Think Piece

Coming to Agreement: The State of Urban Public Life in American History

By Daniel London

We live, Daniel Rogers tells us, in an Age of Fracture – and judging by the headlines and your Twitter feed, it is easy to agree. Our debates seem to be characterized by an incapacity, and often an unwillingness, to find common ground across economic, cultural, and political lines. We are faced with a classic question of political theory: under what conditions and to what extent can a community defined by deep pluralism agree on the forms, functions, and outcomes of public life? Intellectual historians can open our public sphere to more open-ended deliberations by examining societies faced with similar dilemmas, contextualizing and de-naturalizing our often rigid assumptions about what constitutes our interest and who belongs within the circle of ‘we’. Unfortunately, an overview of extant research into one relevant terrain for such inquiries –the late 19th and early 20th century American city – reveals how much work is needed before such ground can be fruitfully explored for our own purposes.

Why should we look to the turn of the last century for historical insights, when our dilemmas seem so clearly a product of the Post-War era – of the decline of the New Deal order and the rise of conservatism? Books such as The Origins of the Urban Crises and Running Steel, Running America have been invaluable for explaining the racially-riven metropolitan landscapes we have inherited. Intellectual historians have helped us better understand the varied strands which shape so much of contemporary thinking, from Chicago-School economics to Evangelical Christianity to Geertzian anthropology. However, we should not be too quick to exclusively rely upon the recent past for historical insights. A growing number of historians argue that the post-war era was an exceptional period in global history in which economic growth, full employment, redistributive policies, and decreasing inequality went hand in hand. As these conditions fade in our lifetimes, the New Deal (or in the European case, the Social-Democratic consensus) increasingly appears as a mere interruption of a longer Gilded Age. As we return to the conditions of the 1880s, the historiographical value of the late 19th and early 20th centuries begins to change – not as mere preludes to “modern” conditions, but as modernity itself.

This insight applies to the social characteristics of the fin de siècle, as well as its economic dimensions. Many of the issues cities faced in those decades – growing inequality, immigration, multiculturalism –are in many ways more akin to those facing our own urban centers than those of the 1950s or even the 1970s. Concerns over inter-group cooperation and trust in trying economic conditions, so much the focus of contemporary social theorists and cultural critics, are prefigured by the conceptions of self, community, and political economy developed in the works of Jane Addams, Alain Locke, and George Hebert Meade. And the way new forms of communication and reportage influenced how urbanites defined public problems and solutions should be of great interest to those concerned with the effects of the Internet on reinforcing or loosening our prejudices.

It is for all these reasons that understanding and explaining the public life of cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries holds so much promise for gaining insight around contemporary deliberative challenges. Unfortunately, while the operation and development of the public sphere has been extensively theorized, the state of historical research into this sphere’s urban iterations remains relatively uneven and unsystematic. You can get a sense of this by a quick overview of three major interpretive schools that have addressed this subject, all of which hold vastly different conclusions as to the origins and outcomes of urban deliberations during this time.

Works in the first school argue that major elements of Progressive-era statecraft (at least its most Social-Democratic elements) derived from successful cross-class mobilizations to uncover a ‘common good’ through public-sphere deliberations. Class-bridging dialogues in settlement houses, the socializing effects of newspaper publicity, the efforts by public intellectuals to break down divisions between the academy and the polis, and shared exposure to negative social consequences within the dense confines of the city all helped formerly divided groups uncover and clarify shared problems, interest, and goals. At its best, urban life appears in these works as a fluid sphere in which class, ethnic, and religious identities were overlapping and in flux. John T. Fairfield’s The Public and its Possibilities: Triumphs and Tragedies in the American City and David P. Thelen’s The New Citizenship; Origins of Progressivism in Wisconsin, 1885-1900 embody this perspective.

Another body of scholarship argues that the Progressive era was marked by the kind of fragmentation and divisions that seem to characterize our own time. Phillip Ethington makes this contention in his study of San Francisco politics in the second half of the 19th century. He claims that while antebellum San Franciscan civil society divided along class, ethnic, and racial lines, the Republican norm dominating public sphere deliberations delegitimized political claims made upon these bases. In his reading, the language of populism – of ‘the people’ or even the “common good” more generally – worked against social politics. By the post-war era, however, political entrepreneurs eager to capitalize on growing social divisions within the polity began to appeal more directly to different segments of the polity on the basis of group identity. Under this emergent pluralist paradigm, political interventions on the basis of group-needs, along with cultural tolerance for ethnic minorities, was justified. However, such a paradigm ensured that the public good was a lowest-common-denominator, zero-sum aggregation of interest groups that left out radical ideas and segments of the population whose demanded them (like labor unions, racial minorities, etc). This pragmatic, consensus-driven school of the American polity dates back, of course, to Richard Hofstadter’s Age of Reform.

