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Thoreau’s Disinterestedness: The Problem of the Journal

By Daniel Nelson

Although keeping a journal was a common practice in Henry David Thoreau’s New England, Thoreau’s own journal writing practice, which by the last decade of his life came to dwarf his other endeavors—specifically, his composition of books and essays for publication and of lectures for performance—was a source of bafflement for his contemporaries. After his death his friend and walking companion William Ellery Channing wrote:

His journals should not be permitted to be read by any, as I think they were not meant to be read. […] I have never been able to understand what he meant by his life. Why did he care so much about being a writer? Why did he pay so much attention to his own thoughts? Why was he so dissatisfied with everyone else, etc.? Why was he so much interested in the river and the woods and the sky, etc.? Something peculiar, I judge.

And Emerson, in his eulogy for his former protégé, lamented: “[…] I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition. Wanting that, instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry-party.” Emerson did not mention that those huckleberry parties were one of the myriad subjects of Thoreau’s Journal, whose author, as Channing’s remark suggests, was more interested in huckleberries and the thoughts they provoked than in readers, let alone in “engineering for all America.” (“Patriotism is a maggot in their heads,” Thoreau had written in Walden.) If writing enthusiastically yet indiscriminately about huckleberries, “his own thoughts,” and “the river and the woods and the sky, etc.,” counted as an ambition with Thoreau, it evidently did not with Emerson and Channing.

Taken at face value, the Journal is not problematic. It is, simply, a record — seven-thousand-pages long and twenty-four years in the making — of the author’s daily hikes, observations, reflections, and experiments. What is problematic, as Channing’s and Emerson’s comments suggest, is that the author of Walden and “Civil Disobedience,” a writer and philosopher of great talent and ambition, seems to have devoted his last dozen years or so to the making of this modest-seeming record. I will be arguing that Thoreau was aware of the problem—which we might loosely refer to as the pointlessness of the Journal, its lack of a telos—and that it was inseparable from the shift in thinking and writing that the Journal represented for him. His contemporaries as well as modern-day critics have failed to understand this shift, in large part because so few writers before or since have undergone it. It is the shift toward disinterested writing: writing that lacks “ambition” in Emerson’s sense; that is not for publication but for its own sake, or perhaps, for its subject matter’s sake. As Thoreau put it, “A writer, a man writing, is the scribe of all nature; he is the corn and the grass and the atmosphere writing” (8:441, 9/2/51).

The first and only monograph on the Journal is Sharon Cameron’s 1985 study Writing Nature: Henry Thoreau’s Journal. Cameron, who specializes in game-changing artists (Emily Dickinson, Henry James, and, most recently, Robert Bresson), is a major exception to the rule just mentioned, that critics have failed to understand the mid-career shift in Thoreau’s writing and thinking. (A more recent exception is the French scholar François Specq, who writes: “Thoreau’s Journal is […] fundamentally nonteleological. This is deeply unsettling because it defies both the notion of artistic intent and the idea of practical purposefulness” [385].) Cameron claims that not only did “Thoreau c[o]me to think of the Journal as his central literary enterprise,” he also succeeded in that enterprise sufficiently to produce “the great nineteenth-century American meditation on nature” (3). But the Journal defies readers and scholars, Cameron argues, because it refuses to subject nature to any organizing structure or vision, and refuses, in turn, to organize its own prose. “The wholeness of nature and the wholeness of the Journal,” she writes, “will come to be identical. Yet Thoreau’s idea of totality is […] predicated not on connections but on the breaking of connections. In fact, discontinuity could be described as the Journal’s dominant feature, for no thought is ever entirely jointed to or separated from any other thought” (6). Thoreau’s thoughts seem to be random and going nowhere because nature when viewed unprogrammatically seems to be random and going nowhere. Both “[t]he wholeness of nature and the wholeness of the Journal” reside in our ignorance of—in the mystery of—the logic that binds their parts.

Ten years after Cameron’s book, Laura Dassow Walls proposed a solution to the problem of the Journal. If we cease to think of Thoreau as first and foremost a writer of literature, then his devotion to a text of ambiguous literary status—a text that is pointedly without a point, whose dominant feature is discontinuity—ceases to be enigmatic. Walls’s book, Seeing New Worlds: Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Natural Science, describes connections between Thoreau’s writing and research and contemporary scientific developments, in particular the methodological innovations of the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. More forcefully than previous studies of its kind, it claims that Thoreau’s late writings, including the Journal, belong to the discipline of natural science.

The difference between Cameron’s and Walls’s approach to the Journal is stark. For Cameron, the Journal is an experiment in writing, in serving as “nature’s scribe.” For Walls, it is a tool for studying nature. While there is evidence to support both approaches to the Journal—Thoreau is a phenomenonally complex figure who defies classification—I find that Cameron’s analysis does a better job of capturing what was scandalous about the Journal for Thoreau’s contemporaries, namely, its lack of an identifiable purpose. Whereas Walls (whose view of Thoreau’s late career is by now the standard one among Thoreau scholars) smooths over the scandal by reassuring us of the Journal’s usefulness and importance, I want to suggest that the Journal is non-utilitarian and non-teleological by design, and that by confronting this we can learn something about Thoreau’s understanding of nature—something we miss if we concern ourselves exclusively with his achievements as a naturalist or scientist. 

The Thoreau we meet in the Journal is not only indifferent but positively averse to the prospect that any one of his encounters with nature might lead to profit, whether conceived of in literary, philosophical, or scientific terms. He bristles whenever it is suggested that the value of a thing is conditional on its usefulness. His aversion to this instrumentalist conception of value partly explains his abiding love for the shrub oak, with its “scanty garment of leaves” and its “lowly whispering” (9:146, 12/1/56): “A farmer once asked me what shrub oaks were made for, not knowing any use they served. But I can tell him that they do me good” (9:184, 12/17/56). 

At issue here is a kind of “good” that is not good for something else—whose goodness is not that of an instrument. Thoreau tries to see each natural phenomenon as belonging to a self-sufficient order of being, hence, as incapable of being lifted out of its context and into that of any humanly conceived and constructed order. “I love best to have each thing in its season only,” he characteristically remarks (9:160, 12/5/56); and he reproves science—which during Thoreau’s lifetime was increasingly moving away from “the field” and into laboratories—for not distinguishing between “a dead specimen of an animal” and “a living one preserved in its native element” (11:360, 9/30/58). In contrast to his non-appropriative manner of dwelling in and with nature, “science,” according to Thoreau’s own definition, is a matter of “what you can weigh and measure and bring away” (1/5/50). 

The Journal, therefore, is founded on Thoreau’s conjecture, which grows into a conviction, that “[p]erhaps I can never find so good a setting for my thoughts as I shall thus have  taken them out of,” that is, as the setting which is furnished by the Journal’s undiscriminating record of each day’s observed phenomena (3:239, 1/28/52). The entry of the previous day clarifies this insight. To extricate certain thoughts and bring “the related ones […] together into separate essays,” Thoreau writes there, would be an attempt to make good on an experience and a record that is already good, and may be made false (“far-fetched,” not “allied to life”) by attempts at rearrangement, selection, organization—in a word, instrumentalization. The entry concludes: “They [my thoughts] are now allied to life, and are seen by the reader not to be far-fetched. It is more simple, less artful. I feel that in the other case I should have no proper frame for my sketches. Mere facts and dates and names communicate more than we suspect” (3:239, 1/27/52). But they will not thus communicate if, unsuspecting, the writer (or editor, or reader) takes them out of their “proper frame” and tries to make them communicate no more than what he wants them to.

Thoreau’s walking stick (made by himself), courtesy of the Morgan Library and Museum.

“To walk and work in the woods is like attending a “university,” Thoreau wrote. I suspect a pun here on “universe.” The woods are not the kind of school from which one graduates and goes on to enter the wide world. They are the world, which one returns to, not from:

  Had a dispute with Father about the use of my making this sugar [from the sap of maple trees] when I knew it could be done and might have bought sugar cheaper at Holden’s. He said it took me from my studies. I said I made it my study; I felt as if I had been to a university.

