Intellectual history

Richard Rorty as a Post-Straussian

By David Kretz

Richard Rorty and Leo Strauss are not often considered together and admirers of one tend to strongly dislike the other.[1] Rorty’s writing, as one Straussian once put it, is “full of those vices we Straussians (if you will permit me) love to hate—relativism, historicism, easygoing atheism, anti-philosophic rhetoric, vapid leftist political opinions, uncritical progressivism, and seemingly a general indifference to virtue.“ Rorty respected Strauss but poured scorn on ‘Straussianism,’ which he saw as an anti-democratic cult. Polemics aside, however, Rorty’s entire project can be profitably put in dialogue with Strauss’ thought and even cast as a response to Strauss’ questions. While differing sharply in their answers, it can be shown that the two thinkers often respond to the same concerns. The groundwork for this mostly implicit dialogue was laid when Rorty and Strauss overlapped at the University of Chicago—the first being a teenage student, the second serving as a professor—from 1949-1952. Strauss’ Walgreen Lectures, on which he based his opus magnum Natural Right and History (1953), fall into that time and Allan Bloom, Strauss’ most influential student, enrolled at the University of Chicago in 1946, like Rorty and just one year older.

As Rorty writes in his autobiographical essay “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids” (1992), his original motivation for going into philosophy had been his hope for an answer to the question of the good life. Specifically, he desired to know how to synthesize the passion for social justice he had inherited from his Trotskyite parents with such idle and apolitical pursuits as his equally strong passion for the wild orchids that grew in the mountains around the town where he had grown up. Strauss thought that, for Western man, there were just two answers to the question for the best life, associated with the names of Jerusalem and Athens respectively: revealed religion and philosophy. Like Strauss, Rorty initially thought these were the two options. He considered Jerusalem in his student days but quickly found that his character and talents predisposed him for Athens. For several years, he became a Platonist in search for the True Answer to the question of how to hold the different things that mattered to him in life in one overarching synoptic vision of the universe and man’s purpose in it. 

When Platonist philosophy didn’t provide the answers, he first turned to Hegel with the hope for a philosophical-historical narrative that would culminate in such a synthesis, and then to Proust, who taught him how to weave everything one encounters into a literary narrative “without asking how that narrative would appear under the aspect of eternity” (Trotsky and the Wild Orchids, 11). He learned to appreciate the pragmatist Dewey again, the philosophical hero of his parents, whom he had earlier learned to scorn in youthful rebellion under the influence of his Chicago teachers. He became convinced that philosophy could only provide an Answer, a Synthesis by turning itself into a form of religion, a “non-argumentative faith in a surrogate parent who, unlike any real parent, embodied love, power, and justice in equal measure” (12). Note the emphasis on faith and irrationality here. Strauss, too, sometimes talks as if revealed religion in its purest and sharpest contrast to philosophy takes the form of an existentialist Protestantism that started with Kierkegaard and culminated in the crisis theology of Brunner, Barth, and Bultmann, which he had encountered in Germany in the 1920s.[2] Indeed, neither Strauss nor Rorty have much patience for either Catholic syntheses of fides and ratio, nor are they really interested in less faith-centric and more ritual-oriented forms of religious life.

While they are close in their understanding of religion, Rorty and Strauss part ways in their understanding of philosophy. Athens, for Strauss, stands for a life of endless questioning in pursuit of natural truths. Philosophy is coeval with the discovery of nature as the idea that there is a necessity which limits divine power (hence, it stands in starkest contrast to revealed religion, which turns centrally on the idea of divine omnipotence). This natural order gives point and purpose to the philosophers’ questioning pursuit of it, and yet it poses so many riddles that we will never run out of questions to ask in any human lifetime. Without the existence of an unchanging nature, which includes human nature, philosophical questioning would be a directionless wandering rather than a directed pursuit, yet we never need to worry about the question of what we would do once we had arrived at a perfect comprehension of (human) nature. Rorty vehemently rejects this picture. Invoking nature and its eternal order and truth, for him, is just metaphysics, i.e. theology in disguise. As soon as we think that nature has a preferred description of itself, which is not merely useful but true simpliciter, we turn it into a divine person. Persons speak languages, they have preferred descriptions of themselves in their own preferred language, and they are the only entities to do so. Nature has no preferred description of itself, and does not speak any languages, not even those of mathematics or metaphysics. Both are human creations, like all other languages. While each may be useful at times, neither is true in an absolute sense. To claim that nature is truthfully described in only one idiom is to turn it into an absolute, non-human authority, i.e. a God-surrogate.

Yet for Rorty, too, there is a kind of endless intellectual pursuit, which is similar to the philosophic life according to Strauss at least in so far as it always threatens to turn on its foundations and question its basic presuppositions. Instead of a process of discovery, it is one of creation: the endless proliferation of basic vocabularies—clusters of concepts around which our explanations and justifications revolve. The paradigm for this life is the poet, understood in a broad sense, which for Rorty includes Hegel, Yeats, and even Galileo: all those who ‘make things new’ by finding useful new ways of describing the world. The paradigmatic genre is literature. Literature or, one could say, the Romantics (once they have been weaned off their metaphysics of the deep authentic Self) are a third to Jerusalem and Athens for Rorty. Strauss would, of course, deny that and call it an evasion of the true alternative out of existential despair, a kind of escapism into licentious modern vulgarity. Yet, both natural discovery or poetic creation are conceptions of intellectual life as endless relative to the human lifespan, and both also frame it as a life that constantly questions its own foundations. Neither Rorty nor Strauss, presumably, would appreciate focusing on the parallels here over the differences. Whether philosophy discovers truths or creates them was of great concern to both. It is, however, the second similarity I noted—that philosophy, rightly done, will often undo basic, deeply held convictions—which  leads both Rorty and Strauss to thinking a lot about the relation of philosophy to politics.

