history of philosophy


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.

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.

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.

The Historical Origins of Human Rights: A Conversation with Samuel Moyn

By guest contributor Pranav Kumar Jain


Professor Samuel Moyn (Yale University)

Since the publication of The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, Professor Samuel Moyn has emerged as one of the most prominent voices in the field of human rights studies and modern intellectual history. I recently had a chance to interview him about his early career and his views on human rights and recent developments in the field of history.

Moyn was educated at Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied history and French literature. In St. Louis, he fell under the influence of Gerald Izenberg, who nurtured his interest in modern French intellectual history. After college, he proceeded to Berkeley to pursue his doctorate under the supervision of Martin Jay. However, unexcited at the prospect of becoming a professional historian, he left graduate school after taking his orals and enrolled at Harvard Law School. After a year in law school, he decided that he did want to finish his Ph.D. after all. He switched the subject of his dissertation to a topic that could be done on the basis of materials available in American libraries. Drawing upon an earlier seminar paper, he decided to write about the interwar moral philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. After graduating from Berkeley and Harvard in 2000-01, he joined Columbia University as an assistant professor in history.

Though he had never written about human rights before, he had become interested in the subject in law school and during his work in the White House at the time of the Kosovo bombings. At Columbia, he decided to pursue his interest in human rights further and began to teach a course called “Historical Origins of Human Rights.” The conversations in this class were complemented by those with two newly arrived faculty members, Mark Mazower and Susan Pedersen, both of whom were then working on the international history of the twentieth century. In 2008, Moyn decided that it was finally time to write about human rights.


Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012)

In The Last Utopia, Moyn’s aim was to contest the theories about the long-term origins of human rights. His key argument was that it was only in the 1970s that the concept of human rights crystallized as a global language of justice. In arguing thus, he sharply distinguished himself from the historian Lynn Hunt who had suggested that the concept of human rights stretched all the way back to the French Revolution. Before Hunt published her book on human rights, Moyn told me, his class had shared some of her emphasis. Both scholars, for example, were influenced by Thomas Laqueur’s account of the origins of humanitarianism, which focused on the upsurge of sympathy in the eighteenth century. Laqueur’s argument, however, had not even mentioned human rights. Hunt’s genius (or mistake?), Moyn believes, was to make that connection.

Moyn, however, is not the only historian to see the 1970s as a turning point. In his Age of Fracture (2012), intellectual historian Daniel Rodgers has made a similar argument about how the American postwar consensus came under increasing pressure and finally shattered in the 70s. But there are some important differences. As Moyn explained to me, Rodgers’s argument is more about the disappearance of alternatives, whereas his is more concerned with how human rights survived that difficult moment. Furthermore, Rodgers’s focus on the American case makes   his argument unique because, in comparison with transatlantic cases, the American tradition does not have a socialist starting point. Both Moyn and Rodgers, however, have been criticized for failing to take neoliberalism into account. Moyn says that he has tried to address this in his forthcoming book Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World.

Some have come to see Moyn’s book as mostly about President Jimmy Carter’s contributions to the human rights revolution. Moyn himself, however, thinks that the book is ultimately about the French Revolution and its abandonment in modern history for an individualistic ethics of rights, including the Levinasian ethics which he once studied. In Moyn’s view, human rights are a part of this “ethical turn.” While he was working on the book, Moyn’s own thinking underwent a significant revolution. He began to explore the place of decolonization in the story he was trying to tell. Decolonization was not something he had thought about very much before but, as arguably one of the biggest events of the twentieth century, it seemed indispensable to the human rights revolution. In the book, he ended up making the very controversial argument that human rights largely emerged as the response of westerners to decolonization. Since they had now lost the interventionist tool of empire, human rights became a new universalism that would allow them to think about, care about, and perhaps intervene in places they had once ruled directly.

Though widely acclaimed, Moyn’s thesis has been challenged on a number of fronts. For one thing, Moyn himself believes that the argument of the book is problematic because it globalizes a story that it mostly about French intellectuals in the 1970s. Then there are critics such as Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann, a German historian at UC Berkeley, who have suggested, in Moyn’s words, that “Sam was right in dismissing all prior history. He just didn’t dismiss the 70s and 80s.” Moyn says that he finds Hoffmann’s arguments compelling and that, if we think of human rights primarily as a political program, the 90s do deserve the lion’s share of attention. After all, Moyn’s own interest in the politics of human rights emerged during the 90s.


