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.


Subaltern Politics and the Question of Being– An Interview with Ranajit Guha

By Milinda Banerjee

Ranajit Guha, founder of the Subaltern Studies collective, celebrated his hundredth birthday on 23 May 2022. On behalf of the South Asia Institute, Heidelberg University, I had interviewed Guha in 2010 at his home in the outskirts of Vienna. I am grateful to the Journal of the History of Ideas Blog for giving me the opportunity to re-publish and recontextualize this piece.

The original insight of Subaltern Studies – that subaltern community offers the most potent means to resist the empire of capital – is perhaps more relevant now than ever. We live not only in the midst of a climate crisis, in the age of the sixth mass extinction, but also in an epoch of ascendant subaltern rebellion – Black Lives Matter, Dalit and Adivasi movements, Indigenous struggles, feminist strikes, queer and trans activism, protests against global warming and extinction. In the era of the Anthropocene/Capitalocene, subaltern self-organization offers the most hopeful pathways towards a better world.

In this interview, Guha focuses on Being and Becoming – on the ways in which Indian and European thought roots itself in the quest for uttaran, transcendence. Guha draws an arc from Aristotle and Abhinavagupta through Hegel, Tagore, and Heidegger, to situate his own position. This is a philosophical aspect of Guha’s thinking, evident especially in his Bengali-language writings, that remains unfamiliar to many Anglophone historians, who see him principally as a chronicler of colonial dominance and peasant insurgency.

This interview invites us therefore to ground the revolutionary stakes of subalternity in the millennia-old question of Being that has long haunted philosophy. We are compelled to ask – how shall we reimagine Being in an age when species are dying out, when planetary life is at stake, in the era of the Necrocene? Subaltern Studies had shown how subaltern revolt challenged and dismantled European colonialism, in India and beyond. But racial capitalism remains alive. Imperial states and profit-accumulating companies collude to extract value from human and nonhuman beings across the globe. Decolonization remains incomplete.

Hence, Subaltern Studies 2.0 must ask – how shall we concretize solidarities between human and nonhuman beings to erode this necropolitical condominium of state and capital? How shall we draw upon ancient traditions of spiritual egalitarianism to nourish this quest? Where Subaltern Studies 1.0 had focused on the human, Subaltern Studies 2.0 must think with Indigenous politics about nonhuman Being. Where Guha focuses on human justice in this interview, we now know that many nonhuman animals also have conceptions of fair and unfair behaviour, impelling us to think about more-than-human justice.

Hence, we ask – how shall these beings unite in care and community, realize their interdependence, forge Being-in-common? Can collective Being offer us a standpoint to overcome the abstract monetized value form of capitalism, reaffirm life-making over profit-making? Ultimately, how shall we forge multispecies democracy?

Guha’s meditations on Being and Becoming will stimulate our thoughts here.

Milinda Banerjee: Could you explain the reason for your recent turn away from writing in English to writing in Bengali, and for the shift towards a very explicit philosophy-oriented approach in these Bengali works?

Ranajit Guha: I have always loved the Bengali language, and the poet Rabindranath Tagore has been an enormous influence on me, not only because of his genius, which everyone would admit, but also because of his worldview. I therefore felt the need to write in Bengali, and engage with Bengali language and literature.

MB: Have you always been so ideologically churned by Tagore and by Bengali literary culture, or is it something which has become important in your mature years?

RG: I had engaged with these in my youth as well, though these issues then were not so apparently visible. Rather, what I felt more explicitly was my passion for social justice for the poor, and Marxism was therefore attractive. Coming from a khas taluqdar[i] family of Barisal in East Bengal, I had witnessed the structure of zamindar-praja[ii] relations in rural society, which left a profound impression on me. In my student days at Presidency College, Calcutta, I became a Marxist, and a member of the Communist Party. In the late 1940s, I spent a considerable part of time in Europe involved in Communist Party work. However, I also gradually started getting alienated from doctrinaire Communist Party Marxism. Experiences of the USSR’s handling of the political situation in Eastern Europe, disenchantment with the Communist Party of India’s internal factional squabbles for power, and finally the Soviet invasion of Hungary, made me decide to leave the Communist Party. Later, I became something of a Naxal intellectual. I still consider myself to have been inspired by Charu Mazumdar’s[iii] ideas which, I think, contain a lot of validity. But Charu Mazumdar and his followers were weak in organizational capability, which resulted in the movement being crushed. I have elsewhere condemned the role of some intellectuals in Indira Gandhi’s period who supported her moves to crush the revolt and praised many of her activities, for instance, the running of trains on time during the Emergency.

