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Gnosticism in Postwar German Philosophy: An Interview with Willem Styfhals

Willem Styfhals is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Philosophy at KU Leuven, Belgium, and the author of the new book No Spiritual Investment in the World: Gnosticism and Postwar German Philosophy (Cornell, 2019; see Amazon and JSTOR). Bridging philosophy of religion and intellectual history, this work tells the unexpected story of how certain ancient heretical religious ideas became the subject of heated debates that animated postwar German thought. Earlier versions of two chapters were published in the Journal of the History of Ideas as “Evil in History: Karl Löwith and Jacob Taubes on Modern Eschatology” (2015) and “Modernity as Theodicy: Odo Marquard Reads Hans Blumenberg’s The Legitimacy of the Modern Age” (2019). Styfhals is also co-editor, with Stéphane Symons, of Genealogies of the Secular: The Making of Modern German Thought (SUNY, 2019). Contributing Editor Jonathon Catlin interviewed him about his new book.

Jonathon Catlin: The title of your book comes from the writings of the eccentric Austrian-Jewish philosopher of religion Jacob Taubes, who trained as a rabbi. He once characterized his own apocalyptic and nihilistic attitude, in a reflection on the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt: “Let it all go down. I have no spiritual investment in the world as it is.” You argue that this phrase indicates both Taubes’s modern atheistic materialism and his religious attachment to another world to come. How do these seemingly exclusive commitments come together in his thought?

Willem Styfhals: Taubes included this quote in English in a text he wrote in German. I like to think of it as a kind of catchphrase he introduced for his own thought. It also captures what interested me in German debates on Gnosticism: a surprising interaction between religious heresy and secular modernity. If you read the quote from a religious perspective, you end up with a Gnostic worldview that completely rejects any immanent meaning of this world in favor of a world to come. This Gnostic world is an evil one from which God has withdrawn, hence there is no reason whatsoever to spiritually invest in it. If you read the same quote from a modern, atheistic point of view, you end up with nihilism. This world is devoid of meaning, devoid of the divine and does not deserve our spiritual investment. Now, Taubes’s point is—and this is precisely what fascinated me—that there is ultimately no real difference between the religious attitude of the Gnostic and the attitude of the modern nihilist. Modernity and modern nihilism, for Taubes, are nothing but the continuation of certain marginalized and heretical religious ideas. This not only implies that modernity secularizes certain theological contents, as thinkers like Schmitt had already claimed, but also that some age-old religious ideas, in particular heretical ones, are more nihilistic and more “modern” than we would initially expect.

Willem Styfhals, No Spiritual Investment in the World
Gnosticism and Postwar German Philosophy
. Cornell University Press, 2019.

JC: Your book traces the important role of Gnostic ideas in twentieth-century German thinkers including Taubes, Eric Voegelin, Hans Blumenberg, Hans Jonas, Odo Marquard, and Gershom Scholem. In this milieu you assign Taubes a “mediating role” for his efforts to try “to bring their different positions together into a unified debate,” though he often failed in this task. In what ways were these thinkers in conversation—reading, correspondence, conferences?

WS: My book is a history of a debate that never took place—an admittedly problematic but philosophically interesting Auseinandersetzung [confrontation and engagement]. The topic of Gnosticism was omnipresent in German thinking about political theology and secularization, but it was never “debated” in the strict sense of the word. Probably the topic was too vague, haphazard, and idiosyncratic to be discussed in clear theoretical terms. Gnosticism was more of a topos that many thinkers incidentally turned to than a genuine historical or philosophical concept. There was only one figure who wanted to turn the issue into a real academic discussion, namely Jacob Taubes himself. The others never really framed their references to Gnosticism as a systematic intervention in a debate about the Gnostic nature of modernity. That being said, most thinkers I discuss did know each other personally; they read each other’s work and corresponded. Taubes knew all the others rather well, although he quickly made Blumenberg and Scholem into his enemies. Blumenberg also corresponded with Jonas, Scholem and Marquard. The correspondence between Blumenberg and Taubes was published a few years ago and was an extremely important source for the book. The publications of the correspondences between Taubes and Scholem, and between Jonas and Blumenberg, are still in the pipeline. Nonetheless, these thinkers did not extensively discuss the topic of Gnosticism in these letters in the way I tried to oppose or compare their positions in my book. The book brings together certain thinkers and positions in a way that Taubes would have liked to in real life but ultimately failed to realize.

JC: Bridging the religious-secular divide between these thinkers, you write, “the Gnostic-apocalyptic lack of spiritual investment in the world survives in the attitude of the modern nihilist.” This was the view of Hans Jonas, the leading scholar of Gnosticism, whose intellectual trajectory exemplifies the historical pattern established in your book: Pre-war and interwar fascination with Gnostic ideas as solutions to the crisis of modernity—as seen in Jonas’s 1934 dissertation—transformed, after the war, into seeing Gnosticism as illegitimate, “a dangerous herald of modern nihilism.” (Taubes is the exception to this pattern.) First of all, is this critique fair? Was Gnosticism discredited by its secularized legacy? Secondly, this also brings in Blumenberg’s twin critique of the secularization thesis found in Jonas and Löwith, and of Gnosticism itself, and his alternative and “legitimating” genealogy of modernity and progress through a different course than secularized Christian eschatology: “The modern intervention in nature was merely an attempt to make life possible and bearable in a world that is indifferent to human aspirations.” Blumenberg, I would say, emerges as the victor of your story. By legitimating secular modernity, he overcame both Gnosticism and the Gnosticism debates. How did Taubes bring these two debates together, holding onto Gnostic “ontological pessimism” in light of Blumenberg’s critique of the secularization thesis?

WS: Jonas’s critique of Gnosticism and its legacy in modernity—as well as Voegelin’s and Marquard’s—is probably fair, but it is also quite bland and overly conservative. Their positions certainly did not convince me philosophically. Gnosticism seems to represent, for these thinkers, everything that is wrong with modernity. Gnosticism thus becomes a pejorative category with little to no conceptual content. This probably explains why I presented Blumenberg as the victor of the debate—if unwittingly so, I must admit. I tried to present a relatively neutral history, a rational reconstruction of an intellectual debate, but it inevitably becomes clear whose side I am on. Compared to Jonas, Voegelin, Marquard and Taubes, Blumenberg’s position is philosophically much subtler and historically much more nuanced. Blumenberg presents a thorough criticism of all these thinkers who recognized a return of Gnosticism in modern times and famously claimed that modernity itself is “the overcoming of Gnosticism.” I believe no serious defense of modernity’s Gnostic origins is still possible after Blumenberg’s critique. The German debate about modernity and Gnosticism is philosophically and historically fascinating, but I would find it ridiculous to try to connect modern or contemporary phenomena today to specific Gnostics tenets. This is why I was no longer interested in studying Gnosticism after I finished this book, while I do still work on Hans Blumenberg’s thought quite a bit.

Hans Jonas, Gnosis und spätaniker Geist, vol. I. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1964.

JC: You describe the Holocaust as a turning point for thinking about Gnosticism. Indeed, Taubes, Scholem, Jonas, and Blumenberg were all German Jews whose lives and thought were marked by the historical experience of persecution or exile. For Taubes, you write, “the Holocaust itself could appear as the apocalyptic catastrophe par excellence, and even as the ultimate motivation for his Gnostic refusal to invest spiritually in the world as it is.” For Jonas, on the other hand, “after Auschwitz, Gnosticism could hardly be an object of fascination,” for, as you cite Anson Rabinbach’s apt phrase, the Holocaust was “the nonredemptive apocalypse.” One could also say that the Holocaust delegitimized the modern world, and Blumenberg even wrote that “Hitler had no world.” Hannah Arendt, for example, tried to counter the modern problem of “worldlessness” and “world alienation” with her notions of “worldliness” and “love of the world.” What factors made the Holocaust and the problem of theodicy an explicit (Voegelin and Jonas) or implicit (Taubes and Scholem) rupture in their thinking about Gnosticism?