It dropped from each tube about as fast as my pulse beat, and as there were three tubes directed to each vessel, it flowed at the rate of about one hundred and eighty drops in a minute into it. One maple, standing immediately north of a thick white pine, scarcely flowed at all, while a smaller, farther in the wood, ran pretty well. The south side of a tree bleeds first in spring. I hung my pails on the tubes or a nail. Had two tin pails and a pitcher. Had a three-quarters-inch auger. Made a dozen spouts, five or six inches long, hole as large as a pencil, smoothed with a pencil. (8:217-18, 3/21/56)

“He said it took me from my studies. I said I made it my study.”

The “it” here is not nature—the “studies” to which Thoreau’s father refers was precisely his work as a naturalist—but rather things: trees, sap, tubes, pails. The shift toward disinterestedness that I have been discussing in Thoreau’s career was a shift toward valuing things and away from using them, whether for the purposes of science or art or philosophy. 

Plainly, syrup-making was for Thoreau not a final purpose but an intermediate one: not a telos but a kind of anti-telos. Like his other minor projects (gathering driftwood, taking measurements, conducting unsophisticated experiments, collecting local lore), it was a means of avoiding the more conventional, grander purposes that his father and Emerson urged upon him. But this negative work of avoidance was part of a positive project of keeping himself open, “comprehensive,” his energies and identity uncircumscribed. Whereas Emerson faulted him for lacking ambition and the drive to succeed on a grand scale, he faulted Emerson for lacking “a comprehensive character”: for succeeding too much in one direction. “I doubt if Emerson could trundle a wheelbarrow through the streets,” he wrote in the Journal, “because it would be out of character. One needs to have a comprehensive character” (9:250, 1/30/52). For Thoreau, to have a comprehensive character was to be at ease in the company of things no less than in the company of people: to be unashamed of the former’s company when walking through the streets, and unencumbered by the latter’s company—not so much their physical presence as the pressure of their expectations—when walking through the woods. 


Daniel Nelson, who studies 19th century American literature, received his PhD from the University of Rochester.

Featured Image: Manuscript volume of the Journal [The Morgan Library and Museum], courtesy of the Morgan Library and Museum.

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Think Piece

Will Sound Studies Ever “Emerge”?

By Jacek Blaszkiewicz

In a recent issue of H-France Forum, four historians—David Garrioch, Éva Guillorel, Una McIlvenn, and Lewis C. Seifert—published reviews of Nicholas Hammond’s book, The Powers of Sound and Song in Early Modern Paris (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2019). Impressed by its use of sound as an area of inquiry, Lewis C. Seifert writes that Hammond’s book is “inspired by the emerging field of sound studies.” As a musicologist interested in the aural dimensions of nineteenth-century Parisian street culture, I was struck by this claim, as I have seen it before. In 1991, Alain Corbin warned that historians “can no longer afford to neglect materials pertaining to auditory perception.” Years later, we learn in a 2007 edited volume that “historians have, until recently, been silent about sound.” Even practitioners of sound studies cannot resist the rhetoric of discovery, marking their field as “an emerging interdisciplinary area” and “a vibrant new interdisciplinary field.”

Reflecting on these claims of academic novelty, I began to think about how the rhetoric of emergence and interdisciplinarity can, ironically, thwart interdisciplinary exchange and silence research that is truly new. Reading these references to the “emergence” of sound and to the “pioneers” of its study, I also could not help notice the persistence of colonialist rhetoric that pervades subject areas which, though technically no longer marginalized, cannot shake their marginalized identity.

The subfield known as sound studies was popularized by the composer and scholar R. Murray Schafer, whose 1971 study The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World suggested that a study of sound can help humans make sense of ever-changing built and natural environments. Countless books and articles that refer to “sound studies” (like Hammond’s) also refer back to Schafer’s definitions of sound, in effect reinventing the wheel every time. Published over forty years ago, Schafer’s book was of course not the final word on the subject. In fact, Michael Bull has critiqued Schafer’s “romantic, neo-colonial representation of sonic experience” (83). Attempts at distinguishing the study of the aural from Shafer orthodoxy have led to a rather inconsistent distinction between “sound studies,” the slightly more inclusive “auditory culture,” and the still more comprehensive yet more vague “sensory history.” A mountain of publications—many of them multi-author volumes—have tackled the ontology and epistemology of sound. The Sound Studies Reader contains well-known writings by Schafer, Jacques Derrida, Adriana Cavarero, and Jacques Attali, alongside recent scholarship that uses sound as a motive in philosophy, sociology, linguistics, disability studies, musicology, and other fields. Entire academic journals and blogs (see Sound Studies, The Journal of Sonic Studies, and Sounding Out!) were founded with the understanding that the study of sound does not always mean the study of music.

But they, too, often lean on the rhetoric of newness. This language is particularly apparent in promotional texts such as book series introductions, calls for papers, and abstracts. For example, the series preface to the Sound Studies Lab at Humboldt Universität proposes work “on a rather new yet well-known field of research.” One can argue that the scholarly rhetoric of emergence reflects the neoliberal drive within academia to disrupt, innovate, and produce—a sort of disciplinary “creative destruction.” But the purported “emergence” of sound, particularly in history, presents an opportunity to reflect how colonialist rhetoric pervades how we read the archive, convert sonic documents into scholarship, and broadcast that scholarship across disciplines.

Whereas much of the extant scholarship in sound studies relies on recording technology and ethnography, historians—particularly of periods predating the phonograph—must recover evidence of sound through the archive, rather than hear it for themselves. Moving beyond “textual” representations of musical sound such as sheet music, song lyrics, and print images, how can historians gauge sound’s role in the discourses and practices of the past? This is a question that historical musicologists and ethnomusicologists continue to grapple with. Of particular importance is unsettling the logocentrism and ocularcentrism (or what Johannes Fabian would call hegemonic “visualism”) of the Western archive. In her book Aurality: Listening and Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century Columbia, Ana María Ochoa Gautier explores how the very act of listening was a subject of intense political dispute between European colonizers and the colonized societies of Latin America. Rather than fetishizing sound qua sound as an archival quirk, Ochoa Gautier digs into its use as a colonial epistemology. She defines “aurality” not as the opposite of writing, but rather as “a historical mode of audibility that emerges in divesting the voice of unwanted features while pretending to be speaking about it” (20).

The rhetoric of newness around sound studies further reinforces the hegemony of the eye over the ear. The solution, then, is not to refer back to presumed “pioneering” texts in the field, but to approach the study of sound from a reflexive position. Historians ought not be lured by sound’s supposed novelty—a supposition baked into the ocular/logocentrism of Western humanistic disciplines. Sound is not just an ephemeral, acoustic occurrence, but a method of framing history.

In teaching and in research, historians of sound can ask themselves questions that cut into the presuppositions of their discipline. What is the difference between the aesthetics of music and those of noise? Who gets to decide those differences? How is sound written about in archival sources? Who decides what gets included in such archives? How have different cultures written about sound? What does the reliance on visual metaphor in Western music in particular (“high” and “low” notes, “long” and “short” passages) say about how Western culture has privileged the eye over the ear? The mind over the body? How does sonic history confirm or undermine oral history—another subfield with its own marginalization vis à vis the written archive?

With decades of interdisciplinary scholarship behind it, “sound studies” seems to be stuck in a perpetual state of emergence. Far from it being the fault of individual authors, this rhetoric of emergence reflects a structural problem with how humanities fields produce and promote research across disciplinary lines.

The language of novelty is often deployed to direct an argument towards a publishing or funding opportunity. To that end, academic gatekeepers—publishers and editors, as well as conference organizers, grant reviewers, advisors, and academically minded journalists— have the power to mitigate this colonialist rhetoric. Just as the word “emerging” can give a false sense of novelty, humanists should also be skeptical in announcing “turns” in their respective fields. The Pennsylvania State University Press’s “Perspectives on Sensory History” (where Hammond’s book appears) announces a “sensory turn” on its website. The University of Illinois Press’s own “Studies in Sensory History” series hopes to “galvanize a burgeoning field.” Beginning with much-discussed “cultural,” “linguistic,” and “reflexive” turns, and continuing unabated through “material,” “affective,” “spatial,” “network,” “maker,” and “computational” turns, academia announces methodological shifts with drum-like rhythm.

