanding liberalism in colonial societies. Let me take the latter approach first, which is discernible in Sartori’s more recent work. As you say, Sartori argues that certain sociohistorical conditions are intrinsic to the development of liberalism and gave rise to certain liberal abstractions, which are objective in the sense that they have a universality to them which is capable of getting reproduced across contexts. If I have to think of my engagement with this approach, I would say that I’m more interested in the ideational formation of these abstractions. I want to understand how precisely, within the intellectual landscape of liberalism, such abstractions in their particularities arise in colonial contexts. To understand this one has to return to the complexities of the intellectual trajectory of liberalism.

So, I am in agreement with the argument that liberalism would generate certain abstractions within which subjectification would take place in colonial conditions. But how to trace such abstractions is a problem that I’m more engaged with. For example, I would not say I am engaging with Ricardianism in a similar way as Sartori is with Lockeanism. My argument is that the kind of abstractions that Ricardianism is capable of generating in colonial conditions cannot be understood without reading Ricardianism in terms of all the discursive fields that my book engages. Its reproducibility is not a character of its inherent universality; rather its universality can get reproduced only in and through difference. I trace these abstractions in terms of the series of transformations they undergo in this discursive space. If I take Ricardo as one point, then by the time I reach, say, property disputes in Cuttack, several transformations have happened in these Ricardian abstractions. I, therefore, see this as an integrated field in which property disputes and Ricardo are part of the same discursive field.

Turning to the diffusionist approach, of which there have been earlier accounts as well, with Bayly being the more recent example, I would say that I differ from such an approach because I take the entire discursive field as being flat and integrated. In diffusionist accounts, in contrast, there seems to be a modular vision where there is a higher metropolitan point from which ideas originate and move down to the peripheries. For me, when I see the kinds of conversations that are happening in a tiny locality like Cuttack, I argue that those conversations have been produced out of the kind of abstraction that the local is. That abstraction has not been birthed in the geographical territory of the colony. It has been generated within a metropolitan context. However, in saying this, I’m not trying to suggest that the geographical point of origin has to be shifted to Britain. On the contrary, my point is that unless we try to move away from an empirical geography of such transformations, we cannot move out of diffusionism. For my purposes, this is a discursive geography, and I consider this field as flat. It’s certainly not a homogenous field, but it is a field where several transformations are taking place and none of these transformations have started from a point higher up in the chain and received somewhere else lower down in the chain. So, this is how I would situate my work in relation to the two approaches to liberalism that you highlighted.

OS: A framework that has been particularly influential in these conversations in recent years is that of ‘global intellectual history’. This is not a term that you use in the book to describe your own work. Can you can say a little bit about how you think of this framework?

UC: Following from the last question, I would say that I’m sort of uncomfortable with the framework of global intellectual history. It’s certainly an immensely productive and rich framework, which has been able to bring together apparently disjointed spaces and forge connections between different bodies of ideas. But be it the imperial or the global, I still think that these formulations rest on a kind of geographical essentialism. The ‘global’ in global intellectual history is still conceived of in terms of distinct territories out of which ideas emerge, nestled, mingled, or hybridized. In this approach, ideas are still seen as having their origin in geographical locales from where they generate interactions and move from one place to another. In contrast, I’m trying to think of a scale in this work that is without geographical locations. This is what the idea of the local helps me to do. I think of the local as a scalar category, which is not at the geographic level. I see it as an abstract machine, taking off from Deleuze and Guattari, where scale is a metaphor, with concrete effects. This is something that I have not been able to develop in my book to my fullest satisfaction, and I do want to take this ahead and think of writing something on the idea of scale and the concept of the local.

OS: This is a good segue to my last question, which is what are you working on next?

UC: Well, the next project has not yet been defined fully, but what I’m interested in right now are histories and practices of science in different institutional contexts in India. I haven’t fixed the sites, places, or networks very concretely yet, but essentially this project has emerged out of archiving work that I started doing at my institution. I teach at Presidency University, which was established in 1817 as Hindu College and was the first institution of Western-type education in Asia. It became a university in 2010, and in 2012 I joined the university as one of its earliest faculty members. What I chanced upon as I joined this university were institutional records of this place, which date back to its origins in the early-nineteenth century. Within its 200-year history, this place has produced a steady stream of very important, eminent public figures in South Asia across a variety of fields, including the sciences, philosophy, history, and economics. The two most well-known of these are the two Nobel Laureates in Economics, Amartya Sen and Abhijit Banerjee. But then there was also absolutely international cutting-edge research done in the field of physics and plant sciences by someone called Jagadish Chandra Bose in the 1890s. Similar figures were present in Chemistry, Physiology, Geology, and Mathematics. And there were also major historiographic movements that emerged out this place. So, this place has a lot of interesting institutional history, which connects to different kinds of histories of modern India.