For Strauss, the philosophic life is essentially a life for the few. The philosophical initiates know that the laws of the polis are conventional laws but feel themselves beholden only to the one true, natural order. The pursuit of natural truths is a threat to all conventional orders. The masses can never become philosophers. To the contrary, telling the people in the cave that they are cave-dwellers will get the philosophers, who have seen the light outside, killed. They need to treat carefully if they are to avoid Socrates’ fate. Rorty, too, recommends that we each expand our basic vocabularies beyond the terms of the polis and as a society let go of cherished metaphysical convictions. He does not think, however, that public morals or political liberalism depend on metaphysical notions of Truth or the Good any more than they depend on, say, Christian faith. In the short run, the links between philosophy and politics are even more feeble. Philosophers generally just do not have the social influence to really steer things either way, and, since nobody of importance is listening, at least in the liberal democracies of the West, they do not have to fear persecution either. Political elites of either the left or the right will often appropriate philosophical language to their ends and use it as rhetorical ammunition. In fact, like Mark Lilla, this is what he thought had happened to Strauss at the hands of some members of the Bush administration. Yet for the most part, philosophers only influence other philosophers.

However, Rorty does think that some particular philosophers happen to pose a particular kind of threat to the left-liberal, social democratic politics he endorses. Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, and Derrida, he fears, might lead young readers to believe that proper philosophical radicalism is incompatible with social-democratic hopes. His 1989 book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity addresses this challenge, associated particularly with the name of Heidegger, whose status as a philosophical giant and petty Nazi was as much a stumbling block to Strauss as it was for an entire generation of German-Jewish philosophy students, who listened to him lecture in Marburg before the Nazis rose to power. Strauss sees in Heidegger a radical historicist and, hence, nihilist. With Heidegger, he thinks the antidote to the evils of modernity lies with the Greeks—though not with the archaic poets and pre-Socratic poet-thinkers, but with classical philosophy, which holds to a natural order against historicist relativism. Rorty, by contrast, argues that invoking the authority of Nature is just another form of invoking divine authority and welcomes Heidegger’s turn away from philosophy and towards poetry.

He does, however, try to persuade his readers that projects of metaphysical search for truth or poetic self-creation, however one conceives of intellectual life, are personal, private projects. The vocabularies of towering philosophical precursors might mean everything to some but they do not have to mean much to most. The vocabulary of social democracy, by contrast, is pretty useless for intellectuals trying to discover metaphysical truths or craft poetic personas, yet it is eminently useful from a public point of view. Young intellectuals who are fascinated by Heidegger (or Nietzsche, Foucault, Derrida, etc.) need not buy into Heidegger’s politics with his philosophy. They can engage with the philosophy in their personal life but adopt a completely different, progressive political vocabulary when they engage in politics. Only the thought that private and public pursuits have to be articulated in a single vocabulary, that social justice and private perfection have to be held in a single synoptic vision, would lead us to think that we have to choose between privately useful authors like “Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Baudelaire, Proust, Heidegger, and Nabokov,” on the one hand, and publicly useful ones like “Marx, Mill, Dewey, Habermas” on the other (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, xiv).

Curiously, this means that Strauss can arguably be thought of as someone who anticipated in his practice what Rorty would later counsel in his writing. Strauss shared the anti-modernism of his master Heidegger, yet he did not seek to ally his philosophy to any party to guide the revolutionary overthrow of a decadent democracy. Instead of (conservative) revolution, he chose the quiet life of study, and founded a school. This school occasionally tries to educate political leaders in what they think is virtue, so that these can minimize the worst excesses of modern vice. For the most part, it will tolerate any political regime as long as it allows those who are so gifted and inclined to quietly pursue a philosophic life. Where exactly the emphasis should lie between educating political leaders and philosophical study in the recluse of the school is a matter of fierce debate between Straussians, of course.

Some critics of Rorty on the left have no doubt sensed this possibility when they argued that his distinction between the public and the private is just a different version of the Straussian distinction between esoteric philosophical truth for the few and exoteric political dogma for the many. Rorty lists Sheldon Wolin and Terry Eagleton among these critics in “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids” and Melvin Rogers has raised similar concerns in the past. Yet, this charge does not stick for two reasons. (The Straussians, by the way, know very well that he is not one of them.) First, Rorty, unlike Strauss, does not think that some people are philosophers by nature and others are not. He does not see a qualitative difference at all between intellectuals on the one hand, for whom self-creation involves coming to terms with philosophical and literary precursors and who write books that narrate their coming to terms, and non-intellectuals on the other, whose life story involves coming to terms with family members and friends and who do not write books about it. Freud, he thinks, has taught us to see every unconscious as equally fascinating and endlessly creative and thus has democratized poetic genius.

