Think Piece

The Concept as a Struggle of Parts

By Ruben Verkoelen

Wilhelm Roux (1850-1924), a revolutionary anatomist, began to develop a new perspective on life and organisms early in his career. Born in Jena in 1850, Roux studied medicine under Ernst Haeckel and Rudolf Virchow and, in 1878, wrote his dissertation about the branching of human blood vessels. After an extensive series of clever measurements, Roux initially employed a mode of explanation that was commonly used in biology at the time: function determines structure. The shape of the blood vessel must, therefore, have been determined by the dynamic of the blood flow, the force and logic of which gradually formed the vessel into its optimal shape. But Roux appears to have been uncertain about such an explanation, as he pointed out that the blood vessels were not exactly passively adapting material: instead, they controlled the blood flow by maintaining a constant resistance against the blood pressure. Due to their carefully maintained functionality, the vessels could not be considered purely structural. Moreover, the blood flow was not purely functional either because the blood itself exhibited structural characteristics, such as its consistency. The well-established biological dichotomy of function and structure started to crumble in Roux’s hands. Concluding his article, he thus called for more physiological research into morphological phenomena.

A schematic diagram of a vessel.

Yet, realizing that every little part of an organism could be both structural and functional at the same time, he soon encountered a problem of teleology: how, then, to explain any part without recourse to some purpose or principle beyond its structure? How could something be devoid of any internal or external purpose and yet be purposeful? In order to solve this issue, Roux first considered using a new and exciting principle: the struggle for existence. In Roux’s understanding of this Darwinian principle, all the different parts of the organism were driven by just one ultimate purpose: to make the organism outcompete other organisms in their adaptation to the surroundings. While other biologists soon found empirical evidence against this principle, Roux had already rejected this Darwinian view on theoretical grounds. He did not believe that all the different parts of an organism could share one single overarching purpose. According to him, one purpose – whatever it was – could not account for the vast complexity and intricate interplay of living elements that make up an organism.

In order to obtain a new perspective, Roux overthrew one more foundation of nearly a century of biological inquiry. Cuvier’s principle of the correlation of parts held that “in every being life is a whole, resulting from the mutual action and reaction of all its parts.” According to the established view, all the different parts of an organism ultimately combined into a a harmonious and organized whole: life. Arguing against these notions of life as a higher-order whole and the organism as a static organization, Roux believed the organism to be the site of a ‘struggle of parts’: a struggle of cells in a tissue, a struggle of tissues in an organ, a struggle of organs in an organism. He reasoned that, because no two cells were ever completely alike, their slightly different ways of maintaining their existence and ensuring their purposivity had to result in a constant interplay. If this struggle among a certain number of cells balanced out, they would create a new purposive structure and form a tissue. In the same way, a number of interacting tissues might form an organ, and a number of organs might form an organism. Each of these would simultaneously be a whole made up of parts, whose active struggle between each other was precisely what supported – or sabotaged – the existence and immanent purposivity of the whole.

The titlepage of Roux’s Der Kampf der Theile im Organismus (The Struggle of Parts in the Organism) (1881).

Roux developed this perspective of the organic element as a fraction rather than a unit in his boldly titled essay Der Kampf der Theile im Organismus (The Struggle of Parts in the Organism) (1881). The book had a profound influence on Friedrich Nietzsche and also left a strong impression on Charles Darwin, who considered it to be “the most important book on Evolution, which has appeared for some time.” It is remarkable, then, that in spite of Darwin’s positive judgment hardly any historian or philosopher of biology has written about it. Historians of science remember Roux, above all, for his technical achievements in embryo research, which paved the way for experimental embryology, but his theoretical work has been largely neglected. Only recently, Der Kampf der Theile was translated into French under the direction of Thomas Heams, who still believes that after all these years Roux’s theoretical insights might “pave the way for unifying theories in biology.” But regardless of their potential relevance for biology, Roux’s understanding of the organism can stimulate methodological debates in intellectual history, serving as an inspiration for a new understanding of the concept.

Recently, questions about the nature and interrelations of concepts moved into the foreground in the reception of Stefanos Geroulanos’ methodologically innovative book Transparency in Postwar France (2017). Instead of writing a genealogy of transparency, Geroulanos took an experimental approach: he studied transparency as a concept within a wider network of related concepts, or – in his words – as one of the “knots” in a “conceptual web” (pp. 23-5). Perhaps the main innovation of this approach is that the ‘context’ of transparency is nothing but other, related concepts that are all treated as “conceptual events” (p. 20). In doing so, Geroulanos sidesteps the unproductive dualisms of concept and context, and of concept and metaphor. Like words and actions, he treats concepts as elements in the changing fabric of everyday life where the transformation of one knot may alter the entire web. In this model, transparency becomes one concept among many – a “minor concept” (p. 387) – which is nonetheless treated as the key to understanding the entire conceptual web. But was this “collage approach,” as one reviewer called it, able to cover an abundance of thinkers and contexts in sufficient depth while also providing insight into their mutual coherence? Could the single concept of transparency really act as the key to such a variety of source material? And what, then, is transparency: a part of a whole or the principle that determines a process?