WS: I certainly would not go as far as claiming that these thinkers were discussing the Holocaust in disguise. But the war and the Holocaust certainly changed the terms of the discussion. The catastrophic and pessimistic worldview of Gnosticism basically lost its attraction after the war. The radical evil of the Holocaust showed what an evil or nihilistic Gnostic world from which God had withdrawn could look like. While Jewish thinkers like Scholem and Jonas could still be fascinated by Gnosticism before the war, this was no longer possible after it. Many interwar Jewish thinkers were attracted to radical religious ideas such as messianism, apocalypticism, or indeed Gnosticism. Their interest in these movements usually involved the redemptive potential of catastrophe. The meaningless, evil world of Gnosticism and the apocalyptic dimension of messianism contained potential for salvation within a negative moment. Recognizing the depravity of the world and the catastrophe that it announces already opens a redemptive world to come. This is what Rabinbach argues with regard to Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch, characterizing their early thinking with the notion of a “redemptive apocalypse.” However, the war, and the Holocaust in particular, showed that there is nothing redemptive about catastrophe, the apocalypse, and the world’s depravity. The Holocaust is an apocalypse that does not redeem, as Rabinbach notes. Consequently, the initial attraction of Gnosticism and its apocalyptic tenets fades after the war. Moreover, the catastrophic and pessimistic worldview of Gnosticism is now radically dismissed by thinkers like Jonas, Voegelin, Marquard and Blumenberg. Voegelin even held Gnosticism responsible for the rise of totalitarian politics. Taubes is a strange exception to this. He still sticks to a Gnostic worldview, as if the Holocaust simply testified once again to the Gnostic contention that the world is radically evil and does not deserve our spiritual investment.

JC: You conclude that “the concept of Gnosticism was increasingly metaphorized” (to use Blumenberg’s phrase) in postwar German debates, becoming “a pseudoconcept, or indeed a philosophical metaphor for a range of contemporary political and philosophical issues.” In particular, you argue that Gnosticism became “not a metaphor for the evils of the war, but for the philosophical problems that it left in its wake.” On the other hand, you invoke Peter Gordon’s anti-contextualist approach to intellectual history, claiming that these debates were also about ideas in their own right. What role did Gnosticism play as an indirect, metaphorical means through which to undertake Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, working through the Nazi past?

WS: As I said, the thinkers I discuss in the book were not discussing the Holocaust in disguise. The main body of the book treats the Gnosticism debates as theoretical discussions in their own right, without reference to the Holocaust or the political context of postwar Germany. In that sense, my approach is anti-contextualist. I try to come to terms with the philosophical and intellectual stakes of these debates and read them as contributing to theoretical discussions on political theology and secularization theory. My book contends that there are very legitimate philosophical issues implied even in the idiosyncratic and outdated concepts used by Taubes, Blumenberg, Scholem, etc. Each chapter of the book discusses one such issue. However, in the conclusion, I do propose reading some of these issues against the background of Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung. I certainly do not want to suggest here that the debates about Gnosticism should be reduced to the historical context of postwar Germany or that they can only be understood as responses to the Holocaust. Nonetheless, some of the philosophical issues at stake in the Gnosticism debates have important parallels with other intellectual debates going around the same time that do refer explicitly to the Holocaust. To give just two examples: the discussion of God’s withdrawal from the world in post-Holocaust theology and Hannah Arendt’s discussion of the problem of evil. In this regard, I propose in the conclusion that Gnosticism functioned as a metaphor for precisely those philosophical issues (divine absence, the problem of evil, etc.) that other thinkers were tackling directly in relation to the war.

JC: I want to focus in on a central term in your book, apocalypse,which is often used to mean a world-ending cataclysm (like katechon) but simply comes from the Greek for “revelation.” Both Taubes and Schmitt were apocalyptic thinkers, but Taubes was in favor of a kind of apocalypse while Schmitt wanted to hold apocalypse at bay. Today, such political-theological rhetoric is less systematically applied to the “slow disaster” of climate change. You quote Jonas’s The Imperative of Responsibility saying already in 1979, “we live in an apocalyptic situation, that is, under the threat of a universal catastrophe if we let things take their present course.” Jonas’s critique of technology, nihilism, and moral blindness extended not only to the catastrophes of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, but also the domination of nature and ecological devastation that fueled modern Western progress more generally. Depending on who you ask today, climate change is alternately a condition (we can learn to live with), a crisis (we can solve), a catastrophe (that will destroy our current society), an apocalypse (that will destroy all possible human worlds). To give one example, David Wallace-Wells’s book The Uninhabitable Earth: Life after Warming (2019) has been criticized for being overly apocalyptic and fatalistic. On the other hand, some on the Left such as Naomi Klein and Dipesh Chakrabarty see climate change as an opportunity to transform capitalism in a Benjaminian “moment of danger.” Certain apocalyptic responses to climate change have been dismissed as “bourgeois eschatology” or empty virtue signaling in end times. In what sense is climate change a genuinely apocalyptic issue?

WS: It’s interesting to see how you connect the issues I discuss in my book to climate change and environmental catastrophe. Bruno Latour actually does the same thing in his recent book Facing Gaia (2017), where he develops a political theology of the environmental apocalypse. Curiously, he extensively discusses Eric Voegelin and Gnosticism in this context (see Chapter 6 of his book). Latour’s analysis is fascinating (and a bit weird), but I tend to agree with him. Just like Latour, I think climate change should be approached as an apocalyptic issue. Apocalypticism does not lead to fatalism, as he points out. The history of Gnosticism and apocalypticism teaches us that the end of time typically does not paralyze. As I argue in Chapter 4 of my book, the end of time usually incites agency in this world—albeit violent, destructive, and antinomian action in the case of Gnosticism. Apocalyptic images and stories typically trigger us to do something here and now. Therefore, the true apocalyptic does not believe that the world is doomed but rather makes tangible the future consequences of our present predicament. While I’m very interested in these issues, I’m not entirely convinced that Gnosticism is the right way to approach them. I’m fascinated by Latour’s chapter on Gnosticism, and I clearly see the influence of Gnosticism on Hans Jonas’s environmental philosophy, but I’m reluctant to revive the concept of Gnosticism once again, this time to make sense of the Anthropocene. Other political-theological concepts, like the concept of the apocalypse that you mention, seem more applicable.

Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime. Polity, 2017.

JC: In the acknowledgements to your book, you reflect that writing a dissertation on Gnosticism at Belgium’s KU Leuven—an institution famous for the study of the phenomenologists Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger—makes you something of a “modern heretic.” But you reflect that you “liked this status” and that it’s “probably what attracted [you], like Jacob Taubes, to the topic of Gnosticism in the first place.” What makes you feel like a modern-day heretic? Has Gnosticism found a place in philosophical scholarship, or is it still a marginal topic?

WS: The reason I felt like a kind of heretic is that I read philosophers few people at the Institute of Philosophy in Leuven had ever heard of. Much more than intellectual historians, historians of philosophy keep on returning to the “big thinkers” and the “big questions.” In Leuven, these big names are Kant, Husserl, and Heidegger. Some of my colleagues vaguely know Blumenberg and Jonas’s work, but no one had ever read anything by Taubes, Voegelin, Marquard, or even Scholem. In a way, I enjoyed this status as an outsider. Now, with regard to the topic of Gnosticism itself, it is definitely a marginal one, and it should remain that way. Strangely enough, my book is meant to close the debate on Gnosticism and modernity rather than reopen it. Too much has been written about the “Gnostic” features of modernity. Many scholars of Gnosticism, myself included, are annoyed by the ever-returning idea that Gnosticism allegedly survived in modern times. For historians of religion today, it is not even clear what Gnosticism is, let alone what it would mean for it to return in modernity. In this sense, I would certainly never consider myself to be a modern heretic or Gnostic. On the contrary, my history of the German Gnosticism debates is meant to show that it’s absurd to maintain a historical connection between Gnosticism and modern times. Hence I try to suggest that something else must have been at stake for these thinkers besides the dubious idea of the Gnostic legacy of our times, even if they didn’t always realize this themselves. My book tries to uncover precisely what is at stake there by pointing to the philosophical implications of these debates.

JC: What’s your next project?

WS: The project I’m currently developing focuses on a category that you referred to earlier, namely the apocalypse. I want to develop a philosophical reflection on the notion of end of time, or what I would call a philosophical eschatology. What interests me are not so much apocalyptic visions of the end of time themselves but rather the reasons why the apocalypse is so existentially attractive and intellectually compelling to some people. This is a question that is obviously also relevant today in the context of the Anthropocene and climate change. Once more, we seem to expect that our world will soon come to an end. So, although I won’t continue using the category of Gnosticism, I will always remain fascinated by certain radical religious ideas. In a way, my new project tries to come to terms with my own fascination with heretical and apocalyptic ideas. I am not religious and I certainly don’t believe that the end of time is near, but I must admit that I understand the appeal of this idea. In this sense, the notion of the apocalypse fits my own personal and perhaps idiosyncratic fascination with religious extremes.

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

Intellectual history Interview philosophy political theory Theory

“We’ll Need More Than Rawlsianism Can Offer”: Katrina Forrester on John Rawls and Anglo-American Political Philosophy after 1945

Katrina Forrester is Assistant Professor of Government and Social Studies at Harvard University. Her research focuses on the history of twentieth-century social and political thought and its implications for political theory. Forrester’s first book, In the Shadow of Justice: Postwar Liberalism and the Remaking of Political Philosophy (Princeton University Press, 2019) is a history of how political philosophy was transformed by postwar liberalism, John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, and the rise of liberal egalitarianism. She is currently working on a new book project on Feminism and the Transformation of Work, and a related set of essays on feminism and the state. 

