Categories
Virtual Issues

East European Intellectual History—”East” meets “West”: Virtual Issue 2.1

Over its more than 80 years in print, the Journal of the History of Ideas has accumulated a pretty large archive. Oftentimes, that archive is representative of the history of intellectual history—its trends, priorities, methods. Sometimes, it involves scholarship that, by virtue of appearing once-in-a-while, cannot quite get either the visibility or the relevant context in which to be seen. 

With the Virtual Issues initiative on the JHIBlog, we propose to recall earlier articles from the JHI that fit with a particular subject or theme, and to place them in a new and current context. We do not pretend that the JHI could ever be comprehensive on these themes, and we are well aware of the limits of the journal’s success in addressing particular subjects. But as with every archive, all sorts of surprises await. With Virtual Issues, we bring out work that has some connection to current concerns, and to recall ways in which authors engaged a particular theme, including ways that may now be out of fashion but that are suggestive of past trends. Each Virtual Issue—the second being East European Intellectual History, to appear in several installments—features an introduction that resituates these articles. Anyone interested in curating such an issue together with us should contact the lead JHIBlog editors with a proposal and a list of relevant articles. 

      — Stefanos Geroulanos, on behalf of the Executive Editors


By Artur Banaszewski & Isabel Jacobs

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, both a violent military conflict and a war of narratives, forces us to reassess the role of Eastern Europe in intellectual history. Scouring the archives for our first Virtual Issue on East European Intellectual History, we noticed that this complex region is still terra incognita for many scholars in the West. Given the global consequences of the Russo-Ukrainian war, it is now more important than ever to critically reassess the existing scholarship about Eastern Europe and award the region with the agency it deserves.

We also found traces of hope in the archives, with scholars pushing disciplinary boundaries to deconstruct orientalist and determinist views from within. Focusing on notions of modernity, this first installment of East European Intellectual History resituates the region and outlines the main challenges future scholarship will need to address. In a truly global and decolonizing history of ideas, “East” and “West” are floating signifiers, the inverted commas signaling ideological, cultural, and religious rather than geographical ascriptions. But what is Eastern Europe? And how can we rewrite its intellectual histories?

In Inventing Eastern Europe (1994), Larry Wolff unveiled how, in the 18th century, Enlightenment intellectuals fabricated their imaginaries of Eastern Europe, most prominently French writer Voltaire (who never made it east of Berlin himself). Voltaire’s The history of the Russian empire under Peter the Great (1759/1763) emphasized Russia’s inbetweenness of Europe and Asia—a geopolitical construct that was reimported by Russian thinkers to affirm their imperial position in Eurasia.

Voltaire’s fascination for Russia as an imperial power sparked a passionate correspondence with Catherine the Great, whom he hailed as the “goddess of the Enlightenment in Russia” (Wolff, 201). After hearing of the conquest of Crimea, Voltaire reimagined his Russian muse as Iphigenia, “unscrambling” the chaos in the land of the Taurians. In Eastern Europe, just off its doorsteps, the “West” discovered its own Orient. According to Wolff, Western intellectuals of the Enlightenment began defining their civilization “with respect to the semi-Oriental backwardness of Eastern Europe” (Wolff, 345).

Voltaire’s orientalizing depictions of Eastern Europe had yet another unsettling consequence. By presenting Eastern Europeans as intolerant and uncivilized, the French philosopher also facilitated and legitimized Russia’s imperial dominance in the region. The belief that the lands located east of Berlin differed from the rest of the continent in essential, intangible ways implied that their inhabitants could only become “enlightened” thanks to a power compatible with their ways of thinking: the Russian Empire. Hence, the orientalization of Eastern Europe helped advance the projects of Western Enlightenment and Russian imperialism alike.

As Gražina Bielousova has recently argued, Eastern Europe as a concept is thus born from the “conditions of double hegemony.” Any study of the region is shaped by both “Western colonial interest and Russian quest for dominance.” Consequently, the division between the gravitational fields of the “West” and “East” is not a natural, geographical delineation. It is an ideological distinction embedded in Enlightenment narratives of Western civilizational superiority and orientalized essentialism of Eastern Europe as an internal Other.