More on the nose is the “sonic turn,” which Tom McEnaney claims began with the publication of Emily Thompson’s The Soundscape of Modernity (2002) and Jonathan Sterne’s The Audible Past (2003). Although these two books continue to shape current thought on sound, their suggested role in initiating a “turn” perpetuates an origin myth that not only ignores what came before, but also forces the hand of future scholars to cite these texts for their “pioneering” status. When they are overused, “turns” ring more of marketing jargon than of paradigm shifts. Moreover, “turns” often overlap in their subject matter and methods. Philosophies of sound, for instance, shed light on theories of affect and embodiment, while also featuring in critical work on race theory, gender and sexuality, and postcolonial geographies. The rhetoric of “turns” is not only unconvincing in its repetitiveness, but like “emergence,” it also betrays a colonialist rhetoric of discovery and origination. While a “turn” can push a discipline beyond its orthodoxies, it can potentially encroach on another field for whom such a “turn” had long ago occurred.    

Sound, as Nicholas Hammond and many others have argued, can be an elusive area of critical study. It is especially challenging when considering the eras predating recording technology. Despite the challenges with recovering sonic practices from written archives, this elusiveness should not be mistaken for silence. Historians do not “discover” sound. Sound was always there, even though it is not always apparent in the written archive. It does not belong to any discipline, nor does it need to be claimed. Sound does not imprint itself; it is reproduced through notation, oral tradition, formal education, or technology. It also resonates, which makes reflexivity a crucial component of its study.

For years now, historians have grappled with the sonic archive as a philosophical and colonialist enterprise, have questioned its inclusivity, and have penetrated its ideological underpinning. As Paul Ricoeur writes, “the moment of the archive is the moment of the entry into writing of the historiographical operation. Testimony is by origin oral. It is listened to, heard. The archive is written. It is read, consulted. In the archive, the professional historian is a reader.” Yet archival reading need not be a silent act, at least not inwardly. What if archives were read ethnographically (what Peter McMurray calls a “sensual recollection”), triggering memories of sound real or imagined, personal or vicarious?[1] This question of how to recover sound from the archive—to hear through the ears of the past—is one that historians and musicologists can ask of themselves, and of one another.


[1] See Peter McMurray, “On serendipity: Or, toward a sensual ethnography,” in Queering the Field: Sounding Out Ethnomusicology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 380-96.


Jacek Blaszkiewicz is assistant professor of music history at Wayne State University. He is interested in how sound interfaces with urban policies and fictional narratives of cities, in particular Paris and Detroit. His current book project examines how music shaped the urban history of Paris during the nineteenth century. He received his PhD in musicology from the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester in 2018.

Featured Image: William Hogarth, The Enraged Musician (1741). Courtesy of the Tate Museum.

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Remaking Cosmology in Tibet

By Michael R. Sheehy

Over the past thirty years, driven chiefly by the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (b. 1935), the dialogue between Buddhism and normative Western science has significantly been shaped by Tibetan Buddhism—and Tibetan Buddhism, in turn, is being shaped by modern science. In 2005, the Dalai Lama published The Universe in a Single Atom, a book that has been dubbed his “scientific autobiography.” Here, the Dalai Lama concedes classical Buddhist cosmology to modern scientific cosmology, stating that the classical cosmology detailed in Buddhist Abhidharma literature needs to be updated:       

There is a dictum in Buddhist philosophy that to uphold a tenet that contradicts reason is to undermine one’s credibility; to contradict empirical evidence is a still greater fallacy. So it is hard to take the Abhidharma cosmology literally. Indeed, even without recourse to modern science, there is a sufficient range of contradictory models for cosmology within Buddhist thought for one to question the literal truth of any particular version. My own view is that Buddhism must abandon many aspects of the Abhidharma cosmology.

Dalai Lama 2005, 80

For the Dalai Lama to abandon an ancient Indic cosmology that Tibetans inherited over a millennium ago probably seems logical to most modernists, even politically savvy for a dialogue with Western scientists. However, closer inspection reveals that European ideas about the cosmos are not new to Tibetan scholars and were in fact known in Tibet since the early modern period.

As indicated in the criticism voiced by McMahan and Braun and others, the ongoing public dialogue between Buddhism and science operates largely without express consideration of its broader social, metaphysical, and cultural contexts, including the history of scientific encounters between the two sides. Important tensions exist in the study of how context informs the dialogue between Buddhism and science and its broader cultural impact as well as the reception of scientific knowledge by Tibetan Buddhists. Here, I reflect on milestones in the history of the encounter between European and Tibetan theories of the cosmos in Tibet prior to the 20th century—not only to challenge the still pervasive assumption that Tibetans were naïve about science up until the mid-20th century, but also more specifically to provide historical context for the topic of remaking cosmology in the public intellectual dialogue between Buddhism and science.               

Gendun Chöpel, “The World is Round or Spherical”, 1938

An often-cited watershed moment for the encounter between Tibetans with modern science is the June 1938 issue of the Tibetan language newspaper Tibet Mirror. In this issue, the Tibetan monk and modernist scholar Gendun Chöpel (1903-1951) published his famous essay “The World is Round or Spherical.” Written from outside Tibet, while he was on sojourn in South Asia, Chöpel scolds his Tibetan compatriots by claiming that they “hold stubbornly to the position” that the world is flat, a view held within classical Buddhist cosmology, even when presented with the evidence of modern science. Both Tibetans and Western scholars have lauded Chöpel’s essay as a radical introduction of a new theory of the cosmos that, for the first time, questioned Tibetan beliefs about Buddhist cosmology.

However, in stark contrast to a narrative that likens Chöpel’s round-world essay to a paradigm shift in Tibetan beliefs about the cosmos, Tibetans were in fact engaging European scientific models in general, and the idea of a spherical Earth in particular, at least two centuries earlier. While there are myriad cosmologies in Tibet—Kālacakra, Dzokchen, Bön, etc.—the source most frequently cited by Tibetans for Buddhist cosmology is the third chapter on the explanation of worlds (lokanirdeśa) in the Abhidharmakośa or Treasury of Abhidharma, the 4th/5th century magnum opus by the Indian Buddhist scholar Vasubhandu. In this work, the majestic mountain Meru is described as the axis mundi in the midst of an expansive ocean in the center of the cosmos. Mount Meru is surrounded by seven square golden mountains, each half the size of the preceding mountain. In the valleys between each mountain are ever-swirling lakes full of treasures and wish-fulfilling gems. In the ocean that engulfs this cosmos, symmetrically orbiting Mount Meru in each of the four cardinal directions are continental landmasses. In the east is the continent of Sublime Bodies (lus ‘phags gling), the south is that of the Jambu Tree (‘dzam bu gling), the west is the Bountiful Cattle (ba lang spyod), and the north is the continent of Ominous Sounds (sgra mi snyan). The southern continent is the sawtooth-shaped Jambu Tree or Jambudvīpa, named after the “rose-apple” jambu species of tree that grows there, which is the location of India. Lands that were known to those who lived in India including Tibet, Sri Lanka, China, and Persia were assumed to be in the world of Jambudvīpa—hence, it refers more generally to the known world. This vision of the cosmos encompasses both the science of astronomy as well as geography. Thus for Tibetan Buddhists, to know the cosmos is to know both the universe as well as the topographical landscape of this world.