Katrina Forrester, Assistant Professor of Government and Social Studies at Harvard University

Jonas Knatz is a PhD Student in New York University’s History Department. He works on 20th century European intellectual history.

Anne Schult a PhD Candidate in New York University’s History Department. Her current research focuses on the intersection of migration, law, and demography in 20th-century Europe.

Anne Schult/Jonas Knatz:  In the very first sentence of your book, you state that “political philosophy in the English-speaking world today is largely concerned with a set of liberal ideas about justice, equality, and the obligations of individual citizens in capitalist welfare states” (ix). In essence, you attribute this state of debate to the continuing influence of John Rawls’ ideas about justice as fairness—despite the fact that at the very moment Rawls published his major work, A Theory of Justice, the capitalist welfare state he seemed to advocate for entered a deep crisis. How do you explain this seeming paradox and the enduring attractiveness of Rawls’ philosophical framework to evaluate contemporary politics?

Katrina Forrester: Let me start with the paradox. There are two stories that often get told about liberalism in the second half of the twentieth century. There’s a philosophical success story: John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice transformed how political philosophy was done and a species of political philosophy called liberal egalitarianism came to dominance. That’s one story my book tries to tell, about the origins of A Theory of Justice, its triumphant reception, consolidation, and canonization into what became known simply as “Rawls’s theory”. I set this against another broader story about liberalism: that the 1970s was a time of crisis when social liberalism gave way to neoliberalism. But instead of seeing the rise of a liberal egalitarian political philosophy amid the decline of the welfare state as an ironic or even tragic story, I give a different account – I call it a ghost story. What I try to show is that Rawls’s theory endures and takes hold precisely because it provides a vision of a just society that goes beyond the postwar welfare settlement at the very moment that settlement is coming apart. It provides the grounds for a new liberal consensus, a new philosophical order, at a time of political disorder when the postwar liberal consensus is being challenged (first by the left, and gradually and more successfully by the right).

So that means that the attractiveness of Rawls’s theory is, in part, explained by the seeming paradox. It is also, in part, explained by two more prosaic points: First, Rawls’s own institutional and sociological influence as a teacher and academic at Harvard, and the influence of his students and colleagues; Second, the nature of his theory and its conceptual power (it’s important not to understate that power or A Theory of Justice’s philosophical beauty). Rawls’s theory also had a variety of other characteristics that contributed to its enduring appeal: its ideological force, that enabled its near-hegemonic dominance, and its peculiar flexibility and capaciousness. The flexibility is vital. I also argue in the book that the periodization of postwar thought into welfare-statist and neoliberal is too simple. Rawls was never a straightforward defender of capitalist welfare states (as all Rawlsians and liberal egalitarians know well), but it turns out that as a young man he was far more sympathetic to anti-statist forms of liberalism that we have realized. Yet the theory he built allowed for a variety of political settlements, up to and including a liberal socialism. So it was that flexibility that meant that aspects of the theory could be taken up across the political spectrum. It enabled its continued relevance.

In the Shadow of Justice (2019), Princeton University Press

AS/JK: In 2014, Raymond Geuss described the 1950s and 1960s as a particularly lively and interesting period in political philosophy that saw the publication of books by thinkers associated with the Frankfurt School, a revival of Antonio Gramsci, and the broad circulation and discussion of very influential texts by the likes of Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre or Guy Debord on the left and Leo Strauss, Michael Oakeshott or Karl Popper on the right. Against this background, according to Geuss, the publication of Rawls’ main work thus “seemed like an irrelevance.” Yet, as you point out in your book, a predominant narrative in the historiography of political thought portrays the publication of Rawls’ Theory of Justice as a rebirth of political philosophy after a long postwar hiatus. How did Rawls attain such a hegemonic position, and in what aspects was his Theory of Justice a product of these larger postwar debates?

KF: Geuss’s description of the 1950s and 1960s is perhaps best understood as a rebuttal of the “rebirth of political philosophy” story. According to that narrative, after the Second World War, it became impossible to think about justice and utopia. Political philosophy was widely seen as “dead”. Then Rawls’s theory revived political philosophy from its slumbers by giving political philosophy new normative foundations. Now, there’s plenty wrong with this story. But while it’s obviously untenable to see political theory, generally construed, as “dead” in the postwar years (for the reasons Geuss explains), it is nonetheless possible to make the case that the death-and-revival story isn’t all wrong. It’s just that it only holds true if it’s taken to be a much narrower and more tightly delineated story (even then, there’s plenty to contest). A revised version of the story goes something like this: within certain fields of the human sciences in the mid-century US, thanks to the prevailing liberal anti-totalitarianism, a slippery slope to authoritarianism was seen behind every progressive reform. Analytical philosophers weren’t very interested in building “normative” institutional theories, and certainly no one was doing it quite at the same scale as Rawls would. From that perspective, Rawls’s contribution was extremely significant. If the history of postwar political philosophy is told in terms of what goes on within US philosophy departments, Rawls’s impact was huge.

From left to right: Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Che Guevara. Cuba, 1960. Wikicommons.

But that doesn’t mean Rawls came out of nowhere. He was a far closer reader of a wide range of postwar scholarship than is often assumed: he engaged closely with economics and social science, with sociology, political science, psychology, and law, and he was no stranger to the so-called “continental” tradition. To that end, I describe A Theory of Justice as a kind of “encyclopedia” of the postwar social sciences. It is very much a recognizable product of that mid-century moment. And yet, Rawls himself contributed to the idea that it was somehow apart from it, by reinforcing the narrative of the death-and-revival of political philosophy: in lectures to students, year on year, when he contemplated the question of whether postwar political theory was dead or declining, he suggested that the concept of justice would be necessary to its revival. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that Rawls helped consolidate the narrative according to which theories of distributive justice like his signaled the revival of political philosophy. As political philosophy was remade in Rawls’s wake with a novel conceptual vocabulary, the thinkers that Geuss describes as central were consequently removed from the canon of political philosophy. They were re-described as being engaged in a different endeavor: social theory, critical theory, political theory, and so on. Rawls and the subsequent generation of Anglophone analytical philosophers oversaw a redefinition of what counts as political philosophy.

AS/JK: By historicizing Rawls’ theory, your methodology bears resemblance to what the literary critic Barbara Johnson termed ‘critique’, a deconstructivist approach that was later adopted by historians such as Joan W. Scott. That is to say, your book appears less as an engagement with Rawls’ theoretical system in the form of an “examination of its flaws and imperfections” in order to improve it, but instead as an “analysis that focuses on the grounds of the system’s possibility,” to “show that these things have their history.”[1] Do you see your work as following in this tradition, or would you describe your methodology otherwise?

KF: That’s an interesting connection, but I’ve never thought of my work explicitly in relation to Scott or Johnson. Certainly, I’m interested in looking to the political work that ideas do, their political effects, their histories and the historical circumstances that made them possible. I suspect I’m quite in keeping with many who were trained in the Cambridge School of the history of political thought when I say that I don’t spend much time worrying about method: I have contextualist and historicist inclinations, to which I’m reasonably faithful. But in this book and elsewhere my central commitment is to writing the history of the present – I want to find ways to think the present historically, to understand political theory in political terms, and to identify the politics of political philosophy, which can only really be done historically. To do that, we might use all manner of tools, and not all of them are compatible – genealogical, Marxist, Foucauldian, psychoanalytic, as well the workaday practices of historical explanation. So yes, critique is a central part of how I conceive of my work, but I would want to define that quite broadly.

AS/JK: You attribute parts of Rawls’ influence to his success in transforming the vocabulary of Anglo-American political philosophy. An essential cornerstone of his language, as you detail throughout the book, was the metaphor of society as a game. Analogies with games were ubiquitous in postwar academia, from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s language games to John von Neumann’s writings in game theory, but Rawls took particular inspiration from Chicago School economist Frank Knight’s notion of the ‘good game.’ How did the metaphor of the ‘good game’ encapsulate John Rawls’ understanding of a just society, and how did he negotiate the rise of neoliberal economic policies that emerged from the very same metaphor in the 1970s?

