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Gnosticism in Postwar German Philosophy: An Interview with Willem Styfhals

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

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

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 This Gnostic world is an evil one from which God has withdrawn, hence there is no reason whatsoever to spiritually invest in it.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JC: What’s your next project?

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

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

Ancient history of science Intellectual history

Genres of Math: Arithmetic, Algebra, and Algorithms in Ancient Egyptian Mathematics

By contributing author E.L. Meszaros

As non-native readers of Egyptian hieratic and hieroglyphics, our understanding of the mathematics recorded in these languages must necessarily go through a process of translation. Such translation is both necessary to allow us to study these problems, but also precarious. If done improperly, it can prevent us from true understanding. One way that we approach translating Egyptian math problems is by grouping them into genres, using categorization to aid in our translation by thinking about problems as algebraic or geometric equations, crafting them into algorithms, or piecing together word problems from their prose. If the process of understanding Egyptian math problems relies so heavily on translation, and translation in turn is influenced by categorization, then we must consider how our processes of categorization impact our understanding of ancient Egyptian math. 

The necessity of translation for the modern study of ancient mathematics has been the source of a great schism within the community. In an infamous 1975 paper, Unguru argued that one of the unintentional consequences of translation was the attribution of algebraic thinking to these ancient cultures. Mathematicians and historians tend to translate the word problems of ancient Iraq or Egypt into the abstracted symbolic statements we are familiar with today. This has helped us to better understand ancient mathematical ideas, but has also done a disservice to the math itself. The process of abstraction manipulated the geometry or arithmetic of ancient math into algebra, a way of examining mathematical problems that Unguru argued these ancient cultures never used (78).

Image of a fragment of the Moscow Papyrus showing problem 14 on how to calculate the volume of a frustum. The top portion shows the original hieratic, which has been translated below into Egyptian hieroglyphics.

However, others have pushed back against Unguru. Van der Waerden suggests that Unguru has misunderstood “algebra” by attributing such importance to the symbolic representation of data. Rather, van der Waerden emphasizes the convenience of symbols as a way of interpreting, analyzing, and comparing data, rather than the structural language of understanding data (205). Freudenthal similarly takes umbrage with Unguru’s understanding of what algebra is. “Symbols,” he writes, “…are not the objects of mathematics…but rather they are part of the language by which mathematical objects are represented” (192).

We can compare the strict translation of an Egyptian word problem to its algebraic translation by looking at problem 14 of the Moscow Papyrus.

Prose English translation:
Method of calculating a / ̄\.
If you are told a / ̄\ of 6 as height, of 4 as lower side, and of 2 as upper side.
You shall square these 4. 16 shall result.
You shall double 4. 8 shall result.
You shall square these 2. 4 shall result.
You shall add the 16 and the 8 and the 4. 28 shall result. 
You shall calculate  ̅3 of 6. 2 shall result.
You shall calculate 28 times 2. 56 shall result.
Look, belonging to it is 56. What has been found by you is correct. (Translation by Imhausen 33)

Algebraic Translation:
V = 6 (22 + (2*4) + 42)/3

Abstracted Algebraic Translation:
V = h (a2 + ab + b2)/3
h (height) = 6
a (base a) = 2
b (base b) = 4
V = volume

The algebraic translations are at once easier to take in but also visibly shorter, clearly missing information that the prose translation contains.

As an alternative to these translation techniques, Imhausen proposes the use of algorithms. Imhausen suggests that we translate Egyptian mathematical problems into a “defined sequence of steps” that contain only one individual instruction (of the type “add,” “subtract,” etc.) (149). These algorithms can still represent math problems in multiple ways. A numerical algorithm preserves the individual values used within Egyptian problems, while a symbolic form abstracts the actual numbers into placeholders (152). 

Numeric Algorithmic Translation:

  1. 42 = 16
  2. 4 x 2 = 8
  3. 22 = 4
  4. 16 + 8 + 4 = 28
  5.  ̅3 x 6 = 2
  6. 2 x 28 = 56

Here the first three numerical values are the given bases and height from the problem. The unfamiliar ” ̅3″ is the standard way of writing a fraction of 3, namely 1/3, in ancient Egyptian math.

Symbolic Algorithmic Translation:

  1. D22
  2. D2 x D3
  3. D32
  4. (1) + (2) + (3)
  5.  ̅3 x D1
  6. (5) x (4)

Drawing out the scaffolding of the problem by defining such algorithms allows scholars to easily compare math problems. The abstraction into symbols, the removal of extraneous information, and the sequential rendering allow us to more easily notice variation or similarity between problems (“Algorithmic Structure” 153). Imhausen suggests that identifying the substructure encoded beneath the language of presentation allows us to compare individual math problems not only with each other, to generate groups of mechanisms for solving and systems of similar problems, but also to look cross-culturally. Breaking down problems from Mesopotamia, China, and India may reveal similarities in their underlying algorithmic structures (158). 