Jean-Jacques Avril, “Catherine’s Triumph: Allegory of Empress Catherine II’s journey to Crimea” (1790), Hermitage Museum

The imaginary maps of the 18th century, perpetuating the narrative of double hegemony, continued to condition the relations between the “West” and the “East” of Europe. Geographically located in Europe yet denied the privileged status associated with European civilization, the region remained mostly absent from the scope of Western intellectuals. In his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, Hegel left open the question of whether Eastern Europeans would take part in furthering the course of the World-Spirit.

On the other hand, Oswald Spengler in his infamous The Decline of the West outright refused to use the word “Europe” on the assumption that it wrongly included Russia within the scope of the Western civilization (Spengler, 16). In the 1920s, Spengler claimed that all modernizing attempts of East European politicians were artificial and unnatural, as the region was at an earlier, inferior stage in the historical process. Basing his views on Eastern Europe on determinism, Spengler considered attempts at modernity in the region as doomed to failure. By doing so, he denied Eastern Europeans any autonomous agency.

Once we consider the idea of double hegemony, it becomes strikingly clear how little Western views on Eastern Europe changed during the Cold War. Just as the Russian Empire under Catherine the Great presented its conquests in Eastern Europe as a spread of the Enlightenment, now the Soviet Union legitimized its control over the Eastern Bloc with the building of an alternative, socialist system. Similarly to Voltaire in the 18th century, many left-wing Western intellectuals during the Cold War ignored their role in legitimizing Soviet imperialism in the region.

In both cases, the subaltern status of Eastern Europe was perpetuated through marginalizing assumptions about its cultural and civilizational inferiority. Consequently, one of the main concerns of our Virtual Issue is to deconstruct this simplified narrative and critically evaluate (Western) scholarship on East European Intellectual History from the 1950s until today.

As the issue showcases, Eastern European intellectuals and thinkers were aware of the importance of the modernization discourse for the region. The permanent inadequacy vis-à-vis Western philosophies of history has forced Eastern Europeans to continually contest the boundaries of European modernity. Our Virtual Issue explores how this process challenged false, essentialist dichotomies between barbarism and civilization, progress and backwardness, the oriental “East” and enlightened “West.” One outcome was that Western Europe was never able to fully undermine Eastern Europe’s agency and self-determination.

At the same time, “East” and “West” remained mutually interdependent, due to their shared intellectual traditions and transfer of ideas. Thus, East European Intellectual History should aim to break with narratives driven by false dichotomies and rediscover how Eastern agency has helped shape European history. It will be necessary to critically assess two factors: how Russian imperialism has overshadowed the rest of the region, and how Western scholarship has neglected Eastern European experiences. Eastern Europe needs to be reinstated as a full-fledged subject of historical inquiry equal to its Western neighbors.

However, this process will involve serious risks for Eastern Europeans themselves. While striving for their voice and empowerment, Eastern European scholars should resist the temptation to revive past discourses of European historical exceptionalism and civilizational superiority. Integrating Eastern Europe into these narratives would mean drawing the wrong lesson from the region’s history. Rather, East European history should serve as a reminder of the triviality and vagueness of all discourses of imperial dominance, cultural essentialism, and historical determinism.

Future scholarship about Eastern Europe must not strive to upgrade it to the club of historically privileged subjects but to break the club from within. Only then will East European Intellectual History have a chance to move beyond the conditions of double hegemony and become an integral part of a wider project of Global Intellectual History.

