History of ideas

“Doctrine according to need”: John Henry Newman and the History of Ideas

By guest contributor Burkhard Conrad O.P.L.

Any history of ideas and concepts hinges on the observation that ideas and concepts change over time. This notion seems to be so self-evident that the question of why they change is rarely addressed.

Interestingly enough, it was only during the course of the nineteenth century that the notion of a history of ideas, concepts, and doctrines became widespread. Ideas increasingly came to be seen as contingent or “situational,” as we might phrase it today. Ideas were no longer regarded as quasi-metaphysical entities unaffected by time and change. This hermeneutic shift from metaphysics to history, however, was far from sudden. It came about gradually and is still ongoing.


John Henry Newman in 1844, a year before he wrote his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (portrait by George Richmond)

The theologian and controversialist John Henry Newman (1801–1890) must be regarded as one of the intellectual protagonists of this shift from metaphysics to history. An eminent intellectual within the high-church Anglican Oxford Movement, Newman decided mid-life to join the Church of Rome, eventually to become one of the foremost voices of nineteenth century Roman Catholicism in Britain. Newman exerts an influence well into our time with figures such as Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) paying tribute to his thought. Benedict eventually beatified Newman in 2010.

Rarely quoted in any non-theological study in the history of ideas, Newman’s work is eminently important for understanding both the quest for a historical understanding of ideas and the anxious existential situation of those thinkers who found themselves in the middle of a momentous intellectual revolution. In Newman’s day, it was not uncommon for such intellectual and personal queries to go hand in hand.

In Newman’s case, this phenomenon becomes particularly obvious when we look at his contribution to the history of ideas. In 1845, during his phase of conversion from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, Newman wrote his famous Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. I wish to focus on two of Newman’s central claims within the Essay. Firstly, he states that it is justifiable to argue that doctrines and ideas change over time. Confronting a more “scriptural”—i.e. Protestant—understanding, Newman affirms that ecclesiastical doctrines hinge not only on the acknowledgement of divine, biblical revelations, but also on a tradition of teaching that has evolved since the early church. Newman writes in one of his sermons that “Scripture (…) begins a series of development which it does not finish; that is to say, in other words, it is a mistake to look for every separate proposition of the Catholic doctrine in Scripture” (§28). He complements this thought by adding in the Essay that “time is necessary for the full comprehension and perfection of great ideas” (29), which is to say that doctrine is not something given only once, but rather possesses a dynamic quality.

But why does doctrine evolve in the first place? Why is it important to speak of a history of ideas? It is remarkable that Newman answers those questions in much the same way as we would do today. Doctrine, according to Newman, is ever-evolving because there is a need for such transformation. Ideas are simply “keeping pace with the ever-changing necessities of the world, multiform, prolific, and ever resourceful” (56).

Newman speaks of “a gradual supply [of doctrine] for a gradual necessity” (149). The logic behind doctrinal change may thus be explained as follows: a given or conventional doctrine comes into contact with or is challenged by alternative expressions of doctrine. These alternative expressions come to be regarded as false, as heresy. Hence, an adequate doctrinal reaction is necessary. This reaction may take the form either of a doctrinal change through the absorption of novel thought, or of a transformation through counter-reaction. Hence, Newman is even able to rejoice in the fact that false teaching may arise. He writes in the aforementioned sermon: “Wonderful, to see how heresy has but thrown that idea into fresh forms, and drawn out from it farther developments, with an exuberance which exceeded all questioning, and a harmony which baffled all criticism”(§6).


Hans Blumenberg © Bildarchiv der Universitätsbibliothek Gießen und des Universitätsarchivs Gießen, Signatur HR A 603 a

The necessity for doctrinal development, hence, is born within situations of discursive tension. These situations—the philosopher Hans Blumenberg once called them “rhetorical situations” (Ästhetische und metaphorologische Schriften, 417)—demand a continuous, diachronical stream of cognitive solutions. The need has to be answered. As Quentin Skinner once noted, “Any statement (…) is inescapably the embodiment of a particular intention, on a particular situation, addressed to the solution of a particular problem, and thus specific to its situation in a way that is can only be naïve to try to transcend” (in Tully, Meaning and Context, 65). The need for development and change, thus, is born in distinctive historical settings with concrete utterances and equally concrete counter-utterances. That is why ideas and concepts change over time: they simply react. “One proposition necessarily leads to another” (Newman, Essay, 52). This change is required in order to come to terms with new challenges, both rhetoric and real.

To be frank, Newman would hardly agree with Skinner on the last part of his statement, namely, that statements are never able to transcend their particular context. For all his historical consciousness, Newman was, like most his contemporaries, fixated on the idea that, despite its dynamic character, the teaching of the Church forms a harmonious, logical and self-explaining system of thought, a higher truth. He writes, “Christianity being one, and all its doctrines are necessarily developments of one, and, if so, are of necessity consistent with each other, or form a whole” (96).

Newman was also convinced—again contrary to Quentin Skinner—that the history of theological ideas had to be looked at with a normative bias. He identified certain “corruptions” in the history of theological ideas (169). It was important to Newman to be able to distinguish between “genuine developments” and these “corruptions.” A large part of his Essay is devoted to setting out apparently objective criteria for such a normative classification.

Who is to decide what is genuine and what is corrupted? Newman’s second claim in the Essay deals with this question. According to Newman, the only true channel of any genuine tradition is found within the Roman Catholic Church, with the pope as the final and supreme arbiter. Newman could not do without such a clear attribution of doctrinal decision-making power. It was necessary “for putting a seal of authority upon those developments;” that is, those which ought to be regarded as genuine (79).

In consequence, Newman mobilized his first claim about the dynamic nature of doctrines with regard to his second claim, the idea of papal infallibility in deciding matters of doctrine. It was clear even to the nineteenth-century theologian that the notion of papal infallibility was not explicitly contemplated by anyone in the early Church. But, according to Newman, the requirement for an “infallible arbitration in religious disputes” became more and more pronounced as centuries of doctrinal disputes passed (89). And Newman says of his own century that “the absolute need of a spiritual supremacy is at present the strongest of arguments in favour of the fact of its supply” (89). The idea of infallibility thus came into existence because, according to Newman, it was needed to settle doctrinal uncertainty within his own time.


Cardinal John Henry Newman, painted in 1889 by Emmeline Deane

Having admitted the pope’s supremacy in matters of doctrine, a consequent existential decision by Newman had to follow. He had no choice but to leave Canterbury for Rome. It is only fair to say that Newman required the idea of a final arbitrator, someone to decide on genuine doctrinal development, in order to fulfill his own need for certainty and a spiritual home. Even a sympathetic interpreter like the historian and theologian Jaroslav Pelikan had to concede “that here Newman’s existential purpose did get in the way of his historical vision” (Development of Christian Doctrine, 144).

And so Newman’s account of a history of ideas developing according to need was born as much out of an intellectual interest in the history of theological ideas as it was triggered by biographical motives. But which twenty-first-century scholar in the humanities could claim that his or her research interests had nothing to do with personal circumstances?

Burkhard Conrad O.P.L., Ph.D., taught politics at the University of Hamburg, Germany. He is now an independent scholar working for the archdiocese of Hamburg. Among his research interests are political theology, Søren Kierkegaard, and the Oxford Movement. He is a lay Dominican and writes a blog at www.rotsinn.wordpress.com.

“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.”