Secondly, while Strauss believes that the philosophic life is higher than the merely political life, Rorty insists on the priority of democracy over philosophy. While he thinks it silly to exorcize thinkers and writers who have nothing useful to contribute to the furthering of progressive political goals, as they can still be useful for projects of private self-creation, Rorty encourages everyone, and especially every intellectual, to not just dedicate their time to projects of private self-creation but to also work towards the realization of social-democratic hopes for ever increasing social solidarity and justice. The greatest happiness of the greatest number was infinitely more important to him than that a few gifted people could live the life of Socrates, even when his own inclinations and talents lay that way. The fact that he believed his political convictions to be the contingent outcome of a long chain of historical accidents, with no metaphysical arguments to back them up in a non-circular way that would convince even a Nazi, did not mean that he did not stand for his convictions unflinchingly.

[1] I’d like to thank Hannes Kerber, Antoine Pageau St.-Hilaire, and Anne Schult for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this, though they should be in no way held accountable for anything I here propose.

[2] Cf. Leo Strauss, “Notes on Philosophy and Revelation” in Heinrich Meier, Leo Strauss and the Theologico-Political Problem, Cambridge UP 2006.

David Kretz is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Germanic Studies and the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. His current project contrasts poets and translators as complementary paradigms of historical agency in times of crisis.

Featured Image: Leo Strauss (left) and Richard Rorty (right). Source: Wikipedia (Strauss), Youtube channel ‘Philosophy Overdose’ (Rorty).

Intellectual history

On Liberal Disharmony: Judith N. Shklar and the “Ideology of Agreement”

By Hannes Bajohr

How political are the humanities, and how political should they be? The two main answers to these questions remain those put forward by Max Weber and Karl Marx. Weber’s ideal of a “value-free” sociology calls for “opinions on issues of practical politics, and the academic analysis of political institutions and party policies” (20) to be treated strictly separately. Marx, on the other hand, demands, as a higher form of objectivity, the political identification with that “world-historical” class from whose point of view alone bourgeois ideology can be recognized as what it is, the “illusion of the epoch.” (57) If, for Weber, Marx would be a poor scholar, Marx would call Weber’s notion of value freedom ideologically distorted.

These two main lines of argument have remained largely unaltered. While the “normal science” of most of today’s humanities claims value-freedom at least pragmatically and implicitly, no matter how constructivist it may appear, contemporary social criticism from Agamben to Žižek sees all assertions to neutrality already as ideology in action. Only those who adhere to the hegemonic ideology can claim to be non-ideological. In most cases, this ideological non-ideology is rather vaguely diagnosed as some form of “liberalism.”

Accusations of this kind are to be expected in a post-Marxist context. It is more surprising when they come from liberals. Few have addressed liberalism’s blindness to its own status as ideology more incandescently than the political philosopher Judith N. Shklar (1928–1992). Instead of categorical declarations of neutrality or the standard technique of “ideological unmasking” (48, 78–86), which exposes ideology and disposes of it at the same time, Shklar’s concern is the fundamental recognition of one’s own ideological ties in the humanities and social sciences. Only such reflexivity, she believes, can show how the ineluctable intellectual pluralism, the multitude of simultaneously existing convictions in modern secular societies, can be borne in practice. Shklar’s liberal perspective retains a keen sense of the dangers of non-reflective ideologies that seek to deny or overcome this pluralism, preaching harmony rather than acknowledging differences, and, while appearing to be engaged in conflict resolution, actually prepare the ground for repression and exclusion.

Liberalism as Ideology

At the beginning of her career, Shklar approached ideologies as a harbinger of their demise. In her first work, After Utopia (1957), she analyzed what remained of the “age of ideologies,” the nineteenth century, in the age of their implementation, the twentieth. Very little, in her estimation: Ideologies no longer offer any explanations nor inspire “the urge to construct grand designs for the political future of mankind.” This also means that “the last vestiges of Utopian faith required for such an enterprise have vanished.” (vii) That she later disavowed this judgement reflects a refinement of her approach to ideology.

If one takes “ideology” to mean something more basic than the grand intellectual systems of political theory as Hobbes, Rousseau or Marx had established them, then ideology is never overcome; rather, it possesses a necessary epistemic and pragmatic function. Towards the end of her life, in the fall of 1989, when Shklar co-taught an introduction to political ideologies at Harvard with the political scientist Stanley Hoffmann, this was her basic lesson. In her first lecture, she defined ideology as “an action-directed system of beliefs about society designed to explain it, alter it, or at least to combat other points of view. … What it does is to define issues, identify enemies and draw up plans for action. Its function is to offer maps for understanding and acting in politics.”[1]

The emphasis on ideology’s epistemic function brings Shklar close to contemporary ideology theorists like Michael Freeden, who sees ideologies primarily as matrices through which to interpret one’s own social and political world. But Shklar also emphasizes that ideology possesses the positive outlook for the future she denied it in the debate on the “End of Ideology” (Daniel Bell) in the 1950s: It can indeed point toward “ways to change and to a better future” (“The Origins of Ideological Combat” [1989], HUGFP 118, Box 5). This is precisely what Shklar would try to do in the 1980s and 1990s with her conception of a liberalism of fear.

