From our archive: Personal Philology

by guest contributor Richard Calis (April 2015)

For those who care to look closely enough, the world of early modern philology has many treats in store. Contrary to its reputation as nit-picking, dull scholarship, philology is in fact a discipline full of love, strife, passion and emotion. One such passionate and dedicated, yet now sadly unknown practitioner was Pieter Fontein (1708-1788). A student of the renowned Dutch philologist Tiberius Hemsterhuis in Leiden, Fontein became a teacher at the Mennonite Church in Amsterdam in 1739 and would remain so until his death some fifty years later. Over his career, Fontein amassed an impressive collection of Latin and Greek classics, all of which he bequeathed to his church, except for a small group of related books on the Greek philosopher Theophrastus. It is this collection of forty-three Theophrastiana (currently in the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam) that brings back to life the philological achievements of a scholar who never made it into the annals of classical philology.

Casaubon's annotated copy of Theophrastus. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM: Hs VII D17.

Casaubon’s annotated copy of Theophrastus. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM: Hs VII D17.

It is still unclear when exactly Fontein amassed his books, but our story begins in 1754, when he was spending his days reading a rather special book from the collection of the then-famous botanist and Professor of Anatomy Willem Röell (1700-1775). The book that Fontein found so absorbing was a 1542 edition of Theophrastus’ Opera Omnia, printed at the famous Froben press in Basel. Moreover, the book was nothing less than a working copy of that great Theophrastus scholar Isaac Casaubon (1559-1614), who, over a century earlier, had adorned its pages with numerous notes and annotations.

In 1591, Casaubon had published his own edition of Theophrastus’ Characteres, a lively set of character sketches known for its problematic text and manuscript transmission yet also the philosopher’s most popular work. Ever since, Casaubon was known to the world of scholarship as the single most important authority on Theophrastus, a reputation that was not lost on Fontein. In fact, the primary reason that Fontein took an interest in Röell’s book was because of Casaubon’s marginal notes. This, at least, is suggested by the way in which Fontein treated them: when he went to examine the book, Fontein bought and brought with him his own clean copy of the same 1541 edition —no mean feat more than two centuries after its publication— and herein copied nearly every single annotation that Casaubon had left in his book. For pages on end, Fontein faithfully transcribed Casaubon’s notes in his own beautifully regular eighteenth-century hand.

Casaubon's notes. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM: Hs VII D17.

Casaubon’s marginal notes. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM: Hs VII D17.

Fontein's transcription of Casaubon's notes. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM: Hs VII D19.

Fontein’s transcription of Casaubon’s annotations. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM: Hs VII D19.














We may pause for a moment to appreciate the great intimacy of this —to my knowledge— unique practice of relocating marginalia from an annotated copy to a pristine one. To Fontein, these were not only notes explicating a text, but also the material evidence of the reading and annotating practice of one of his greatest predecessors. We know of scholars who organized their information in commonplace books but buying a two hundred year old edition to copy notes in was not everyday practice; not even for Fontein, whose book collection does not seem to include any other such inscribed copies. It will come as little surprise then that Fontein would even go on to buy Röell’s book in 1767, when the latter found himself in rough financial waters. After all, a transcription of Casaubon’s annotations was surely no replacement for the original.

By then, Fontein had steadily collected more and more Theophrastus editions dating from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Some of them were densely annotated. This collecting spree was undoubtedly aimed at gathering every bit of information on Theophrastus that was available. As another copy from his library attests, Fontein was concurrently working on his own edition of the Characteres, Originally, he drafted his material in a small, handy octavo reprint of Casaubon’s edition, published in Cambridge in 1712. Yet today it can hardly be recognized as such: the edition is now completely interleaved with huge folio-sized pages, all of them awash with Fontein’s corrections, notes and interpretations. From these ‘additions’, one can observe how he continuously reworked the text. Fontein crossed out sentences, rewrote entire paragraphs, emended or explicated words, and crammed new notes in the margins of the margins. There are at least four drafted introductions to the work and its author, some prolegomena and countless comments and notes on the Greek; horror vacui takes on a whole new meaning.

Fontein's working notes on Theophrastus. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM Hs. XVI A5.

Fontein’s working notes on Theophrastus. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM Hs. XVI A5.

Sadly, the project came to nothing, as Fontein died before its completion. But even in his final days, the philologist’s passion for the project burned steadily. In his will —made in 1769, specified in 1775, and now in the Amsterdam City Archives— Fontein gifted all his books to the Mennonite Church with the sole exception of the Theophrastiana, which he wanted to keep to himself. We can almost see how the elderly Fontein with only a handful of necessary books unceasingly fine-tuned his views on a notoriously elusive text, while continuously adding new material to his already massive commentary. Again and again he kept revising, never gave up, and continually worked on a more accurate edition, with Theophrastus on his mind and his cherished Casaubon on his desk. What a character he was.

Richard Calis is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in history at Princeton University. He has worked for Annotated Books Online (ABO)—which provides online access to three of Fontein’s books— and is predominantly interested in books and their readers, antiquarianism, and the history of scholarship. His dissertation offers a microhistory of Martin Crusius (1526-1607) and his ethnographic interests in the Ottoman Greek world.


‘The Pins, the Joints, the Binding’: Textual Materiality and ‘Encyclopaedic Forms’

By guest contributor Marianne Brooker

Material textuality has been both the condition and the limit for encyclopaedism throughout its long history. Ephraim Chambers’ alphabetised Cyclopaedia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences loomed large over the efforts of later compilers. It was first published in two extra-large volumes in 1728, then republished six times before Abraham Rees produced an enlarged five-volume edition between 1778 and 1788. Later, in the British romantic period, revisionary takes on the scope, shape and function of the encyclopaedia reached a fever pitch. By 1819, Rees’ Cyclopaedia had reached thirty-nine volumes; it was completed in 1820, having reached a staggering forty-five volumes. The fifth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica was completed in 1817 in twenty volumes; eleven volumes of Brewster’s Edinburgh Encyclopaedia had been published by 1817, to be completed in 1830 in eighteen volumes; and the second edition of the Encyclopaedia Perthensis was published in weekly instalments from 1796-1806, when it was republished as a set in twenty-three volumes.

Encyclopaedism had long been characterised by voluminous heft but in the early nineteenth century more experimental plans began to arise. Samuel Taylor Coleridge sketched out his abortive plans for the Encyclopaedia Metropolitana in 1817, and in the same year Jeremy Bentham mapped out an entirely new encyclopaedic nomenclature in his fourth appendix to Chrestomathia.

Many of these projects begged, borrowed or stole from the same pool of entries. In the ‘Publisher’s Address’ to what would become the twenty-two volume London Encyclopaedia (1829), the publisher Thomas Tegg wrote that his materials had been proudly ‘purloined’ from other sources, and argued that the encyclopaedist’s ‘occupation is not pillaging but collecting’ – such ‘works are supposed, in great measure, assemblages of other people’. Encyclopaedias were the work of multiple compilers, where ‘compile’ registers both aspects of the word’s dual meaning: ‘to make, compose, or construct’ on the one hand and, from the Latin, to ‘plunder, pillage, rob, steal, snatch together, and carry off’ on the other (OED Online).

Chambers had set the precedent for this logic of assemblage in his first preface: ‘the reader here will have Extracts and Accounts from a great Number of Authors of all Kinds’. His encyclopaedia tests and amplifies the relationship between composition and compilation: the nature of the authorship impacts upon the nature of the text. Collecting and pillaging by turns, Chambers sought to depart from previous lexicographers by bringing a ‘structure’ to what was otherwise a mere collection: thus the ‘cento’ was transformed into a ‘system’.

In the course of this professed transformation, Chambers articulated a problem that would persist for over a century: ‘the chief Difficulty lay in the Form; in the Order, and Œconomy of the Work: To dispose such a Variety of Materials in such manner, as not to make a confused Heap of incongruous Parts, but one consistent Whole’. Here, profuse, heterogenous ‘materials’ must be brought into order by a certain ‘form’, ‘manner’, or process: a method. The resulting system arises not only from the interaction between an author and a community of editors, compilers, and sources, but through an internal ‘Communication […] between several Parts of the Work.’

Chambers elaborates this process through a material textual metaphor: ‘In any other Form [here, a dictionary], many thousand Things must necessarily be hid and overlook’d: All the Pins, the Joints, the binding of the Fabrick must be invisible of course; all the lesser Parts, one might say all the Parts whatsoever, must be in some measure swallowed up in the Whole’. In the Cyclopaedia these ‘parts’ are the ‘matter of knowledge’ and must be made visible by explicit cross-referencing. Chambers’ metaphor relied on his readers’ awareness of the architecture of the material book – ‘the pins, the joints, the binding’ – to shore-up his epistemological argument. Such an awareness would only increase as the eighteenth century progressed. The Encyclopaedia Britannica, for example, was published between 1768 and 1771 in slim, sixpenny instalments then bound by readers into a three volume set replete with 160 engravings.

After a century of controversial innovations in encyclopaedic practice, critics of Chambers’ venture and its legacy flipped his language on its head. For Chambers, the ‘Form’ of the encyclopaedia was a relatively simple question of the ‘Order, and Œconomy of the Work’; by the 1820s, an essay in the Edinburgh-based Blackwoods Magazine called ‘encyclopaedic forms’ into question. This inversion shifts its emphasis from the practical ordering of the encyclopaedia to a particularly encyclopaedic thinking or method.

The Blackwoods piece, written by the little-known philosopher Alexander Blair and published in 1824, begins with a broad-brushed invective: ‘All attempts at bringing knowledge into encyclopaedic forms seem to include an essential fallacy. Knowledge is advanced by individual minds wholly devoting themselves to their own part of inquiry’. Rather than the bloated encyclopaedia and its persistent diffusion and ‘confusion’ of knowledge, Blair argued for a ‘speculative’ knowledge economy, an ‘ideal community’ or ‘imaginary community’. Such an ideal economy was ‘restrained and embarrassed’, ‘unavoidably confined’ by the close, material bounds of encyclopaedism. Blair’s ideal knowledge must ‘transcend by almost infinite degrees – the capacity and means of knowing’ – the ‘Pins, the Joints, the Binding’ that Chambers pulled into the foreground.

Jon Klancher has argued that the essay’s ‘extravagant formal gesturing’ – the way in which its persistent anaphora and catalogues create a sense of burgeoning excess – mimics the essay’s own claim that ‘the Human Mind is extending its empire’. Can we extend Klancher’s reading to take material textuality into account? What relationship do ‘the pins, the joints, the bindings’ have to the particular kind of knowledge economies that Blair participates in, advocates for, and repudiates; what relationship do these material constructions have to the formal and to the ideal?