Socialism and Power: Axel Honneth in Paris

by guest contributor Jacob Hamburger

When asked about his political orientation, for many years Axel Honneth would reply almost automatically, “I think I’m a socialist.” Yet as he recounted recently at Columbia University’s global center in Paris, each time he gave this answer, the less he knew precisely what he was saying. This dissatisfaction with his own political identification was part of what motivated his newest book The Idea of Socialism (Die Idee des Sozialismus) which appears in French later this year. As Honneth also explained, the book also furnishes a response to the widespread belief in recent decades that socialism is dead. Though Margaret Thatcher had already captured this belief in the 1980s with her remark that “there is no alternative,” the fall of the Soviet Union has made it more and more tempting to give up on socialism over the last two decades. Though he could not be sure precisely what socialism stood for, Honneth knew that this was a hasty pronouncement. His book therefore attempts to look within the tradition of socialist thought in order to sort the living from the dead, to find something in this tradition that we can take seriously as a political goal in 2017.


Axel Honneth

Honneth’s answer is to separate the “normative idea” of socialism from its outmoded theoretical framework. The original founders of socialism—from Owen, Fourier, and other utopian thinkers of the 1820s and ‘30s, up to Karl Marx—believed that capitalism prevented the realization of the French Revolution’s ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Capitalism’s understanding of liberty proved overly individualistic and antagonistic, establishing a personal sphere in which others are barred from intervening. The normative thread that Honneth sees running through all of great socialist thought is the idea of a “social freedom” accomplished through cooperation rather than competition. Social freedom is based on an idea of mutual recognition (the subject of much of Honneth’s work), in which one person’s freedom depends on that of the other. As a result, social freedom would allow the ideals of equality and fraternity to fully flourish. Since capitalism has imposed its idea of freedom through the institutions of the economy, socialists have sought to reshape the economy in order to make social freedom a reality.

Though social freedom is an old idea, forged in the aftermath of the French Revolution, it is no less applicable today as a normative concept than it was two hundred years ago. As Honneth sees it, however, socialism’s greatest weakness is an outdated understanding of social relations. He identifies three main flaws with this nineteenth-century theoretical outlook: economism, the belief that the economy is the sphere that determines a society’s basic character; “ouvrierism,” the fixation on the industrial working class as the agent of social change; and determinism, the assumption that history follows general law-like tendencies. Economism, ouvrierism, and determinism have not only blinded socialist thinkers to new possibilities in a changing social world, but also led them to dismiss the value of political liberties and erect a cult of the proletariat and the planned economy. While there may have been good reasons to hold these beliefs in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, Honneth urges scrapping socialism’s theoretical framework in favor of a more sociologically nuanced view of the modern world, along with a Deweyan “experimentalist” approach to social change.


Polity (2016)

This critique of the left’s insufficient understanding of the social is a thread that stretches throughout Honneth’s philosophical career. In the doctoral dissertation that became his landmark 1985 work Kritik der Macht, he was inspired by the new approaches of Jürgen Habermas and Michel Foucault to account for this dimension of human reality that he believed had been lost on, for example, the founders of the Frankfurt School. Their accounts of “communicative rationality” and “micropower,” respectively, provided a more convincing philosophical account of the sphere of social conflict and cooperation than Honneth found in the Marxist tradition.

A young scholar in 1970s Berlin, as Honneth recounted in another recent talk in Paris on the occasion of the first French translation of Kritik der Macht, he still found that the left was stuck between two unattractive theories of power. The first was that of Theodor Adorno, who saw power as something so totalizing and fearsome that no resistance could hope to stand against it; the other was captured by Foucault, for whom power and resistance were equally intertwined in every aspect of social life, no matter how minute. Despite his admiration for both thinkers, it was clear to Honneth that neither’s approach corresponded to the complexity of social reality. At the same time as he began to absorb the insights of empirical sociology, he was also drawn to return to Hegel and the notion that each society in history has its own guiding spirit. Honneth’s take on this historical relativism was the opposite of that of some followers of Foucault. He saw the way that concrete societies initiate individuals into their ways of life not as a form of domination, but rather as a positive affirmation, and following Habermas, he insisted on the indispensability of normative discourse.

Any socialism arising out of this philosophical perspective—with its deep empirical and normative streaks and its refusal of dualistic categories—invites the label of “reformism.” For some on the far left, Honneth’s program may not look like socialism at all (as he tells it, his critics have long branded him the Eduard Bernstein of the Frankfurt School). The alternative between reform and revolution is another dichotomy that Honneth rejects as a vestige of socialism’s outdated past. Analytically speaking, he is right to do so. But as with all of the conceptual errors Honneth skillfully dismisses, one indeed begins to wonder to what extent socialism can rid itself of the categories that have historically defined it, no matter how erroneous these have often been.

The current troubles of the French Parti socialiste are a case in point. The party has moved away from an outmoded fixation on the working class and a planned economy, perhaps necessary moves, only to find that it has lost its base of committed socialist voters. Perhaps the greatest weakness of Honneth’s attempt to revitalize socialism is that, precisely as a result of its open-mindedness and conceptual soundness, it risks cutting itself off from actually existing traditions of socialist thought. Honneth might do well to begrudgingly accept to fit his socialism into the “reformist” heritage.

The French sociologist Bruno Karsenti responded to Honneth’s presentation with the following question: do we need socialism in order to combat the neoliberalism and neo-nationalism of today’s politics, or is it rather an obstacle towards fighting these trends? Honneth’s answer was characteristically clearheaded, pointing out the ways in which neoliberal globalization and anti-global nationalism have worked together. As the market has expanded across the globe, those who suffer from the new economic order have transferred their frustrations onto liberal cosmopolitanism, which is a political and moral ideal rather than economic. Honneth sees potential for socialism, rightly understood, to cut between these two tendencies. Freed of its economism, it can address material inequality while both taking seriously the cultural specificity of each community, and articulating the various responsibilities between peoples. Specifically, he calls for a “European socialism,” and hopes one day to see various forms of “Asian” or “African” socialism emerge. Honneth presents an attractive balance between socialism as a universal idea of justice—à la John Rawls—and an understanding of how freedom emerges from cooperation within a concrete society. Hearing his presentation of its prospects for the future, a thoughtful person open to the nuances and complexity of society is tempted to say with Honneth, “I think I’m a socialist.” On reflection, however, Honneth’s attempt to justify socialism’s living reality may have only made more apparent the uncertainty built into this thought. His is a philosopher’s socialism, which will live on at the very least in the project of self-critique.

Jacob Hamburger is a graduate student in political philosophy and intellectual history at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. He has written on the history of neoconservative thought in the United States, and is currently writing a masters thesis on the idea of the “end of ideology.” He is an editor of the Journal of Politics, Religion, and Ideology, and his writing and translations have appeared in publications such as the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Tocqueville Review, and Charlie Hebdo.

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

by guest contributor Dag Herbjørnsrud

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


Sein und Zeit
(Being and Time; 1927)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

History or Ghost Story? Marshall Berman

by guest contributor Max Ridge

“One of the most important things for radical critics to point to,” Marshall Berman writes in his first book, “is all the powerful feeling which the system tries to repress—in particular, every man’s sense of his own unique, irreducible self” (xiii). In his life and work, Berman demonstrated the importance of the personal side of politics. Though an earnest student of Marx, he thought little of theoretical systems that ignored individualism, authenticity, and identity. He won his widest audience with All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (1982), a blend of historical and literary analysis culminating in a unified study of cultural modernism and industrial modernization. As opposed to the Frankfurt School’s “culture industry” or C. Wright Mills’ “cultural apparatus,” Berman’s mature worldview sometimes reveled in the entanglement of capitalist interest and artistic creation, and declined to ascribe an overarching order to dynamics in consumer culture. Thirty years later, the text remains globally influential in urban studies, literary studies, and architectural scholarship. His other works, however, enjoy considerably less scrutiny.

