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Think Piece

The Impossibility of the Modern Natural Happy Baby

By Brendan Mackie

Pierre Bourdieu, writing about sports, has described “two antagonistic philosophies of the legitimate use of the body.” One is “more ascetic,” and “counter-natural”: the body should be improved through diligence and hard work—it should (with considerable effort and expertise) be straightened, strengthened, thinned, and hardened. Think weight-lifting, HIIT, cross-fit, calorie counting, and marathon running. The second philosophy of the legitimate use of the body is “more hedonistic” and “natural.” To return the body to its natural capacity we must “unlearn the superfluous disciplines and restraints” that the ascetic philosophy of the body encourages. Here we have yoga, detoxes, tinctures, barefoot shoes, organic foods, and the vast cosmology of ‘alternative’ bodily practices.

When I became a parent, I noticed that this second, “natural” philosophy of the legitimate use of the body dominated the discussion of infant care. Just look at one of the most popular (and helpful!) baby books on the market: The Happiest Baby on the Block by Harvey Karp M.D. The book gives advice on how to soothe crying infants: Dr. Karp’s Five Ss (Swaddling, side-lying, shushing, swinging, and sucking). If your infant is fussy, colicky, crying for no reason, or otherwise inconsolable—something which can happen frequently and without explanation—the Five Ss act like a hidden “FACTORY RESET” button. When my baby fussed, I followed Dr. Karp’s advice, bundled her up like a burrito, swung her in my arms, and loudly shushed in her ear. And she shut up, just as Karp promised. As Karp proclaims on his Twitter page: “Finally, kids DO come with instructions!” And those instructions are written by Dr. Karp.

The Happiest Baby makes much of Dr. Karp’s expert credentials: he is a pediatrician. It was through his extensive care of infants that he developed, tested, and improved and popularized the techniques that would become the Five Ss. But tellingly, The Happiest Baby on the Block does not rest on the authority of Dr. Karp as a hard-working expert who has professionally attended to the health of thousands of babies, but rather the authority of the natural, which Dr. Karp only acts to uncover. The title of the introduction to Happiest Baby says it all: “How I Rediscovered the Ancient Secrets for Calming Crying Babies.” In service of this natural authority, Karp provides a great deal of evidence that the Five Ss are part of the essential human package. Particularly at stake is the controversial question of infant swaddling: the practice of tightly wrapping your infant like a burrito. Supporters argue that the babies like it. Detractors find something disturbing in basically imprisoning your kid in a blanket for most of the day. It goes in and out of fashion over the centuries. But Karp wants to show that swaddling is part of baseline human behavior, done by every human being in ‘natural’ conditions. In hunter-gatherer societies like the !Kung, Karp says, babies are swaddled all day, where they are also swung, shushed, and given things to suck on.

Dr. Karp is not at all alone in using the authority of the natural to justify baby care advice. Almost every baby book on my bookshelf argues in some way that to be a good parent is to forget the discipline of society and rediscover how people really parent. Take food. Feeding solids to a baby is a little nerve-wracking. The default in America is to spoon-feed your baby purees—think those little jars of Gerber baby food, mushy and homogenous. This is, of course, not natural. According to Super Nutrition for Babies, babies are “designed” to be healthy right down to their “very cells.” But because of their parents’ lazy reliance on those jars of Gerber, fortified rice cereal, and other processed foods “a generation of babies being shortchanged of this healthy birthright.” Instead you should feed your cave-baby natural food: liver, sweet potato, veggies, all minimally processed. Even pooping has a natural solution. There’s the elimination communication movement, or “Natural Infant Hygiene” which is a “gentle, natural, non-coercive process” to dealing with your infant’s poo poo and pee pee. Instead of confining your baby in unnatural, disposable, (convenient!) diapers, the loving, attentive (and patient!) parent lets their baby crawl around without a diaper, trusting her to communicate her elimination needs herself. Every parenting problem has at least one purportedly intuitive, natural solution: sleeping, playing, breastfeeding, discipline—the list goes on.

What’s telling is that all of these natural methods take more time, energy, attention and care than the disposable default. We practice baby led weaning, a ‘natural’ method of introducing foods to infants that means we let our baby feed herself strips of minimally processed foods. It means I have to clean the following after every feeding: my baby, my baby’s clothes, the high chair, the mat under the high chair, the floor around the mat, the dining room table, and me—all of which, after the end of a successful lunch, are covered with natural sweet potato, chicken liver, or green beans. I do this two or three times every day. I am only able to indulge this practice because I’m functionally unemployed right now, supposedly at work finishing my dissertation, and I have enough free time to devote to feeding our baby naturally.

It is perhaps telling that the trend for natural baby care is subscribed most by the aristocrats of our society—the celebrities, the influencers, the C-Suites—who can afford not only the time to parent their kids like little cave babies, but also can afford to buy the vast amount of natural-parenting paraphernalia.      There are nannies, sleep consultants, eating consultants, and a whole industry of solutions to help the isolated, time-poor, struggling parent to attempt to parent naturally like the !Kung.

Even as the discourse of baby care hearkens back to the natural, it is a very neoliberal, individualistic natural, which presupposes a great deal of ready cash, extra resources, and spare time. But this ignores the increasingly fraught conditions under which modern parenting is actually done. Today, both parents are expected to work outside the home for long periods of time. Yet household incomes have stagnated, making it increasingly hard for families to pay for childcare. (It would cost $2,450 a month to send my baby to the UC Berkeley childcare service—which is a couple hundred dollars more than my monthly stipend.) It’s perhaps because of these reasons that Millennials like me are having far fewer children than we want. The current configuration of work and parenting, as Elizabeth Warren has shown in the Two Income Trap, has made families more vulnerable to financial shocks. When both parents are working at full capacity just to break even, if one of them gets sick, or loses their job, or wants a career change, it can mean penury.

There’s a radical critique in how hunter-gatherers parent that the modern natural parenting books ignore. It’s impossible to raise a baby with just two parents even in the best of times. According to the Evolutionary Psychologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, hunter-gatherer babies are shared between many different allo-parents, that is, pseudo-parents: not just moms and often dads, but uncles, aunts, grandparents, friends, brothers and sisters, neighbors. This is one of the reasons why a group like the !Kung can hold their babies all day—not because they can afford a full-time nanny—but because they can rely on a whole bunch of different people to help out with the kid.

But the brunt of the critique of the natural parenting movement is our individual consumer choices—processed Gerber, diapers, the wrong basinet. And the solutions are individual consumer choices: Dr. Karp now sells high-end baby gear to help your baby sleep like an !Kung baby, particularly the Snoo Smart Sleeper for $1295.00. Here as in so many other places, we Millennials have been told to solve our collective problems through feats of individual discipline. None of these books as far as I can tell confront the      fact that our current configuration of childcare and work means that there are literally not enough hours in the day to be a fully-functioning adult and a fully-functioning parent. None of the parenting books      advocate for what to me is the only natural solution to the unnatural material conditions of modern parenting: the formation of co-parenting communes and the dramatic reduction of the number of hours parents work outside the home. No, to be a good parent (or at least a natural parent) we are supposed to parent as if we have the free time and the community of the !Kung, while also working the shitty jobs of a Millennial American to pay off our student loan debt.

The constant appeal to the natural is all the more irritating because the problems of parenting are all so very unnatural for a first-time parent. When your child is crying for three hours straight—is this normal? Should you take her to the hospital? Swaddle her? Give her Tylenol? When you baby shits her diaper, do you change it right away? What if she is asleep? Do you wait until she wakes up? When your baby wakes up at one every morning screaming, do you breastfeed her? Let her cry? Hold her hand?      

People like Karp are experts because they promise that they can teach us the non-obvious solutions to this constant barrage of urgent baby care questions. The appeal to the natural is a kind of legerdemain, where this non-obvious advice is presented as obvious, easy, intuitive, right in front of our very noses. Where the sheer tedious effort of attentive parenting is recast as something easy, freeing, and—well, natural. You too, they promise, can be free of the burden of these tedious questions. You too, like our deep ancestors, can eventually parent without having to read a baby book at all     .    