I am particularly interested in the history of scientific practice. Experimental science based on laboratory work started in India in this institution for the first time in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. I started archiving the institutional records of this place in order to move onto other institutions in India where scientific research in its earliest shape was being practiced in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. I have not yet figured out all these concrete places and sites. What I’m doing right now is building an archive of this place, which of course has become quite a challenging affair due to the pandemic. But, despite that, I currently have two projects through which this archiving work is happening. First, there’s a British Library sponsored Endangered Archives Program. And then there’s a collaboration with the University of Chicago, where I’m working with a team of other scholars to finish a book of essays on different aspects of pedagogy, research, and governance within this institution and how they were linked to histories of science, nationalism, and reform in modern India.

OS: That sounds fascinating! Good luck and thanks for your time!

Osama Siddiqui is an assistant professor in the Department of History and Classics at Providence College. His current book project focuses on the translation and reception of British economic ideas in colonial India, specifically how thinkers like James Mill, John Stuart Mill, Alfred Marshall and others were translated into Urdu in the nineteenth century. His research has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Historical Association, the Social Science Research Council, and the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada. He completed his PhD in History from Cornell University.

Featured Image: Charles Stewart, Map of Bengal, Behar, Orissa, 1813, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Re-thinking Agrarian and Intellectual Histories of South Asia: An Interview with Upal Chakrabarti (Part 1)

By Osama Siddiqui

Upal Chakrabarti is an Assistant Professor in the Sociology Department at Presidency University in Kolkata. His research interests focus on intellectual history, colonialism, political economy, agrarian studies, science studies, and governance. He received his PhD in History from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and has been a Fellow at the Institute for Critical Social Inquiry at the New School for Social Research. His research has been published in journals like Modern Asian Studies, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, and South Asian History and Culture. He is currently working with the British Library and the University of Chicago in preparing an archive of the institutional records of the Hindu/Presidency College, the first institution of western education in Asia, and editing a collection of essays on institutional micro-histories, science, disciplinarity, and pedagogy in colonial south Asia.

Osama Siddiqui spoke to him about his recent book, Assembling the Local: Political Economy and Agrarian Governance in British India, published in 2021 with the University of Pennsylvania Press as part of the Intellectual History of the Modern Age series.

Osama Siddiqui: Congratulations on this important and pathbreaking book. I’ve really enjoyed reading it! Your book offers a new optic with which to read the relationship between political economy, empire, and liberal governance, which is the category of the local. I would like to start our conversation by asking you about how you came to this project and why you decided to focus on the category of the local in writing an intellectual history of political economy.

Upal Chakrabarti: I came to this project from my student days. I had an abiding interest in agrarian history, and once I started reading agrarian histories of South Asia, I realized that there was a time when all historians were, in some ways, agrarian historians! This was also the moment when economic history dominated the historiography of South Asia, and much of the material of economic history would typically focus on the agrarian administration of South Asia. As I read these works, I realized that almost the entire body of this very powerful field of history writing hinged on a kind of empirical depth to such an extent that, in reading these works, one would simply get lost in the details of ‘facts’. A paradigmatic instance of this tendency is a work like Richard Smith’s Rule by Records, which focused entirely on village records over, say, a century in a particular area of Punjab. It’s a work that was representative of the kind of claim that agrarian histories would make on history writing, on thinking about colonialism, and so on.

At the same time, when I started reading the intellectual history classics of the field – Ranajit Guha’s A Rule of Property for Bengal and Eric Stokes’s English Utilitarians and India – I felt that there was something strange in the conflict between the ability to produce a general conceptual account of colonialism’s functioning by intellectual history and the disruption of the generality of such accounts by the empirical thickness of agrarian history. It seemed to me that this disruption hinged entirely on agrarian history’s claim to knowledge of local facts. This made me realize that there is a kind of never-ending relay of empirical details that would not allow one to think of colonialism as a machine or an apparatus that has certain totalizing principles. I realized that this was a political function that agrarian histories seemed to generate with their use of empiricism as a methodological strategy.