Geroulanos is not the first or the only historian to conceive of a time period as a conceptual web. Michel Foucault did the same in The Order of Things when he summed up his dense analysis in two diagrams that show the conceptual network (including three sciences) of the Classical age and modernity respectively:

Michel Foucault’s diagrams of the Classical and modern episteme from The Order of Things (1970).

However, from the viewpoint of intellectual history today, Foucault’s magnificent study is tainted by its conceptual determinism. Time and again, the book states that the ‘episteme’ determines all other aspects of civilization, acting as the first principle of an entire era. Similarly to Roux, who rejected the principle of the struggle for existence because it functioned as an “ultima ratio,” Geroulanos also steers clear of teleology and metanarrative in his fascinating account of transparency. Its focus on one concept among many, within a wider conceptual web, precludes any form of strict determinism. Yet, this desire to decenter the concept comes into conflict with the study’s coherence, which hinges precisely on the centrality of transparency.

Is there a way out of this dilemma? What if we take the disintegration of a singular purpose or meaning – whether it is the struggle for existence, the ‘episteme’, or the concept – a little further still? What if we follow the example of Roux’s conception of the organism? Is it feasible to conceive of a concept or conceptual network as a precarious balance between parts that compete and collaborate with one another? Could we handle the complexity to view these parts, in turn, as conceptual networks themselves, too? How should the parts be identified and where should we draw the line between the concept’s inside and its outside? While these questions still await answers, such an approach would have one crucial advantage: instead of reducing complexity or standing awkwardly next to it, it could embrace it.

All the different discursive items that, in their unstable configuration, form a certain concept could be understood coherently if such concept was seen as the relative balance between a set of parts or aspects rather than a black box, the center point of a certain discourse, or a whole that subsumes its lower-level parts. Take, for example, the concept ‘Earth’: it would be nothing but the struggle between a set of identified parts, which are perhaps place (humanity’s home), space (the expanse of its surface), being (Gaia), and object (planet). Anything related to the concept ‘Earth’ could be explained by considering its dynamic position in the ongoing struggles and alignments between these aspects. Meanwhile, the history of the concept could be explained by analyzing the transitions and evolutions of the configuration of the parts. The number of parts is flexible since they are nothing but sets of discursive items grouped together on the basis of (relative) affinity. Acting primarily as methodological tools (even though they could figure as concepts themselves), the parts provide the relatively fixed points that help make the dynamics of the concept intelligible. Any form of profound coherence is no longer needed nor desired because the concept itself is recognized as inherently divided. This approach to conceptual history, based on the concept as a struggle of parts, could, therefore, enable us to study complexity without giving up on clarity.

Ruben Verkoelen graduated from the master’s program in History & Philosophy of Science at Utrecht University last year. His thesis was an inquiry into fin-de-siècle biology that used both historical and philosophical methods to reconstruct the conceptual apparatus of life science. He’s currently looking to start a PhD in intellectual history or the history of science.

Featured Image: Heterotopic Ossificagtion in Lung Tissue. Source: WikiCommons.


Begriffsgeschichte’s History: Between Historicization of Concepts and Conceptual Politics

This is the first installment of a two-part interview with Falko Schmieder about his book Begriffsgeschichte and Historical Semantics (2016). For the second part, see here.

Falko Schmieder (Image credit: Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung)

Falko Schmieder is a cultural theorist and research associate for the Theory and Concept of an Interdisciplinary Conceptual History project at the Leibniz-Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung in Berlin. In 2016, he and Ernst Müller published Begriffs-geschichte und Historische Semantik. Ein kritisches Kompendium with Suhrkamp, which will be released in English translation with DeGruyter in 2021. Falko Schmieder works on Begriffsgeschichte and the theory of modernity, with particular interest in the dynamics of concepts of time.

Jonas Knatz is a graduate student of history at New York University. His work is situated at the intersection of modern European intellectual history and the history of science. He also works on the history of emotions. 

Jonas Knatz: The title of your book is Begriffsgeschichte and Historical Semantics. What is the relationship between these two terms? And what was your and Ernst Müller’s motivation to write a compendium of Begriffsgeschichte and, as you put it in the introduction, subject the methodology of Begriffsgeschichte to its own methodological instrumentarium?

Falko Schmieder: We partly chose the title because the boundary between Begriffsgeschichte and historical semantics is far from distinct. Both history and cultural studies have used the terms Begriffsgeschichte and historical semantics pars pro toto, conversely. Sometimes the term Begriffsgeschichte has subsumed historical semantics, and other times there has been an understanding of Begriffsgeschichte as a specialized field in historical semantics.