It is notable that so many baby books have the word Happy in their titles. It’s the whole promise of the natural that happiness should be easy. Depression, anhedonia, boredom, less-than-optimal relationships, infrequent sex, pudge, all the problems of being an adult—all, this model of parenting suggests, are unnatural.      

But on this topic, the ancients disagreed. The root of word happy isnot a feeling of euphoria, but a condition of being lucky. It has the same root as the word haphazard and happenstance. Unlike us, the ancients recognized that these oceanic moments where the world and the individual are in sync are rare, magical, special, and the product not of individual effort and discipline, but of grace. For the rest of it—for the poop, the tears, the bedtimes—we need culture, society, the shackles of discipline, that counter-natural orientation to the body that urges us to harden, strengthen, and straighten. For raising cave babies in 2020 is anything but natural, and it requires a great deal of unnatural discipline: firm bedtimes, soft food, spoons, diapers, wipes, and regularity. Only with this hard-won structure, can we parent successfully. But this form of parenting cannot promise happiness. And only by recognizing that it is not our individual responsibility to be happy, perfect, natural, and whole can we get to the real work of reforming the culture at large to make it marginally better for everyone, not just for those who can afford the      conveniences of Dr. Karp’s delightful $1295.00 bassinet.


Brendan Mackie is a PhD candidate at University of California, Berkeley, writing his dissertation on clubs and societies in 18th century Britain. You can find his podcast at historian.live. Subscribe to his mailing list to get updates whenever he writes a thing!

Featured Image: Rembradnt, Ganymed in den Fängen des Adlers. ~1635. Courtesy of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden.

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Think Piece

Why Did the Frankfurt School Misunderstand Logical Positivism?

By Carl Sachs

There is no need for protracted discussion as to whether or not the Frankfurt School theorists – predominantly Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse – misunderstood logical positivism in general and the Vienna Circle in particular. Recent scholarship on the Vienna Circle, and especially on Rudolf Carnap’s work in the 1920s and 1930s, shows that Carnap and other Vienna Circle philosophers in this time did not conform to the Frankfurt School characterization of them.[1] The question that remains is, why did the Frankfurt School misunderstand logical positivism? Was this misunderstanding avoidable or was it somehow a necessary corollary of Frankfurt School commitments? And how does this misunderstanding bear on their divergent attitudes towards metaphysics: metaphysics as an obstacle to be overcome (the Vienna Circle) or as the promise of a better world (the Frankfurt School)?

I will argue that in one crucial sense, the Frankfurt School interpretation was not only regrettable but avoidable. It consisted of the assumption that logical positivism was an attempt to carry out epistemology in a recognizably traditional sense. The project of epistemology, as the Frankfurt School understood it, was to show how knowledge is possible for rational finite subjects, and thus how rational finite subjects can cognize objects. According to this conception, epistemology without the subject is not epistemology at all. If one reads the Vienna Circle as fundamentally concerned with the explication of objectivity, which they carried out in purely formal terms so that nothing ‘subjective’ entered into the conception of objectivity, then it is indeed tempting to think that the Vienna Circle was attempting epistemology without the subject. If that were the case, then it is not too difficult to see how Horkheimer might find an affinity (though no more than that) between the project of the Vienna Circle and the nightmare of triumphant fascistic capitalism, in which everything unique and individual is canceled out.

However, this affinity between logical positivism and fascism rests on a profound misunderstanding of the Vienna Circle: that they were even attempting to carry out epistemology. They were not. The commitment to the unity of science, the explication of a purely formal conception of objectivity, and the use of mathematical logic to do so are not epistemological projects.[2] The Vienna Circle was, in its way, as opposed to epistemology as it was to metaphysics. Their project was not to explain how rational finite subjects can cognize objects but to exhibit a purely formal or structural conception of objectivity sufficient to demonstrate the unity of all sciences. To say that they were committed to a purely formal or structural conception of objectivity is to say that they wanted to use the tools of mathematical logic to show how all the sciences fit together in a purely formal way. They were not interested in answering traditional epistemological questions such as those of Descartes (“is knowledge possible?”) or Kant (“how is knowledge possible?”) or even Kant’s naturalistic successors who investigated the biological, psychological, and sociological processes that underpin the production of knowledge. Since they were not trying to do epistemology – neither rationalistic nor naturalistic – they should not be judged for having produced a bad one. (To be sure, Horkheimer adds that while science may be able to do without the subject, social critique cannot. In this he is perfectly correct. But an Otto Neurath or a Carnap could ably respond that this means only that social critique is not part of the sciences, and it is difficult to see how a Horkheimer or an Adorno could disagree.)

Up to this point, I have focused on why the Frankfurters misread the Viennese with regard to epistemology. However, there is a more profound and more correctly located disagreement between the Frankfurters and the Viennese, which concerns the pragmatic usefulness of metaphysics for social critique. The Viennese hostility to metaphysics is well-known but sometimes misunderstood. On the most common reading, the Vienna Circle objected to metaphysics because of their commitment to the verificationist theory of meaning: a statement is meaningful only if one can specify the experiential conditions under which that statement could be verified (with logic and mathematics being exempt from this requirement because they are ‘analytic’ as distinct from ‘synthetic’ statements: they are true ‘by meaning alone’ or ‘by convention’). Since no possible experience could verify the truth or falsity of metaphysical claims such as “we have free will” or “we will see our loved ones in another existence after death,” those claims are meaningless. However, the verifiability criterion of meaning is not what really motivates the Viennese hostility to metaphysics. For one thing, the Vienna Circle was united in its opposition to metaphysics but the verifiability criterion was hotly debated within the Circle. The real objection to metaphysics was that metaphysics was useless. The speculative metaphysical systems such as those of Henri Bergson or German Idealism were useless for science because they could not satisfy the formal conditions of objectivity. In historical terms, the problem was that one could not translate Hegel into Gottlob Frege, the “old logic” into “the new”.

The Frankfurters, and especially Adorno and Marcuse, were Hegelian-Marxists, where ‘Marxist’ is intended as a modifier of ‘Hegelian.’ That is, they on the one hand found in Hegel a profound resolution of Western epistemological and metaphysical problems, which on the other hand had to be transposed into concrete material terms for their truth-value to become fully actualized. In this they were ably preceded by Gyorgy Lukacs’s History and Class Consciousness, which demonstrated how the history of epistemology could be understood as a mystified or disguised form of the history of class antagonisms.

What Adorno and Horkheimer undertook in their work is a continuation of Lukacs’s project but revised to consider both changes in political-economic conditions with the emergence of what was optimistically called Spätkapitalismus together with then-new epistemological positions that Lukacs did not and could not have considered: phenomenology and logical positivism. Adorno undertook this critique against phenomenology in Zur Metakritik der Erkenntnistheorie (known in English as Against Epistemology) written in Oxford 1934-37, ostensibly under Gilbert Ryle, but not published until 1956. Horkheimer follows suit in “The Latest Attack on Metaphysics” (1937). But whereas Adorno argues that Husserlian phenomenology embodies contradictions because it expresses, at an intellectual level, the contradictions of bourgeois society, Horkheimer levels a quite different accusation against positivism. The problem with positivism is not that it contains contradictions about how the rational subject could cognize objects but that it disposes with rational subjectivity altogether. In this regard, Horkheimer sees it as prefiguring the rise of post-bourgeois capitalist society: fascism.

