Think Piece

Nomadic Thought and the Creation of New Utopias

By Anne Schult

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, in many ways the most well-known proponents of conceptual nomadism, took the nascent idea of the ahistorical nomadic and its complex relationship to the state one step further. Their ideas on nomads were first tentatively formulated in L’Anti-Oedipe (1972), which introduced the technology-infused universe of machines, codes, and flows that fueled their shared narrative of state critique.  Here, the nomadic appeared linked up with the schizophrenic as a resistance in form to capitalist modernity, suggesting the same connection between nomadism and anti-psychiatry that Duvignaud alluded to around the same time. Yet, in their follow-up volume Mille Plateaux (1980), the nomadic began to take shape as a concept more fully and was presented as a comprehensive anti-statist, anti-structuralist “Traité de Nomadologie” that has subsequently taken on a life of its own.

To start with, Deleuze and Guattari made a clear distinction between nomadism as a concept rooted in historical nomads and their suggested nomadology as a distinct study of the nomadic as characteristic. The latter, they posited, was recognizable as a state of “becoming, heterogeneity, infinitesimal, passage to the limit, continuous variation” (363), which in social organization presented itself as a rhizome structure instead of being centralized around a power core. Previous writers, they wrote, might have recognized the nomad, as told in and by state history, but not the defining features of the nomadic. Collapsing the pre-modern and the post-modern into a timeless vortex, nomadic societies in their account could not become extinct or be superseded by the state because the two forms no longer stood in a sequential relationship to one another. “It is true that the nomads have no history,” Deleuze and Guattari thus asserted, “they only have a geography” (393).

Mille Plateaux (1980)

Paradoxically, what emerged from this purely spatial relationship between state and nomad was a very particular vision of the future that was thus not so much about life after the capitalist state, but life with and beyond it. Notably, it no longer required the figurative nomad, as Deleuze and Guattari insisted specifically that it had no embodiment, such as in the form of postcolonial subjects or migrant, in the present. Rather, nomadology was to be understood as a rigorously practical anti-structuralism that could arise both from without and within the state.  After all, they pointed out, nomadic features were detectable in nearly every aspect of contemporary society: music, architecture, games, technology, mathematics, science. The idea of “nomad thought” in Mille Plateaux thus formed a sub-commentary on the authors’ own endeavor of text-as-practice.

The premise of this “nomad thought” was that in order to truly resist the state, one did not only have to do so in social organization, but actually think against and outside of state forms. The first difficulty, according to Deleuze and Guattari, was to recognize the nomadic beyond its opposition to the state, as the contemporary way of thinking has been conditioned by the state apparatus, creating an interiority of binaries. Seeking examples, Deleuze and Guattari dove into the history of Western thought and declared Hegel and Goethe to be “state thinkers” (356)— following the intrinsic rules on a limited intellectual territory controlled by the state—while applauding their nomadic counterparts Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. The latter, they wrote, categorically rejected universality and instead deployed their thought “in a horizonless milieu that is a smooth space, steppe, desert, or sea” (382) as a particular milieu, thus acting as vectors of deterritorialization and posing questions and problems that were always local and particular.

Although it had its echo within and beyond French theory, Deleuze’s and Guattari’s “Traité de Nomadologie” marked both the peak and the beginning of decline of a more critical concept of nomadism. Much of contemporary scholarship has put forth the argument that theories around nomads—in particular those proposed by Deleuze and Guattari—mark just another form of neo-primitivism and remain ignorant of actual nomadic populations, such as the Romani, in the French or broader European context.  Indeed, towards the end of the Cold War, the concept became increasingly streamlined, globalized, commodified, and institutionalized. As a result, the nomad encountered in Western popular culture today is typically taken to be a rootless post-industrial subject eluding the bureaucracy of the state apparatus by way of digital technology but existing entirely within the logic of capitalism and consumer culture.  Perhaps the changing political climate proved problematic: In its insistence to be divorced from migrant bodies, nomadism appeared to have little to offer for understanding the growing “immigrant problem” that emerged in the French electoral politics of the 1980s. Similarly, the idea of a “deterritorialized” world was uncomfortably mirrored in the process of globalization, which became a prime concern in both politics and theory during the 1990s. But for a brief moment, in the post-1968 era, nomadology offered a glimpse of one possible landscape of future France.


This piece marks the third and last installment in a three-part series on nomads and the nomadic in 1970s French thought. The first part explored anthropologist Pierre Clastres’s projection of nomads as an alternative, more egalitarian society within prehistory that has been lost due the rise of the capitalist state. The second part focused on the short-lived interdisciplinary journal and collective Cause Commune and its attempts to resituate the nomadic as a subversive tactic for the present. This final post will take a step further by exploring the development of nomadism into a broader, more abstract antistatist concept in 1980s French philosophy.

Anne Schult is a PhD student in the History Department at New York University. Her current research focuses on the intersection of migration, law, and demography in 20th-century Europe.