Blair’s chief criticism of the encyclopaedists is that they have neglected the ‘practical connexions’ of the Sciences and deluded themselves with their ‘imaginary conjunction … as if this must needs [sic] to be found somewhere, embodied and real […] as if that circle of the Sciences, […] did not yet truly exist unless it were materially constructed’. Here, proof of construction is evidence of negation: by their very embodied nature, forging connections between finite articles, encyclopaedias eclipse the world of knowledge beyond their reach. This seething hypothesis, and the long and diverse history of encyclopaedism it rejects, underscores the complex relationship between the practical and imaginary, material and ideal, multitude and individual.

For Blair, the bound volume comes to symbolise the paradoxical pretension of capacious encyclopaedias: the material book enables, even encourages readers to ‘look beyond [their] own minds’, yet ‘We have found that within our own circle we follow a receding circumference. […] The art in which we have no skill appears to us all-accomplished. The knowledge for which we have no measure, has to our eye reached its bounds’. The apparent expanse of the encyclopaedia distracts from a lack of depth.

According to Blair, attempting to ‘exhibit all Science in one body […] to one mind […] are two forms of the attempt to encyclopaedize knowledge’. Unintentionally, this formulation – encyclopaedizing – rehabilitates and vivifies the encyclopaedia: its materials become themselves a method with transformative verbal force. Chambers’ project, then a century old, was not merely a fusty repository, but harboured a threatening efficacy, one that might diffuse and diversify knowledge at the same time as rendering it static and bounded. Moreover, Chambers professed that his Cyclopaedia would ‘contribute more to the propagating of useful Knowledge thro’ the body of a People than any, I had almost said all, the Books extant.’ As the definite article opens out into an indefinitely capacious ‘a’, ‘People’ cohere together in an enormous, embodied assemblage.

Current scholarship on encyclopaedism has focussed in very different ways on the shape and status of ‘complete’ knowledge: Seth Rudy has read seventeenth- and eighteenth-century encyclopaedism in relation to epic poetry, while Tilottama Rajan, focussing on German romanticism, has focussed on the ‘tangled’ systems upon which ‘ideal’ encyclopaedism has been modelled. In both cases, the possibility and potential of complete knowledge is brought into question. Rajan argues that in Chambers’ ‘material encyclopaedia’, the cross-references and talk of systems are merely an internal ‘logic of unification’ – they are supplementary, ‘strictly indexical and not conceptual’. The rhetoric of encyclopaedists and their critics tempts us into emphasising a binary in which the ideal and the material are starkly opposed, yet reading the reception of Chambers’ project through more experimental examples from the early nineteenth century reveals some of the ways in which the formal or ideal is enshrined, reified and visualised through the ‘Order, and Œconomy’ of material assemblage.

Marianne Brooker is a PhD student in English & Humanities at Birkbeck, University of London, and a sessional lecturer in Romanticism at Canterbury Christ Church University. Her research explores the ‘materials of method’ and fugitive knowledge in the romantic period, particularly in relation to encyclopaedias, poetry collections, bookkeeping ledgers, artists’ manuals, and museum guidebooks.

Theory Revolt and Historical Commitment

By contributing writer Jonathon Catlin. This and John Handel’s “The Principle of Theory; or, Theory in the Eyes of its Students” respond to the May 2018 “Theses on Theory and History” by Ethan Kleinberg, Joan Wallach Scott, and Gary Wilder.

Theory Revolt has initiated a session of analysis with history’s collective unconscious; it presents a timely occasion for critical reflection not only about the discipline’s current practices and institutions, but also its most fundamental aims and commitments. In that spirit, I’ll start by placing my own theory cards on the table: I research and am deeply invested in Frankfurt School and French critical theory. I worked at the theory journal Critical Inquiry for several years. I wrote a sympathetic review of Ethan Kleinberg’s most recent book, Haunting History: For a Deconstructive Approach to the Past for the JHI Blog earlier this year. I also attended two theory of history programs this summer that featured Kleinberg prominently: The Bielefeld and Wesleyan Summer School on Theories for Historical Research in Bielefeld, Germany, which could be considered the education arm of Theory Revolt, as well as the third International Network for Theory of History Conference in Stockholm, where Theory Revolt was invoked approvingly as a testament to the enduring legacy of the late Hayden White (1928–2018).

Critiques of Theory Revolt are already many. Scott McLemee captures the basic objection in Inside Higher Ed. “In Yogi Berra’s haunting words,” he writes, the theses left him feeling “déjà vu all over again.” Many of its points were made decades ago—and in some cases more provocatively—by the likes of Hayden White, Dominick LaCapra, and Joan Scott herself. This time around, the authors “rely on the old tropes to rally new forces.” For McLemee, the theses represent a Baudrillardian nightmare: “What came after the End of History was post-postmodernity: social reality as tape loop, life as an eternity of reruns… The only thing really new about ‘Theses on Theory and History’ is that it comes with a hashtag.” But Theory Revolt has no pretense of faddish novelty: it argues that many of those lessons were not learned the first time, or were engaged briefly only to be handily dismissed, as if theory’s relevance passed together with its heyday in the 1980s and ’90s. The authors wrote this manifesto now because new subfields widely regarded as the future of the historian’s craft—digital humanities, Big Data, global history—are, in their view, simply repackaging the “ontological realism” that has long stifled “objectivist” history. As a rearticulation, a synthesis, a call to arms, and a gadfly probing the discipline for self-consciousness and criticality, this manifesto is both necessary and welcome.

According to the Wild On Collective, the contemporary historian’s anti-theoretical bias starts early: doctoral training in history tends to neglect theory and emphasize historiography and producing original research from primary sources, “as if ‘doing history’ is a self-evident technical undertaking and students need simply to develop the methodological habit of gathering factual evidence to be contextualized and narrated” (I.8). At the broadest level of the discipline, this conclusion is spot-on. At the Bielefeld summer school I attended, students from around the world agreed that it is difficult to find courses in theory of history, and even more difficult to do research in this field. To study theory, one often has to go to a philosophy department or repackage one’s work as intellectual history. The Bielefeld program attempts to correct this dearth of theory by offering participants—all students of history—a week of courses on practice theory (Pierre Bourdieu, Anthony Giddens, Theodore Schatzki), actor-network theory (Michel Callon, Bruno Latour, John Law), systems theory (Nicholas Luhmann), discourse theory (Foucault), and a general introduction by Kleinberg ranging from Droysen and Dilthey to Reinhart Koselleck, Hayden White, Joan Scott, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and Ewa Domanska. Yet at the level of graduate pedagogy, this theory revolt is not the first. I hope that exploring a distant predecessor may help us understand the current revolt’s aims, limitations, and importance.

At Princeton University—one of the allegedly conservative and anti-theoretical bastions of the discipline—my cohort-mates and I can claim that Hayden White’s Metahistory was the first book we read in graduate school. It typically kicks off the syllabus of the required introductory course “HIS 500: An Introduction to the Professional Study of History” (a relatively recent course title that no doubt reflects the problematic “guild” mentality described in the manifesto). The syllabus regularly includes thinkers such as Marx, Weber, Foucault, Scott, Chakrabarty, and Michel-Rolph Trouillot alongside a wide range of historiography old and new.

The first iteration of this course, proposed in 1964 and held in the 1965–66 academic year, was conceived and taught by Professors Arno Mayer and Lawrence Stone. (Professor Mayer shared his course documents with me.) The two sought funding from bodies like the Social Science Research Council for the course “Theories, Concepts, and Methods of the Social Sciences for Historical Studies,” which aimed, according to their proposal, “to sensitize first-year graduate students in history to the contribution the social and behavioral sciences can make to formulating sharply focused analytic and topical questions for historical investigation.” They complained that among graduate students, “both enthusiasm for and professional commitment to history seemed disappointingly weak.” The culprit: “Part of the trouble appeared to lie in their struggle to cram their minds with vast masses of information from broad fields in preparation for the General Examination…a deadening process, intellectually as well as psychologically.” Students thus confronted with the pressures of mastering their subfields “seemed reluctant to use this mass of information to think about history analytically or comparatively.” They lacked the intellectual courage and theoretical innovation of some of the first guest speakers Mayer and Stone brought in to teach the course: Thomas Kuhn and Clifford Geertz. (Scott was also brought in later, but, according to Mayer, soon clashed with the Princeton “boys club.”)

HIS 500 1968 Syllabus

HIS 500 Syllabus from Spring Term 1968

Mayer and Stone’s theory is quite different from Theory Revolt’s theory. The former also invited speakers to present then-in-vogue positivist social-scientific “techniques” including demography, statistics, and economic history—the Big Data of that time. Yet while they valued such developments in adjacent disciplines, they also found “that the classical social scientists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries like Max Weber, speak more effectively to the concerns of our students and ourselves than do many contemporary practitioners of sociology and political science.” Hence they determined that “incoming students are now asked to spend part of their summer before arrival at Princeton reading from the works of Marx, Freud, Weber, and Durkheim.”


Lawrence Stone and Arno Mayer, Early proposal for HIS 500

Despite Mayer’s own radical Left politics, this theory revolt did not aspire to be a theory revolution. It attempted to shake up the Rankean house but leave it standing, to keep the old but destabilize it with the new. The seminar, Mayer and Stone wrote, “does not try to persuade students to adopt new approaches at the expense of traditional ones. Historical truth can be approached fruitfully from many angles, and a healthy department is one in which a diversity of methods and viewpoints coexist, mutually stimulating and criticizing one another. The primary aim of the seminar is rather to extend the range of methodological and conceptual choice.”

Theory Proposal 1

Lawrence Stone and Arno Mayer, Early proposal for HIS 500

Writing in 1964, Mayer and Stone taught well before the sweep of the linguistic turn—Derrida and Foucault in particular—that motivates Theory Revolt. Yet they wrote on the cusp of a theory wave symbolized by Hayden White’s landmark article “The Burden of History.” Published in History and Theory in 1966, it became a touchstone of debates about the role of theory in history—even if its impact was not as enduring as the Wild On Collective would have preferred.

Mayer and Stone’s attempt to destabilize ossified historical methodologies with new theoretical approaches from other disciplines shares the spirit of this new revolt, even if it was not yet equipped to fully articulate it with the deconstructive tools of the linguistic turn. Yet for this reason it also lacks Theory Revolt’s force: the call for self-critical reflection on history’s own “conditions of possibility,” on how evidence, arguments, concepts, and theories themselves become normatively constituted as legitimate in the first place (I.9). Mayer and Stone don’t step back far enough from their practice as historians to ask one of the fundamental questions of Theory Revolt: What are we really doing when we do history, and why do we do it?