  • Siljak, Ana. “Between East and West: Hegel and the Origins of the Russian Dilemma.” Journal of the History of Ideas 62, no. 2 (2001): 335–58. https://doi.org/10.2307/3654362.
  • Thompson, Martyn P. “Ideas of Europe during the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars.” Journal of the History of Ideas 55, no. 1 (1994): 37–58. https://doi.org/10.2307/2709952.
  • Lewitter, L. R. “Peter the Great, Poland, and the Westernization of Russia.” Journal of the History of Ideas 19, no. 4 (1958): 493–506. https://doi.org/10.2307/2707919.
  • Gluck, Mary. “The Budapest Coffee House and the Making of ‘Jewish Modernity’ at the Fin de Siècle.” Journal of the History of Ideas 74, no. 2 (2013): 289–306. https://doi.org/10.1353/jhi.2013.0017.
  • Vovchenko, Denis. “Modernizing Orthodoxy: Russia and the Christian East (1856—1914).” Journal of the History of Ideas 73, no. 2 (2012): 295–317. https://doi.org/10.1353/jhi.2012.0018.
  • Williams, Robert C. “The Russian Soul: A Study in European Thought and Non-European Nationalism.” Journal of the History of Ideas 31, no. 4 (1970): 573–588. https://doi.org/10.2307/2708261.
  • Sinkoff, Nancy. “Benjamin Franklin in Jewish Eastern Europe: Cultural Appropriation in the Age of the Enlightenment.” Journal of the History of Ideas 61, no. 1 (2000): 133–52. https://doi.org/10.2307/3654046.

Opening our survey of East European Intellectual History, Ana Siljak’s inspiring article argues that Russian intellectuals derived their conception of the world as irrevocably divided between “East” and “West” from Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of History. (In a way, by proclaiming the Spirit had wandered off from East to West, Hegel promoted the idea of Russia’s innate backwardness.)

From the 1830s onwards, most social, cultural, and political issues in Imperial Russia became framed through the West-East dilemma. As V. N. Tatishchev, Peter the Great’s historian, stated, “where the border between these two large and most important cultures is located, no one has as yet determined for certain” (p. 336). This imaginary division persisted through Russian nationalism and Soviet Marxism, and continues to influence our thinking about Russia to this day.

Similarly, Martyn P. Thompson’s article investigates Edmund Burke’s criticism of French revolutionary ideas of Europe. While Eastern Europe is only mentioned as a side note, Thompson echoes Tatishchev in stating the “boundaries of Europe may be disputed” (p. 44). Written just after the end of the Soviet Union, Thompson’s article is representative of Western scholarship on Europe that does not turn its gaze east of Berlin.

L. R. Lewitter’s 1958 article, on the other hand, is an astonishing piece of scholarship on the transnational foundations of modern Russia, recognizing the critical role of Kyiv. The author argues that in the 17th century Polish culture was the main vehicle of westernizing Russia, while Ukraine played a pivotal role as an intermediary. However, the Polish education system, dominated by Jesuit institutions, was too backward and static to meet Peter’s ambitious goals, which led to a decline of Latino-Polish culture in Russia.

Mary Gluck’s article conceptualizes Budapest’s fin-de-siècle coffee houses as mystified, ambivalent symbols of urban modernity. Through the lens of the coffee house, she deconstructs the notion of “Jewish Budapest” as a motor of conservative antisemitism which ascribed to Jews decadence and immorality associated with cosmopolitan life. The article is also significant for problematizing a contested notion in East European Intellectual History: modernity. Here, it is the key concept to describe the adoption of Western European institutions, such as the coffee house, in a supposedly barbaric, orientalized Hungary.

In his contribution, Denis Vovchenko takes a radically different approach to Eastern Europe as a laboratory of alternative modernities. His article voices an important criticism of Russia’s exclusion from Western historiography while deconstructing ideas of progress. The author claims that Pan-Slavism and Pan-Orthodoxy were articulate attempts to decenter a Western narrative that is progressivist and universalizing. In his view, both movements aimed to formulate modern political identities based on traditional Orthodox values as opposed to those of the liberal “West.” However, and this makes his compelling analysis contestable, he does not once mention that these revisionist ideologies were conceived as an extension of Russia’s imperial project in the region.

Robert C. Williams’s article describes the emergence of the influential concept of ‘Russian soul’ in the 1840s and follows its evolution until the 1900s. Williams argues that the term was used in different ways: by Russians as an utopian reaction to European industrialization, by Europeans to mark Russia’s arcadian identity. German Romanticists even utilized the concept to voice their own anti-European sentiments. The ‘Russian soul’ formed an integral part of Russian nationalism and ideologies of superiority.

However, as so often in the history of ideas, this conceptual vehicle of Russian nationalism was itself a product of transnational entanglements, borrowed and synthesized by Vissarion Belinsky from Gogol and Schelling (p. 580). Williams concludes that Russia’s attempt at modernity shares affinities with other non-Western experiences, for instance modernizing tendencies in the Islamic world. 