The generation of algorithmic sequences from Egyptian word-based math problems does not solve all of our translation problems, however. Any act of translation, no matter how close it remains to the original language, is a choice that necessitates forgoing certain options. It also allows for the insertion of biases on the part of the translator themselves—or rather, such insertion is unavoidable.

In the example from the Moscow Papyrus, for example, the initial given values of the frustum are not specifically identified. The images from the original problem are missing, as are the verbs for the mathematical operations. Imhausen herself points out that this algorithmic form reduces some interesting features. The verb “double” in the original problem, for example, is replaced with “x 2” in the algorithmic translation (75). Making these changes requires us to confront the choice between algorithmic structure and staying true to the source material. “Fixing” these differences allows us to more easily compare math problems, but also presumes that we know what was intended.

The translation of Egyptian math problems into schematic algorithmic sequences is, therefore, not without its own set of problems. While Imhausen claims that they avoid some of the pitfalls of translation into algebraic equations that have so divided the community (158), algorithm interpretations are still likely to present the material in a way that differs from how ancient mathematicians thought about their own material. However, when applied carefully, such mapping may provide valid interpretations of these texts and a focal point for comparison.

Thinking about the genre of translation, the use of algebraic or geometric or algorithmic tools to interpret ancient math, is important for a number of reasons. We have already seen that the choice of genre impacts ease of understanding. Modern scholars used to thinking about math problems in an algebraic format will, unsurprisingly, read algebraic translations more easily. But these choices also impact what aspects of the original we preserve — algebraic translations lose information about the order of operations and remove the language used to present the problem.

However, paying attention to generic classification can also prevent us from reading ancient math problems with the “Western” lens. While algebraic interpretations are an artifact of modern scholarship, they are also an artifact of European scholarship. Too often the idea of geometry is put forward as an entirely Greek invention, while algebra is thought of as belonging to Renaissance Europe. By privileging these ways of thinking about ancient math problems we may be inherently white-washing native Egyptian thinking. Prioritizing algebraic interpretations, even if they aid in understanding, work to translate Egyptian math into the more familiar “Western” vernacular. Instead, scholars should work with the unfamiliar and think about these math problems without filtering them through these modern concepts.

Regardless of who one sides with in the debate between algebra and arithmetic, prose and algorithm, we must be cognizant of the fact that categorizing ancient Egyptian math is a conscious choice that influences how these problems are understood. Much like the act of translation itself, categorization is a process that is inherently influenced by the biases—intentional or otherwise—of the scholar. There may be nothing wrong with thinking about Moscow 14 in terms of an algebraic equation as long as we understand that this is an act of translation from the original and, therefore, reflects a reduced understanding of the native problem itself and incorporates aspects of the translator’s biases.

Which is all to say: tread carefully, because even numbers are not immune to the bias of translation.

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

Intellectual history What We're Reading

Winter Reading Recommendations

See what our editors have been reading this season


The Implicated Subject: Beyond Victims and Perpetrators by Michael Rothberg (Stanford, 2019). Michael Rothberg’s latest book is a staggering work of genuinely intersectional theory and global memory studies. He begins by interrogating the politics of identification pervasive today on social media—phrases such as “Je suis Charlie” and “We are all Travon Martin.” Rothberg is critical of such facile gestures of identification because they always seem to align the subject with victimization that they may not actually be subjected to. Instead, he explores ethical responses to violence that resist such trite liberal gestures of identification such as the counter-slogan “We are not Trayvon.” This refusal not only affirms the specificity of who is targeted in the racialized violence that killed Martin, namely young unarmed black men in America. It also indicates a new, complicit or implicated subject position, in this case “white Americans recounting experiences of privilege or dawning awareness of being part of a racist society.” For example, as one social media user wrote: “I am not Trayvon because I pass.” The counter-slogan “becomes an occasion to mark another kind of belonging: the speaker’s implication in the conditions that contributed to Trayvon’s murder… it creates the opportunity to claim a kind of responsibility for Martin’s death and the deaths of many others like him.”

Rothberg develops Primo Levi’s idea of the ethical “grey zone” between victims and perpetrators in Holocaust concentration camps into a nuanced ethical theory of “the implicated subject,” an involved bystander who participates in events and structures over which they often have little control. This serves as a new moral category between bystander and perpetrator that calls for political responsibility on a much broader scale than narrower legalistic categories of guilt or complicity for historical violence. It provides an ethical framework in which to make sense of Rothberg’s personal feeling of responsibility for reparations for the injustice of slavery in America even though his family immigrated to America only after the turn of the twentieth century. He and others in his position benefit from white privilege even though they are not “guilty” in a legal sense. He cites Ta-Nehisi Coates making the case for reparations to descendants of enslaved people: slavery is a “crime that implicates the entire American people.” “Structural implication” names such ethical obligation stemming from participation in or benefitting from power structures that cause violence even over long periods of time and space, such as capitalism, imperialism, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and climate change.