The Theory Revolters rightly combat the most familiar “dismissal of theory”—“The charge that theory—any theory—involves the distorting imposition of fixed ideological categories on self-evident facts” (II.7). As Wesleyan’s Gary Shaw aptly glossed the philosopher Nelson Goodman in Bielefeld: “Behind every fact is a small theory.” In the language of Theory Revolt, “History’s anti-theoretical preoccupation with empirical facts and realist argument… entails a set of uninterrogated theoretical assumptions about time and place, intention and agency, proximity and causality, context and chronology” (I.11). On the contrary, the manifesto proclaims, “Critical history recognizes all ‘facts’ as always already mediated, categories as social, and concepts as historical; theory is worldly and concepts do worldly work” (III.4). If history is the study of change over time, then this manifesto reminds us that the categories, facts, and questions that make up historical research must themselves be historicized and left open to critical contestation. Only thus can we stay attuned to our work’s temporal contingency, institutional situatedness, and relation to power both within the academy and in society at large.

Theory Revolt calls for more theory not as a superfluous garnish to be sprinkled over the meat of real historical work. Rather, it proposes a fundamental re-imagining of what history is for and how we should practice it. On some level, it shares a rather conventional and unobjectionable goal with Mayer and Stone: to move beyond the “impotent story-telling” brought about by disciplinary fixation on facts, empiricism, and objectivity. Theory Revolt’s target is the geographically diverse but theoretically “homogenous” articles published in the AHR, whose “guild”-like disciplinary policing strips the field of innovative methodological approaches: “Only that which is already familiar typically finds its way into the pages of the journal” (I.5). Given such sweeping critiques of “conventional” historical writing, the stakes are high for Kleinberg’s forthcoming book The Myth of Emmanuel Levinas, on the Talmudic lectures the French-Jewish philosopher presented in postwar Paris. Kleinberg claims in the conclusion of Haunting History that this subsequent work will put his deconstructive approach into practice by telling two accounts of the same phenomenon, what Levinas’s onetime assistant Jacques Derrida called a “double session.” Each account can destabilize the authority of the other and leave the past open to alternative meanings: the one a conventional secular intellectual history and the other a theological account inspired by “Levinas’s own counterhistorical claim that divine and ethical meaning transcends time” (Haunting History, p. 147). Kleinberg hopes to stretch the limits of what counts as history, in this case moving beyond assumption that historical scholarship must be secular and operate within the framework of what Walter Benjamin called “homogenous empty time.” An earlier article of Kleinberg’s on these themes published in History and Theory bears the telling subtitle “Deconstruction and the Spirit of Revision.” This idea seems compatible with history as both a theoretical and “scientific” enterprise: being open to critique, revision, the contestation of textual meaning, and, yes, even to deconstruction.

The Weberian and social-scientific focus Mayer and Stone shared with much of their era remains to a large extent trapped within what Max Horkheimer called “traditional theory,” or conventional social science, held back from the self-reflexivity of “critical” theory. They thus remain within the paradigm that Theory Revolt criticizes, whereby disciplinary history tends “to artificially separate data from theory, facts from concepts, research from thinking. This leads ‘theory’ to be reified as a set of ready-made frameworks that can be ‘applied’ to data” (I.9). By contrast, Theory Revolt’s critique of empiricism rests upon an insight clearly articulated in Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s 1947 Dialectic of Enlightenment: In the words of the Wild On Collective, positivist historians rest far too heavily upon mere “reified appearances” and “supposedly given contexts.” In his 1938 essay on “Traditional and Critical Theory,” Horkheimer likewise disdained traditional theory, which encompasses the empirical social sciences, for attempting to grasp the external world “as it really is.” Part of this distinction is captured in Theory Revolt’s critique of the historical discipline producing “technocratic” knowledge and “scholars rather than thinkers.” By uncritically condensing that reality into timeless theories and laws, traditional theorists or mere scholars commit the fallacy of thinking that the present world is the only world, operating on the false and conservative assumption that everything has to be the way that it is. For Horkheimer and Adorno, genuinely critical theory did empirical work and attempted to ascertain the ways the social world worked, but always with an eye to how it might also be otherwise—to its fuller realization and emancipation. The Theory Revolters’ final thesis comes to a similar conclusion through the related insights of Foucault’s method of genealogy: “Critical history aims to understand the existing world in order to question the givens of our present so as to create openings for other possible worlds” (III.10).

Fetishizing purportedly “tangible” or “concrete” facts—as if they were self-evidently knowable—traps us in the flattened horizon of our own troubled social world, falsely granting it a quasi-natural status. To thus privilege “the real” over the theoretical—what Theory Revolt phrases in the subjunctive as “the dream”—is to come under what Adorno called the “spell” of reification, the downward pull into crude materialism that leaves us trapped in the lifeless circle of late capitalism and sanctioned state violence. Adorno’s negative dialectics bars positively developing alternatives—the error of Nazism, Stalinism, and other prescriptive utopianisms—but it does enable us to determinately negate spaces of unfreedom in the world as it is, severing our psychic ties to the world in which we find ourselves and opening up theoretical space in which alternatives might eventually be developed. To invoke a line from Negative Dialectics, history—like the metaphysics that preoccupied Adorno—“must know how to wish” (p. 407).

The Theses end with a call for historians to seek out “the navel of the dream.” Dreams push against the ontological realist historian’s sensibilities because they are inherently personal and nonobjective. One of Theory Revolt’s related final points seems closely inspired by the psychoanalytic insights of Dominck LaCapra: “psychically, historians should acknowledge and try to work through, rather than simply act out, their unconscious investments in their material.” In philosophy (which I was trained in) such investments are quite often made manifestly clear: It is widely understood that many people who work on Kant, for example, would identify as “Kantians” and attempt to think and even live their lives within the framework of Kant’s thought. When they speak on contemporary issues, they often do so explicitly and self-consciously from the position of their philosophical background and personal commitments; they then feel free to critique, revise, and dispense with aspects of such traditions that no longer hold or appeal to them.

Working in a history department for the past two years, I’ve found it curious that historians on the whole seem to lack this self-consciousness. They tend to repress the fact that most of us do the research we do because it interests us—which is to say, because we have a psychic investment in our material that is rationalized rather than rational. Either we see something in the past that “speaks” to us today or, on the contrary, we seek out something in the past that gives us distance from the weight and all-encompassing spell of our own moment. It is no surprise that the historian’s identity, life experiences, and politics often shape their choice of research subject. Yet unlike disciplines such as anthropology that productively theorize and “work through” these relations of implication, cathexis, and transference, historians often resort to the pseudo-objective refrain that their subject is simply “important.” But why do we really need to know it? What justifies the time and expense of researching it? Sometimes, to be sure, there’s just a good story to be told. But more often than not there are investments, both personal and collective, that undergird our choice of projects, subconsciously dictate their frameworks, and hence drive them to certain conclusions. Hayden White famously concluded in Metahistory that there were at the end of the day no “objective” or “scientific” reasons to prefer one way of telling a story to another, but rather, in the “ironic” mode he graced us with, only “moral or aesthetic ones” (p. 434). My greatest hope for Theory Revolt would be that it presses more historians to such self-conscious reflection about the relation between themselves, their world, and their work. If “critical history is a history of the present,” that present surely includes ourselves.

Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. student in the Department of History at Princeton University. His work focuses on intellectual responses to catastrophe, especially in German-Jewish thought and the Frankfurt School of critical theory.

A Case for Learning to Read Seventeenth-Century Dutch

By guest contributor Julie van den Hout


Officer and Laughing Girl, Johannes Vermeer, ca. 1657. Wikimedia.

Do you ever get an uneasy feeling that something is missing from your wider scholarly realm, even though, on the surface, you have everything covered—and while this nagging sense seems to come and go, you can never quite put your finger on what it is? While I am no psychologist, recent developments have led me to believe that this intangible void could be a lack of seventeenth-century Dutch history in your academic toolkit. This idea came to me after launching the blog, 17thCenturyDutch.com, an online resource for researchers learning to read and translate seventeenth-century Dutch. The site offers learning strategies, tips on grammar and orthography, handwriting guides, sample manuscripts for paleography practice, links to dictionaries and courses, and a forum for posting questions. The blog has been more popular than I imagined and I might know why. Think about it. Have you ever been away from home and overheard Dutch being spoken? The Dutch seem to turn up everywhere. The truth is, the Dutch do not simply seem to be everywhere—they actually are everywhere, and have been for several hundred years. In fact, it is almost impossible to avoid them. And that brings us to the crucial question: Why would you want to? As deeply rooted players in the global marketplace, the Dutch—especially the seventeenth-century Dutch—left an impression, and a paper trail, on almost every continent. Learning to read seventeenth-century Dutch opens the door, not only to the language and history of a small country, but to everywhere the Dutch have traveled and to everything they touched.

The seventeenth-century Dutch impacted history around the globe through trade, exploration, and conquest. On their home continent, commerce took them to the Baltic for grains, to Russia for furs, and to Norway for hardwood. The accessibility to timber coupled with innovations in engineering propelled the Dutch to maritime dominance with the fluytschip, efficient for navigating the shallow river tributaries of Europe with its flat, wide hull and low crew-to-cargo ratio. It was not long before these ships ventured into wider waters, carrying trade goods, building materials, passengers, livestock, and provisions to newly conquered lands. The Dutch East India Company frequented the Indonesian archipelago for highly marketable exotic spices such as nutmeg and cloves. From there, trade took them to India for cotton and silk, to China for tea and porcelain, and to Japan, where they enjoyed exclusive access from the man-made island of Deshima. From Indonesia, explorer Abel Tasman mapped the coast of Australia, eventually touching down in New Zealand. Documents from the Dutch East India Company are now scattered throughout the world, including those occupying 1.3 kilometers of space in the Dutch National Archives.


Letter from Peter Schagen to the Dutch West India Company reporting the sale of Manhattan to the Dutch by the Indians, November 7, 1656. Dutch National Archives.

In an attempt to gain control of the spice trade by securing a faster route to Asia, The Dutch East India Company commissioned Henry Hudson to search for the fabled Northwest Passage. Hudson tried four times before failing miserably, cast off in a dinghy by a mutinous crew in the bay that bears his name. An earlier voyage, however, had taken him into the mouth of the Hudson River, where he claimed the area for the Dutch. Though the Dutch did not appreciate this little piece of waterfront property until it was too late, the States General gave a monopoly on the fur trade there to the newly formed Dutch West India Company. Predominantly tasked with disrupting Iberian concerns in the Atlantic under the auspices of trade, the Dutch West India Company wasted no time doing just that, plundering forts in the Caribbean and Brazil that they turned into military outposts and plantations, and seizing Portuguese strongholds in Africa that stimulated their engagement in the slave trade. The colony they founded in what is now New York was short-lived, though digitized records in the New York State Archives testify to the colony’s rich and colorful history and challenge Anglo-centric narratives of seventeenth-century America.