Our first installment closes with Nancy Sinkoff’s article on Benjamin Franklin’s reception in Jewish Eastern Europe. Her piece is a great example of giving Eastern Europe intellectual agency instead of framing the lands between Germany and Russia as passive recipients of Enlightenment ideas. Sinkoff focuses on Mendel Lefin of Satanów, an enlightened Jewish scholar from Poland, who creatively transformed and applied Franklin’s ideas to the context of Polish Jewry. Sinkoff’s careful remapping of Jewish Enlightenment in Eastern Europe brings out the local specificities in the experience of modernity.

As such, her article is a wonderful example of a new approach to East European Intellectual History: one that balances micro and macro, the local and the global, while emphasizing the role of transcultural transmissions. Rather than a unidirectional stream of ideas from “West” to “East,” Sinkoff conceptualizes Eastern Europe as an original contributor to key debates of the Enlightenment, thus displaying the great potential of including the region in future intellectual histories of the continent and the globe.


Artur Banaszewski is a PhD researcher in the Department of History and Civilization at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. He holds a Master of Letters degree in Global Social and Political Thought from the University of St Andrews. Artur’s doctoral project titled “Disillusioned with communism. Zygmunt Bauman, Leszek Kołakowski and the global decline of orthodox Marxism” explores Eastern European critiques of socialist thought and intersects them with the global political context of the Cold War. His research interests include global intellectual history, postcolonial studies, political theory, and Cold War liberalism. 

Isabel Jacobs is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Queen Mary University of London. Her dissertation explores Russian-French philosopher Alexandre Kojève’s aesthetics. Her research interests include Soviet and Russian philosophy, German-Jewish thought, global intellectual history, and cinema. She holds a MA in Russian and East European Literature and Culture from UCL and a BA in Philosophy and Slavic Studies from Heidelberg University.

Featured Image: Johnson’s 1862 map of Europe with a colorful border between “East” and “West”. 

Categories
Virtual Issues

Non-Human Intellectual History—On the Treatment of Animals: Virtual Issue 1.2

Over its more than 80 years in print, the Journal of the History of Ideas has accumulated a pretty large archive. Oftentimes, that archive is representative of the history of intellectual history—its trends, priorities, methods. Sometimes, it involves scholarship that, by virtue of appearing once-in-a-while, cannot quite get either the visibility or the relevant context in which to be seen. 

With the Virtual Issues initiative on the JHIBlog, we propose to recall earlier articles from the JHI that fit with a particular subject or theme, and to place them in a new and current context. We do not pretend that the JHI could ever be comprehensive on these themes, and we are well aware of the limits of the journal’s success in addressing particular subjects. But as with every archive, all sorts of surprises await. With Virtual Issues, we bring out work that has some connection to current concerns, and to recall ways in which authors engaged a particular theme, including ways that may now be out of fashion but that are suggestive of past trends. Each Virtual Issue—the first being Nonhumans in Intellectual History, to appear in several installments—features an introduction that resituates these articles. Anyone interested in curating such an issue together with us should contact the lead JHIBlog editors with a proposal and a list of relevant articles. 

      — Stefanos Geroulanos, on behalf of the Executive Editors


The second installment of our Virtual Issue feature on Nonhuman Intellectual History provides a selection of articles from the Journal of History of Ideas which have focussed broadly on one central question: how have texts discussed the ‘treatment of animals’? Or to make the anthropocentrism clear, how have humans historically conceptualized animals, their behavioral patterns and their cognitive capacities, and treated them based on that? All the articles in the list below, curated by the executive editor of the JHI, Stefanos Geroulanos, and introduced here by the JHI blog’s primary editor Shuvatri Dasgupta, are inspiring in their own ways. Whilst some focus on Darwin, Aristotle, and similar canonical thinkers to understand ways in which animals were conceptualized, others focus on histories of objects, and also consider encyclopedias as sources for nonhuman knowledge and history. Through these virtual issues on the JHI blog, we hope to provide some methodological indications of what nonhuman intellectual history may look like, and what its stakes would be. 