Eleanor Roosevelt with a Spanish-language copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Perhaps one of Moyn’s most controversial arguments is that the field of the history of human rights no longer has anything new to say. Most of the questions about the emergence of the human rights movements and the role of international institutions have already been answered. Given the major debate provoked by his own work, I am skeptical that this is indeed the case. Plus, there are a number of areas which need further research. For instance, we need to better understand the connections between signature events such as the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the story that Moyn tells about the 1970s. But I think Moyn made a compelling point when he suggested to me that we cannot continue to constantly look for the origins of human rights. In doing so, we often run the risk of anachronism and misinterpretation. For instance, some scholars have tried to tie human rights back to early modern natural law. However, as Moyn put it, “what’s lost when you interpret early modern natural law as fundamentally a rights project is that it was actually a duties project.”

Moyn is ambivalent about recent developments in the study and practice of history in general. He thinks that the rise of global and transnational history is a welcome development because, ultimately, there is no reason for methodological nationalism to prevail. However, in his view, this has had a somewhat adverse effect on graduate training. When he went to grad school, he took courses that focused on national historiographical canons and many of the readings were in the original language. With the rise of global history, it is not clear that such courses can be taught anymore. For instance, no teacher could demand that all the students know the same languages. Consequently, Moyn says, “most of what historians were doing for most of modern history is being lost.” This is certainly an interesting point and it begs the question of how graduate programs can train their students to strike a balance between the wide perspectives of global history and the deep immersion of a more national approach.

Otherwise, however, in contrast with many of his fellow scholars, Moyn is surprisingly upbeat about the current state and future of the historical profession. He thinks that we are living in a golden age of historiography with many impressive historians producing outstanding works. There is certainly more scope for history to be more relevant to the public. But historians engaging with the public shouldn’t do so in crass ways, such as suggesting that there is a definitive relevance of history to public policy. History does not have to change radically. It can simply continue to build upon its existing strengths.


Professor Lynn Hunt (UCLA)

In the face of Lynn Hunt’s recent judgment that the field of “history is in crisis and not just one of university budgets,” this is a somewhat puzzling conclusion. However, it is one that I happen to agree with. Those who suggest that historians should engage with policy makers certainly have a point. However, instead of emphasizing the uniqueness of history, their arguments devolve to what historians can do better than economists and political scientists. In the process, they often lose sight of the fact that, more than anything, historians are storytellers. History rightly belongs in the humanities rather than the social sciences. It is only in telling stories that inspire and excite the public’s imagination that historians can regain the respect that many think they have lost in the public eye.

Pranav Kumar Jain is a doctoral student in early modern history at Yale University.

The Archive is Burning: Walter Benjamin in Brazil

By guest contributor Niklas Plaetzer


Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin never left Europe, yet his writings have had a remarkable impact on critical thought around the globe. As Edward Said suggested, the dislocation of an idea in time and space can never leave its content unaffected. “Having moved from one place and time to another, an idea or a theory gains or loses in strength,” so that its “travels” render a theory “altogether different for another period or situation” (226). The plasticity of ideas, their capacity to be torn out of context and made to speak in ever-new constellations, lies at the heart of Walter Benjamin’s own work. Benjamin’s thought never took the form of systematic exposition, but rather unfolded in essays, journal articles, sketches, and thought fragments. This was not just a stylistic choice; in fact, it corresponded closely to his view of a radical break in the linear time of progress—to a splintered temporality, shot through by the unmasterable memories of the oppressed.


Niklas #2

Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, iconically envisioned by Benjamin as “the angel of history”

Benjamin’s syncretic fusion of Marxism, Jewish mysticism, and the German Romantics continues to cast its spell on contemporary readers. Perhaps it is precisely this fragmented character, combined with the palpable urgency of his writings, that can account for the globalized interest in his work. But more importantly still, Benjamin’s relentless emphasis on dialectical reversal—on another kind of history, told from the “point of view of the defeated”—continues to resonate with post- and decolonial projects and a “reading against the grain” of history. Paul Gilroy, in his The Black Atlantic, explicitly drew on Benjamin to write a “primal history of modernity to be reconstructed from the slaves’ point of view” (55). Decolonial scholars continue to find inspiration in Benjamin’s scathing critique of modernity as well as his call to cling to a “humanity-in-the-making” amidst an unending catastrophe. In 2015, the international conference “Benjamin in Palestine: Who Owns Walter Benjamin? On the Place and Non-Place of Radical Thought” was held in Ramallah. It opened new paths for such an engagement with Benjamin from within states of exception, “among layers of rubble and generations of resistance,” escaping the confines of academic canonization (60–64).