Between the two texts, the resigned After Utopia and the more activist ideology lecture, came what may be Shklar’s most important book: Legalism (1964). Only here does Shklar pursue her self-identification as a liberal more actively, acknowledge the epistemic necessity of ideology, and finally lament her peers’ insensitivity to their own political and moral assumptions. Her book tackles this forgetfulness of ideology in discussing the dispute between the legal positivism of H. L. A. Hart and the natural law doctrine of Lon L. Fuller. Where Hart treated law as a “neutral social entity” rather than the result of political struggles and moral stances, Fuller argued that an inherent morality could be derived from analyzingpositive law. Both, according to Legalism, are forms of “a refined political ideology, the expression of a preference.” (34)

Shklar’s reproach of the liberal Hart brings her surprisingly close to Marx’s critique of ideology, in that she presents his liberalism as an ideological wolf in the sheep’s clothing of value-freedom. The difference, of course, is that her criticism is not only aimed at but delivered from a liberal standpoint, as she believes that her political cause as well as her discipline are better served by stating “the ideological contribution that the author is about to make to the debate.”  Legalism therefore begins with the declaration of a political creed. It advocates, writes Shklar, “a defense of social diversity, inspired by that barebones liberalism which, having abandoned the theory of progress and every specific scheme of economics, is committed only to the belief that tolerance is a primary virtue and that a diversity of opinions and habits is not only to be endured but to be cherished and encouraged. The assumption throughout is that social diversity is the prevailing condition of modern nation-states and that it ought to be promoted.” (5)

One may wonder at such a passage, so rare are ideological self-positionings still today in academic political theory – especially, those that openly call themselves so. For Shklar, however, there is no reason “to feel that the expression of personal preferences is an undesirable flaw.” To think so means to believe that ignoring personal and shared experiences amounts to being objective. To Shklar, ideology is “merely a matter of emotional reactions, both negative and positive, to direct social experiences and to the views of others.” Understood this way, “ideology is as inevitable as it is necessary in giving any thinking person a sense of direction.” (4)

Such a reflexive concept of ideology has consequences for the self-understanding of political theory and the history of ideas: if, as a scholar, one is always part of a society saturated with ideologies, one must on the one hand recognize them, but also be able to make them the object of analysis, since these “maps for understanding” are not given to us blindly. The analysis of one’s own structures of orientation abuts the goal of political theory, which is “to articulate and examine the half-expressed political views that the various groups in any given society at any time come to hold.” (4–5) Analyzing others’ ideology with an eye on one’s own is therefore Shklar’s main methodological rule – which brings her closer again to Weber, who ultimately expected nothing less from science than to help the individual “render an account of the ultimate meaning of his own actions.” (26)

In addition to descriptive analysis, Shklar’s reflexive approach also aims at the normative evaluation of ideology. For if one is always already involved in ideology, it can no longer be a matter of uncovering the truth “behind” it, but rather of analyzing its function in a social system and its political consequences. And that raises the question: Which ideology leads to acceptable, which to unacceptable results? By making such assessments, however, political theory itself produces maps for understanding and makes epistemic orders. For Shklar, the analysis of ideology is therefore always tied to the production of ideology.

Ideologies of Agreement

The fact that one cannot escape from the circle of ideology does not mean, however, that all ideologies are equal. Shklar, although a skeptic, is by no means a relativist. There are, she writes in 1966, “vast qualitative difference between the sloganlike utterances that act as cohesives for mass parties and the reflections of the great political theorists of the past and the work of the best contemporary social scientists.” That is why political theory should be concerned with establishing “standards for qualitative discrimination.” (18)

Shklar’s own production of ideology did not result in establishing such standards until the 1980s, in the “liberalism of fear” inseparably linked to her name. It does not assume a highest good but a highest evil: “That evil is cruelty and the fear it inspires, and the very fear of fear itself.” (11) Already in Legalism, Shklar reflected on one of the central means to avoid this summum malum. Just as apparent neutrality in the humanities produces reductive analyses, the disavowal of conflict can have repressive consequences. For this reason, Shklar, with all her polemical acuity, targeted those ideologies that seek to deny or eliminate pluralism. In Legalism, she called them “ideologies of agreement” (88–110).

In practice, such ideologies exclude and repress; as theories, they are simply incapable of facing the contradictions of knowledge production in the humanities. All attempts to either reduce them to the natural sciences or encompass them within a grand theory have failed. For Shklar this ultimately means “facing up to intellectual pluralism,” accepting its necessity and considering its irreducible diversity as a good. This radical intellectual heterogeneity corresponds, in Shklar’s interpretation, to the social differentiation of secular societies. Political plurality is a fact worth protecting, but that entails accepting “conflict among ‘us’ as both ineluctable and tolerable, and entirely necessary for any degree of freedom.” (227) The task of Shklar’s liberalism is therefore to give social conflict a form that allows it to exist without fear and cruelty – but not to eliminate this conflict at any price.

