Think Piece

Contextualizing the Rise of Comparative Political Theory

By guest contributor Josey Tom

If the creation of subfields within a discipline indicates its development rather than its demise, then political theory is expanding and glowing in a new light. Founded in the mid-1990s, the sub-field known as Comparative Political Theory (CPT) attempts to decolonize the canon of political theory by incorporating non-Western political ideas, texts, concepts and epistemic resources hitherto ignored by political theorists. Roxanne Euben (University of Pennsylvania) who coined the term, introduced it as the project of bringing “non-Western perspectives into familiar debates about the problems of living together, thus ensuring that ‘political theory’ is about human and not merely Western dilemmas” (Euben 1997, 32). The subfield is a reminder that there are still songs to be sung by political theory beyond the West, lest the field’s only song be a dirge—a funeral song for non-Western political concepts, categories, and canons. CPT is the logical culmination of the geopolitical context of decolonization and internal debates about the aims and methods of political theory since the 1950s. These anxieties were amplified by trenchant critiques of eurocentrism by postcolonial and Subaltern Studies scholarship in an increasingly globalized and multipolar world.This piece will argue that CPT is an immanent critique in political theory that builds on the legacies of mounting internal critiques.

In an essay that attempts to chart the scope of CPT, political theorist Diego von Vacano (Texas A&M) explains the emergence of CPT in terms of both “critical disciplinary” and geopolitical factors (Vacano 2015, 467). The first contextual factor is the void opened up starting in the late 1970s by critical perspectives on modernity from Western Marxism, critical theory, the genealogical method of Michel Foucault, Edward Said’s study of orientalism, and the Subaltern Studies school, each of which challenged Western paradigms of modernization. The second factor is dissatisfaction with existing formal explanatory paradigms employed in the subfield of comparative politics. The third factor is the backdrop of end of the Cold War and contemporary globalization: The liberal triumphalism of Francis Fukuyama’s seminal 1989 article “The End of History and the Last Man” and the pessimistic prognosis of the post-Cold War era embedded in Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order (1996) provided an opening for CPT to offer alternative paradigms.

However, neglected in Vacano’s broad contextualist account are the three important critiques internalto the discipline of political theory in the twentieth century. The method-centric critique emerged in the 1950s and 1960s from the behavioralist school, which sought to explain and predict political behavior in a value-neutral manner using quantitative methods, as well as from theorists who found their field on the decline. The second critique focused on the Western-centrism of political theory, and is exemplified by the writings of John Gunnell (SUNY Albany), Jeffrey Isaac (Indiana), and Bhikhu Parekh. This critique was fragmented, as dominant understandings of disparate concepts including modernity, liberalism, and universal human rights received flak from different parts of the globe. CPT should be seen as the third major critique of political theory: It is a collective and systematic effort to challenge the Western-centrism of political theory, especially by rethinking existing categories and concepts and incorporating themes, thinkers, and cultural insights from non-Western societies.

The First Critique of Political Theory

In the 1950s and 1960s, the behavioralist school triggered intense self-reflection in political theory. Seminal essays by John Plamenatz (“The Use of Political Theory” [1960]), Isaiah Berlin (“Does Political Theory Still Exist?” [1962]), and Sheldon Wolin (“Political Theory as a Vocation” [1969]) testify to a period of soul-searching within the discipline. While these writings questioning the basis of the field were “marked by the ashes of the Cold War” (Vacano, 468), other seminal reflections on the aims of political theory were written while the Second World War and the early Cold War were still in full swing—notably Leo Strauss’s most important essays on political theory (“Persecution and the Art of Writing” [1952] and “What is Political Philosophy” [1957]).

Alasdair MacIntyre and John Rawls also contributed to self-reflection of political theory through their meditations on political philosophy. In his essay “The Indispensability of Political Theory” (1983), MacIntyre employs the metaphor of a map to suggest that political theory illuminates the political landscape, helping people navigate their social and political world. Political theory does not diminish in significance despite its lack of comprehensiveness, just as a grossly inaccurate map still holds some practical utility (MacIntyre 1983, 32). In his work Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (2001), Rawls similarly describes four roles political philosophy has in a society, namely achieving social co-operation in divisive societies, orienting members of a political community, reconciliation, and carving out feasible political arrangements (Rawls 2001, 1-4).

What motivates all these writings is the hope and promise political theory offers for political life. Political theorists and philosophers ranging from Leo Strauss to John Rawls illuminated the gap between how political theory has been conceived and how it has been practiced. The emergence of CPT should be seen in light of the inability of political theory to live up to its promise and hopes for political life—both within Western societies and globally speaking.

