Conceptual history

Intellectual History and Global Transformations

By guest contributor Timothy Wright

During the final weekend of this last October, eighteen graduate students from a variety of history and literature departments gathered at UC Berkeley for the “Futures of Intellectual History” graduate conference to workshop dissertation chapters and to think more deeply about the sub-discipline of intellectual history, its future, its methodology, and its relevance in an age of global history. This year’s conference, organized by Gloria Yu (UC Berkeley) and Ari Edmundson (UC Berkeley) continues a format began last year by a trio of graduate students—Alexander Arnold (NYU), Justin Reynolds and Asheesh Siddique (both from Columbia)—allowing history graduate students interested in intellectual history to more self-consciously address the methodological aspects of their projects in a small conference setting. The themes of the panels themselves offered much food for thought as topics ranged from early modern theology and vegetarianism, late 20th-century debates in France and the US on technology and AI, and to the circulation and diffusion of Adam Smith’s political economic theories in various colonial settings. A recurring theme of the conference, from this observer’s perspective, was how intellectual history as a sub-discipline, with its indebtedness to a rarefied strand of western European philosophical output, can continue to speak with any relevance to other historians and disciplines who are now engaging with increasingly diverse and global intellectual traditions and contexts.

After two days of lively—sometimes anxious—discussion on such issues and the future of intellectual history, participants received a timely reminder of the sub-discipline’s past successes in overcoming skepticism about its relevance in the concluding remarks offered by Professor Martin Jay of UC Berkeley. Specifically, Jay recounted some of the scornful critiques of his first book, The Dialectical Imagination (1971) penned by philosophers contemptuous of the historical method. These critics averred that Jay’s book displayed the weaknesses of contextualization and genealogy of ideas in that it declined to engage with the contemporary and political ramifications of the ideas in question. One philosopher had written that Jay’s historical reconstruction of the Frankfurt School was “a mile long but an inch deep” while another had remarked that “he had brought the pot to a boil but didn’t cook anything” (Alan Montefiore in conversation). By giving a historical account, Jay was reducing the potency of the ideas in the present in favor of a noxious act of contextual delegitimization.

Jay’s subsequent remarks served as a refutation of sorts to this attack on contextualization. Intellectual history can and does have an immediate impact on contemporary affairs, practical and political, as evidenced by the way visual artists used his 1988 essay “The Scopic Regimes of Modernity” as well as the cautionary tale of how right-wing extremists misused The Dialectical Imagination in their anti-Marxist propaganda. More broadly, Jay made the case that intellectual history should not be seen as an activity distinct from the philosopher’s conceptual theorizing or critical analysis but rather as an integral component of it. As Randal Collins observed in The Sociology of Philosophies (pg. 19), the intellectual has always been someone who believes his ideas transcend context and origins and the intellectual historian plays an important role in helping him or her see the idea in a new light, excavating new relationships and resonances inherent in any original intent. For young intellectual historians today, the moral was clear: engaging ideas through their historical contexts, development, and diffusions is not a quietist step away from politics and relevance but a positive, interventionist act in its own right.

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Photo © Timothy Wright

In various ways, Jay’s comments tied together a number of important themes dominating the conference’s six panels. Participants were asked to consider not only how their papers would play for historians, but for much wider audiences across disciplines and even beyond academia. Professor Cathryn Carson, for example, pleaded with the presenters on the “Technology and Instrument” panel, and especially Daniel Kelly (“Herbert Simon and the Image of the Future”) to intervene and shape Silicon Valley’s discourse in the area of artificial intelligence. And Lilith Acadia’s paper on the long genealogy of the problematic “consent-based” theories of rape asked what centuries’ old intellectual traditions could mean for public and legal policy. But Professor Carson also noted that intervening in debates of contemporary significance does not simply mean rethinking how we apply the fruits of intellectual inquiry, but also requires adjusting the methods themselves. How might we have to rethink the basic premises of contextualization and time if we want to truly engage with the qualitative disjuncture that Big Data and AI (for example) represent in technological modernity?