Today it appears that Berman’s legacy as a person (or personality) has defined his legacy as a political thinker. His death in 2013 marked the loss not only of a New York intellectual, but also of a figure in the mythos of the Upper West Side. He was, in later life, hard to miss as he patrolled Broadway, wearing a bushy head of hair and an even bushier beard. His wardrobe featured an assortment of t-shirts with slogans like “Make Poverty History.” Berman was a lifelong professor at CUNY, member of the editorial board of Dissent, and author of many influential books. Todd Gitlin, Michael Walzer, and other stars in New York’s intellectual constellation sounded off heartbreakingly personal obituaries and reflections shortly after his death three years ago.

The years since have seen a renewed interest in Berman’s work, as historians and critics both memorialize him and attempt to situate his legacy within American intellectual history. Adventures in Modernism, a volume of reflections from Berman’s later friends and interlocutors, appeared in November 2016. Verso will also publish a collection of his essays in May 2017. At the launch event for Adventures in Modernism, acquaintances and students of Berman’s shared stories of what it was like to read All That Is Solid for the first time, or attend one of his impressive lectures on rap music or the South Bronx. It was riveting and intimate—even mournful—yet did little to advance Berman’s image past that of the “happy warrior.” While uniqueness and historical significance definitely do not undo each other in the abstract, most of the new work on Berman seems to capture his singular nature without contextualizing him in terms of any specific tradition.

Lacking a significant base of existing secondary scholarship, my own work on Berman seeks to uncover his main interests and priorities at the very beginning of his career. Through his archived graduate and undergraduate scholarship, I investigate which traditions (especially so-called “Cold War liberalism”) informed his emerging Marxist humanism, interrogate his work alongside parallel trends in political thought like the New Left, and track the origins of his theoretical syncretism. Though “revisionist” in his emphasis on theories of alienation and dismissal of Stalinism, Berman deviates from more prominent Marxist humanists like Leszek Kolakowski and the Praxis School, who criticized the political realities of the Cold War (and their intellectual antecedents) on the basis of humanistic principles. Berman displayed a lifelong tendency to work within established liberal and Enlightenment contexts in an exceedingly academic register, rallying “canonical” authors in a perceived common struggle against the alienating forces of modernity. He once described Marxist humanism as “a synthesis of the culture of the Fifties with that of the Sixties” (160).

In All That Is Solid, Berman’s revisionism, though stark, is never fully explicated. To Berman, Marx may have appreciated capitalism’s achievements while also apprehending its spiritual deficiencies. “Radical fusion,” Berman argues, “has given way to fission; both Marxism and modernism have congealed into orthodoxies and gone their separate and mutually distrustful ways.” In place of orthodox Marxist social analysis and the “haloed” purism of modernist art criticism, Berman aspired to a framework that would “reveal modernism as the realism of our time” (All That Is Solid 121-122). The book initially struck me as radical, though cross-pollinated with the languages of liberal political thought, romanticism, and psychoanalysis. Berman’s earliest novel contribution to political thought, perhaps, was therefore an optimistic, non-dogmatic Marxist idiom that was intelligible to thinkers who would have otherwise assailed Marxism due to the failures of Soviet communism.

Though a political radical and student in the 1960s, Berman channeled his energy into his studies rather than activism or confrontation. At this remove, Berman’s work nonetheless embodied many principles of the radically democratic New Left. Undergraduate experiences at Columbia University between 1957 and 1961 solidified Berman’s interests in the humanities. Early interests in psychoanalysis and the 1844 Manuscripts, whose English translation coincided with Berman’s undergraduate explorations, further helped establish his animating political fixations: alienation in modernity, personal autonomy, and the struggle for authentic political community.

Berman earned advanced degrees from Harvard and Oxford in predominately liberal settings. At Oxford he wrote a B.Litt. thesis under Isaiah Berlin’s supervision, a final or near-final draft of which, entitled “Marx on Individuality and Freedom,” sits in Berman’s archives in New York. It contains remarkable echoes of Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty”—suggesting, perhaps, a student’s attempts to synchronize Marx with the liberal sensibilities of his supervisor. As in All That Is Solid, Berman suggests that orthodox Marxism, manifest in the state doctrine of the Soviet Union and dogmatic revolutionary readings of Capital, cannot alone account for the complex effects of modern life on the self. Yet unlike All That Is Solid, the thesis shows Berman’s revisionism in real time.

Berman’s thesis attempts to demonstrate that Marx “clearly sees that there is more to men than economic characters allow.” He articulates Marx’s conception of history as a constant effort on the part of humanity to overcome “illusory communities” and, one by one, assert their individuality in spite of “deterministic myths.” Though unique in their content, Berman’s revisions are familiar in their terminology: “To understand what freedom means… is to recognize that other men are free agents themselves. To affirm myself and recognize another as free… is to realize that orientations other than my own, and no less ‘true,’ are possible.” Berman therefore constructs a novel and humanist Marxism that can facilitate, rather than dismiss, pluralism, liberal democracy, and seemingly “bourgeois” notions of rationality and personal autonomy.

Leaving aside the question of whether or not Berman’s graduate revisions are convincing on their own, his B.Litt. thesis casts his first book, The Politics of Authenticity (1970), in a new light. An expansion of his doctoral dissertation, this book analyses Rousseau and Montesquieu in order to develop an account of the notion of authenticity. “Being oneself,” in Berman’s view, poses one of the greatest difficulties and sources of emancipation for modern people. “Why,” he asks, “should the ideal of authenticity, which had co-existed for so long with real repression in society and the state, now suddenly,” in the modern age, “help to generate a revolutionary upheaval against it?” (xiii). The language of authenticity becomes a way of squaring the circle, so to speak, that is the tension between group and individual identity.

As Allan Bloom pointed out in a review, The Politics of Authenticity is a product of the New Left “in having as twin goals freedom, understood to mean being and doing whatever one wants to be or do, and community.” This is unsurprising, as Berman’s work up until 1970 signaled a desire to reconcile the developments of individual autonomy and the communal self. Bloom wrote Berman off as sectarian when, in actuality, Berman’s book is anything but divisive. It explicitly argues that authenticity may be a useful concept for the New Left and Right alike. The common ground stretches back further: “In the nineteenth century the desire for authenticity became a point of departure for both liberal and socialist thought,” Berman writes, as thinkers like J.S. Mill stressed the importance of free expression, diversity of “modes of life,” and the assertion of individual “character” over tradition. “The same values,” Berman claims, “underlay Marx’s radical indictment of liberalism,” as the proletariat lived in a contradiction between individuality and the condition of their labor (xxv).

Looking backwards, it seems plausible that The Politics of Authenticity, like All That Is Solid, is an oddity in intellectual history—an example of a young academic’s attempt to transmogrify the radically democratic energy of the sixties into political science. The former book proved less popular than the latter, but neither is all style. Rather, we would be wise to take a second look at Berman’s impulses as a young scholar. Was he a unique personality to be celebrated, or might we take a critical look at his tendency to revise—without consideration of barriers of tradition or discipline—the ideas of past thinkers according to the demands of the present? If it could be done in the ideological crucible of the Cold War, could it not also appear today?

Max Ridge is an undergraduate student at Columbia University majoring in history.

Towards an Intellectual History of the Alt-Right?

by contributing editor Yitzchak Schwartz

Richard Spencer, a popular alt-right leader, leads the crowd in performing a Nazi salute at his National Policy Institute’s convention this past November (picture (c) Occupy Democrats)

As the alt-right has gained ascendance in American politics and cultural consciousness over the past 24 months, American intellectuals have been scrambling to try and understand its roots and what makes it tick. The media has even been at odds about how to refer to the movement. Most treatments of the alt-right in the news media have been more descriptive than interpretive, but a few very interesting articles have sought to explain the intellectual history and ideology of the movement.