KF: In the early 1950s, Rawls wrote that society could best be understood as a game, rather than as an organism or a mechanism. He aimed to describe how a just society could be set up so that it was self-regulating. The government acted as umpire that tried not to intervene in the game. He drew from Knight to describe society as a game of multiple players with their own interests, whose starting positions had to be equal enough that they had a stake in the game and wanted to play. The game had to be regulated so the effects of winning were contained, and so no one player could accumulate too many goods from winning. It was important to Rawls that players in the game of society have a degree of equality, but that should be achieved without too much active state intervention and redistribution. Now, Rawls didn’t ever fully drop the game metaphor – it features in A Theory of Justice, though it’s not well developed there. He did overlay it with other accounts of society (as a system of social practices, and his vision of the basic structure of society). But I argue that the game metaphor gives us a crucial insight into Rawls’s youthful dream of limited government.

The game metaphor was also used by neoliberals, as you rightly say, and by public choice theorists like James Buchanan, who recognized Rawls as a fellow “student” of Knight’s account of games. But, to my knowledge, Rawls didn’t write anything about how his theory related to the neoliberals who used the game metaphor. Unlike some later egalitarians, he doesn’t explicitly engage with neoliberal ideas. And yet, Rawls was briefly a member of the Mont Pelerin Society, until 1971 when he allowed his membership to lapse. He also dialogued with Buchanan and other contract theorists. They didn’t agree on social issues – Rawls’s racial liberalism runs deep. But it was in the nature of that liberalism that he didn’t reject links with those for whom it didn’t. That engagement doesn’t make Rawls a neoliberal, but it certainly complicates narratives about Rawls being a socialist of some kind. Rawls’s theory allows for liberal socialism – and certainly many political philosophers have argued that it might require it – but Rawls himself was not a socialist.

AS/JK: Yet, Rawls’ work has often been received as a defense of the welfare state, to the point that William A. Edmundson called him a “reticent socialist.” By situating A Theory of Justice in the intellectual milieu of the postwar period, you emphasize that it was influenced by the then-prevalent Anglo-American critique of the totalitarian state. What was Rawls’ understanding of the state, and how does his understanding differ from the minimalist state advocated by contemporaries, such as Robert Nozick?

KF: For a long time, discussions of the state in the mid-twentieth century tended to flatten quite distinctive visions of the state into “welfare state theory.” But there were then many ways of thinking about the state that in practice might have amounted to a defense of something like a welfare state, but at the level of theory included very different arguments about what the state was, and how the state did, and should, function. Theories of planning, welfare, socialism, pluralism, Keynesian stabilization: all these had different implicit or explicit accounts of the state. My book tries to situate Rawls’s account of the state alongside these. It’s crucial to see his theory as in dialogue with these mid-century and wartime theories, not as a product of the Great Society. Recent work on early neoliberal theory has done a lot to dispel the idea that neoliberalism was a purely anti-statist theory. But in the mid-century US, there was a distinctive strand of sceptical liberalism that was critical of the New Deal planning state (and later invoked anti-totalitarianism and metaphors of anti-statism), and I argue that Rawls’s early work was surprisingly indebted to that anti-interventionist liberalism. Rawls always wanted something distinctive from the welfare state. When he first formulated his account of a “property-owning democracy” in the early 1950s, it was as part of a minimalist liberal theory in which the functions of government were highly limited. He ruled out any political control of the economy. So, then, what he wanted amounted to less than a welfare state. But Rawls changed his mind about how much state action would be necessary to secure distributive justice. As he developed his account of property-owning democracy, he conceived of it as requiring more than the welfare state – a distinctive form of democratic political regime. That’s where the connection to liberal socialism comes in – Rawls saw his theory of justice as permitting a liberal socialist settlement (though he preferred property-owning democracy).

That said, there is something of a puzzle about how Rawls understood the state. Unlike Weberians or Marxists (or indeed Cambridge School historians of political thought), liberal political philosophers since Rawls have not been so interested in the state. That’s in part down to how Rawls explained, or didn’t explain, the state. Rawls’s theory was deeply institutional, but he was never very explicit about what the state was. As a young man hostile to corporate and state personality theories, he came close to what’s sometimes called an eliminativist theory of the state – he defined it as “the collection of men” and laws. When he later discussed society as a system of practices, there’s little sense that the state is a particularly distinctive, autonomous or semi-autonomous, agent. It’s not a corporate person, nor is it a field of interests. Sometimes Rawls’s state seems to be well-suited to the public/private nature of the American mid-century administrative state, a system of interests and institutions that is neither public or private – but he never theorized it explicitly in this way either. What’s clear in his early writings is that government should have a limited reach: the game should be set up so it can be self-regulating with minimal government intervention. The scope of state action is circumscribed, even if its nature is underdeveloped. Now, in his mature writings, in A Theory of Justice and beyond, Rawls abandons that minimalist view. But that formative anxiety about the overreaching state is not unconnected to the absence of theoretical attention he gives to the state. He ends up focusing on the juridical and legislative institutions, whereas the administrative state is always envisaged in the negative, as something to be constrained. Yet by the time Rawls publishes A Theory of Justice, it’s clear that the institutions of his just society require a well-functioning state, with significant state capacity – including capacity to intervene in the economy in a variety of ways to secure a just distribution of goods. Something like the postwar American state is always assumed but never interrogated.

Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), Basic Books

How does this compare to Nozick? Well, Nozick takes Rawls’s mature theory to require a great deal of state intervention. And, when compared to Nozick’s theory, rather than to the mid-century planning states, it certainly does. Even if we take the early Rawls, at his most minimalist, he and Nozick have starkly different visions of society. Nozick’s is a remarkably pure form of libertarianism. There is no metaphor of the game. In fact, Nozick’s minimalist state is quite different from the neoliberal state of those who think of society as a game, or from the state as responsible for setting the rules or the road. Nozick objects to theorists of “games of fair division.” He’s concerned with property rights, not state rules.

AS/JK: In the later 1970s, Rawls’ theory was reshaped and expanded by others to apply on a global level. In the book, you focus specifically on Rawlsian solutions to the political problems of hunger, poverty, and overpopulation—issues that Rawls himself had fairly little to say about in an official capacity, but that a new generation of philosophers like Charles Beitz thought solvable by means of Rawls’ philosophical framework. How did the adaptation of the Rawlsian notion of justice intersect with humanitarianism in the Global South and the rise of neocolonial development politics?

KF: The crucial point of intersection is in the 1970s, when political philosophers look in earnest to international politics. When liberal moral philosophers turned earlier to theorize the Vietnam War, it was mostly in terms of just war theory and the moral responsibility of leaders. Then in the 1970s, they take the institutional framework of Rawlsianism and look to international politics through the lens of distribution. There are various objections to Rawls’s decision to limit his theory to the national level, but it’s Charles Beitz that really extends Rawls’s theory internationally in detail. His is the first of many attempts to expand the scope of justice and to stretch Rawls’s theory to cover the world. The 1973 proposals for a New International Economic Order (NIEO) are key here as a spur to action. There’s also a contemporaneous move among those engaged with the new philosophy of public affairs to theorize other problems of international ethics, particularly foreign aid and food policy via appeal to varieties of utilitarianism or neo-Kantianism. It’s out of that, really, that you get a new humanitarianism within philosophy, one that’s fairly policy focused in its approach. By contrast with this, the extension of justice theory internationally is pretty radical. It’s born of sympathy with the redistributive demands coming out of the Global South (or at least with those demands as they are mediated by Northern liberals and socialists, and as they pass through the UN). A lot of their radicalism is diffused, though, as political philosophers take up the demands. As Brian Barry put it, in an extremely honest, straightforward, rendering of the egalitarian project, the aim for philosophers was to “domesticate” the arguments of the NIEO. That is, the point was to domesticate these demands by squeezing them into the vocabulary of liberal egalitarianism and justice theory. Barry is wonderfully explicit about this. For Barry, the NIEO demands are best understood as claims of justice, whereas the humanitarian debates about famine and food policy are merely claims of humanity.  But other philosophers cut the distinction differently and don’t disaggregate humanity and justice. Over time, conceptions of justice are used to explicate humanitarian activism too: food policy, human rights policies, the NIEO demands, all these get rendered in the vocabulary of justice theory. Here again we see the flexibility of liberal egalitarianism.

Meeting of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in Santiago, Chile, April 1972, which would eventually issue the Declaration for the Establishment of a New International Economic Order in 1974.

AS/JK: Around the same time, analytical Marxists, such as G.A. Cohen and John Roemer, began to engage with Rawls’ theory. As you argue in your book, these Marxist attacks “were taken up [and] their hard edges were softened” (207), and the criticism of the “No-Bullshit Marxists” was simply incorporated in the larger paradigm of liberal egalitarianism. You conclude that these debates “ultimately gave way not to socialist theories of democratic control but to liberal theories of deliberative democracy and public reason.” (ibid.) Why was analytical Marxism so powerless in challenging Rawlsianism, and how was the latter transformed by these encounters, if at all?