When it comes to the them which dominated the conference more than any other, that of what the rise of global history means for intellectual history, the necessity to rethink methodological commitments felt even more pressing. Conference participants explored what methodological or theoretical challenges the intellectual historian interested in global history might have to confront. Some of these challenges involve avoiding one-way reception histories (ideas emanating from Europe which shape the global south), empirical disconnects when applying larger conceptual ideas to local contexts, as well as how to precisely theorize the idea of ‘global’ itself. Several panels, such as Friday afternoon’s “Utility, Usefulness and the Reality of Ideas, and Saturday’s “Political Economy and Intellectual, Colonial Encounters” revolved around such challenges. David Delano (UC Berkeley), in his paper “Of ‘Real’ Abstraction: Social Theory and the ‘Objects’ of Intellectual History” introduced, intentionally or not, the conference’s leitmotif and working theory of the ‘global’, Andrew Sartori’s (NYU) assertion that global intellectual history should take the “spread of capitalist social forms and social relations” as its object. Sartori has posited in various publications that global history shouldn’t be about scale or the increasingly interconnectivity of the world (i.e., the world market), but rather about the global penetration of specific types of abstractions rooted in capitalistic social forms, such as the commodity, or “real abstractions.” “Global intellectual history is what intellectual history becomes once it begins to grapple with the problematic of real abstraction” writes Sartori in the 2014 edited volume, Global Intellectual History (p. 128) edited by Sartori and Samuel Moyn. Delano’s paper, although primarily interested in contextualizing Sartori’s theory within the Frankfurt School and Marxian discussion of how conceptual abstractions emerge from social practices, nevertheless spurred the conference-goers to think more deeply about the theoretical underpinnings of the many transnational projects on display at the conference.

But Sartori’s model of global history had its fair share of objections as well. One faculty commentator, Jonathan Sheehan, pointed out that the discourse of political economy, on which Sartori’s particular reading relies, had begun well before the emergence of the “social.” On a more theoretical level, participants asked whether global intellectual history should really start from the privileging of western, Marxian theoretical constructions (not to mention the western origins of capitalist forms itself). One paper that took such questions seriously was Susanna Ferguson’s (Columbia) paper on pedagogical practices in nineteenth-century Lebanon and how this might advance our understanding of wider, transnational developments and movements within pedagogical thought in a “non-western intellectual history.” In her paper “Tracing Tarbiya: The Political Economy of Pedagogy in Ottoman Mt. Lebanon,” Ferguson positioned her methodology self-consciously against that of Sartori’s in arguing that “local social transformations” explain how pedagogical reforms became the vehicle for a variety of actors and institutions (Catholic missionaries, American Protestant schools, and Sunni Maqasid schools) to pursue their vision of personal and communal transformation amidst modernization in Ottoman Lebanon. These groups were responding to anxieties about social transformation specific to the Ottoman empire and the role of education in bringing about progressive, not revolutionary change. Ferguson emphasized that local contexts must have priority since endogenous corollaries to western ideas might in fact go further in explaining the rise of conceptions of pedagogy, for example, rather than assuming that this must be owed to the diffusion of western ideas. Concepts, as we know, might emerge at the same time in different places.

The other major approach considered by the conference in writing transnational global intellectual history was, of course, that of the diffusion of ideas through translation, transnational intellectual exchange, and comparative analyses. Several papers explored transnational intellectual trends by these methods such as Kaitlyn Tucker’s (Chicago) “Experience as Device: Traces of Russian Formalism in the Ljubljana School of the 1970s,” and Colin Jone’s (Columbia) “The Rise of Social Legal Theory in Interwar Japan.” Colin’s paper and the discussion afterward about Japan’s absorption and reformulations of European theories on “social law” underlined just how difficult it is to write a reception history where the non-western nation (Japan) isn’t simply a receptacle for western ideas. In the case of legal theory, there was very little awareness in the west of Japanese legal theories whereas Japanese thinkers read widely in European thought. This presents a tendency, even when endogenous practices and theories are clearly present but deeply influenced by the new ideas, to formulate the question with an orientation to the European sources. Some ideas explored as to how to nevertheless write a reception or translation history that presents the ‘receiver’ of translations as an agent in its own right was to conceptualize the nature of intellectual transfer as more about a multilayered, and contingent process involving a power dynamics as opposed to a mere set of equal choices in the mind of the translator, intellectual, or members of the public. What about the local context makes some ideas more alive than others? Or what specific choices made in translation can shed light on how the receiving nation shapes, and forms so-called ‘western’ ideas. Aren’t they picking and choosing from the west what they think corresponds to their context? While the global influence of modern western intellectual traditions through colonialism and economic might cannot be ignored, the emphasis must still be on the rich systems into which these ideas were introduced, and the relative impact they had.