Political theory has not been able to fulfill its potential due to a parochialism that limits or omits non-Western political constellations and concerns. An indispensable task of political theory is to contemplate desirable and feasible political arrangements that might ensure good life for peoples. But what if the proposed political arrangements are predicated on assumptions that privilege a particular part of the globe by effacing dimensions of race and imperialism? When Huntington wrote about the clash of civilizations and Fukuyama celebrated the triumph of liberalism, they were, despite their biases, performing what George H. Sabine regarded as a crucial function of political theory: “an estimate of probabilities and an estimate of values” (Sabine 1939, 5). Yet when Wolin conceptualizes political theory as a tradition embodying an “inherited form,” he is thinking about a rich inheritance that is definitively Western (Wolin 1969, 1070). If political theorists are tasked with generating political knowledge, they cannot ignore the ideas and perceptions of good life in non-Western societies. The gulf between the lofty visions of political theory and its exclusive character leads us to the second critique of political theory.

The Second Critique of Political Theory

The early 1990s saw the emergence of a critique of the ethnocentrism at the heart of the discipline of political theory. The first strand of this critique targeted particular Western concepts but did not implicate political theory as a whole; it limited its critique to certain categories in light of the non-Western political realities. For instance, scholarship emerging mainly from India challenged hegemonic Western understandings of secularism and modernity, pointing out their inadequacy for understanding non-Western social and political worlds (Bhargava 1999 and Kaviraj 2002). Also under scrutiny was the ethnocentrism embedded in liberal democracy. Bhikhu Parekh’s “The Cultural Particularities of Liberal Democracy” (1992) and “Decolonizing Liberalism” (1993) illustrated the provincialism of liberalism. Debates about Asian values versus Human Rights also questioned the universality of liberal democratic values. The second strand of this critique levelled loftier charges at the discipline as a whole, as exemplified in the writings of Isaac (“The Strange Silence of Political Theory” [1995]) and Parekh (“The Poverty of Indian Political Theory” [2010]). Criticizing the reluctance of American political theorists to contemplate the “events of 1989” in Eastern Europe, Isaac pointed out that political theory was a prisoner of Western European tradition, which, despite constituting a “secure reference point for our political thinking” engenders “intellectual conformity.” Parekh, meanwhile, lamented the absence in non-Western societies of a robust critique of the central categories of the West, despite an awareness of the ethnocentrism and limited explanatory power of those categories.

The Third Critique of Political Theory: Comparative Political Theory

While reflecting on the nature and task of political theory, Wolin also drew attention to its inherent limitations. Despite its sophisticated categories, political theory can offer only a limited understanding of political phenomena, as there exists a “vast range of political experience” that is inexhaustible by such categories (Wolin 2016, 21).Wolin reminds us, taking his cue from the neo-Kantian philosopher Ernst Cassirer, that statements and propositions in political theory are, after all, “abbreviations of reality.” He uses the metaphor of a net to represent the concepts and categories that are employed to understand political phenomena: those suitable for explaining European contexts are often ineffective and erroneous in a non-Western context.

Abstractions are indispensable in the construction of theory. But the problem with political theory these thinkers highlighted is that its “abbreviations” long remained oblivious to non-Western lifeworlds. Abstractions in mainstream political theory continue to be informed by the social and political imaginary of West while ignoring the rest. The net is seldom cast out on the non-Western world. It is in this context that CPT assumes its significance: it functions as the third critique in political theory by pointing out the inherent bias of ethnocentrism that still besets the field’s canon, concepts, and methodologies.

If CPT is to bridge the gap between the promises and practice of political theory, it also needs to examine contemporary global political issues such as right-wing populism.CPT also remains a conscript of the East-West divide: it has yet to engage the strand of decolonial scholarship that shows the non-Western pedigree of concepts often thought to be European in their origins. Laura Marks, for instance, has argued that Gilles Deleuze’s concept of the “univocity of being” has its source in the great Persian philosopher Abu Ali al-Husayn ibn Sina—a history that was erased when philosophy “underwent an ethnic cleansing.” An engagement with strands of European thought that have appropriated the intellectual contributions of the non-European world has the potential to rattle some of the basic assumptions of the subfield and to provide an opportunity to rethink the reluctance of CPT scholars to accept the universality of certain political ideas.

Comparative Political Theory has finally cast its net wide. The catch might indeed be splendid. But for the catch to reach the table, the net must be stronger and the sharks kept at bay.

Josey Tom is a Research Scholar at Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. This piece is adapted from his M.Phil. dissertation, entitled “Comparative Political Theory: Contexts, Plurality and Political Action.”

Think Piece

Forms of Bureaucracy

by editor John Raimo

What sorts of history does bureaucracy yield, and what might histories of bureaucracy itself look like? That the two questions remain distinct yet fall closely together emerged in the course of an excellent recent conference organized by Rosamund Johnston (New York University) and Veronika Pehe (European University Institute). Speakers for From Josef K to Lustration: Bureaucracy in Central Europe sought to move from case studies to broader definitions of bureaucracy or vice-versa even as they reflected upon historiographical and disciplinary challenges specific to the subject. Classical definitions from Max Weber, Georg Simmel, and others proved less a starting point than something to be challenged. A thematic organization of panels brought together a variety of regional and chronological expertise; the final conclusions were less simply heterogeneous than thrillingly suggestive of broader lines of common phenomena and historiographical challenges.