So, I started to think whether the particularity with which these histories work can be thought of as having a structure in itself. That is where I started thinking about the local as a category. I started to revisit the immensely important empirical accounts of agrarian regions and started discerning patterns within the variety that they seemed to uphold. This was particularly challenging because of the huge variety of terms that one encounters in reading agrarian history as one moves from region to region. I saw that this variety that agrarian historians were generating was, in a certain sense, what the colonial administration had also faced, and obsessively wrote about. And yet, despite this plethora of particularities, the administrative machinery of colonialism still seemed to work, organize, and strategize its own imperatives. This made me ask whether there was within the logic of colonial rule itself an optic through which this diversity could be reassembled into repetitive principles. This reassembling is what I would call the local. I should mention that the term ‘local’ was omnipresent in my materials. It’s an immanent category that came out of the time, the material, and the logic of governance I was studying. It’s not a category that I imposed on the archive. In my research, I would constantly see this word being deployed to reassemble the diversity of agrarian regions. So, I started to think of the local as a principle for making sense of localities, common to both the archives and the historiography.

Then I tried to trace this principle to political economy. Because of my own Foucauldian approach to colonial government (for more on this, see part 2 of this interview), I already had political economy in mind as a body of thought working crucially to shape governance. But the existing historiography had told us that political economy dealt with universals. My interest in thinking about localities, particularities, diversities, and differences did not sit well with the notion that political economy was ultimately a body of knowledge aimed at the production of universals and that colonialism used political economy to impose its universals on native society. This is where I then tried to search whether within political economy there was a way to make sense of particularity. That’s how I landed at the debate on universalism within political economy.

This was a chance finding in the sense that I was trying to look at all possible connections between political economy and imperial governance. At that time, I did not know about Richard Jones. I did not know that within the very heart of the pedagogic mission of colonial governance, at institutions like Haileybury College, there was a political economist who would talk about political economy in terms of differences and particularities. In fact, in the early days of my PhD, I was in a seminar with Robert Travers and while discussing the teaching of political economy at Haileybury College he suggested to me that I take a look at Richard Jones’s writing. I remember him saying that after Malthus there was a political economist at Haileybury called Richard Jones who has not been much explored. As I started reading Jones, I realized that Jones was not alone, but was in fact part of a wider debate on inductivism and political economy. This gave me an empirical lead to political economy as a possible genealogy for the local.

OS: You write that one of your aims in the book is to “de-romanticize the local” (25). Can you say a bit about what you mean by this?

UC: The romanticization of the local that I’ve tried to challenge in the book can be traced at various levels. One can look, for instance, at how imperial histories have often thought of the peripheries of empire as somehow being sites of resistance, disruption, or limits. There seemed to be a geographical essentialism inherent in such thinking that peripheral locations are seen as capable of disrupting, questioning, or disturbing the power of colonial governance and its categories just by virtue of their location and the distance they embody from the metropolitan center.

I have tried to argue in the book that if we can trace the genealogy of such particularities and differences that are seen as existing in the geographical periphery to the ideational center of imperial thought, then it also enables us to understand how the subjects of empire would work within the logic of these categories. Thus, instead of seeing these subjects as the resisting fringe to the force of such categories, we can think of them as involved in projects of self-transformation that are set in motion by the force of difference lying at the heart of metropolitan thought.

This kind of romanticization is not only present in thinking about resistance, but also in thinking about distinctions between theory and practice, or in talking about the power of ‘on ground’ experiences as opposed to distant gazes of metropolitan thought. Such narratives always seem to contain a disguised, phenomenological claim for ‘experience’ as a category for determining the subjectification of peripheral locations and actors. All of this works at various levels to uphold the local as a kind of liberated space, which I think often prevents us from understanding important motions in politics.

To take just one example (one that is quite detached from the empirical context of my book), consider the participation of different kinds of marginal groups in India today, such as Dalits or tribal communities or Other Backward Classes, in the project of Hindutva. Hindutva has been understood and theorized in a great body of influential scholarship as a movement by and for upper castes and constituted by certain elite ideologies. At the same time, marginal groups have been construed by this same scholarship as being necessarily capable of disrupting Hindutva and blocking the imposition of elite ideologies across the Indian population just by virtue of their very different experiential selfhood. Such claims are always rooted in a certain understanding of the local as the margin of all centralizing metropolitan elite political impulses. But such an understanding has clearly been exposed in terms of its fallacies if you look at contemporary Indian politics today. This is all very removed from the context of my book, but what I’m trying to suggest is that the romanticization of the local works across various contexts and in various lines of scholarship, in which the local stays as a kind of black box, which is what I was uncomfortable with. This was also not to argue that the ‘local’ was an open-ended difference-producing motion. The closures, or structural limits to such differences, have been marked in the book. What I thought was important to establish in the history of political economy and agrarian relations, was the working of universals through differences, and the impact of such processes on the production of specific agrarian subjects.

OS: One of the sites in which the debates you track in the book play out is the locality of Cuttack in Bengal. Can you say a little bit about your choice of this site?