Slipping under the radar of Euro-American academia, Benjamin has exerted a particular influence on Brazilian critical theory. In an admirable study on his reception history in Brazil, Gunter Karl Pressler of the Federal University of Pará, Belém, has traced this unusually fruitful interplay of traditions: between North and South as well as between thought and revolutionary practice. What accounts for the elective affinity between Brazilian critical theory and Benjamin’s work? Pressler ties it back to the 1960s, when experimental poet and translator Haroldo de Campos, one of the co-founders of the Concrete Poetry movement in Brazil, took inspiration from Benjamin to theorize translation as “transcreation” [transcriação], as a practice of “parricide dis-memory” [desmemória parricida] (p. 149-153). Haroldo de Campos and his brother Augusto thereby took a decisively “anti-Eurocentric, anti-ethnocentric, deconstructive strategy, beginning with the idea of cannibalism, understood as the appropriation of the vital energy of the Other, beginning with his destruction” (9). In doing so, they read Benjamin alongside a classic of Brazilian modernism, Oswald de Andrade’s Manifesto Antropófago (1928), in which cannibalism is reconfigured as a positive model of cultural appropriation by the oppressed: eating up the potency of the colonizing North, destroying its claim to control, and producing new, unauthorized constellations in the process. Authors like José Guilherme Merquior and Flávio R. Kothe further helped disseminate Benjamin and the Frankfurt School at a time when the Brazilian military dictatorship had taken over and the student movement organized its resistance against heavy repression.

For the Brazilian left, Benjamin’s peculiar Marxism seemed like a way to both articulate critical thought in solidarity with on-going movements, and still open up a gap within Marxist discourse, creating spaces beyond authoritarian orthodoxy. A turn to Benjamin also broke up space for counter-histories of Brazil itself, resonating with the memory of indigenous genocide and slavery. His phrase that “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” has rung true in a society dominated by rural latifundistas (plantation owners) and a state ideology of “Ordem e Progresso” (Order and Progress). It also spoke to theorists who tried to position themselves between an elitist attachment to European intellectual production on the one hand, and the rising visibility of black, indigenous, and landless workers’ movements on the other. As Pressler argues, Benjamin thereby became part of 1970s Brazilian counter-culture, somewhere between Marx and Caetano Veloso.

Two key figures in this creative reception stand out: Leandro Konder (1936-2014) and Michael Löwy (born in 1938). As Löwy puts it,

there is a necessity to look at the past in Brazil—even recent past—from the point of view of the oppressed [derrotados], the poor, Blacks, women, workers, revolutionaries. In Benjamin, this sensibility finds a coherent philosophical expression. I believe that this has helped to develop a current of people in the social sciences, in the historiography of political thought, who are very interested in Benjamin. (200)

What unites Konder and Löwy is their appreciation for the deep melancholia of Benjamin’s thought, which they regard as the truly revolutionary attitude, at odds with a bourgeois belief in progress. For Benjamin as for his Brazilian readers, social critique must begin with a critique of the very idea of progress, including its leftist varities, and fuel a lucid melancholia from which there is no escape. Yet such Benjaminian melancholia has “nothing to do with fatalistic resignation and even less with the conservative, reactionary, prefascist German Kulturpessimismus,” Löwy emphasizes (9). “This is not a contemplative sentiment, but an active, ‘organized,’ practical pessimism, directed entirely at preventing the onset of disaster by all possible means” (9). For Leandro Konder, Benjaminian melancholia, “brought into tune with the calls for ‘revenge’ among the traditionally exploited social classes and stimulated by their movements of contestation,” should thus be understood as “melancolérico:” a melancholic kind of anger, organized and fueled by memory.

Löwy’s seminal book on Benjamin, Fire Alarm, was originally published in French, in his Parisian exile, where he has lived and worked since 1969. Born in São Paulo as the son of Jewish immigrants from Vienna, Löwy has not ceased to push Benjamin’s insights to new conclusions—such as ecosocialism—without ever abandoning a practical commitment to the radical left. Unlike many critical theorists, he also remains acutely aware of non-Eurocentric imaginaries at work in social struggles. He has written about the quilombo dos Palmares, the revolution of maroon slaves (fugitives) in the Brazilian North-East, who, until their defeat in 1695, resisted the onslaught of Dutch and Portuguese armies under the leadership of Zumbi dos Palmares. While the Haitian Revolution is today receiving increasing historiographical attention, the quilombo dos Palmares still remains a largely ignored event. Against such enforced forgetfulness, Löwy’s writings place it in an unusual conversation with the history of the 1871 Paris Commune and the struggles of international workers. But what might seem like an arbitrary juxtaposition is better grasped as a Benjaminian constellation of memories in resistance. They not only animate Löwy’s thinking, but continue to fuel the practices of Brazil’s opposition: for instance, when black movements, hip hop artists, or occupations of landless workers draw on the memory of Palmares, invoking the legendary name of Zumbi, as they fight for land reform and against institutional racism. As Benjamin’s Thesis VI puts it, “articulating the past historically does not mean recognizing it ‘the way it really was.’ It means appropriating a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger.”