  • Copenhaver, Brian P. “A Tale of Two Fishes: Magical Objects in Natural History from Antiquity Through the Scientific Revolution.” Journal of the History of Ideas 52, no. 3 (1991): 373-98. doi:10.2307/2710043.
  • Guerrini, Anita. “The Ethics of Animal Experimentation in Seventeenth-Century England.” Journal of the History of Ideas 50, no. 3 (1989): 391-407. doi:10.2307/2709568.
  • Margócsy, Dániel. “Refer to Folio and Number”: Encyclopedias, the Exchange of Curiosities, and Practices of Identification before Linnaeus.” Journal of the History of Ideas 71, no. 1 (2010): 63-89. doi:10.1353/jhi.0.0069.
  • McCalla, Arthur. “Palingenesie Philosophique to Palingenesie Sociale: From a Scientific Ideology to a Historical Ideology.” Journal of the History of Ideas 55, no. 3 (1994): 421-39. doi:10.2307/2709848.

As I mentioned before, it is better to acknowledge at the outset, the anthropocentrism that the question of ‘treatment of animals’ itself is laden with. It is related to the scarcity of intellectual histories which can potentially engage with the ways in which animals have treated each other. In order to address this, it is imperative to move beyond the text as the sole source for intellectual history writing, and open the doors for interdisciplinary methods inspired by biology, anthropology, and feminist theory. This is not to reject the textuality altogether, but rather to suggest that reading texts such as Aristotle on the behavior of bees, alongside works of biologists like Thomas D. Seeley provides a crucial indication of the ways in which we can address this question. In this regard, pioneering work of Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlika titled ‘Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights’ provides some methodological indications on how the discipline of political thought might consider animals as actors within their own sovereign and self-sustaining communities. Through that the authors place animals at the heart of political theory and construct the nonhuman subject as a rights bearing political actor. Anthropologists and biologists have observed animal behavior towards one another which have enriched us with crucial insights on animal labor theory, socio-political organization, nonhuman kinship and care, and mutual interdependence

The other methodological stake which calls for discussion within the context of these groundbreaking articles from the JHI archive is the question of Eurocentrism, and how that shapes the field of nonhuman intellectual history. Buddhist and Jain political theologies in South and Southeast Asia were sustained on a foundation of animal ethics and morality. In recent times scholars have devised creative methodologies for thinking about the nonhuman in non Eurocentric ways. Sugata Roy’s innovative work ‘Climate Change and the Art of Devotion’ shows how manuscripts and their illustrations can be thought of as sources for an art history of climate change, animal treatment and habitat. Sumana Roy’s fantastic work ‘How I Became a Tree’ engages with approaches towards trees and animals in literary texts and thinkers from within and beyond South Asia. 

Illustrations from the Manuscript of Baburnama, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

There is much to be done in terms of thinking about animals as meaning-makers.  It would require posing questions which elude easy answers such as: where and how can we locate animal agency within anthropocentric archives, which have their own set of violent hierarchies (of class, race, gender, caste, and ethnicity)? It would require methodological innovations such as considering observational studies, and oral histories, alongside canonical and non-canonical textual sources. At times, it would need moving beyond textual sources, and taking into account visual archives. Moreover, it would need intellectual historians to rethink the species divide. The methodology for thinking about nonhuman intellectual history focusing on animals would need to be based on an ethics of care-giving as a means to move beyond anthropocentrism. Within that framework, caring for the nonhuman would place them as agents of their own narrative. Caring would also enable historians to move beyond their authorial subjectivities as chroniclers of these animal intellectual histories, and account for the implicit epistemic hierarchies embedded within archives. Thus, it would allow their subjects to articulate their stories, and this caring methodology would therefore manifest as letting the nonhuman speak in ways that it has always desired!