A panel dedicated to bureaucracy and the production of knowledge began the conference. Ana Sekulić (Princeton University) explored how Franciscan monasteries under Ottoman rule quickly mastered the intricacies of the imperial bureaucracy, even as the latter came to almost informally accommodate them with reference to questionable Ahidnâme charters. That is, overlapping competencies on both sides of an imperial divide gave way to something like a formalized détente, as in the case of exceptions made for monastic inheritance under Sharia law. Rachel Schaff (University of Minnesota) spoke on how postwar Czechoslovak bureaucracy created the genre of melodrama to categorize an important body of interwar films. Anachronistic discrepancies naturally followed even as the form of records prevented correction or, in a certain sense, a body of expertise to revise the record. Alina Popescu (University of Bucharest) took as her subject how Romanian censorship collapsed under its own weight both with its own increasing rigor and with widening autonomy from central authorities. Censoring institutions could be broken up and reconstituted as necessary under Nicolae Ceaușescu. In his comments, Jan Surman (Herder Institut Marburg) emphasized how closely archives would hew to the internal narratives of bureaucracy, and what challenges these posed for historians. Throughout the panel, one could trace the problem of how bureaucracies generate competing forms of expertise which in turn challenge the easy functioning of the system.

“Rethinking Images of Bureaucrats and Bureaucracy,” the second panel under Jiřina Šmejkalová (Prague College / Palacký University, Olomouc), moved from inner to outward workings of these offices and officials. Margarita Vaysman (St. Andrews University) looked to the popular author Aleksii Pisemskii who, drawing on his long civil service career, could mediate between his experience and public notions of bureaucracy. His role in forming a public ‘tradition’ of Russian bureaucracy to be criticized has been overlooked even as his sort of rhetoric towards the same came to be adopted across the political spectrum. The tensions between state teachers and the central educational authorities in late imperial Austria furnished the subject for Scott Moore (Eastern Connecticut State University), as the sheer distance between the metropole and country came to reflect operational challenges as much as ideological differences under the same rubrics of liberal progress. Alice Lovejoy (University of Minnesota) discussed the paradoxes linking bureaucratic sponsorship of cinematic avant-gardes. An interwar avant-garde notion of didacticism quickly became institutionalized after WWII in terms of personnel, funding, artistic form, and notions of an audience. At the same time, however, international associations of filmmakers fractured as the Iron Curtain fell across Europe, resulting in new artistic relations and antagonisms to bureaucracy.

Calling Mr. Smith (Stefan and Franciszka Thermerson, dir.; 1943), a wartime documentary on Nazi atrocities produced under the auspices of the Polish Ministry of Information and Documentation in London

As Felix Jeschke (Charles University) noted in his comments to a panel dedicated to bureaucrats and regime change, social upheavals directly affected the inner workings of bureaucracies more often than not. Ilya Afanasyev (University of Birmingham) discussed how a perennial lag between public, theoretical ideals of Bolshevik bureaucracy and its actual operations forced constant revisions to both sides of this equation. Marián Lóži (Ústav pro studium totalitních režimů) explored what he termed ‘regional Stalinist elites,’ the temporary layer of bureaucrats aiding in the transition to communist rule in Czechoslovakia from 1948-1952. Both as representatives as well as functionaries of a new system, these bureaucrats’ role necessarily proved transitory even as they embodied both the positive and negative effects of the new regime upon everyday life. Molly Pucci (Trinity College Dublin) went so far as to question to what degree Stalinism yielded new definitions of bureaucracy as opposed to classical definitions. Looking to biographical studies as much as distancing herself from the paradigms offered by secret police organizations, Pucci suggested that the instrumentalization afforded by the “machine of the party” (the rhetoric and structure of cogs and quotas), the “permanent purge” of personnel turnover, the structural ambiguities and redundancies attending hierarchies and authorities, and the complexity revealed by perpetrator studies resulted in something wholly new. And in an appropriate keynote speech to the first day’s proceedings, Ben Kafka (NYU) illustrated the psychological underpinnings of any individual interaction with bureaucracy, not least the phenomenon of a ‘still face’ both personalizing and depersonalizing the very lowest levels of contact.