Featured Image: Nomad Chariot, Entirely of Wood, Altai, Fifth to Fourth Centuries B.C. Illustration taken from Mille Plateaux (1980).

Intellectual history

How do we understand each other? The Contemporary Relevance of Cassirer’s and Heidegger’s Historic Disputation at Davos

By contributing editor Andrew Hines

How do human beings understand each other? This question has both a linguistic and a political dimension. Last month, as world leaders gathered at the Swiss town of Davos for the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, key faces were absent. Both Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron sent their excuses.It is a dark, but increasingly common irony that a geopolitical event designed to promote collaborative problem solving is disrupted by a dramatic lack of understanding in the domestic politics of major western nations.

This lack of political understanding seems to be about the clash of viewpoints or worldviews. A clash, for example, like the wildly different views on a Mexican border wall that fuelled the US government shutdown and kept Trump from his Davos visit. The question of understanding, in this political sense, seems to be fundamentally different from the question of understanding in a linguistic sense. In linguistics, we often think of understanding in terms of semantics, or how we convey meaning to each other through language (viii). While there is a clear difference between conveying meaning with words and disagreeing with someone, so much political rhetoric of the moment is continually framed as ‘subjective’ and ‘irrational’. This appeal to subjectivity and rationality suggests more basic issues typically associated with semantics. As it is increasingly associated with contemporary political rhetoric, a re-assessment of the link between political and linguistic understanding is needed.

Often associated with sociolinguistics or perhaps critical theory, the idea of a basic connection between language and politics has a particularly poignant moment in the history of ideas. Almost ninety years ago in March 1929, another event designed to promote international collaboration was held in Davos, Switzerland, the second annual meeting of the Internationale Davoser Hochschulkurse (International Davos Conference). Attended by influential twentieth century academics such as Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice de Gandillac, Joachim Ritter and Rudolf Carnap, it is perhaps most famous for its debate between Ernst Cassirer and Martin Heidegger on the question “what is the human being?” The debate is at times portrayed as a titanic clash of worldviews or as an epochal shift. As one of Heidegger’s students said of Davos, ‘from here and now a new epoch of world-history begins’ (2).

Ernst Cassirer (left) and Martin Heidegger (right) in March 1929 at the second annual meeting of the Internationale Davoser Hochschulkurse (International Davos Conference)

To understand this ‘epochal shift’, the debate is often framed by the conceptual presuppositions with which Cassirer and Heidegger begin their philosophical questioning. Heidegger asserts that his philosophy is concerned with the terminus a quo(from where) of a philosophical question, and that Cassirer’s is concerned with the terminus ad quem (to where) of a philosophical question (202 – 203). This characterisation has stuck. Many commentators, including Peter Gordon in his intellectual history of Davos, have used this framing, and while more nuanced than a simple binary opposition, Cassirer’s and Heidegger’s position have come to be associated with objectivity and subjectivity respectively. While very helpful in understanding much of the debate, there is an often-overlooked section in Cassirer’s closing reply that frames his theme in a different manner. Here, Cassirer marvels that, despite the fact that each of us speak in our own subjective language, we still manage to negotiate a common linguistic understanding through language (205). It is here that an implicit link between linguistic and political understanding emerges.

In keeping broadly within the theme, “what is the human being”, a question arose in the debate relating to human finitude. Cassirer and Heidegger clashed over how the human imagination, which aids cognition in concept generation, was related to finitude. Here the traditional division of objectivity and subjectivity is useful. In keeping with the key thesis of his magnum opus, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (1923), Cassirer asserted there must be some objective symbolic forms, like language, art, and myth that functioned as ‘synthesising activities of human reason’ (319). Heidegger rejected the idea that something like language, art or myth could be objective and instead, asserted that all the concepts we produce with our human activities are radically conditioned by our finitude (197). In keeping with the thesis of Being and Time (1929), Heidegger asserted that any attempt at objective description misses the real question, which, for Heidegger, is the conditions of our finite existence that allow for such a question in the first place. As the reader may know, for Heidegger, this was the question of Being (31). Cassirer agreed that Being was the fundamental question of metaphysics, but in his final reply to Heidegger, he wondered how it is that, despite, our radically subjective, finite experience, we still manage to communicate. In response to Heidegger Cassirer says,

each of us speaks his own language, and it is unthinkable that the language of one of us is carried over into the language of the other. And yet, we understand ourselves through the medium of language. Hence there is something like thelanguage. And hence there is something like a unity which is higher than the infinitude of the various ways of speaking. Therein lies what is for me the decisive point. And it is for that reason that I start from the Objectivity of the symbolic form, because here the inconceivable has been done (205).

While it is obvious that Cassirer’s response is framed, first by the objective, terminus ad quem (to where) of a philosophical question, there is a second framing in this response that is overlooked.