Instead of establishing a new umbrella term, such as the (far from neutral)history of ideas,” we decided to heuristically use historical semantics as the genus for methodological approaches that concern themselves with diachronic changes in meaning, regardless of whether it is from an onomasiological or a semasiological perspective. In this understanding, Begriffsgeschichte is just one of many possibilities to engage with historical semantics, a method that has been modified through its interaction with neighboring methodologies. Thus, Begriffsgeschichte cannot be perceived as a method that is itself atemporal or a mere technique that slowly converges with some kind of abstract ideal; or put differently, it is not a method that could be described as independent from the specific historical precondition in which it was developed and from the respective aims it tried to pursue. By contrast, our book’s main premise is that Begriffsgeschichte has a historical index that has not yet been explored. And it is this historicity that we wanted to reveal. From a historical perspective, one can identify the historically varying epistemological interests of Begriffsgeschichte as well as its different practical and disciplinarily forms of realization, its shifting institutional links, and the methodological animosities and alliances that shaped the methodology. And because Begriffsgeschichte was always intimately connected with other strands of historical semantics, such as the neo-Kantian history of problems (Problemgeschichte) as well as histories of ideas, of mentalities, and of discourse, metaphorology, research on topoi and thought forms or, in more recent times, iconography and media history, we had to cover a wide field.

JK: In 2006, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht proclaimed the end of Begriffsgeschichte when he described the then just finalized dictionary projects of Begriffsgeschichte as “monumental testimonials from a concluded historiographical epoch.” Yet, it was the supposed finitude of the projects in question that seems to have stimulated much of the discussion about Begriffsgeschichte in recent years. What has caused this renewed interest, und what is Begriffsgeschichte’s potential for contemporary historiography?

FS: Gumbrecht is one of the very few—in total only three, I think—authors that contributed articles to all three big dictionary projects in Begriffsgeschichte (Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe und Handbuch politisch-sozialer Grundbegriffe in Frankreich 1680-1820). Later on, he confused his own departure from Begriffsgeschichte with the general termination of the latter. His verdict, I think, was premature. By contrast, the end of these projects revitalized the debate about Begriffsgeschichte for several reasons. On the one hand, the recent interest in Begriffsgeschichte is stipulated by a realization of the methodology’s boundaries, its epochal constraints, and the thematical selectivity of the dictionary entries. On the other hand, the outdifferentiation of cultural studies and history of science, as a result of the crisis of the humanities, gave rise to topics that had been largely ignored by classical Begriffsgeschichte and historical semantics: pre- or non-conceptual (vor- und nichtbegriffliche) discourses, iconographic semantics, the unconscious, institutions, practices, emotions, gestures, diagrams or materialities. This fundamentally changes historical semantics, leading to a new emphasis on interdisciplinarity and, especially, the integration of the natural sciences and the arts. Another dimension is provided by the internationalization of Begriffsgeschichte, including the formation of new international forms of organizations and networks, which finds expression in multilingual publications. And finally, digital media opened up new possibilities for research and visualization that the editors of the great dictionaries could only dream of.

Ernst Cassirer (1874–1945) (Image credit: Wiki Commons).

JK: You identify the period between the late 18th and early 19th century, Reinhart Koselleck’s Sattelzeit, with the first significant historiographic interest in concepts. Yet, by reference to Ernst Cassirer’s Philosophy of the Enlightenment, you argue that his new interest in the historicity of concepts was dialectically related to a new interest in conceptual politics – the dehistoricization of certain concepts. Generalizing this observation, Otto Gerhard Oexle, the former director of the Max-Planck-Institute for History, argues that Begriffsgeschichte is often inconsequent – a historiography that ultimately avoids a full embrace of historicism and sometimes even replaces historicization with political ambitions regarding the conservation of certain concepts. What motivated the initial interest in the historicity of concepts and what role does the tension between historicization and conceptual politics play in this scenario?

Title page of Denis Diderot’s and Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie (1751). Source: Wiki Commons.

FS: The Enlightenment is indeed a liminal moment in which we find an amplified interest in the interrelationships between sign, word, meaning, and thing, and this interest was always also political. The French Enlightenment in particular produced a form of language politics that included a politically motivated critique of the abuse of words (abus de mots) and the contradiction between words (mots) and things (choses), which resulted from the ever-accelerating change of social conditions. It is no surprise, then, that there was a rising production of dictionaries during this time in which the historical dimension of concepts gained increasing importance. See, for example, Dennis Diderot’s dictionary entry on “Encyclopédie” in the famous Encyclopédie. In this article, he self-critically reflects on the project at large and its historical boundaries: he acknowledges that the linguistic side of the project remained too weak, which in turn resulted in the incompleteness of the dictionary. Diderot’s diagnosis of an accelerated language development, caused by development in the arts, techniques, and work methods, was aimed against the conservative character of dictionaries within French academia. The critique of an anachronistic use of language always carried a political dimension: the delegitimization of authorities that perceived themselves as God-given, natural or eternal. Yet, the turn to the history of concepts could also be inspired by diametrically opposed political interests; it could and did become the instrument of conservatives and counter-revolutionaries, who used it to emphasize tradition and continuity.