KF: Analytical Marxism starts off as something quite far away from Rawls and liberal egalitarianism, and many members of the original ‘No Bullshit Marxism’ group never have much to do with egalitarian political philosophy. But when, at the end of the 1970s, political philosophers after Rawls are becoming preoccupied with deep questions about equality, key analytical Marxists – Cohen and Roemer in particular – become very engaged with these debates. This is a moment when a number of philosophers get very interested in socialism, and in ‘rethinking’ it in the face of the rising New Right. As the 1980s rolled on, rethinking socialism often means abandoning it. But there were also plenty of new socialist visions, from analytical Marxism to market or democratic socialism. Few of them last long. What happens to some of the analytical Marxists as they encounter liberal egalitarianism is that they render Marxism a theory of distribution. They become proponents of the distributive paradigm. In this sense, Marxism gets domesticated (to redeploy that word). There are forays into theories of socialism, democratic control, and workplace democracy, but they don’t last. By the 1990s, debates about deliberative democracy and public reason take over. Marxism becomes distributional, democratic theory becomes deliberative. There’s an end of history effect.

Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence (1978), Princeton University Press

AS/JK: By the late 1980s, the law-like character of Rawls’s conceptualization of a just society was challenged by two other philosophical strands, communitarianism as developed by Michael Walzer and Michael Sandel and a new form of anti-totalitarian liberalism as put forward by Judith Shklar or Alasdair MacIntyre. Yet, you argue that these critics of Rawls offered little political alternatives and instead “provided mirror images of liberal political philosophy” (242). What led to their failure as true political-philosophical contenders?

KF: When I describe the story of liberal egalitarianism as a kind of ghost story, it’s Rawls’s theory that haunts political philosophy. But there’s really another ghost, too, that I characterize as “postwar liberalism” – the liberal vision of society that is born of the postwar settlement, which encompasses a range of liberal political assumptions and theories (of which Rawls’s is but one). In a basic sense, many liberal and communitarian responses to Rawls didn’t move beyond postwar liberalism. So they didn’t provide significant political alternatives. But I also argue that in important respects, a number of the communitarian and liberal responses to Rawls retraced his steps conceptually speaking too. They ended up mirroring ideas they wanted to dispute, they went back to ideas that Rawls had left out or left behind. This was not, of course, true of all alternatives – and I have tried not to overstate the centrality of Rawlsianism and the critics who took it as referent. Yet, for example, the communitarian critics of Rawls looked to Wittgenstein and the social self. I show in the book that this is actually where Rawls began. Similarly, those like Judith Shklar who advocated a liberalism of fear went back to Rawls’s early anti-totalitarianism but updated it for a new phase of the Cold War. Many of Rawlsianism’s twentieth-century alternatives couldn’t escape it. They ended up operating in the shadow of justice theory. 

AS/JK: At the end of your book, you argue that “we tend to underestimate the political distance traveled between that world of political consensus and our own” (278). Similarly, in a recent article for the Boston Review, you suggest that Rawls’ framework may have outlived its purpose as “some of our most pressing concerns lie in its blind spots.” How can political philosophy escape the shadow of justice?

KF: Well, first I want to be clear that the hold of the Rawlsian or liberal egalitarian framework has loosened over the past decade or so. And there is a lot of fascinating work being done within the tradition historicized in my book: as political philosophers try to face the future of work, technology, climate politics, financialization, privatization, and so on, plenty of its resources are relevant. So I don’t think “escaping the shadow” means abandoning those resources entirely. It means recognizing the limits of the Rawlsian framework, liberal egalitarianism and the analytical approach associated with the philosophy of public affairs – seeing what those approaches can’t do. One way to do so is to historicize and defamiliarize the vocabulary and architecture of that way of doing political philosophy. Another is to use ideas and arguments from other traditions. So, for instance, as part of my new research, I’ve been reading a lot of Marxist and socialist feminism, in part because I see that tradition as a rich resource for thinking about the future of work – richer than Rawlsianism. But there’s no one approach or single tradition of social and political theory that provides all the solutions, nor is there a single alternative to the limits of the paradigm. I’m a historian of political thought and a political theorist, not a philosopher, and I don’t want to tell another discipline what it should do with itself – that’s not my aim. Yet it’s nonetheless clear to me that if we are serious about finding a political philosophy, or a political theory, that can deal with the dilemmas of our own age, then we’ll need more than Rawlsianism can offer. We’ll need new theories of the state, work, climate. Some of those will be built from the resources of egalitarianism, others will be drawn from the many other traditions of social and political theory that we could mine. Constructing these is a collective endeavor, and many philosophers and theorists of various political and methodological stripes are already engaged in that endeavor, and recognize the challenge. I’m optimistic.

[1]. Barbara Johnson, translator’s introduction to Jacques Derrida, Dissemination (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981): xv.

Critical theory German history Intellectual history Kant Marxism philosophy political theory Theory

On a Kantian Antinomy in Hannah Arendt’s Political Thought

By Contributing Writer Antoine Pageau-St-Hilaire

In an interview with Günther Gaus in 1964, Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) recalls that she had started to read Immanuel Kant at the age of 14.[1] Evidently, this long and intense intellectual acquaintance with Kant played an important role in her understanding of political judgment, the articulation of which is best expressed in her Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, delivered at the New School for Social Research in 1970. The scholarship on Arendt’s political reinterpretation and appropriation of Kant’s aesthetic judgement is prolific, and I do not wish to add anything to it here.

What I wish to suggest – and hopefully to show, although briefly, in some persuasive fashion – is that we find a Kantian inspiration beneath the question of political judgment in Hannah Arendt’s political thought. Beneath, for political judgment presupposes a sphere of politics where political speech and action can take place. This is by no means odd, since judging pertains to human beings insofar as they are acting beings (LM in LKPP 3). But action, Arendt thinks, does not stand on its own. In fact, action is “ontologically rooted” in the human condition of natality (The Human Condition 247). This means that there is an ontological priority of natality over acting and judging. Natality is Hannah Arendt’s very own (and perhaps most distinctive) concept. Yet, while it is plain that she did not invent it ex nihilo, attempts to pin down the intellectual inspiration(s) behind it remain most of the time tentative and, I think, unconvincing in important respects.

The unexplored possible explanation that I wish to bring forth here is that Kant’s definition of transcendental freedom and its antinomic opposition to nature is what is at play in Arendt’s natality. I propose here to introduce this idea very briefly by: I) showing some limits to common interpretations of the intellectual source(s) of the notion of natality; II) showing the striking resemblance between Arendt’s understanding of natality and Kant’s definition of freedom.


The first explanation of Arendt’s conception of natality that comes to mind is that it represents a critical appropriation of Heidegger’s philosophy. It is often suggested, assumed, and only sometimes argued for that Arendt’s natality is a response to Heidegger’s emphasis on Dasein’s mortality and being-towards-death. It would be mauvaise foi to deny that there is some truth to this interpretation. Yet it is by no means a fully accurate and sufficient explanation. The main disadvantage of this commonly held view is that it presents natality and mortality as if they were mere opposites, and this is neither how Heidegger thinks nor what Arendt means. Arendt, for instance, speaks of human existence (or human life in its “non-biological sense”) as the “span of time between birth and death” (HC 173), which is fairly similar to and reminds us of Heidegger’s characterization of the historicity (Geschichtlichkeit) of Dasein as a “stretching” (Erstreckung) between birth and death (SZ §72, 373). Arendt does not deny the importance of death: she acknowledges explicitly in The Human Condition that death represents the phenomenon according to which one must think if one wants to think metaphysically, and birth the primordial phenomenon if one wants to think politically (HC 9). Accordingly, one could argue that Arendt is taking up Heidegger’s conceptual framework and reversing it, so as to think politically. But this would only be true if her understanding of birth and natality is the same as or very similar to Heidegger’s, which is not the case. Heidegger’s couple-notions of birth and death designate in the conceptual apparatus of Being and Time two poles of Dasein’s temporal-historical existence: whereas death clearly maps on the pole of our “futurality” (Zukünftigkeit) and the projective aspect of our being (Entworfenheit), birth represents our inherited past and factitial thrownness (Geworfenheit). To say that we are historical because we are stretching between birth and death therefore means that we are thrown projects. As we shall see, Arendt’s definition by no means allow to understand her version of natality as human inherited thrownness – on the contrary, one may even say that, in a way, it is closer to Heidegger’s “projectiveness.” More could and should be said on this, but not here.