The question implicit in Cassirer’s reply is “how do we understand each other?” This second framing wonders at the inconceivable fact that we understand each other despite it being unthinkable that we could overcome our subjective experiences of finitude. Looking at the ‘inconceivable’ fact of communication between radically subjective languages, puts linguistic understanding on a political footing.

In the year before he died, while living in exile in the United States, Cassirer continued work on this question in An Essay on Man (1944). In it, Cassirer radically interprets lines 368c -369b of Plato’s Republic. Here, Socrates and his interlocutors are attempting to understand the nature of justice. In the end, they decide that, to understand justice in the individual, it needs to be understood on the level of a just republic. Cassirer reads Plato as suggesting that “philosophy cannot give us a satisfactory theory of man until it has developed a theory of the state” (63). For Cassirer, this also connected linguistic understanding and political understanding. From an anthropological perspective, before human beings had discovered the state as a form of social organisation, language was one of the key attempts to organise feelings, desires, and thoughts on a communal level. Therefore, for Cassirer, the historical evolution of language is closely connected with the development of the state (64). Here in this late essay, whether intentional or not, Cassirer is echoing his implicit question from Davos.

Whether we agree with Cassirer’s characterisation of historical evolution or his appeal to objectivity, his awareness of the social and political aspects that shape linguistic meaning are a reminder that neither a subjective finite experience of language nor an objective unifying symbolic form of ‘The Language’ accounts for the muddle that is understanding each other. Today, this is relevant because we often feel a common understanding is under threat and have a tendency to frame the crisis as a battle between a quasi-objective rational debate and subjective popular rage. However, I fear it is unhelpful to demonise populist rhetoric as purely subjective and irrational. It is certainly worrying but it is still communication however much we may object to it. The liberal academic may not ‘understand’ populist rage in the political sense, but he or she certainly does linguistically. How else would such umbrage be taken to the content of that rhetoric? Therefore, the 1929 Davos disputation poses several timely questions for us.

Philosophically and politically, it suggests a need to revisit an interlinking of a theory of language with a theory of the state. Linguistically, it prompts us to ask, just what does it mean when communication doesn’t seem to work, and understanding is a struggle to achieve. Part of what is so inconceivable about language is the fact that understanding is accomplished even when we don’t follow the rules and seem bound by our own radically subjective languages. Perhaps this is the political and linguistic mystery we must turn to in this time of crisis. What does it mean to understand ourselves, and the state, when the rules we thought we knew, don’t quite tell the whole story. The way that Cassirer frames the question is so brilliant because it allows for multiple answers and continual re-evaluations. Cassirer’s answer may have been objectivity, but at Davos, we see a glimpse of the mysterious fact that understanding persists despite our radically subjective experiences and use of language.

Think Piece

“Every Man is a Quotation from all his Ancestors:” Ralph Waldo Emerson as a Philosopher of Virtue Ethics

By guest contributor Christopher Porzenheim

Even the smallest display of virtuous conduct immediately inspires us. Simultaneously we: admire the deed, desire to imitate it, and seek to emulate the character of the doer. […] Excellence is a practical stimulus. As soon as it is seen it inspires impulses to reform our character. -Plutarch. [Life of Pericles. 2.2. Trans. Christopher Porzenheim.]

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson has been characterized as a transcendentalist, a protopragmatist, a process philosopher, a philosopher of power, and a even moral perfectionist.” While Emerson was all of these, I argue he is best understood as a philosopher of social reform and virtue ethics, who combined Ancient Greco-Roman, Indian, and Classical Chinese traditions of social reform and virtue ethics into a form he saw as appropriate for nineteenth-century America.

Reform, of self and society, was the central concern of Emerson’s philosophy. Emerson saw that we as humans are by nature reformers, who should strive to mimic the natural and spontaneous processes of nature in our reform efforts. As he put in one of his earliest published essays, Man the Reformer (1841):

What is a man born for but to be a Reformer, a Remaker of what man has made; a renouncer of lies; a restorer of truth and good, imitating that great Nature which embosoms us all[?]

Reforming oneself, with models of moral and religious heroes from the past, and through one’s own example, others, and eventually society itself, was the idea at the center of Emerson’s philosophy. He would often echo the virtue ethicist Confucius’s (551–479 BCE) advice that “When you see someone who is worthy, concentrate on becoming their equal; when you see someone who is unworthy, use this as an opportunity to look within yourself [for similar vices].” [A.4.17.]

For example, in the essay History (1844), Emerson wrote that “there is properly no history; only biography” and argued that this “biography” exists to reveal the virtues and vices of exceptional individuals character:

So all that is said of the wise man by Stoic, or oriental or modern essayist, describes to each reader his own idea, describes his unattained but attainable self. All literature writes the character of the wise man. […]  A true aspirant, therefore, never needs look for allusions personal and laudatory in discourse. He hears the commendation, not of himself, but more sweet, of that character he seeks, in every word that is said concerning character[.]