Shuvatri Dasgupta received a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in History from Presidency University, Kolkata, India. She was also an exchange student and Charpak Fellow at Sciences Po Paris (Reims campus), studying for a certificate programme in European Affairs and B1 French. She is the editor of the Journal of History of Ideas blog, and a doctoral candidate in the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge, funded by the Cambridge Trust and Rajiv Gandhi Foundation Fellowship. Her doctoral dissertation is tentatively titled “A History of Conjugality: On Patriarchy, Caste, and Capital, in the British Empire c.1872-1947”. Her general research interests include global history, gender history, intellectual history and political thought, histories of empire, histories of capitalism, Marxist and Marxist-Feminist theory, and critical theory. For the academic year of 2021-22 she is the convenor of the research network ‘Grammars of Marriage and Desire’ (GoMAD) supported by CRASSH, Cambridge, and the Histories of Race Graduate Workshop, at the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge.

Featured Image: Wash drawing of a sculptured post from the railing of the Mahabodhi Temple at Bodhgaya, by Markham Kittoe, 19th Century. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Categories
Virtual Issues

Non-Human Intellectual History: Virtual Issue 1.1

Over its more than 80 years in print, the Journal of the History of Ideas has accumulated a pretty large archive. Oftentimes, that archive is representative of the history of intellectual history—its trends, priorities, methods. Sometimes, it involves scholarship that, by virtue of appearing once-in-a-while, cannot quite get either the visibility or the relevant context in which to be seen. 

With the Virtual Issues initiative on the JHIBlog, we propose to recall earlier articles from the JHI that fit with a particular subject or theme, and to place them in a new and current context. We do not pretend that the JHI could ever be comprehensive on these themes, and we are well aware of the limits of the journal’s success in addressing particular subjects. But as with every archive, all sorts of surprises await. With Virtual Issues, we bring out work that has some connection to current concerns, and to recall ways in which authors engaged a particular theme, including ways that may now be out of fashion but that are suggestive of past trends. Each Virtual Issue—the first being Nonhumans in Intellectual History, to appear in several installments—features an introduction that resituates these articles. Anyone interested in curating such an issue together with us should contact the lead JHIBlog editors with a proposal and a list of relevant articles. 

     — Stefanos Geroulanos, on behalf of the Executive Editors 


By Shuvatri Dasgupta

How can we think of nonhuman intellectual histories, in times such as ours, which has been rightly characterized as the Age of the Capitalocene? An attempt at defining what nonhuman intellectual history may look like as a discursive field within intellectual history and political thought, is a task akin to Penelope’s robe-making. It is a definition that needs to be continually made and unmade, until the well-being of all beings have been ensured. Much like Penelope who weaved in her attempt to buy time till the end of the Trojan war, we must weave till our climate crisis has been mitigated! The installments in this Virtual Issue on non-human intellectual histories, consisting of articles published in the Journal of History of Ideas, curated by the journal’s executive editor Stefanos Geroulanos, and introduced here by the blog’s primary editor Shuvatri Dasgupta, is one such initiative. Through these virtual issues on the JHI blog, we hope to provide some methodological indications of what nonhuman intellectual history may look like, and what its stakes would be. 

  • Chaplin, Joyce E. “Can the Nonhuman Speak?: Breaking the Chain of Being in the Anthropocene.” Journal of the History of Ideas 78, no. 4 (2017): 509-529. doi:10.1353/jhi.2017.0029
  • Shyovitz, David I. “Christians and Jews in the Twelfth-Century Werewolf Renaissance.” Journal of the History of Ideas 75, no.4 (2014): 521-43. doi:10.1353/jhi.2014.0033
  • Coen, Deborah R. “Big Is a Thing of the Past: Climate Change and Methodology in the History of Ideas.”  Journal of the History of Ideas 77, no. 2 (2016): 305-201. doi:  10.1353/jhi.2016.0019

Starting with an overview of the epistemicide of anthropocentrism, our introductory set of articles seek to ask and answer: Can the non-human think/speak? Joyce Chaplin’s article highlights, how the failure of intellectual historians to engage with non-textual archives in an attempt to take nonhuman cognition seriously, results from the history of the discipline itself, which took its present form by valorising text, and human speech. It is through this logocentric prism that the epistemic violence of anthropocentric intellectual histories have functioned. Richard Serjeantson’s article explores the debates on nonhuman speech, and shows us how European philosophers in medieval and early modern times grappled with deciphering how humans were different from and superior to other beings on earth. By historicising anthropocentrism and critiquing its textual and logocentric bias, these articles leave us with the firm conclusion that nonhumans can and must think and speak, alongside humans.  