Niklas #1

“Limpo Seu Historico” (“I clean your record”): street art in Cachoeira in the northeastern state of Bahia. Photo credit: Niklas Plaetzer, August 2017.

In June 2017, in the wake of the (arguably unconstitutional) impeachment of President Dilma Roussef, Brazilian Congress passed a bill that allows for the large-scale burning of historical documents from national archives after their digitization as part austerity plans. Already accepted by both chambers, the “Lei da Queima de Arquivo” (Law of the Archive Burning) is awaiting a final consultation process before going into effect. This controversial reform must be understood against the backdrop of what many consider to be a coup d’état by President Michel Temer. Yet the current political situation can hardly be considered an anomaly. As Benjamin put it, in his often quoted phrase, “the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.”

With the “Lei da Queima de Arquivo,” Löwy’s Fire Alarm has taken up another scandalous reality. Its painful resonance speaks to the ways in which a postcolonial reading of Benjamin cannot be a calm, scholarly addition to a renewed and reconciled canon. The planned burning of the Brazilian national archives remains inscribed in a long history of erasure, of which Palmares is one powerful symbol and of which Brazil’s social movements continue to carry the traces. But reading Benjamin while the archive is burning also speaks to struggles in the present that remain undecided—in Brazil and elsewhere.

Niklas Plaetzer is an incoming doctoral student at the University of Chicago’s Department of Political Science, specializing in political theory. He holds a masters degree from Sciences Po Paris, where he worked on Hannah Arendt’s critique of sovereignty in light of radical democratic thought. At the University of Chicago, he is hoping to do research at the juncture of critical theory, constitutional law, and the politics of social movements, with a particular interest in Brazil. His work has previously appeared in the Journal of International Affairs, the Columbia Journal of Literary Criticism, 3:am magazine, and the Review of Politics (forthcoming).

Book Forum: Collective Memory, the Public Sphere, and the Remote Historical Past

by guest contributor Jeffrey A. Barash

The JHI Blog is pleased to announce a new occasional feature, a forum bringing together faculty across disciplines to discuss recent works in intellectual history over consecutive Fridays. This post by Jeffrey Andrew Barash concludes the inaugural forum devoted to his book Collective Memory and the Historical Past (University of Chicago, 2016),

It is gratifying to read the insightful responses to the analyses in my recent book Collective Memory and the Historical Past presented in the inaugural book forum of the JHI Blog. I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to each of the five guest contributors, Asaf Angermann, Andrew Dunstall, Nitzan Lebovic, Sophie Marcotte Chénard, and Michael Meng for their thoughtful comments and, above all, to John Raimo, whose inspiration has played an admirable role in the forum. Each of the contributors introduces into the discussion critical insight that deepens understanding of the topics my book addresses and encourages further thought on the issues it raises. In the space of this short response, I will draw on the analyses presented by each of the reviewers and answer critical reflections they have expressed.

Kosovo Maiden - symbol of the Battle of Kosovo 1389.jpg

“Kosovo Maiden” by Uroš Predić (1919)

According to my interpretation, all memory in its original form pertains to the personal sphere. Original remembrance, in this sense, arises from experiences in the everyday life-world, from face-to-face encounters “in the flesh,” that may be shared by smaller and larger groups and communicated to those who have not directly witnessed them. According to the phenomenological vocabulary I employ, the originality of remembered experience “in the flesh” does not reside in a capacity to replicate or to furnish a “faithful” representation of reality. Since, indeed, remembrance of direct encounters is selected, organized, and retained or omitted in relation to the perspective of the viewer, its originality lies in the fact that it is necessarily presupposed as a source of indirect accounts that derive from it. As Angermann has perceptively noted, any “second-order representation precludes the aura of a singular presence encountered in the plenitude of a surrounding ‘lifeworld,'” and the singular presence of such direct encounters, as they are remembered and communicated, are indispensable (if not always reliable) sources of what we commonly take to be reality. At the same time, where remembered experience is shared by groups, such “collective memory” never exists independently of individual persons who remember, any more than, beyond them, it has an autonomous, substantial being.