Tibetan astronomers shared a deep interest in the rigorous mathematics and observational methods of astral science (rtsis rig pa, *jyotiḥvidhā) with their Indian predecessors. In addition to the Indian Buddhist cosmological models that Tibetans inherited, over the past three centuries, they encountered and received astronomical and geographical knowledge about the observable universe, including knowledge about the spherical Earth and geocentric paradigm. Current scholarship detects first encounters between Tibetans and European science among Jesuit missionary astronomers at the imperial court in Beijing during the early 18th century. Under the direction of the Kangxi Emperor, Tibetan Buddhist lamas were employed to translate mathematical and calendrical texts from Chinese initially into Mongolian, and then in 1715, into the Tibetan language. At this precise moment, Tibetans began to receive, translate, and interpret newfound scientific knowledge about the order of the observable universe. The output of this translation project was The Great Compendium of Chinese Astronomy (Rgya rtsis chen mo), a compilation of thirty-two texts that comprise salient points of Jesuit telescopic astronomy.[1] Via the Qing imperial court, this translation laid the foundation for the adoption of Jesuit astral science in Tibet, spurring Tibetans to rethink their horological and calendrical practices, and reform their calendar in accordance with Jesuit calculations.

By the mid-18th century, Tibetans were engaging European mathematical theorems and were also incorporating new geographical data about the world—data that no doubt informed their cosmological thinking. Tibetans actively pursued this new knowledge and sought out methods to reform their systems of calculating space and time. Among Tibetan scholars engaging in this transformative process was the imperial court lama Akya Lobzang Tenpai Gyaltsen (1708-1768), whose collection of personal notes and commentaries range on topics in mathematics, astronomy, and trigonometry that he had studied in Beijing. His studies were strongly influenced by Jesuit scholarship and transmitted the Pythagorean geometric theorem as well as the vision that the Earth was spherical to intellectual circles in Tibet. Nearly two hundred years before Gendun Chöpel’s round world essay, Akya Lobzang Tenpai described the spherical (zlum po) Earth as follows:      

This physical world is spherical. The sun, moon, planets, and majority of stars orbit above and below, and through their movements, via the influence of their transits, the moon overshadows the sun. When the moon, Earth, and sun are all directly aligned, the shadow of the Earth has the power to cover the moon, and this is said to be a lunar eclipse. [2]

Blo bzang Bstan pa’i rgyal mtshan 2000, 42a

Apart from The Great Compendium of Chinese Astronomy, Tibetan astronomers were already familiar with the idea of spherical planets from Indian Buddhist Kālacakra cosmology. Akya Lobzang’s writings indigenized the idea by providing a discussion by a prominent Tibetan author. His model of the Earth was not, however, Galilean heliocentrism but rather a geoheliocentric model in which the sun, moon, planets, and stars were assumed to orbit the Earth. This understanding derived from the Tychonic system, a model proposed by the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) and the official system in use at the Qing court. Astronomic theories by both Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) were predominant in China during this period.

Astronomical Constellations in The Great Compendium of Chinese Astronomy, c. 1715

By the late 18th century, European scientific ideas had begun to circulate within Tibetan scholarship on astronomy, topography, and geography. Written in 1777, the General Description of the World (‘Dzam gling spyi bshad) by the scholar Sumpa Khenpo Yeshé Peljor (1704-1788) informed Tibetan orientations and representations about terrestrial space. Sumpa Khenpo’s work surveyed the world known to Tibetans at the time, including the familiar terrain of India, Nepal, Mongolia, and China as well as the outskirts of East Asia including Manchuria, Korea, and as far east as Japan. However, he ventured further to take his Tibetan readers on a voyage to Russia, where he described a magnetic iron citadel, bell sounds indicated change of time, bald men wore wigs, and inhabitants consumed sea monsters; to Sweden, where there was cutlery made of gold and crystal; to the Arctic Ocean, where he described white (polar) bears and seals, which that he called a “lizard the size of a dog”; and to the Ottoman Empire, where Turks dressed fashionably in hats with red flaps, cuffs on their sleeves, and buckles made of lapis lazuli. While not presenting a scientific treatise, Sumpa Khenpo borrowed from European ethnographic tales and illustrations of the world to provide a remarkable vision of the planet that veered starkly from depictions that Tibetans were familiar with.

Completed in 1830, Tsenpo Nomonhan Jampel Chökyi Tenzin Trinlé’s (1789-1839) A Full Explanation of the World (Dzam gling rgyas bshad) explicitly built on Sumpa Khenpo’s General Description of the World. A Full Explanation of the World proved a pivotal work that, by blending Tibetan geography writing with a global geography, gave Tibetan monk scholars a vivid picture of the modern world outside of Tibet. Informed by encounters with Russians, a Pole, and a German as well as maps and travel logs from English, French, Portugese, and Jesuit works on geography in Chinese, Tsenpo Nomonhan’s book provided a tour de force of the globe with detailed descriptions of countries, peoples, and cultures. For instance, after describing clothing and fashion in Europe, Nomonhan also discussed technological inventions of the day, including glass tubes to measure chemicals, binoculars and telescopes to observe the stars, and celestial and global maps—objects unrecognizable to Tibetans in the 1800s.      

This cosmopolitan impulse for new knowledge of the world was also reflected in Discourse on India to the South, an account of India and the West provided in 1788 by famed visionary Jikmé Lingpa (1730-1798).[3] The text shuttles between India, England, Holland, Rome, Beijing, and Śri Lanka to invite readers to think-up British ships, the musical contraption of the organ, a peep-show gadget as well as the fauna, flowers, and fruits of distant worlds. In doing so, it entices a kind of critical imagination that is at once skeptical of the outside world yet seeks to harmonize Buddhist canonical depictions of India with eye-witness accounts from Jikmé Lingpa’s principal informant, a Bhutanese diplomat who lived in Calcutta with the British for three years.

Globe in The Great Compendium of Chinese Astronomy, c. 1715

While largely based on foreign traveler accounts, these surveys of the 18th– and early 19th-century globe informed Tibetan scholars about world geography, which along with astronomy was the major branch of knowledge that directly informed their cosmology. By the early modern period, Tibetans were thus presented with European scientific ideas that directly challenged their Buddhist views of the world, time, and cosmos. Yet they were not mere recipients of this newfound knowledge, authoring works that detailed their understandings of world geography, informed their astronomy, and reformed their calendars. Tibetan scholars were knowledgeable about both theory and practice of European scientific paradigms, and wrestled with contradictory models of the world and cosmos presented by European science vis-à-vis their own historical cosmology. Their engagement with European scientific ideas demonstrates a concern for the discernible specifics of the sensorial world—a Tibetan scholastic concern not limited to this engagement—and a willingness to adapt to new knowledge that proved veridical, but they did not modify their whole vision of the cosmos based on this encounter. 

To take these influences and their corresponding Tibetan writings seriously means to reframe the dialogue between Buddhism and science within its relevant historical context, which shows that Tibetan interlocutors were not naïve about European science prior to the mid-20th century. The fact that the history of science in Tibet stretches back centuries earlier than previous scholarship had conceived complicates multiple claims, namely that Tibet has long been a place isolated from foreign ideas, and that encounters between Tibetan Buddhism and Western science only occurred within the 20th century. It also calls into question the history of the Buddhist modernist narrative, which asserts that consequential encounters between European science and Buddhism began in the late 19th century. While scholarship on science in Tibet is nascent, these earlier encounters have far reaching implications for the current dialogue between Buddhism and science, the history of science in Tibet, and a global history of knowledge.


[1] The Tibetan Translation of Chinese Astrology Compiled by Mañjuśrī, King of the Heavens (i.e. the Kangxi Emperor), ‘Jam dbyangs bde ldan rgyal pos mdzad pa’i rgya rtsis bod skad du bsgyur ba. Unpublished Tibetan woodblock print.

[2] “’jig rten chags pa’i sa ‘di zlum po la nyi zla gza’ skar phal che ba zhig steng ‘og tu ‘khor zhing ‘gro bas bgrod tshul gyi dbang gis nyi ma zla bas sgrib pa dang zla ba sa gzhi nyi ma rnams thad drang por bab pa na sa gzhi’i grib ma zla lba phog pa’i dbang gis zla ‘dzin byung ba yin zer.”