UC: I didn’t arrive at a full conceptualization of the role of Cuttack until much later in the project when I was able to see the entire material and the connections between its various parts. But, initially, I came to Cuttack simply because I was interested in the Bengal Presidency and its agrarian administration. Of course, when we talk about the agrarian administration of Bengal, we are inevitably talking about the Permanent Settlement (1793), which according to all histories of Bengal was a very important policy of early colonialism and shaped property relations, agrarian governance, and the economy of the entire region.

Cuttack struck me as a very interesting site because it came to be occupied by the East India Company ten years after the implementation of the Permanent Settlement (i.e. in 1803) and the Company never extended the Permanent Settlement to this region. Company officials kept saying that the Permanent Settlement was not suitable for this particular locality. Once I saw this case, I understood that here was a conversation about the appropriateness of a particular policy with respect to local specificities.

The Permanent Settlement itself had, of course, been devised after a long debate. What was interesting to me was that the conversation about the local specificity of Cuttack was happening right after this long debate. So, in essence, there was a situation where a policy that had been arrived at after a long and elaborate debate was quickly abandoned and a new debate on the inapplicability of the policy started. Cuttack was one of these sites where this debate took place early on.

More interestingly, once I started reading around this, I realized that there were many other regions in other parts of India where the same debate was taking place with respect to other policies. For example, the government thought that the Permanent Settlement was not suitable for other localities, so they devised a different policy, such as the ryotwari settlement. But very soon the ryotwari too was thought to be inapplicable to other localities and there was a shift to the mahalwari policy. Very soon the mahalwari policy too was deemed inapplicable. There seemed to be, therefore, a logic of endless displacement and deferral of all big policies, which was happening from within the space of colonial governance. In other words, there seemed to be a limit of all policy realized almost as soon as the policy had been formed.

I understood then that what was happening in Cuttack might initially have struck me as an anomaly, but that was not the case. Cuttack was thought to be unique in some way or have some peculiar features, which is supposedly why the Permanent Settlement could not be extended there. But when I saw that this logic of inapplicability was in fact general, I realized that the anomaly was itself a model. How was it that an inapplicable zone was becoming a generalized condition? This made me then think about the inside-outside relation and the nature of the outside of a model as the inapplicable zone for a policy. I concluded that there was a structural condition in the way governance was being set up, which was generating this conversation that every policy will produce its limit almost right at the time it is formulated. Elsewhere in the book I explain this principle of governmental self-limitation as the logic of the local.

OS: A major argument that sets up the book is that political economy in Britain itself underwent an epistemological reorientation in the early-nineteenth century. What was this reorientation about?

UC: The reorientation of political economy I have explored in this book occurred at the precise moment of political economy’s rise to dominance as a doxa and as the defining intellectual backbone of industrial modernity that Britain was stepping into. Right at that very moment, there was within political economy a range of debates over the dominant formulations of its categories. At the time, the dominant formulations of its categories were Ricardian. The major figures in this movement included not only Ricardo, but also particularly Mill and McCulloch, the two zealous devotees of Ricardo. They had foregrounded Ricardo’s formulations as the defining formulations for political economy. This is, more or less, how political economy’s history in nineteenth century Britain is narrated by most of the influential accounts of intellectual history.

However, what I found was that Ricardian political economy was actually under attack from different directions right at its moment of blossom. These attacks came from various perspectives and claimed that the universalism of Ricardian formulations could not sustain critical scrutiny. A number of political economists picked up on different categories of Ricardian political economy, such as wage, rent, profit, and even distribution as a field or production as a field, and so on. All these categories were very seriously interrogated by these attacks on Ricardian political economy.

Among these critiques, the one I thought was quite influential and had not yet been taken note of in the standard canons of the history of political economy was the empirical-inductivist critique of Ricardo. On the face of it, it would seem that an empirical challenge to Ricardian categories would not allow political economy to even get formed as a coherent body of thought because all these categories, once they were interrogated by an empirical standard, would presumably dissolve. But this was not what happened because inductivism in the way that William Whewell (along with other influential thinkers like Charles Babbage, John Herschel, and the entire group of New Baconians in Cambridge) framed it, was supposed to be productive of greater universalism, greater than even what Ricardian categories claimed. In other words, this inductivist challenge had the effect of pushing political economy in the direction of claiming even greater universalism.

This was an important epistemological change and it opened up political economy to a world of differences. Literally, a globe of difference was opened up for political economy to navigate: differences in social fabric, political systems, property forms, economic practices, and so on. According to this epistemological rethinking, political economy had the capacity to navigate, assemble, and totalize these differences, but to do so it had to release itself from a fundamental naturalism, which Ricardian ideas were rooted in, like the fertility differential for rent, for example. In a way, we could say that political economy was becoming sociologized. It was getting linked to questions of history and political philosophy, which was supposed to give it greater valence in terms of its universal capacities.