The book includes fascinating chapters on memory and justice in a globally interconnected and “multidirectional” world, ranging across legacies of violence from the Holocaust, to Israel/Palestine, to Kurdistan, to apartheid South Africa, to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and its legacies of racialized violence in America. It concludes with eleven theses that will be useful for scholars working on ethics and historical violence across the humanities. To share just a few: “4. Interlocking systems of oppression create dilemmas of collective political responsibility that cannot be reduced to assignations of legalistic guilt.” “6. On both [synchronic and diachronic] intertwined axes, implicated subjects—subjects who are neither purely victim not perpetrator—play essential roles in producing and reproducing violence and inequality.” “7. Many people find themselves ‘complexly’ implicated: with lines of direct or indirect connection to histories of both victimization and perpetration.” Rothberg has given us a badly needed ethical framework with which to understand and interrelate injustices both historical and contemporary.


When I tell people that I am doing a PhD in history, their immediate reaction is often to ask me what my favorite history book is. For most historians, this is a slightly difficult question to answer. There are so many books that we all love equally. We love some of them for the questions they ask, some for the sheer brilliance of writing, and some for the profound impact they have had on our own thinking. However, given how frequently I find myself answering this question, I now have a well-rehearsed script. I almost always begin by admitting that I am somewhat embarrassed by my own choice. There are two reasons for this embarrassment. First, I have only read that book once (In my defence, it is a long and complex book that deserves to be read with extreme care and patience). Second, the book is very far from my own field of interest which is early modern British political and religious history. Once I have laid the foundation of what I hope will prove to be an interesting conversation, I gently drop the name of the book that, I think, inspired, enthralled and delighted me like no other work of historical scholarship. This book is, of course,  William Cronon’s magnificent 1992 study Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. The next step is to walk my interlocutor thoroughly through what the book does. This generally takes the form of a neat (or so I think) summary of the book’s key aim to break new ground in commercial and environmental history by writing a narrative of Chicago’s rise to economic power over the course of the nineteenth-century. 

Almost every time I have this conversation, I sit and ask myself why is it that I loved this book so much when I first read it in 2014 and why I simply can’t stop gifting it to people. I think it had something to do with the fact that I read it when I was going through a rather difficult time in college and desperately looking for inspiration, intellectual and otherwise. I had a tough term and, at the end of it, I decided to make my way to the Seminary co-op, the truly marvelous book-store near the University of Chicago (if you are ever in town, please make a trip. It won’t disappoint) to look for that one book that would fire up my imagination like no other. Given my rather niche interests, I didn’t look much beyond the history section but that was a rather large one. To narrow down my search, I decided that I wanted to read something vastly different from my own interests. That didn’t help very much either. Ultimately, I settled on reading something about Chicago, the city that I had, by that point, lived in for about three years but whose history I knew virtually nothing about. Thankfully, my eyes caught sight of Nature’s Metropolis and, after remembering the academic legend of Cronon (he had apparently published his first book, the phenomenal Changes in the Land, while he was still a graduate student and, by his own admission, the book was based on a seminar paper he had written over the course of four sleepless nights), I purchased it and dutifully carried it back to my apartment.  

It will be sufficient to say that the book simply blew my mind. I had expected a somewhat straightforward narrative of Chicago’s history as the centre of midwestern commerce. I most certainly got that but the book offered so much more that is hard to capture in a few sentences. But I’ll try. First of all, Cronon is a phenomenal writer. I never knew that grain elevators could be this exciting. However, his profound interest in explaining how nearly everything worked and then relating it back to the bigger questions that he was asking was awe-inspiring. Second, I loved how personal the book is. Cronon grew up not too far from Chicago and he goes to great lengths to explain why he wrote the book. The explanations range from his deep and abiding love for the city to a need for historians to once again integrate town and country after the two had been unfairly separated from each other by several generations of historical scholarship. Third, the book is very good at explaining why it was Chicago and not St. Louis or Columbus that emerged as the hub of mid-western commerce in the nineteenth-century. To my young and impressionable mind, this showed the great importance of never taking things for granted and always looking for more complex explanations behind the seemingly obvious. 