Joanna Curtis (NYU), Mirjam Frank (Royal Holloway), and Tereza Willoughby (Hradec Králové) began the second day’s proceedings with a panel chaired by David Vaughan (Anglo-American University in Prague) on the subject of cultural bureaucracies. Looking to the postwar career of the Wiener Sängerknaben, Curtis showed how two myths of bureaucracy—the idea that it expresses rational impulses and that it fundamentally embodies irrationality—faltered in this instance of an institution falling between a humanistic embrace of music, fears of cultural imperialism at home and abroad, and a shambolic interior structure under strict state control. Frank continued the discussion of Austrian culture by moving to the interwar period and discussing how bureaucracies realizedvarious conceptual changes leading to the Ständestaat period. The cosmopolitanism of the Habsburg Empire was made to yield an ‘Austrian’ identity premised on the interior culture of the reduced nation in the fairs at the Prater; the genesis of a tourist industry in the Weiner Festwochen elided a movement from Volk to a public; and the Ständestaat eventually held ‘culture’ as a shield against geopolitics. Willoughby demonstrated something similar in terms of bureaucratic manipulation of popular culture, namely how an official and unofficial rhetoric of ranking artists survived in the Czech Republic after the transition from communist rule—even if the terms changed. In this sense, as Willoughby showed, bureaucratic inner workings of television simultaneously preserved not only a similar editorial structure but also an only slightly-modified notion of audience numbers guiding the programming choices.

Personnel and agents emerged as a running theme throughout the panels, appropriately leading to the “Bureaucracy Personified” panel chaired by Veronika Pehe. Mátyás Erdélyi (Central European University) looked to the life and career of Josef Körösy (1844-1906), the director of the Budapest Statistical office. Körösy’s work there over several decades demonstrates how the international networks girding national offices, professional training in medicine and law, and sheer problems of scale could open gaps and debates between different, supposedly parallel bureaucracies. Nguyen Vu Thuc Linh (European University Institute / Sciences Po) similarly focused upon Jacek Kuroń (1934-2004) and how the “immanent critique” of bureaucracy in his 1964 “Open Letter to the Party” and Polish reform communism helped yield the Polish dissident movement across generations. And in a tour-de-force of close-reading of police files, Muriel Blaive (Ústav pro studium totalitních režimů) showed how the tones, arguments, and vocabulary of the secret police in Communist Czechoslovakia allowed for pockets of agency on both sides of the state divide, with the basis of participation changing between generations of families, jealous wives, and lazy police officers caught in the midst of official forms and habitus-change.

A final panel on gaps in bureaucracy perfectly closed the conference. With Kafka chairing, Cristian Capotescu (University of Michigan) opened by suggesting that “bureaucratic blindspots” both followed from and further developed bureaucratic procedures, indeed startlingly so in the case of cross-border charitable ‘giving’ practices on the edges of communist Romania. In a lighter talk discussing his own experiences applying for a “Certificate of Slovak Living Abroad,” Charles Sabatos (Yeditepe University) showed the relative complexities of the term ‘národnost’ or nationality as they emerge in the retrospective projection of the term backwards in Slovakian bureaucracy today. Whether politicized or not in the wake of 1989, bureaucracies did not necessarily become simpler or uniform with the advent of the European Union, and Sabatos’ case suggests that indeed inefficiencies might be the true purpose of many offices. And finally, conference organizer Rosamund Johnston (NYU) presented her ongoing research into the history of Czech Radio. Moving between the extant archives and the period practices—technological, material, and human—of radio production, Johnston documented how Czech Radio produced its own idiosyncratic variations of bureaucracy filled with lacunae, parallel hierarchies, specific forms of record-keeping, and traces of history. Layers of bureaucracy both occluded and preserved characteristic gaps calling for further reconstruction. Her case studies suggested how much further historiography can and should go in order to ‘fill in’ these holes.

Excerpts from Postava k podpírání (Pavel Juráček and Jan Schmidt, dir.; 1963)

The conference ended on an artistic note. Pavel Juráček’s film Joseph Kilian (Postava k podpírání; 1963) was shown before a guided tour of linked art installations by students from the Center for Audio Visual Studies (CAS) at the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts (FAMU). Juráček’s script is darkly comical, dedicated to the travails of a man trying to return a rented cat (…) to avoid late fees when the business wholly disappears. A sort of collective solidarity gradually emerges in the face of grinding state and official absurdity; an almost gentle sense of sympathy emerges among the menace. The work of the CAS and FAMU students under Eric Rosenzveig’s guidance followed in much the same vein. The very impersonality of bureaucracy could be seen to allow certain forms of disinterested critique— humorous and edged with a greater sense of historical distance. What both the film and the artworks allowed viewers to understand is how tightly the personal experience of bureaucracy remains tied to particular aesthetic forms, images, and genres; this heritage of paperwork and incomprehension naturally survives until today.

Listening in to art by FAMU and CAS students (courtesy of Rosamund Johnston)

It reflects no small credit to the conference organizers that the proceedings both proved interesting and exploratory. Participants’ willingness to conceive of bureaucracy in terms other than those of Weber’s classical definitions—not to mention period or retrospective notions of secret police workings—opened up further avenues of research in terms both of a longue durée across eastern and central European history and of cultural exchanges and differences between east and west. The slow churn of paperwork may exhibit an unchanging face at first glance, but each case study of glacial bureaucratic rigor mortis yields considerable evidence of change behind the scenes.