A final school believes that deliberations over a shared “public good” during this time were stymied from the outset by the interference of middle-class reformers, whose hegemonic impulses hobbled the kind of fundamental reforms that might otherwise have resulted from such discussions. In the view of David Huyssen and Shelton Stromquist, these reformers preached a vision of social reconciliation that made no allowances for political mobilization based on what we would today call ‘identity politics’ – particularly race and class. However, these reformers ignored how their own actions and beliefs were decisively implicated in the maintenance of racism, inequality and exploitation. They refused to see the world around them in class terms or pursue policies that would more fundamentally alter class power, such as breaking apart monopolies or encouraging union growth. Furthermore, their emphasis on ‘civic virtue’ as a requirement for civic inclusion provided them with ample justification for race and ethnic-based exclusions. Suspicious of a discourse of “common good” or even broad-based populist mobilizations, these authors seem to advocate for a confrontational and partisan political culture.

It should be clear from this overview that these three schools differ on a number of fundamental points. The public sphere is alternatively shaped by bottom-up civil-society interactions, top-down machinations, or middle-out mobilization. The results of these interactions vary from altruistic mobilizations of citizens whose private identities and interests have been sublimated into a transcendent ‘public good,’ pragmatic assemblages of groups motivated around material interests, or a stifling period of bourgeoisie hegemony. Furthermore, contending schools often draw upon similar policy points to make their case! Utility regulation is seen by some as a triumph of popular consensus, others as an example of pluralist compromise. Some see charter reform as a triumph of pluralistic mobilization or civic uplift, others as a class conspiracy to marginalize working-class neighborhoods. Of course, it is quite possible that these three paradigms of inter-group communication were occurring simultaneously within the city. But until a more systematic and comparative lens is applied to the historic public sphere, we will not be able to tease out how and whether different deliberative patterns – pluralist, populist, militant, consensus – led to fundamentally different consequences. And without these insights, our ability to assess our own patterns of political dialogue is hampered.

Where role can intellectual historians play in this revised study of the urban public sphere? Up until now, many works in this vein focus on a Benderian play of ideas in public, tracing the conversations through which the meaning of a concept was transformed over time. This is important work, but I also think a dash of conceptual history directly targeting three constitutive elements of public life itself – communication, commonality, and community – is needed. How were these terms theorized and practiced by different actors in different contexts? How did their meaning and usage correlate with different patterns of self-identification, affiliation, group relations, and mobilizations? And how did these concepts reflect and shape broader dynamics in American social, political and economic life?

The study of the public sphere is too important to remain locked in a zero-sum battle between ideal-type Habermasian rationality and Fraser-esque swarms of militant counter-publics. We need open-ended, systematic, and above all historical insights if we are to learn whether and how, in the words of Craig Calhoun, “public communication can be something different than the mirror of mere power politics, the mere expression of personal experience, or mere reproduction of cultural traditions.” Perhaps this is impossible: but I’d rather hear that from a historian’s monograph than a social-theorist’s manifesto any day.

Featured Image: George Bellows, “New York,” 1911. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview Think Piece

When was the age of information?

By Paul Duguid

My principal connection to the field of history is through an undergraduate course I co-teach called “History of Information.” It’s a course that seeks to take students from Lascaux to WhatsApp and beyond in fifteen weeks: its key transitional phrase, as my colleague notes, is “moving right along.” The naivety of such an enterprise probably reveals to the audience of this blog that neither of the teachers is a historian.

While courses with this title seem surprisingly scarce, it can be hard to say what distinguishes this approach from the more familiar history of human communications. One uneasy refuge is offered by students who when asked when the age of information began regularly answer “with the Big Bang.” Unlike communication, then, information is from this perspective, eternal and universal but then, perhaps, unhistoricizable. End of course.

Another opportunity to control our subject might be, as some students request, to define the key term. Here we could turn to Claude Shannon, the “father” of information theory, whoseMathematical Theory of Communication portrayed information as that which reduces uncertainty. But while Shannon’s concept works brilliantly for mathematical and computational analysis, students don’t have to think too hard to find information that has served to increase their uncertainty—Shannon’s own definition being but one example.