In general, remembered experience in its original form, arising from personal and group encounters, rarely derives from what is held to be significant in the public sphere. In normal circumstances, only a handful of agents and witnesses have direct access to what is publicly meaningful and, consequently, experience and remembrance of events endowed with public significance are almost always based on indirect accounts diffused by the organs of mass information. This distance of the public sphere from the everyday life-world proves highly paradoxical: indeed, in view of the indirect quality of representations of the public sphere, we might wonder whether the concept itself of “collective remembrance” is appropriate when applied to public existence in mass societies. It might indeed be claimed that collective memory of publicly significant events, since it rarely corresponds to any direct and original form of remembrance, is essentially a figment of the social imagination.

In light of such a claim, however, we must clarify what we mean when we speak of “imagination.” According to an argument presented in my book, imagination is not only a faculty for producing fictions or fantasies, or for eliciting abstract mental activity, for it also enables the embodiment of meaning in concrete, communicable images and symbols. I take symbols in the broadest sense to refer to the meaning we confer on experience by lending it, as Dunstall notes, “communicable order at the primary level of its organization and articulation.” A many-layered network of symbols permits us to spontaneously lend spatio-temporal and conceptual pattern to experience and to orient ourselves in the everyday life-world.  Where the symbolic order is not actively engaged, it is passively retained in memory.  Before any act of reflection, it is this concrete symbolic order that permits us to discern in an urban setting the difference, for example, between a private yard, a semi-private shopping mall, and a public park, just as the music we hear in supermarkets or airports provides symbolic indicators of the social context in which we find ourselves. As retained by different groups in a mass social framework, the network of sedimented and stratified symbols by no means forms a monolithic or uniform block, since symbols are embodied in accord with the fragmented perspectives of groups that deploy them.

Beyond the purview of ordinary everyday life, it is the complex weave of symbolic structures embodied in memory that permits us to render intelligible a world of publicly meaningful events. When beheld in this broad perspective, collective memory, as Dunstall insightfully points out, is “neither a fiction nor a mere metaphor, but refers to a web of symbols formed through communicative interaction, reaching as far as that sphere of interaction does.” As Angermann perceptively notes, this interpretation of the life-world as symbolically mediated distinguishes my position from Husserl’s presupposition that the life-world is immediately intuited. It indicates a possible affinity between my interpretation and Adorno’s critical stance regarding Husserl’s conception of the life-world.  Nonetheless, my concept of symbolic mediation is most directly inspired by Cassirer’s interpretation of the symbolic configuration of spatio-temporal and conceptual order and by Goodman‘s theory of the symbol in Ways of Worldmaking.

In a suggestive remark, Meng has identified this interpretation of the sedimented, stratified, and fragmented weave of embodied symbols with an “anti-foundationalist” position associated with Arendt and later authors, who questioned the traditional role of absolute and indubitable foundations. My interpretation of the contingent basis of experience and remembrance in the everyday life-world, and of its tenuous relation to the socio-political realm, bears an affinity with this position, and I share with Arendt the further conviction that the coherence and consistency of the vast contextual web that undergirds interpretation is the primary source of our beliefs concerning the veracity of factual accounts of what transpires in the public realm (Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics,” Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought, Penguin, 1977, p. 227-264).

My efforts in the second part of Collective Memory and the Historical Past aim to understand this contextual web of embodied symbols in relation to the “temporal articulations” of collective memory. Here, beside the collective forms of remembrance punctuated by habitually enacted temporal patterns of everyday life—the rhythms of work days and holidays, market days, hours of work, recreation, and sleep—and by the recurring commemorative practices that reinforce collective cohesion, we encounter the deep levels of collective existence. These are the passively deposited and often barely palpable dispositions—the êthos or habitus—which, as Dunstall reminds us, articulate “long-term continuities in the symbolic reservoir upon which collective memory draws.” The profound resonance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech derives its potency from the symbolic charge, however differently it may be perceived from a variety of group perspectives, rooted in the political pronouncements of Lincoln and of the Founding Fathers and in the theology of Isaiah and of Luke. Over the course of generations, King’s message, which was hotly contested in many southern states and sharply criticized by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, won approval among the citizens of the United States to such an extent that the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. became the day of national commemoration we now celebrate.

Bourdieu_Sur la télévision

(Raisons d’agir, 1996)

Long-term group attitudes, styles, and dispositions span all reaches of the public sphere and, for the most part, spread over the implicit layers of group life. If they often go unnoticed, they are not, however, invisible occult qualities, nor are they reducible to general laws governing unconscious psychic mechanisms. Specific to the particular mode of existence of a given group, these passive symbolic configurations come to expression in group behavior and social styles that, as sociologists and anthropologists have pointed out since the work of Mauss and Bourdieu, often correspond to corporeal dispositions and habits. The continuities interwoven by this deep level of passively inscribed dispositions, as they draw on the reservoirs of sedimented group experience that have been symbolically elaborated over the long term, are not to be confused with secondary elaborations, such as codified traditions or cultural legacies which, indeed, presuppose this fundamental experiential dimension.