In particular, two articles that I’ve come across stand out. The first is is piece that was published at the end of November in the Jewish online Tablet Magazine written by Jacob Siegel, a reporter for the Daily Beast. Siegel uses Paul Gottfried, a conservative intellectual and historian, as a window into alt-right ideology. A child of German-Jewish refugees, Gottfried is an ardent opponent of Nazism but argues, in much of his scholarship, that other, truer forms of fascism were actually quite successful and morally justified. “If someone were to ask me what distinguishes the right from the left,” Siegel quotes one of Gottfried’s books, “the difference that comes to mind most readily centers on equality. The left favors that principle, while the right regards it as an unhealthy obsession.” To Gottfried, since what he considers the economic failure of socialism the Western left has taken on equality as its raison d’etre. This orientation stymies actual progress and individual liberties, allowing what he calls the “therapeutic managerial state” to accumulate power unchecked by healthy nationalism. Siegel thus interprets Gottfried as a “Nietzschean American Nationalist.”
Gottfried is an erstwhile mentor of Richard Spencer, the most visible leader of the alt-right movement and head of its National Policy Institute. Gottfried has since parted ways with Spencer over the latter’s white nationalism. However, as Siegel discusses in this and another article, what figures like Gottfried reveal about the alt-right is that it is unique from many older nationalist and racialist movements in its embrace of grand historical theories, academic jargon and a keen interest in history and metahistory. It is also at once highly populist, with many of its leaders urging a white populist revolution, as well as, like he fascist movements figures like Gottfried and Spencer identify as their forbears, highly elitist and skeptical of democracy.
The white nationalist component of the alt-right is the subject of a longer article by historian Timothy Shenk that appeared last August in The Guardian. Interestingly, the Guardian has taken much more of a keen interest in the American alt-right and began reporting on the movement earlier than many American newspapers. Perhaps the threat of ethnic nationalism looms larger in Europe than in the United States. Shenk orients his article around Samuel Francis (d. 1995), a dissident conservative intellectual and journalist ousted from the conservative establishment for his racialist views. Like Gottfried, Francis, according to Shenk,  sees contemporary society as dominated by a managerial class that threatens the values of most Americans such as morality, nationalism and racial integrity. In his magnum opus, Leviathan and Its Enemies, posthumously-published by a team of editors that includes Gottfried, Francis argues that the Leviathan of the managerial state can be successfully bought down by a white national revolution.  If Gottfried advocates for a new right based in fascism and nationalism, Francis and his protege Jared Taylor, the founder of the online journal American Renaissanceare much more explicitly white supremacist. Much of the Alt-Right today in both Siegel and Shenk’s accounts see themselves at once as a Nietzschean, social-Darwinist vanguard as well as defenders of racial integrity in the United States.
What emerges from both of these articles is an understanding of the alt right that would suggest that its particular brand of right-wing thought is as much a product of intellectual trends developed in the name of left causes — Gramscian Marxism, Frankfurt school critiques of mass society, studies of therapeutic culture —  as much as it is of conservatism. Perhaps it should be unsurprising that the alt-right can tout a radical moral relativism to justify exclusionary nationalism; the origins of relativism in early twentieth century German thought were never far from various iterations of social Darwinism. What also emerges from these articles is an understanding of the alt right that places it, and American conservatism, firmly within American intellectual history.
This framing should make historians reevaluate a lot of the historiography on the right and conservatism written over the past decade. Historians who are part of the current wave of scholarship on the right generally focus on the rise of the Reagan Republicans in the mid-to-late twentieth century. They thus approach the movement as a social phenomena, rooted in popular racist backlash over civil rights on the one hand and corporate-backed efforts to restore pre-New Deal economic policies by popularizing free market economics. Most of these works frame themselves as a corrective to Richard Hofstadter’sconsensus” approach to American history. In his 1948 The American Political Tradition, Hofstadter argued that rather than class conflict agreement on central ideas such as individualism, free market and liberal democracy is what most characterized American politics and under-girded American success. Today’s historians of conservatism seek to disrupt the consensus narrative by exposing the prevalence of racism in American history and understanding conservative ideology as a force in American culture. However, they often  ultimately echo Hofstadter in seeing Americans who joined the republican coalition int the late 1960s-70s as dupes mislead by party elites keen on achieving economic gains.
What follows from the ascendancy of alt right is what many conservatives have been saying all along, namely that whether their critics on the left like their ideologies they indeed have very pronounced ideologies that lead them to take the political positions they do. These ideologies  do not exist in a vacuum either. They dialogue with critical theory and they exhibit nuanced continuities with once very popular ideas of social Darwinism and American nationalism.  In other words, our histories of conservatism may still be tilted  far too much towards Hofstadter consensus narrative: Rather than seeing conservatism in material terms as an aberration based on backlash to Civil Rights without an intellectual history, we ought to be much more explicit with regard to the roots of some conservative ideologies in very prominent , if troubling–and less easily brushed off as reactionary or ignorant– American intellectual traditions. These are intellectual traditions that we perhaps would like to believe long-extinct but the sympathy the alt-right has garnered from many corners suggests that they still occupy a trenchant place in the American national consciousness.  To grapple with and understand the alt-right and its ideas, we, as historians and as citizens, have to take a long hard look at their ideas and their context in our shared history.

History of Ideas at AHA2017


For the third year, your trusty blog editors have combed through the behemoth that is the AHA Annual Meeting’s program in search of panels and events related to intellectual history. JHIBlog readers attending the American Historical Association Annual Meeting might be interested in the following sessions, just a few highlights amid the smorgasbord on offer. Visit the official Program for detailed panel descriptions and information about location and session participants:

Thursday, 1:00 – 3:30 p.m.

Scale in History
The Law of Nations and the Making of the American Republic
Human Rights Go Global: The International Committee for Political Prisoners, 1924–42
Polemical Uses of Scripture and History across the Centuries

Thursday, 3:30 – 5:00 p.m.

UNESCO: Researching Its Coordination of Scholarly Collaboration
Teaching Writing and Teaching at the Intersection of Chinese History and Literature
Technologies of Writing, Archive, and Knowledge Production
Creative and Critical Rights Claims in Marginalized Americans’ Freedom Suits, Habeas Corpus Petitions, and Disability Claims
Reading Hayden White’s Metahistory Today: An AHA Book Forum Sponsored by History and Theory
Sources of Authority and Influence in Early Christianity

Friday, 8:30 a.m. – 10:00 a.m.

Religion and the Remaking of Leftist Thought in the 20th Century
Anthropology and the Andes, 1910–45: New Critical Histories
Uses of Church History in America, 1850–1950

Friday, 10:30 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.

The Dynamics of Religious Knowledge: Resilience and Innovation in the Face of Modernity
Supplying Conservatism: Media Infrastructure and the Rise of the New Right
Indian Anti-imperialism in World History: A Two Centuries’ Overview
Reformation Cosmology: Re-envisioning Angels, Demons, Baptism, and Penance

Friday, 1:30 p.m. – 3:00 p.m.

New Perspectives on the Enlightenment across the Spanish Atlantic, 1680–1815
New Directions in Environmental History, Part 3: The Anthropocene in History
Does the Reformation Still Matter? American, Global, and Early Modern Perspectives: A Roundtable
Economies of Worth in the Early Modern World
Whither Neoliberalism? An Interdisciplinary Conversation on Neoliberalism’s Role in the City and Its Place in Historical Scholarship

Friday, 3:30 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.