Later in the nineteenth century, all of this was taken ahead by John Stuart Mill. Mill redefined Ricardianism and did so by drawing on this inductivist attack on political economy that was launched earlier in the century. Mill’s debt to this inductivist attack is not specified in the canonical works of the history of political economy because these works tend to read these intellectual relationships in unreconstructed empirical terms where they try to understand, for instance, whether Mill read X or referred to X in making a statement, and so on. But that is not my approach to the intellectual history of political economy. I read Mill’s redefinition of political economic categories in terms of the way the entire discourse is changing shape and how that change can be traced to earlier conversations within that discourse. More generally, I examine political economy in terms of its epistemological functionings, moving away from both Skinnerian contextualist approaches, as well as more simplistic empirical ones.

Osama Siddiqui is an assistant professor in the Department of History and Classics at Providence College. His current book project focuses on the translation and reception of British economic ideas in colonial India, specifically how thinkers like James Mill, John Stuart Mill, Alfred Marshall and others were translated into Urdu in the nineteenth century. His research has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Historical Association, the Social Science Research Council, and the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada. He completed his PhD in History from Cornell University.

Featured Image: Charles Stewart, Map of Bengal, Behar, Orissa, 1813, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


The Political Thought of Adam Smith: An Interview with Paul Sagar

By Serena Cho

Paul Sagar’s latest monograph, Adam Smith Reconsidered: History, Liberty, and the Foundations of Modern Politics, casts the iconic Scottish philosopher in a new light. Whereas Smith is typically seen as a leading advocate of laissez-faire capitalism or more recently as a moral philosopher, Sagar demonstrates the richness and pertinence of his political thought. Recently published by Princeton University Press, the book points out common misunderstandings in Smith scholarship—from portraying Smith as a conjectural historian to attributing Rousseau’s preoccupations with commercial society to Smith—and presents an original argument about Smith’s understanding of liberty as a form of nondomination.

Sagar, a senior lecturer in political theory at King’s College London, sat down with Serena Cho to discuss his new book.

Serena Cho: To set the stage for our conversation, I wanted to begin by asking how you became interested in Adam Smith’s political thought. I am especially interested in how this book evolved from your first monograph, The Opinion of Mankind, which had a chapter on Smith but mostly focused on Hume.

Paul Sagar: I got into Smith almost accidentally. I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on Hume, which became my first book The Opinion of Mankind. And my then-supervisor, István Hont, commanded me to read Smith and Rousseau because he wanted me to have a comparative framework to understand Hume’s ideas on sociability. That’s when I first became interested in Smith. I saw him as a next-generation philosopher after Hume and Rousseau. Even though Smith and Rousseau are usually treated as contemporaries, because Rousseau is, in some ways, a bit behind what’s being read in Britain, I actually think of him as Hume’s contemporary. Also, Hume and Rousseau are almost of the same age, and Smith is a younger scholar. Smith was interesting because I saw him as taking Hume’s breakthroughs, advancing them another step, and translating them into a yet more sophisticated idiom. This was the conclusion I came to by the end of my first book, The Opinion of Mankind. It was mostly about the theory of the state and sociability, but I thought there was so much more to say about Smith. Specifically, the more I understood Smith, the more I felt that the existing scholarship was quite seriously defective in interpreting him. So my new book serves two purposes: one, a project to finish the story that I had started in The Opinion of Mankind, and second, in my perception, a much-needed corrective to a lot of fixed points in the Smith scholarship.

SC: Speaking of revising the existing scholarship, in the first chapter, you write, “For many accreted layers of misunderstanding currently prevent proper appreciation of Smith’s position, […] we must first remove this obstructing sediment.” (13) You argue that, contrary to popular belief, Smith’s four stages theory is not a conjectural history, but a simplified economic model characterizing the expected path of development for societies under idealized conditions. In addition, this model is not intended to explain the actual economic, militaristic, and political development that took place in Europe. So, I’m curious to know, do you think there is anything valuable in the scholarship portraying Smith as a conjectural historian or as one who charted Europe’s development with the four stages theory?