Summaries do no justice to the range and depth of the substantial issues emerging in each paper and in the discussions afterward. For example, an issue lurking within many papers but especially in Gili Kliger’s talk “Philosophy from the Margins: Durkheim on the Science and Art of Morality” and the above-mentioned talk by David Delano, was the ever relevant question of the ontological status of ideas themselves and what the ‘object’ of intellectual history should be. Are ideas ultimately reducible to economic and material realities, à la Timothy Mitchell, or should we, following Peter Gordon, pursue a ‘limited’ or ‘restricted’ contextualizing method that references social factors but ultimately maintains a stance of causal indeterminacy to allow for the flexibility and potency of the ideas themselves? It may be telling that most faculty commentators insisted on “more context” from each panel, even if many papers presupposed underlying shifts in economic and political conditions as the origins for the “ideas” in their papers. But even as the tensions over the “grounds” or ultimate “object” of historical inquiry were on full display at this conference and the discussions it engendered, it was also clear from the vibrancy of the debate that intellectual historians will continue to play an indispensable role in precising and elucidating the broader stakes and implications of intellectual output.

For those interested in a complete overview of the panels and participants, please see the conference poster here.

Timothy Wright studies early modern European intellectual history, with an emphasis on the relationships between theology, ritual practice, and secularization. He is currently finishing a dissertation at UC Berkeley on dissident Protestant communities in early enlightenment Germany.  

Of Nuance and Algorithms: What Conceptual History Can Learn from Topic Modeling

by contributing editor Daniel London

Intellectual historians may be familiar with two general approaches toward the study of conceptual meaning and transformation. The first, developed by J.G.A. Pocock and elaborated upon by Reinhart Koselleck, infers the meaning of a concept from the larger connotative framework in which it is embedded. This method entails analyzing the functional near-equivalents, competitors, and antonyms of a given term. This “internalist” approach contrasts with Quentin Skinner’s “contextualist” method, which lodges the meaning of a term in the broader intentions of that text’s author and audience. Both of these methods tend to entail close, “slow” reading of a few key texts: in a representative prelude to his conceptual history of English and American progressives, Marc Stears writes, “It is necessary… to read the texts these thinkers produced closely, carefully, and logically, to examine the complex ways in which their arguments unfolded, to see how their conceptual definitions related to one another: to employ, in short, the strategies of analytical political theory.”

But what about the seemingly antithetical approach of topic modeling? Topic modeling is, in the words of David Mimno, “a probabilistic, statistical technique that uncovers themes and topics within a text, and which can reveal patterns in otherwise unwieldy amounts of material.” In this framework, a “topic” is a probability distribution of words: a group of words that often co-occur with each other in the same set of documents. Generally, these groups of words are semantically related and interpretable; in other words, a theme, issue, or genre can often be identified simply by examining the most common words pertaining to a topic. Here is an example of a sample topic drawn from Cameron Blevins’ study of Martha Ballard’s diary, a massive corpus of 10,000 entries written between 1785 and 1812:

gardin sett worked clear beens corn warm planted matters cucumbers gatherd potatoes plants ou sowd door squash wed seeds

At first glance, this list of words might appear random and nonsensical—but here is where a contextual and humanistic reading comes into play. Statistically, these words did co-occur with one another: what could the hidden relation between them be? Blevins labeled this set “gardening.” Her next step was to chart this topic’s occurrence in Ballard’s diary over time:

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Clearly, this topic’s frequency tends to aligns with harvesting seasons. This is somewhat unsurprising, but note the significance: through mere statistical inference, a pattern of words was uncovered in a corpus far too large to be easily close-read, whose relation to one another seems to bear out both logically and in relation to real-time events.