Protesters in the Courtyard of Romanian National Television Romanian Revolution 1989

Protesters in the Courtyard of Romanian National Television (1989)

In our contemporary world, the emergence of mass societies in a context of global interaction marks an essential break with the past that distinguishes the current horizon of group interaction from previous forms of social existence. Corresponding to this development, the public sphere has undergone essential metamorphoses over the past century and a half that have been channeled by the technical evolution of the mass media. Their increasing predominance as organs of public information has tended to accentuate the disparity between the life-world of original personal and small-group experience and remembrance, and the vast public realm that the mass media configure. The development of the mass media since the introduction of mass-circulation illustrated newspapers and magazines that exercised a preponderant influence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries began to transform the public sphere through their ways of configuring and transmitting information and thus of conferring public significance on reported actions and events. This transformation was further accentuated through mass-produced images favoring communication that, independently of the articulated language they accompany, spontaneously convey a visible message that can be immediately grasped beyond the confines of linguistic or cultural borders.  From the development of the still photo and the moving picture newsreel to that of television, animated digital imagery and the World Wide Web, the mass media, whatever their distance from the life-world, have been able to simulate, in an ever more technically precise manner, direct experience of personal and small-group encounters and to make this simulated experience resonate in public memory.

Televiziunea Romana Libera

Televisunea Romana libera; recorded image of declaration of free Romania (From Videograms of a Revolution; dir. Harun Farocki and Andrei Ujica, 1992)

The radical transformation that mass media communications have brought to the public world may be placed clearly in relief if we consider that its potency is not the result of a simple reproduction or replication of what transpires in the everyday life-world of face-to-face encounters  In an ever more technologically precise manner television, in CNN fashion, presenting ‘hypermediated’ combinations of written text and visual image and, subsequently, hypermediated World Wide Web and social media Internet displays, transfigure reported information in function of a spatio-temporal pattern and logical order specific to the mass media format. This format, which I explore in detail in my book, imposes decontextualized, anonymously configured, and continually shifting, “updated” schemata of media events that take precedence over the contextual logic of experience and remembrance serving as the principal mode of orientation in a shared common life-world. This format of mass communication has become the principle contemporary source of public visibility, indeed of an iconic status which, as publicly conveyed and remembered, is readily translated into novel contemporary forms of public influence and political power.

In his highly suggestive and thought-provoking analysis of my interpretation, Lebovic finds that the chapter on the mass media “is the most relevant part of the book, but also its least convincing section.” Where he agrees with my critical appraisal of the mass media in its distance from the everyday life-world, Lebovic finds that in this instance the “modernist tools” of my theory of collective memory seem to falter. He concludes that in the “age of fake news perhaps not only the past is undermined, but the present and, as such, the future too.”

Without delving into the problematic presuppositions engaged by the label of “modernism,” which remains to be clarified, I can express my sympathy with Lebovic’s pessimism in view of the plight of the contemporary public sphere. As an apparent consequence of this antiquated status of modernism, however, does this pessimism invariably signal the demise of the ideal of informative and impartial reporting that however imperfectly flies in the face of complacent conformism in denouncing the distortion of factual events upon which “fake news” is based? As I interpret it, the exercise of contextual analysis still has an eminently critical task to fulfill where it sets its sights on long-term developments and explanations in which fragmented perspectives are confronted with one another and their claims to legitimacy set in critical relief

Gazimestan memorial commemoratin the Battle of Kosovo 1389.jpg

Gazimestan Monument commemorating the Battle of Kosovo, 1389

In her insightful contribution to the discussion, Marcotte Chénard highlights the distinction which I draw between collective memory, rooted in the deep strata of symbolically embodied, collective patterns of existence, and the historical past that reaches beyond the scope of all living memory. If, indeed, collective remembrance of the past is always fragmented in accord with a plurality of different group perspectives, public communication depends upon a web of spontaneously graspable symbols that defines the contours of group contemporaneity shared by overlapping, living generations, and distinguishes them from the historical past beyond all living recollection. The discontinuity marked by the demise of living generations does not simply result from the disappearance of single individuals and groups, for this disappearance also signals the evanescence of the concrete context in which their symbolic interaction transpired. Following the disappearance of this theater of group interaction, the legibility of the symbolic structures embedded in it begins to weaken. Even where the broad intelligibility of general linguistic and other symbolic categories is retained over centuries, the more specific nuances groups invest in them—constituting the living context and intrinsic sense of their coexistence—remain subject to remarkable if often barely palpable variability as collective memory recedes into the historical past. In a situation of radical discontinuity, the passage of each successive generation marks a drift in the symbolic framework of communication and interaction.  Such an abrupt change in context, calling forth mostly imperceptible displacements of its passive recesses, casts in its wake a deepening shroud over the essential significance of the symbolic patterns constituting the past’s singular texture.