Liberalism and Citizenship in the 19th Century
Whither Reformation History: A Roundtable Discussion on the 500th Anniversary
Teaching Book History
The Toynbee Prize Lecture: Jürgen Osterhammel

Saturday, 8:30 a.m. – 10:00 a.m.

Translating Scale: Space and Time between Science and History
Dimensions of Catholicism in Modern France
Theological Dialogues in 19th-Century Europe and America

Saturday, 10:30 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.

Whose Backlash? Liberal Religious Responses to Conservative Populism, 1965–85
Scaling Up: Medieval Sources and the Making of Historical Contexts in England, c. 900–c. 1450
State Formation, Part 1: Premodern States Reconsidered
Myth of Modernity, Secularity, and Missions: Legacies of the Reformation

Saturday, 1:30 p.m. – 3:00 p.m.

Histories of Archaeological Representation: Scales of the Past in the 19th- and 20th-Century World
Marking Time: The Question (or Problem) of Periodization in Native American History

Saturday, 3:30 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.

Luther and the “Second Reformation”
Positivism and Scale: Problematic Subjects in Late 19th-Century European Intellectual History — featuring our own Eric Brandom!
Queering Historical Scale, Part 4: Querying Metanarratives of Queer History in Modern Germany

Sunday, 9:00 a.m. – 10:30 a.m.

Politics and Time in Indian Intellectual History
Transnational Black Political Thought and Praxis since 1930
State Formation, Part 2: States, Empires, and Citizenship, 1860s–1960s

Sunday, 11:00 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.

Are We Teaching Political History?
Rooting Democracy in Religion: The Mid-20th-Century Protestant Revival in American Philosophy

If we’ve missed anything AHA-related that you think readers might appreciate, please add your thoughts in the comments! And if you’re attending the AHA and would like to write about the conference for the blog, please get in touch. We’d love to hear from you.

Solidarity, Fragmentation, & Welfare

by contributing editor Daniel London

The capacity to live with difference is, in my view, the coming question of the twenty-first century. – Stuart Hall

The problem of solidarity is shaping up to be the problem of the 21st century. – David Hollinger

Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. inaugurated the field of American urban history in 1940 with a sweeping declaration that most of what was most progressive about America originated in cities. This was a result, he believed, of the circumscribed conditions within cities which “forced attention to matters of common concern which could not be ignored even by a people individualistically inclined”. This forcing of attention, in turn, brought with it a “necessary concern with the general welfare” that “nourished a sense of social responsibility”, manifested in collective voluntary action and, ultimately, in the welfare state.

While this interpretation still finds its defenders 60 years later by some unreconstructed social democrats, more specialized scholars of the American welfare state have not echoed it, to put it lightly. Rather than the result of a bottom-up solidaristic consensus or pragmatically pluralist negotiations, the welfare state as described in the work of such luminaries as Michael Katz and Linda Gordon represents the triumph of particular and privileged social groups (white men, mostly), the operations of which were lodged in bureaucracies disconnected from the people they were meant to serve. There is no talk of ‘public good’ in these works, at least with a straight face; rather, the American welfare state is characterized by its uneven and private-sector oriented nature, and its cities permanently characterized by fragmentation and segregation.


Historian Thomas Bender

Both sets of interpretations, apparently irreconcilable, nonetheless rest on a similar set of over-drawn binaries between ‘public’ and ‘private’ as related to normative concepts (the public versus the private good), social groupings (civil society versus the state) and social provision (public sector versus the private sector). Here I would argue for a more open-ended, nuanced, and empirical research agenda as to the relations within and across these pairings, oriented around the concept of “public culture” articulated by Thomas Bender.

The welfare state was, for postwar social theorist and economist T.H. Marshall, the quintessential public good – an enrichment of the “universal status of citizenship” that both emerged from and ensured a “common culture and common experience” among the populace. Many urban historians sympathetic to this interpretation emphasize moments (and spaces) of communication and cooperation between social groups, tracking the rise of a progressive and redistributive Gemeinschaft that transcended, if not replaced, a more ethnos-oriented Gesellschaft.

Other historical works, however, argue that the idea of a “public good” was not only debilitating toward efforts at redistribution (usually via hegemonic interpretations), but that it overshadowed injustices oriented around what Nancy Fraser calls issues of recognition wherein gender and racial differences need to be stressed. Such battles over representation and multiculturalism, of course, are seen by social democrats as displacing attention from mal-distribution by failing to address its real causes, and undermining the solidarity that redistributive campaigns appear to require.

We need to move away from such zero-sum interpretations, and provide more historical accounts of how understandings of the public good were developed, articulated, and gained ideological and political purchase within and across different social groupings. To what extent do policies recognizing social differences (including those of class, race, and gender) inhibit trust, and empathy and cooperation between groups – and vice-versa? When, precisely, do languages and practices around solidarity – both in terms of cultural identifications and more abstract “interests” – weaken or strengthen the respective influence of different social institutions (civil society/state) and sectors (market/state) vis-à-vis one another?

T.H. Marshall also posited a unidirectional link between active “social responsibility” by citizens on the ground and the formations and operations of the Welfare State. Indeed, Marshall believed that at a certain point civil-society institutions such as unions would be unnecessary and distracting: it would be the State that ensured the common good free of any particularizing institutions. Conversely, Jürgen Habermas, believed that the welfare state actually destroyed the “public sphere” by making civil society seemingly unnecessary, thereby reducing citizens to State clients and eroding the zones of privacy – Nancy Fraser calls them “ ‘counter-publics’” – in which citizens can gain clearer and more participatory understanding of their interests.

More empirical work is needed investigating precisely when state organizations (and at what scale) are actually more open to inclusive and open participation than voluntary organizations. A more vexed problem, however, is examining degrees of overlap and connection between civil society organizations, communities, and state organizations. To what extent have diverse publics contributed to more general formation of public opinion on a scale sufficient to influence the state and other social institutions? How have transformations in the ownership and usage of communication – and the physical spaces where inter-group communication literally takes place – influenced their capacities to do so? How have ideas and policies around the ‘public value’ of redistribution and recognition been influenced by changing connections between, and degree of democracy within, these institutions? Finally, how have languages and practices around solidarity and conflict discussed earlier influenced participation within and across civil society and the state?

Finally, we must address the question of policies themselves. The entire point of Welfare, for Schlesinger and Marshall, was to ensure a certain equality of condition and opportunity for individuals that alternative mechanisms – the family, volunteer organizations, and especially the market – could not provide. America represents a “laggard” Welfare state, in the eyes of many historians, to the extent that these purportedly “private” institutions were responsible for sectors of social reproduction. Not only were such institutions insufficient in dealing with major economic crises, but they also discriminated on the basis of the recipients’ status or income in ways that universal, tax-financed policies (across class lines) do not. Other New Left and conservative critics argue that the State, by monopolizing social provision, erodes horizontal solidaristic ties within communities and civil society.

Recent scholarship into comparative welfare state formation, however, has overturned traditional understanding of the American State and welfare policy more generally. Most importantly for the purpose of this essay, they have demonstrated ‘public welfare’ activity always consists of a mixture of institutional players – many of them non-state – and policies at any given time. Under these conditions, how do individuals navigate changing configurations of welfare providers? How do differences in their funding structure (tax financed versus contributory), accessibility (means tested versus universal), and operation (via parochial organizations, civil-society, ‘community’ organizations, and so forth) both reflect and affect patterns of solidarity within and between groups?