Alternatively, as the course takes place within the University of California system, we might draw on our former regent, Gregory Bateson, who in Shannon’s wake held that information is the “difference that makes a difference” (Steps Towards an Ecology of Mind). It’s a great aphorism, but restricts us to stuff which (a) is causal and, per Bateson, (b) “travels along neural pathways.” In my experience, this definition too easily gets stuck in the latter.

For consolation, I turn to the economist E.O. Hirschman’s Passion and Interests, which notes that “As happens frequently with concepts that are suddenly thrust to the center of the stage … [the concept] appeared so self-evident … nobody bothered to define it precisely.” This approach allows us to avoid definition while raising the question of what thrusts the concept to center stage in particular historical periods. It also suggests two alternative ways to address that question, the emic and the etic. For the latter, we can use contemporary lighting to illuminate stages from the past. This has allowed several historians to dazzlingly expose the actions of earlier centuries in the light of contemporary understandings of information. For teachers of a history of information, however, this etic view still slides too easily back to the Big Bang. The emic approach, by contrast, asks us only to see how historical subjects themselves became aware of and used the concept (while keeping at bay strange notions like James Gleick’s in The Informationthat “in the long run, history is the story of information becoming aware of itself”).

An emic approach allows us to fall back on Peter Burke’s guidance in The Social History of Knowledge, where he addresses the question of “What is Knowledge?” by considering what historical actors “rather than the present author or his readers” considered to be “knowledge.” In contrast to the brilliant illumination of contemporary digital light, taking such an emic view of “information” can feel more like trying to see by the flickering flame of a tallow candle. But it has advantages, in particular asking why “information” might have been “thrust to the center of the stage” and how people became aware of it as a forceful concept. Moreover, while emic approaches can make the past seem utterly distant, they can occasionally make it disconcertingly familiar, as, for example, when Vicesimus Knox, an eighteenth-century essayist, vicar, and schoolteacher, declared in words usually attributed to Marshall McLuhan, that his was the “age of information,” a declaration that led me to write my essay on the topic in the current issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas. While I have never yet convinced my students that they have much in common with McLuhan, let alone eighteenth-century vicars, what intrigued me in looking at “information” in that century was the way in which then as in the twentieth, the notion was at first embraced with enthusiasm as a means to transform society but “aged” surprisingly quickly, coming to be looked upon with a certain weariness. As the concept took center stage in both centuries, people began to think you couldn’t have enough of the stuff, while later coming to feel that it was hard to avoid having too much.

Paul Duguid is co-author of The Social Life of Information, and teaches courses on the history and the concept of information in the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley. His article “The Ageing of Information” appears in the July issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas.

Think Piece

British History and the Question of Relevance: Dispatches from the Mid-Atlantic Conference on British Studies

by Emily Rutherford

Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s History Manifesto continues to make headlines within academic circles. Deborah Cohen and Peter Mandler’s critique (about which I wrote in January) has now appeared in the American Historical Review, with a reply from Guldi and Armitage. Cohen and Mandler issued a further “rejoinder,” as well as a statement making note of “silent changes” to the History Manifesto‘s digital edition. The substance of the exchange seems largely to center on disagreements about how to interpret data about things like the level of specialization of history dissertations over time, but along the way there’s a degree of mudslinging that only serves to make clear what all participants see as the high stakes for this debate.

I’m still struck by the fact that Armitage, Cohen, Guldi, and Mandler were all trained within the British/imperial field, and to a large extent still teach and publish in it. I still wonder if there’s something about this field’s own long-perceived crisis that draws British historians to large questions about how to rethink the discipline. I also wonder if that’s the right way to think about this, and if media narratives about “crisis” and “relevance” aren’t too self-reinforcing. Last weekend, I attended and presented at the Mid-Atlantic Conference on British Studies, the regional conference for my field’s professional association. Experts gathered from a wide range of institutions across the Mid-Atlantic region and also from further afield, including several scholars from the UK and Ireland. This was the first time I’d had the opportunity to see British history in action, and particularly to see it in action outside the most elite US and UK institutions. This experience told me a rather different story about the field, and historical scholarship more broadly, than you’re likely to get from the pages of periodicals.