The doctrinaire Marxism of the Indian Communist Party was poor in appreciation of real Marxist philosophy. They had a very simplistic understanding of Marxism and most of them had not read the original books. The disenchantment with this doctrinaire Marxism provoked me to explore the philosophical complexities of Marx, which in turn led me to Hegel. Hegel has tremendously inspired me.

MB: But you have critiqued Hegel in your History at the Limit of World-History?

RG: I have critiqued certain specific elements in the Hegelian worldview, and specifically the Eurocentric elements which were common to others of his age. But Hegel’s notion of the Geist, and the theme of uttaran[iv] embedded in that, remains crucial. The ability to create a better self, a better social self, is very important.

MB: Is, or was, this concern shared by others in the Subaltern Studies Collective, or mainly by you, since the theme of transcendence or uplift would be negatively viewed from the poststructural or “postmodern” perspectives of your younger contemporaries, especially due to the present-day suspicion about all grand narratives?

RG: I think I am somewhat unique in having faith in the theme of uttaran or transcendence. It would be wrong to view, as some scholars have done, the Hegelian transcendence or movement of the Geist as something which operates narrowly and in a deterministic manner through immanent human history. Rather, the stages Hegel describes in the movement of the Geist should be seen as ideal types, exemplars, not narrowly in the form of actual human societies. In a related manner, Heidegger’s phenomenological approach has also left a deep impression on me. I consider both Being and Becoming to be important. Kant and Nietzsche have also deeply influenced me. Through Heidegger I have also approached Thomas Aquinas. Among the Greeks, I consider Aristotle to be more important than Plato in showing this appreciation of the phenomenological totality.

Image by Pema Gyeltshen, for Subaltern Studies 2.0, reproduced with permission from Prickly Paradigm Press

For me, intellectual history, the history of ideas, is very important. My first work was on the intellectual origins of the Permanent Settlement in Bengal, something to which I have returned in a recent Bengali book. My Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India also worked on these ideas from archival sources. I emphasize philosophy, but a philosophy which is worked out through the primary sources by the historian such as through the archival records which help us trace peasant mentality. What animates my earlier as well as later works is concern for the philosophical implications of the search for perfection. Man is imperfect, but he searches always for perfection. Sometimes he does this by trying to conquer and destroy and take away things from nature and from others. Sometimes, he tries to achieve perfection by creating new things. So when he sees that birds can fly, and fish can live under water, but he himself cannot do these things, he feels inspired to create planes and submarines. This search for perfection also animates man’s desire for justice. For me, this has been a prime object of study, to study the norms of transcendental justice embedded in human beings, which manifests in peasant insurgency, in popular religion, and so on. The notion of justice present in popular religion has always moved me immensely. This theme of perfection again animates the quest for upliftment, uttaran, for going beyond one’s self.

MB: Is this ambiguity about the search for perfection, which both tries to destroy the Other and to reach out and embrace the Other, related to your understanding of the Hegelian master-slave dialectic?

RG: Yes, and the quest to understand this dialectic has always moved me. I was delighted to find a quotation from a Buddhist text which frames this dialectic, and which I used as the opening quotation for Elementary Aspects.

MB: Do you believe in God, since recognition of such a figure seems important if one believes in the possibility of transcendence?

RG: More important than the question whether I believe in the existence of God or not, is the question whether I believe in the concept of God. I do believe in the concept, and I think that this belief is essential because it prompts man to go beyond himself and search for justice and perfection, to seek and to create what he does not find in this world.