PS: I think we absolutely need to stop treating the four stages theory as either a conjectural history or as something that really happened in practice. We do need to decisively move beyond that. But that’s not to suggest that there was no value in people uncovering this aspect of Smith’s thought. Ronald Meek’s contribution—though flawed in all kinds of ways—was incredibly important because it kicked open the understanding of Smith as a serious analyst of the relationship between the economic modes of production and politics. It also encouraged scholars to take seriously the Lectures on Jurisprudence, which we’ve only really had widely available since the 1970s with the Glasgow Editions. It takes a long time for these texts to be understood, and focusing on the four stages theory and treating it as a conjectural history allowed those aspects of Smith’s thought to be brought to bear. Specifically, it allowed us to overcome the caricature reading of Smith as a theorist of self-interest—the view of The Wealth of Nations as a stupendous palace built on the granite of self-interest. The scholarship on the four stages theory was absolutely crucial in dislodging that view of Smith and making Smith somebody that historians of political thought could recognize. The fact that I think that the four stages theory has now become an obstacle to a truer understanding of Smith is not to say that previous scholarship was worthless. I couldn’t have written this book without that scholarship.

The four stages theory also allowed historians to attempt ultimately unsuccessful and yet necessary explorations of the genealogy of Smith’s thought. In particular, Duncan Forbes (“Sceptical Whiggism, Commerce, and Liberty”), Knud Haakonssen, and István Hont made early attempts to locate the foundations of Scottish political economy in the natural law tradition. For them, the four stages theory was a mechanism for positioning Smith in an earlier European discourse. In the end, I think that was an unsuccessful attempt because natural law is not the origin of Smith’s or Hume’s thought. But it was completely necessary that the possibility was explored. For example, Hont’s essay “The Language of Sociability and Commerce: Samuel Pufendorf and the Theoretical Foundations of the ‘Four Stages’ Theory” was hugely important for advancing Smith scholarship. Even though I think it now needs to be surpassed, I could only have done the work I’ve done because those early scholars laid the foundations.

So, it’s absolutely not the suggestion of the book that this is all a giant wrong turn and that it should never have happened. However, like all scholarship, it does need to be superseded. Probably, the next generation of scholars will say the same about my book. Max Weber, in “Science as a Vocation,” famously said that part of Wissenschaft is that your work will eventually be overcome and superseded. So, hopefully, in ten years’ time, some young scholar will write a book explaining why I got it wrong, and we’ll make progress. My book isn’t intended as the last word on Adam Smith, but I do think we need to say new things.

SC: I also wanted to talk to you about the place of philosophy and history in political thought. By philosophical analysis, I am referring to—as I believe you did in your book—accounts that discuss “complex normative phenomena” by employing general principles and concepts. (54-55) For its part, history demonstrates how a certain phenomenon or concept is contingent on particular circumstances, such as time and place. You say in your book: “It is true that Smith did not offer a theory, if by that one means a primarily philosophical analysis of the idea of political freedom. But as I hope to show below, that is not the only way to try to understand what freedom is—as indeed is exemplified by Smith’s own works.” (55 n.3) Could you first elaborate on what you mean here?

PS: Smith belongs to a relatively minor tradition in the history of political thought that views moral principles as effectively coming from the practices of human agents themselves. He didn’t put it like this, but I think he would certainly agree with the late Jerry Gaus that morality is a technology that humans developed to facilitate social living. Morality is rooted in our evolutionary history, is variable across societies, and is ultimately subjective. Smith is a metaphysical anti-realist, like Hume. What’s interesting is that Smith’s belief does not lead him toward skepticism about the content of our normative judgments. While our normative judgments come from historically located practices—and morality is ultimately just a technology that we’ve developed over thousands of years of living together—this doesn’t mean that it somehow loses its importance to us.

SC: Right—and this is why I think that examining Smith’s view on aesthetic judgment is so important!

PS: Right. Because aesthetic judgments and moral judgments are both based on the same underlying mental technology that is developed from living in a group over time, influenced by upbringing and contact. And what this means, in turn, is that morality and aesthetics are rooted in our psychology and therefore our history. So if you want to understand why certain principles have a bearing on us, you have to understand them as historical products. That’s why, for Smith, history is so important.

SC: In The Opinion of Mankind, you wrote: “For a history of law and government to become a political theory capable of explaining the normative content of authority, some normative account must ultimately be offered. History alone cannot supply that: political theory needs philosophy. Without it, Smith’s history of law and government can offer only an interesting dead end.” (108) Here, you were responding to István Hont’s attempt at locating principles for political judgment in Smith’s writings. How has your understanding or appreciation of Smith’s political thought evolved since writing this first book? Do you consider this claim in line with your remarks about the importance of history in your new book and in our conversation?

PS: Very much so. My claim in The Opinion of Mankind was that Smith can’t just be a historian. You can’t just present freestanding historical facts as though they somehow determine our understanding of the legitimacy of government. However, Smith is also different from someone like Rousseau. Rousseau thinks that there are principles for rights that exist independently from historical contingency. Indeed, for Rousseau, history is one long story of corruption and decline.