MACBS 2015 was held in honor of the great social historian Judith Walkowitz, retiring this year, who broke new ground in the 1980s and ’90s with her sensitive and perceptive writing about prostitution and other ways that sexuality mapped itself onto urban spaces in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain. Perhaps accordingly, social and cultural history were well-represented among the papers, ranging (among those I heard) from the demographics of Royal Navy officers in the Napoleonic period to utopian communes of the early twentieth century to gender and equestrian sport in late-nineteenth-century India, with much between. Many speakers made use of the kind of prosopography it seems that you can only do with the wealth of ego-documents left by Victorians, tracing familial and affective connections across empire. And a panel held in memory of another great social and women’s historian, the late Leonore Davidoff, demonstrated that there is as much continuity as there is change in our notoriously faddish discipline. Elizabeth Imber, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins whose dissertation project is clearly imperial and transnational, had as much to say as historians who came of age in the 1960s about the lasting influence of the seminal work Family Fortunes (1987) that Davidoff co-authored with Catherine Hall. In general, the conclusion I drew from MACBS was that much good work is coming out of history departments across the US and the UK that isn’t trend-driven, that doesn’t posit the global—or even the imperial—as a natural theoretical good. I saw a few graphs and maps that visualized things like census data, but this struck me less as a sign of the triumph of Big Data than as reflective of a kind of empirical social history with which the British field has long been associated. This is not to say that the entire conference focused on these themes—there were also panels on literature, on twentieth-century political history, on high-intellectual Cambridge School history of history (J.G.A. Pocock himself gave a paper on Gibbon!), on the early modern Atlantic, and more. I heard a surprising amount about eighteenth-century sodomy. But the conference’s overall interest in social history was clear.

The panel in honor of Walkowitz was titled “London, Britain: The Role of the Capital in Studies of British History.” Panelists spoke about the prominence of the spatial in structuring their analysis of the past as well as their practice of research in the present. Most of the audience nodded in recognition—if there’s one thing I’ve noticed about American historians of Britain, it’s that they love to bond over their shared experiences of the British Library and the National Archives at Kew—though as one historian originally from the North of England remarked to me at the subsequent reception, “Haven’t we heard enough about London?”

In his paper, panelist Farid Azfar (Swarthmore) made what I interpreted as an implicit dig at the History Manifesto-led argument that relevant—or even just good—history should have a wide geographical and chronological scope. Walkowitz’s book City of Dreadful Delight (1992), Azfar argued, remains compelling precisely because of its situation in a specific place and time and its synchronic analysis. I have to say that I agree—and MACBS convinced me. Since I began my doctorate, I’ve been anxious about the point of studying the intellectual and cultural world of English educational institutions within the span of fifty-odd years, when my department colleagues are planning dissertations about international governance, control over natural resources, capitalism, and other topics that bear a clear relation to today’s headlines.

But I don’t think that’s the whole story. The range of excellent papers at MACBS ably demonstrated the difference between “relevant” work and “good” or “interesting” work. Papers compelled not because they were connected to the headlines (though some certainly were), and not because they turned to the kinds of “origins” questions from which diachronic narratives about recent (particularly state-centric) history so often depart. They compelled because in twenty minutes with just a few archival examples they opened up new worlds of understanding about the past, creating a way in even for non-experts. I was surprised by the number of papers from far outside my own sub-subfield by which I was fascinated.

Is it enough for historical scholarship to be “interesting”? I expect this question will continue to keep me awake at night, and it doesn’t change the fact that, no matter how “interesting” or “relevant,” there won’t be enough jobs for all of us. But it does suggest that reading magazines, or even the AHR, to know what’s happening in research terms in a range of American colleges and universities won’t provide a complete picture. Perhaps we should consider whether having a say in the media really constitutes the public engagement and claim to relevance to which all historians ought to be striving—or whether teaching “interesting” history to school and university students, as most of us who call ourselves historians do, mightn’t be just as essential.

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.

Intellectual history

January events in Paris for intellectual history

by John Raimo

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

Think Piece

Back in the Sattel(zeit) again

by John Raimo

Where does the historian Reinhart Koselleck (1923-2006) stand in intellectual history today? Among his readers, Koselleck remains a preeminent theorist of historical time and historiography, an innovative figure in ‘conceptual history’ (Begriffsgeschichte), and an accomplished historian in practice, not least in his editorial oversight of the great political lexicon of the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe (1972-1996). The historian’s status in his native Germany seems assured with continuing posthumous publications, scholarly attention devoted to his work, and the opening of his archives to researchers. Koselleck also remains a lively reference point among such thinkers and historians as Aleida Assmann, François Hartog, and Jacques Revel, not least following Paul Ricœur’s sustained engagement with his German contemporary. Translations of his writing (perhaps most prominently in Portuguese) and the practice of conceptual history further contribute to what has become a global reputation.