So, if you are looking for a great book to read this winter break, please do consider Nature’s Metropolis. It will also make a fantastic gift. Speaking from experience, almost everyone, regardless of what they do for a living, will find something of interest in it. In the immortal words of my college roommate who read my copy of the book, “this sh*t is amazing.” (He has since gone down the dark path of business school but I think Nature’s Metropolis will eventually save him in the long run) 


Perhaps it is the impending doom of the UK elections and, a bit further down the line, those in the US, or perhaps it is the strikes of the University and College Union (UCU) and the Harvard Graduate Student Union currently rippling across Anglophone academia—either way, there have been a number of scholarly contributions in recent weeks that seek to assess the legacy of economic thought and probe its applicability for our times of apparent political-economic crisis. See, for example, David Graeber’s “Against Economics” just published in the New York Review of Books, a take-down of monetarism and the “hard-money philosophy” fueling it that is loosely based on a review of Robert Skidelsky’s Money and Government: The Past and Future of Economics (Yale University Press, 2019). As Graeber argues along with Skidelsky, economics have long been defined by two competing theoretical frameworks that essentially hinge upon diverging definitions of money: one takes it as a physical entity, the other one as a social construct. Again and again, the story goes, the understanding of money as physical commodity, formalized in academic circles as the quantity theory of money (QTM), has won out as the dominant interpretative framework despite inevitably producing financial crises. In particular, Graeber argues that it is the „microfoundations” of this approach, i.e. the assumption of purely rational actors, that enable a certain kind of neoliberal macroeconomics and preclude theoretical alteration that he believes to be crucial for understanding contemporary economic problems and any political attempts to remedy them. “Economic theory as it exists,” he concludes, “increasingly resembles a shed full of broken tools. This is not to say there are no useful insights here, but fundamentally the existing discipline is designed to solve another century’s problems.”

Unsurprisingly, John Maynard Keynes and his rivalry with the likes of Friedrich Hayek loom large in this history of now “untimely economics.” Yet, it is useful to recall that imperialism, equally if not more so than the politics of the nation-state that Graeber explicitly frames his analysis in, offered decisive incentives for the theorization of the economy on both sides of the political spectrum, a point prominently made by Manu Goswami on Keynes in “Crisis Economics: Keynes and the End of Empire” (Constellations, 2018) and Quinn Slobodian on Hayek and the Mont Pelerin Society in Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (Harvard University Press, 2018). Equally, as Geoff Mann argues in a piece in Foreign Policy rather polemically titled “Socialism’s Biggest Hero Is a Bourgeois British Capitalist”, there have been many appropriations of Keynesianism across the political spectrum since its rise to prominence in the mid-20th century. As the aftermath of the 2008 crisis has shown, “although virtually always associated with the left, [Keynesianism] is neither entirely welcome on the left nor entirely unwelcome on the right.”

At the same time, a number of economic thinkers have tried to move beyond the general impasse identified by Graeber. Consider, for example, the forum on Economics after Neoliberalism in the Boston Review earlier this year. Or, more contentiously, the feud between Perry Anderson and Adam Tooze, with Anderson’s indictment of the “centrist liberalism” that he sees characterizing Tooze’s work in the New Left Review and Tooze’s pending response. Following Tooze’s earlier reflections on the link between Foucault and economic thinking, the center of this debate, it would seem, is marked by the old question of epistemology. What is “the economy,” and how can it be both deconstructed and historicized on the one hand and used as a basis for progressive policies against economic inequality on the other? Katrina Forrester, meanwhile, in her review of Colin Crouch’s Will the Gig Economy Prevail? (Polity, 2019) in the London Review of Books, asks a slightly different question that aims to further investigates the inherent link between economics and politics: “What Counts as Work?” Given the changes in the structure of the economy over the past decades and the increasing casualization of employment—the very circumstances that many of the workers in academia mentioned above are protesting—we might have to rethink the terms in which economic debates are framed. “The real question, perhaps, isn’t whether stability is enough,” Forrester observes, “but whether the stabilisation of capitalism is all we want.”


The political magazine Dissent published a recent issue dedicated to the question of how left politics has been championed in rural America, and why that history has been erased from our imagination of “the country.” The introduction to the issue begins by noting how rural life has become an “increasingly obscure abstraction” as local new outlets decline and cultural cliches proliferate. Those abstractions elide real differences, but they do not stop individuals from deeply identifying with their own part of the “country” as particularly their own. Raymond Williams holds that abstraction and that particular identification with rural experience together, analyzing their historical relationship in his criticism and expressing their interactions in his prose, in The Country and the City (1974). In his opening chapter, the influential cultural theorist and critic nimbly moves between his argument about the ways English literature has depicted the relationship of the title, and this “personal pressure and commitment” to writing the book which lies “behind it, all the time.” Williams was born and raised in a working-class family near the town of Abergavenny in southeast Wales. His move from that rural community to the university town of Cambridge and his academic career there led him to reflect on how the pastoral literature he read did not represent the “many meanings” of country life as he remembered them. My own understanding of those meanings of life near the southern Welsh border with England could not be more “obscure,” but still his account resonated with me. My great-great grandparents emigrated from a small Welsh town, also near Abergavenny, in the late nineteenth century. I travelled from London to see it for the first time last year. 