In Legalism, she analyzes how natural law theorists try to render eternal norms plausible by simply denying the plurality that contradicts them, frequently with reference to a source of “agreement,” such as “nature” or an unspoken common “consensus.” Yet nature, Shklar objects, often only affirms the given and pathologizes what differs from it, while consensus ignores those not explicitly included in it. For her, the main problem is the question of who constitutes the standard of consensus: Is it the “man on the Clapham bus” (89–92) or even a version of the gesundes Volksempfinden? Not to mention the methodological problem that divining any community’s reigning standards is a particularly dubious form of science. “In any case,” Shklar asks, “what on earth is so impressive about agreement and unity?” As a sole political goal, she considers it extremely dangerous, because in the end “in any society where moral diversity exists, agreement-as-an-end-in-itself can only be achieved by totalitarian methods.” (100)

For this reason, Shklar rejects not only overtly illiberal politics but also an overly harmonistic liberalism. This brings her close to contemporary agonistic philosophers, such as Chantal Mouffe or Jacques Rancière, although she is just as vehemently opposed to the fetishization of “community” as she is to Carl Schmitt’s definition of enmity as the essence of the political or to Hannah Arendt’s heroic understanding of politics. Shklar is interested neither in consensus nor in the agon as an end in itself, but sees conflict simply as a condition for freedom – because it means the absence of a homogenizing instance, which often tacitly presupposes the acceptance of a consensus.

At this point, Shklar’s own liberalism turns into an activist position that also affects contemporary political issues. When, for example, Shklar writes that liberalism and democracy often, but not necessarily, go together (19) – that, in other words, liberal democracy is not a tautology – one is reminded of contemporary “illiberal democracies.” After all, democracy, as Carl Schmitt argued, can very much be an ideology of unity if it considers its demos as strictly homogeneous, even identical to an ethnos. Shklar thus did not forget to include democracy in her lectures as that ideology that conceives of “the unity of a people as its essence.”[2]

Accordingly, Shklar does not think much of the invocation of national identity as a guarantee of unity. “Why do we need an ‘identity’ as a people?” she asks in Legalism (101). The desire for such monolithic and anti-pluralistic attributions appears in ideas of the European Right such as Leitkultur or its theoretical justification, ethno-différencialisme. For Shklar, national identity is an “ideology of agreement” that is touted as a remedy for problems that it, even if it existed, could not solve.Il n’y a pas d’identité culturelle, as François Jullien has put it. For Shklar, the call for a culture that is binding for all – and not just for the institutional containment of conflicts that makes possible quite different cultural and group-specific expressions – would be tantamount to admitting that one “cannot endure contradiction, complexity, diversity, and the risks of freedom.” (5) But it is precisely pluralism itself – “polyarchy” as the spreading of power onto different groups – which in Shklar’s liberalism of fear is an important shield against oppression. (10, 13) For Shklar, pluralism means both, positively, the precondition of any freedom, and, negatively, the distribution of power among as many centers as possible to prevent abuse of power.

The ideological uniqueness of liberalism as Shklar presents it, then, is its ability to tolerate a multitude of competing ideologies, and at the same time to be the only ideology that escapes the myth of unity. In a sense, it thus confirms the hegemonic accusation of the critics of liberalism, because it only wants to concede this plurality under the condition of liberalism, which is always careful not to let conflict become a source of cruelty and fear. Shklar would very likely agree with the Left’s reproach that behind the neutrality of liberalism hides“a fighting creed.” (62)But only because she wants to give up the illusion of value-freedom, not the awareness, and defense, of one’s own creed.

For Shklar, the humanities simply are political; ideologies “insensibly come to condition one’s interests, one’s methods of study, one’s con­ceptual devices, and even one’s vocabulary.” Instead of ignoring this fact, she calls for intellectual honesty. For if we bid farewell to considering ideology “a gross form of irrationality, we would be less anxious to repress it and our self-awareness would be correspondingly greater.”

[1] Judith N. Shklar, “The Origins of Ideological Combat” [1989]. Papers of Judith N. Shklar, Harvard University Archives, HUGFP 118, Box 5. I am grateful to Michael Shklar for the kind permission to quote from Shklar’s papers.

[2] Judith N. Shklar, “The Challenge of Democracy”, winter term 1989, Shklar Papers, Box 5.

Hannes Bajohr is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Arts, Media, and Philosophy at the University of Basel. He is also the translator of Judith N. Shklar’s works into German, most recently her writings on Hannah Arendt.

This text appeared first in German as “Harmonie und Widerspruch: Judith Shklar gegen die ‘Ideologie der Einigkeit’,” in Distanzierung und Engagement: Wie politisch sind die Geisteswissenschaften?, edited by Hendrikje Schauer and Marcel Lepper (Stuttgart: Works & Nights, 2018), 75-85. It was translated by the author.

Featured Image: Photograph of Judith Shklar, March 1972. Courtesy of Reuters.

Intellectual history

JHI 81.2 Now Available and Free to Access

The latest number of the Journal of the History of Ideas (April 2020, 81.2) is now live on Project MUSE. Along with all JHI volumes, it has been made free to access for any reader.

Sean Silver, “The Emergence of Texture,” 169-194.

Sharon Achinstein, “Hugo Grotius and Marriage’s Global Past: Conjugal Thinking in Early Modern Political Thought,” 195-215

Jonas Nordin and John Christian Laursen, “Northern Declarations of Freedom of the Press: The Relative Importance of Philosophical Ideas and of Local Politics,” 217-237.

Fayçal Falaky, “The Cloche and its Critics: Muting the Church’s Voice in Pre-Revolutionary France,” 239-255.