[3] Aris, Michael. 1994. “India and the British According to a Tibetan Text of the Later Eighteenth Century.” In Tibetan Studies: Proceedings of the 6th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, 7-15. Edited by Per Kvaerne. Oslo: Institute for Comparative Research in Human Culture.


Michael R. Sheehy is a research assistant professor in Tibetan and Buddhist studies and the director of scholarship at the Contemplative Sciences Center at the University of Virginia. He is the co-editor of The Other Emptiness: Rethinking the Zhentong Buddhist Discourse in Tibet.

Featured Image: Gendun Chöpel, Round Earth Sketch, 1938. Courtesy of Columbia University Library.

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Think Piece

Intellectual Journalism and Intellectual History

By Simon Brown

In an interview at the Chronicle Review with the writer and teacher Maggie Doherty about academic humanities and public writing, I encountered a term for the first time that described in a new way what felt very familiar: “Intellectual Journalism.” The interviewer used it to gesture toward the book reviews, trade titles and essays that authors — or readers — with graduate training might write (or read) outside of their own formal disciplines and the peer-reviewed journals and book series that sustain them. My experience turning over the category of “Intellectual History” on its many sides to better understand how it held together led me to wonder about this congruent term. 

Is it writing about intellectuals? Is it writing by intellectuals? Is it a particularly “intellectual” way of writing about not-particularly-intellectual things? These are the questions that might first arise to confound any effort to get an easy grip on intellectual history as a discipline, too. Likewise, there is a lot that could make a book review in n+1 (the magazine the interviewer offers as an example) an “intellectual” piece of writing.

These may seem like empty questions — trying to pin down the elusive significance of an uncommon term that people have no need to apply with academic precision. But as Doherty describes in the interview, new conditions in the academic labor market have spurred more people to write this work and to read it. Graduate students facing dismal prospects on the market for academic jobs find other avenues to publish book reviews and essays that they might have otherwise saved for specialized journals, and personal reflections on scholarly life that they likely would not. There are, in other words, historical forces that have made “intellectual journalism” more salient in this moment. The fact that an editor of one of these magazines most associated with it (again, n+1), Nikhil Saval, recently won a state senate seat in Philadelphia only lends weight to the sense that there is something palpably contemporary about these genres, publications, writers and readers.    

Initial keyword searches for the exact phrase, however, suggest a different timeline. It is most closely associated with one particular magazine which has not been published in nearly two decades. Lingua Franca was unmistakably intellectual journalism — the “journalism of ideas” even, according to one retrospective, only tightening its terminological entanglement with intellectual history, or “the history of ideas”. The magazine was founded in 1990 and covered scholarly debates and disciplinary developments during the heights of that era’s “Culture Wars” and the front that they opened within and between academic departments. 

Contributors reported stories on new scholarly work, the clashes they provoked and the universities that housed them. Many young writers and editors began careers at Lingua Franca writing about topics for general audiences typically reserved for academic readers. Rick Perlestein wrote a celebrated essay on the generational divides shaping the disputes within historical scholarship on the 1960s in the United States. Reconstructing the arguments of recent dissertations and conference papers, he illustrates the faultines within the historiography with a granularity rare even for the most thorough literature review. But his reflections on the personal investments of a generation of former SDS members, who now write the history of the campus protest movement from within university walls, transcends the limits of peer-reviewed constraints. The magazine also published reportage on university politics, such as Emily Eakin’s survey of Hillsdale College as a battleground for the clash shaping up between social conservatives and laissez-faire libertarians of the decade.    

The publication folded in 2001 after a major funder pulled support, revealing for not the last time the unreliable financial foundations of so many little magazines. What united much of this writing was a focus on what happened at universities and what the people who worked in them thought about and argued over. At its best it illustrated that both the passions and the stakes of academic disputes could, in fact, be high, and not just for other academics. In this way it makes sense as an exemplar of “intellectual journalism” because there was a well-defined intellectual life within university walls. 

Essays like Perlestein’s brought an academic rigor that went beyond the standard book review. Writing like that avoided some of the shortcomings of contemporary “journalism of ideas.” Corey Robin  (also a contributor to Lingua Franca) notes the recent tendency among journalists who engage with scholars to distil their work into convenient answers to political questions. This “Historovox,” as he describes it, leads pundits and commentators to, say, ask a medievalist about the history of walls in order to question the effectiveness of the proposed wall on the southern US border. Rather than take on a posture of “explanation” to the end of finding an answer — such as when Vox publicizes an interview with legal theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw as “Intersectionality, Explained” — journalism that engages with scholarship can cover its internal divisions and disagreements to open the possibility for much more interesting questions.    

If intellectual journalism of the 1990s was marked by its proximity to the academy, the contemporary genres that Doherty describes are a reaction to that academy’s shaky foundations. Sometimes a necessary supplement to a graduate salary or a contingency plan after the job market, the essays and book reviews by precarious intellectuals have made “intellectual journalism” a resonant category again but for a different reason. Rather than one exemplary magazine like Lingua Franca, this intellectual journalism we think of today populates pages across many new publications, with reviews in the Los Angeles Review of Books and Public Books (both founded in 2012) and academic reporting and scholarly debate in the Chronicle Review.  At the same time, the omnibus book review — a genre familiar from most graduate seminars — seems to be a more frequent form for mainstream publications like The New Yorker, as print review space dwindles elsewhere. As more and more “intellectual” writers are unmoored from universities, so the writing most associated with them is dispersed away from what were once singular sources of prestige.  

As someone trying to understand this landscape of intellectual journalism, I’ve fallen back on my own work and reflection on intellectual history to get a grip on it. That history reminds us that the aspiration to nail a reliable category of “intellectual” to one recognizable career position cannot account for change very long. 

With a shifting market for academic jobs and their access to the conditions that once made intellectual status most secure comes changing priorities, subjects and approaches in the writing that might be called intellectual. Doherty’s own recent book, The Equivalents, traces the lives of an early cohort of Radcliffe fellows in the 1960s, after opportunities for more traditional academic careers had been largely unavailable to women in their status, and their contributions to twentieth-century feminism. Other works of modern intellectual history published for more popular audiences, like Merve Emre’s The Personality Brokers, reconstructs the ideas that inspired the mother and daughter who created the Myers-Briggs personality test, largely beyond the institutions of established scientific research and scholarly life. 

As younger writers with academic training turn to non-academic publications that engage with the contemporary cultural and political moment, they’ve confronted and articulated questions about the status of intellectuals within politics. In a now-prophetic essay about his personal struggle to commit to critical writing and the life of the mind on the one hand, and political organizing for left campaigns that would allow more people to engage in that life on the other, Nikhil Saval captures a tension confronting others in his cohort. Work traditionally associated with intellectual status in academia, journalism and publishing brings debt and precarity, and so the relation of these workers to those confronting similar shifts has become an exigent political  question (raised and answered, of course, by these workers themselves). As precarious employment in these fields becomes more common, it drives some to organize in unions and others to found publications, like Contingent Magazine, to support contingently-employed scholars by explicitly naming their status and providing them a platform.

If intellectual journalism is a label to name new publications, genres and debates that resonates now, it is not because it is now easy to recognize who or what is intellectual. The conditions of intellectual work in recent history have made it less rather than more obvious. Intellectual history as a field, however, shows that a rigorous and universal definition of the “intellectual” is not necessary to continue on work that falls within its scope.


Simon Brown is a PhD candidate in history at UC Berkeley and a primary editor at the JHI Blog.

Featured Image: May Day Parade (c.1938) from the New York College Teachers Union, Local 537 of the AFT. Courtesy of the Gotham Center for New York City History.

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Think Piece

Rousseau and the Republicanization of Money

by Oliver Weber

In order to stabilize the tumbling financial markets and maintain the liquidity of companies and states, central banks around the world responded to the Covid-19 pandemic by increasing the money supply.  The public discussion about these fiscal and monetary decisions, from their sufficiency to their potential for triggering future inflation, are dominated by economists. The advice of political philosophers, meanwhile, especially those from centuries ago, is not particularly sought after.