51O7y451EUL.jpgAs should be clear from this résumé, any simple characterization of the welfare state as either the embodiment or antithesis of solidarity rests on shaky foundations. The easy, unidirectional link between the “public” good”, the “public” sector, and “public” policies – as ultimately manifesting in the universal welfare state – does not seem born out by the evidence. However, both adherents of this position and its die-hard critics tended to state their cases in overly binary terms. This is partly an understandable reaction to the neoliberal valorization of the private sector since the 1970s. I also believe it stems, however, from the fact that so many historians tend to locate their areas of inquiry outside the realm of policy formation – preventing us from seeing in greater detail the actual inputs and effects of welfare policies on ideas, practices, and institutions as relating to solidarity.

Toward this end, I propose a research program scaffolded around the transformation and consequences of welfare policies (with “welfare” interpreted loosely), but whose locus of inquiry is what Thomas Bender calls the  making of public culture. Public culture encompasses the sites and processes whereby social groups interact and contest for the power to define legitimate social meanings – in my own work, around the meanings of “public” and “private” – for the polity.   This is not consensus or pluralist history, insofar as it critically examines how and why some groups and identities are not represented in these contests. It is, however, unapologetically built around interaction. Not as a way of avoiding questions of power and domination, but of more fully understanding and interrogating it: in Julian Zelizer’s words “how it was structured and changed, where it was contested what its impact was, and what assumptions shaped the discourse that framed it.” To this end, highlighting brief moments of social democratic deliberations or inter-group interactions is not enough: our study must also encompass the translation of (some) of these meanings into actual policies, along with their effects. If this entails a closer examination of institutional formations and interactions that many cultural historians have become accustomed to, so much the better.

What does all of this, finally, have to do with the city? We cannot naively assume that urban areas are, either historically or theoretically, the most generative space for social politics. However, they remain unparalleled as a site for investigating and comparing interactions at their most complex, heterogeneous, and dense. And in our investigations, we will need to deploy the methodologies of intellectual history in order to fully understand the contexts and complexes around the meaning of those keywords – public, private, solidarity, fragmentation – that are all-too-often unreflexively deployed by well-meaning commentators and chroniclers alike.

Images of history

by John Raimo

As often as historians and art historians talk past one another, they also come together before common problems, questions, and sources. Both groups recognize the sheer power of images. Such a moment has reappeared in intellectual history. The recent one hundred and fiftieth celebrations of Aby Warburg’s birth underscored how widely Warburg’s terminology could stretch between art and cultural history. Historians such as Carlo Ginzburg and Patrick Boucheron take iconography as a starting point for deeper and deeper reconstructions of political and intellectual milieus. The work of art historians such as Georges Did-Huberman and Giovanni Careri follow similar patterns shuttling between contextual and formal considerations. Anthropologists too have not been far behind, finding in images the source for new methodologies across disciplines dealing with ideas both in and of history. And many museum curators do not shy away from presenting both ethical and historiographical challenges to the public in precisely this tenor, perhaps most spectacularly in the recent Conflict, Time, Photography exhibit at the Tate Modern.


Guerre 1939-1945. Occupation. Destruction de statues pour récupérer les métaux. La statue du marquis de Condorcet, homme politique français, par Jacques Perrin (1847-1915). Paris, 1941. JAH-REP-34-8

Four ongoing or recent exhibits in Paris also directly engage with the stakes that images—and specifically photography—hold for intellectual history today. Exhibitions dedicated to Seydou Keïta (1921-2001) at the Grand Palais, the photographers of France’s Front populaire (1936-1938) at the Hôtel de Ville, Lore Krüger (1914-2009) at the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme, and Josef Sudek (1896-1976) at the Jeu de Paume have this much in common: their images possess immediate documentary and historical charges, intervening histories challenge any recovery of the same, and the images themselves pose different meanings—political and otherwise—in our own time. How does one reconcile these knotty realities to one another, let alone relate them to questions of sheer aesthetic value, enduring or otherwise? Perhaps counter-intuitively, the question touches at once upon the artists themselves as much as upon each show’s respective curators. Together, they answer for the most part magnificently just how ideas and patterns of thinking flow into and out from photographs.


Seydou Keïta, Untitled (1956-1957)

Perhaps no exhibit succeeds so brilliantly as that dedicated to the Malinese photographer Keïta. Self-taught and a portraitist by trade in Bamako, Keïta carefully arranges various customers against complex cloth backdrops in plain-light settings. Several layers of history collide in what only first appear as beautiful, if straightforward portraits. Keïta’s private practice runs from 1948 to 1962, shortly after Mali achieves independence from the French colonial empire. His customers find themselves at a crossroads: both women and men dress in traditional clothing as often as in European or American fashions, often modeling themselves upon the figures of the latest films and popular magazines. A watch ostentatiously displayed, a certain hairstyle, new western clothing, or certain postures together subtly betray consciousness of new cultural models, economic statuses, and social change ranged against Keïta’s brilliantly-patterned backgrounds. Both the circumstances of the photography session and the material object—the photo itself, as the exhibit makes clear—are intended to circulate by word of mouth and hand to hand. Yet an alchemical change also occurs. Keïta’s subjects prove subjects in every sense of the term; their glances say as much, even as they slowly come to look out upon a new country.

At the same time, a personal iconography emerges across the œuvre. Keïta’s workshop feature props (pens, glasses, flowers, and so on) that appear regularly throughout the portraits. An iconographic vocabulary similarly developed in the photographer’s carefully-choreographed poses. An uneasy sort of modernity can be teased out in the tension between these hugely personable figures, their clothing and possessions, and those objects and gestures which both they and Keïta saw fit to add to the compositions.

The art proves doubly-reflexive, looking inwards to the person and to life in Bamako as much as outwards to a rapidly changing Africa and globalization. Keïta’s own touch emerges in the gap. He arranges women into odalisque reclinings, organizes groups of civil servants into full profile portraits, and captures others at their ease wearing traditional clothing. The hindsight of a retrospective allows us to see how closely Keïta simultaneously engages European art history, the stock imagery of popular culture, and a Malinese society in transition throughout his career. The complex of ideas here reveal the subject much as the same ideas flow from the same person, the photographer himself, and finally the image in its own right.

The Front populaire exhibition at the Hôtel de Ville attains a similar achievement, albeit on a different scale. The show follows upon a burst of renewed popular and academic interest in Léon Blum’s government and the period immediately preceding WWII. What emerges in the photos of such luminaries as Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Chim (David Seymour), Robert Doisneau, and Willy Ronis among other photojournalists is little less than a unified, if contested image of a society rapidly refiguring itself. Here technology proves the first hero. The portability of cameras, wide lens and higher resolution photography, and the ability to turn shots into next day’s paper gave birth to a new documentary language. Close-ups from within a crowd, odd angles, photos taken from rooftops hold their own with group portraits of politicians at ease in saloon lounges or mid-speech before thousands.

Fred Stein.jpg

Bastille Day demonstrations, Vincennes 1935 (©FredStein.com)

The great range or even discrepancy of Capa and company’s interests and work suggest a whole society falling at once under the same photographic lens, even as history jostles against advertisements and film stars in the daily papers. The photos appear on equal terms. Even publicity in the sense of public relations proves nascent, if not off balance. Airs of improvisation and the same-old business surround political figures like Blum and his contemporaries. Striking workers and public amusements achieve a glamour just as photographers accord the homeless and unemployed a new dignity. And slowly certain dramatic poses and compositions take on a new regularity across the exhibit. The vocabulary hardens and situations reprise themselves. New understandings of personal and sexual relationships, masculinity and femininity, and modernity itself track across the years. (One gentle criticism should be added here: it would have done well to have included far more female photographers.) What happens, as Michel Winock and others argue, is that French society comes to understand itself in images just as photographers came to learn their full historical potential—‘History’ with a capital ‘H.’