Kazutaka Inamura, “J.S. Mill on Liberty, Socratic Dialectic, and the Logic behind Political Discourse,” 257-277.

James Robertson, “Communism as Religious Phenomenon: Phenomenology and Catholic Socialism in Yugoslav Slovenia, 1927-1942,” 279-301.

Camille Robcis, “Frantz Fanon, Institutional Psychotherapy, and the Decolonization of Psychiatry,” 303-325.

Information about subscribing or submitting to the Journal of the History of Ideas can be found on the Penn Press website.

Intellectual history

“It’s Coming Back Around Again”: Rage Against The Machine as Radical Historians

By guest contributor Jake Newcomb

The music world has been abuzz this year with the reunion of Rage Against The Machine, whose reunion world tour includes a headlining stint at Coachella in April. Rumors of the imminent return have abounded since a spin-off band (Prophets of Rage) formed in 2016 to protest the “mountain of election-year bullshit” that emerged that year. Prophets of Rage’s lineup consisted of the instrumentalists of Rage Against The Machine with Chuck D (of Public Enemy) and B-Real (of Cypress Hill) performing vocals in lieu of Zack De La Rocha, the vocalist of Rage Against The Machine. Guitarist Tom Morello stated back in 2016 that they “could no longer stand on the side of history. Dangerous times demand dangerous songs. Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are both constantly referred to in the media as raging against the machine. We’ve come back to remind everyone what raging against the machine really means.” Prophets of Rage embarked on their “Make America Rage Again” tour in 2016, and they even staged a demonstration outside the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, an attempted repeat of Rage Against The Machine’s renowned performance directly outside of the Democratic National Convention in 2000, on the street in Los Angeles. Now, Zack De La Rocha has returned to complete the reunion. Their “Public Service Announcement” tour was scheduled to begin on March 26th, in El Paso, Texas, as a response to the domestic terror attack there last August, but in light of the global COVID-19 pandemic, they have postponed all the shows scheduled between March and May. The July and August legs of their world tour are, as of now, still on schedule.

Aside from their signature sound, Rage Against The Machine (hereafter RATM) are most commonly beloved and denounced for their commitment to radical politics, which has commanded significant attention by fans and critics alike. Their songs are public stances taken on some of America’s most polarizing topics: police brutality, wealth inequality, globalization, racism, and the two-party system, the media, and education. They also publicly embraced radical movements outside of the United States, like the Zapatista movement against NATO during the 1990s. Culturally, their fame and left-wing politics have seen them associated with figures like Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky, both of whom RATM has worked with in some capacity. Their politics are often discussed as inseparable from their music (aside from the bizarre case of Paul Ryan, who claimed to enjoy their sound but hate their lyrics) since their political stances and statements are viewed as a key component of their entire act. What is much less discussed, or analyzed by scholars, however, is RATM’s presentation of history. This is surprising, because RATM’s music engages in a “re-casting” of history, not unlike Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, with the past a recurring element of their lyrics. The historical narratives in the songs identify the downtrodden as the protagonist, continuously battling multiple, interlocking spheres of oppression (a.k.a., The Machine) over centuries. This generations-long struggle, and the consistent oppression of the poor and weak, gives urgency to lyrics such as, “Who controls the past now, controls the future. Who controls the present now, controls the past,” a direct homage to George Orwell. Breaking out of this cycle of history is what RATM preaches.  

On their first album, released in 1992 as Rage Against The Machine, RATM’s songs argued that the education system, the media, and the state worked in tandem to brainwash the population into believing false historical narratives and fake news. De La Rocha specifically took aim at public school curriculums and teachers that forced “one-sided” Eurocentric histories down the throats of pupils. This false narrative (of American history), accordingly, celebrates and obscures the violent realities of “Manifest Destiny” ideology as well as stripping non-white students of their historical and cultural identities, in order to assimilate them into American society. The true narrative, according to the lyrics, is a history of racial and economic oppression at the hands of both the state and private corporations, who have succeeded in no small part over the centuries by actual and cultural genocide. Further, this false narrative of history interlocks with contemporary false media reports and psychologically-manipulative advertising that keep the population docile, obsessed with consumer products, and supportive of oppressive class and racial relations. They sing that the United States is trapped in a loop that perpetuates injustice, ignorance of that injustice, and ignorance of the history of that injustice. This is the loop they first called their fans to rally against. 

Despite the unique rap-metal denunciation of “The Machine” that RATM presented on this first album, those familiar with historiography from the 1980s and 1990s will recognize the similarities between their presentation of America’s past and those of others. Compared with popular historiography, RATM presents similar longue durée historical claims as A People’s History of the United States and Lies My Teacher Told, according to which the long-term history of oppression and exploitation in the United States has been long-obscured by false, nationalistic history. Like RATM’s albums, these books were massively successful, although in the latter case, their popularity derived explicitly from their depiction of history. RATM’s presentation of history was present, but it was (and is) obscured by their denunciation of contemporary politics, their revolutionary slogans, and their distinctive sound. Of course, these shifts in popular historiography to initiate a change in the dominant narrative of history also emerged in academic historiography, as with the Subaltern Studies group. Scholars like Ranajit Guha and Gyan Prakash published works on India that tried to move beyond the British colonial and Indian nationalist narratives that obscured the lives of “subaltern” Indian populations and the exploitation they suffered at the hands of colonialism and industrialization alike. Women and gender scholars also prominently emerged at this time to analyze long-term subjugation of women and gender minorities as well as address the lack of women’s historical contributions in academic historiography. RATM’s music can be viewed as an extension of these historiographic shifts into the world of music, specifically the emerging world of alternative rock and rap. Their inclusion alongside this historiography also points to a broader cultural moment, whereby the traditional historical narratives broke down.  