For Emerson, the task, of all literature and history, was offering people enjoyable and memorable examples of virtue and vice for them to pattern their own character, relationships, and life by. “The student is to read history, actively and not passively; to esteem his own life the text, and books the commentary.” History is a biography of our own potential character.

The logical result of these beliefs, was Emerson’s later work, Representative Men (1850) a collection of essays which provided biographies of “wise men,” “geniuses” and “reformers” each illustrating certain virtues and vices for his readers to learn from.

Plato for example, represented to Emerson the virtues and vices of a character shaped by philosophy, Swedenborg a mystic, Montaigne a skeptic, Shakespeare a poet, Napoleon a man of the world, and finally Goethe, a writer.

Representative Men was in part a direct response to the work of Emerson’s friend Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes and Hero Worship & The Heroic in History (1841). But both men’s works shared a common ancestor well known to their contemporaries, Plutarch’s Parallel Lives.

A bust of Plutarch in his hometown of Chaeronea, Greece

Plutarch (46-120 CE), a Greco-Roman biographer, essayist and virtue ethicist, who was deeply influenced by Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic and Epicurean philosophy, wrote a collection of biographies (now usually called The Lives) and a collection of essays (The Morals) which would both serve as a models for Emerson’s work.

Plutarch’s Lives come down to us as a collection of 50 surviving biographies. Typically in each, the fate and character of one exceptional Greek individual, is compared with those of one exceptional Roman individual. In doing so, as Hugh Liebert argues, Plutarch was showing Greek and Roman citizens how they could play a role in shaping first themselves, and, through their own example, the Roman world. In an era that perceived itself as modern, chaotic, and adrift from the past; Plutarch showed his readers how they could become like the heroes of the past by imitating their virtuous patterns of conduct.

Plutarch’s Lives provoke moral questioning about character without moralizing. They give us a shared set of stories, some might say myths, by which we can measure ourselves and each other other. They show in memorable stories and anecdotes what is (and is not) worth admiring; virtues and vices.

We might, for example, admire Alexander the Great’s superhuman courage. But, what of the time he “resolved” a conflict between his best friends by swearing to kill the one that started their next disagreement? Or, even worse, what of when he executed Parmenion, one of his oldest friends? The Lives are not hagiographies.

Instead, they are mirrors for moral self-cultivation. For Plutarch, the “mirror” of history delights and instructs. It reflects the good and bad parts of ourselves in the heroes and villains of the past. The Lives are designed as tools to help reform our character. They help us see who we are and could become because they portray the faces of virtue and vice, as Plutarch put it at the start of his biography of Alexander the Great:

I do not aim to write narratives of events, but biographies. For rarely do a person’s most famous exploits reveal clear examples of their virtue and vice. Character is less visible in: the fights with countless corpses, the greatest military tactics, and the consequential sieges of cities. More often a person’s character shows itself in the small things: the way they casually speak to others, play games, and amuse themselves.

I leave to other historians the grand exploits and struggles of each of my subjects – just as a painter of portraits leaves out the details on every part of his subject’s body. Their work focuses upon the face. In particular, the expression of the eyes. Since this is where character is most visible. In the same way my biographies, like portraits, aim to illuminate the signs of the soul. (Life of Alexander. 1.2-1.3. Trans. Christopher Porzenheim)

Eighteenth-century European depiction of Confucius

Emerson was in firm agreement with Plutarch about the relationship between our everyday conduct, virtue and character. In Self Reliance (1841), he wrote that “Character teaches above our wills. Men imagine that they communicate their virtue or vice only by overt actions, and do not see that virtue or vice emit a breath every moment.” This idea is axiomatic for Emerson. Hence why, in his essay Spiritual Laws (1841), he quotes Confucius’ claim: “Look at the means a man employs, observe the basis from which he acts, and discover where it is that he feels at ease. Where can he [his character] hide? Where can he [his character] hide?” [A.2.10] For Plutarch and Emerson, our character is revealed in the embodied way we act every moment; in the way we relate to others – in our spontaneous manners, etiquette, or lack thereof.

As Emersons approval of Confucius suggests, Plutarch’s Lives, and Greco-Roman philosophy in general was merely one great influence on Emerson ideals of self and societal reform.  It is to these other influences, from Confucian philosophy in particular, that we will turn in a subsequent post, in order to clarify Emerson’s philosophy of virtue ethics and social reform.

Christopher Porzenheim is a writer. He is currently interested in the legacy of Greco-Roman and Classical Chinese philosophy, in particular the figures of Socrates and Confucius as models for personal emulation. He completed his B.A. at Hampshire College studying “Gilgamesh & Aristotle: Friendship in the Epic and Philosophical Traditions.” When in doubt he usually opens up a copy of the Analects or the Meditations for guidance. See more of his work here.