Another topic produced by Blevins’ algorithm, which Blevins provisionally labelled “emotion,” looked like this:

feel husband unwel warm feeble felt god great fatagud fatagued thro life time year dear rose famely bu good

This might appear even more of a stretch, but Blevins quickly discovered that occurrences of this topic matched particularly “emotional” periods in Ballard’s life, such as the imprisonment of her husband and the indictment of her son.

These two examples encapsulate the three major features of topic-modeling techniques. First, they enable us to “distantly read” a massive body of texts. Second, they reveal statistically significant distributions of words, forcing us to attend humanistically to the historical relations between them. Finally, and most importantly, these topics emerge not from our a priori assumptions and preoccupations, but from “bottom-up” algorithms. While not necessarily accurate or reflective of the actual “contents” of a given corpus—these algorithms, after all, are endlessly flexible—they are valuable, potentially counterintuitive humanistic objects of inquiry that can prompt greater understanding and generate new questions. Practitioners of topic-modeling techniques have studied coverage of runaway slaves, traced convergences and divergences in how climate change is discussed by major nonprofits, and tracked the changing contents of academic journals. They have scanned the content of entire newspapers, and charted changes in how major public issues are framed within them.

While these applications only hint at the possibilities for topic-modeling for historians in a variety of fields, a growing number of practitioners are considering the implications of this technique for historians of ideas—with results that are already surprising. Ted Underwood examined the literary journal PLMA for insights into transformations in critical theory over the twentieth century, finding that articles associated with the “structuralist” turn were appearing earlier, and were associated with different sets of concepts (“symmetry” rather than “myth” or “archetype”), than has been assumed. Michael Gavin has brilliantly compared “rights” discourse in 18,000 documents published between 1640 and 1699, detailing the frequency with which different concepts (“freedom,” “authority”) and institutions (“church,” “state”) occur within this discourse. Topic-modeling enables him to distinguish what made 1640s “rights talk” different from 1680s talk, as well as the overlap between discourses of “power” with those of “rights”:

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Topic-modeling does not find the “best” way to analyze text. The algorithms are malleable. It does not take word-order or emphasis into account. It does not care about motive, audience, interest, or any of those pesky “external” contexts that Skinnerians see as essential to understanding conceptual meaning. On the other hand, “internalists” will nod appreciatively at the concerns that structured Gavin’s study of “rights” discourses. Which terms co-occur when a particular keyword is invoked? Which points of connections are made between keywords? Which words and concepts appear to be central, and which are more peripheral? Which words tend to be shared across keywords, and which remain site specific? They can also agree with a more general premise behind Gavin’s study: that concepts are defined by the “distribution of the vocabulary of their contexts.” The next step is to agree that these distributions can be compared mathematically. Once you agree there, we’re in business.

Topic-modeling is, like the field of digital humanities more generally, in the phase of development which Kuhn would have called “normal science”: developing and testing methodologies that derive from established disciplinary questions and paradigms, shoring up the tool’s reliability for more adventurous work to come. For this reason, much of topic-modelers’ current work could fall into the “so-what” category. Yes, we know people gardened more in the summer, and that a king would appear frequently in the same texts as “rights” and “power.” However, conceptual historians should not be so quick to dismiss topic-modeling as a gimmick. If letting go of conceptual blinkers and generating new theories and findings is important to us, we should be willing to let go of some of our own.

January events in Paris for intellectual history

by John Raimo

Here at the JHI blog, we hope to soon share more news about upcoming events for intellectual historians of all stripes wherever they may be. A calendar is in the works. The coming weeks in Paris, however, have so many interesting events that they certainly warrant a blog posting of their own in the meantime. So without further ado, you’ll find here a few talks and conferences to consider attending should you find yourselves in Paris just now (and a little luck will see some reporting on one or two of them):