The second and more textually based interpretation is that the inspiration is Christian. Arendt does in fact refer to the birth of Christ (“a child has been born unto us”) as an illustration of the miraculous character of birth (HC 247). However, it is quite clear that Christ’s birth represents for her only an exemplification of the phenomenon of birth: natality is what makes Christ’s miraculous birth possible, and not the other way around (Arendt’s thought is emphatically not Christian in this sense). When Arendt does draw on the life and ways of Jesus Christ in The Human Condition, it is to advocate the importance of forgiveness as an indispensable remedy for the calumnious irreversibility of action (238-243). But in this respect, Christ’s teaching becomes relevant downstream from action and therefore does not explain natality. Scholars have argued that the genuine influence is Augustine (especially Vecchiarelli Scott & Chelius Stark 1995, Young-Bruehl 2004 [1982] and Kiess 2016). In fact, Arendt’s own later revisions of her doctoral dissertation (Der Liebesbegriff bei Augustin: Versuch einer philosophischen Interpretation, revised between 1958 and 1965) suggest that natality was implicit in her analysis of Augustine’s theology of Creation and nova creatura (see Chelius Stark 1995, 132-133, 146, 154ff.). I do not mean to discredit Arendt’s self-interpretation or to deny the strong continuity of Arendt’s work and thought, but I would like to underscore two facts. First, Augustine’s Creation is divine and not human action, and the nova creatura refers to the second birth of conversion and baptism, not to birth per se. Its innovative miraculous character is entirely dependent on the miraculous life, death and resurrection of Christ. Second, before studying Augustine, Arendt enthusiastically read another thinker whose emphasis on the unprecedented and the innovative in human action is not grounded in Christology: Kant. In other words, whereas one can hardly deny that ‘natality’ has a Christian appearance and Christian echoes, it may very well be that this Christian outlook was substantially filled in with Kantian insights.


As I said, I think that Arendt’s natality is conceptually closer to Kant’s definition of transcendental freedom than to any other possible influential sources. There is probably no better way to show this than to look at both definitions. Hannah Arendt understands action as the actuality or activity (ἐνέργεια in Aristotle’s sense) of the condition of natality, which in turn is a capacity, a δύναμις (cf. HC 178, 200, 206). Natality, she says, is the capacity of “beginning something new on our own initiative”. She adds: “With the creation of man, the principle of beginning came into the world itself, which, of course, is only another way of saying that the principle of freedom was created when man was created but not before” (177). So natality is the capacity to act, to initiate something new from one’s own initiative, and this is just what freedom is. Let us now look at Kant’s definition of transcendental freedom in the first Critique: “the capacity to begin by oneself a state [of affairs] (das Vermögen einen Zustand von selbst anzufangen), the causality of which does not in turn stand under another cause that determines it according to a law of nature” (A 533/B 561). As far as I know, the striking similarity has only been noticed once, and not explained.[2]

The only component that seems to escape the strong parallel is Kant’s insistence on the fact that an act of freedom should not depend upon any further natural causality (for otherwise, freedom would be in fact a mere expression of physical necessity). Yet this absence is only apparent, for Arendt in fact does conceptualize a rather strong contrast between nature and freedom: whereas action is the expression of freedom, labor is the expression of the mere natural necessities of biological life (ζωή). In order for action to be truly such, Arendt thinks, it should not condescend to busy itself with anything that pertains to the productive activities of human beings. Against Marx, she thinks that work is not an expression of freedom and could never be, for labor just is enslavement to necessity (83-84). Further signs of the Kantian antinomy between freedom and nature could be seen, for instance, in her conceptual appreciation of the American and French revolutions in On Revolution. In both works, Arendt’s extremely restrictive acceptation of what counts as political rests upon the view that an activity that follows in a way or another the course of natural necessities cannot at the same time be an expression of genuine freedom, a response to our condition of natality. Arendt’s political conceptuality cannot be fully grasped if one does not get the tripartite division that she introduces within the vita activa. But this division, in turn, may not be fully intelligible if one does not see its deep Kantian resonances.

[1] Interview of October 28, 1964 (available online).

[2] Sylvie Courtine-Denamy, De la bonne société. L. Strauss, E. Voegelin, H. Arendt: le retour du politique en philosophie, Paris: Cerf, 309. The strangest thing is that the similarity is noted in the penultimate sentence of her book. Very unfortunately, the author passed away prior to the publication of her manuscript, so we cannot hope for further light on this parallel from her. 

Antoine Pageau-St-Hilaire is a Ph.D. student in the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. His research interests include Ancient philosophy,  German philosophy, and political philosophy. He works specifically on appropriations of Greek philosophy in German and Continental philosophy.  His work has been published in various journals, including Polis,  Interpretation, Dialogue,  Bulletin d’analyse phénoménologique, Philosophiques, Politique et Sociétés, and the Revue de métaphysique et de morale.

Colonialism empire Intellectual history Museums Theory universities US history

Catalogue Now!: Professional Anthropology and Making the Northeast United States

By guest contributor Morgan L. Green

Mid-twentieth-century anthropology was in crisis. Already influenced by World War II, anthropologists in the 1960s encountered a variety of dramatic changes. The scientific method and the pressure to be “objective” dominated as institutions like the National Science Foundation, ushering in a new wave of research standards. Anthropologists, who had been collecting interviews in the field (among other things), needed to prove their usefulness as the American government demanded clear answers about the world around them. The field was also growing exponentially, in part due to the GI bill and the returning veterans who often sought to better understand the places where they had served. The result: an increasingly large discipline trying to find a balance between understanding culture and receiving funding for long-term projects. Anthropologists stood at a crossroads in redefining their discipline.

This began what Matti Bunzl has described as a profound reorientation of the epistemological and political contours of the discipline in the 1960s. In 1968, James J. Hester described the new methods of “salvage anthropology.” Hester wrote specifically about how archeologists could extract information from sites before they were redeveloped as power plants or reservoirs, for instance. However, American cultural anthropologists quickly adapted this to apply to human subjects. In the Americas, Native people became prime subjects of this salvage mindset, imagined to be on the verge of disappearance. This perceived threat of loss was in many ways a revitalization of a Jacksonian racial theory that assumed the inevitable disappearance of Native people, articulated as an attempt to “save” or “preserve” Indigenous cultures. The 1960s ushered in a growing moral rhetoric that it was the duty of anthropologists to preserve the vanishing knowledge of Native peoples in the Americas. 

Despite their “crisis,” anthropologists continued to return to established sources of knowledge that non-Natives deemed “authentic.” Unlike archeology, within the salvage mindset of cultural anthropology, cultural practice and history were embodied in Native people. Whether they listened to informants to understand linguistic components or observed community relationships, anthropologists mapped ideas of authenticity onto the bodies of Native people. The intimacy of contact, of connecting, listening, and observing Indigenous people had long been established in the twentieth century as an important method, perhaps most clearly reflected in Frank Speck. By the 1960s and 1970s, while cultural anthropology remained wedded to the importance of contact, Native people had to exist in particular ways to be recognized as Native, valuable or worthy of preservation. 

Emerging from this moment was a massive contribution to anthropological canon: The Handbook of North American Indians. Talks began in the late 1960s, but official work began roughly in 1970 with William Sturtevant at the helm.Originally planned as a twenty-volume series, The Handbook was an attempt to catalogue at an encyclopedic level the diverse histories of tribal groups across the United States with. Each volume would act as a large-scale reference work of 500 to 750 pages summarizing what was known of the anthropology and history of Native peoples north of Mesoamerica (William C. Sturtevant, “Preliminary Note for Contributors” [1970], Elisabeth Tooker Papers, American Philosophical Society). The ultimate goal was to present a concise and exhaustive survey of Indigenous peoples in North America that would be accessible to both anthropologists and educated non-anthropologists. I want to focus here on the Northeast volume published in 1978, directed by William Sturtevant and Bruce G. Trigger, not only because it was the first published volume (the whole project faced considerable delays), but because it provides a glimpse into the contradictions and political implications of non-Native anthropological production.  

Partial series of The Handbook on North American Indians 

Faced with myriad troubles, ranging from missed deadlines to massive rewrites, The Handbook limped along until November 1972. Many of those contracted specifically for the Northeast Volume were gathered for the annual Conference on Iroquois Research, originating in 1945, to discuss the state of anthropology and hear work related to the Iroquois. This particular conference, however, was a kind of watershed moment for Bruce Trigger. Seizing this moment Trigger organized a meeting at the conference to establish the Iroquois as the centerpiece of The Handbook. The enmeshment of the Iroquois conference with the production of the Northeast volume suggests that the content of The Handbook would not be as broad as promised. This became even more clear when Elisabeth Tooker from Temple University was recruited to coordinate the Iroquois chapters, a move that would help secure her promotion. Following 1972, The Handbook began looking more like a professional opportunity for Iroquoianists rather than an encyclopedic reference of the myriad of Indigenous nations who called the Northeast home. 