It is to study this quest that I have also engaged with Indian philosophy, with thinkers like Bhartrihari, Abhinavagupta and Shankaracharya. Indian philosophy has always dwelt on this theme. Modern Indians, however, to their detriment, have neglected this extremely rich heritage of Indian philosophy. In my recent works, writing in Bengali, and using Indian philosophy, I want to remind people of the need to go back to these concepts. Specifically, the theme of self-other relations has become very important, and explicitly articulated, in these works. The going beyond one’s self, the ability to take on new selves, to reach the Other, to transcend: these are issues which, I think, are particularly visible in the realm of literature, whether in Tagore or in later Bengali poets. Literature offers insights, and modern Indian writers have been able to achieve new directions, which have neither been so articulated by the discipline of history nor by historians. By going into Indian literature and philosophy, these insights can be recovered, and also be made ready for use by new generations of scholars with eyes less jaded than those of their predecessors. The German idealist philosophy of Kant and Hegel also articulate these concerns which were earlier expressed in Indian philosophy. Talking about these things might require the usage of a certain conceptual language which may appear difficult to some. But I have always written to express myself, to satisfy myself, and not with an immediate audience in mind for whom I must dilute things.

I have formally signed a contract to donate, after my death, all my private papers and books to the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna. These contain materials, including letters exchanged between me and other Subaltern Studies scholars, which are absolutely essential for the writing of a history of the Subaltern Studies Collective, a school which, I think, has made the most original contribution to historiography on India in recent years. If scholars from Heidelberg University come and work on these in future, that would be very good.

[i] A class of landlords who were technically not zamindars, but who, like zamindars, paid revenue directly to the State in colonial Bengal.

[ii] The Permanent Settlement of 1793 bestowed property rights on land in Bengal to a class of people termed the zamindars. Below the zamindars were their ‘prajas’ or ‘subjects’ who cultivated their land and paid them rent.

[iii] The foremost intellectual and political leader of the ‘ultra-left’ Naxalite movement which erupted in West Bengal in the late 1960s, spread to the rest of the India, and continues to be the founding moment of the Maoist peasant insurgency of the present day.

[iv] A Bengali word meaning going beyond, with emphasis on the notion of transcendence rather than improvement or betterment.

Dr Milinda Banerjee is Lecturer in Modern History at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, United Kingdom. He specializes in History of Modern Political Thought and Political Theory, and is Programme Director for the MLitt in Global Social and Political Thought. He is the author of The Mortal God: Imagining the Sovereign in Colonial India (Cambridge University Press, 2018), and co-author (with Jelle Wouters) of Subaltern Studies 2.0: Being against the Capitalocene (Prickly Paradigm, 2022). He has co-edited the volume, Transnational Histories of the ‘Royal Nation’ (Palgrave, 2017); the forum ‘Law, Empire, and Global Intellectual History’, in the journal Modern Intellectual History (Cambridge University Press, 2020); the special issue ‘The Modern Invention of ‘Dynasty’: A Global Intellectual History, 1500-2000’, in the journal Global Intellectual History (Routledge, 2020); and the special issue ‘Forced Migration and Refugee Resettlement in the Long 1940s: A Connected and Global History’, in the journal Itinerario: Journal of Imperial and Global Interactions (Cambridge University Press, 2022). Banerjee has published two other monographs and several articles on the intersections of Indian and global intellectual history and political theory. He is a founder-editor of a new series ‘South Asian Intellectual History’ with Cambridge University Press, a founder-editor of two series with De Gruyter, ‘Critical Readings in Global Intellectual History’, and ‘Transregional Practices of Power’, and Special Projects Editor of the journal Political Theology (Routledge). He is Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and Member of the Editorial Board of the Royal Historical Society’s book series ‘New Historical Perspectives’.

Edited by Shuvatri Dasgupta

Featured Image: Image by Senganglu Thaimei, for Subaltern Studies 2.0, reproduced with permission from Prickly Paradigm Press.