Welsh countryside near Abergavenny

Their journey from a small iron-working town to the prodigious industrial city of Pittsburgh across the Atlantic is one of many such stories of the shifting economic relations between the country and the city, the dislocations they bring, and the nostalgia they foster. Williams’ book is so perceptive because he illustrates how that longing for a pre-industrial, placid countryside does not just misrepresent the history of rural communities, but often justifies the economic transformations that undermine them. Visions of pastoral escape away from the greed and double-dealing of the city, for instance, obscures how those deal-making London merchants increasingly relied on wealth extracted from the labor of agrarian workers in social relations that only poets could depict as tranquil. Williams places those visions of pastoral “Golden Ages” within the history of an agrarian capitalism that began to change the country in the seventeenth century. This critical perspective is particularly valuable for those thinking about how to respond to the “obscure abstraction” on which we increasingly rely to think about the country. It is not always enough to unmask nostalgic politics as inaccurate representations of the past, when we can ask how the particular shape of that past has made those visions feel so accurate, or so aspirational. 

arabic book history Intellectual history Literature philology religious history

The Problem of Authorship and Pseudepigraphy in Islamic Intellectual History

By W. Sasson Chahanovich

Why should we care about the author? The answer to this question is not self-evident. While Roland Barthes may have declared the “death of the author” over half a century ago, the author as existential personhood, as cultural celebrity, and as value marker still lives on in both critical theory and in historical research (Barthes, “La mort de l’auteur”). This is what Michel Foucault identified as “author function,” by which he means that the author as ‘name-on-work’ can have more relevance beyond identifying an historical individual or limiting the parameters of what we today call intellectual property (Foucault, Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology, 205–222). While the problem of the author has made much methodological headway in fields like the Classics, Jewish and early Christian studies, and literary theory, Islamic intellectual history still lacks a systematic assessment of the concept of the author (e.g. kātib, mu’allif). Moreover, no research exists on the topic of ‘forgery,’ i.e. pseudepigraphy, which is the much-maligned twin of the canonical notion of the trustworthy author.

Specifically, Classicists still remind us that Homer qua actual historical ‘author’ may be fiction. Yet so they also problematize the issue of authorship by simultaneously noting that, while an unknown composer ‘penned’ the textual artifacts known as The Iliad and The Odyssey, Homer’s name still has value; it limits the meaning of the text. Likewise, historians of Christianity point out time and again the many forgeries (10 to 13) present in the New Testament. They are also quick to point out that this evidently has had little effect on the faith communities who accept them as inspired works. As Karen King notes, “while they, too, were not indifferent about false attribution and forgery, their concerns pertained to authority, prestige, and character rather than to modern economic and legal considerations…”(King, “‘What Is an Author?’,” 17).

In contrast, only a handful of Islamic historians have touched on pseudepigraphy or ‘forgery,’ a normative epithet that should be applied cautiously. This is remarkable given the spans of the textual archive of Islamic intellectual history. After all, three of its major written languages – Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman Turkish – functioned as the authorial/scribal language from the Atlantic to Central Asia. Even in the earliest days of Orientalistik, philologically minded German scholars largely ignored the question of authorship. Not even Ignaz Goldziher or Theodor Nöldeke, two of the leading names in the early days of Islamwissenschaft,debated the value of falsified texts. Only the canonical literature counted.

Only more recently have some scholars taken up this neglected field, especially concerning pseudepigraphy. For example, Roberto Tottoli has discussed the eschatological corpora commonly mislabeled as the Conditions of Resurrection (Aḥwāl al-qiyāmah) (Tottoli, “Muslim Eschatological Literature,” 452-477). Michael Pregill has analyzed the early, biblically infused Islamic legend-cum-homiletic material known as the isrā’iliyyāt. In particular, Pregill revisits the “function” of the names of several early, well-attested transmitters and their biographies as Jewish converts to Islam (Pregill, “Isrā’īlliyāt, Myth, and Pseudepigraphy,” 220). In a confessional context, the authorial identity of these names weighs heavy on the concept of religious truth. Gabriel Said Reynolds has addressed the Islamic polemic of Jewish and Christian “distortion” (taḥrīf) of their own holy scriptures. Thus, Muḥammad and the compilers of the Qurʾān-qua-codex implicitly move onto the historical stage as the most trustworthy authors and editors. Historians of Islam stand to enrich our understanding of scientific and cultural output if they were to investigate the modes of authorship and its mutations across genre, linguistic idiom, and cultural context.