Seventeenth-century Dutch expansion fueled advances in science and philosophy that were instrumental in defining the broader intellectual world. The prosperity, dynamism, and comparative tolerance of the Dutch Golden Age attracted thinkers from throughout Europe. Celebrated Flemish mathematician, Simon Stevin, whose family had fled the Catholic Spanish Low Countries, introduced the mainstream use of fractions, along with music theory and military engineering and design. While a certain Italian astronomer usually gets credit for the invention of the telescope, Dutch lens maker Hans Lippershey applied for the first patent in The Hague in 1608. On the other end of the spectrum, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek developed the microscope, documenting observable microorganisms in letters to the Royal Society in London. Law prodigy Hugo Grotius wrote Inleidinge tot de Hollandse Rechtsgeleerdheid, or Introduction to the Jurisprudence of Holland in 1631, ushering in a new era of practical standards for the application of natural law. Astronomer and physicist Christiaan Huygens studied wave theory, identified the rings of Saturn, created the pendulum clock, and wrote mathematical treatises. As one of the movers and shakers of the Scientific Revolution, Huygens was a member of seventeenth-century Dutch intellectual circles that included French philosopher and ex-pat René Descartes. Letters written between Grotius, Van Leeuwenhoek, Huygens, Descartes, and other scholars have been transcribed and made available online through the collaborative project, Circulation of Knowledge and Learned Practices of the 17th-Century Dutch Republic, at http://ckcc.huygens.knaw.nl/. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall.


The sail wagon of Simon Steven, 1602. Rijksstudio Amsterdam.

Learning to read seventeenth-century Dutch also facilitates access to Dutch religious history that has bled into several disciplines. Distinctively grounded in the Eighty Years’ War, the tug-of-war between Spain and the Dutch Republic over the Catholic South and the Protestant North ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, but not before internal conflicts inspired the Synod of Dort that anchored Calvanist Protestantism in Europe. On the advice of the Synod to make the bible accessible to everyone, the Statenbijbel (States Bible) was commissioned and translated from original manuscripts in 1637 as the first authoritative Dutch-language Protestant book. Jews fleeing Spanish and Portuguese persecution also played an active role in seventeenth-century Dutch history. Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, the son of Portuguese Jews, was both influential and controversial for his outspoken views on religion, eventually excommunicated from the synagogue in Amsterdam. Even the Pilgrims settled temporarily in the relatively tolerant Dutch Republic between leaving England in 1608 and establishing the Plymouth colony. Dutch records of their twelve-year stay in Leiden are kept at the Pilgrim Museum there.

Perhaps the most visible representation of the seventeenth-century Dutch is the art of the Dutch Golden Age. Artists such as Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer, and Frans Hals reflect the era’s prosperity and expansion of theoretical boundaries as timeless foundations of the art world. Works like Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, set in the Anatomy Theater of Leiden University, graphically displays the scientific curiosity of the era, while Vermeer’s Officer and a Laughing Girl suggests the application of mathematics and science, more subtly, in its geometric and optical effects. The map in Vermeer’s painting is a strikingly accurate rendition of the original, published by renowned seventeenth-century Dutch mapmaker Willem Janszoon Blaeu. True to Vermeer’s representation, such maps graced the walls of many affluent seventeenth-century Dutch households, their popularity spurred by fascination with the New World, superior Dutch mapmaking, and the flourishing print industry in Amsterdam. While, in the words of Art Historian Mathilde Andrews, “you can’t write a painting,” there are primary sources aplenty for researchers delving into the Dutch Masters and their work. More than 500 documents related to Rembrandt are housed at the Municipal Archives in Amsterdam, including an inventory of goods in his home at the time of his death.

Prophetically, the words, “If you build it they will come,” floated through my mind like I was Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams. The enthusiastic response to the blog’s launch confirmed what I already suspected—that researchers are interested in accessing the primary sources of the seventeenth-century Dutch, if they can find help reading them. Whether your field is Early Modern Europe, Early America, Colonial History, Atlantic History, African Studies, Asian Studies, Religion, History of Science, Philosophy, or Art History—the list goes on—the Dutch were there, for better or for worse. The rich and prolific history the seventeenth-century Dutch produced crosses geographic borders and resonates deeply into surrounding temporal spaces, but much of it lies understudied in archives around the world. It is accessible with a basic foundation in Dutch or German, and now, with online support for learning. Twenty-three million people speak Dutch today as their primary language. If you feel you are somehow missing out, or find you are suffering from a vague, unsettled feeling that something is lacking from your scholarly endeavors, perhaps it would help if you looked into what the Dutch have been talking about all this time. It just might be exactly what you have been looking for.


Popular depiction of a ship on a seventeenth-century Dutch tile. Rijksstudio Amsterdam.

Julie van den Hout is a graduate student in History at San Francisco State University focused on the seventeenth-century Dutch, Early America, and the Atlantic. She is currently working on a digital humanities project, through a grant from the New Netherland Institute, on ships that made port in New Netherland. She is the author of Adriaen van der Donck, A Dutch Rebel in Seventeenth-Century America, published April, 2018 from The State University of New York Press. She can be reached at jvandenhout@mail.sfsu.edu.


Systems of water – Histories of a cycle that never was

By guest contributor Luna Sarti

Water is today a matter of growing concern. If in certain parts of the globe there is less and less water, other parts seem to have just too much. Extreme weather events, sudden floods and intense drought continually orient our attention toward the shifting ecologies of water and land. Rising sea levels and dropping water tables highlight how labile such distinction is, thus troubling our sense of the appropriate place and behaviors we expect from water. Furthermore, stories of flooding and contamination unsettle our classification of water into good and bad waters while revealing our expectation for ‘pristine water’. But how do we come to develop such distinctions and expectations? How do representations of water contribute to developing specific conceptions of what water is or should be?

If scientists and hydrologists are now attempting to elaborate new models for understanding water movements and for protecting fresh water, anthropologists, philosophers and historians increasingly criticize such models. Scholars such as Ivan Illich and Christopher Hamlin stress how Western modern accounts of water movements have systematically erased those biological interactions that continuously re-make watery matters.  The scholar Jamie Linton captures the implications of such practice in his book What is water (2010):

As the dominant epistemological mode of Western culture, scientific practice has produced a distinctive way of understanding and representing water that makes it appear timeless, natural, and unaffected by the contingencies of human history. (74)

That our models for water are informed by conceptions of “unaffected nature” as much as by those of order and balance is quite evident. Most diagrams which are used in education and public outreach continue to provide contemporary readers with pictures like the following:

Western thought has a long-standing history of such ways of understanding water movements and has struggled in the attempt to produce a timeless, regular, and pure model for waters, which erases most of its interactions with histories of hydrology, including (1970), seem to agree in identifying Aristotle’s Metereologica as a crucial text for the development of modern hydrology and of the water cycle tradition in Western culture. In the Meteorologica, Aristotle provides an overview of how different bodies of water are connected as well as why they are different, thus developing a model accounting for such classification as well as for the movements of water. which shape Aristotle’s chain of events causing the continuous water movements between springs, rivers and the can be assimilated to the modern conceptions of evaporation and gravity.

This cycle of changes reflects the sun’s annual movement: for the moisture rises and falls as the sun moves in the ecliptic. One should think of it as a river with a circular course, which rises and falls and is composed of a mixture of water and air. For when the sun is near the stream of vapour rises, when it recedes it falls again. And in this order the cycle continues indefinitely. And if there is any hidden meaning in the ‘river of Ocean’ of the ancients, they may well have meant this river which flows in a circle round the earth. (347 a 1-8, Translated by H. D. P. Lee)

In following Aristotle, natural philosophers and theologians continued to struggle to produce all-inclusive models that would accommodate the movement and nature of water in representations while respecting principles of order and linear causality.  Yi-Fu Tuan, the geographer known for his contribution to the development of the concept of place, considered Aristotle’s analysis the first instance of the process that has led to the construction of hydrological models since. In his The Hydrologic Cycle and the Wisdom of God (1968), Tuan describes how there were in the West two major competing paradigms of water circulation throughout the Middle Ages and the modern era.  Both these paradigms rely on the concept of a balanced system of flow that connects rain, rivers, and the sea while identifying respectively the sea or rainfall as the origin of rivers and springs. While one view corresponds to our modern understanding, the other, which he named the “reversed cycle”, explained springs and rivers as being the output of underground channels that are connected to the sea. Both these views are mentioned by Aristotle and the reversed cycle continued to be popular well into the eighteenth century. Although responding to different origin points and dealing with increasing levels of complexity, all of the models identified in these histories of the water cycle conform to similar parameters in producing knowledge by reducing a variety of phenomena to an exhaustive view. Despite their attempt to be all-inclusive, these models are constructed on the assumption of human non-interaction with water.

Today, some scientists work on and with hydrological models that do not strive for the order and linear causality that informed the history of hydrology. In his recent article, published on WIREs Water, Christopher J. Duffy, Professor of Civil Engineering at Penn State, states that “the hydrological cycle is hardly a cycle at all”, but rather “a complex system with many interacting states, mostly unmeasured.” One might question what the role of humans in this picture is.

Histories of hydrology are in fact often the histories of how humans thought water would move had there been no humans at all. Dams, industries, breweries, agricultural systems, urban waters, farms: they never figure into those models, although humans as well as all animal and vegetal earthlings extract water from hydrological systems.  In these models, human extraction is limited to primary physiological processes such as drinking and transpiration, which shape the relationship between living beings and water. Interestingly, while animals or flora and fauna have made their way into diagrams produced by the USGS for both children (fig.2) and adults (fig. 3), human social interactions with water are not included in visual renderings.

Even if there is the awareness of the role played by humans in the system of earthling waters, such role continues to be marginalized and hidden. interactive version (fig. 4) designed for advanced students includes animals in the picture, and there one finds a short note on humans, part of which states: “There is one creature on Earth that does have a very large impact on the water cycle—human beings. The natural water cycle changed once people came on the scene. People have adapted and remade parts of the world to make use of water, such as draining wetlands, pulling massive amounts of water out of the ground, damming rivers to create reservoirs, and using significant amounts of water from rivers for human use.”

Fig 4. Navigable.

Fig. 4 USGC. The Water Cycle for Schools and Students: Advanced students. Interactive version.

“A very large impact” which is confined to a small note in educational discourse.