Recent political theorists in the Anglophone tradition have a tendency to do political theory purely analytically. There has been a kickback against that, with Hont, for example, arguing that you just need history. I think that Smith is somewhere in between those two positions. You can’t do political theory purely analytically because our values, judgments, and normative concepts are conditioned by history. But you also can’t just read off history by itself. You need to impose normative concepts and judgment.

SC: This is why I found your discussion of nondomination so intriguing, because I saw it as an attempt to draw out a philosophical thread in Smith’s history.

PS: Exactly. Hont is right to look at the history of European civilization because, for Smith, that’s the source of our normative principles. But there is also a philosophical picture. Of course, it’s not going to be a purely philosophical account. It’s not going to be, for example, what I criticize in the book as the Skinner-Pettit view of nondomination. (52,96) They treat nondomination as a freestanding concept of not being arbitrarily interfered with and assume that this static condition can be applied across all times and places. In my view, Smith would think that this is not the right way to make sense of freedom. It’s more nuanced than that.

SC: So let’s delve deeper into the idea of liberty and nondomination in Smith’s writings. You wrote: “This is what modern liberty is for Smith—not just a reconfiguration of the conditions via which nondomination can be secured, but in turn a qualitative change in what nondomination means, insofar as new possibilities for configuring the conditions alter the relevant conceptualisations.” (85) So first, could you explain what liberty is for Smith, in the “present sense of the word”? (83) How does the conceptualization of nondomination change in post-feudal Europe?

PS: In general, Smith thinks that liberty is being secure from physical and material exploitation and aggression from others. Basically, freedom means that the rich and powerful are not just going to attack you or take your stuff. That’s the bare minimum you need for freedom anywhere.

Regarding liberty in the modern sense, there is a particular mechanism for procuring that security from assault, interference, and domination: the rule of law. Modern liberty is the idea that everybody has to play by the same rules and that there are impartial third parties for resolving disputes. For Smith, this was achieved only in modern Europe by a total accident. It was an unexpected outcome of various factors, such as the appointments of judges and the need to protect property to achieve economic development. So modern liberty is security from domination via the mechanism of the rule of law, which is only found in modern Europe.

SC: To further press this point about liberty, if nondomination is so fluid a concept, why is it reasonable for Smith to specifically call ancient republics and post-feudal monarchies free societies, while excluding other periods? For example, as you point out in The Opinion of Mankind, shepherding societies were at root democratic, and warlords could technically be overthrown if enough people opposed them. But Smith only identifies ancient Greece and Rome, along with post-feudal Europe, as periods that saw the first and second rise of liberty.

Also, you stated in the book that “whilst for Smith liberty in general means not being dominated, taken by itself this formulation is too underdescriptive to be meaningful or informative.” (93) So, how might one determine whether one’s society protects liberty and use the idea of nondomination as a guide for judgment, given that it is such a fluid concept?

PS: Well, there are certain human universals, such as that the powerful tend to exploit the weak whenever they can. Human beings, unfortunately, have a lust for domination, and if left uncontrolled, they will act on that desire. However, because social structures change, the way that each society understands nondomination and liberty will be very different.

For example, Smith explains how the Athenians and Romans bought their freedom at the expense of the thousands of slaves who provided material abundance so that they could spend all their time in courts and assemblies. A tiny number of citizens prevented domination amongst themselves by dominating a massive number of slaves.

The modern understanding of freedom is similar in that it’s about avoiding domination. But the crucial difference is that post-feudal Europe has done away with slavery, which Smith considers one of the greatest achievements of modern politics. In modernity, we expanded the remit of nondomination and secured liberty through the mechanism of the rule of law. So modern liberty is similar to ancient liberty—they are both about security from domination—but also massively different in how they are secured and who they are secured for.

SC: And why do democratic politics in shepherding societies fail to qualify as a form of nondomination and thus liberty?

PS: This may be a tension in Smith’s thought that remains unresolved. I suppose people in shepherding societies do not have liberty because they are always subject to domination as individuals, even though they can act as a group. Because the warlord was also the judge of all disputes in shepherding societies, the executive and judicial functions were not yet separated. There was no mechanism for appeal against the warlord’s judgment, so people were arbitrarily dominated like those living under barons in feudal societies. For Smith, shepherding societies and feudal societies shared this arbitrariness and lack of recourse from domination. On the other hand, for the Athenians and Romans, at least for the elite male aristocrats, there was a trial procedure, even though their courts look incredibly imperfect in our eyes. Also, while there were many breakdowns in this system, the legislature emerged and served as a check on the executive. Whereas in shepherding societies and feudal localities, the lack of separation of powers generated arbitrariness and domination.