The precise reason for this opprobrium is difficult to discern. But at a philosophical level, and with much historical distance, this much can safely be said: for the Frankfurt School, following Ernst Bloch and Walter Benjamin, the truth-content of German Idealism had to be interpreted allegorically as the hope for a truly rational society: one in which concrete social relations were embodiments of what Wilfrid Sellars calls “the space of reasons.” The space of reasons is a space of community and cooperation, because the very nature of reasoning is that it is a collective project: it is not just the means-ends reasoning of what I should do (e.g. to maximize my own welfare or return-on-investment) but what we as a group can agree upon as to what we should do. A rational society would not only be without the irrationality and short-sightedness of contemporary neoliberalism; it would be a post-capitalist society in which cooperation, rather than competition, is the underlying logic of all institutions and the social practices supported by them.

The Viennese shared this dream to a considerable extent – Carnap and Neurath, at least, were open about their socialism. But for them, metaphysics as such was like religion for Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud – an obstacle to human flourishing, freedom, and happiness. Hence, they saw no point in undertaking a strategic recovery of its truth-content or interpreting it allegorically as the promise of utopia – and worse, it is not clear what room there would be in their philosophy of language for interpretation, allegory, and metaphor. The Circle’s philosophy of language is tailored to meet the needs of their anti-metaphysical logico-scientific philosophy: a formal semantics of declarative assertions.

To say that the Circle was concerned with the formal semantics of declarative assertions is to imply two things. First, it is to focus the attention on assertions or declaratives as a distinct kind of speech act. As Kukla and Lance put it, assertions are “agent-neutral” in both their “input” and “output”: an assertion can be said to anyone by anyone. The Viennese were perfectly right to focus on declarative assertions for their project: the form and content of a scientific explanation, viewed in semantic terms, is declarative assertions. For this reason, agent-neutrality – a neglect of subjectivity – was built into the Circle from the outset. To say that it was concerned with the formal semantics of such assertions is to say, secondly, that it used the tools of mathematical or symbolic logic – the work of Frege and Bertrand Russell and Alfred N. Whitehead – to represent declarative assertions and the structural relations between them.

This is not to deny that the Viennese were concerned with the basis of science in experience or the distinction between analytic and synthetic truths – far from it. It is to say only that their interest in logical analysis – explication via symbolic logic – led them to conceptualize the distinction between synthetic statements as truths of mathematical logic together with sensory qualities (though in the Aufbau Carnap attempts to describe even sensory qualities themselves in purely formal terms).

The resulting philosophy of language, shaped for the purpose of a formal semantics of declarative assertions, had no room to accommodate an allegorical interpretation of Absolute Spirit as a utopian rational society. To this extent, the Frankfurters were perfectly correct to say that their kind of project was impossible within the framework of the Viennese. However, the Frankfurters did not see that their project was compatible with that of the Viennese: that there is no reason why a purely formal explication of objectivity should interfere with a diagnosis and critique of social pathologies of rational subjectivity and intersubjectivity. But why did they think that it was? The reason why the Frankfurters thought their project was incompatible with the Viennese project is that they thought the Viennese were trying to do epistemology without the subject. This was the combination of the true belief that the Viennese project had no room for the subject and the false belief that the Viennese project was an attempt at epistemology. It would be more accurate to say that the Viennese project was as anti-epistemological as it was anti-metaphysical: they were no more concerned with rational subjectivity than they were with absolute reality in a metaphysical sense. This lack of mutual understanding between the Viennese and the Frankfurters is one of the great tragedies of 20th-century philosophy.

[1] For the Frankfurt School misunderstanding of the Vienna Circle, see O’Neill and Uebel (2004) and Vrahimis (2020). Vrahimis stresses that Horkheimer’s critique of positivism is based on Adorno’s critique of Husserl’s phenomenology. This requires the assumption that logical positivism is the successor to phenomenology. However, Stone (2006) argues that Carnap saw in Husserl’s phenomenology an attempt to rehabilitate the kind of comprehensive metaphysics that Kant prohibited. On this reading, logical positivism should be seen as a break with phenomenology, not a continuation of it. Perhaps the logical positivists nevertheless retain what was problematic (by Adorno’s lights) with Husserlian phenomenology, but Horkheimer does not demonstrate this – he assumes it. For the reading of the logical positivists that informs this essay, see footnote 2.

[2] The reading of the Vienna Circle as rejecting traditional epistemology is based on Friedmann (1987) and Uebel (1996). Friedmann emphasizes that the Aufbau depends on a formal conception of objectivity, not phenomenalism: “Scientific objectivity, according to Carnap, requires precisely such a unified system of purely structural definite descriptions; a phenomenalistic reduction of all concepts to the given is in no way essential” (530). Likewise, Uebel argues that Carnap’s project consisted of “trying to make intelligible – or ‘explicate’, as he would later put matters – the idea of objectivity that underlies scientific practice. Scientific objectivity was reconstructed as intersubjective agreement rendered possible and systematic by the structure and logical form of the linguistic medium of knowledge claims” (p. 424).

Carl Sachs is associate professor of philosophy at Marymount University. His books include Intentionality and the Myths of the Given (Routledge 2014) and Pragmatism in Transition (co-edited with Pete Olen; Palgrave 2017). He has published on neopragmatism, the Frankfurt School, and phenomenology.


Featured Image: Symbol from Otto Neurath’s visual Isotype language. Designed by Gerd Arntz, via Gerd Arntz Web Archive.

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Think Piece

The World’s Human Rights Convention and the Paradox of American Abolitionism

By Bennett Parten

On a visit to Philadelphia in the fall of 1841, a friend handed the African American abolitionist William H. Johnson a recently printed “Human Right[s] Circular” and asked for a response. The document had apparently called for a World’s Human Rights Convention, news the Pennsylvania abolitionist received with great enthusiasm. In his public reaction, published in The Liberator and addressed to fellow abolitionist Henry C. Wright, the circular’s probable author, Johnson claimed that such a convention was long overdue. “If the anti-slavery cause had been productive of no other good,” he wrote, “it has led to the inquiry of the nature of all those various relations of human beings, commonly known by the name of human rights.” Despite exciting “a deep and abiding interest,” these inquiries had, until now, been “very limited,” Johnson admitted, and he believed it was time to make the “equality of human rights… a great central, practical truth, and not a mere rhetorical flourish.” Such a “complex subject,” he told his friend and colleague, “was worthy the attention of the world.”

Much to Johnson’s dismay, the World’s Human Rights Convention went off like a lead balloon. It turns out that organizing a global conference designed to fight slavery and end oppression across the globe was harder than it first seemed, especially considering that its chief organizers were a penurious team of self-published writers, reformers, and itinerant speakers. As a result, the convention lived and died in a matter of months. The movement, well, moved, quickly setting its sights on new projects and ideas. Historians have thus only ever seen the World’s Human Rights Convention as a minor footnote within the history of a movement that never lacked for idealism and never stopped arguing long enough to pull off something of that order and magnitude. Yet even if only the germ of an idea, the planning of the World’s Human Rights Convention deserves pausing over, for it is perhaps the earliest expression of human rights thinking in American history. 

Understanding the convention requires understanding the abolitionist imagination from whence it came. Henry C. Wright, the mastermind behind it all, was many things: pacifist, anarchist, feminist, utopian. He was also a Garrisonian. So-named because of their leader and bespectacled editor of The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison, Garrisonains were the most radical anti-slavery faction of all. Their abolitionism was not “gradual”; it was “immediatist.” They were not just anti-slavery; they believed in racial equality. And as a rule, most Garrisonains were not just religious; they were Christian perfectionists, whose activism aimed at revolutionizing hearts and minds as much as ending slavery.

Henry Clarke Wright, c.1847. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

Most notably, to be a Garrisonian also meant hewing to a strict no-voting stance.

To vote, after all, was to effectively endorse a Constitution that enshrined the right to hold property-in-man. According to Garrisonian thinking, such a right made the Constitution illegitimate and evil, which is why Garrison himself once publicly burned a copy of the constitution and routinely referred to the document as “a Covenant with Death, an Agreement with Hell.” This refusal to vote has historically cast Garrisonians as little more than religious kooks and political cranks—men and women capable of moral indignation, but never effective reform. Historians have since rethought this position. Scholars now see the utility in the Garrisonian method, arguing that the no-voting stance allowed them to press the system from the outside and raise the public’s moral consciousness through abstention. Yet often lost in this discussion over means and ends is that the Garrisonian position stemmed from a particular political philosophy, the fundamentals of which formed the basis of a nascent vision for human rights.