The larger question hovering over the conference might be more bluntly termed. Did a particularly eastern and, later, a particularly Soviet form of bureaucracy emerge apart from any larger ideas about modernity? Here a tendency of many speakers to focus upon the Stalinist and postwar era suggested immediate problems of continuity. Did different degrees of internationalization (carried out from before and after WWII) characterize Austria and countries further to the east? That is, did competing models of bureaucracy and management exist—Soviet, American, Ottoman, Prussian, Habsburg, and so forth? And what might be said about the direction of causality between technology and organization? Despite what one might expect to find interesting, here a closer attention to the nitty-gritty, ground-level office forms, official rhetoric, and specific archival gaps proved most promising in terms of challenging old definitions and making clear the need for interdisciplinary research. Sociology, anthropology, media studies, cybernetics, historical epistemology, art history, architecture, law, and psychology to name but a few fields would all find work to do alongside more strictly historical research. One might be forgiven for presuming all this to be terribly boring. Yet seeing how the boring, frustrating, labyrinthine, and commonplace were specific, timely constructions—how they mediated social relations as much as experiences people had when encountering different state powers—draws back a curtain on the innermost workings of history.

From Josef K to Lustration: Bureaucracy in Central Europe (23-24 February 2017) was supported by NYU Prague, the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, NYU Global Research Initiatives, and NYU Center for European and Mediterranean Studies. The author thanks the conference organizers for the invitation to attend and report on the proceedings.

Think Piece

Global History of Ideas: A Sea for Fish on Dry Land

by guest contributor Dag Herbjørnsrud

A remarkable example of how ideas migrate across so-called cultural borders and change minds in unknown ways happened in the German city of Bremen on October 8, 1930. There, Martin Heidegger gave a speech based upon his masterwork Being and Time (1927). Afterwards, he and several of Bremen’s citizens gathered at the home of a wholesaler. During the evening, Heidegger suddenly turned to his host and asked, “Mister Kellner, would you please bring me the Parables of Zhuangzi? I would like to read some passages from it.”

Sein und Zeit
(Being and Time; 1927)

Martin Buber (1878–1965) had already translated these parables of a founder of Daoism (Taoism) in 1910 with the help of Chinese collaborators, one of his first acclaimed books, Reden und Gleichnisse des Tschuang-Tse (Leipzig, 1910). Buber’s afterword connects Zhuangzi (or Chuang Tzu/莊子 369–286 BC) with his reading of the Bible, and this can be seen as advance notice of sorts for his later philosophy of “I and You” (“Ich und Du”). It was this book that Heidegger demanded.

The tradesman didn’t hesitate but went to his library and returned with a new edition of Buber’s translation. Heidegger started reading from Zhuangzi’s chapter 17, which in this context might be seen as a follow-up to his own speech “On the Essence of Truth”. Heidegger read from the passage where Zhuangzi says to the thinker Hui Tzu, known for his Zeno-like paradoxes, as they walk by a river:

Do you see how the fish are coming to the surface and swimming around as they please? That’s what fish really enjoy.”

“You’re not a fish,” replied Hui Tzu, “so how can you say you know what fish really enjoy?”

Zhuangzi said: “You are not me, so how can you know I don’t know what fish enjoy.”

The people of Bremen could relate to this 2200-year-old Chinese conversation. As an eyewitness described it: “The deep meaning of the legend cast a spell on all who were present. With the interpretation he offered of that legend, Heidegger unexpectedly drew closer to them than he had with his difficult lecture….”

Heidegger’s and Buber’s dialogue with the thinking of Asia seems to prove that Arthur O. Lovejoy was right when, in the first issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas in 1940, he pointed out that “ideas are the most migratory things in the world.” Human thoughts are like fish that swim as they please. There are no borders underwater. The connections in our minds transcend modern categories in unknown ways, and thus our ideas migrate across ages and seas – from Zhuangzi’s ancient town of Meng in eastern China to Kellner’s modern home in northern Germany.

Heidegger seems to have proved that ideas are the most migratory things in the world long before he became internationally famous. When he studied in Freiburg with the philosopher Shuzo Kuki (1888–1941) from Japan, Heidegger read Edmund Husserl’s major work with him and other East Asians once a week, as he stressed in one of his late major texts, “Aus einem Gespräch von der Sprache. Zwischen einem Japaner und einem Fragenden” (1959) (“A Dialogue on Language between a Japanese and an Inquirer”) – set out as a conversation between two professors. By that time, in 1921, transcripts of Heidegger’s classes were already translated into Japanese, which might be regarded as the first recognition of his groundbreaking philosophy. Indeed, Japanese was the first language Being and Time was translated into – in 1939, a staggering twenty-three years before the first English translation.

The Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu, 3rd century BC)

If we re-read Heidegger’s 1927 work from such perspectives, we might understand why many East Asian philosophers feel more at home in his thinking than most Europeans.  As he concludes: “One must seek a way of illuminating the fundamental question of ontology and then go this way. Whether this is the sole or right way can be decided only after one has gone along it.” This insistence on finding and going the way in order to seek the essence of being, might be hard to grasp with a so-called Cartesian or modern perspective, trying to make philosophy a part of science, but it seems all the more natural from Zhuangzi’s point of view and the way of thinking about the Way (Dao).