Yet this was not always the case. From antiquity until well into the 19th century, European and North American political philosophy revolved around questions of state financing, debt, property, and money. In other words, the relationship between economics and politics was at the heart of the theoretical debate. As such, it was also central for Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who wrote the entry “Économie politique” for Diderot’s and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, corresponded with the Physiocrats, and had none other than Adam Smith attentively review parts of his discourse on inequality.

Today, Rousseau is best known for his advocacy of strong republican ideals, and his focus on the common will and personal presence of the people in contrast to the principle of representation that characterizes the modern, liberal organization of state and government. It is this Rousseau whom Jürgen Habermas famously criticized in Between Facts and Norms for overburdening citizens with demands for virtue and the common good. But when re-reading Rousseau’s works in the context of his time, it is striking that, much more so than political principles, economic considerations abound and place Rousseau at a great distance from our contemporary conditions.

In Rousseau’s mind, the Enlightenment thinkers, with whom he otherwise sided to considerable extent on political questions, articulated paradoxical economic and political demands. Montesquieu, for example, considered it his political task to revive ancient ideas of a free state, so that the freedom of citizens would no longer be threatened by royal and feudal despotism. But unlike their ancient predecessors, Enlightenment intellectuals no longer sought to organize this republicanization on the basis of the self-sufficient oikoi of an agrarian economy, but instead with the help of the modern opportunities of trade and manufacture. As Istvan Hont has noted, Rousseau turned against this idea of a commercial republicanism in the most resolute form.

In his Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau described how a society that accepted a liberalized economic sphere would also inevitably find itself in despotic political waters. Natural man’, who historically was in a harmonious balance with outer and inner nature in Rousseau’s formulation, became dangerously unbalanced when beginning to practice the division of labour, agriculture, and metallurgy. In this way, Rousseau made use of the dominant colonial discourses of his time, not to overturn them, but to reverse them: Instead of tracking progress from “savage” to “civilised” man, Rousseau told a story of human degeneration. According to him, an economy based on the division of labour meant nothing other than individuals no longer being able to provide for their own subsistence from their own resources and, as a consequence, becoming dependent on one another. “From the moment that one man needed the help of another […] equality disappeared, property arose, labour became necessary” (OC III, p. 171). And this mutual dependence was never symmetric: instead, talents, skill, diligence, and physical abilities inevitably caused differences in property and conduct, such that social inequality arose. Having become dependent on his fellow men, a once ‘natural’ man could thus only relate to himself by way of relating to others, which deepened the state of interdependence.

Over time, Rousseau reasoned, the poor thus became dependent on being paid by the rich or on robbing them, and the rich became dependent on the poor remaining dependent. Conflicts would then arise within society. In his reading, this socialized state perpetually threatened to bring about the Hobbesian war of all against all (45), which was only half-heartedly prevented by the  introduction of formal equality before the law, even if only in order to make economic inequality permanent. But such a state is destined to slide down the same slippery slope as society already did: lawbreakers made magistrates necessary, which in turn necessitated elections, elections required political parties, these provoked civil wars, from which followed perpetual dictatorship and, finally, despotism. In essence, Rousseau’s message to his Enlightenment contemporaries was that no republic could be built on the basis of asymmetrical economic interdependence — and to him, trade, division of labor and money regimes were just that.

In so arguing, Rousseau wrote explicitly against the major political-economic theories of his time: against the physiocrats, against mercantilist ideas, but above all against Montesquieu’s idea that trade and commerce brought about a liberalization and pacification of the political sphere—an idea that would inspire James Denham-Steuart, John Millar, David Hume and, later on, Adam Smith. Montesquieu reasoned that modern commerce and manufactures made citizens independent of their rulers. If these rulers transgressed the limits of civic consent, one could easily withdraw one’s possessions, mobile capital or even money from the grasp of the crown. This threat to the control exercised by monarchy and feudal nobility automatically limited governmental power. Adam Smith thought along similar lines and expanded this argument: If cleverly managed, he wrote, even the rulers’ exorbitant claims to luxury and consumption could be used to create work and prosperity and, at the same time, bring about the rule of law. According to him, the complexity of flourishing trade in the cities and the growth of mutual interdependence overwhelmed the power that despots could muster to govern.  With this, Montesquieu (like Smith later) turned against absolute monarchy from the outside, i.e. politically, in order to discipline it from the inside, i.e. economically.

Rousseau, however, turned these arguments against their proponents. His discussion of political economy in the Second Discourse was precisely aimed at showing that what Montesquieu and Smith considered the disciplinary threat that citizens posed to their monarchs would turn into a disciplinary order that benefits the rich at the expense of the republic. For Rousseau, economic inequality, asymmetric economic interdependencies, and private interests prevented the formation of a common will. Therefore, it was perfectly consistent to him that, just as there should be no partisanship in the political world, the republic must presuppose the material self-sufficiency of its citizens. Thus, he ordered in the Contrat social that no citizen of his ideal republic should be “so wealthy as to be able to buy another, and none so poor as to be forced to sell himself” (OC III, p. 391). Notably, this seemingly economic argument was premised on a political observation: the rich and the poor were equally dangerous to the common good, “from the one come the abettors of tyranny, from the other the tyrants; the trade in public liberty is always between them; the one buys and the other sells it” (OC III, p. 392).

However, anyone who thinks that Rousseau considered himself utopian is mistaken. Already in the Contrat social, he praised Corsica as one of the few exceptions that, under the historical conditions of his time, would still be capable of forming a republic along the lines he set forth — not least because, in the eyes of Rousseau, Corsicans appeared uncivilized. After the latter had made some gains in the fight for Corsican independence, Matteo Buttafuoco approached Rousseau in 1764 with the request to draft a constitution for Corsica. Rousseau enthusiastically agreed. Interestingly, his proposed constitution, which survived through his estate, is largely devoted to the economic rather than the political situation in Corsica. Rousseau recommended, for example, that a prerequisite for citizenship  should be the possession of sufficient land to provide for oneself and one’s family, and so that the asymmetrical dependence described in the Second Discourse would not occur. Rousseau believed that there was enough territory available in Corsica to allow every inhabitant to own farmland.

But Rousseau knew, of course, how far modern conditions had advanced in comparison to antiquity. Large empires in the island’s geographical neighborhood, monetary and fiscal systems, trade, and manufactures were obstacles to the peaceful republicanization of the Corsicans. Rousseau’s response to these unfavorable conditions was as radical as it was consequential: limited foreign trade to prevent a dependence on neighboring territories, hardly any internal trade in order to conserve the independence of citizens from one another, and a requirement that manufacturers and craftsmen had to settle far away from the trading places to make their businesses costly and burdensome. Expressed in modern economic vocabulary: Rousseau tried to internalize the politically external costs of the economy—for the good of the republic.

It was the financial and monetary system that worried Rousseau the most. The virtualization of goods in the form of money provided the conditions for a limitless accumulation of wealth and thus disconnection from the polity. Money — although supplied and guaranteed for by the state — could become a vehicle for particular interests and, in the last consequence, for anti-republican developments. Therefore, according to Rousseau, money was to be kept to a minimum in Corsica and to be replaced as far as possible by a local barter economy that was to be administered by the state: “In a truly free state, citizens do everything on their own and nothing with money” (OC III, p. 439). Taxes should also be possible in kind and supplemented by the state itself, i.e. state property that yields revenue for the payment of the magistrates. Only in the extreme, and only if direct exchange is impossible, Rousseau considered the use of a currency to serve as a unit of account (he suggests pistols as a basis). The fiscal administration of Corsica therefore had, in Rousseau’s plan, the enormously important task of keeping an eye on how the relationship between the circulation of abstract money and the concrete barter developed, in order to be able to counteract possible aberrations, such as those described in the Second Discourse. The Rousseauan citizens of Corsica were to be protected from their own self-interest by the constitution, which instituted and regulated the legal and monetary systems through which citizens could interact in such a way that the independence of the republic would be preserved, both internally and externally.