This politics of Garrisonianism drew on two adjacent ideologies. The first was an ideology known as ‘non-resistance.’ An off-shoot of pacifism, non-resistance denounced any form of violence or coercion as contrary to the teachings of Christ. Garrison and his followers thus reasoned that since nations exist largely through their ability make war, it was therefore sinful to participate in electoral politics and associate with institutions capable of state violence in the broadest of forms. This commitment to non-resistance aligned with a corresponding ideology known as “comeouterism.” Drawn from the perfectionist teachings of John Humphrey Noyes, leader of the Oneida commune, a socialist utopian community in upstate New York, “comeouterism” held that Christians should try and perfect their world as if the Kingdom of Heaven had already arrived. To do so required that believers “come out” of institutions that failed to meet this ideal, which prompted Garrisonians to disavow religious organizations with any taint of slavery, denounce the U.S government, and condemn that “covenant with death” known as the Constitution.

Although it never came together, the attempted organizing of the first ever “World’s Human Rights Convention” was the result of Garrisonians extending their faith in both ‘non-resistence’ and ‘comeouterism’ into the realm of rights. As historian W. Caleb McDaniel has argued, the convention rested on the Garrisonian belief in the degeneracy of nation-states—a conviction that ultimately led Wright to renounce his “nationalism” in favor of the “high and heaven-erected platform of HUMAN BROTHERHOOD” (113-115). The planned convention encapsulates this anti-statist vision for human rights in three important ways. First, the convention was truly global in scope. “Better than Congress of nations, it would be a Congress of humanity,” wrote Maria Weston Chapman in a separate response. Like most Garrisonians, Chapman saw herself as a citizen of the world and viewed the convention as a means of making good on the famous Garrisonian mantra: “Our Country is the world, our Countrymen are all Mankind.”

Second, when it came to human rights, the Garrisonians knew they had to establish a credible foundation before proceeding ahead. This meant deciding not only what human rights were, but inquiring into the “causes of their violation” as well as “the means of their restoration and protection.” Chapman hoped that the convention would eventually become an annual body, and Wright himself imagined that the convention would evolve into a standing tribunal, which would hear and try cases of human rights abuses from around the world. The point is that they imagined the convention as the first step in establishing a global counter to national authority, an institution that might parry away and correct the sins of the state.

William Lloyd Garrison, courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Lastly, the Garrisonians made this rejection of state citizenship and national allegiance the central precept behind the entire convention. “In our estimate of man’s relations, rights, duties, and responsibilities, geographical lines and national boundaries must be set aside,” wrote Wright, for as he put it: “Human love is not bounded by longitude or latitude.” Drawing on his commitment to non-resistance, he then went on, “We [the convention] would meet, not as States and nations, to talk about national rights, but as the human race, to consider human rights.” As he explained, he imagined the convention as one where a claim to “HUMANITY” would be the “only certificate of admission, the only wealth, the only badge of honor, the only patent of nobility.” “In the name of humanity,” he concluded in typical Garrisonian gusto, “let us unfurl, in the sight of all nations, the banner of HUMAN RIGHTS…Let us demand an instant, a perfect, practical recognition of human rights and human equality.” He never managed to unfurl this banner on a global stage; Philadelphia was about as far as his message would ever reach.

The irony of it all, so to speak, is that the Garrisonians had the right string but the wrong yo-yo. While there is something identifiably modern in their rights thinking, high-minded rights talk was not what ended slavery in America. Ending slavery required elections, it required bullets, and it required mobilizing the full force of the American state, for emancipation came amidst a terrible civil war, which saw the federal government exercise its war powers to enact military emancipation, the largest liquidation of property in American history. In short, the forces Garrisonians set their rights vision in opposition to were the same forces that paradoxically clinched the future they longed to achieve. The greatest weapon in the war against slavery, it turns out, was never the abstract dream of human rights, but rather the raw, unvarnished tools of state power.

This otherwise tragic paradox speaks, in part, to why the World’s Human Rights Convention drifted off into obscurity. It also helps us understand why American abolitionism has a somewhat perplexing place in the history of human rights: it was a brief burst of energy and ideas soon eclipsed by massive armies fueled by the power of the federal state. Most of all, however, this paradox captures just how rooted, how gargantuan, and how fixed of a problem slavery was and how both it and its abolition shaped the nineteenth century and thus American’s entry into the modern age. Its shadow—as dark and bloody as it is long—extended into the twentieth century and has followed us here, still haunting us from the grave.


Bennett Parten is a PhD student in 19th century US history at Yale University.

Featured Image: The Liberator, February 20, 1857.

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Think Piece

Is There a Social History of Indian Liberalism?

By Anirban Karak

Histories of liberal thought in India begin, almost invariably, in the early nineteenth century with Rammohan Roy (1772-1833) and James Silk Buckingham (1786-1855). Both men were vocal supporters of social and political reform in colonial India and Britain alike, and are considered pioneers of the Indian press. As self-identified liberals, Roy, Buckingham, and their followers were part of a common front against the reactionary regimes of the post-Napoleonic period and bound together by networks of direct communication. They advocated for a dismantling of the East India Company’s monopolistic privileges in the name of free trade, and criticized restrictions on vernacular newspapers and racial prejudice in the appointment of company officials. For liberals of this generation, colonial institutional reform was just one front in a larger battle between the forces of reaction and the forces of progress, whether in Bolivia, France, or Britain. They indeed formed a new public, infused by the republican spirit of the American and French revolutions, and worked tirelessly to open up a space of commercial participation and mutuality between Indians and Europeans.

To a large extent, then, the conventional periodization of Indian liberalism is almost self-evident. The early nineteenth century was clearly the moment when a self-conscious and articulate anti-absolutist public sphere first emerged in India. It is not enough, however, to point out the distinctiveness of that specific moment. Without an analysis of the social roots of Indian liberalism, it is difficult to sort out the true legacy of the early liberals, a problem that has been compounded by the stranglehold of nationalist frameworks on historical imagination. One particularly unsalutary effect of this “territorial nativism” on historical memory, to borrow a phrase from Manu Goswami, has been the increasing hostility with which the internationalist ethos of the early liberals, and especially their “collaboration” with Europeans, has been treated. Although the first generation of nationalist historians – unable to deny the contributions of the early liberals to the creation of a democratic culture in India – were defensive on the issue of “collaboration,” the tide has turned quite definitively since the 1970s. Beginning in that decade, historians launched a critique of the early liberals, accusing them of being naive visionaries at best and willing conspirators at worst. Despite some notable and important exceptions to the general trend in Andrew Sartori’s and C.A. Bayly’s scholarship, Rammohan and others now stand accused, in most accounts, of having been privileged “elites” who failed to realize the complicity of liberalism with empire. The mirror image of these claims is that early nineteenth century “popular” culture had no liberal (read “European”) ideological content.

Raja Rammohan Roy, painting by Sibnath Sastri, 1907

But is it really true that liberal norms found no practical and social relevance in India? Can the political convictions of the early liberals really be dismissed as the ramblings of a few elites? A closer look at eighteenth-century Bengal, and especially at the neglected social history of demands from below for commercial liberties, suggests a very different story.  

Under Mughal rule, market taxes (called sair in official Persian) were an important component of state revenue in much of northern India including Bengal. In addition, the right of state could be evoked (usually by local administrators but sometimes by regional Nawabs or the emperor too) to justify blatantly arbitrary exactions. As Eugenia Vanina has put it, Mughal nobles and local chiefs who molested traders treated them “much like the knights in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe treated Isaac of York.” (215). Economic as well as cultural historians, however, have tended to underplay these conflicts within the social fabric of pre-colonial Bengal. This has allowed for a portrayal of both the East India Company (EIC) and Indian society as homogeneous entities, and hence for the propagation of straightforwardly nationalist readings of disputes between the company and the Nawabs of Bengal.