As authorship skewed toward Iroquoianists, The Handbook relied on already established connections between anthropologists and the Iroquois to serve as its foundation. While there were moments that challenged what was often extractive information gathering, collecting stories from Native peoples still continued to shape anthropological literature. The seventy-three chapters included linguistic studies, historical surveys of acculturation, and examinations of religion, to name a few topics.Despite the range, twenty-five chapters, or roughly 34% of The Handbook related to the Iroquois in some form. This distortion exposes one of the oversights in salvage anthropology, namely that assumptions about who and where Native people were corresponded to the work that anthropologists had already been doing throughout the twentieth century. Anthony F.C. Wallace, for example, assisted Tooker in her emerging work on the Iroquois, and William Fenton’s intimate relationships with interlocutors shaped chapters on the Mohawk. This is not to say that information was not important; rather, by the second half of the twentieth century many Northeastern Indigenous peoples were ignored as sources of knowledge because they had few intimate connections with non-native anthropologists and their cultures were thought to have not survived colonization. Wallace captured this sentiment at a session on culture and personality at Dartmouth College in 1968, using the Lenni-Lenape as an example, saying they were acculturated beyond recognition – unlike the Iroquois, he was quick to add. In this moment, non-Natives elevated their intellectual authority by determining who and where Native people were based on anthropological methods of cultural recognition and disciplinary security. In the process, Iroquoianists continued to shape anthropology in the Northeast, thereby preserving their professional opportunities. The Northeast volume was published in 1978 and the remaining volumes continue to be released.

Non-Native anthropology organized itself around gathering knowledge before an assumed rapidly approaching disappearance, which meant that the Native peoples within anthropology’s gaze were often those imagined to be less changed by colonization. Not only did this lead to the ignorance of many other Native peoples; this thinking ignored the historical realities of settler colonialism and the various survival strategies that Indigenous people, including the Iroquois, engaged in to navigate a rapidly changing world. The seventeenth-century Northeast was ground zero for a settler project that would quickly metastasize. Indigenous peoples in the Northeast have navigated, resisted, succumbed, and reimagined the relationship to Euro-American colonization for centuries. To make a lack of change the litmus test for Indigenous authenticity grossly misunderstood the continued power and resourcefulness of Native peoplesBearing this in mind, we must rethink the role of the archive and what we as scholars consider canonical. Holding onto, cataloguing, and the encyclopedic impulse of the archive(s) are all functions of desire; desire to possess, dictate, and stabilize subjects of study. This process, as Michel-Rolph Trouillot reminds us, brings with it multiple silences that can limit our understandings of history and its legacies.The anthropological archive contained in The Handbook, despite its claims of breadth, limited its scope while defining itself as a totalizing and objective source of knowledge. Taking this as one of many examples of settler knowledge production, we must remain critical of the very categories of analysis that shape our work. To not would be to risk a reproduction of that arm of settler colonialism that claims non-Native knowledges as objective and position settlers always already “experts” of the world and its histories. Paying attention to the epistemology of indigeneity allows us to produce work that enacts the decolonial strategies we theorize.

Morgan L. Green is a Ph.D candidate in History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research examines relationships between white settler, Indigenous, and African-American communities in Northeastern urban spaces, both literal and rhetorical, in the late 20thcentury.

Global History philosophy Political history political theory Theory Think Piece

Contextualizing the Rise of Comparative Political Theory

By guest contributor Josey Tom

If the creation of subfields within a discipline indicates its development rather than its demise, then political theory is expanding and glowing in a new light. Founded in the mid-1990s, the sub-field known as Comparative Political Theory (CPT) attempts to decolonize the canon of political theory by incorporating non-Western political ideas, texts, concepts and epistemic resources hitherto ignored by political theorists. Roxanne Euben (University of Pennsylvania) who coined the term, introduced it as the project of bringing “non-Western perspectives into familiar debates about the problems of living together, thus ensuring that ‘political theory’ is about human and not merely Western dilemmas” (Euben 1997, 32). The subfield is a reminder that there are still songs to be sung by political theory beyond the West, lest the field’s only song be a dirge—a funeral song for non-Western political concepts, categories, and canons. CPT is the logical culmination of the geopolitical context of decolonization and internal debates about the aims and methods of political theory since the 1950s. These anxieties were amplified by trenchant critiques of eurocentrism by postcolonial and Subaltern Studies scholarship in an increasingly globalized and multipolar world.This piece will argue that CPT is an immanent critique in political theory that builds on the legacies of mounting internal critiques.

In an essay that attempts to chart the scope of CPT, political theorist Diego von Vacano (Texas A&M) explains the emergence of CPT in terms of both “critical disciplinary” and geopolitical factors (Vacano 2015, 467). The first contextual factor is the void opened up starting in the late 1970s by critical perspectives on modernity from Western Marxism, critical theory, the genealogical method of Michel Foucault, Edward Said’s study of orientalism, and the Subaltern Studies school, each of which challenged Western paradigms of modernization. The second factor is dissatisfaction with existing formal explanatory paradigms employed in the subfield of comparative politics. The third factor is the backdrop of end of the Cold War and contemporary globalization: The liberal triumphalism of Francis Fukuyama’s seminal 1989 article “The End of History and the Last Man” and the pessimistic prognosis of the post-Cold War era embedded in Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order (1996) provided an opening for CPT to offer alternative paradigms.

However, neglected in Vacano’s broad contextualist account are the three important critiques internalto the discipline of political theory in the twentieth century. The method-centric critique emerged in the 1950s and 1960s from the behavioralist school, which sought to explain and predict political behavior in a value-neutral manner using quantitative methods, as well as from theorists who found their field on the decline. The second critique focused on the Western-centrism of political theory, and is exemplified by the writings of John Gunnell (SUNY Albany), Jeffrey Isaac (Indiana), and Bhikhu Parekh. This critique was fragmented, as dominant understandings of disparate concepts including modernity, liberalism, and universal human rights received flak from different parts of the globe. CPT should be seen as the third major critique of political theory: It is a collective and systematic effort to challenge the Western-centrism of political theory, especially by rethinking existing categories and concepts and incorporating themes, thinkers, and cultural insights from non-Western societies.

The First Critique of Political Theory

In the 1950s and 1960s, the behavioralist school triggered intense self-reflection in political theory. Seminal essays by John Plamenatz (“The Use of Political Theory” [1960]), Isaiah Berlin (“Does Political Theory Still Exist?” [1962]), and Sheldon Wolin (“Political Theory as a Vocation” [1969]) testify to a period of soul-searching within the discipline. While these writings questioning the basis of the field were “marked by the ashes of the Cold War” (Vacano, 468), other seminal reflections on the aims of political theory were written while the Second World War and the early Cold War were still in full swing—notably Leo Strauss’s most important essays on political theory (“Persecution and the Art of Writing” [1952] and “What is Political Philosophy” [1957]).

Alasdair MacIntyre and John Rawls also contributed to self-reflection of political theory through their meditations on political philosophy. In his essay “The Indispensability of Political Theory” (1983), MacIntyre employs the metaphor of a map to suggest that political theory illuminates the political landscape, helping people navigate their social and political world. Political theory does not diminish in significance despite its lack of comprehensiveness, just as a grossly inaccurate map still holds some practical utility (MacIntyre 1983, 32). In his work Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (2001), Rawls similarly describes four roles political philosophy has in a society, namely achieving social co-operation in divisive societies, orienting members of a political community, reconciliation, and carving out feasible political arrangements (Rawls 2001, 1-4).

What motivates all these writings is the hope and promise political theory offers for political life. Political theorists and philosophers ranging from Leo Strauss to John Rawls illuminated the gap between how political theory has been conceived and how it has been practiced. The emergence of CPT should be seen in light of the inability of political theory to live up to its promise and hopes for political life—both within Western societies and globally speaking.

Political theory has not been able to fulfill its potential due to a parochialism that limits or omits non-Western political constellations and concerns. An indispensable task of political theory is to contemplate desirable and feasible political arrangements that might ensure good life for peoples. But what if the proposed political arrangements are predicated on assumptions that privilege a particular part of the globe by effacing dimensions of race and imperialism? When Huntington wrote about the clash of civilizations and Fukuyama celebrated the triumph of liberalism, they were, despite their biases, performing what George H. Sabine regarded as a crucial function of political theory: “an estimate of probabilities and an estimate of values” (Sabine 1939, 5). Yet when Wolin conceptualizes political theory as a tradition embodying an “inherited form,” he is thinking about a rich inheritance that is definitively Western (Wolin 1969, 1070). If political theorists are tasked with generating political knowledge, they cannot ignore the ideas and perceptions of good life in non-Western societies. The gulf between the lofty visions of political theory and its exclusive character leads us to the second critique of political theory.