A Global History of Tantra: An Interview with Julian Strube

By Mou Banerjee

Courtesy of Oxford University Press

Julian Strube is Assistant Professor in Religious Studies at the University of Vienna. He works from a global historical perspective about the relationship between religion and politics, as well as debates about the meaning of religion, science, and philosophy since the eighteenth century. His current research concentrates on how the meaning of religion and its role in society has been negotiated among Bengali intellectuals in exchange with non-Indian interlocutors, especially regarding reform, tradition, and modernity. He has co-edited Theosophy across Boundaries with Hans-Martin Krämer (SUNY 2020), followed by New Approaches to the Study of Esotericism (open access, Brill 2021), co-edited with Egil Asprem. He also co-edited an open-access special issue on “Global Religious History” with Giovanni Maltese for Method & Theory in the Study of Religion. In his first monograph (Vril, Brill 2013), he investigated the relationship between alternative religious movements, National Socialism, völkisch movements, and present-day far-right extremism. His PhD thesis on Socialism, Catholicism, and Occultism in Nineteenth-Century France was published with De Gruyter in 2016.

Mou Banerjee spoke to him about his most recent monograph, Global Tantra: Religion, Science, and Nationalism in Colonial Modernity, published in 2022 with Oxford University Press.

Mou Banerjee: Julian, congratulations on a field changing contribution to global religious history! Your book is absolutely brilliant and has been so inspiring and thought-provoking for my own work, my analytical frameworks and methodologies. Your book will provoke conversations in this field for many years to come! So, how did you get interested in this particular topic? What was your thinking process while conceptualizing the project? What was your Eureka moment – when you knew you were going to focus on Indian intellectual interlocutors and their networks rather than on Western reception and theorization of what Tantra meant? 

Julian Strube: My previous work revolved around political-religious movements in Europe, with a specific focus on what might be subsumed under the rubric of esotericism. In my earlier monographs, I have kind of traversed the political spectrum from early French socialists to (neo-)Nazism, so I became quite familiar with nineteenth-century debates about the meaning of religion and its contested role in “modern” society. The intertwined subjects of orientalist studies, racial theories, colonialism, and orientalism were a constant and prominent factor in the contexts I was researching, and I found it increasingly unsatisfying to deal with them only as a historical backdrop. From an early point on, I wanted to understand how notions such as “Aryan” developed in such wildly different and significant ways—for instance, in the emergence of my discipline, religious studies, or as an integral part of the alleged interdependence of religion, language, and nation.

It was clear to me that I had to move beyond Europe and North America in order to understand these historical debates about religion and politics, and it was especially clear to me that I had to move beyond sources written in European languages, familiarize myself with additional regional histories, and the scholarship that has been done on them. I was fortunate enough to profit from the wonderful intellectual atmosphere and the institutional quality in Heidelberg. Without the religious studies department, the Cluster “Asia and Europe in a Global Context,” and the South Asia Institute, this new adventure would have been impossible for me. In the end, I was equipped with the philological tools of Bangla and some rudimentary Sanskrit, on the one hand, and a collaborative framework that I was lucky enough to be part of, global religious history. These tools and the great people I was working with enabled my perspective on how I wanted to do this new book.

My hope had been that I would succeed in unravelling the network behind Arthur Avalon and shine light, not only on the local context but also on the global connections that shaped it. I was really excited to find that the same group of people had been active before John Woodroffe had even arrived in Bengal, and that their first efforts to revise the image on Tantra had taken place on a truly global stage, in the journal The Theosophist. This was just a fantastic starting point for me, I really couldn’t imagine a more impressive and instructive example of how global perspectives may help us to do some solid historiography.

MB: I am absolutely fascinated by your methodology – you talk of a global religious history beyond movement of people, goods, ideas and knowledge. What is global in your theorization? How do you theorize a history of the colony beyond the metropole?