Think Piece


By guest contributor Trish Ross

For the full companion article, see this Winter’s edition of the Journal of the History of Ideas.

“Human nature is the only science of man; and yet has been hitherto the most neglected.” Thus David Hume simultaneously lamented the past and hailed a bright future for the sciences humaines in the eighteenth century. Historians have, by and large, assumed the narrative eighteenth-century thinkers like Hume devised, tracing the development of the social sciences, and in particular, anthropology, to the Enlightenment and colonialism. (Popular pastiches like Steven Pinker’s purvey a whiggish knockoff of this narrative with little concern for precision and care.) But had the study of human nature really been neglected? If the study human nature was not ignored before the eighteenth century, and if it is the foundation of the human sciences, how might that change our historical narrative about the goals and the development of disciplines familiar to us?

Contrary to Hume’s claim, dozens of learned early modern humanists, physicians, theologians, and philosophers of all religious confessions produced a series of texts that show them laboring to study and understand what Hume charged past thinkers with disregarding: human nature. They often spoke explicitly of their topic as “natura humana.” Operating across what we retrospectively classify as distinct scientific, social scientific, and humanistic disciplines, they integrated empirical research and experimentation with intricate natural philosophy and complicated theologies in a wide-ranging attempt to understand human bodies and souls. Focusing on one of the names they gave their study is as revealing as the undertaking itself. They termed it “anthropologia.”

Magnus Hundt, Anthropologium (1501).

Long before the development of the eighteenth-century human sciences and before anthropology became a modern academic discipline, over thirty books appeared in Europe between 1500-1700 that include the word anthropologia in their titles, starting with the earliest so far identified: Magnus Hundt’s Anthropology, on the Dignity, Nature and Powers of a Human Being [and] the Elements, Parts, and Members of the Human Body (1501). Studying these texts and what their early modern authors meant by the term anthropologia requires suspending impulses anachronistically to read our own disciplinary divisions into the past. Yet doing so offers insight into the ways in which sixteenth- and seventeenth-century religious and philosophical debates intersected with scientific developments and, as time went on, with reports about new lands and peoples from beyond Europe to encourage the development of what would become the modern human sciences.

At first glance, the content of these works bears little resemblance to anthropology as we think of it. Sixteenth-century texts with the term covered everything from detailed anatomies to discussions of the soul inspired by the long tradition of commenting on Aristotle’s De anima to a humanist dialogue about gender to descriptions of the history and customs of peoples. Around the beginning of the seventeenth century, the term started to be used primarily to describe studies of the body (anatomy and physiognomy) and the soul (philosophical and theological anthropology). The German physician Johannes Magirus’s Anthropologia (1603), a fulsome commentary on the more famous Philip Melanchthon’s works on natural philosophy and the soul, was a turning point. After Magirus’s book appeared, anthropologia texts by philosophers, physicians, and theologians came off the presses in greater numbers. Thereafter anthropologia, as a multi-faceted study addressing the physical, religious, and moral aspects of human nature, provided grounds from which eighteenth-century (and later) human sciences developed.

James Drake, Anthropologia Nova (1707).

Anthropologia and its vernacular variants continued to be used in this way to denote the study of anatomy and the soul up to and even through the eighteenth century, such as in James Drake’s Anthropologia nova (1707). Out of this usage grew eighteenth-century French “anthropological medicine,” described by Stephen Gaukroger and Elizabeth Williams, with its focus on the body-soul nexus and its concern with moral questions and human nature.

Moreover, anthropologia developed out of and fortified a tendency to understand human bodies as disclosing moral or theological truths, as well as out of post-Reformation debates about the extent of sin’s effects on human souls and bodies. Some took this to what seem to us perhaps amusing extremes, such as the Lutheran theologian Christoph Irenaeus, who argued that sin is the reason defecation smells. In its study of bodies and souls with a view to understanding what they revealed about human nature, anthropologia was related to the flourishing early modern practice of physiognomy, widely tied by scholars to early theories of race and and social order. This search for truths about human nature, stripped of their inherited natural philosophical and theological roots, in turn encouraged the development of anthropology.

Kant, Anthropologie in pragmatischer Hinsicht (1799)

Early modern “anthropologists” used this interest in the truths discernible from body and soul to ground arguments about natural law, and theories about the proper order of the world and differences between types of people on the study of bodies and souls. In this way, their longstanding interest in and study of human nature and souls eventually was combined with debates about the capacities of peoples encountered in the Americas and Asia, speculation about whether and how these people and Europeans descended from common ancestors, and widely popular travel literature to inform influential arguments about human nature and diversity as well as the first attempts to theorize race. This is the heart of the connection between anthropologia, natural law, and ethnography that developed among German intellectuals, leading up to Kant’s important lectures on anthropology. By 1808, the Englishman Thomas Jarrold utilized the term for a book on racial differentiation entitled, Anthropologia: or Dissertations on the Form and Colour of Man.