After the Nazi era, Heidegger concludes much of his wandering in Unterwegs zur Sprache (1959) (On the Way to Language). In that work he explains his 40-year-long quest for a deeper, pre-philosophical source which connects us as beings across time and space: “The word ‘way’ probably is an ancient primary word that speaks to the reflective mind of man. The key word in Laozi’s poetic thinking is Tao, which ‘properly speaking’ means way […].” He concludes: “The lasting element in thinking is the way.” In this way the thinking of China and Japan breathes in Heidegger’s philosophy. Europe’s foremost thinker of the 20th century cannot be properly understood without knowledge of Asia’s philosophy.

Heidegger’s universal quest might also be something for our times. Heidegger was seeking a thinking experience which would assure “that European-Western saying and East Asian saying will enter into dialogue such that in it there sings something that wells up from a single source.” And he walks the walk in the dialogue with his friend, as when he finds out that the Japanese word for language, ‘koto ba,’ is the best way to better understand his own language, German.

Thus, both Zhuangzi and Heidegger formulated central challenges and opportunities for the 21st century. Zhuangzi by asking us to see “the Others”, understand what they enjoy, and acknowledge it. Heidegger by asking us to seek a way to understand his thinking, his transcultural roots, and his search for a common human ground. Or as professor Reinhard May puts it: “In order to gain a new perspective from this ‘Heidegger case’,” we will have to devote ourselves to other people’s thinking “as thoroughly as to that of our own tradition, not least since Heidegger has, in his own special way, demonstrated the necessity of transcultural thinking.”

In this light we can also see how Heidegger questioned the basis of our modern thinking in Brief über den ‘Humanismus’ (1947) (Letter on ‘Humanism’): “Philosophy is hounded by the fear that it loses prestige and validity if it is not a science,” Heidegger wrote. And again he returned to a fish metaphor: “Thinking is judged by a standard that does not measure up to it. Such judgment may be compared to the procedure of trying to evaluate the natures and powers of a fish by seeing how long it can live on dry land. For a long time now, all too long, thinking has been stranded on dry land.”

He didn’t write it explicitly, but this metaphor seems to be a reference to another of Zhuangzi’s parables (number 6): “When the springs dry out, the fish are found stranded on the earth. They keep each other damp with their own moisture, and wet each other with their slime.”

Vital parts of our migratory history of ideas have become stranded on dry land since the encounter in Bremen. At the same time, a new awareness might be dawning of the importance of our long-forgotten global interconnectedness – as can be seen from Samuel Moyn and Andrew Sartori’s Global Intellectual History (2013) or Jonardon Ganeri’s “Why Philosophy Must Go Global: A Manifesto” (2016). The history of ideas can also learn lessons from the new insights now being presented in the field of global history and the de-centering of perspective, or from earlier times: The “universalism” of Mozi, or the argument for “world literature” by both Goethe and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore.

The world is not just connected by trade, as Hajime Nakamura pointed out in A Comparative History of Ideas (1975). Even more importantly, humans are bonded by those migratory ideas that transcend national and cultural borders. And as Heidegger showed, we don’t have to meet physically in order to face each other. In the global history of ideas we can rather stand face to face through texts across ages and seas.

Such a history of ideas has the potential to give us new and fresh ways of looking at our world, as the participiants at the gathering in Bremen found out. This is not just because “there is no such thing as western civilization,” or eastern civilization for that matter, as Kwame Anthony Appiah puts it. It is also because new research frequently proves that our cultural heritage is often not what we are taught to believe. Heidegger’s critique inspired the Algerian-born Jacques Derrida to develop the German term “Destruktion” into the French concept of “déconstruction”. As the time and being of the 21st century drags on, it might be about time to add reconstruction to deconstruction.

A reconstruction of our natural and common global history of ideas can be seen as a fulfillment of the thinking of Zhuangzi, “the first deconstructivist”. He disavowed the ideologies of rulers and the hierarchies of scholars that imprison the human mind, leading individuals astray from their own innate nature (hsing). The stringent argument that we are being taught is logic is far too often nonsense – because, rather, eclecticism is all. The eclectic, comparative, and inclusive way of thinking pours water over stranded fish, making reconstruction a flow of the natural way (wu wei 無爲). If we follow the way of Zhuangzi and read the classics anew, we can reconstruct our past based not on an ethnocentric take, but rather on a comparative and transcultural perspective – placing weight on our migratory ideas. Instead of studying history of ideas within a national or ethnic framework, we might re-orient and be on the way to reconstruction with the help of three ‘C’-terms: Contact. Comparison. Complexity.