The Second Critique of Political Theory

The early 1990s saw the emergence of a critique of the ethnocentrism at the heart of the discipline of political theory. The first strand of this critique targeted particular Western concepts but did not implicate political theory as a whole; it limited its critique to certain categories in light of the non-Western political realities. For instance, scholarship emerging mainly from India challenged hegemonic Western understandings of secularism and modernity, pointing out their inadequacy for understanding non-Western social and political worlds (Bhargava 1999 and Kaviraj 2002). Also under scrutiny was the ethnocentrism embedded in liberal democracy. Bhikhu Parekh’s “The Cultural Particularities of Liberal Democracy” (1992) and “Decolonizing Liberalism” (1993) illustrated the provincialism of liberalism. Debates about Asian values versus Human Rights also questioned the universality of liberal democratic values. The second strand of this critique levelled loftier charges at the discipline as a whole, as exemplified in the writings of Isaac (“The Strange Silence of Political Theory” [1995]) and Parekh (“The Poverty of Indian Political Theory” [2010]). Criticizing the reluctance of American political theorists to contemplate the “events of 1989” in Eastern Europe, Isaac pointed out that political theory was a prisoner of Western European tradition, which, despite constituting a “secure reference point for our political thinking” engenders “intellectual conformity.” Parekh, meanwhile, lamented the absence in non-Western societies of a robust critique of the central categories of the West, despite an awareness of the ethnocentrism and limited explanatory power of those categories.

The Third Critique of Political Theory: Comparative Political Theory

While reflecting on the nature and task of political theory, Wolin also drew attention to its inherent limitations. Despite its sophisticated categories, political theory can offer only a limited understanding of political phenomena, as there exists a “vast range of political experience” that is inexhaustible by such categories (Wolin 2016, 21).Wolin reminds us, taking his cue from the neo-Kantian philosopher Ernst Cassirer, that statements and propositions in political theory are, after all, “abbreviations of reality.” He uses the metaphor of a net to represent the concepts and categories that are employed to understand political phenomena: those suitable for explaining European contexts are often ineffective and erroneous in a non-Western context.

Abstractions are indispensable in the construction of theory. But the problem with political theory these thinkers highlighted is that its “abbreviations” long remained oblivious to non-Western lifeworlds. Abstractions in mainstream political theory continue to be informed by the social and political imaginary of West while ignoring the rest. The net is seldom cast out on the non-Western world. It is in this context that CPT assumes its significance: it functions as the third critique in political theory by pointing out the inherent bias of ethnocentrism that still besets the field’s canon, concepts, and methodologies.

If CPT is to bridge the gap between the promises and practice of political theory, it also needs to examine contemporary global political issues such as right-wing populism.CPT also remains a conscript of the East-West divide: it has yet to engage the strand of decolonial scholarship that shows the non-Western pedigree of concepts often thought to be European in their origins. Laura Marks, for instance, has argued that Gilles Deleuze’s concept of the “univocity of being” has its source in the great Persian philosopher Abu Ali al-Husayn ibn Sina—a history that was erased when philosophy “underwent an ethnic cleansing.” An engagement with strands of European thought that have appropriated the intellectual contributions of the non-European world has the potential to rattle some of the basic assumptions of the subfield and to provide an opportunity to rethink the reluctance of CPT scholars to accept the universality of certain political ideas.

Comparative Political Theory has finally cast its net wide. The catch might indeed be splendid. But for the catch to reach the table, the net must be stronger and the sharks kept at bay.

Josey Tom is a Research Scholar at Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. This piece is adapted from his M.Phil. dissertation, entitled “Comparative Political Theory: Contexts, Plurality and Political Action.”

French history Theory Think Piece

Time Travelers, Part III: Nomadic Thought and the Creation of New Utopias

by guest contributor Anne Schult

This piece marks the third and last installment in a three-part series on nomads and the nomadic in 1970s French thought. The first part explored anthropologist Pierre Clastres’s projection of nomads as an alternative, more egalitarian society within prehistory that has been lost due the rise of the capitalist state. The second part focused on the short-lived interdisciplinary journal and collective Cause Commune and its attempts to resituate the nomadic as a subversive tactic for the present. This final post will take a step further by exploring the development of nomadism into a broader, more abstract antistatist concept in 1980s French philosophy.

Schult 3aGilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, in many ways the most well-known proponents of conceptual nomadism, took the nascent idea of the ahistorical nomadic and its complex relationship to the state one step further. Their ideas on nomads were first tentatively formulated in L’Anti-Oedipe (1972), which introduced the technology-infused universe of machines, codes, and flows that fueled their shared narrative of state critique.  Here, the nomadic appeared linked up with the schizophrenic as a resistance in form to capitalist modernity, suggesting the same connection between nomadism and anti-psychiatry that Duvignaud alluded to around the same time. Yet, in their follow-up volume Mille Plateaux (1980), the nomadic began to take shape as a concept more fully and was presented as a comprehensive anti-statist, anti-structuralist “Traité de Nomadologie” that has subsequently taken on a life of its own.

To start with, Deleuze and Guattari made a clear distinction between nomadism as a concept rooted in historical nomads and their suggested nomadology as a distinct study of the nomadic as characteristic. The latter, they posited, was recognizable as a state of “becoming, heterogeneity, infinitesimal, passage to the limit, continuous variation” (363), which in social organization presented itself as a rhizome structure instead of being centralized around a power core. Previous writers, they wrote, might have recognized

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Nomad Chariot, Entirely of Wood, Altai, Fifth to Fourth Centuries B.C. Illustration taken from Mille Plateaux (1980).

the nomad, as told in and by state history, but not the defining features of the nomadic. Collapsing the pre-modern and the post-modern into a timeless vortex, nomadic societies in their account could not become extinct or be superseded by the state because the two forms no longer stood in a sequential relationship to one another. “It is true that the nomads have no history,” Deleuze and Guattari thus asserted, “they only have a geography” (393).

Paradoxically, what emerged from this purely spatial relationship between state and nomad was a very particular vision of the future that was thus not so much about life after the capitalist state, but life with and beyond it. Notably, it no longer required the figurative nomad, as Deleuze and Guattari insisted specifically that it had no embodiment, such as in the form of postcolonial subjects or migrant, in the present. Rather, nomadology was to be understood as a rigorously practical anti-structuralism that could arise both from without and within the state.  After all, they pointed out, nomadic features were detectable in nearly every aspect of contemporary society: music, architecture, games, technology, mathematics, science. The idea of “nomad thought” in Mille Plateaux thus formed a sub-commentary on the authors’ own endeavor of text-as-practice.

The premise of this “nomad thought” was that in order to truly resist the state, one did not only have to do so in social organization, but actually think against and outside of state forms. The first difficulty, according to Deleuze and Guattari, was to recognize the nomadic beyond its opposition to the state, as the contemporary way of thinking has been conditioned by the state apparatus, creating an interiority of binaries. Seeking examples, Deleuze and Guattari dove into the history of Western thought and declared Hegel and Goethe to be “state thinkers” (356)— following the intrinsic rules on a limited intellectual territory controlled by the state—while applauding their nomadic counterparts Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. The latter, they wrote, categorically rejected universality and instead deployed their thought “in a horizonless milieu that is a smooth space, steppe, desert, or sea” (382) as a particular milieu, thus acting as vectors of deterritorialization and posing questions and problems that were always local and particular.

Although it had its echo within and beyond French theory, Deleuze’s and Guattari’s “Traité de Nomadologie” marked both the peak and the beginning of decline of a more critical concept of nomadism. Much of contemporary scholarship has put forth the argument that theories around nomads—in particular those proposed by Deleuze and Guattari—mark just another form of neo-primitivism and remain ignorant of actual nomadic populations, such as the Romani, in the French or broader European context.  Indeed, towards the end of the Cold War, the concept became increasingly streamlined, globalized, commodified, and institutionalized. As a result, the nomad encountered in Western popular culture today is typically taken to be a rootless post-industrial subject eluding the bureaucracy of the state apparatus by way of digital technology but existing entirely within the logic of capitalism and consumer culture.  Perhaps the changing political climate proved problematic: In its insistence to be divorced from migrant bodies, nomadism appeared to have little to offer for understanding the growing “immigrant problem” that emerged in the French electoral politics of the 1980s. Similarly, the idea of a “deterritorialized” world was uncomfortably mirrored in the process of globalization, which became a prime concern in both politics and theory during the 1990s. But for a brief moment, in the post-1968 era, nomadology offered a glimpse of one possible landscape of future France.