Notwithstanding Hume’s proud boast about founding the study of human nature, eighteenth-century studies of it grew out of a tradition of thought about it, summed up in words sometimes strikingly familiar to us today.  Intra-disciplinary divides between histories of the Enlightenment and nineteenth-century science on the one hand, and early modern natural philosophy, medicine, and religion on the other have hitherto obscured the way in which earlier studies bearing the name “anthropologia” evolved into later ones. Taking this early modern study seriously in (literally) its own terms highlights how questions raised by physicians, natural philosophers, and theologians in recondite and seemingly repetitive Latin treatises and disputations gave rise to a discipline that is more familiar to us in range and content. Though not coterminous with the later sciences humaines, recovering this earlier effort by sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European scholars to understand human nature by drawing on religious and scientific thought can deepen our understanding of what shaped the development of the human sciences, including what their eighteenth-century successors rejected from the past and what they quietly retained. Anthropologia reveals how disciplines we use to study ourselves developed from an all-but-forgotten natural philosophical and religious discourse that was slowly secularized in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Trish Ross is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland, Australia.

Intellectual history

JHI 79:1 Available

The latest issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas, volume 9 number 1, is now available in print, and online at Project Muse. The table of contents is as follows:


Tricia M. Ross, “Anthropologia: An (Almost) Forgotten Early Modern History,” 1–22

Albert Gootjes, “The First Orchestrated Attack on Spinoza: Johannes Melchioris and the Cartesian Network in Utrecht,” 23–43

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins and Kevin Brookes, “The Many Liberalisms of Serge Audier,” 45–63

Elías Palti, “Revising History: Introduction to the Symposium on the Bicentennial of the Latin American Revolutions of Independence,” 65–71

Jeremy Adelman, “Empires, Nations, and Revolutions,” 73–88

Francisco A. Ortega, “The Conceptual History of Independence and the Colonial Question in Spanish America,” 89–103

Gabriel Entin, “Catholic Republicanism: The Creation of the Spanish American Republics during Revolution,” 105–23

Elías Palti, “Beyond the ‘History of Ideas’: The Issue of the ‘Ideological Origins of the Revolutions of Independence’ Revisited,” 125–41

Federica Morelli, “Race, Wars, and Citizenship: Free People of Color in the Spanish American Independence,” 143–56

João Paulo Pimenta, “History of Concepts and the Historiography of the Independence of Brazil: A Preliminary Diagnosis,” 157–68

Journal authors are always encouraged to submit a blog post about their article—or anything else—to JHIBlog. And if you’re a reader of JHIBlog, why not consider subscribing to the Journal? Subscription information is available at the Penn Press website, including information about special rates for students.

Think Piece

A Book of Battle: Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo and La ciencia española

By Editor Spencer J. Weinreich

Statue of Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo at the Biblioteca Nacional de España

Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo’s La ciencia española (first ed. 1876) is a battlefield long after the guns have fallen silent: the soldiers dead, the armies disbanded, even the names of the belligerent nations changed beyond recognition. All the mess has been cleared up. Like his contemporaries Leopold von Ranke, Arnold Toynbee, or Jacob Burckhardt, Menéndez Pelayo has been enshrined as one of the nineteenth-century tutelary deities of intellectual history. Seemingly incapable of writing except at great length and in torrential cascades of erudition, his oeuvre lends itself to reverence—and frightens off most readers. And while reverence is hardly undeserved, we do a disservice to La ciencia española and its author if we leave the marmoreal exterior undisturbed. The challenge for the modern reader is to recover the passions—intellectual, political, and personal—animating what Menéndez Pelayo himself called “a book of battle [un libro de batalla]” (2:268).

Gumersindo de Azcárate

La ciencia española is a multifarious collection of articles, reviews, speeches, and letters that takes its name from its linchpin, a feisty exchange over the history of Spanish learning (la ciencia española). The casus belli came from an 1876 article by the distinguished philosopher and jurist Gumersindo de Azcárate, who argued that early modern Spain had been intellectually stunted by the Catholic Church. Menéndez Pelayo responded with an essay vociferously defending the honor of Spanish learning, exonerating the Church, and decrying the neglect of early modern Spanish intellectual history. Azcárate never replied, but his colleagues  Manuel de la Revilla, Nicolás Salméron, and José del Perojo took up his cause, trading articles with Menéndez Pelayo in which they debated these and related issues—was there such a thing as “Spanish philosophy”?—in excruciating detail.

The exchange showcases the driving concerns of Menéndez Pelayo’s scholarly career: the greatness of the Spanish intellectual tradition, critical bibliography, Catholicism as the national genius of Spain, and an almost-frightening sense of how much these issues matter. This last is the least accessible element of La ciencia española: the height of its stakes. Why should Spain’s very identity rest upon abstruse questions of intellectual history? How did a group of academics merit the label “the eternal enemies of religion and the patria [los perpetuos enemigos de la Religión y de la patria]” (1:368)?