SC: That’s interesting—it reminds me of the end of the Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles-Lettres, where Smith expounds on the Greek and Roman courts and compares them with the modern judiciary system.

One more question about Smith’s idea of liberty. In the third chapter, you discussed how Smith’s notion of nondomination does not conform to the republican understanding of freedom, which has been largely shaped by Skinner and Pettit. Specifically, you wrote that Smith stands out because he “seeks to sever, the central republican linkage between law, political participation, and nondomination.” (101) I agree with you that Smith considered the common law and independent judiciary essential for preserving modern liberty, but I wonder if this claim underestimates the extent to which active participation in politics also remained an important feature of nondomination for Smith. For example, in Part V of the Lectures on Jurisprudence(A), Smith discusses how the growing influence of the House of Commons and the frequency of elections contributed to the rise of liberty in modern Britain. (LJ(A).v.123)

PS: Smith definitely thinks that the separation of powers is important. He’s clear that the emergence of a strong legislature balancing the executive is one of the great achievements of modern politics. What I’m pushing back on is the idea that this represents some form of meaningful mass political participation. I’m also pushing back on the idea that if ordinary people are not engaged in the making of the laws, they are dominated by alien laws imposed by legislators.

In the standard republican view, it’s absolutely central that the people subjected to the laws have a say in how the laws are created and modified over time. But Smith rejects that view and believes that people are not dominated as long as the law is consistently applied, and they have recourse to the courts. So, Smith goes in the opposite direction from the republican view, and this makes some people think that Smith is awfully conservative. They think that we can’t possibly turn to Smith for our modern democratic needs. I’m not so sure. I think Smith might have an important point about nondomination, though.

SC: I also found your discussion on corruption and commercial society fascinating. While the civic humanist tradition denies the effective distinction between systemic, venal, and moral corruption, you claim that Smith separates them. Accordingly, while Smith discusses individual corruption in the Theory of Moral Sentiments, he does not draw further conclusions about the health or longevity of the body politic.

But I wonder how this claim can be squared with Smith’s discussion of fashion and custom in Part V of TMS, especially on licentiousness during the reign of Charles II. (V.ii.3) While moral corruption is not a unique problem for the commercial age or for post-feudal Europe in Smith’s thought, he implies here that the corruption of fashion—or the general taste of the people—can have important political consequences.

PS: Perhaps I should have qualified that argument. To contextualize, in Chapter Four of Adam Smith Reconsidered, I am pushing back against drawing an equivalence between Rousseau and Smith. Scholars have suggested that Smith agreed with Rousseau in criticizing commercial society for creating inequality, making us proud and competitive, and leading to moral degradation, which ultimately results in a political failing. I think that’s mistaken, because insofar as moral corruption is a problem for Smith, it concerns the elites. In Part V and in Part I Section III of TMS, Smith discusses how people use wealth and power to accrue more influence and how the culture of flattery perpetuates this cycle. I do accept that there is a connection between moral corruption and political corruption at that level, but this has more to do with the system of political organization rather than the effect of markets or luxury goods. The type of corruption you are concerned with is different from what people have predominantly attributed to Smith. So, you’re right to draw attention to Part V, and I could have been more nuanced about corruption among elites. But I was more focused on contesting the way people have transposed Rousseau’s preoccupations to Smith and therefore misread what Smith is actually saying.

SC: Lastly, what do you think are the biggest takeaways from your book?

PS: I didn’t realize I was trying to do this at the time, but Glory Liu, a great up-and-coming scholar on Smith’s reception, summarized my book back to me. She is right in saying that I tried to write a history of Smith as a political thinker without politicizing Smith.

My primary aim has been to show that Smith was a phenomenally impressive theorist of politics and that he has epochal contributions to the history of political thought. But these will be missed if we don’t understand that he wasn’t like other big names in the history of political thought, primarily because he subordinated philosophical theory to historical framing and analysis.

Secondly, the political lessons from Smith are not straightforward. They’re not going to cleanly fall on the side of one ideology, and Glory is the expert on this. Smith has been constantly reappropriated by different political tribes since the 1980s, from the Chicago School portraying him as the theorist of the free market to American liberals painting him as a qualified apologist for capitalism who cares about poor people. My sense is that Smith’s position is too nuanced and complex to fit in any of these categories neatly. Maybe the ideological lesson here is that we should all back off from ideology, because one thing Smith can show us is how complicated history is and how any ideology is unlikely to be able to handle that.

Serena Cho is a graduate student studying Intellectual History and Classics at the University of Cambridge. She is interested in the relationship between the aesthetic and the political.

Edited by Shuvatri Dasgupta

Featured Image: Muir Portrait, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.