JK: The sub-title of your book is “critical compendium,” and in the introduction you specify the two forms this critical impulse takes: the aforementioned historicization of Begriffsgeschichte and a discussion of its relations with other disciplines. Let us first talk about the critical potential of historicizing Begriffsgeschichte. In the introduction to his book Historische Semantik und Begriffsgeschichte from 1979, Koselleck hails the 1920s and 1930s as a time when Begriffsgeschichte underwent significant developments and “more precise instruments for researching the past” (9) were developed. In this context, he mentions Erich Rothacker, Werner Jäger, Johannes Kühn, Carl Schmitt, Walter Schlesinger and Otto Brunner by name – a list of exclusively conservative and reactionary thinkers, among whom only Walter Jäger had no political proximity to National Socialism. Oexle contrasts this assertion by claiming that Begriffsgeschichte had become an established practice not just in Germany but in all of Europe by this point in time. Accordingly, he accuses the previous reflection on the history of Begriffsgeschichte of suffering from a peculiar form of amnesia and decontextualization (396). What was the standing of Begriffsgeschichte among progressive and liberal thinkers in the 1920 and 1930s and which potential do you see in questioning and supplementing Koselleck’s intellectual ancestry?

FS: By historicization, we meant more generally the application of Begriffsgeschichte’s methodological approach to itself. Yet, an important second dimension of this historicization is indeed to chronologically and comparatively present both the realized and the aborted projects, both currently virulent and long-time forgotten debates of Begriffsgeschichte and historical semantics. On this level, historicization produced a critique of Koselleck’s genealogy of Begriffsgeschichte, which is rather one-sided in the sense that it ignores not only international approaches (such as the Annales School) but also German-speaking alternatives that were violently terminated by National Socialism. The 1920s and 1930s were characterized by a fundamental crisis of language and experience, which Ludwik Fleck poignantly called a ‘crisis of reality’, across various disciplines. This experience of crisis radicalized and politicized thought. On the one hand, upheaval and crisis strengthened the desire to historically investigate reified concepts to make them more malleable or potentially discard them if they had become historically untenable. On the other hand, they also motivated a decisionist and more or less violent search for ahistorical constants (such as values, archetypes, ontologies, anthropologies, races). Contemporary oppositions such as Sigmund Freud vs. Carl Gustav Jung, Walter Benjamin vs. Carl Schmitt, Karl Mannheim vs. Robert Curtius or Siegfried Kracauer vs. Martin Buber/Franz Rosenzweig must be understood against this specific historical background. To put it bluntly, it was only in this moment that the historicity of concepts began to constitute an emphatic problem for Begriffsgeschichte. In his genealogy, Koselleck omits the entire left-wing spectrum, even though engaging with them would have been all the more important since their approaches were developed in critical and contentious engagement with the thinkers that Koselleck lists. What is more, these left-wing attempts to historicize concepts served as an important inspiration for Koselleck’s conceptual apparatus of Begriffsgeschichte: categories such as ‘politicization’, ‘repurposing’, ‘contemporaneity of the non-contemporaneous’, ‘space of experience’, ‘horizon of experience’, ‘thought form’ (Denkform) or slogan (Schlagwort) were all developed within left-wing theoretical frameworks. A history of Begriffsgeschichte that recollects and re-appropriates these forgotten or repressed approaches also allows for a deeper understanding of the historical diversity and synchronous rivalry of various approaches in Begriffsgeschichte and thus contributes to a better understanding of the theoretical and conceptual presuppositions of Koselleck’s variant.

JK: According to your estimate, Erich Rothacker, Joachim Ritter and Hans-Georg Gadamer were the three historical figures that were institutionally the most important proponents of German Begriffsgeschichte in the immediate postwar period. They also emblematically stand in for the seamless continuity with which the postwar philosophical Begriffsgeschichte could carry on discussions started during the Weimar Republic while turning a blind eye on their own implication in National Socialism. How do you arrive at your argument that postwar German Begriffsgeschichte embodied the spirit of defense against international collaboration and a repression of the most recent past?

Cover of Begriffsgeschichte and Historical Semantics. Source: Suhrkamp.

FS: First of all, a “communicative silencing of the past” (Hermann Lübbe) was consensus among conceptual historians and functioned as a prerequisite for their adaption to democracy. With few exceptions, most of the reflection on the semantic consequences of Nazism for the postwar period happened outside of German academia. On a theoretical level, Begriffsgeschichte renewed interpretative schemes from the Weimar Republic. Philosophers and sociologists picked up theories of alienation, which had been potent theorems under National Socialism, propagated by ‘conservative revolutionaries’ like Hans Freyer, and continued them in the attenuated form of compensation theory (Kompensationstheorie). Self-declared Volk historians made their postwar careers by merely changing the terminology of their concepts and methods: Volk history became structural history (Strukturgeschichte), ‘race’ became ‘elite’ (Führungsschicht) and the ‘Germanic Europe’ was now the ‘occident’ (Abendland), which had to be defended against ‘Communism’. In this way, German academia arrived in the West, or at least conceited itself to have arrived. The book’s thesis that ‘German Begriffsgeschichte’ was born in the spirit of a defense against international collaboration and the repression of the immediate past is developed by analyzing one specific postwar incident, which is nevertheless symptomatic for the German philosophical Begriffsgeschichte after 1945. Against the background of vivid debates about UNESCO’s formulation of human rights that occurred right after the war, the American philosopher Richard McKeon, the mentor of Susan Sontag and Richard Rorty, initiated a broad-scale international research program, aimed at investigating the use of key political concepts in different linguistic traditions. In collaboration with prominent international intellectuals (among them Mahatma Gandhi, Benedetto Croce, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Aldous Huxley and Harold J. Laski) the project was a response to the catastrophic experience of the Second World War and the war of extermination and wanted to clarify the meaning of concepts of Western democracy to facilitate a new and better international understanding. Within this framework, McKeon also approached Gadamer and asked him to convene a meeting of renown German philosophers. This meeting, prominently cast by Gadamer, took place in late summer of 1954 in Jugenheim. Yet, it ultimately failed due to the incapacity of the German side to engage with the issue of multilingualism and, more generally, McKeon’s attempt to steer the discussion away from a narrow philosophical discourse to a communicative meta-level. These discussions illustrate a rupture between the political-social and the philosophical language in postwar Germany. German philosophy understood itself as an apolitical discipline that communicated with the great historical thinkers in diachronic analysis in the history of philosophy but abstained from current topics as well as social and legal concepts and thereby decoupled itself from the international debate. Only four years later, Gadamer again chose Jugenheim to hold the first meeting of the senate commission (Senatskommission) for Begriffsgeschichte, which was of utmost importance for the institutionalization of German Begriffsgeschichte. Hence Begriffsgeschichte appears as a German response to the Allied demand to deal with the causes and consequences of the political catastrophe of 1933. Indeed, this particular episode illustrates vividly how Begriffsgeschichte and the humanities in general unburdened themselves by refusing to work through the immediate past.

JK: Precisely because your book points out how postwar Begriffsgeschichte symbolizes the suppression of an intellectual engagement with National Socialism and represents the personal lines of continuity between National Socialist and postwar humanities, it is rather perplexing that it became the German “success story” within the international academy. Even more so, you argue that “decorated with the insignia of self-reflexivity and plurality, it theoretically legitimized democratic modernity” (24) and thereby helped Germany to regain its international standing in academia and politics. How do you explain this shift?

FS: Begriffsgeschichte’s success is partly due to its self-reflexivity and its self-explication, which make it an outstanding and, first and foremost, highly controllable method to capture meaning and its change. Especially against the background of an increased demand for historical orientation, Begriffsgeschichte becomes an important instrument for research. German Begriffsgeschichte, which owed most of its methodological development and sophistication to Koselleck, also became an international success because it tied into a theory of modern society and a theory of historical time. Moreover, important theorems and key concepts of Koselleck’s theory are able to transgress the disciplinarily boundaries of Begriffsgeschichte and allow for Begriffsgeschichte to influence other fields. And, with regard to his project Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, it was exactly its widespread neglect of National Socialism and its simultaneous reference to long-standing traditions of Western modernity that was very conducive to the establishment of an international frame in which a common historic heritage was emphasized and comparative studies were encouraged.

JK: Despite the “communicative silencing,” which encapsulated the personal involvement of Begriffshistoriker in National Socialism, the book identifies moments when Begriffsgeschichte actually became a medium of implicit debates about National Socialism. One of these moments is the German Congress for Philosophy in 1962 at which Hans Blumenberg and Hermann Lübbe, a member of Joachim Ritter’s conservative Collegium Philosophicum, debated about the concept of secularization and the place of metaphorology in Begriffsgeschichte, to implicitly negotiate the continuing theoretical proximity between Begriffsgeschichte and thinkers of the conservative revolution. What was the role of this debate about secularization, and how did Blumenberg position himself vis-à-vis the unfettered personal links between National Socialism and postwar Begriffsgeschichte?

FS: The concept of secularization can, in some regards, be considered the paradigm of 1960s Begriffsgeschichte. An important moment for its emergence was the Seventh German Congress for Philosophy in 1962, which took place in Münster and had, as suggested by Ritter, the theme of “Philosophy and Progress.” Lübbe and Blumenberg were asked by Ritter to give papers on secularization. This meeting can be considered the nucleus of a twenty-year long disagreement within Begriffsgeschichte. Blumenberg’s radical talk condensed in his conclusion, in which he considered it appropriate to “speak of secularization as the last theologoumenon, which seeks to blame the heirs to theology for the death giving rise to their succession” (quoted in Kroll, 141). It is remarkable that Blumenberg situates his radical and highly political thesis in the political nirvana of late Medieval gnosis and its second overcoming. One can only wonder if this followed strategic considerations to academicize the discussion and move it into a terrain where critics did not want to or simply could not follow him. That this was a covert discourse on the aftermath of Nazism and the Cold War, saturated with words like expropriation, guilt, injustice etc., was certainly as obvious for these thinkers so familiar with metaphors as it was made even more apparent by the fact that the gnosis was used by thinkers like Eric Voegelin and Hans Jonas to characterize the postwar period. Important political questions were not addressed in direct factual, let alone personal-biographical, discussions but via these sideways and detours. The importance of secularization in this debate was related to its potential to draw on the civilization-critical program of the conservative revolution while leveling the differences between National Socialism and communism. Thus, the concept of secularization could, on the one hand, confirm the political integration into the West as well as the technological progress of the economic miracle and, on the other hand, support the conservative program to hinder further secularization. While Carl Schmitt’s dictum that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts” constituted a paradigm in German Begriffsgeschichte, Blumenberg left this postwar milieu behind with his critique of the secularization thesis.

Reinhart Koselleck (1923 – 2006). Source: Wiki Commons.

JK: Koselleck is currently the most important point of reference for discussions in and about Begriffsgeschichte. While some argue that Koselleck’s project of the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe constitutes a rupture with the conservative and reactionary Begriffs-geschichte of the Weimar Republic, Anselm Haverkamp criticizes him for developing a methodology that encapsulates important moments of conceptual continuity between the conservative and reactionary milieu of the Weimar Republic and postwar Germany. Where do you place Koselleck within the political postwar discussion, and how did he negotiate the tension between a complete historicization of concepts and conceptual politics?

FS: Koselleck’s dissertation, published as Critique and Crisis (1954), is starkly influenced by his mentor Carl Schmitt and clearly based on a traditional and conservative understanding of history, which surfaces in his moralizing and personalizing critique of Enlightenment and the philosophy of history associated with it. Koselleck blames both for the threat of the absolute state and paints them as pathbreakers for what he dubs a world civil war (Weltbürgerkrieg)– the international confrontation between an Eastern and a Western bloc after the Second World War. However, when he starts working on Prussia, Koselleck adopts a social-historical perspective and eventually, under the influence of Werner Conze, turns towards Begriffsgeschichte. Following Willibald Steinmetz, one could speak of a historiographical reorientation in the late 1950s towards a form of social history that is understood as structural history and underpinned by Begriffsgeschichte. Despite this turn towards Begriffsgeschichte, the question about his conceptual politics—or, if you will, the legacy of Carl Schmitt—is not obsolete. But it acquires a different weight. Within Begriffsgeschichte, it remains relevant for Koselleck’s perspective on the political character of language: his ideas about the essential contestedness, controversiality and ideologicity of concepts and their interrelationship with an authoritative societal structure (herrschaftsförmige Gesellschaftsstruktur), which is shaped by various systemic and structural coercions, power asymmetries, and social inequalities. To capture this dimension in terms of conceptual history, Koselleck emphasized language pragmatism and developed a variety of concepts that are indispensable for a social-historical Begriffsgeschichte, such as enemy-concept, counter-concept, opposition-concept, party-concept etc. Especially in his analysis about asymmetrical counter-concepts and about the friend-enemy-concepts, the influence of Schmitt is evident. With regard to social history, it is Koselleck’s theory of acceleration and the insight into its costs and the rising pressure of political problems that reintroduces the question of his conceptual politics. This skepticism or critique towards modernity, which can also be found in the late Koselleck, is often avoided in contemporary literature. Koselleck saw a massive potential for conflict in the ecological crisis in particular, which he used to renew theorems that trace back to Schmitt’s understanding of crisis as a final decision (Letztentscheidung). Koselleck was always aware that Begriffsgeschichte reconstructs the linguistic development of a social system, the future of which is far from unquestionable.

Think Piece

Brazil and the World Revolutions at the Beginning of the 19th Century

By guest contributor João Paulo Pimenta

This post is a companion piece to Prof. Pimenta’s article in the Journal of the History of Ideas vol. 79, no. 1, “History of Concepts and the Historiography of the Independence of Brazil: A Preliminary Diagnosis.

Unique themes emerge and recur within every country’s history for a number of reasons: they relate to subjects that have received significant scholarly attention, they deal with facts that have long-term effects in the life of a country, and they resonate with the general public beyond academia, provoking interest, opinions, and emotional responses. Consider, for example, Independence and the Civil War in the US, Revolution and World War II in France, the Roman Empire in Italy, the Ming Dynasty and the Great Revolution in China, and Immigration and the Malvinas War in Argentina. In Brazil, one might mention the slavery of African populations, the civil and military dictatorship of the late twentieth century, and surely the history of the separation of Brazil from Portugal in the early nineteenth century, which resulted in the creation of a new sovereign state and a new nation, both of them still prevailing.

Throughout the Western world, the first years of the nineteenth century are special: relevant events abound, each one seeming to “pull” another toward a more integrated world, producing new conditions that accelerate the process of dramatic, affecting, and sometimes hopeful historical transformation. The changes during the early nineteenth century were profound and enduring, and often political. Brazil, then part of the Portuguese Empire, transformed during this time. While the wars between Napoleonic France and other European powers spread throughout most of the European continent, a particularly pivotal event took place in Portugal: to avoid confronting the enemy, the Portuguese court abruptly chose to leave Lisbon and, under protection of the British Navy, flee to Brazil. On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, a contradictory movement started to develop.

The departure of the Portuguese royal family for Brazil, as depicted by Henri L’Evêque

With its new headquarters in Rio de Janeiro, the Portuguese Empire avoided the risk of fragmentation, which was extinguing the Spanish Empire, and escaped French domination. While the empire secured its survival during chaotic wartime Europe, the relocation wrought profound changes and consequences. Rivalries between Portuguese people in Brazil and Portugal, conflicts of interest, and new political expectations prompted a new idea: the assembly of a government and a state in Brazil, separate from Portugal. With Brazilian Independence in 1822, this idea became reality. Now, thanks to this process, there is a country named Brazil, with its own political, economic, military, administrative, juridical, and electoral institutions—its own 210 million citizens.

The declaration of Brazilian independence, as depicted by Pedro Américo

Myriad works have already been written on this subject. And still, it compels the minds and imaginations of professional historians and social scientists, amateur researchers, and laypeople. My article in the January 2018 issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas discusses one of the historiographic renovations that contributes to the ongoing significance of Independence as a theme integral to Brazilian history. “Conceptual history” or “Begriffsgeschichte”— which attends to the words, languages, and political ideas that made history—is not a new approach. But when applied to Brazilian Independence, the history of concepts casts new light on overlooked elements of the event, and reveals its significance not only to Brazilian history, but also to our shared global history.

João Paulo Pimenta holds a Ph.D. in History from the Universidade de São Paulo, where he has been a professor in the History Department since 2004. He has also been a visiting professor at El Colégio de México (2008, 2016, 2017), at the Universitat Jaume I, Spain (2010), at the Pontifícia Universidad Católica de Chile (2013), at the Universidad de
la República, Uruguay (2015) and at the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar, Ecuador (2015, 2016). His work explores the history of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially the relationship between Brazil and Hispanic America; the national question and collective identities; and the history of historical times in Brazil and the wider Western World.

Intellectual 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.

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.  

Think Piece

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:

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 09.30.25

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”:

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 09.30.40

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.

Think Piece

The Gay Past and the Intellectual Historian

by Emily Rutherford

In the papers this week was the news (slow, it seems, to come to the mainstream media’s attention) that, thanks to a Kickstarter campaign, University of British Columbia graduate student Justin O’Hearn helped to fund the UBC library’s purchase at auction of two rare 1890s homoerotic novels, Teleny and Des Grieux. Teleny, a story of a love affair between two men which includes explicit sex, has been reprinted in modern editions and is fairly widely available to researchers, but Des Grieux, a sequel (the title refers to Teleny‘s protagonist) hasn’t and isn’t. O’Hearn’s campaign was spurred by his intention to edit a critical edition of the text and to incorporate it into his dissertation.

Unless specific circumstances caused anglophone sexually explicit/pornographic novels of historical importance to be reprinted in twentieth-century (often badly-made, pirated) editions, they tend to languish, sometimes only in single copies, in the British Library’s Private Case holdings, accessible only to those who can afford the trip to London and work up the courage to collect pornography from the librarians in the Rare Books reading room. Part of O’Hearn’s stated interest in these two texts is that Oscar Wilde has long been held to have been one of the anonymous authors behind Teleny, and bibliographer of erotic fiction Peter Mendes argues that Des Grieux was written by the same group, including Wilde. Association with canonical literary figures gives pornography redeeming social importance, and leads to reprints: while (surprisingly) little Private Case Victorian pornography is available online or in modern editions, one text you can reliably find is the flagellation periodical The Pearl, to which the poet Algernon Swinburne is believed to have contributed. The association of Wilde with these two novels, however, has an added connotation: thanks to the drama surrounding his 1895 gross indecency trials, and more recently to Richard Ellman’s biography and the 1997 biopic starring Stephen Fry based upon it, Wilde has been viewed as a great tragic hero of gay mythology, whose (possibly fictitious) courtroom defense of “the love that dare not speak its name” has firmly established him as a key figure in a gay male literary and cultural canon. In a popular historical narrative centered on a teleology of gay liberation, the scandalous story of Wilde’s downfall assumes an outsize role.

I’ve been writing about male homosociality, homoeroticism, and homosexuality in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century England for some years now, and when I first came to the subject as a college junior it seemed extremely important to push against narratives which look to the past for gay heroes who stand out because they seem to us to be boldly ahead of their time, and instead to insist that men who wrote and talked about and practiced same-sex sex and love prior to the last couple decades of the nineteenth century simply weren’t gay—it was bad history to connect them to later figures who did see gayness as an identity category. My research on John Addington Symonds shows that he lived in a milieu where there were many competing models for understanding the nature of same-sex desire, and also that—however important we might believe his writing on homosexuality to be today—he was predominantly known during his life and in the years after his death as a historian of ancient Greece and Renaissance Italy. He also had a wife, four daughters, and several female friends. As Sharon Marcus has written, we have to squelch our present-day impulses to see homosexuality as the card that trumps all other salient facts about a historical figure’s life and work, and homosocial, -erotic, and -sexual bonds as subversive of hetero ones and of the nuclear family. For Symonds—or, as Marcus points out, for Wilde, who also was married, for some years edited a women’s magazine, and had meaningful friendships with women—this simply wasn’t the case (Marcus 261).

And yet. Both Symonds and Wilde and their twentieth-century reception played significant roles in bringing into being our modern conceptions of homosexual sexual orientation (as congenital, unchooseable and unchangeable, both physiological and psychological, constituted in opposition to heterosexuality) and of gay (sub)culture. It wouldn’t be right to treat them in the same way as the countless other unknown men in their period who had close homoerotic friendships/relationships (in which sex may or may not have played a part), who consumed homoerotic pornography, who may have been married, and who didn’t consider themselves homosexuals or take a public stand in the name of a nascent identity category. Furthermore, there is something important and powerful—and relevant to academic historians—about narratives of gay history (or other kinds of minority identity history) and their ability to inspire those living in other times and places. Symonds relates in his autobiography that he first gained an inkling of same-sex desire by reading Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus as a teenager, and it is remarkable how often in twentieth-century gay life-writing and fiction moments of self-discovery are framed in terms of encounters with the past through books and the discovery of authors or other historical figures whom the reader is able to label as gay. Even in our moment of widespread acceptance of gay identity as a category of cultural diversity, these narratives compel. Witness the recent furore over Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game, which set out to tell a tragic, Wilde-esque story about a national treasure who was forced to suffer at the state’s hands for his sexual orientation (under the same law with which Wilde was sentenced), but wound up, as Christian Caryl has incisively argued, in the process managing to desecrate basically everything the genius and war hero achieved in his life other than being found guilty of “gross indecency”—thus doing violence to other ways in which Turing might be seen as an inspiring figure from the “gay past.”

Numerous historical projects recognize and respect a wider public’s desire for an inspiring narrative of gay history while still emphasizing how much has changed in a relatively short span of time about the concept of sexual orientation. is an important public resource written by professional historians, while historians including George Chauncey and Matt Houlbrook have written academic books which bring to life the fabric of gay communities of the past while understanding them on their own terms. I’m excited also to read Robert Beachy’s new book Gay Berlin, just out from Knopf, which looks like it expands on his 2010 article about “The German Invention of Homosexuality” to show how nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century German thinkers and political campaigners were pioneers in using science to define the homosexual as a kind of person (who could then be advocated for as a protected class). In the book, he supplements this argument with a lot of detail about Berlin’s flourishing queer subculture in the years before the Nazi period—in the process urging us not to see early-twentieth-century Germany simply as a lead-up to the rise of Hitler.

When you work on sexuality, it’s easy to get typecast as someone who does only that—and, at times, as someone who doesn’t have the intellectual chops to engage in meaty, intricate, ideas-focused topics. It’s also easy to get bound up in the salaciousness of it all, reading pornography for work and speculating about dead people’s sex lives. The rich literature and vibrant debates around the history of homosexuality as a concept and around the lives of people like Wilde, Turing, and other far less famous individuals show, though, that “who had sex with whom, and how” is one of the least important questions a historian can ask. As I’ve tried to show here, the questions about the methods and uses of history that this subfield actually does raise are as challenging and urgent as in any other.