Speakers at an AHA panel this last weekend discussed the limits of this influence.* Helge Jordheim addressed the continuing feasibility of larger tropes found throughout Koselleck’s writing, most prominently the notion of a Sattelzeit (‘saddle-time) or a transitionary period into political (even secular) modernity roughly spanning 1750 and 1850. The notion of a Sattelzeit itself hearkens back to his earliest work. In his dissertation (published as Kritik und Krise or Critique and Crisis in 1959), Koselleck famously argues that the 17th century absolutist state inadvertently created the first effective, oppositional public sphere in the Enlightenment. This laid the foundations not only of the French Revolution, but also of the liberal subject (as understood today) and of the modern political order which followed. This latter period furnishes the span of Koselleck’s studies in conceptual history, namely programmatic studies of semantic change in key political concepts. Kathleen Davis questioned the consequences for historiography in this broader division, however, and not least in terms of reconceiving the Middle Ages as such. (The triad of antiquity, mediaeval, and modernity also preoccupied Jacques Le Goff to the end of his career, incidentally.)

Koselleck is not a systematic thinker, and he constantly revised his theories. While conceding a theoretical blurriness, the AHA panelists make a strong case that Koselleck’s legacy should be contested and both geographically and chronologically expanded. How far can this be done?

Two notions spring to mind. The first applies to the Sattelzeit thesis and the professional turn to global history imagined by Michael Geyer and Charles Bright among others. Following such historians as Adam Tooze, we might take the 1870s as the starting point for a worldwide convergence of (and converging opposition to) political and economic vocabularies. This is not to advance a theory of modernity, necessarily, nor indeed to dismiss the alternative national histories floating about before, during, or after the period in question. (Here Koselleck’s notion of a modern ‘collective singular’ arising in historical thought also bears upon any reconstructed ideas of progress.) As per Koselleck’s account of conceptual history, both semantic change and the circulation of ideas would prove jagged and asymmetrical in any historical telling. Yet the larger Sattelzeit thesis—when extended beyond Germany—could be tested against any history of globalization or a perceived global condition.

Conceptual history also expands beyond political concepts in Germany. Indeed, the same historiographical approach applies just as easily to larger transnational exchanges. These also prove more expansive in terms of content, finding traction not only in political but also in politicized vocabularies. Carol Gluck and Anne Lowenhaupt-Tsing’s volume Words in Motion: Toward a Global Lexicon (2009) furnishes a wonderful model for global history written in this key.

Another suggestion bears upon a possible conceptual history of human rights. The subject has recently become one of the most formidable and exciting fields in history: formidable, in light of the exacting debates swirling around its origins and character; exciting, in the sheer volume of its historiography today. But where will histories of ideas, of governmental policy, and NGOs now lead historians?

Koselleck’s insistence that circulation refines and changes concepts may afford a broader historiographical frame. Ideas trickle down and bubble back up. Drawn against a global stage, the receptions (plural) of human rights ideas and policies would vary between regions, states, areas, political identifications, and people before returning to political science departments and the occasional history blog. How deep do the archives extend on this score? What sorts of translation occurred within and across languages, which mediums carried the ideas, and how far did global aspects of human rights travel? Is there a social history, a cultural history, a media history, and so on for human rights?

The research program of Koselleck’s great lexicon, the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, establishes an initial framework for these questions. The introduction sketches out levels of reception while implicitly tracing an arc of scholarship. Historians begin with ‘classic’ (Klassiker) texts in political theory, philosophy, jurisprudence, theology, and so on—call it the ‘Great Man’ approach to intellectual history—before advancing to ‘widely circulating’ (Streuweite) texts including literature, journalism, pamphlets, bureaucratic records, and scholarship as much as private letters and diaries. This constitutes the great work of archives then contrasted against the third-level of ‘dictionaries’ (Wörterbücher), namely the reference works progressively fixing (or attempting to fix) concepts for each period.

This schema may first appear overly-determined. Yet in practice, the historiography blurs and leads ever outwards. One example for human rights historians in this register can be found in the career of Robert L. Bernstein, founder of the Human Rights Watch as well as the long-term head of Random House.** The publication of dissidents under Bernstein’s aegis might conceivably furnish a history of the book or a literary history for human rights, say, and an account of popular intellectual history of American readers of Soviet dissidents. If Koselleck’s theories and conceptual history indeed open up such new perspectives and even archives for consideration, what other anchors for a global history of human rights can be found elsewhere?

*Please note that the panel was incomplete.
**The author thanks Timothy Nunan for this reference.