In an extremely influential 1998 study, for example, Sudipta Sen claimed that for Bengal’s merchants, “impositions on markets, market goers, and goods were accepted features of rural life.” (49-50) In other words, readers are asked to believe that despite heavy impositions on commerce, market culture in pre-colonial Bengal was largely consensual, and that exchange was “part of a larger moral economy of prestation that characterize(d) the relationship between rulers and subordinates.” (12) The judgment that follows from such claims is that liberal arguments for “free trade” in the late eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries were nothing more than ideological justifications for empire.

Sen’s interpretation, however—which has made a lasting impression not only on economic and political historians of Bengal, but also on scholars of religion, including recent works by Hugh B. Urban, Bhaskar Mukhopadhyay, and Kaustubh Mani Sengupta—does not do justice to the complexity of social relations in eighteenth-century Bengal for at least three reasons. First, one ought to remember that the rapid growth of the city of Calcutta during the first half of the eighteenth century created the possibility for “collaboration” between British and Indian merchants, and for the emergence of a liberal politics of free trade in Bengal much before Rammohan Ray was even born. In the decades immediately preceding colonial rule in Bengal, artisans, merchants, and indigenous officials alike migrated in large numbers to Calcutta, often from places as far away as Dhaka and Murshidabad. The result was a gradual transformation of Calcutta into a commercial rather than an agricultural center. Between 1713 and 1747, for example, the proportion of market taxes to total revenue from the town increased from 13 to 37 per cent, even as total revenue itself increased by about 80 per cent, as Farhat Hasan has shown. The growth of Calcutta and of other factory towns with European presence meant that by the 1720s, the interests of British and Indian merchants were thoroughly enmeshed with regard to both foreign and inland trade. The sale of dastaks (passes that allowed duty-free trade)to non-Englishmen was a massive “business,” but one conducted strictly on the private account of the EIC’s servants. As early as 1720, the EIC’s gomastah (agent) Raghunandan was arrested for protecting the goods of other merchants from the payment of customs dues under the Company dastak. Indian merchants also sought refuge in Calcutta under the EIC to evade duties, and in 1755, a group of merchants claimed that they should be shielded from the Nawab’s demands for taxes while “under the protection of the Hon. English Flag.”[1]

A Calcutta Passage Boat, via British Library. Digitized image from “Narrative of a journey through the Upper Provinces of India from Calcutta to Bombay 1824-25. (With notes upon Ceylon.) An account of a journey to Madras and the Southern Provinces, 1826, and letters written in India” by Reginald Heber, 1783-1826. London.

Second, the Indian merchants to whom free trade and company protection mattered the most came from modest backgrounds. For great merchant and banking elites, such as the Armenian Khwaja Wazid and the Jagat Seths (an honorific title meaning “bankers to the world”), private trade was a major nuisance because it threatened to weaken their monopoly control over trade and currency. It was the smaller traders who lacked access to the Nawab’s court that stood to benefit the most from attaching themselves to the company. A large number of such traders, lacking monopoly farms and royal favour, dealt primarily in subsistence goods such as rice for the internal market of Bengal, acting as middlemen between rural production and local hats (periodic markets) and ganjs (market towns).

Finally, the belief that Mughal officials in Bengal were proud defenders of the law is untenable, for there is ample evidence that illegal tolls and taxes were very often no more than bribes demanded by revenue officials.[2] In short, not only was the “conflict” in the eighteenth century not a simple binary one between the EIC and the Mughal state, Sudipta Sen’s claim that refusals to pay duties (whether by the EIC or by Asians) constituted “a travesty of the rules of gift and exchange in the merchant-aristocratic society of contemporary northern India,” (62-63) is itself based on the implausible belief that all taxation was justified, whose evasion can therefore only be interpreted as a crime. On the contrary, the heavy-handedness of the pre-colonial state was, in fact, the first object of proto-liberal critique in Bengal.

This social interpretation of internal conflicts within Bengal’s emergent commercial society fits well with recent revisionist readings of the ideological roots of the Second British Empire.[3] Broadly, the revisionists have shown that both in 1757 and in the years immediately preceding 1765, a faction of free traders within the EIC along with their Indian counterparts tried to radically reorder political institutions in ways that would allow commercial enterprise to flourish. Especially in the early 1760s, the “maverick council” within the EIC managed to build a broad coalition made up of Indian, Arab, Chinese, and Armenian merchants and bankers; the Indian manufacturers whose products the company servants and their commercial allies sold in Indian and other Asian markets; and, most crucially, the Mughal emperor Shah Alam II in Delhi himself. To overcome the crisis of authority in Bengal, the maverick council sought to place the province under the direct authority of emperor Shah Alam II. Such a move would accomplish, the council believed, a second Glorious Revolution, laying the foundation for a new Mughal empire of liberty, a natural partner to a liberal British polity. In such an empire, both the Hanoverian and the Timurid “crowns” would represent a new revolutionary sovereignty, so that there could arise no question of divided allegiances.[4]

Portrait of John Johnstone of the “maverick council,” Betty Johnstone, and Miss Wedderburn. Artist: Sir Henry Raeburn (1756-1823)

During the years 1761-65, the maverick council and its allies tried valiantly to actualize their anti-monopolistic project. In the end, it was only the contingent defeat of liberalism in Britain, and the victory of a neo-Tory coalition in the 1764 EIC elections in London that turned the tide against them. This alliance between the monopoly interests within the company and the neo-Tories in Britain led by Robert Clive and George Grenville (also well-known for his imposition of stamp duties on the Atlantic colonies in 1765), had very different ideas about the future position of Bengal within the British empire. Instead of marching the EIC army to Delhi and proclaiming Shah Alam II as the emperor, the neo-Tories withdrew into Bengal in 1765, but not before they had acquired the diwani (the right to collect land revenue)for Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa. With an extractive and illiberal empire thus established, a systematic assault on all ties between Asian and British free traders was begun. At the same time, the revenue collected in Bengal was used to pay for the EIC’s own procurement of manufactures from the province. The hopes for a radically open-ended commercial society were thereby quashed, and Bengal ended up paying for its own exports.

In spite of a slew of illiberal reforms between 1765 and 1773, however, the impulses towards free trade did not die a meek death. In fact, people found innovative ways of making their demands heard. From the mid-1770s up to the Charter Act of 1813, conflicts over the establishment of “prejudicial” markets, complaints from weavers and merchants against excessive duties, as well as disputes between the EIC and Indian merchants were ubiquitous. Although the existence of such conflicts is acknowledged by social and economic historians —see, for example, the works by Rajat Datta and Tilottama Mukherjee—there is no comprehensive interpretation of their normative content and implications. I do not believe it is possible, as Sudipta Sen does, to reduce the multiple claims made by a variety of stakeholders during this period to a one-dimensional narrative about the imposition of “European” principles of “free trade” on an unwilling colony.

Nevertheless, based on my own preliminary research in the colonial archive, I can confidently insist on two points. First, that the claims and counter-claims made in many legal cases of the period indicate that the company-state had a hard time finding a balance between demands for commercial freedoms from below, the right of the state to revenue, and the privileges that persons of status in Bengal hoped to enjoy. The need for maintaining such a balance arose because expansive commercialization, which pre-dated British rule, had made it increasingly difficult to keep the market subordinate to prevailing structures of civic and political authority. Even more striking is the fact that sophisticated political-economic arguments, such as the distinction between rent and market taxes, were used by those opposing the barriers to entry created by the colonial state and local figures of authority. Although Indian free traders were unsuccessful in winning concessions more often than not, they were sometimes able to force the EIC to accept that no real justifications for its nepotism and extractive policies could be found. In other words, political-economic arguments were adopted and used in Bengal neither because they had been imposed from outside, nor because indigenous elites in the early nineteenth century mimicked their colonial rulers, but because people in Bengal found an object for political economy in their own commercial aspirations and in the barriers that such aspirations came up against.[5]

A social history of the conflictual rather than consensual market culture in eighteenth-century Bengal is thus possible and necessary, but yet to be fully written. If attempted, such a history shall allow for a better grasp of the social – and very often the ‘subaltern’ – origins of the articulate ‘elite’ liberalism that emerged in the early nineteenth century. To undertake such an attempt, however, historians need to move beyond well-entrenched nationalist myths about eighteenth-century Bengal, and to concede that demands for commercial liberties were expressive of deeply felt aspirations for a more liberal and just institutional order.