Here we must understand that La ciencia española is but one rather pitched battle in a broader war. Nineteenth-century Spain was in the throes of an identity crisis, the so-called “problem of Spain.” In the wake of the loss of a worldwide empire, serial revolutions and civil wars, a brief flirtation with a republic, endemic corruption, and economic stagnation, where was Spain’s salvation to be found—in the past or in the future? With the Church or with the Enlightenment? By looking inward or looking outward?

Karl Christian Friedrich Krause

Menéndez Pelayo was a self-declared neocatólico, a movement of conservative Catholics for whom Spain’s identity was indissolubly linked to the Church. He also stands as perhaps the foremost exponent of casticismo, a literary and cultural nationalism premised on a return to Spain’s innate, authentic identity.  All of Menéndez Pelayo’s antagonists in that initial exchange—Azcárate, Revilla, Salmerón, and Perojo—were Krausists, from whom not much is heard these days. Karl Christian Friedrich Krause was a student of Schelling, Hegel, and Fichte, long (and not unjustly) overshadowed by his teachers. But Krause found an unlikely afterlife among a cohort of liberal thinkers in Restoration Spain. These latter-day Krausists aimed at the intellectual rejuvenation of Spain, which they felt had been stifled by the Catholic Church. Accordingly, they called for religious toleration, academic freedom, and, above all, an end to the Church’s monopoly over education.

To Menéndez Pelayo, Krausism threatened the very wellsprings of the national culture. The Krausists were “a horde of fanatical sectarians […] murky and repugnant to every independent soul” (qtd. in López-Morillas, 8). He acidly denied both that Spain’s learning had declined, and that the Church had in any way hindered it:

For this terrifying name of “Inquisition,” the child’s bogeyman and the simpleton’s scarecrow, is for many the solution to all problems, the deus ex machina that comes as a godsend in difficult situations. Why have we had no industry in Spain? Because of the Inquisition. Why have we had bad customs, as in all times and places, save in the blessed Arcadia of the bucolics? Because of the Inquisition. Why are we Spaniards lazy? Because of the Inquisition. Why are there bulls in Spain? Because of the Inquisition. Why do Spaniards take the siesta? Because of the Inquisition. Why were there bad lodgings and bad roads and bad food in Spain in the time of Madame D’Aulnoy? Because of the Inquisition, because of fanaticism, because of theocracy. [Porque ese terrorífico nombre de Inquisición, coco de niños y espantajo de bobos, es para muchos la solución de todos los problemas, el Deus ex machina que viene como llovido en situaciones apuradas. ¿Por qué no había industria en España? Por la Inquisición. ¿Por qué había malas costumbres, como en todos tiempos y países, excepto en la bienaventurada Arcadia de los bucólicos? Por la Inquisición. ¿Por qué somos holgazanes los españoles? Por la Inquisición. ¿Por qué hay toros en España? Por la Inquisición. ¿Por qué duermen los españoles la siesta? Por la Inquisición. ¿Por qué había malas posadas y malos caminos y malas comidas en España en tiempo de Mad. D’Aulnoy? Por la Inquisición, por el fanatismo, por la teocracia.]. (1:102–03)

What was called for was not—perish the thought—a move away from dogmatism, but a renewed appreciation for Spain’s magnificent heritage. “I desire only that the national spirit should be reborn […] that spirit that lives and beats at the base of all our systems, and gives them a certain aspect of their parentage, and connects and ties together even those most discordant and opposed [Quiero sólo que renazca el espíritu nacional […], ese espíritu que vive y palpita en el fondo de todos nuestros sistemas, y les da cierto aire de parentesco, y traba y enlaza hasta a los más discordes y opuestos]” (2:355).

Title page of Miguel Barnades Mainader’s Principios de botanica (1767)

Menéndez Pelayo practiced what he preached. He is as comfortable discussing such obscure peons of the Republic of Letters as the Portuguese theologian Manuel de Sá and the Catalan botanist Miguel Barnades Mainader, as he is in extolling Juan Luis Vives, arguing over the influence of Thomas Aquinas, or establishing the birthplace of Raymond Sebold. Menéndez Pelayo writes with genuine pain at “the lamentable oblivion and neglect in which we hold the nation’s intellectual glories [del lamentable olvido y abandono en que tenemos las glorias científicas nacionales]” (1:57). His fellow neocatólico Alejandro Pidal y Mon imagines Menéndez Pelayo as a necromancer, calling forth the spirits of long-dead intellectuals (1:276), a power on extravagant display in La ciencia española. The third volume of La ciencia española comprises nearly three hundred pages of annotated bibliography, on every conceivable branch of the history of knowledge in Spain.