The archive of Islamic intellectual history has much more to offer us that remains entirely untouched. Pseudepigraphic material and even outright forgeries are abundant, especially in the early modern period. For example, in the Süleymaniye Archival Library in Istanbul, two copies (Mss. Ayasofya 2246 and 2247) exist of an anti-trinitarian polemic titled the Kind Response (al-Radd al-ğamīl), which is attributed to Abū Ḥāmid al-Ġazālī (d. 1111). This is none other than the clerical curmudgeon and author of the Incoherence of the Philosophers (Tahāfut al-falāsifah), who is popularly held to have killed Islamic philosophy. Even august Islamic scholars like Louis Massignon and A.J. Arberry took the attribution at face value and promoted the text as a bona fide part of al-Ġazālī’s oeuvre (Massignon, “Le Christ dans les evangiles selon al-Ghazālı̄,” 523-536; Arberry, Aspects of Islamic Civilization, 300-307). Yet an examination of the manuscript quickly throws the certainty of its authorship into question. If we cannot definitively ascertain the authorship, what resonance did al-Ġazālī’s name have for the readers of this text? For now, it is safe to assume that the great theologian’s name exhibited an appeal, much like that of a Paul of Tarsus, that enhanced the theological importance and historical weight of the text.

In a similar vein, there existed a whole cottage industry of pseudepigraphic authors and misattributions surrounding the name of Islam’s most famous Sufi master, Ibn al-ʿArabī (d. 1240). One of the most widely circulated and commented works by these anonymous authors was The Tree of Nuʿmān (al-Šağarah al-nuʿmāniyyah, see Fig. 1). This eschatological and esoteric work not only prophesies the End of the World, but it also identifies the Ottoman sultans as the gatekeepers of the Resurrection. Whoever the real author was, the authorial motivation was in part practical. The prophecy received a wider readership and greater credibility with the name of Ibn al-ʿArabī backing it up. Thus, one may speak, as Laura Nasrallah has done, of both al-Ġazālī and Ibn al-ʿArabī as having lived “authorial afterlives”; the specter of their names lingers down the halls of reader reception (Nasrallah, “‘Out of Love for Paul’,” 93).

Another instance of authorial afterlife and mistaken attribution surrounds the apocalyptic work variably titled the Comprehensive Prognosticon (al-Ğafr al-ğāmiʿ), the Key to the Comprehensive Prognosticon (Miftāḥ al-ğafr al-ğāmiʿ), or the Orderly Pearl (al-Durr al-munaẓẓam) (for example, see Kâtip Çelebi, Kašf al-ẓunūn, 605). As much as the title is unstable, so too is its authorship a moving target. Toufic Fahd attempted to stabilize the situation by attributing the Comprehensive Prognosticon to Ibn Ṭalḥah (d. 1254), a little known esoteric Sufi practitioner, and the Key or the Orderly Pearl as interchangeable titles of a commentary on the former composed by the greater known esoteric Sufi ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Bisṭāmı̄ (d. 1454) (Fahd, La divination arabe, 228-229). This simple distinction does not pan out in the archive, however. Titles are more the product of later scribal hands and therefore subject to variation. One such Prognosticon (Süleymaniye Ms. Bağdatlı Vehbi 915) is even attributed to ʿAlī b. Abı̄ Ṭālib, the Prophet Muḥammad’s cousin, son-in-law, and fourth Caliph (see Fig. 2). Second, the oldest known copy of the Key (Süleymaniye Ms. Hafid Efendi 204, dated 899 AH/1493 CE) evinces no awareness of Bisṭāmı̄ as copyist or commentator. More recently, perhaps due to the popularity of Bisṭāmı̄, Ibn Ṭalḥah has been excised from the genealogy of this esoteric corpus. How, in this case, does one author-commentator become preferred over the primary source composer?

A final example of authorial function is the instance of works that never were. Much like in Judaism or Christianity, fabricated texts – real or imagined, canonical or extra-canonical – gained an aura of greater legitimacy when attributed to some ancient and revered figure. Thus, the Book of Daniel is attributed to the legendary hero Daniel, and the apocalypse of Enoch to the antediluvian patriarch Enoch. In Islam, there is an entire esoteric tradition built up around ʿAlī b. Abı̄ Ṭālib. As they developed the Islamic esoteric tradition, Sunnī and Shīʿı̄ Muslims alike imagined a corpus of non-existent books such as the Small Book of Ǧafr (Kitāb al-ğafr al-ṣaġīr) and the Book of ʿAlı̄ (Kitāb ʿAlī) and assigned them to ʿAlī, the last of the Rightly Guided Caliphs. An author’s name thus created meaning both in texts and around the ideas themselves, abstract or imagined though they may be.

The problem of authorship is therefore a promising field of inquiry for scholars of Islamic intellectual history. Perhaps more interesting than the well-established textual tradition, anonymous authors and creative scribes in the archive present us with an opportunity to rethink our approach to title pages. Our blithe certainty about the lives of writers, their texts, and their circulation sets us up for missing the big picture. The forgery needn’t always be bad news.


Fig. 1: Süleymaniye Ms. Beyazıd 4609, fol. 4a. Here, Ps. Ibn al-ʿArabī refers to his own grave in the third person. He also uses the epithet “Reviver of Religion” (muḥyī al-dı̄n), highlighted here in red. This is a superlative used more commonly in the Ottoman empire to refer to their patron saint. Otherwise, in autograph works the great mystic only referred to himself as Abū ʿAbd Allāh.