Here, indeed, lies the hidden ground of what I conceive to be the finitude of group perspectives which is first and foremost set in relief by the passage of the collective memory of living generations into the historical past.  This passage is the primary source of human historicity.  The cohesion of group perspectives and the finitude of their scope ultimately depends not on the singular finitude of mortal beings, but on the mobility of the intermediary symbolic space underlying group existence.

As Marcotte Chénard insightfully portrays my argument, finitude in this sense by no means condemns present generations to ignorance of the “reality of the historical past,” but it incites us to great prudence in the interpretation of the past’s singular texture. The capacity to retrieve this singularity depends not only on correct factual analysis, but at the same time on the capacity to retrieve symbolic nuances that permit us to discern the shift in temporal horizons through which facts draw their implicit sense. As I have attempted to illustrate in my book by means of the works of Walter Scott, Victor Hugo, Alessandro Manzoni, Ivo Andrić, Marcel Proust, and W. G. Sebald, such shifts may be placed in relief not only by works of history, but by the “historical sense” that novels are able to evoke.

Hayden White

Hayden White, (photo © University of Göttingen; Alchetron)

Marcotte Chénard suggests certain affinities between my conception of the historical past and what Hayden White, following Oakeshott, has characterized in a recent work as the “practical past.” The practical past is, as she notes, distinguished from the theoretical concern for the historical past, which as a theoretical construct, “possesses no definitive existence” and is only an “inference that the historian makes in order to understand and explain what happened.” In its distinction from this theoretical concern, the practical past presents us with modes of orientation “toward matters of practical conduct and representation of our social and political world.” It is essentially identified with its use in the present: indeed, in this sense, Oakeshott in his original understanding of the term equated it with the “useful” past, concerned less with traces and vestiges of what previously existed than with a storehouse of relics and “emblematic tropes” available for recycling in the present (Michael Oakeshott, On History and Other Essays, p. 41-42). This conception of the practical past, however, raises the essential question: what possibility does it afford of accomplishing what I take to be the principal task of the “historical sense,” which may bring us to discern timely assumptions that prevail in the present that blind us to past’s unique contextual contours and symbolic nuances? In a present in which these assumptions exercise an often tacit and unquestioned supremacy, painstaking and fastidious research into the remote past beyond all living memory, which cannot be assessed in terms of its pragmatic value, nonetheless allows us to cast the present in an original light. Here the work of Frank Ankersmit, above all the concept of “historical experience” he elaborates in his book Sublime Historical Experience (Stanford University Press, 2005), provides penetrating analyses of the possibilities of relating the present to the historical past.

In one sense, there is an affinity between Marcotte Chénard’s description of the concept of the practical past and what I take to be the historical past, notably where the practical past might lead us to “reactivate neglected past experiences or past concepts in order to challenge dominant views.” In an interesting manner, she associates this possibility with Lefort’s suggestive conception of the impensé (the “unthought”) elaborated in his analysis of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty (Claude Lefort, Sur une colonne absente. Écrits autour de Merleau-Ponty, p. 16-17). As Marcotte Chénard construes this conception in applying it to historical interpretation, the “unthought” is what remains to be thought in past “events, social symbols or shared experiences” that “carry vast reservoirs of meaning.” The unthought aspects of the past hold out the possibility, not only of making unexpected discoveries in the past but, through these discoveries, of rethinking what generally remains unquestioned in the present.

As I interpret it in conjunction with this suggestive idea, the historical past, in often surprising and unanticipated ways, holds up the prism through which the timely and contingent aspects of the present may be recognized as such. Current attitudes, according to this reasoning, find their source in a past that, even where neglected, forgotten or otherwise obscured, retains an essential pertinence for interpreting the concrete reality of the immediately given world and for projecting present action into an uncertain future.