JS: People may use the term “global” in quite disparate ways, so it’s important to make clear that I’m not employing it in the sense of planetary or universal. My intention was not to write a history of planet Earth (perhaps I’m somewhat crazy, but not that much). Rather, I’m convinced that the history of notions such as religion and modernity is not determined by a unilateral flow of ideas from Europe to the rest of the world, but by entanglements that come with a lot of ambiguity arising from the colonial context. To begin with, there was no homogenous European understanding of religion that could have been exported to the colonies and elsewhere. If I knew anything from my previous research, it’s that “religion”—and “modernity,” for that matter—was hotly contested and never had a fixed meaning. It’s precisely the constant attempts to fix and (re-)negotiate meaning that interest me, and those were inherently intertwined with other parts of the world and the people inhabiting them. Those people were not passive recipients of knowledge but agents in their own right, with their local histories and debates. It was not only since the eighteenth century that such local contexts were entangled with other distant locales, but through the modern colonial context (the period I have been focusing on, for now), the very conceptualization of religion and its relationship to science, national identity, and so forth, was inexorably linked to developments in India, with respect to my particular example.

We need, by consequence, a decentered historiography that avoids both Eurocentrism and the opposite trap of an isolated focus on “indigenous” frameworks, with their more or less implicit assumptions about cultural purity. At the same time, the talk of “global connections” is not to suggest a romanticized process of harmony and equality—colonial oppression and violence were very real. But it is all too easy to maintain a focus on the European who stood behind it, thus again eclipsing the agency of those in the colonies. I think the Tantra example is a very powerful one to illustrate this complex situation and the historiographical challenges resulting from it. As you point out, Mou, this also applies to the constellation between the metropolis and the supposed periphery. We need to look beyond a place like Calcutta to understand what was going on, not least because we should explore diachronic developments that predate the heyday of British colonialism. On one hand, this is important in order to look beyond the bhadralok intelligentsia, which by no means was solely responsible for Bengali thought. On the other, we must look to places like Nadiya because they were complex cultural centers in their own right, shaped by the wonderful richness of Bengali culture that fascinates me so much. Dichotomies of tradition and modernity, orthodoxy/revival and reform don’t help us much to understand the debates I have been looking at, and neither do homogenized ideas about East and West, center and periphery. People like clear borders and binaries, but we must mix up our historiographies because of the sheer messiness of reality!

MB: Why was this new Indo-British conception of Tantra so compatible with the religious philosophy of Theosophy? You write that this network of Tantra-experts chose to publish their work in the mouthpiece of the Theosophical Society – The Theosophist journal. Could you tell us a little bit about why they chose to do so? Who were their intended audience?

JS: Founded in New York in 1875, the Theosophical Society relocated to India in 1879 and quickly began to play a very prominent role, not only in Indian culture and politics, but also in global exchanges. In the decades around 1900, its relevance for the transmission of ideas and practices across the globe can hardly be overestimated. One central reason for the Theosophical interest in India was its supposed status as the origin of “Aryan civilization,” which immediately links it to the context of orientalist studies, racial theories, and so forth, which I have addressed earlier. Theosophy stood at the heart of contemporary debates about religion, science, and race. Its flagship journal, The Theosophist, was distributed on all continents and immensely influential. Since it was explicitly sympathetic to subjects such as occultism and magic—in contrast to most orientalists, missionaries, and other European observers—, it was an ideal forum for our Bengali Tantrics to propagate their ideas. There are many ambiguities about the relationship between “Western” and “non-Western” Theosophists and the notion of Aryanism and race more broadly, which I try to unravel a bit in my book. But there is no question about the openness of Theosophical platforms such as the Theosophist to Indian voices, and the perhaps unprecedented reach it offered to them.

MB: Tell us more about Arthur Avalon and the Avalon Project – your analysis focuses deeply on local developments and local scholarship and yet you root these ideas within a global matrix of the exchange of information. And in doing so, I think you radically destabilize the age-old debate of interlocution between the British civilian intellectuals and their indigenous collaborators. If we’re to follow your example, and I think many of us will be deeply inspired and challenged by your methodological and analytical innovations – how do you see the field of global religious history developing in the next few years? What kinds of work do you hope to see emerging from your interventions?