The German photographer Lore Krüger’s work confronts many of the same issues, if more obliquely. Her career and biography stagger the mind. Krüger studies photography with Florence Henri and other Bauhaus-trained photographers while attending lectures with László Rádványi in 1930s Paris, all the while absorbing the lessons of interwar avant-garde photographers (and living in the same house as Arthur Koestler and Walter Benjamin). An exile from Nazi Germany, Krüger passes through Majorca—witnessing Franco’s troops massacre Republican forces in 1936—and mainland Spain at the height of its Civil War before making her way to New York, where she and her husband work for the exile community’s German-language press. Giving up photography after the war, Krüger eventually returns to a quiet life as a translator and author in Eastern Germany before dying in 2009.


Lore Krüger, “Jeune Gitan, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer” (1936; © Estate of Lore Krüger)

The exhibits’ curators posthumously assemble what remained of Krüger’s photography. In their composition, lighting, and psychological reach, her work achieves a uniform excellence across still lives, landscapes, portraits of friends, and above all in her studies of interwar gypsies. The balance between all her influences is remarkable, not least as Krüger too follows in the wake of glossy magazines and photojournalism. Yet a dichotomy of sorts also arises. For every ‘political’ image or photograph taken on the street, Krüger veers to high avant-garde experimentation elsewhere. These activities both overlap and command longer periods in her work, persisting until the end of Krüger’s artistic career. Something new emerges at the same time: what might be called the private lives of an avant-garde and an artist in wartime apart from any political engagement. The exhibit’s repeated argument that Krüger’s œuvre forms a consistent whole here seems to miss a much more interesting set of questions. How do we reconstruct private intellectual life, the persistence of international movements once contacts have been severed, and the experience of artistic experimentation continued under the hardest conditions?


Josef Sudek, “The Last Rose” (1956, Musée des Beaux-arts du Canada, Ottawa. 2010 © Estate of Josef Sudek)

All the same issues confront any attempt to wrangle the great, protean Czech photographer Josef Sudek into a coherent retrospective. The portraitist, the architecture and the landscape photographer, the artist of still lives, and the commercial man all jostle against one another over a career spanning the complicated histories of interwar and then communist-era Czechoslovakia. To reduce Sudek’s photography to any political (or apolitical) stance or simpler historical context would be a mistake on the same order of privileging one genre above the others. Yet the Jeu de Paume’s curators attempt something like this. Moving backwards from the interior studies, they claim a certain artistic unity which in turn drives the late Sudek into a sort of inner exile. An impression grows of intervening notions organizing a narrative: the late Romantic artist gradually finds himself confined to a window by the history beyond it, something like an uncritical reprise of Günter Gaus’s old notion of East Germany as a ‘niche society.’ This is not to say that the merits of Sudek’s work do not shine through the exhibit, or that the curators entirely mute his own thinking. The problem is rather that later ideas and contexts—historical or otherwise—drown out the images. As confidently as Keïta’s or as loudly as the Front populaire journalists’ pictures speak to audiences today, others such as Krüger’s and Sudek’s talk to historians, art historians, and all of us in much quieter tones.

Exhibitions reviewed: “Seydou Keïta,” Grand Palais (31 March to 11 July, 2016); “Exposition 1936 : le Front populaire en photographie,” Hôtel de Ville de Paris (19 May to 23 July, 2016); “Lore Krüger : une photographe en exil, 1934-1944,” Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme (30 March to 17 July, 2016); Josef Sudek : Le monde à ma fenêtre,” Jeu de Paume (7 June to 25 September, 2016).

Fortune. Failure. Fetish. Fest. Aby Warburg’s glorious Nachleben

by guest contributor Dina Gusejnova


Aby Warburg (c. 1900)

Aby Warburg (1866-1929), the philosopher of culture, art historian and psychopathologist of modernity extraordinaire, famously described himself as an “Amburghese di cuore, ebreo di sangue, d’anima Fiorentino.” Having renounced the inheritance of his father’s bank, Warburg became known for his purpose-built library, devoted to the study of what he called the afterlife of antiquity (Das Nachleben der Antike). In 1921, two years after the founding of the Weimar Republic, it grew into a dedicated research institute based in Hamburg. Aby was anxious about the times he lived in, yet some grounds for optimism remained. A core member of his research community, Ernst Cassirer, had been appointed Rector of the University of Hamburg a year prior to his death: the first Jewish Rector in German history. Warburg, suffering a mental breakdown after the First World War, did not live to witness the near destruction of his Institute following its eventual expulsion from Germany to Britain after the Nazi rise to power, nor its resurrection in two locations, London and Hamburg, after the Second World War and the reunification of Germany, respectively.

Few would contest that it is the library in Bloomsbury where the aura of the founder most continues to be felt. The current chief archivist, Claudia Wedepohl, had the initial idea to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Warburg’s birth this July. Though Wedepohl kept a low profile throughout the event, the conference proved her own resounding success. An initial restricted list of free tickets were snapped up within days of the quiet announcement. To make the Warburg Fest happen, the organizers switched to one of the largest lecture halls in the University.

Work. Legacy. Promise

Photo courtesy of the author

As current Director of the Warburg Institute in London, David Freedberg, reminded attendees, however, paradoxically the fortune of the institute had never been less secure than now. It has recently come under great financial pressure from the University of London, and only survived after a 2014 court ruling in its favour. A recent major research project, operating under the enigmatic name of Bilderfahrzeuge (named after a concept Warburg has once used in a postcard), owes its existence not to British but to German taxpayers. It has recruited a majority of its postdoctoral scholars from German institutions. It is worth adding to this that the two Warburgian havens of culture exhibit some anachronisms. They do not appear to attract non-Europeans or non-North Americans. Besides, all but one of the Institute’s Directors have been men, with the only woman, Gertrud Bing, having served from 1954 to 1959. It was particularly puzzling that two distinguished women who have broken paths for Warburg-inspired scholarship, former Archivist Dorothea McEwan and Librarian Jill Kraye, did not speak at the conference.

It is obviously the idea of Warburg’s personality or, more precisely, his elusive fondness for humanism that resonates with some of our contemporaries as it had with his. Intellectuals in Weimar Germany praised his invigorating effect on modern society, particularly at a time, as one scholar put it, when “humanism in Germany is constantly in decline” (Eduard Fraenkel to Aby Warburg, 16 May 1925). Warburg’s case also inspired works on mental illness in cultural history itself. For the philosopher Ernst Cassirer and many others, Warburg’s library gave hope and meaning. Cassirer liked to put it in the words of William Shakespeare: “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact [….] / And, as imagination bodies forth / The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen / Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V, sc. 1).

It was not surprising that the celebration Work. Legacy. Promise also took material possession as one of its themes. Martin Warnke offered a particularly moving vignette in this connection, which highlighted the importance of material memory to the heirs of Warburg’s foundations. He chose to tell the biography of an object. Warburg’s paperweight, a snail, ended up in the possession of a Hamburg art historian, who then bequeathed it to the chief custodian of the Hamburg Kunsthalle Eckhard Schaar, who in turn had made provisions in his will that the snail was to become the rightful property of the Warburg Institute after his death. The snail never reached its destination, however, until one day Mr Schaar’s sister made a sudden appearance at Warnke’s door. She admitted that she had grown unusually attached to it since her childhood. Asked why she was returning it now, she replied that her brother had recently appeared in her dreams, scolding her for not fulfilling her obligations as the executor of his will. The snail’s return had prompted the question which of the two Warburg institutes, the Haus in Hamburg or the Institute in London, would be the rightful owner. In the end, they decided to make a copy. It is then that they realised that the snail which the sister had returned was in fact not made of brass, as Aby Warburg’s notes had described it, at all but of a cheaper alloy. The Hamburg team dutifully produced a brass copy, and Warnke personally used this celebration of Warburg’s birth to hand it over in front of the audience. Curiously, this copy matched Warburg’s own idea more closely than the purported original.

The snail handover

Photo courtesy of the author

So, what are we to make of Warburg’s act of cultural patronage in historical perspective? Horst Bredekamp suggested comparing it to Wilhelmine foundations such as the Bode Museum. Funded with capital sourced from the private banking sector, it emerged at a time when the German state was in severe crisis, but the memory of the public wealth of the Wilhelmine era was still vivid. Scholars of Jewish background were visibly represented there mainly because limitations in the career progression of academics were still in place throughout the Wilhelmine era. In the end, this theme – Warburg’s fraught relationship with his own Jewish identity – was strangely absent in the conference with the exception of Bredekamp’s brief treatment of the so-called “imperial Jews.”

Warburg himself encouraged thinking of his own work as an art historian and ethnographer as a process of “undemonizing the phobically imprinted inherited mass of impressions” [der Entdämonisierungsprozess der phobisch geprägten Eindruckserbmasse]. Did his madness precede Warburg’s method, or is it an occupational risk for anyone trying to think of visual culture both in terms of pedigree and in terms of synchronic association, as Claudia Wedepohl suggested? Was there an aesthetic purpose to Warburg’s assemblages, as George-Didi Huberman’s idea of a knowledge-montage might suggest? Or was Warburg’s way of thinking about lineages and pedigree Darwinian, as Sigrid Weigel insinuated? Like a snail’s path, the life of Warburg’s mind and its afterlives emerged in different ways at this conference.

“Sometimes it appears to me,” Aby Warburg wrote in his diary on April 3, 1929, “as if I, the psycho-historian, were trying to deduct the schizophrenia of the West from the imagery of autobiographical references” (Gombrich, Warburg, p. 302). On this occasion, the most stirring example of this intimate link between Warburg’s persona and the precariousness of our personal present came from W.J.T. Mitchell. Sharing his current work on insanity and visual culture, he sought to make sense of his own son Gabriel’s suicide by placing his project in a comparative perspective with the history of Warburg’s mental life-world.

As Freedberg made clear, the boundary between Enlightenment encyclopaedism and what he called Warburg’s “genealogical” approach, “pathetic in its reliance on reproduction and multiplication,” has always been porous. This critical remark would have felt almost dismissive were it not for the double entendre, which was impossible to miss for those familiar with Warburg’s work. For those doubting Warburg’s powers of logos, he remains a beacon of insight with his pathos. Warburg was not the first to signal the role of the emotions as a factor in the form and transmission of ideas, and in fact had been inspired in this by Darwin as well as his contemporary Richard Semon. His term Pathosformel captures his belief that emotions, like languages, can be captured and transmitted in the form of an engram, gesture, or symbol, and thus become the objects of study. Some papers used Warburgian formulae with a pathos that came close to magical incantations, speaking of Seelenraumbekenner, Engramme höchster Ergriffenheit, Wunschräume and Denkzwischenräume.

As Carlo Ginzburg suggested in advancing his own intellectual genealogy of Warburg’s Pathosformeln, Warburg’s method could be equally seen as a forensic approach to cultural genealogy. By extension, the task in tracing the fortune of an idea is not merely antiquarian but also moral in the way in which aesthetic practice had always been deeply embedded in theories of moral sensibility, if we only think of Burke, Kant, and, in Ginzburg’s case, Pseudo-Longinus. For some art historians, tuning our eye to the veins of the marble from which ancient sculptures were made as if they were indeed the blood vessels of a living being (Frank Fehrenbach) becomes a Warburgian practice. It makes the analysis of form a matter subservient to the understanding of the emotions.

Yet, just as the copied snail turns out to be a more authentic piece than the purported inherited original, some of the less eulogistic papers were in fact far more self-evidently Warburgian. Robert Darnton did not speak about Warburg but returned to an old question: What books did the French read on the eve of the French revolution? He applied Occam’s razor to formulate a more manageable question, namely, what books did the French buy before the French revolution? This allowed him to “use maps to highlight diachronic processes” (Claudia Wedepohl’s phrase), a feature of the Mnemosyne atlas, by tracking the paths of Swiss booksellers. This produced a literary Tour de France which could perhaps have linked back to his own studies of the visual. In the end, however, a fortune history of books and their sellers might not satisfy those seeking to know the fortune histories of ideas.

Contradicting Lorraine Daston’s curious observation that the humanities do not tend to think about the epistemological value of case studies—though without saying as much—Quentin Skinner performed an act of iconographic hermeneutics with his usual rhetorical finesse. In picking up on previous work by Horst Bredekamp on the frontispiece of Hobbes’s Leviathan and his own work on this subject, he effectively articulated a question which had been missing from a room full of answers: Why engage in studies of the Afterlife of Antiquity at all?


Frontispiece of Leviathan by Abraham Bosse, with input from Hobbes (1651)

The answer emerged from his performance of thinking. Without the knowledge of this transmission, we may not be able to discern the meaning of past communications at all, be they textual or visual. (At least not those communications which had themselves been produced by highly erudite authors.) When it comes to the place of Hobbes’s Leviathan in the genealogy of the idea of sovereignty, nobody has developed a more rigorous way of assessing the place of the frontispiece in the architecture of Hobbes’s argument than Skinner himself. His charted path – a genealogy of visual persuasion — leads to the biography of the artist who designed the frontispiece (something which Horst Bredekamp had provided before), as well as to the portraiture of sovereignty itself. Panofsky, Warburg’s mentee, can help with the formal side of this analysis, highlighting the frontispiece’s merging of two opposing traditions of representing power: the triangle of the Trinity (the power of God), and the triangle emerging from tracing the sovereign’s sword and the crozier upwards (to represent the power of the mortal God, or Leviathan). But something more than this is needed

in order to answer the old question which has haunted Hobbes scholars, namely, whether the Mortal Man in the Leviathan was a likeness of Charles I or of his de facto murderer, Oliver Cromwell. Iconology, it turns out, is not the only path to persuasion. Skinner concluded his own hypothesis – that the man is the state itself — with an affective gesture towards a detail so self-evident that it is almost invisible: “Look at that moustache! Look at that hair!” The hair of that mortal man looked remarkably like the phenotype of all the other rulers drawn by Abraham Boss’s pen for his previous patrons. It felt as though a Warburgian Mnemosyne had lifted a veil of confusion through the language of common sense.

Perhaps it is this persistent yearning for a world in which a tiny, ‘pathetic’ detail can suddenly reveal more significant meanings, which might explain Warburg’s persistent appeal to scholars today. To adopt the phrase of an older contemporary of Aby Warburg’s, being determines Nachleben. In the end, who needs a Schrift when you can have a Fest?

Note that video of the full conference proceedings of Aby Warburg 150. Work. Legacy. Promise at the Warburg Institute, London, has been posted online.

Dina Gusejnova is a Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. After a PhD in History from the University of Cambridge, she held a Harper-Schmidt fellowship at the University of Chicago and a Leverhulme fellowship at UCL’s Centre for Transnational History. Her interests range from the intellectual history of Weimar Germany to twentieth-century European political thought and the cultural and intellectual history of statelessness. She has just published European Elites and Ideas of Empire, 1917-57 (Cambridge University Pressavailable here with open access), in which she explores the lifeworld of fading empires.