I am aware how close I have strayed to the kind of pedestal-raising I deprecated at the outset. Fortunately, we do not have to look far to find the clay feet that will be the undoing of any such monument. Menéndez Pelayo’s lyricism should not disguise the reactionary character of his intellectual project, with its nationalism and loathing of secularism, religious toleration, and any challenge to Catholic orthodoxy. His avowed respect for the achievements of Jews and Muslims in medieval Spain is cheapened by a pervasive, muted anti-Semitism and Islamophobia: La ciencia española speaks of “the scientific poverty of the Semites [La penuria científica de los semitas]” (2:416) and the “decadence [decadencia]” of contemporary Islam. When he writes, “I am, thanks be to God, an Old Christian [gracias a Dios, soy cristiano viejo]” (2:265), we cannot pretend he is ignorant of the pernicious history of that term. Of the colonization of the New World he baldly states, “we sowed religion, science, and blood with a liberal hand, later to reap a long harvest of ingratitudes and disloyalties [sembramos a manos llenas religión, ciencia y sangre, para recoger más tarde larga cosecha de ingratitudes y deslealtades]” (2:15).

It is no coincidence that Menéndez Pelayo’s prejudices are conveyed in superlative Spanish prose—ire seems to have brought out the best of his wit. “I cannot but regret that Father [Joaquín] Fonseca should have felt himself obliged, in order to vindicate Saint Thomas [Aquinas] from imagined slights, to throw upon me all the corpulent folios of the saint’s works [no puedo menos de lastimarme de que el Padre Fonseca se haya creído obligado, para desagraviar a Santo Tomás de ofensas soñadas, a echarme encima todos los corpulentos infolios de las obras del Santo]” (2:151) “Mr. de la Revilla says that he has never belonged to the Hegelian school. Congratulations to him—his philosophical metamorphoses are of little interest to me [El Sr. de la Revilla dice que nunca ha pertenecido a la escuela hegeliana. En hora buena: me interesan poco sus transformaciones filosóficas]” (1:201). On subjects dear to his heart, baroque rhapsodies could flow from his pen. He spends three pages describing the life of the medieval Catalan polymath Ramon Llull, whom he calls the “knight errant of thought [caballero andante del pensamiento]” (2:372).

At the same time, many pages of La ciencia española make for turgid reading, bare catalogues of obscure Spanish authors and their yet more obscure publications.

*     *     *

Menéndez Pelayo died in 1912. Azcárate, his last surviving interlocutor, passed away five years later. Is the battle over? In the intervening decades, Spain has found neither cultural unity nor political coherence—and not for lack of trying. Reactionary Catholic and conservative though he was, Menéndez Pelayo does not fit the role of Francoist avant la lettre, in spite of the regime’s best efforts  to coopt him. La ciencia española shows none of Franco’s Castilian chauvinism and suspicion of regionalism. Menéndez Pelayo chides an author for using the phrase “the Spanish language [la lengua española]” when he means “Castilian.” “The Catalan language is as Spanish as Castilian or Portuguese [Tan española es la lengua catalana como la castellana or la portuguesa]” (2:363).

Today the Church has indeed lost its iron grip on the Spanish educational system, and the nation is not only no longer officially Catholic, but has embraced religious toleration and even greater heterodoxies, among them divorce, same-sex marriage, and abortion. We are all Krausists now.

If the crusade against the Krausists failed, elements of Menéndez Pelayo’s intellectual project have fared considerably better. We are witnessing a flood of scholarly interest in early modern Spain’s intellectual history—historiography, antiquarianism, the natural sciences, publishing. Whether they know it or not, these scholars are answering a call sounded more than a century before. And never more so than when they turn their efforts to those Menéndez Pelayo sympathetically called “second-order talents [talentos de segundo orden]” (1:204). In the age of USTC, EEBO, Cervantes Virtual, Gallica, and countless similar resources, the discipline of bibliography he so cherished is expanding in directions he could never have imagined.

Charles II of Spain

Spain’s decline continues to inspire debate among historians—and will continue to do so, I expect, so long as there are historians to do the debating. The foreword to J. H. Elliott’s still-definitive survey, Imperial Spain: 1469–1716, places the word “decline” in inverted commas, but the prologue acknowledges the genuine puzzle of explaining the shift in Spain’s fortunes over the early modern period. Menéndez Pelayo could hardly deny that Charles II ruled an altogether less impressive realm than had his great-grandfather, but would presumably counter that whatever the geopolitics, Spanish letters remained vibrant. As for the Spanish Inquisition, his positivity prefigures that of Henry Kamen, who has raised not a few eyebrows with his favorably inclined “historical revision.”

La ciencia española is at once the showcase for a prodigious young talent, a call to arms for intellectual traditionalism, and a formidable if flawed collection of insights and reflections. As the grand old man of Spanish letters, a caricature of conservatism and Catholic partisanship, Menéndez Pelayo furnishes an excellent foil—or strawman, for those less charitably inclined—against whom generations can and should sharpen their pens and their arguments.

La lutte continue.