How have we historically thought of the nonhuman?: Through an etymological excavation of the term ‘vampire’, Katherina Wilson’s article shows us how we can incorporate insights from comparative philology, and linguistics, within the field of nonhuman intellectual history. Similarly, Steven Nadler’s article has indicated how both literature and philosophy can shape the writing of nonhuman intellectual history, by juxtaposing the works of Descartes and Cervantes’. Similarly, David Shyovitz in his article, illustrates how humans have thought with, and thought through, the nonhuman-ness of nonhumans, by looking at constructions of monstrosity in relation to werewolves within Christian and Jewish polemics from late twelfth century Northern Europe. Lastly, directly intervening into the debates on methodology, Deborah Coen’s article illustrates how nonhuman histories, and more broadly, histories of climate change, must take into account seemingly incommensurable temporalities, and spatialities. Written over a span of four decades, this set of articles illustrate the diachronic development of our ecological crisis, by tracing how articles by historians such as Wilson, Shyowitz, Steven, and Serjeantson, have culminated into the questions posed by Coen, and Chaplin, and addressed by us in this forum. 

In an attempt to center the nonhuman and chart out a space for conceptualizing their intellectual histories, this forum will also bring to light gaping holes in the existing intellectual history scholarship. In this introductory section, it is imperative to point out  that historians of ideas have not taken into account the question of political economy, during their engagement with the climate crisis, and nonhuman histories, as can be seen in this small set we have curated here. Simply put these articles do not ask: how did capitalism bring about the present environmental crisis?  By overlooking the question of capital, they have only partially traced the causality of anthropocentrism, and have downplayed its potential for epistemic violence. In an attempt to address this, in my research, I argue that the unhappy consciousness of the dialectic of colonial capitalism manifests through a lack of care (yatna) for the humans and nonhumans within the household, in colonial India. Similarly Milinda Banerjee and Jelle Wouters look at how histories of multispecies beings and their thoughts on social and political organization, hitherto obscured by the vampire-like tendencies of capital, can actually help us conceptualize mutually interdependent ways of being. David Wengrow in his global historical exploration of monsters argued that they originate in human cognition in response to, and alongside urbanization, and cosmopolitan trade networks. 

What defines the ‘human’, and differentiates it from those beings that are not humans? How do we move beyond anthropocentrism, and start thinking with them, for writing nonhuman intellectual histories? What would those multi species and multibeing histories look like? How can we imagine a methodological framework for hearing, translating, and comprehending the nonhuman? In this task, our pathway has to be interdisciplinary, as we learn from anthropologists, and biologists, amongst others. Eduardo Kohn in his monograph shows us how human thought on forests is informed by ways in which forests actually think. Similarly, Marisol De La Cadena in her soul stirring work shows us ways in which we can move beyond the human, by thinking with Quechua concepts such as “earth beings”. Merlin Sheldrake’s study of fungal organization, Thomas Van Dooren’s attempt to think with crows, all provide inspiring indications of what a nonhuman history of ideas might look like.

In the following installments of this forum, we intend to delve deeper into these questions, and reflect upon the adequacies and inadequacies of the existing scholarship, in our collective attempt to chart out a framework for imagining nonhumans as actors within their own (hi)stories.  


Shuvatri Dasgupta received a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in History from Presidency University, Kolkata, India. She was also an exchange student and Charpak Fellow at Sciences Po Paris (Reims campus), studying for a certificate programme in European Affairs and B1 French. She is the editor of the Journal of History of Ideas blog, and a doctoral candidate in the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge, funded by the Cambridge Trust and Rajiv Gandhi Foundation Fellowship. Her doctoral dissertation is tentatively titled “A History of Conjugality: On Patriarchy, Caste, and Capital, in the British Empire c.1872-1947”. Her general research interests include global history, gender history, intellectual history and political thought, histories of empire, histories of capitalism, Marxist and Marxist-Feminist theory, and critical theory. For the academic year of 2021-22 she is the convenor of the research network ‘Grammars of Marriage and Desire’ (GoMAD) supported by CRASSH, Cambridge, and the Histories of Race Graduate Workshop, at the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge.