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.

Think Piece

The Idea of the Souvenir: Mauchline Ware

by guest contributor Tess Goodman

The souvenir is a relatively recent concept. The word only began to refer to an “object, rather than a notion” in the late eighteenth century (Kwint, Material Memories 10). Of course, the practice of carrying a small token away from an important location is ancient. In Europe, souvenirs evolved from religious relics. Pilgrims in the late Roman and Byzantine eras removed stones, dirt, water, and other organic materials from pilgrimage sites, believing that “the sanctity of holy people, holy objects and holy places was, in some manner, transferable through physical contact” (Evans, Souvenirs 1). We might call this logic synecdochic: the sacred power of the holy site is thought to remain immanent in pieces of it, chips from a temple or vials of water from a well.

As leisure travel became more common, souvenir commodities evolved from relics. By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, tourist-consumers had access to a large market of souvenir merchandise. Thad Logan describes china mugs, novelty needle cases, “sand pictures, seaweed albums,” tartan ware, and a wide range of other souvenir trinkets commonly found in Victorian sitting rooms (The Victorian Parlour, 186). Modern souvenirs are not very different. T-shirts from Hawaii and needle cases from Brighton both rely on the logic of metonymic association, as Logan (186) and Susan Stewart (On Longing, 136) point out. In order to memorialize a tourist’s experiences, the shapes and decorations of these souvenir trinkets evoke the site where those experiences took place.

How did synecdoche become metonymy? What changed? To begin to answer these questions, we can consider a test case: wooden souvenir trinkets from Victorian Scotland. These artifacts draw on both synecdochic and metonymic logic. Therefore, they provide evidence about a transitional phase in the history of the souvenir, and in the history of the way we derive meaning from objects. They do not represent a single moment of transition—this evolution was gradual and piecemeal, taking place over decades if not centuries. Instead, these souvenirs provide a useful case study, a point from which to consider a broader history.

Goodman image 1
Thomas A. Kempis. Golden Thoughts from the Imitation of Christ. N.p, n.d. Bdg.s.922. National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh.

These souvenirs were known as Mauchline ware—named for Mauchline, a town in Ayrshire (Trachtenberg, Mauchline Ware 22-23). Mauchline ware objects were made of wood, decorated in distinctive styles, and heavily varnished for durability. The earliest Mauchline ware pieces were snuffboxes. By mid-century, tourists could buy Mauchline ware pen knives, sewing kits, eyeglass cases, and many other miscellaneous objects. (The examples discussed in this blogpost all happen to be book bindings.) Some of Mauchline ware objects were decorated with a tartan pattern, immediately recognizable as emblems of Scotland. Equally popular were Mauchline ware objects decorated with transfer images of tourist sites. These trinkets functioned with metonymic logic, as modern souvenirs. For example, the binding below bears an iconic representation of Fingall’s Cave.

But sometimes, manufacturers of Mauchline ware took lumber from tourist sites to construct these souvenirs. Captions on the items would indicate the source of the material. Examples abound: a copy of The Dunkeld Souvenir was bound in wood “From the Athole Plantations Dunkeld” (Burns). The photograph below shows a copy of Sir Walter Scott’s Marmion bound in Mauchline ware, using wood “From [the] Banks of Tweed, Abbotsford.” More gruesomely, the boards on a copy of a Guide to Doune Castle were “made from the wood of Old Gallows Tree at Doune Castle” (Dunbar). These captions present the souvenirs as synecdochic artifacts—not religious, but geographical relics. Their purchasers could, quite literally, take home a piece of Scotland.

Goodman image 2
Walter Scott. Marmion. Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1873. Bdg.s.939. National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh.

These objects were part relic, part commodity. There was a commercial rationale for this combination: the publishers of these books leveraged the appeal of the wood as a relic, but they also transformed the raw material into a distinctively modern, distinctively Scottish consumer product. Contemporary accounts in a souvenir of Queen Victoria’s visit to the Scottish Borders expose some of the commercial logic behind the production process. Publisher’s advertisements in this 1867 book list the “fancy wood work” items its publishers sold in addition to books, and the original source of the wood used in the souvenirs (The Scottish Border 1-2). The binding on this copy states that the wood was “grown within the precincts of Melrose Abbey.” The advertisement provides more detail:  

‘Several years ago, when the town drain was being taken through the ‘Dowcot’ Park, […] a fine beam of black oak was discovered about six feet below the surface of the ground. It is now being taken up […] by Mr. Rutherfurd, stationer, Kelso, for the purpose of being turned into souvenirs. […].’ –Scotsman. Messrs. R may state that most of the “fine beam of black oak” […] split into fibres when exposed to the air and dried. Of the portions remaining good they have had the honour of preparing a box for Her Majesty in which to hold the Photographs of the district specially taken at the time of her visit. (2)

The wood was found on ground between Melrose Abbey and the Tweed, exhumed, and transformed into souvenirs. The publisher’s ad actually refers to these souvenirs as “Melrose Abbey Relics” (2). But they do not adhere to the logic of the early relic: these publishers describe the original wood as quasi-waste material that disintegrated into useless “fibres” when exposed to air. By using the wood for Mauchline ware, the publishers not only preserved the wood against further disintegration: they transformed organic waste into a valuable luxury product, rare and fine enough to present to the Queen. The organic source material lends some authenticity, but it was the process of commodification that added value and intellectual interest.

In short, the relic was not wholly abandoned: the relic and the souvenir co-existed, and some souvenir commodities borrowed ancient synecdochic logic. The gradual, piecemeal evolution from relic to commodity was part of the development of modern consumer culture. The publishers behind these Mauchline ware book bindings were scrambling to reach a new market. Their commercial innovations drew on both ancient and contemporary ideas about the relationships between object, place, and memory. Their publications allow us to consider the changing ideas that allow us to derive meaning from these souvenirs, and from objects like them. Of course, the ultimate meanings of these souvenirs were the personal memories they preserved for their owners. Those meanings remain mysterious, and always will.

Tess Goodman is a doctoral student at the University of Edinburgh. Her research explores book history and literary tourism, focusing on books sold as souvenirs in Victorian Scotland. Previously, she was Assistant Curator of Collections at Rare Book School at the University of Virginia.  

Think Piece

“Towards a Great Pluralism”: Quentin Skinner at Ertegun House

by contributing editor Spencer J. Weinreich

Quentin Skinner is a name to conjure with. A founder of the Cambridge School of the history of political thought. Former Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge. The author of seminal studies of Machiavelli, Hobbes, and the full sweep of Western political philosophy. Editor of the Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. Winner of the Balzan Prize, the Wolfson History Prize, the Sir Isaiah Berlin Prize, and many others. On February 24, Skinner visited Oxford for the Ertegun House Seminar in the Humanities, a thrice-yearly initiative of the Mica and Ahmet Ertegun Graduate Scholarship Programme. In conversation with Ertegun House Director Rhodri Lewis, Skinner expatiated on the craft of history, the meaning of liberty, trends within the humanities, his own life and work, and a dizzying range of other subjects.

Professor Quentin Skinner at Ertegun House, University of Oxford.

Names are, as it happens, a good place to start. As Skinner spoke, an immense and diverse crowd filled the room: Justinian and Peter Laslett, Thomas More and Confucius, Karl Marx and Aristotle. The effect was neither self-aggrandizing nor ostentatious, but a natural outworking of a mind steeped in the history of ideas in all its modes. The talk is available online here; accordingly, instead of summarizing Skinner’s remarks, I will offer a few thoughts on his approach to intellectual history as a discipline, the aspect of his talk which most spoke to me and which will hopefully be of interest to readers of this blog.

Lewis’s opening salvo was to ask Skinner to reflect on the changing work of the historian, both in his own career and in the profession more broadly. This parallel set the tone for the evening, as we followed the shifting terrain of modern scholarship through Skinner’s own journey, a sort of historiographical Everyman (hardly). He recalled his student days, when he was taught history as the exploits of Great Men, guided by the Whig assumptions of inevitable progress towards enlightenment and Anglicanism. In the course of this instruction, the pupil was given certain primary texts as “background”—More’s Utopia, Hobbes’s Leviathan, John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government—together with the proper interpretation: More was wrongheaded (in being a Catholic), Hobbes a villain (for siding with despotism), and Locke a hero (as the prophet of liberalism). Skinner mused that in one respect his entire career has been an attempt to find satisfactory answers to the questions of his early education.

Contrasting the Marxist and Annaliste dominance that prevailed when he began his career with today’s broad church, Skinner spoke of a shift “towards a great pluralism,” an ecumenical scholarship welcoming intellectual history alongside social history, material culture alongside statistics, paintings alongside geography. For his own part, a Skinner bibliography joins studies of the classics of political philosophy to articles on Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s The Allegory of Good and Bad Government and a book on William Shakespeare’s use of rhetoric. And this was not special pleading for his pet interests. Skinner described a warm rapport with Bruno Latour, despite a certain degree of mutual incomprehension and wariness of the extremes of Latour’s ideas. Even that academic Marmite, Michel Foucault, found immediate and warm welcome. Where many an established scholar I have known snorts in derision at “discourses” and “biopolitics,” Skinner heaped praise on the insight that we are “one tribe among many,” our morals and epistemologies a product of affiliation—and that the tribe and its language have changed and continue to change.

Detail from Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s “Allegory of the Good Government.”

My ears pricked up when, expounding this pluralism, Skinner distinguished between “intellectual history” and “the history of ideas”—and placed himself firmly within the former. Intellectual history, according to Skinner, is the history of intellection, of thought in all forms, media, and registers, while the history of ideas is circumscribed by the word “idea,” to a more formal and rigid interest in content. On this account, art history is intellectual history, but not necessarily the history of ideas, as not always concerned with particular ideas. Undergirding all this is a “fashionably broad understanding of the concept of the text”—a building, a mural, a song are all grist for the historian’s mill.

If we are to make a distinction between the history of ideas and intellectual history, or at least to explore the respective implications of the two, I wonder whether there is not a drawback to intellection as a linchpin, insofar as it emphasizes an intellect to do the intellection. To focus on the genesis of ideas is perhaps to the detriment of understanding how they travel and how they are received. Moreover, does this overly privilege intentionality, conscious intellection? A focus on the intellects doing the work is more susceptible, it seems to me, to the Great Ideas narrative, that progression from brilliant (white, elite, male) mind to brilliant (white, elite, male) mind.

At the risk of sounding like postmodernism at its most self-parodic, is there not a history of thought without thinkers? Ideas, convictions, prejudices, aspirations often seep into the intellectual water supply divorced from whatever brain first produced them. Does it make sense to study a proverb—or its contemporary avatar, a meme—as the formulation of a specific intellect? Even if we hold that there are no ideas absent a mind to think them, I posit that “intellection” describes only a fraction (and not the largest) of the life of an idea. Numberless ideas are imbibed, repeated, and acted upon without ever being much mused upon.

Skinner himself identified precisely this phenomenon at work in our modern concept of liberty. In contemporary parlance, the antonym of “liberty” is “coercion”: one is free when one is not constrained. But, historically speaking, the opposite of liberty has long been “dependence.” A person was unfree if they were in another’s power—no outright coercion need be involved. Skinner’s example was the “clever slave” in Roman comedies. Plautus’s Pseudolus, for instance, acts with considerable latitude: he comes and goes more or less at will, he often directs his master (rather than vice versa), he largely makes his own decisions, and all this without evident coercion. Yet he is not free, for he is always aware of the potential for punishment. A more nuanced concept along these lines would sharpen the edge of contemporary debates about “liberty”: faced with endemic surveillance, one may choose not to express oneself freely—not because one has been forced to do so, but out of that same awareness of potential consequences (echoes of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon here). Paradoxically, even as our concept of “liberty” is thus impoverished and unexamined, few words are more pervasive in present discourse.

Willey Reverly’s 1791 plan of the Panopticon.

On the other hand, intellects and intellection are crucial to the great gift of the Cambridge School: the reminder that political thought—and thought of any kind—is an activity, done by particular actors, in particular contexts, with particular languages (like the different lexicons of “liberty”). Historical actors are attempting to solve specific problems, but they are not necessarily asking our questions nor giving our answers, and both questions and answers are constantly in flux. This approach has been an antidote to Great Ideas, destroying any assumption that Ideas have a history transcending temporality. (Skinner acknowledged that art historians might justifiably protest that they knew this all along, invoking E. H. Gombrich.)

The respective domains of intellectual history and the history of ideas returned when one audience member asked about their relationship to cultural history. Cultural history for Skinner has a wider set of interests than intellectual history, especially as regards popular culture. Intellectual history, by contrast, is avowedly elitist in its subject matter. But, he quickly added, it is not at all straightforward to separate popular and elite culture. Theater, for instance, is both: Shakespeare is the quintessence of both elite art and of demotic entertainment.

On some level, this is incontestable. Even as Macbeth meditates on politics, justice, guilt, fate, and ambition, it is also gripping theater, filled with dramatic (sometimes gory) action and spiced with ribald jokes. Yet I query the utility, even the viability, of too clear a distinction between the two, either in history or in historians. Surely some of the elite audience members who appreciated the philosophical nuances also chuckled at the Porter’s monologue, or felt their hearts beat faster during the climactic battle? Equally, though they may not have drawn on the same vocabulary, we must imagine some of the “groundlings” came away from the theater musing on political violence or the obligations of the vassal. From Robert Scribner onwards, cultural historians have problematized any neat model of elite and popular cultures.