Fig. 2: Süleymaniye Ms. Hafid Efendi 204, fol. 5a. The title given in red identifies the work as The Big Prognosticon and attributes the text to ʿAlī b. Abı̄ Ṭālib. Yet in the first line, highlighted here in red, we are presented with the title Comprehensive Prognosticon more commonly associated with Ibn Ṭalḥah. This manuscript does not match the standard opening of Ibn Ṭalḥah’s work but does contain overlaping sections and diagrams.

W. Sasson Chahanovich is a Ph.D. candidate in Islamic Intellectual History at Harvard’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, where he is writing his thesis on Ottoman eschatological enthusiasm. Sasson is also currently developing a project that reconsiders the connections between Islamic, Jewish, and Christian apocalypticism in the early modern period.

German history Intellectual history nationalism Think Piece

Transatlantic Cooperation and the Virtues of Joint Authorship

By J. Laurence Hare and Fabian Link

Studying history can be a lonely enterprise. While historians in the United States eagerly cultivate a sense of community through conferences, working groups, and edited volumes, their moments of cooperation are few and far between, at best bringing like-minded peers together only a few times per year. As the saying goes, it may take a village to study the past, but the work of the villagers too often unfolds in isolation. Across the Atlantic, the German history research landscape seems more open to collaboration. Some of the most interesting projects today center on standing working groups, state-supported research centers, and university consortia. To name just one example, the Berlin Center for the History of Knowledge connects scholars in a number of subfields to a multidisciplinary network that aims to foster a broadly-conceived area of inquiry. In this way, scholars are able to move beyond the confines of the university, working more closely with like-minded peers, pooling resources, and thereby lending their labors to large questions and innovative new approaches.

The American academy could certainly learn from the German example, but the more individualistic habits of American scholars are also instructive for their European counterparts. One of the drawbacks of the institutionalized and systemic model of collaboration in Germany, for instance, is its tendency to create hierarchies and impose a collective intellectual rigidity, the fruits of a habitus against which Pierre Bourdieu famously warned in Homo Academicus. Such bad habits, masquerading as objectivity, can and do inhabit the historical discipline in the U.S., but the American scholar may feel more liberated to pursue a research topic with less regard for ideological or political positioning. A more deeply-incorporated liberal mindset typically means that U.S.-based historians may investigate a wide variety of topics, even those that might be politically controversial, while their German peers tend to choose subjects prescribed by the authorities in the intellectual field.

Inevitably, such observations invite exaggeration, but when we––two historians of modern Germany working on both sides of the Atlantic––embarked upon our own shared research projects, we found that the differences in our respective orientations warranted consideration. They created challenges, but they also presented remarkable opportunities for rethinking our approaches. At the same time, they showed us that the benefits of joint research and co-authorship are undervalued in both American and European historical practice. For our colleagues in the natural and social sciences, joint work is the norm and is seen as essential to tackling the conceptual and empirical difficulties of contemporary science. For historians, however, it is a rarity. In part, this stems from institutional obstacles. With the exception of some digital humanities scholarship, few history programs incentivize collaborative projects, and many explicitly warn scholars that joint authorship on research publications may be viewed as unproductive on the tenure track. At the same time, there are methodological difficulties unique to history. The challenge of tracking patterns and piecing together narratives across texts requires habits of reading that are tough to communicate with a partner, yet we have found that cooperation has a tremendous value for interpreting empirical findings. This is especially the case when historians from different backgrounds bring together their unique perspectives and approaches to sources.

These observations became clear to us through our independent research into the history of academic networks and cooperation in the social sciences, which led us to reflect on our own practices. Moreover, we were influenced by the nature of our historical training, particularly with the help of a shared mentor, Konrad H. Jarausch, who at the time was both Lurcy Professor of European Civilization at the University of North Carolina and Director of the Institute for Contemporary History in Potsdam, Germany. Jarausch has long been highly respected as a transatlantic scholar, and his research and teaching have done much to foster transatlantic networks within the field of German history (see Meng/Seipp 2018). While studying in Chapel Hill with Jarausch, we discovered that we were pursuing the same topic––the history of archaeology in Germany––but from very different angles. Link’s project, which studied the development of research on medieval castles in the era of the Third Reich, relied upon an intensive study of sources connected to relatively narrow temporal and thematic parameters (Link 2014). Hare’s work adopted a more macroscopic view of archaeology and museums as instruments of nationalist movements and political conflict in northern Germany and Denmark over two centuries (Hare 2015). In some ways, the two books that emerged from these projects reflected prevailing attitudes within the contemporary German and American academies. Where the former connected Link very closely to social science approaches and detailed debates about the quality of nationalist, so-called völkisch research in Germany during the mid-twentieth century, the latter maintained a more narrative, humanities-oriented approach intersecting meaningfully but loosely with broader concerns about the process of identity creation, the representation of cultural memory, and the dynamics of conflict and cooperation in borderlands.