[1] British Library, IOR/P/1/28: Calcutta Public Proceedings (August 11 and 19, 1755), 297, 323-324, 409.

[2] Spencer Leonard, “A Fit of Absence of Mind? Illiberal Imperialism and the Founding of British India, 1757-1776.” PhD. Dissertation, University of Chicago, 2010, 137.

[3] Leonard, “A Fit of Absence of Mind?” and James M. Vaughn, The Politics of Empire at the Accession of George III: The East India Company and the Crisis and Transformation of Britain’s Imperial State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019).

[4] Leonard, “A Fit of Absence of Mind?” 18.

[5] The relevant EIC records include, but perhaps are not limited to, the “sayer” (anglicized version of sair) and “customs” proceedings of the Board of Revenue, the “commercial” proceedings of the Board of Trade, as well as the general proceedings of the Bengal Revenue Council and the Calcutta Committee of Revenue. These are housed partly in the British Library in London, and partly in the West Bengal State Archives in Kolkata.


Author Bio Anirban Karak is a doctoral student of South Asian history at New York University, where he is exploring the evolving relationship between commerce and ethical norms in eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Bengal. His overarching research interest lies in bridging the gap between traditional histories of capitalism as the history of European ascendancy, and specifically South Asian Histories. Anirban has published essays on the history of the English Premier League in the Review of Radical Political Economics, on the relationship between Indian Political Economy and state planning in Modern Asian Studies, and on the implications of revisionist Hegel scholarship for historiography in Mediations. He also has an article forthcoming in Critical Historical Studies on the possibility of a dialogue between heterodox economics and the new histories of capitalism. He can be reached at anirban.karak@gmail.com.

Featured Image: Featured Image: A Thoroughfare in Calcutta, c. 1846, via British Library. Digitized image from “The History of China & India, pictorial and descriptive [With plates and maps.]” by Julia Corner. London: 1846.

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What’s in a Name? Anonymity in the Authorship of Babylonian Scientific Texts

By E.L. Meszaros

What does ancient scientific authorship have to teach about the methods and practices of science? Ancient cultures in what is now Iraq and Iran carried out substantial scientific investigations into areas of math, astronomy, medicine, and countless other modern disciplines. We have written works — tablets impressed with the wedges of cuneiform writing — recording everything from astronomical observations to legal agreements. Contrary to modern expectations, however, these texts are often not associated with an author but instead circulate(d) anonymously. 

Even when mentioned, Babylonian authors occupy a marginal space in the arrangement of text, identified in colophons rather than on title pages or in neat bylines. These small notes tacked on to the end of texts paint a complex idea of the relationship between authors and texts, often identifying both a scribe and an owner of the tablet. The culture of scribal copying and the different ways that individuals could contribute to a text have all supported ideas of collaborative authorship and allow us to think of a text as an “ongoing, contributive enterprise” (Foster, “On Authorship in Akkadian Literature”). Unlike contemporary research groups, this collective work would be continued, copied, and modified for generations, with each scribal hand a work passed through potentially contributing content, style, and even critique. This is especially evident in the observational program of the Astronomical Diaries, which went on for hundreds of years and must necessarily have been the collaborative work of many different scientists.

Image of the reverse of Tablet K 75 from the Cuneiform Commentaries Project. The Colophon is the last four lines, all beneath the horizontal ruling and visually removed from the spread-out text above.

We can identify authors of these tablets in other ways as well. Notably, authors sometimes inserted their own names as acrostics, using the first syllabic sign of each line to spell out their name. Assyriologists like to talk about the attributed “divine authorship” of texts as well, an idea which certainly complicates notions of who an author is. Regardless of how you view the idea of divine authorship, the notions of scribe, owner, collective observational programs, and acrostics all point to an idea of authorship that differs from our modern conception.

But the larger problem isn’t just that Babylonian and modern authorship differ. Rather, we must contend with the fact that in most cases we have no idea who the authors of any given Babylonian scientific text actually are. While Assyriologist W. G. Lambert writes that the “overwhelming majority of Babylonian texts circulated anonymously,” Babylonian scientific texts are perhaps particularly characterized, according to Markham Geller, by their anonymity. But the term “anonymous” carries a lot of weight in the modern context, when it is a specific choice or statement meant to indicate something about the content of a piece.  When we talk about anonymous Babylonian scientific texts, however, “anonymous” could be viewed as the default form of authorship.  Relying on modern conceptions of anonymity might muddy the truth of what’s actually happening with authorship of Babylonian scientific texts and how we should think about attributing knowledge production in the ancient Near East.

Anonymity of Babylonian Scientific Texts

Assumptions around anonymity are entangled with research methods and play a role in assigning value to documents that attest to Babylonian scientific culture. The modern value of authorial attribution appears in questions of priority, asking who discovered or invented an idea first. Priority questions have plagued the history of science, and they make sense in a culture where the identification of authorship and association with new developments is privileged. We also see modern standards of authorship at play in narratives of genius, where large-scale steps or important contributions are attributed to one person. Priority and genius narratives are problematic for a modern history of science, but become even more of an issue when brought back to the study of Babylonian scientific texts, where cultures of anonymity and authorship differ substantially from modern ideas.

We can see ideas of modern scientific authorship at odds with Babylonian anonymity in how certain ancient texts and methods have been treated by modern scholars. Take, for example, Tablet YBC 7829. This mathematical text, from the Yale Babylonian Collection, shows a square crossed by two diagonal lines along with some cuneiform writing. Outside the square are 3 v-shaped wedges indicating that the sides of the square measure 30. The center of the square contains two lines of numbers, the first providing a sexagesimal value for the square root of 2, and the second 30 times that value.

Image to YBC 7829 Tablet from the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative

Those familiar with geometry may recognize this as an example of the Pythagorean theorem at work. Perhaps unsurprisingly attributed to the Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras, this theorem defines the square of the length of the long side of a triangle as the sum of the square of its sides. It may be more familiar as:

a² + b² = c²

Or, in the case of this tablet, 30² + 30² = x², which we can solve as 1800 = x², giving us 30√2 = x. (Although, of course, reducing YBC 7829 to such a formula is disingenuous.)

The problem of anonymity becomes evident with this application: can we ask if people, centuries before Pythagoras, were using “Pythagoras’ theorem?” In the absence of an identified author on this tablet, however, what is the best way of contesting this strange priority-assertion? The anonymous nature of YBC 7829 contributes to the treatment of this tablet in Greek terms. Similarly, since the irrational square root of 2 proved so important in the history of Greek mathematics, many scholars placed undue importance on its representation on Babylonian tablets. YBC 7829 is held as a special example of unique knowledge, when in reality the tablet is likely nothing more than an exercise done by a trainee scribe. The weight and importance of representing √2 doesn’t come from Babylonian mathematical culture, but rather from ours.

Image of Plimpton 322 Tablet from the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative

We have further evidence that Babylonian mathematicians understood this relationship between the lengths of the sides of a triangle. Plimpton 322 shows a table of numerical cuneiform data that fit the Pythagorean Theorem. Often called “Pythagorean Triples,”  these numbers are integer solutions for a, b, and c in the formula a² + b²= c². It is clear from these examples that Babylonian scientists — mathematicians, if you feel the need to disambiguate — understood the relationship between the lengths of a triangle’s sides.