Frederick Wentworth’s illustration of the Porter scene in Macbeth.

In any investigation, we must of course be clear about our field of study, and no scholar need do everything. But trying to circumscribe subfields and subdisciplines by elite versus popular subjects, by ideas versus intellection versus culture, is, I think, to set up roadblocks in the path of that most welcome move “towards a great pluralism.”

Think Piece

Coming to Terms with the Cybernetic Age

by guest contributor Jamie Phillips

Rare the conference attracting a crowd on a cold December Saturday morning, but such happened recently at NYU’s Remarque Institute. Space filled out early for the conclusion of a two-day conference on Cybernetics and the Human Sciences (PDF). The turnout bore out the conference’s contention of a renewed historiographical and philosophical interest in cybernetics, the science of “control and communication in the animal and the machine,” as Norbert Wiener subtitled his 1948 work that gave the interdisciplinary movement its name. As Leif Weatherby, co-organizer of the conference along with Stefanos Geroulanos, noted in his introductory remarks, the twentieth century was a cybernetic century, and the twenty-first must cope with its legacy. Even as the name has faded, Weatherby suggested, cybernetics remains everywhere in our material and intellectual worlds. And so for two days scholars came to cope, to probe that legacy, to trace its contours and question its ramifications, to reevaluate the legacy of cybernetics as a history of the present.

The range of presenters proved particularly well-suited to such a reevaluation, with some working directly on cybernetics itself, while others approached the subject more obliquely, finding, as it were, the cybernetic in their work even where it had not been named. Ronald R. Kline, author of the recent The Cybernetics Moment: Or Why We Call Our Age the Information Age, set the tone early in emphasizing the disunity of cybernetics. Despite the claims of some of its advocates and latter-day commentators, Kline contended, cybernetics never was one thing. On this point general consensus emerged the conference tended to eschew a search for definitions or classifications in favor of a wide-ranging exploration of the many faces of cybernetics’ legacy. And wide-ranging it indeed was as papers and discussion touched on topics from international relations theory and the restrainer of the Antichrist, to Soviet planning in Novosibirsk, the manufacture of telephones, brain implants and bullfights, Voodoo death, and starfish embryos.

A number of papers spoke to the pre-history (or rather pre-histories) of cybernetics. Mara Mills emphasized the importance of the manufacturing context for the emergence of ideas of quality control, as a crucial site for the development of cybernetic conceptions of feedback. Geroulanos addressed physiological theories of organismic integration, stemming from WWI studies of wound shock and concerns with the body on the verge of collapse, and leading to Walter B. Cannon’s concept of homeostasis, so pivotal for early cyberneticians. Other papers spoke to the varying trajectories of cybernetics in different national contexts. Diana West discussed the appeal of cybernetics in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s as offering promise of a more dynamic form of large-scale regional planning, a promise expressed in abstract theoretical modeling and premised on a computing power that never came. Isabel Gabel explored the intersections of biology, embryology and metaphysics in the work of French philosopher Raymond Ruyer. Jacob Krell gave an entertaining appraisal of the strange humanist engagement with cybernetics by the heterogeneous “Groupe des dix” in post-68 France, while Danielle Carr spoke to the anxious reaction against visions of human mind control in the Cold War United States, through the work of José Manuel Rodriguez Delgado. Other papers still, particularly those of Weatherby and Luciana Parisi, directly confronted a cybernetic metaphysics, and between them they raised questions concerning its novelty and significance with respect to the history of philosophy and contemporary media theory.

Stefanos Geroulanos

Taken together, the papers compellingly demonstrated the ubiquity and diversity of the cybernetic across disciplines, decades, and geographical and political contexts. Taken together, however, they also raised a question that has long been posed to cybernetics itself. Here we might cite the words of Georges Boulanger, president of the International Association of Cybernetics, who asked, in 1969: “But after all what is cybernetics? Or rather what is it not, for paradoxically the more people talk about cybernetics the less they seem to agree on a definition” (quoted in Kline, The Cybernetics Moment, 7). Indeed, just as cybernetics itself declined as it expanded into everything, there is perhaps a risk that in finding cybernetics everywhere we lose hold of the object itself. To push the point further, we might echo the frustration of one of the interviewees cited by Diana West in her talk (and here I paraphrase): ‘They promised us cybernetics, but they never gave us cybernetics.’