RATM continued to expand their historical commentary throughout their initial run in the 1990s, even going so far as to start their second album with the lyrics, “Since 1516, Mayans attacked and overseen…” in the song “People of the Sun.” The song is an anthem of support for the Zapatista movement in Southern Mexico, who De La Rocha visited before writing the second album. While politically the song was written as a song of support with the Zapatistas, the song associates the struggles of the Zapatistas with others in a long history of oppression in Mexico, dating back to Spanish colonization. So on their second album, RATM continued to address long-term historical trends that repeat over time, which they asked their listeners to fight against. They bring the long-term historical trends into the third and final studio album as well, 1999’s The Battle of Los Angeles. For example, in the song “Sleep Now In The Fire,” De La Rocha identifies many difficult historical topics as being aspects of the same long-term phenomenon: violent greed, specifically in the context of colonialism, slavery, and war. The crews of the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria are part of the same lineage as the overseers of antebellum plantations, and the wielders of agent Orange and nuclear weapons. De La Rocha also suggests in the lyrics that Jesus Christ has historically been invoked as the ultimate justification for various forms of greed or intense violence, pushing that lineage back millennia. 

While music as history is nothing new (in fact, for some cultures, history has traditionally been expressed through music), it is rare to find such an explicit historical dimension in contemporary popular music in the West (although, some intrepid historians have begun interpreting western music and art as history). Not only did RATM present their fans with a unique sound and highly-charged politics in the 1990s, but they also advocated for a historiographical framing that paralleled changes happening in popular and academic historiography. Along with Subaltern Studies and A People’s History of the United States, for example, RATM asked listeners to shift their historical focus to the lives and stories of the oppressed, instead of glorying the rich and famous. This historical framing, no doubt, was tied to RATM’s political project, as were the writings of Zinn and Guha. And like Guha and Zinn, RATM’s productions (cultural rather than intellectual) became both highly influential and targeted by critics. RATM has not announced any plans to record and release any new albums, so the jury’s out on whether there will be any new takes on history from De La Rocha and co. What’s likely though, is that thousands of fans will pack out stadiums this summer to sing along with RATM’s radical history if the COVID-19 pandemic subsides in the United States and Europe.

Jake Newcomb is an MA student in the Rutgers History Department, and he is also a musician. He can be followed on Twitter and Instagram at @jakesamerica 

Intellectual history

Believing in Witches and Demons

By Jan Machielsen

How do we assess whether a claim is worthy of belief? What does it mean to treat it with scepticism? Do we reject it outright as a fiction or lie? Or do we simply refuse to act while we wait for further confirmation? After all, as the French essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) observed, ‘it is putting a very high price on one’s conjectures to have a man roasted alive because of them.’ Montaigne was writing about witch-burnings, but the question as to whether to act on witchcraft belief was, for him, as much a matter of temperament—a question of trusting one’s beliefs—as it was about reasoned argument. When he was given the opportunity to interview a group of convicted witches while traveling through Germany, he was not convinced, deciding the women needed hellebore instead of hemlock—that is, they were mentally ill, rather than deserving of death. And yet, Montaigne’s witchcraft scepticism was not certain knowledge of a falsehood. It was not knowing. Witches might well exist—Montaigne did not know, and if they did, it might not even matter.

Michael Pacher, The Devil holding up the Book of Vices to St. Augustine (1483)

We do not typically think about the early modern witch-hunt in this way. We tend to see witchcraft almost as axiomatically false, as a falsehood which will wilt away when exposed to reason. US Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis used witches in that sense in a famous 1927 free speech case: ‘men feared witches and burnt women. It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.’ Witchcraft, unfortunately, did not die because more and better speech was available. Indeed, as Thomas Waters has shown in a marvellous recent study, witchcraft was nothing if not free-speech-resistant. Yet the concepts and categories—credulity, superstition, bigotry—meant to contain the irrational have been equally persistent. Credulous folk and bigoted inquisitors believe in superstitions, and those superstitious beliefs demonstrate their credulity and/or bigotry. Do not prod this further. Whatever the cost, witchcraft belief can never be reasonable.

Inevitably, it was nineteenth-century historians keen to banish witchcraft into the past who transformed it into an eschatological battle between reason and superstition, between science and (a perversion of) religion. Andrew Dickson White and his student George Lincoln Burr co-opted witchcraft in their A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology (1896) as one more battleground between reactionaries and ‘the thinking, open-minded, devoted men … who are evidently thinking the future thought of the world.’ This reduced the early modern witch-hunt into a conflict between ‘bigots and pedants’ and their heroic opponents, who risked their lives for ‘some poor mad or foolish or hysterical creature.’ This struggle for reason, in which White and Burr were still very much engaged, was very much the preserve of men alone. White’s principal reason for supporting women’s education at Cornell, the university he co-founded in 1865, was to ‘smooth the way for any noble thinkers who are to march through the future’—by ‘increas[ing] the number of women who, by an education which has caught something from manly methods, are prevented from … throwing themselves hysterically across their pathway.’