The question of priority plagues the analysis of these tablets, however, especially in the eyes of the modern media who cannot seem to stop asking which culture had these ideas first.  Their approach frames an understanding of Babylonian math and science with Greek culture, forcing us to examine Babylonian contributions through a Greek lens. But this view is artificial and necessarily a-historic, and is aided by an inability to push back with a Babylonian alternative to Pythagoras due to the anonymity of these ideas. These tablets suggest that a different approach to knowledge is possible, one that engages with scientific discourse without recourse to self-identification. As such, these contributions are  better understood when removed from the framework of “Pythagoras,” “trigonometry,” and priority in general. 

Priority inserts itself into the study of Babylonian science in other ways. Systems A and B are two different methods for calculating when a phenomenon like the first visibility of a planet will occur and where it will be located in the sky when it does. System A, usually called a “step function,” adds constant values to a time and location to find the next time and the next location. Most planets have a few constant values, depending on what part of the sky they are in. System B, the “zig-zag function,” adds a constantly changing value to previous time and location. 

The complexity of these Systems suggested to some scholars that they were the creation not of the collaborative efforts of many astronomers over a period of time, but rather the inventions of a genius. For some decades, scholars sought to identify these “geniuses” and attribute authors to both of these systems, landing on Nabû-rēmanni for system A, and Kidinnu for system B. Each of these names  is supported by an appearance in a tablet’s colophon (Neugebauer, “The Alleged Babylonian Discovery of the Precession of the Equinoxes”), though, importantly, there is very little evidence for either name. 

The most interesting aspect of these authors is how they are identified. Rather than the expected scribe or tablet owner, colophons have identified texts as “computed table of” Kidinnu and Nabû-rēmanni (Ossendrijver, Babylonian Mathematical Astronomy). This led to the theory that Kidinnu and Nabû-rēmanni  are instead the contributors of the theory used to create the data contained on the tablet — the “geniuses” responsible for Systems A and B. This focus is misplaced, however, in that it asks us to accept not only poorly attested identities of these “geniuses” but also to look for attested creators within a culture that does not seem to have privileged such information. Questions of priority and genius falter against the anonymous contributions of the ancient Near East — not only are they hard to answer but they might be the wrong questions to ask.

Disentangling Ideas of Authorship

The search for priority in the Babylonian scientific context is often a-historical. Worse, by seeking out individuals to credit with entire theories, our modern biases often influence who we look for in the historical record, often seeking out upper class, male contributors. Pushing back against the genius, individual author and looking instead for collaborative work taking place over time may create more space for women in the authorship of Babylonian science. We know, for instance, that women could be astronomers and scholars, knowledgeable in cuneiform writing, even though most of the recorded Babylonian “authors” were male. Relying only on these noted “scribes” and “owners” erases the role that women may have played in observational programs and the long collaborative and contributive enterprise of Babylonian authorship.

The search for “authorship” of Babylonian science texts is flavored by modern conceptions of how authorship should work. Naive ideas that priority matters, that work should be associated with individuals rather than communities, and that anonymity is rare and, thus, inherently meaningful, all distract from understanding authorship as Babylonian scientists would have. We should acknowledge the complexity of the modern author while working to disentangle modern meanings from ancient ideas of authorship. We can then complicate the narrative of scientific authorship in both directions, enabling historians and historians of science to reshape how we think and talk about authors, but also encouraging a less-broad view of modern discussions of scientific authorship. Just as we confront changing ideas of what “science” means, we must also contend with shifting ideas of what it means to author scientific knowledge.

Scientific Anonymity in the Modern Age

The institutions of (modern) science privilege originality and require named contributions. Anonymity, when it’s used, is a conscious choice. Mary Terrall, in “The Uses of Anonymity in the Age of Reason,” describes how the anonymity of the Paris Academy of Sciences prize allowed the Marquise de Châtelet to submit her work without declaring her gender, a boon in times when women were not often allowed in scientific circles. However, when she did not win she gave up her anonymity to use her station and powerful connections to get her work published. 

This shifting use of anonymity suggests some key features of modern anonymous authorship in scientific texts — it was almost always temporary and intended to eventually be breached. Terrall explains that almost without exception “anonymous authors of texts on scientific subjects either unmasked themselves or were unmasked by others within a few years, if not months, of publication.” In this sense, we can talk about modern anonymity in scientific authorship as an unusual and temporary state worthy of note.

Anonymous science becomes even rarer in the present, with professional advancement in labs and academia dependent on evidence of publication. Modern authorship in science becomes a power statement, with the order of authors as they are listed in an article or book frequently indicative of power dynamics within partnerships. The first author position is usually granted the most acclaim, but the last author is usually the person with the most power — the project or lab leader, for example. Such power dynamics are unlikely components of Babylonian scientific texts, but are important components for understanding modern scientific authorship.

We also see anonymity in the authorship of reviews and critique. The anonymous peer review process has become a staple for the publication of research, an apparatus not limited to scientific discourse but certainly foundational to the modern practice of science. Concealing the identities of both a paper’s author and its reviewer is designed for protection and to increase honesty and objectivity, yet often has the effect of reducing credibility and accountability. In fact, while anonymity in the context of peer-review is industry standard, its value and effectiveness have been questioned and found wanting.

Modern scientific authorship is complex — it must necessarily deal with ideas of precarity and the power dynamics at play in how authorship is recorded. But more than this, it has become so ingrained within the institution of science that concepts like the“number of first-authored papers” become important. Coupled with modern conceptions of anonymity in scientific texts, we have a view of how scientific authorship works that is multifaceted and also not always consciously enacted. This is the baggage that we carry with us when we try to examine authorship and knowledge in ancient science.

Associating written works with a specific author (or authors) is second nature in the modern era. It’s not only safe to assume that a piece of recorded knowledge can be attributed to a creator of that knowledge, but practices of citation and promotion require us to acknowledge these creators. Babylonian approaches to scientific authorship prompt us to question our modern ideas of what an author is and why attributive authorship is necessary. Rethinking scientific authorship to incorporate long-term, collaborative enterprise and unremarkable anonymity allows us to better understand ancient scientific texts. It also forces us to confront uncomfortable questions about modern scientific texts, like who gets to claim authorship and who can or must make use of anonymity. These structures are broader and deeper than our modern conceptions, stretching back thousands of years and encompassing necessity, precarity, and manifestations of power in the production of scientific knowledge. 


E.L. Meszaros is a PhD student in the History of the Exact Sciences in Antiquity at Brown University. Her research focuses on the language used to talk about science, particularly as this language is transmitted between cultures and across time.

Featured Image: Stone panel from the South-West Palace of Sennacherib, The British Museum.

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H = P/p: Formal Notation and the Definition of History

By Pedro Afonso Cristovão dos Santos

In the beginning of the 20th century, several disciplines attempted to theoretically define their principles and foundations. These attempts led fields like mathematics, physics, and philosophy to increase their use of formal language to better answer the demands for theoretical clarity. In the same period, historiography also felt some effects of this general crisis of foundations among the sciences, as great events such as the formulation of the Theory of Relativity were shaking peoples’ certainties. However, very few attempts were made at using formal notation to try to define historiography. Those scholars who did attempt to formalize expressions of historical knowledge, hypotheses, and evidence found ways of expressing historiography that crossed traditional disciplinary boundaries. 

The first, more metaphorical formal language definition came from Henri-Irénée Marrou, a 20th century French historian specializing in Antiquity. In his 1954 book De la Connaissance Historique, Marrou translated positions regarding how historical knowledge works in the form of equations. Thus, as he describes historical knowledge as seen by French historians of the late nineteenth century, Marrou points out that for that generation history (“h”) would be the sum of the past (capital “P”) plus the “unfortunate” (to those historians) but inevitable intervention of the historian’s present time (little “p”). Marrou puts hisposition “en formule”: h=P+p (1975, p. 49). The interference of the historian’s present is a remnant that historians should attempt to make as minimal as possible, aiming for zero.