Rousseau’s considerations for Corsica sound very distant today. Since the 19th century, the economic developments that Rousseau could still observe in their early stages – the development of markets, the emergence of the division of labor, the flourishing of trade and industry, the introduction of taxes and monetary regimes – have fully taken hold and determine our present. But perhaps Rousseau’s warning about the paradoxes of a politically and economically free society can help us better understand today’s problems. The difficulty of present-day democracies, as was already evident in the financial crisis and has now again has come to the fore during the pandemic, is that they are in many ways dependent on developments in their economic foundation: citizens are dependent on their jobs, on international markets, on capital inflows and outflows; the state is dependent on tax revenues, on the confidence of financial markets, and on the status of its social security systems. Rousseau’s vision of an economically self-sufficient citizenry and republic is more than elusive — but the problems it was meant to counteract can be felt everywhere.

Perhaps a virtue can be made of necessity? Rousseau’s strong aversion to the money form was fed by the fact that monetary wealth is based on the possession of collectively guaranteed symbols. This makes the owners of large sums of money predominantly independent from the polity’s requirements of virtue and subsistence: they can simply escape the requirements by moving their possessions elsewhere. This was Rousseau’s criticism of the advocates of doux commerce like Montesquieu. But are the rich not simultaneously dependent on the politics of the community? The value of their wealth is based entirely on the state’s guarantee that they will one day be able to convert their symbols into goods and labor, because without common trust in the value of money that the state embodies and guarantees, monetary wealth vanishes. With the release of money, which the state usually delegates to its central bank, the republic has dangerously disconnected its citizenry from itself — in this Rousseau is completely right. But by reserving the sovereignty to determine the quantity, the interest rate, i.e. ultimately the value of money, the state can attempt to return the circulating monetary wealth to republican purposes. That the money supply is not an apolitical quantity is very clearly demonstrated by the actions of central banks during the present pandemic. Perhaps this is where a modern political theory, economically up-to-date, would have to start in order to examine and help preserve the economic conditions of democratic self-government.


Oliver Weber is a Master’s student of democratic studies at the University of Regensburg, Germany. He is mainly interested in the political theory of republican orders and their economic conditions of maintenance. He tweets @OliverBWeber.

Featured Image: Jean-Jacques Rousseau commemorative medal (bronze Galvano). Courtesy of Tulane University Digital Library, B. Bernard Weinstein Medal Collection.

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Think Piece

On the Origins of Criminology and Academic Boundary Work

By Albert J. Hawks

The basic origin story of Criminology is told with uniformity: once upon a time, ignorant humans were superstitious and believed in entities like demons, and causes like demonic influence. People saw spiritual solutions as the only solution. Into this ignorance, Beccaria and Bentham arrived, bringing light and order with them. In their wake, they left a legacy we call “Criminology”. From the wilderness rose a civilization.

If the tone so far sounds vaguely polemical, it should be considered a barometer of the tone going forward. In many ways, the origins of this piece started with me feeling confused and surprised by the theoretical narrative surrounding Criminology, particularly in textbooks targeting introductory level classes. This feeling deepened when I discovered a shocking lack of citations or evidence supporting the narrative. And it transformed into something approaching indignation as I perused textbook after textbook with the intent to shape a pedagogical introduction to the discipline. Thus, I think in this case, maintaining such a tone seems appropriate.

Fortunately, my interest in the general subject is beyond indignation and the question behind this paper is substantial. I’m currently co-directing an ongoing research project “Investigating Intellectual Boundaries of Criminology”, which at its core seeks to understand how Criminology as a field is defined and what it means to do “criminological” work. Obviously, studying the field’s boundaries will tell us something about Criminology. But it will also hopefully tell us something about disciplinary boundaries beyond our case.

Generally speaking, we know how academic disciplinary boundaries function. These are often tacitly accepted— or, at least, treated as generally reasonable confines to work within. In other words, most scholars come into a field, take requisite theory courses to complete their academic work, and develop their research in their disciplinary context.

The trouble is, I came into the field with a background in theology. Unlike the scholars in question, who may have not studied pre-Enlightenment life, I am practically steeped in it. 

In preparing to teach criminology last summer, I began exploring undergraduate textbooks. I was surprised to discover a fairly consistent narrative about the origins of the field— seemingly uniformly, scholars explain that before the development of the “Classical” School, crime was attributed to supernatural forces. I had literally never encountered this in any of my theological readings. As I started to investigate, I found myself repeatedly met with a lack of citations. 

In order to fully— albeit briefly— examine this puzzle, I want to first more carefully explicate the existing narrative in Criminology about the discipline’s origin. I will then highlight a few of the many substantial problems with this narrative. And finally, I’ll shift to considering the purpose of such a strangely widespread narrative.

A Narrative

Criminology identifies its birth at a moment of transition from what is called the “demonic period” to the “Classical” School of thought. This narrative -which is central to introductory courses in criminology- contributes to eliminate certain types of “explanation” for crime, thus encouraging the Criminological approach. The most consistent, and central, component to the “demonic period” narrative is the “supernaturalist” explanation of crime. According to a widespread criminology origin story, in fact, before the Classical School humans believed that criminal activity was fundamentally caused by “supernatural or religious factors”, a “pact… with the devil”, or more deeply because of our “cosmic connectedness” (Schram and Tibbets,  174; Berne and Messerschmidt, 84; Pfohl, 49). In other words, the traditional “devil made me do it” defense was generally considered accurate. Thus, the Classical School, which drew from utilitarianism, “represented a radical departure from the long tradition of demonic or supernaturalist explanation…” (Pfohl, 49).

The second narrative component defining the “demonic period” follows from this. Because people at this time believed crime was caused by demonic influence, the main source of law was the Word of God and the goal of punishment was to exorcise demonic influence. Berne and Messerschmidt argue that it was specifically tied to the “dogma” of Roman Catholicism, though it’s unclear how they mean the word “dogma” in this context if not derogatorily (84).

Punishments, by extension, aimed at removing the intrusion of spiritual evil, often with a supposedly literal exorcism involved. Indeed, Schram and Tibbetts cite the movie The Exorcist as evidence that Catholics still think in this way. They describe the punishments as “harsh” (175) and the demonic period as “extremely draconian times” (176). Berne and Messerschmidt mention in passing that in England there were a huge amount of capital offenses, lack of clear punishments in legal codes, and discretionary power (85).

 Thankfully, in this irrational world of cruel and inhuman punishment, the Enlightenment saves the day! In particular, Cesare Beccaria (1764) and Jeremy Bentham (1780) became the founders of criminology who developed the Classical School from Enlightenment thinking.

Pfohl offers a highly revealing narrative of this process. He argues, in fact, that the “emphasis on the individual” in Martin Luther is “taken to the extreme” by Calvinists, which eventually leads to the Protestant work ethic (52).

From here, Pfohl shifts to scholastic theology, Thomas Aquinas, and his influence on Beccaria. According to Pfohl, “scholastic theology equated sin with a failure to make free and calculable reasonable choices for the common good… this is a long step from a strictly supernatural interpretation of deviance” (53). Thus, scholastic theology prepared thinkers like Beccaria to break from spiritualist thinkers.

Logical Flaws

Before questioning the historical foundation of the “demonic period” narrative, it is necessary to highlight some pressing logical issues that are typical of criminology textbooks and can at times also be found in the literature at large.

First, theological doctrine (1) and messy legal codes (2) are not equivalent to majority belief (3) and/or justification (4). Really, each of these four units should be treated separately. At the risk of over explaining, a series of incoherent laws does not automatically connect to orthodox theology then any more than it does now. Further, whatever a formal theological position may or may not be, this does not mean that most people share this view. And finally, even if a large number of individuals believe something, this distributed, collective belief does not represent actual theology nor is it tied in a direct way to Church doctrine.

Second, evidence of a few anecdotal stories does not equal substantial proof. None of the literature reviewed offered clear, sufficient evidence for their claims at virtually any level (the theological level, the social level, the institutional level, etc). Instead of substantially investigating the complex relationship between formal doctrine, cultural values, and social systems, each author seems content with offering anecdotes in a way that feels almost incomprehensible to me.