Today the question of water, which for so long troubled natural philosophers, poets and artists, emerges again as one of the most puzzling aspects of terrestrial life. On one side, anthropologists point to the co-construction of natural catastrophes by stressing the human role in the water cycle and thus in the interactions that lead to water scarcity or excess. On the other, while scientists struggle to include humans and society as one of the ‘states’ in the system, media and education material still feature diagrams and models that provide a sense of water as being separate from humans and within the realm of pristine nature.

We could ask how our present might be different had we followed epistemological models incorporating not only notions of complexity and disorder, but also biota, including humans. What would our present waters look like had the systems of water on earth never been reduced into orderly representations and ideas of pristine nature? How would we interpret and relate to water had we been aware that each and every one of our actions complicates and resets the system of earthly waters?

Luna Sarti is a fourth-year doctoral student in the Italian Studies program at the
University of Pennsylvania. She is interested in exploring how histories of rivers
and humans intersect. Her current research focuses on the shifting cultures and
practices of water that bound the Arno river in Tuscany, thus shaping not only the
Tuscan landscape but also its history. This summer, as a Mellon PPEH Graduate
Fellows, she worked on developing research strategies to assess and describe
the entangled flowing of river waters. Luna earned an MA in Israeli Studies from
the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London and a Ph.D in
Comparative Literatures from the University of Florence.

Graduate Forum: Expanding Subjects, Race, and Global Contexts: Tisa Wenger’s Religious Freedom and Developments in the History of Religious Ideas

This is the first in a series of commentaries in our Graduate Forum on Pathways in Intellectual History, which will be running this summer. Our goal is to engage with the diversity of ways that graduate students are approaching the History of Ideas across academic sub-fields. After the final commentary, Professor Anthony Grafton will add his thoughts to the conversation.

This first piece is by guest contributor Andrew Klumpp.


Tisa Wenger, Religious Freedom
The Contested History of an American Ideal (Chapel Hill: University of Carolina Press, 2017).

Kiram II

Kiram II

Evangelists, statesmen, and academics once dominated many histories of religious ideas, but in Tisa Wenger’s recent Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal (UNC Press, 2017), they are eclipsed. Figures like the Moros Muslim sultan Kiram II, black nationalist Marcus Garvey, archbishop of the Philippine Independent Church Gregorio Aglipay, the founder of the Moorish Science Temple Nobel Drew Ali, and the Native American Shaker prophet John Slocum take center-stage. Spanning the decades from the Spanish-Cuban-Filipino-American War until WWII, this study weaves together diverse communities ranging from Filipino Muslims to Jewish immigrants, the Nation of Islam to practitioners of Native American traditions such as Peyote and the Ghost Dance. Although globetrotting in scope and diverse in its subjects, Religious Freedom’s persistent attention to how interpretations of religious freedom relied on the formative relationship between race, religion, and empire effectively ties the study together.


Tisa Wenger, We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom (Chapel Hill: University of Carolina Press, 2009).

Much like Wenger’s first book, We Have a Religion (UNC Press, 2009), which investigated the formation and use of the category of religion among Pueblo Indians, Religious Freedom focuses on a fundamental concept, in this case religious freedom, and explores its formation and re-formation by those outside of the halls of power in the United States. In doing so, it offers a fresh perspective on central questions about religious liberty, nation-states, and global empire. It also provides a window into engaging trends in how historians of religion and ideas approach their work and frame their questions.

Forged at the nexus of race, religion, and empire, religious freedom, Wenger argues, was not always universally beneficent. Consequently, when various communities invoked the ideal, winners and losers emerged. She convincingly demonstrates that white American Protestants, in particular, deployed the ideal of religious freedom to assert their supremacy and highlight the deficiencies of others.

Ghost Dance ca. 1900

Native American Ghost Dance, ca. 1900

In order to further these broader arguments, Religious Freedom explores contexts ranging from Muslim settlements in the Philippines to Native American reservations in the Dakotas. For example, perceived racial inferiority meant that Christianity served as a key civilizing force in the Philippines after the U.S. conquest of the islands. Nevertheless, this otherness also kept Filipino Catholic priests under the thumb of a Western bishop. Racial otherness also cast suspicion on Native American religious practices. Missionaries and government officials nursed a longstanding skepticism about Native American religious practices including Peyote, the Ghost Dance, and the Native American Shaker tradition, even when these traditions exhibited some of the trappings of Christianity.

Wenger also deftly reveals how some groups leveraged their religious identities to minimize perceived racial otherness and inferiority. American Jews in both the Reform and Orthodox communities tended to lean into their religious identities and minimize their racial and ethnic distinctiveness. By framing their differences as religious rather than racial or ethnic, Jews, as well as Catholics, wielded the language of religious freedom to secure a spot standing shoulder to shoulder with white American Protestants.

Alice Fletcher 2

Alice Fletcher speaking to Native Americans

Overall, Wenger’s book is remarkably successful. It explores an understudied chapter in the definition and deployment of religious freedom ideology and expands its study to a broad and engaging collection of individuals and communities. Nevertheless, Religious Freedom is, somewhat disappointingly, largely a story of men. Only a handful of women appear throughout the entire text. This is particularly unfortunate because of the tradition of exploring the relationship between gender, race, and civilization, yet this vein of inquiry remains underexplored. Some of this is due to the sources Wenger uses and the prominence of men in the military, government agencies, and religious leadership at the time. Nevertheless, a woman like Alice Fletcher—discussed as an example of the of the interplay between race, gender, and civilization in Louise Michele Newman’s White Women’s Rights (Oxford University Press, 1999)—was active in the Women’s National Indian Association, and women like Fletcher might provide valuable insight about this topic. In this way, Wenger’s work provides an excellent platform for future explorations of the role of women in discourses about religious freedom, race, and empire.

Alice Fletcher 1

Alice Fletcher speaking with Native Americans

Gregorio Aglipay

Archbishop Gregorio Aglipay

Taken on its own, Wenger’s work is excellent scholarship and a valuable contribution to the field, yet it also provides an enlightening lens through which to appreciate some of the trends in the history of ideas, particularly as it relates to those of us who study religious history in the United States. At the most fundamental level, Religious Freedom deftly balances many of the lessons learned from social and cultural history—notably its attention to minority communities and global contexts— while remaining decidedly a history of ideas. Wenger’s study looks beyond politicians, preachers, and government officials, and that significantly reorients her history. Men like William Howard Taft, the governor-general of the Philippines and future president, or W.E.B. Du Bois appear only briefly. The focus remains on the leaders and members of each of the religious communities she explores.

Marcus Garvey.jpg

Marcus Garvey

In doing so, Wenger offers her take on whose ideas contribute to intellectual history. Is the history of ideas primarily about those who wrote books, set policy, and preached sermons, or is it broader than that? Wenger unequivocally answers with the latter definition. To be sure, she does not discount men like Theodore Roosevelt or William James, yet her attention to Jewish immigrants and colonized Filipinos (both Catholic and Muslim), as well as Native Americans and African-American religious movements, tells a more complicated and robust story. Though government agents and prominent religious thinkers engaged with the ideal of religious freedom, this approach to the history of ideas does not privilege their voices. Wenger illumines an expansion in the subjects studied by those of us who work in the history of ideas by intentionally integrating previously overlooked voices.

The centrality of race and racial hierarchies to the history of religion, both in the United States and in a global context, is another significant historiographical theme that Wenger continues to develop. She joins a bevy of excellent scholarship that has emerged at this intersection of religion and race, such as J. Spencer Fluhman’s “A Peculiar People:” Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America, Rebecca Goetz’s The Baptism of Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Race, and Max Perry Mueller’s Race and the Making of the Mormon People. The history of religious ideas in the United States cannot be divorced from conversations about race. Wenger joins a growing chorus in making that point. As she argues in her book, race must be considered as a constitutive part of the development of religious ideals, not simply another factor to consider.

The consistent theme of the American empire also looms over this study. It forms a key part of Wenger’s argument and gestures toward another development in the history of religious ideas. Global contexts increasingly appear in the history of U.S. religion and religious ideas, even when focused on an “American ideal,” as Wenger’s title suggests. This study does just that, but it is not alone. For example, Cara Burnidge’s A Peaceful Conquest: Woodrow Wilson, Religion, and the New World Order or David Hollinger’s recent Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America are just two examples of works that touch on similar themes of empire, American religion, and global contexts. Religious Freedom not only emphasizes this growing theme but also furthers the argument that a global lens is necessary for understanding the history of religious ideas in the United States.

Sod House

A Midwestern sod house

The themes that Wenger highlights—diverse voices, race, and global contexts—also resonate in the prairies and farmsteads that populate my own work as a historian of religion in rural America during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. In particular, her contention that global forces shaped far-flung communities rings true of the rural communities that I study. Increasingly in my own work, I find the tiny hamlets strewn across the Midwestern plains engaged with global forces and positioned themselves in order to benefit from them. Markets and commodities form the best-known examples of rural America’s place in a global network, yet I find that ideas flowed just as freely as crops, livestock, and other essential goods. For example, when rural communities rejected or embraced religious movements like the Social Gospel or Pentecostalism, they often drew upon their own self-conceptions of how their community fit into regional, national, and international contexts. Relatedly, these same networks allowed relatively homogenous rural communities to take part in discourses about race, revealing yet another central theme of this work that appears in my own. The international network that shaped, exchanged, and refined ideals of religious freedom did not pass over rural America.

Dutch Immigration Advertisement

A Dutch advertisement encouraging immigrants to settle in the rural Midwest

Religious Freedom is engaging, rich, and valuable scholarship on its own, but when placed within the field, it is also an instructive guide to themes that are shaping the scholarship about the history of religious ideas in the United States. It answers the question of whose ideas can become the subject of intellectual history by casting a wider net, in a way that resonates with my own efforts to introduce rural voices into the scholarly conversation. Ultimately, this excellent piece engages readers, integrates compelling new voices, and inspires others to do the same.

Andrew Klumpp is a Ph.D. candidate in American Religious History at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX. He holds degrees from Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa and Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. His research explores how rural Midwestern communities engaged in nineteenth-century debates about religious liberty, racial strife and social reform.

Balloons, Dreams, and the Spectral Arctic after the Franklin Expedition

By Contributing Writer Shane McCorristine. See Shane’s book-length study around this topic, The Spectral Arctic (2018).

For centuries British explorers and their audiences imagined the Arctic as a place of magic and mystery, an otherworldly environment where ships and men could vanish beneath the enchanting rays of the Aurora Borealis. This Arctic imagination went beyond aesthetics: notions of a spectral Arctic inspired people to develop new relations to the region, through practices such as consulting psychics, reporting strange dreams, and engaging with Inuit shamans in the field.