Over two days, the conference answered this challenge through the productive discussion it generated. The more people talked about cybernetics, the more they seemed to find common ground for engagement.. Beyond the numerous schematics that served as the immediate graphic markers of the cybernetic imagination (see image), conversation coalesced around a loose conceptual vocabulary—of information, of feedback and system, of mechanism and organism, of governance, error and self-organization—that effectively bridged topics and disciplines, and that gave promise of discerning a certain conceptual coherence in the cybernetic age.

A cybernetic schematic: “A Functional Diagram of Information Flow in Foreign Policy Decisions,” from Karl Deutch’s 1963 The Nerves of Government (courtesy of Stefanos Geroulanos)

This proved true even when (or perhaps especially when) understandings of the cybernetic seemed to point in very different directions. A panel of papers by David Bates and Nicolas Guilhot was particularly exemplary in this regard. Bates and Guilhot brought contrasting approaches to the question of the political in the cybernetic age. Bates presented his paper in the form of a question—on the face of it paradoxical, or simply unpromising—of whether we might think a concept of the political in the cybernetic age through the work of Carl Schmitt. Referring to Schmitt’s concept of the katechon (from his post-war work The Nomos of the Earth) as the Restrainer of the Anti-Christ, Bates proposed thinking the political as a deferral of chaos, a notion he linked to the idea of an open system that maintains itself through constant disequilibration, and to an organism that establishes its norms through states of exception. Recalling, through Schmitt, Hobbes’ conception of the Leviathan as an artificial man in which sovereignty is an artificial soul, Bates argued for a concept of the political that would enable us to think mechanism and organism together, that could recover the human without abandoning technology.

Nicolas Guilhot, David Bates, and Alexander Arnold (courtesy of Stefanos Geroulanos)

Guilhot, by contrast, looked at the place of cybernetics in international relations theory and the work of political theorists in the 1960s and 1970s. Cybernetics, Guilhot suggested, here offered the promise of an image of the political that was not dependent on sovereign actors and judgment, one that could do away with decision making in favor of structure, system, and mechanistic process. Where Bates expressed concern that the technical had overrun the capacity of humans to participate in their own systems, for Guilhot’s theorists this was precisely the appeal: coming at a moment of a widely perceived crisis of democracy, cybernetics promised to replace politics with governance as such. For Guilhot here too, though, there was a critical intervention at stake: the image of the political as a system does not remove decision making, he contended, but rather obfuscates it. Prompted by the panel chair to respond to each other directly, Bates and Guilhot agreed that their papers were indeed complementary, with Bates speaking to an earlier moment of concern in the history of cybernetics that had subsequently been lost. The lively discussion that ensued served as proof of the productive engagement that can come from bringing it to the fore again.

Seen in this light, it was a fitting—if unwitting—coda to the conference as a whole that the menu at the post-conference lunch that Saturday afternoon rendered the title of the conference as “Cybernetics and the Human Services” (see image). One might take this as an occasion to think about the flow of information, about the place of error in systems of control and communication. But for present purposes, and for the present author, this fortuitous transposition of ‘human sciences’ into ‘human services’ serves rather to bring to the fore the question implicit in the conference’s agenda: how does the effort to reevaluate the legacy of cybernetics as a single history of the present change our possibilities for understanding and acting within it. What service, in short, can the human sciences render?

(© Jamie Phillips)

In his paper that concluded the conference, Weatherby referred to an occasion at one of the Macy Conferences where the participants, considering the question of whether the brain was digital, confronted the further problem of defining the digital itself. Here, Weatherby suggested, they suffered from a lack of contribution from the humanities—no participant could themselves help the group to arrive upon a definition of cybernetics, what it does, how it works. Such is the work, it seems, that awaits the return to cybernetics. As the conference amply demonstrated, this will not and cannot be simply a matter of narrow definition: any attempt to come to terms with the cybernetic age and our continued place within it must pay heed to the pluralities, the disunities, the dispersed and intertwined trajectories that constitute that legacy; for all its own promise to unify the sciences, cybernetics was never one thing. At the same time, coming to terms with the cybernetic age will entail an effort to find a commonality in the plurality: if cybernetics indeed saturates the human and social sciences, how can we distill it; if it is everywhere without being named, what does it mean to name it, and what does it allow us to see. In this respect, one hopes, the menu will not be the last word, but will point rather to the urgency of continuing the ongoing reevaluation. An edited volume, I am told, is in the works.

Jamie Phillips is a Ph.D. candidate in modern European history at NYU. His dissertation examines the history of psychoneurology as a total science of the human in early twentieth century Russia, and its relation to the project of creating a ‘New Man.’