Third, their intellectual timeline was consistently confusing. All of the mentioned scholars would reference Christian thinkers before the Enlightenment effectively as contemporaries. A simple illustration: Pfohl first describes the Reformation and then shifts to discussing Scholasticism and Aquinas as if they were historically close, when in reality they were nearly 250 years apart (which would cover the entire age of the United States for reference).

Finally, if it is true that Thomas Aquinas offered a rational, logical antecedent for the Classical School and Thomas Aquinas is indeed officially a “Doctor of the Church”, then wouldn’t it be  more accurate to say that Catholic thought was the opposite of whatever backwards world view was being actively pursued by provincial governments?

Historical Flaws

As it is, it is crucially important to historically critique this picture of the pre-classical era as being “demonic” and fundamentally rooted in spiritual forces. Indeed, the reality was at best much more multifaceted, and has been throughout all of Christian history. As early as 397 AD, St. Augustine wrote in detail in his famous Confessions about an experiment his friend performed on two sons. In this experiment, said friend tracked the life path of two boys born on the same day of the same father, one legitimately and one illegitimately. After watching the illegitimate child fall into deviancy and crime, they concluded that the only true explanatory factorfor their behavior was their socio-economic status— in particular, inherited wealth. This conclusion was reached almost 1500 years before Marx came along, and surely reflects a material understanding of social behavior that according to criminology’s origin story didn’t exist until after the Enlightenment.

Second, while less directly critical to the overall picture discussed in this essay, it seems telling to reflect briefly on Aquinas’ definition of sin. Pfohl claims that Scholastic theology equated sin with a failure to make choices for the common good. But this is simply false. Indeed, Aquinas explicitly affirms Augustine’s definition of sin and highlights its two core components:

Accordingly Augustine (Contra Faust. xxii, 27) includes two things in the definition of sin; one, pertaining to the substance of a human act, and which is the matter, so to speak, of sin, when he says “word,” “deed,” or “desire”; the other, pertaining to the nature of evil, and which is the form, as it were, of sin, when he says, “contrary to the eternal law.” (II.71.6.ad1)

In other words, sin has literally nothing to do with the common good, except in as much as the eternal law is good for everyone. The reason an action is considered sinful does not lie in  a violation of mutual responsibility, but rather in the violation of the “cosmic” order that according to Pfohl scholasticism would reject.  Thus, while crime was a sin by virtue of the expectations set by eternal law, it was not a crime because it was sin. In this perspective, a crime is a violation of natural law and violating natural law— and harming the world— is a form of sin. In this same vein, Aquinas also believed this was often done because of circumstantial suffering such as poverty. Finally, Aquinas offered essentially two reasons for punishing crime: deterrence and re-establishing order and equity (De Malo, q. 1, a. 5, ad 7;  IV Sent., dist. 20, q. 1, a. 2, qa. 1). Both explanations sound surprisingly similar to reasonings that characterize modern criminal justice systems.

Semi-contemporaneously with Aquinas, another Doctor of the Church, Albertus Magnus, the future patron saint of the natural sciences, made this comment in his writings on science:

Now it must be asked if we can comprehend why comets signify the death of magnates and coming wars, for writers of philosophy say so. The reason is not apparent, since vapor no more rises in a land where a pauper lives than where a rich man resides, whether he be king or someone else. Furthermore, it is evident that a comet has a natural cause not dependent on anything else; so it seems that it has no relation to someone’s death or to war. For if it be said that it does relate to war or someone’s death, either it does so as a cause or effect or sign.

At the risk of brow-beating, this hardly seems to suggest a supernaturalist, cosmic-connectedness worldview as repeatedly described in criminology literature.

These three all represent solid reasons for questioning the alleged “world view” of the demonic era from a proper theological standpoint. But there is also good reason to question the narrative on empirical grounds in a slightly closer historical period. For example, Monter’s “Crime and Punishment in Calvin’s Geneva” includes a list of crimes with their respective punishments for a twelve-month period between February 1562 and February 1563. The year 1562 represented the height of Calvin’s power over the government, a year that modern thinkers would view as inevitably leading to the sort of “demonic” perspective and bloodbath the Classical School undid. And while it is true that some things that were treated as crime— sodomy, for one— would not be considered such today, it’s also true that punishments as a whole were notably less severe than our modern hindsight may have supposed. Indeed, there were only 14 capital punishments, and most were not actually tied to “Biblical” law, but rather to other legal justifications. While certain crimes seem perhaps odd, some punishments may actually be defined as more humane, if compared to modern practices — the average time in the stocks, for example, was 2-3 hours (compared to the weeks in solitary confinement that us moderns regularly hand out). Alternatively, the average punishment for public fornication was a three day imprisonment.

In other words, the narrative of the “demonic period” at the birth of criminology is highly contestable and perhaps – deeply flawed. It is flawed from both a methodological and a logical standpoint. And it is flawed in historical terms— both in the sense of existing theological beliefs and historical practice. There is ample reason to question this narrative.

Boundaries

And yet my concern here is as a social scientist and, thus, not purely historical. While worthwhile, critiquing historical narratives in and of themselves takes on a different relevance if tested against the social process that created and sustained such a strange origin narrative in the first place. True or not, what was its purpose? What function did this origin story serve? Why demarcate criminology in this way? In short, this seems less as an issue of truth claims and more an issue of boundary work aimed at generating legitimacy.

The term “boundary work” originated in the natural sciences with Gieryn (1983). He was interested in the rhetorical boundaries between science and “less authoritative” non-science. He argued boundary work was fundamentally strategic for the purpose of epistemically establishing authority and characterized boundary work as essentially “credibility contests”.

Beyond disciplinary boundaries, Lamont and Molnar argue that symbolic boundaries are employed to contest and reframe the meaning of social boundaries (186).

I would suggest that the boundary surrounding criminology discussed here reflects both views. In general, there is a clear desire to establish the legitimacy of the Classical School— and all of criminology— by asserting its scientific, rational origins. But it also appears to reflect the broader symbolic battle happening in Western intellectual circles in the attempt to reframe the meaning of religion in society. A part of the Enlightenment transformation can in fact be described as symbolic, assigning meanings to religion and its place in society that had not previously been held. This cultural process was seen as legitimate and important. Thus, in framing the origins of the discipline as participating in this process, Criminology claimed legitimacy and authority.

Two Threads

 This relatively simple argument leaves many open ends to explore— which is part of what our ongoing project seeks to do. Two seem worth highlighting here.

The first is more a theoretical observation: This case demonstrates that boundaries are narratively situated. It is obviously simpler to think of boundaries as stark— constituting a structural binary of sorts. And while there are broad binaries here— legitimate vs. illegitimate, humane vs inhumane, Etc.— the origin story of criminology requires a multifaceted narrative of progress. Each part is relatively powerless if considered separately from the other components. People used to believe, and this led to horrible practices that were only stopped by rational, scientific insight. We should incorporate narrative exegesis into our studies of boundary work with much greater frequency.

Second, it raises a question. If we accept the critical theoretical rejection of the Enlightenment narrative, if we internalize and acknowledge the post-colonial orientation, what does this mean for criminology as a discipline? What might it mean for any discipline rooted in such a specific philosophical tradition?

Conclusion

Criminology regularly reproduces a narrative of its origins that is deeply problematic, if not flawed. Its imagination of the past is deeply rooted in the struggle for legitimacy during the dawn of the Enlightenment. My aim has been to deconstruct these narratives in order to learn something about criminology as a whole and suggest new theoretical avenues for boundary studies. In doing so, I’ve also suggested a major theoretical intersection between boundary studies and critical theory.


Albert Hawks, Jr. is a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where he is a fellow with the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies. He holds an M.Div. and S.T.M. from Yale University. 

Featured Image: Witchcraft at Salem Village. Engraving (1875).  Wikimedia Commons.