Poster offering a reward for help in finding the lost expedition

At the center of this story is the disappearance of Sir John Franklin’s Northwest Passage expedition. In 1818 the British Admiralty rebooted the early modern quest to explore and map what is now the Canadian Arctic, in order to discover a maritime shortcut to Asia. After several failed attempts, in 1845 Franklin was headhunted to lead 128 officers and crew into the Arctic ice onboard the restructured bomb vessels HMS Erebus and Terror. In their second winter, the ships became locked in the ice near King William Island and after dozens of deaths (including that of Franklin) in April 1848 the survivors abandoned the ships and launched the first of several doomed attempts to reach the Canadian mainland.

The disappearance of the expedition, a loss perhaps comparable to the recent MH370 plane disaster, sent shock waves through Victorian Britain, inspiring an outpouring of gothic speculations on the mystery and causing the Admiralty to downsize its subsequent polar expeditions. Early search and rescue attempts by the Admiralty and other polar experts came to nothing, and this created a powerful information vacuum.

Ordinary people in Britain quickly seized the opportunity to speculate wildly, and in 1854 revelations about cannibalism among the starving survivors led to further dark imaginings. Through media such as panorama shows, ghost stories, letters to newspapers, seances, and dreams, people felt they could intervene in the mystery, creating new ways to connect with the Arctic. The Frozen Deep, a play written in 1856 by Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens, emerged from this confluence of Arctic exploration, popular culture, and supernatural experience. This was a democratisation of the culture of Arctic exploration and a challenge to the long-held authority of the Admiralty over the region.


Chart of a vision experienced by the explorer and mystic William Parker Snow (Skewes, 1890).

A good example of this can be seen in an anonymous letter sent by a “Humble and true dreamer” to Jane Franklin, wife of the explorer, in 1850. In it the correspondent detailed a “remarkable dream” they had of two “Air Bloon’s” in the Arctic, one which was destroyed and another which “stands well” among the inhabitants of the region – a providential sign, the correspondent believed, that Franklin would return to Britain soon on his ship (Polar Archives, Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge, SPRI, MS 248/335; D). This link between dreaming, ballooning, and the Arctic is worth exploring further because it demonstrates how a spectral Arctic imagination was expanding the relationship between ordinary people and a region that was previously only accessible to Admiralty explorers.

By the time of the Franklin expedition aeronautics had caught the public imagination, appealing to scientists, dare-devils, monarchs, and the massive crowds that paid to attend ballooning spectacles and experiments. The balloon was attractive by virtue of its novelty, danger, and potential, but it also highlighted the links between air, emotions, and mobility. As things which affected, and were profoundly affected by, atmospheres, balloons confused the boundaries between materiality and immateriality, between technology and dreams (McCormack, 2010).

In the context of Arctic exploration, ballooning has mostly been associated with the Swedish expedition led by Salomon August Andrée in 1897. In July of that year Andrée and his two companions left Danskøya, northwest of Spitsbergen, in the hydrogen balloon Svea on a voyage towards the North Pole. Andrée’s expedition vanished without a trace until 1930 when passing sealers discovered the remains of their bodies and final camp on the island of Kvitøya in the Svalbard archipelago.


“Salomon Andrée’s balloon takes off from Danes Island”

Andrée’s balloon expedition became a gathering point for dreams and fantasies as rumors circulated, untethered, around the disappeared object. Indeed, barely two weeks after Andrée’s departure, reports reached Britain of a “Parisian prophetess” who had followed the balloon expedition “in spirit” to the North Pole. There she discovered that it was not made up of “ice and perpetual snow, but of luxuriant grass and umbrageous trees” (The Aberdeen Journal, July 22, 1897).

However, Andrée was not the first to propose using balloons to navigate the Arctic regions that naval and land-based expeditions found so difficult to traverse, nor was his expedition original in taking to the air. In fact it was the disappearance of the Franklin expedition decades earlier that activated aerial fantasies of exploration.

ILN balloon

“Mr. Green’s Signal Balloon, Dispatches, and Parachute for the Arctic Expedition”, Illustrated London News, May 11, 1850.

After finding no sign of Franklin through land and naval expeditions, in the early 1850s officials in the Admiralty began experimenting with aerial means of search and rescue. Rockets and kites launched from ships in the Arctic were not very successful, but the Admiralty placed more hope in a newly designed messenger balloon – an apparatus made of oiled silk and filled with hydrogen. The balloon’s basket contained a slow-match that would, after a launch from a ship, cause a gradual scattering of hundreds of colored pieces of paper and silk on the ice for hundreds of miles, giving lost explorers details of rescue ships in the vicinity. In practice the furthest distance these papers were found from a ship was only 50 miles.

This was a period of “ballooning mania” in Britain and the mystery of the Franklin expedition started to attract aeronauts who vied for attention from the general public and the Admiralty. In October 1849 Lieutenant G.B. Gale wrote to Jane Franklin volunteering to voyage by balloon in search for her husband’s expedition. Gale’s proposal was to ascend from an expedition ship in his balloon where, if he gained a height of two miles, a “panorama of at least 1,200 miles would be placed within observation”. Gale’s idea received a mixed reception in the press. The Era balanced its ribbing of this “‘Columbus of the skies’” with an admission that it could be of great benefit (The Era, October 28, 1849). A rather more scathing riposte came from Punch which, predictably, could not resist lampooning the aeronaut’s unfortunately appropriate surname:

Imagination forms icicles on the tips of our nose as we figure to ourselves the daring GALE ‘blow high, blow low’, with the thermometer 15 degrees below zero, his gas contracted, his balloon congested into a flying iceberg, or like the head of an airy giant with his night-cap on, while the poor frozen out aeronaut surveys his brandy-bottle solidified into a mass of ice à la Cognac, and his cold fowls too cold for his knife to penetrate them. The mere picture throws us into a chilly pickle; and we trust GALE, for his own sake, will not be able to raise the wind for so absurd a purpose (Punch, 1849)

Yet as affectual forces traveled back and forth from the Arctic, balloons actually did allow people to think with the Franklin expedition, in terms of their ability to “balloon back” with news. Around this time it was reported that a woman in a mesmeric trance claimed to have “ascended in a balloon, and proceeded to the North Pole in search of Sir John Franklin”. The woman found Franklin alive and well “and her description of his appearance and that of his companions was given with an inimitable expression of pity” (Carpenter, Quarterly Review, 1853).

As with clairvoyantes, balloons drew the Arctic and Britain into new spatial relationships because they enacted an aerial subjectivity that was untethered by the Franklin disappearance. As a metaphor for a geography of the spectral Arctic, balloons unsettled the “where” of the Arctic, activating techniques and technologies of what McCormack calls “remote sensing”, a geographical practice that is also spectral in that it “is always remote yet always potentially sensed as a felt variation in a field of affective materials” (2010).

Dreams of polar flight did not decline with the passage of time and shift to a different geographic quest. During the preparations for his final North Pole expedition (1908-9), Robert Peary received a flood of “‘crank’” letters from members of the public offering unsolicited advice and counsel, and “flying machines occupied a high place on the list”. One inventor even gamely proposed that Peary play the part of a “‘human cannon ball’”: “He was so intent on getting me shot to the Pole”, Peary wrote, “that he seemed to be utterly careless of what happened to me in the process of landing there or how I should get back” (Peary, 1910).

Yet “crank” letters like this remind us that Arctic exploration could be performed in many ways. Now that the Northwest Passage had become a labyrinth crowded with cumbersome and bumbling search and rescue expeditions, movement through the Arctic was fantasized to be dreamlike and flighty.

From the throbbing silences of the Arctic diverse audiences sensed a multiplicity of voices which meant that Franklin was now circulating uncontrollably through strange dreams, rumors, mesmeric visions, and balloons. Through clairvoyance and mesmeric trances, women were suddenly a major part of these cultural productions of remote sensing, taking on the “Icarus” perspective that characterized so much of masculinist fantasies of actual polar exploration. As someone who was affected and affecting, Franklin went from being a contained explorer outside the world to a body that gathered together the heterogeneous thoughts, dreams, and emotions of unsolicited audiences and new international explorers. In all this, the otherworldly was worldly; dreams had a social history and were not sudden eruptions of the irrational.

Shane McCorristine is a lecturer in Modern British History at Newcastle University where he specializes in the cultural histories of exploration, death, and the supernatural. He graduated from University College Dublin in 2008 and then gained postdoctoral fellowships in Maynooth University, University of Cambridge, and University of Leicester. His website is http://www.shanemccorristine.net and his new book (available in open access) is entitled The Spectral Arctic: A History of Ghosts and Dreams in Polar Exploration (UCL Press, 2018).  

Reappearing Ink

By Sandrine Bergès, Bilkent University. See her full article in this season’s Journal of the History of Ideas: Family, Gender, and Progress: Sophie de Grouchy and Her Exclusion in the Publication of Condorcet’s Sketch of Human Progress.

The late Eileen O’Neill once referred to women’s past contribution to philosophy as ‘disappearing ink’. What she meant was that however much they wrote, no how matter how insightful their analyses or how powerful their arguments, by the nineteenth century women philosophers had all but disappeared from historical accounts of the discipline.

And then slowly, progressively, thanks to historians of philosophy such as O’Neill, the ink reappeared. Volumes were edited about women philosophers, monographs focused on their contributions to a particular topic, and it’s no longer such a surprise to read a journal article about a woman philosopher of the past (more frequently in some journals than in others).

Sometimes what helped women’s reinsertion into the history of philosophy was their close association with famous men. So as interest in Newton grew, Emilie du Chatelet’s works were rediscovered. And Cartesian scholars came to ask themselves why he put such work into his correspondence with the Bohemian princess, Elizabeth. Other times such associations resulted in the woman philosopher being pushed further back into obscurity. This is what happened to Sophie de Grouchy, marquise de Condorcet (1764-1822).

Sophie de Grouchy was an aristocrat who aligned herself with the republican party of the Girondins during the revolution, translating works by Thomas Paine, and writing political pieces of her own and together with her husband, Nicolas de Condorcet. Although most of her writings are lost, she did leave one significant work of philosophy, the Letters on Sympathy. This work was published in 1798, together with Grouchy’s translation of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiment. The Letters were a commentary on that work. There is a forthcoming translation by Berges and Schliesser, and a simplified translation is included here.