We chose to work together to extend our previous research along a new line of questions and thereby reframe the assumed parameters of the academic conversations in which we were engaged. For instance, where Link inquired into the degree to which völkisch scholarship was methodologically innovative beyond its odious content, and where Hare explored the ways in which archaeologists balanced their nationalist perspectives with their commitments to international academic norms, we could now ask more generally about the changing parameters of acceptable science over time. With this in mind, we embarked on a collaborative venture that produced two jointly authored essays. Each utilized a broad time scale combined with close consideration of key texts or scholarly projects. The first of these was a reconsideration of the notion of pseudoscience in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By specifically examining the Nazi-supported archaeological excavations at the medieval Viking trading village of Haithabu in Schleswig-Holstein, we were able to tie the assumptions of German archaeologists in the 1930s to older traditions in scientific practice, and in so doing we showed how postwar dismissals of Nazi scholarship as pseudoscientific were connected to a broader move to narrow the confines of “normal” scholarship (Link/Hare in Black/Kurlander 2015). Following up on this work, we then tackled the larger völkisch research complex, a conglomeration of academics and investigations cutting across the social sciences and humanities, which were closely tied to right-wing nationalist movements after the end of the First World War. We wanted to understand how the scholars working within this complex oriented themselves to the evolving terrain of mainstream science. To accomplish this, we focused on the ways in which they approached a common domain of inquiry, the concept of Volk, which denoted both physical and spiritual membership in an ethnic or national community. We traced scholarly attempts to define and reify the idea of Volk back to the late eighteenth century, when the crystallization of the Volk as a philosophical concept first made it a subject of academic study. As we showed in our article, the possibility of empirical inquiry remained consistently tantalizing but ultimately irreconcilable with the inherent “ontological dilemma” that posited the concept as both material and transcendental. As the notion of Volk became increasingly tied to national belonging in Germany during the late nineteenth century, its allure as a transcendental inspiration for scholarship increased, even as the narrowing confines of post-Darwinian science forced scholars to define their subject in more materialist terms.

Among the fruits of our research was a revised timeline for the development of völkisch research. Instead of centering analysis on the interwar period, which witnessed the most prolific production of völkisch scholarship, we shifted the narrative back to the nineteenth century, during which time the early conceptual space for the field steadily eroded and drove scholars into ever more untenable accommodations. This helped us understand why so many scholars aligned their work first with nationalist movements and later with the Third Reich. It also explained why these fields vanished so thoroughly after the end of the Second World War, leaving behind only the empirical methodologies that have so intrigued contemporary historians.

As the historical profession steadily increases its reach, eclipsing the spatial, temporal, and thematic boundaries that formerly defined the field, it is worth thinking about how future jointly-authored projects can similarly expand history’s methodological horizons. In practical terms, it makes sense for teams of historians to consider article-length projects, which may in the short term be more palatable to skeptical peers than monographs. In any case, we hope that the interpretative success that we have enjoyed in our joint work might inspire others to reach out to colleagues across the Atlantic or to other parts of the world to seek a fresh perspective or to generate new historical questions. At the same time, we would hope that such work might come to be discussed and debated, but also accepted and valued, within history programs everywhere.

Laurence Hare is Associate Professor of History and Director of the International & Global Studies Program at the University of Arkansas. He holds a Ph.D. in modern European history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and specializes in the intellectual and cultural history of Germany and Scandinavia. He is the author of Excavating Nations: Archaeology, Museums, and the German-Danish Borderlands (Toronto, 2015) and Essential Skills for Historians: A Practical Guide to Researching the Past (Bloomsbury, 2020).

Fabian Link is associate professor in the Department of History at the  Johann-Wolfgang-Goethe-University Frankfurt am Main. His major  research fields are modern German intellectual history, the history of the humanities and social sciences, and the history of science from the Enlightenment to the Cold War. He is the author of Burgen und Burgenforschung im Nationalsozialismus: Wissenschaft und Weltanschauung 1933-1945 (Vienna: Böhlau, 2014), “Castle Studies and the Idea of Europe,” German Studies Review 38, no. 3 (2015), and, together with Mark. W. Hornburg, “’He Who Owns the Trifels, Owns the Reich’: National Socialist Medievalism and the Creation of the Volksgemeinschaft in the Palatinate”, Central European History 46, no. 2 (2016). He is currently completing a monograph on the history of the social sciences in Cold War West Germany.

Colonialism empire gender Intellectual history Interview Podcast South Asia

In Theory: Disha Karnad Jani interviews Durba Mitra about Indian Sex Life and Modern Social Thought

In Theory co-host Disha Karnad Jani interviews Durba Mitra, Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality and Carol K. Pforzheimer Assistant Professor at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University, about her new book, Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and the Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought (Princeton University Press, 2020).