JS: I see myself part of a collaborative effort, not only among those who explicitly subscribe to the approach of global religious history (about which you can learn a bit more here), but also within the broader fields of religious studies, global history, and South Asian studies. There is widespread agreement about the importance of global and postcolonial perspectives, as well as fruitful discussions about their pitfalls and limitations. We can observe the emergence of new programs and projects that revolve around the “global.” That’s a great development, which, with regard to religious studies, is still quite in its infancy. We need more conversations about theory and method, about notions such as the global, connections, entanglement, agency—sometimes there is a lot of buzzwording and namedropping going on, with people using the same vocabulary while talking about different things. This requires systematic and cooperative discussions, not with the aim of theoretical and methodological homogeneity, but in order to clarify and sharpen our scholarly toolset. Moreover, there are many significant challenges, such as the diachronic dimension beyond the nineteenth century. Considering the difficult question of what “religion” is and if this term might be reasonably applied to different geographical, chronological, and linguistic contexts, we need more collaboration between diverse experts—the main challenge being that such collaborations require a shared framework so that we are not talking past each other. I attempted to offer a practical application of global religious history that yields concrete results and makes concrete proposals. It’s for others to decide if that worked out, but perhaps I may succeed in sparking one or the other conversation.

MB: If the “global” in your formulation is to be seen as decentered historiography, how much of this depends on the kinds of sources and intellectual networks that might be available to the researcher? Following on from that, what kinds of sources do you use in the book? What areas would you have liked to write more about, that you couldn’t do as much as you would have liked because of Covid? What are the lacunae you see in your own work now that the book is published?

JS: The question of the archive is so very difficult. As historians, we are limited to working with the sources that survive, and those tend to have been written by certain, usually privileged people. By consequence, our access to networks beyond groups such as the bhadralok, higher-status men, and white Europeans is frustratingly limited. This applies even to Europe, when I think of the many socialist and reformist journals I have worked with in my previous books. If we’re lucky, we get some glimpses through periodicals such as Bangamahila, preserved correspondences, or grey literature that fortunately escaped mold and insects. But even then, the vast majority of people remain beyond our historiographical reach. I tried to get my hands on as many “small” publications as possible, but some were simply lost. Because of the pandemic, I also couldn’t realize an extensive trip to the countryside, where I had at least two locations in mind that could have provided me with relevant material. Something for later articles, I guess! In the end, I worked mainly with sources that, like their authors, had a certain status, and this is a very real limitation of what I could tell about Tantra in modern Bengal.

While I think that I can offer some relevant insights, I have by no means written an exhaustive history, which, for example, would have to include the ideas and practices of many more people which were in no position to author and print books, booklets, and periodicals. This history would have to include people from all social strata, and it would have to discuss the role of women in much more detail. I see a lot of potential in material history beyond texts, for instance, to allow for some insights in that regard. Not least, Islam forms a big lacuna in my work, which I wish to fill in the future. There are so many important aspects that I had to leave out, but I hope that the result will still be of use to some readers. Perhaps it will even inspire someone to tackle those lacunae. Or reach out to do that together.

I really appreciate your kind words and your interest in the book, Mou! I thank you for providing me with this forum.

Mou Banerjee received her Ph.D. from the Dept. of History at Harvard in 2018 and is Assistant Professor of modern South Asia at UW-Madison. Her first book, “The Disinherited: Christianity and Conversion in Colonial India, 1813-1907” is forthcoming from Harvard University Press. Banerjee’s research analyses the relationship between religion, politics and the evolving discourse on the othering of minority communities of faith in India. Her research has been funded by the SSRC-IDRF dissertation research fellowship, the UW-Madison WARF Fellowships, and the IRH Resident Faculty Fellowship at UW-Madison, among others. Her second book, under contract with Juggernaut Press, India, is an intellectual history of the life and times of the pioneering Indian social reformer Raja Rammohan Roy. Prior to her appointment at UW-Madison, she was College Fellow at the Department of South Asian Studies at Harvard in 2018 and Assistant Professor of History at Clemson University in 2018-19.

Edited by Shuvatri Dasgupta

Featured Image: Sarvamangala Temple, Howrah, West Bengal, India. Courtesy of Julian Strube.