Grouchy’s education was fairly conventional for her time, class, and sex. She learned Latin, English, and some German by muscling in on her brothers’ private classes. One aspect of her education she recalls as most important were the charity visits she made with her mother and sister: learning how to recognize suffering, helping to relieve it, and generally learning to value the well-being of others. At the age of eighteen she was sent to an exclusive convent finishing school. There she practiced her languages and put them to good use translating works from the English and the Italian – all fashionably political works, such as Arthur Young’s Tour of Ireland and Tasso’s Jerusalem. She also read, discovering Voltaire, Diderot, and especially Rousseau. She lost her religion, but her early training in Christian charity–with her mother showing her how good it felt to relieve others’ trouble–blended together with her new readings and turned her towards social justice.

Through her readings, Grouchy became a republican. She was not yet concerned with the question of how the administration of France – although she later became in favor, like her husband, of representational, rather than direct democracy.  Her focus at that time was with eradicating the psychological distance between the rich and the poor, wanting everyone to be a citizen, not a subject, and no one so rich or powerful that they could become a tyrant. This is reflected in the Letters on Sympathy, where her political discussion is primarily one about the psychological effects of tyranny on the flourishing of the population.

By the time Grouchy met Condorcet, they already had much in common, both being republicans and atheists. They married in 1786 and moved into Condorcet’s apartments in the Hotel des Monnaies, where Condorcet worked as the Inspector General of the Mint, under the economist Turgot. There the couple set up a salon which, thanks to Grouchy’s excellent English, became the house of choice for foreign visitors such as Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Anarchasis Cloots, and the Swiss Etienne Dumont – speechwriter for Mirabeau and editor/translator for Jeremy Bentham. Cabanis, who later married Sophie’s sister, Charlotte, was a frequent attendant.

At the start of the Revolution, the Condorcets became associated with the Girondins. They frequented the salon of Madame Helvetius, in Auteuil, where republican ideas were being debated, and Brissot’s anti-slavery club (of which Condorcet and Olympe de Gouges were members) was founded. By 1791, Grouchy and Condorcet were among the strongest advocates of the republican movement, working with Thomas Paine, Jean-Pierre Brissot, Etienne Dumont and Achilles Duchatellet, on Le Républicain, a newspaper that would disseminate republican thought in France. Grouchy contributed at least two anonymous pieces to that journal, both offering powerful republican arguments against preserving monarchy, which drew on the moral psychology she develops in her Letters on Sympathybut until recently, little effort had been made to attribute them.

In 1793, the Girondins fell out of favor and Condorcet had to go into hiding. He stayed in Paris while Sophie moved to the suburb of Auteuil with her daughter, travelling to the Capital on foot twice a week to visit her husband and to paint portraits in a studio she had rented on the rue St Honoré.

While in hiding, Condorcet started to write an apology (Justification) which was meant to explain and justify his role in the revolution and show that he had been wronged by his persecutors, the Jacobins. Grouchy, sensing that this work would be of little value philosophically or personally, urged him to give it up, and instead to turn back to a work of encyclopedic nature that he had begun several decades before: a history of the progress of human nature. This work, divided into ten periods, was to discuss human evolution with a special emphasis on perfectionism, and a running argument on how this was affected by freedom and tyranny, science, religion, philosophy, and technology (in particular the printing press). Grouchy worked with Condorcet, encouraging him, bringing him notes and readings (he had taken very little with him when he went into hiding). Although we do not have any hard evidence that they wrote together, it seems likely that some of the passages in particular are hers, and that others are the product of a collaboration between husband and wife. We do not have a final manuscript that corresponds to the first edition by Grouchy, which suggests that she added some paragraphs herself. Several of the differences concern women and the place of the family in human progress. Perhaps these were ideas she and Condorcet had discussed and that she knew he wanted included. Perhaps these were points she had suggested to him in their discussions.

In March 1794, Condorcet ran away from his hiding place in order to avoid getting his hostess arrested. He died a few days later in a village prison, but was not identified until several months after his death, such that his wife remained ignorant of his whereabouts. When several months later his remains were identified, the Convention commissioned three thousand copies of his new book, Esquisse d’un Tableau des Progrès de l’Esprit Humain from Pierre Daunou. Sophie de Grouchy prepared the edition and it was published in 1795. This edition was reprinted and revised at least twice by Grouchy (alone and with collaborators in 1802 and 1822), and it was translated into English the year it was first published.

In 1847, the Académicien François Arago, noted that the 1795 edition contained passages which were absent from Condorcet’s final manuscript. He produced a new edition with extensive revisions, which, he said, was closer to the original manuscript which he’d obtained from Grouchy and Condorcet’s daughter, Eliza O’Connor, and which he thought more accurate because in Condorcet’s hand. Arago’s edition is now regarded as authoritative. Not only was Grouchy’s name deleted from the work – where it did belong, perhaps as co-author and at the very least editor – but with it the emphasis she had placed on the role of women and the family in human development.

The problem with invisible ink, is that in order to make it appear by dousing it with lemon juice, you need to know that it’s there. But the ways in which women’s contributions have been erased make it very difficult to know where to look. Had Arago not deleted it, Grouchy’s name might not have become famous immediately – we would still have needed to investigate in order to recover her anonymous writings for Le Républicain, and even her Letters on Sympathy, but her name on Condorcet’s Sketch would have at least alerted us that there was a woman philosopher whose works might need recovering.

Sandrine Berges (www.sandrineberges.com) obtained her Ph.D. in  Leeds in 2000 and is Associate Professor in Philosophy at Bilkent University in Ankara. 

She works on the history of moral and political philosophy, with an emphasis on women’s writings. She is currently writing about three women of the French Revolution: Olympe de Gouges, Manon Roland and Sophie de Grouchy. She blogs about it here.

She is the co-founder of the Turkish-European Network for  the Study of Women Philosophers and of SWIP-TR.

Summer Reading: Part III


Leonardo Da Vinci, taccuino forster III, 1490 ca.

Here is the third installment of some of the books that the Blog’s editors have lined up for summer. From art history to critical theory, from fiction to poetry, we’ve got you covered if you’re looking for something to pick up during the academic off season.


Aside from my research-related and departmental work, my summer list is a bit wide-ranging, owing to the fact that it’s also basically a stack of books that have been set aside for when I had the time. Either way, I’m very excited about all of them. I’d love to hear your thoughts if and when you get to one of the books below!

The Drama of Social Life, Jeffrey Alexander: I studied under Alexander while I was at Yale and his theoretical approach has had a profound impact on my thinking, so I’ve been excited to get around to reading his latest for a while now. In it, he combines elements from dramaturgy and social theory to explore the central role “cultural pragmatics” plays in the political possibilities of social life. Gary Fine, a professor at Northwestern, said the book is one that “demand(s) to be read and discussed”.

Finding Mecca in America, Mucahit Bilici: What does Islam look like in the United States? Bilici draws from Simmel and Heidegger and develops a novel approach examining the gradual process by which American Muslims have navigated the journey from social periphery to citizenship. I’ve been meaning to get to this book for too long and have heard nothing but wonderful things from a wide variety of people.

Islam Translated, Ronit Ricci: Another book that’s haunted my shelf for longer than I’d like, Islam Translated explores the translation of the Book of One Thousand Questions into various Southeast Asian languages as a means of investigating the connections between Muslims in different contexts. It is, by all accounts, beautifully written, novel, and insightful. And given my area of study, probably critical.

The Ticket that Exploded, William S. Burroughs: I’ve never actually ready Burroughs’ prose before, but this book in particular has quite the reputation. The first of three novels that he wrote using the cut-up technique, it’s evidently mind-bending, dark, and enthralling. Personally, I’ve found that my brain works best when it sits with genius in fields far from my own. And that is certainly an apt description of Burroughs.


My recommendations come from the vantage point of the southern hemisphere, where we’re heading into the winter break and thus academic conference season. Consequently my reading time will be snatched in broken fragments from ‘plane flights and train journeys. It is fitting then that my list begins with Zone, a 2015 collection of some of Guillaume Apollinaire’s poetry and a book that can be read all at once or dipped into for a page here or there. Each poem is printed first in French and followed by an English version translated by Ron Padgett. Padgett is himself an accomplished poet and his talents as a wordsmith shine through in these translations. The result is a beautiful collection that showcases the richness and potentiality of both languages.

Earlier in the year I picked up a copy of Nobel Prize Winner Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II. As the title suggests, the book brings together hundreds of interviews conducted by Alexievich with Russian women about their experiences during the War. The result is a compelling and immersive history of the Second World War and a testament to how that war shaped the lives of the Russian women who survived it. It certainly gave me a great deal to contemplate as I embark upon a new research project that entails working with oral histories. Alexievich is definitely a master of the genre. She is probably best known for her sensitive rendering of the human cost of the Chernobyl catastrophe, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, through the eyewitness accounts of hundreds of survivors. If you enjoyed that, I guarantee The Unwomanly Face of War will also appeal. If you haven’t read Voices, then you should add that to your summer reading list too!

And finally, I cannot wait to read Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”. The book is the story of Cudjo Lewis, born Oluale Kossola, one of the last slaves brought to America. Kossola was brought across the Atlantic to Alabama from Dahomey (present day Benin) on the Clotilda in 1860, half a century after the slave trade was officially abolished. Hurston, studying to be an anthropologist, conducted a series of interviews with him in the late 1920s. By then, Kossola was the last living survivor of the middle passage crossing. The conversations between Hurston and Kossola are at the heart of Barracoon which Hurston wrote in the early 1930s. She took great pains to relate the cadence and form of Kossola’s storytelling in the book, capturing the African Creole of his speech patterns. This choice is, in part, why Barracoon has just been published for the first time. Publishers declined to take on her manuscript unless she ‘anglicized’ Kossola’s speech. Hurston defiantly refused. As a result, the manuscript languished in the archives for decades, read only by select historians who came across it in a private collection at Howard University.





Reading (with) Wollstonecraft

By Fiore Sireci. See the full companion article, “‘Writers Who Have Rendered Women Objects of Pity’: Mary Wollstonecraft’s Literary Criticism in the Analytical Review and A Vindication of the Rights of Womanin this season’s Journal of the History of Ideas.

How did Mary Wollstonecraft, the “mother of modern feminism,” spend her days in the year leading up to the publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)? Her reading audience had little clue about the private Wollstonecraft until she died just 5 ½ years later. At that point, her widower William Godwin pulled back the curtain on a life that Wollstonecraft had carefully kept from view while she built up an impressive public image. They were transfixed (and mostly scandalized) by the complexity, drama, and heartbreak of her story, but much of that drama and heartbreak happened after the publication of Rights of Woman. Nevertheless, Godwin’s Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798) set up a pattern that continued for nearly two centuries: a focus on her emotional journey rather than on her work life.[1] I’d like to ask the question anew and look at the Wollstonecraft of 1791, the Wollstonecraft who had a professional life as a well-established literary commentator, and see if this opens new perspectives on her most famous work.[2]

During her lifetime–before she was known as the reckless Wollstonecraft who had a child out of wedlock (1794), or the desperate Wollstonecraft who twice attempted suicide (1795), and even the political Wollstonecraft who wrote two Vindications–she was already well-respected as an anthologist, educator, translator, and as a very active reviewer of books, for which she was paid well. Due to the irreplaceable spade work of Ralph Wardle, and scholars such as Janet Todd, we now have a good idea of which of the many anonymous and semi-anonymous reviews in the liberal Analytical Review can be attributed to Wollstonecraft. By the time she wrote Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft had penned well over 200 of these, and by her death at age 38, over 350.