John Adams concluded that the democracy of the US resembled that of Phoenician Carthage more than any other republic

We might for example see the way Thomas McEvilley has shown how the pre-Socratics and Plato were influenced by the thinking of India, a country where the secular and materialistic Lokayata (Carvaka) philosophy has prevailed for over 2500 years (Contact). Such global and comparative perspectives on the world of ideas can release us from the ethnocentrism that has left our thinking stranded on dry land for all too long now. If we follow such channels of thought, we discover that it was not Athens, nor any Greek city-state, that Aristotle hailed as the best-governed or most democratic. Instead, in Politics, he held up Phoenician Carthage, in modern-day Tunisia, as the state with the best constitution, the most stable rule – which was not prone to tyranny – and as the place where the people had the most say when it came to electing politicians (Comparison). As the second US president John Adams pointed out in A Defence of the Constitution of Government of the United States of America (1787): “This government [of Carthage] thus far resembles those of the United States of America more than any other of the ancient republics, perhaps more than any of the modern…” (Complexity).

Thus, the reconstruction of a global history of ideas makes the founding fathers and the basic documents of our past ripe for rereading from a comparative and non-ethnocentric perspective. Man is not an island and neither is the world – nor have they ever been. Rather, man is a fish, ever in danger of being stranded on dry land. But the springs can be refilled, opening up new channels of thought so that more fish can swim as they please – just as a simple question taught the merchant Kellner, Heidegger, and their guests how to enjoy swimming in the vast seas of the global history of ideas.

Dag Herbjørnsrud is a historian of ideas from the University of Oslo with a cand. philol. thesis on the late philosophy of Robert Nozick. He is the author of the book Globalkunnskap (2016, “Global Knowledge. Renaissance for a New Enlightenment”) at Scandinavian Academic Press, and the founder of the recently established Center for Global and Comparative History of Ideas (SGOKI).

Think Piece

What Was a Reading Community?

by guest contributor Edmund G. C. King

Howard Ignatius, “8:41 Notting Hill Gate”

It’s just after 10 am on a dingy December morning in London as I approach Canada Water underground station. The morning rush hour crowds have receded, leaving only their wet footprints on the platform leading into the station. The outside sheet of a copy of this morning’s Metro, the free London commuter newspaper, has been pulped and trodden into the pavement near the entrance. A single word of the front-page headline is still legible: “Aleppo.” Inside, I walk down the escalators and turn right, onto the westbound Jubilee Line platform. A train arrives almost immediately. I get into the first carriage and stand inside the doors facing away from the platform. To my left there are twelve people sitting, facing each other in two rows of six. Exactly half of them are reading. A woman scrolls through her Facebook newsfeed on an Android phone. A couple in their 30s read copies of The Metro. Opposite them, an older man is skimming an article in the personal finance section of a tabloid newspaper headlined “The Hell of Middle Age.” Two women sit opposite each other, each absorbed in a book. One is reading management theory. The other has a thick, tattered pop-psychology paperback with subsections headed in bold and diagrams illustrating interpersonal relationships. Next to them, a woman sits, headphones on, reading a Spanish novella. No one in the carriage acknowledges the existence of anyone else, not even the couple with their matching copies of The Metro. Each reading surface has become what Erving Goffman calls an “involvement shield,” a way of demarcating personal space and signalling social “non-accessibility” in a shared environment. Seats free up at Southwark. I take one, pull out my iPhone, put my headphones on, load up Spotify and a cached copy of a Jacobin article, and prepare to immerse myself in my own media cocoon.

For the past year, I have been Co-Investigator on an AHRC-funded project, “Reading Communities: Connecting the Past and the Present.” The purpose of the Reading Communities project was to reach out to contemporary reading groups in the United Kingdom and encourage them to engage with the historical accounts of reading in the Reading Experience Database. But the experience of working on a project like this has also changed my own academic practice as an historian of reading. I find myself paying more attention to the everyday scenes of reading unfolding around me than I might have done otherwise, looking for the elusive connections between reading practices and reading communities in the past and the present. Of course, a random collection of readers in a London tube carriage does not in itself constitute a “reading community.” We, in our Jubilee Line media cocoons, might all be using books and other forms of reading material in avoidant ways, as coping mechanisms to deal with the intensities and demands of occupying shared spaces in a large city. Some of us may even be consuming the very same text—this morning’s Metro—simultaneously. These acts of textual consumption form part of our social imaginary; they are props for performing our roles as commuters and as Londoners. But simultaneity and a shared habitus are not sufficient in themselves to bind us together into a specific reading community. For a reading community to exist, the act of reading must be in some basic way shared. Readers need to interact with each other or at least identify as members of the same reading collective. The basic building blocks of a community are, as DeNel Rehberg Sedo observes, a set of enduring and reciprocal social relationships. Reading communities are collectives where those relationships are mediated by the consumption of texts. But how can we define the social function of reading communities more precisely? What relationship do they have with other communities and social formations beyond the realm of text? What can examples taken from historically distant reading cultures tell us about the social uses of shared reading experiences?

In Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire, William A. Johnson interrogates ancient sources for what they can reveal about reading and writing practices in elite Roman communities. The scenes of reading preserved in ancient sources provide detailed glimpses into the place of shared reading and literary performance in daily life. In Epistle 27, Pliny describes the daily routine of Titus Vestricius Spurinna, a 78-year-old retired senator and consul:

The early morning he passes on his couch; at eight he calls for his slippers, and walks three miles, exercising mind and body together. On his return, if he has any friends in the house with him, he gets upon some entertaining and interesting topic of conversation; if by himself, some book is read to him, sometimes when visitors are there even, if agreeable to the company. Then he has a rest, and after that either takes up a book or resumes his conversation in preference to reading.

In the afternoon, after he has bathed, Spurinna has “some light and entertaining author read to him,” a ritual house guests are invited to share. At dinner, guests are entertained with another group reading, “the recital of some dramatic piece,” as a way of “seasoning” the “pleasures” of the evening “with study.” All of this, he writes, is carried on “with so much affability and politeness that none of his guests ever finds it tedious.” For Johnson, this reveals Pliny’s belief that shared literary consumption forms a necessary part of high-status Roman identity. “Reading in this society,” he writes, “is tightly bound up in the construction of … community.” It is the glue that binds together a range of communal practices—meals, exercise, literary conversation—into one unified whole, a social solvent that simultaneously acts as an elite marker. Shared reading experiences in this milieu are a means of fostering a sense of group belonging. They are ways of performing social identity, of easing participants into their roles as hosts and house guests, clients and patrons.

Another externality that impels the formation of ancient Roman reading communities is textual scarcity. To gain access to texts in the ancient world, readers needed social connections. Literary and intellectual culture in such a textual economy will necessarily be communal, as both readers and authors depend on social relationships in order to exchange and encounter reading material. As Johnson shows, the duties of authorship in ancient Rome extended into the spheres of production and distribution. Genteel authors like Galen retained the scribes and lectors who would copy and perform their works for a wider coterie of friends and followers. This culture of scarcity in turn imprinted itself onto reading practices. In the introduction to his treatise On Theriac to Piso, Galen describes visiting Piso at home and finding him in the midst of reading a medical treatise, an act of private reading that readily segues into an extended social performance for Galen’s benefit:

I once came to your house as is my custom and found you with many of your accustomed books lying around you. For you do especially love, after the conclusion of the public duties arising from your affairs, to spend your time with the old philosophers. But on this occasion you had acquired a book about this antidote [i.e., theriac] and were reading it with pleasure; and when I was standing next to you you immediately looked on me with the eyes of friendship and greeted me courteously and then took up the reading of the book again with me for audience. And I listened because the book was thoughtfully written … And as you read … a great sense of wonder came over me and I was very grateful for our good luck, when I saw you so enthusiastic about the art. For most men just want to derive the pleasure of listening from writings on medicine: but you not only listen with pleasure to what is said, but also learn from your native intelligence …

As Johnson notes, this passage is striking precisely because of its unfamiliarity, for what it says about the gulf that separates “Galen’s culture of reading” from “our own.” Specialised texts in the Roman world were so scarce—and hence so valuable—that it was axiomatic to readers like Piso and Galen that the “good luck” of mutual textual encounter should be maximised by an act of shared reading, not simply of a small extract, but of the entire work. The result is a precisely described scene of reading that baffles us with its strangeness.  What these anecdotes indicate is not only that, as Robert Darnton puts it, “reading has a history,” but that reading communities everywhere bear the unmistakable imprints of that history.

In early Victorian London, juvenile pickpockets reacted in their own way to the externalities of textual scarcity. As Henry Mayhew records, literate gang members would read their copies of Jack Sheppard and the Newgate Calendar aloud in lodgings during the evenings to those in their networks who couldn’t read. These acts of shared reading not only fostered group identity, but enabled gang members to maximise their communal resources, to make literacy and textual possessions go further. The reading communities in early twentieth-century New Zealand that Susann Liebich has studied are similarly embedded in wider networks of friendship and group belonging. Sharing books and reading tips was, as she demonstrates, a means of “fostering connections,” a way for “readers to connect with each other and with a world beyond Timaru.” What each of these examples shows is that the social function of shared reading differs according to the needs and norms of the wider communities and cultures in which that reading community is embedded. At the same time, however, attending to these differences encourages us to consider what is distinctive about norms and practices within contemporary reading communities, helping us limn what Rob Koehler elsewhere on this blog identifies as “the intimate and complex relationships between individuals, texts, and lived experience” across time and space, within history and our own present moment.

Edmund G. C. King is a Research Fellow in English Literature in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at The Open University, UK. He works on the Reading Experience Database and is currently researching British and Commonwealth reading practices during the First World War. He is co-editor (with Shafquat Towheed) of Reading and the First World War: Readers, Texts, Archives (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).