As Marrou develops his own analysis of historical knowledge, he begins to revise the formula and to critique nineteenth century conceptions of historiography. First, he clarifies that, for his predecessors in the nineteenth century, “l’equation symboliqueh=P+p applies to documents before being applied to the historian (1975, p. 95). That is, documents would contain some truth to them (the big P), marred by many errors (the little p). These errors would come from various possible interferences from the present in moments of registering and transmitting events of the past. The little p, in the case of documents, would account for the inability or incapacity of contemporaries to correctly transmit what they were seeing, or from deliberate attempts to falsify or misrepresent the events they had witnessed. 

As he deepens his reflection on the nature of historical knowledge, Marrou alters the formula (1975, p. 221). Considering history (as historical knowledge) a projection of the historian’s self onto others, Marrou reformulates the symbolic equation to:

 h = Pp

This reformulation signifies the relation between the past of the historical object and the present of the historian (the knowing subject). 

With the new equation, Marrou could express his critique of both pure objectivism and simple subjectivism. When history is described as the sum of the past we study and the present of the historian, the possibility of achieving a “pure” past remains open by way of complete annihilation of the historian in the process of research. For Marrou, not only is this annihilation impossible, it is also undesirable: it is the self of the historian, their presence in full, that can bring the past in its complexity. According to Marrou, the more interests, perspectives and sensibilities a historian has, the more they can provide a fuller image of the past. In his new equation, the annihilation of the historian — reducing the historian to zero — would bring an undefined result for history, instead of a pure past. 

The 1950s also saw studies in the economic history of slavery in the United States that made historians reevaluate the use of mathematics and probability in historical research, in what would become known as the study of cliometrics. In short, the debate amounted to the question of whether slavery was “naturally” declining prior to the Civil War; that is, if it was doomed to extinction for exclusively economic reasons, as an unproductive, unprofitable and economically irrational system, or if its end depended upon a non-economic external event such as the Civil War.

Pioneers John R. Meyer and Alfred H. Conrad began to publish their research devoted to theoretical considerations regarding statistics and mathematics in historical research. In “Economic Theory, Statistical Inference, and Economic History” (1957) and later reproduced in The Economics of Slavery, and Other Studies in Econometric History (1964), Meyer and Conrad discuss one of the main objections to applying statistics to history: the effect of random causes on historical events, which prevents them from fully submitting to description by models and patterns.

The Economics of Slavery, published by Routledge.

To Meyer and Conrad, nevertheless, explaining an event requires us to “estimate a range of admissible possibilities, given a set of initial conditions and a causal or statistical law” (1964, p. 13). Explaining is not determining a single cause, but rather limiting an event to a reasonable spectrum of possible causes. Therefore, a scientific (and historical) hypothesis would have the following formal expression: 

X = a + bY + e

In the equation, X and Y are the observable variables, a and b the behavior parameters, and e the term of random error. 

Meyer and Conrad described their outlook as a vision of the “world as a stochastic universe” (1964, p. 32), that is, a universe constituted of some fundamental level of randomness. That means that the variable e included in the equation allowed them to align history with other fields of science that consider randomness, errors or, as in physics, the existence of an irreducible “noise” in the universe. Stochastic processes in Statistics can be particularly useful in the analysis of systems changing over time — a main concern for historians — and can be applied to evolutionary biology, quantum mechanics, finance and animal population dynamics, among other fields in different scientific domains. 

In this way, history’s traditional way of distancing itself from other sciences (especially the so-called “hard” ones) — the fact that history would in principle contain more unpredictability and randomness than other fields of knowledge — could be formally encompassed. (Incidentally, in recent years population ecologist Peter Turchin has become one of the major advocates of a Mathematical History”, investigating cultural and historical evolution over time with the use of mathematical equations, in an approach he named “cliodynamics” that has merited interesting criticism.)

Meyer and Conrad eventually predicted that the approximation of history and probability would lead to some appropriation of Bayesianism. In a following chapter in The Economics of Slavery, the authors took up Bayesianism, defending its ability to explain the relationship between hypothesis and evidence in historiography.

Meyer and Conrad’s predictions regarding Bayesianism and historiography were not unfounded. At the beginning of the 21st century, historical knowledge would be described in Bayesian terms by scholars like Aviezer Tucker. As he explained in the article “The Reverend Bayes vs. Jesus Christ” (2016), if history is not a knowledge obtainable from sense data, and it’s not fiction, then it can only be probable. If it is probable, it therefore has to be Bayesian. (Of course, Tucker’s leap is not necessarily logical, since there are other ways of considering probabilities besides Bayesianism).

In Our Knowledge of the Past (2004), Tucker more thoroughly explains the relations between historical hypotheses and evidence by reference to the Bayesian theorem (already exposed by Meyer and Conrad in “Statistical Inference and Historical Explanation”). The Bayesian model aims at describing the relations between hypothesis and evidence. Tucker’s position is that historiography should not be considered as completely different from other sciences when it comes to actual research, therefore the Bayesian description of the hypothesis-evidence relation also applies to what historians do. In formal notation Bayesianism would work like this, following Tucker (2004, p. 96):

Our Knowledge of the Past, published by Cambridge University Press.

Pr(H|E&B) = [Pr(E|H&B) × Pr(H|B)]:Pr(E|B)

The equation aims at establishing the conditional probability of a hypothesis being true given the evidence and background knowledge [Pr(H|E&B)]. This means that the objective is asserting the posterior probability of the hypothesis, that is, its probability after we examine the evidence and our background knowledge of the historical context in question. We ascertain, then, by the Bayes theorem, how high the probability of evidence is in a world (or, in this case, a historical past) in which our hypothesis is true, multiplied by the hypothesis prior to examining the evidence given only our background knowledge of historical context. 

Regardless of the validity of these formal descriptions of historical knowledge in “symbolic equations” (Marrou,Meyer and Conrad), or of the relations between hypothesis and evidence in Bayesian terms for historiography (Meyer and Conrad, Tucker), what can these attempts at using formal notation for historiography tell us? Tentatively, we may propose two ways of looking at it. First, the use of formal language does not necessarily lead historiography towards privileging quantitative history. After all, not only does formal notation not necessarily imply “mathematization”, but mathematics does not necessarily imply quantification.

Second, these attempts at “formalizing” historiography can also tell us something about the general use of formal notation in sciences. The definitions examined here suggest that there are not specific sciences or disciplines to which the use of formal notation is more natural or logical. The historical developments that led particular areas of Mathematics, for instance, to become more formal do not necessarily imply that some sciences are inherently susceptible to formalization, while others, like history, simply cannot be thought of in such a rigorous way. Formalization, in this sense, would have more to do with historically situated debates. 

The diverse and unrelated cases we have seen of writing historiography in equations can perhaps point to a lesser known theoretical imagination of history, one that saw in formal notation a possibility for accurately describing what historians do. Different ways of thinking about historiography in general are also different ways of appropriating particular language to describe the historiographical practice, including different choices of metaphors, analogies and concepts. Marrou, Meyer and Conrad, and Tucker chose, with specific purposes and debates in mind, a language that could make history more communicable with other fields of knowledge, that could perhaps translate what historians do in ways common to scientists in other disciplines: formal language. In this way, their theoretical imagination of history, the way they pictured history for themselves and their colleagues, also reveals the connections and relations they saw possible for historians in the larger world of the sciences. 


Pedro Afonso Cristovão dos Santos is a Professor of Historical Theory and Methodology at the Federal University for Latin American Integration (UNILA) in Iguazú, Brazil. His main research interests are on nineteenth century historical scholarship and historical erudition, the history of historiography, and on the relations between concepts and evidence in historical theory, specifically the use of formal language in theoretical debates in philosophy of history and historiography.

Featured Image:  Bayes’ theorem spelt out in blue neon at the offices of Autonomy in Cambridge. Own work by mattbuck. Creative Commons.