Wollstonecraft’s reviews are not merely a distant accompaniment to her ideas in Rights of Woman, or as some have suggested, a rehearsal of the “tart” language in her most famous book. Her professional practice helped shape Rights of Woman in both style and substance. Her primary argument, and innovation, is that gender is shaped by culture, but that argument is primarily activated by critiques of well-known texts, and those critiques are in turn the fruit of a long period of intellectual gestation as a literary commentator and theorist.[3] One of the most prevalent approaches was one that has frequently been used on Wollstonecraft herself, that is, to see the text as symptom, but she and her contemporaries did not do this blindly. They also undertook comparative analyses of passages within and between texts, looking for threads of sympathy, intellectual and otherwise. Wollstonecraft built on this practice and in Rights of Woman she presented evidence, in the form of “illustrations,” to demonstrate that text was a powerful factor in the social construction of gender.

Eighteenth-century literary critics also mastered the rhetorical art of casting themselves as characters with powerful feelings, and it was through these carefully crafted public selves that they hoped to sweep their readers along to agree with their points of view on anything from politics to how raise children. This was the heyday of emotionally embodied literary criticism. In non-fiction there was Addison’s easy coffee-club manner in the Spectator (early 1711-1714), Samuel Johnson’s cantankerous wisdom in his Rambler essays (1750-1752), and Clara Reeves’ wise literary woman in The Progress of Romance (1785). In fiction, we can consider Charlotte Lenox’ Female Quixote (1752) as well as the youthful Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (completed 1803). The reader-as-character was ubiquitous because reading itself was an issue of great concern and anxiety in an age when, as Jürgen Habermas has shown, the “literary public sphere” was where political change originated. Mary Wollstonecraft fully participated in this literary culture, presenting critical and profoundly thoughtful selves in both fictional and non-fictional genres (sorry for the somewhat anachronistic categories). In other words, the virtual Wollstonecraft was constructed over a number of years and in many different genres. She is: the brassy and empathic governess in Original Stories (1788, illustrated by William Blake), the judicious editor of readings for young women in The Female Reader (1789, contested attribution), and the righteous female republican in A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), but her most frequent appearance was as the sharp-witted, discerning, and often merciless book reviewer in Joseph Johnson’s monthly publication, the Analytical Review.

The demonstrative reader-writers of Wollstonecraft’s time sometimes resisted texts and other cultural forces, and sometimes dramatically gave in. In Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), the anti-revolutionary and increasingly conservative MP Edmund Burke recalls being moved to tears at seeing the young, graceful, royal figure of Marie Antoinette, so light, so ethereal her feet barely touched this corrupt “orb” of our earth. In her response, Wollstonecraft immediately recognized this fawning sentimental gesture as a familiar and potent literary move. But knowing that Burke was also an active reviewer (and founder of the Annual Register), as well as the youthful author of a treatise on the very topic of susceptibility to aesthetic stimuli, On the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), Wollstonecraft’s analysis of Burke traces the deep philosophical roots of his position, and in doing so her political argument is activated through cultural and literary criticism.[4]

Wollstonecraft’s extensive focus on books in her second Vindication was an extension of her approach in her first Vindication. Again, chronology illuminates. Rights of Men was completed in late 1790 and the second edition was published in early 1791. In the last section, Wollstonecraft promises a continuation and expansion of her literary approach:

And now I find it almost impossible candidly to refute your sophisms, without quoting your own words, and putting the numerous contradictions I observed in opposition to each other.

Rights of Woman was begun within weeks of this statement, if not earlier, and the first in depth critique in the book, which Susan Wolfson has dubbed “the genesis of feminist literary criticism,” features extensive quoting of John Milton and juxtaposition of passages from Paradise Lost. She does the same with Rousseau and many other writers throughout the book. Could it be, though, that Wollstonecraft had been pondering her great Vindication even before 1791, her thoughts on books nursed over the course of her experiences as a governess in Ireland, a founder of a girls’ school in the Dissenters’ community of Newington Green, and her job reading reams and reams of print since 1789?

In any event, between February and November of 1791, when it seems Rights of Woman was completed, Wollstonecraft had written another four or five dozen reviews. Some of these reviews picked up and extended the concerns of her growing literary critical practice, especially when she takes a good hard look at Rousseau’s Confessions, where she’s harder on her fellow critics than on Rousseau himself: “[T]hough we must allow that he had many faults which called for the forbearance of his friends, still what have his defects of temper to do with his writings?” This was written in December of 1791 when Rights of Woman was being typeset, a crucial fact when we juxtapose this statement with Wollstonecraft’s dismantling of Rousseau and other influential male writers in her treatise, sometimes accompanied by breathtaking ad hominem.

Speculations on the emotional state of an author are found throughout Rights of Woman. However, Wollstonecraft also takes a step back and questions the interpretive theory itself, as in this statement from Chapter 5: “But peace to his manes! I war not with his ashes, but his opinions,” and this is followed by another extraordinary implication: “I war only with the sensibility that led him to degrade woman by making her the slave of love.” In other words, she characterizes Jean-Jacques as himself subject to cultural and psychological pressures. The great man as vulnerable weather vane of culture appears again here: “Rousseau’s observations, it is proper to remark, were made in a country where the art of pleasing was refined only to extract grossness of vice,” in Chapter 5. Milton is also subject to a psychological reading. In Chapter 2, Wollstonecraft’s juxtaposition of allegedly contradictory passages from Paradise Lost is meant to reveal the emotional instability that can beset even the most respected writers. Wollstonecraft explains that, “into similar inconsistencies are great men often led by their senses.” Wollstonecraft places the most influential writers in the role that young women had been placed in for over a century, as hapless and indiscriminate readers sponging up cultural influences.

wollstonecraft advert

Wollstonecraft signals that a series of “fresh illustrations” structure the text

Rights of Woman presents an anti-canon of texts which had conspired over generations and across different societies to construct the feminine “character,” making the book a forensic treasure trove of gender normative evidence, annotated by an expert editor (and she had perhaps edited two anthologies by this time). In short, if we see A Vindication of the Rights of Woman as a continuation of her practice as a literary, political, and cultural commentator, then a new book comes into view, a book in which each text under consideration links to others, across genres and literary generations, as Wollstonecraft excavates a self-generating ideology of gender, or as she puts it so well: “The Prevailing Opinion of a Sexual Character Discussed.” The title of Chapter 2 is so perfect that she saw no need to give Chapter 3 a new title, calling it, “The Same Subject Continued.” In fact, these two chapters contain, by my quick count, at least 53 allusions, references, and quotations of influential texts, but not “influential” in the elitist sense. The primary criterion for inclusion is not how “great” a work is but how much of an effect it has had upon notions of femininity. In the midst of dismantling the work of an allegedly lascivious and condescending writer of conduct manuals, Wollstonecraft drops this hammer:

As these volumes are so frequently put into the hands of young people, I have taken more notice of them than, strictly speaking, they deserve; but as they have contributed to vitiate the taste, and enervate the understanding of many of my fellow-creatures, I could not pass them silently over.

We can look at Chapters 2 through 5 as a unit, one in which Wollstonecraft methodically works through a huge range of genres, generations, and authors. Chapter 5 itself is essentially a mini-anthology of five reviews, each covering a representative book or genre, and is the last chapter in the book to feature a rich interplay of texts. Chapter 6 is the proper and organic endpoint to the literary critical portion of the book, as it supplies a philosophical and physiological argument for the effect of texts upon impressionable minds. Again the title of the chapter says it so well: “The Effect which an Early Association of Ideas Has upon the Character,” apparently drawing on Joseph Hartley’s proto-psychological theories of how the mind is held in thrall by random ideas that group together and roam the mind in “posses” (which in turn come from a midcentury debate over John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding). In Chapter 6 in particular and in Rights of Woman in general, this analysis expands into a proto-feminist theory: “Everything that they see or hear serves to fix impressions, call forth emotions, and associate ideas, that give a sexual character to the mind,” and to pin part of the blame on books, she specifies that, “the books professedly written for their instruction, which make the first impression on their minds, all inculcate the same opinions.”

Wollstonecraft expands the view of the vulnerable recipients of gendered education to include male figures such as the great writers themselves, Milton, Rousseau, and “most of the male writers who have followed his steps.” Notions of gender identity don’t just turn young women’s heads, but also act upon authors, even quite established and otherwise judicious ones. That is why she saves her most biting epithets in Rights of Woman for writers, not readers, which constitutes a break from most of the reviews up to 1791. In conclusion, Rights of Woman is a brilliantly orchestrated set of literary commentaries. Who but a practicing educator, critic, and journalist could construct such a comprehensive anthology of texts which build an image of women’s “character” and back it up with pointed analysis of the authors she engages with? Who but a hardworking woman who spent her days earning a living by writing about books?


[1] To get an overview of the state of the art, it is worth a look at the Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, volume 4, but for women’s literary criticism of the long eighteenth century there is the gem, Women Critics, 1660-1820 (1995).

[2] One of the best treatments of the literary nature of Wollstonecraft’s first Vindication is still the brilliant and useful book by Virginia Sapiro, A Vindication of Political Virtue: The Political Theory of Mary Wollstonecraft (1992).

[3] A very notable exception was Emma Clough’s A Study of Mary Wollstonecraft and the Rights of Woman from 1898 (the work of one of the first female doctoral students in the United States).

[4] I am very much indebted to Virginia Sapiro, Mitzi Myers, Caroline Franklin, Mary Waters, Susan Wolfson,Daniel O’Neill, many others who have brought Wollstonecraft’s work as a professional reviewer further into the light.


Fiore Sireci (PhD Edinburgh) is on the faculty of Hunter College (CUNY) and The New School for Public Engagement, where he teaches interdisciplinary courses in literature, philosophy, and social history. Professor Sireci is a former Fulbright scholar in literature pedagogy. He has recently presented at the American Academy in Rome, publishes regularly on Mary Wollstonecraft, and is completing his second book, After Italy, a memoir and local history.