The early modern witch-hunt has served many moral purposes since then—noble yet doomed peasant revolt, Wiccan holocaust, or feminist ‘gynocide’—but the structures sustaining such readings have long collapsed. Witch-hunting was, for the most part, not an organized affair, instigated by elites. Instead, it was the product of daily interactions between villagers who did not get along. Nor was the witch-hunt particularly severe. With most estimates ranging between 40 and 50, 000 victims—across a continent and multiple centuries—it is easy to list a number of recent environmental catastrophes that cost as many lives in weeks, days, even seconds. The persistence of these moral readings tells us more about our own time than it does about the early modern period.

Jan Luyken, Two Bamberg Girls taken to Their Execution Site (1685)

Now, even the containment field of irrationality no longer appears to be holding. This may also reflect the present, when truth claims seem to have lost their value and the world’s most powerful figure proclaims himself to be the victim of a witch-hunt. In that sense, to study the historiography of witchcraft really is to study ourselves. Yet the demise of irrationality has been a long time coming. In a seminal book in 1997, Stuart Clark taught us that witchcraft belief, far from the preserve of a fringe group of demonologists, was embedded in larger modes of political, religious, and—indeed—scientific thought. Yet the question he was effectively pointing to, and with which we opened, is only more recently being answered: what did it mean to believe, or not believe, in witches? Precisely because it appears to us as almost axiomatically false, the early modern witch-hunt invites us to think about what it means to believe in anything

Historians of early modern demonology have mostly stopped dividing authors into (irrational) believers and (rational) sceptics. As Montaigne has shown, belief can take on many forms. It may be cautious acceptance, or indistinguishable from certain knowledge. It can be highly reasoned, or entirely unthinking. It can also be entirely passive—part of a wider subscription package. Certainly, many eighteenth-century elite thinkers, most notably the founder of methodism John Wesley, treated witchcraft in this way: as proof of the existence of the spirit world but without any expectation to ever meet a witch. Witchcraft belief could be partial and caveated, or it could be extreme. The heterodox political thinker Jean Bodin believed that the devil could even break the laws of nature (because God would permit him), while King James VI of Scotland was virtually alone among the major demonologists to support the ducking or swimming of witches. Belief could be sustained, or discredited, by direct experience with witches and their bodies, which could be tortured and examined for a devil’s mark. Or it could be textual, founded on a wide range of biblical, patristic, and classical texts whose authority was incontrovertible. Nor was belief founded on fear alone. For those ensconced in the safe comfort of their study, tales of witchcraft delighted and entertained as much as any horror story today. And partly because of different and shifting emotional registers, belief in witchcraft could also change over time. Scepticism yielded to belief, and vice versa.

Seen from the angle of what it meant to believe—and why, how much, and when—the entire field of early modern demonology looks very different. It no longer resembles a battlefield between two opposing camps, nor can it sustain an opposition between irrationality and reason, between false belief and knowledge of falsehood. The science of demons is much messier and hence, for historians, much more interesting. It consisted of many conflicts and disagreements, both major and minor. Could witches transform into mice and thus enter homes through key holes? The Lorraine judge Nicolas Remy said yes, the Flemish-Spanish Jesuit Martin Delrio said no. Witchcraft also looked very different from different vantage points and at different points of time. One ardent Catholic, the Jesuit Juan Maldonado living in Paris in the run-up to the 1572 St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, could see Protestantism and witchcraft as the devil’s twin attacks. Like any good brothel-keeper, the devil transformed beautiful courtesans (heretics) into procurers (witches) when they lost their physical appeal. Writing twenty years later in the midst of the Trier ‘super-hunt’, the Dutch Catholic priest Cornelius Loos considered witchcraft belief to be diabolical in origin, making the witch-hunters the devil’s true human allies. Yet Loos was not, as White and Burr once supposed, a harbinger of enlightenment, as they saw themselves. A religious exile from the Dutch Republic, he repeatedly called for a universal crusade against all Protestants.

Unshackled from moral straitjackets and the concepts that defined them, the early modern witch-hunt can actually teach us a great deal. On the level of human interactions, it shows us how forced daily interactions can foster resentment. (A colleague once suggested I write a book about witch-hunting as office politics.) It reveals the processes by which we demonize those with whom we disagree. At the level of belief, following in Montaigne’s footsteps, it should make us question why we believe what we believe, and how we know what we think we know. Most importantly, the early modern witch-hunt, when studied properly, teaches us that we are, when push comes to shove, not very different from those who came before us. And that is perhaps the most sobering thought of all.

Jan Machielsen is Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at Cardiff University. He is the author of Martin Delrio: Demonology and Scholarship in the Counter-Reformation (Oxford University Press, 2015), and the editor of The Science of Demons: Early Modern Authors Facing Witchcraft and the Devil, published by Routledge on April 13, 2020. 

Intellectual history

In Theory: Disha Karnad Jani interviews Vincent Brown about Tacky’s Revolt and Atlantic Slave War

In Theory co-host Disha Karnad Jani interviews Vincent Brown, the Charles Warren Professor of American History and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, about his new book, Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press: 2020).