Jeffrey Andrew Barash taught at the University of Chicago and Columbia University and he has served as Humboldt Fellow at the University of Bielefeld, Ernst Cassirer visiting professor at the University of Hamburg, as Hans-Georg Gadamer visiting professor at Boston College and Max-Planck Fellow at the University of Konstanz.  In 2015-16 he was a member of the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton.  He is emeritus Professor of philosophy at the University of Amiens, France. His books include Heidegger et son siècle. Temps de l’Être, temps de l’histoire (Presses universitaires de France, 1995), Martin Heidegger and the Problem of Historical Meaning (second edition Fordham University Press, 2003), Politiques de l’histoire. L’historicisme comme promesse et comme mythe (Presses universitaires de France, 2004), and Collective Memory and the Historical Past (University of Chicago Press, 2017).

Book Forum: Symbols, collective memory, and political principles 

by guest contributor Andrew Dunstall

The JHI Blog is pleased to announce a new occasional feature, a forum bringing together faculty across disciplines to discuss recent works in intellectual history over consecutive Fridays. The inaugural forum is devoted to Jeffrey Andrew Barash’s book Collective Memory and the Historical Past (University of Chicago, 2016).

Jeffrey Andrew Barash has written a very scholarly book that proves both a philosophical work and a history of ideas. The one offers a conceptual account of collective memory, and the other a narrative of changing conceptions and ideological uses of “memory.” In both cases, he argues that careful attention to the border between memory and history is politically significant for criticising appeals to mythical bases of political unity. I have some thoughts on that, but first it is worth summarising what I take to be key contributions of the book.


Obama’s Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial (Steve Jurvetson)

The main contention of the book is this: collective memory designates a restricted sphere of past references. These particular references operate in practical life within a community, a “web of experience” (p. 52). Crucially for Barash, such a web consists of symbols (defined on p. 47-50). Symbols “confer spontaneous sense on experience by lending it communicable order at the primary level of its organization and articulation” (p. 47). What Barash means here is not that we attach various symbols to our everyday experience in a secondary process; rather, our perception is originally patterned in symbolic ways according to our learning, habits, and interactions.

Barash gives an example of an illuminating contrast. The quiet, “sacred” space of a church, and the banal (but still perhaps quiet and still) space of a car garage. Each space is meaningful in perception, because we are acquainted with their style and the activities that take place in them. Even when we are not familiar with the setting, we pick up cues from others or elements of the scene.  Experience is hermeneutic, which Barash refers to as “symbolic embodiment”. Our ability to communicate with each other in, and about, our experiences rests on this spontaneous symbolising activity.

Also note that we are not locked into our original perceptions. Experience is neither a private language, nor fixed, nor voluntarist. We constantly layer and re-layer interpretations of our lives as a matter of course. We can, for instance, understand somebody who describes their car garage as a shrine or sacred space, transporting the qualities of the cathedral to the domestic site of mechanical pursuits. We are readily able to creatively adapt our references through conversation and imaginative reconstructions. We can understand each other—even when we have radically differing interpretations.


Martin Luther King press conference 1964 (Marion S. Trikosko)

Thus our memories come to be shared with those whom we regularly interact; for Barash, collective memory is this web of interaction. He gives an excellent example by analysing Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech, which included his own memories of watching it on television (p. 55). This sets up well the key distinction between experience “in the flesh” as opposed to that mediated by communication technologies (analysed in detail in chapter five). An important clarification is made here. When we are talking about events that are supposed to be real—like King’s speech, then we expect that they will mesh well with the other references our fellows make, and which are materially present in our environment. When they do not cohere, we are justified to be suspicious about the claims being made. And that disjunction motivates a critical reappraisal. Symbols themselves do not differentiate between reality and fictional states, but their overall network does. Thus imagination is essential to the “public construction of reality”, but such a construction is neither arbitrary nor imaginary (p. 49).

Collective memory is therefore neither a fiction nor a mere metaphor, but refers to a web of symbols formed through communicative interaction, reaching as far as that sphere of interaction does—across several generations, and within the context of a shared language, set of public symbols, and common purposes. Barash, however, carefully emphasises a corresponding diffuseness, differentiation and inconsistencies of such memory—and he insists on its epistemological limits to a living generation. Knowledge of life passes beyond living ken when it fails to be maintained in any real sense by a coming generation. Too often, such discontinuities are not benign: displacement, war, and oppression can be its cause.


Mémoire (Benhard Wenzl)

Collective memory needs to be distinguished from the reflective activity of historians, as Barash clearly argues in his choice of title for the book. The critical targets of the book are twofold. Recent scholarship, on the one, that has conflated the work of history with the idea of collective memory (see p. 173ff.). On the other hand, Barash is all-too-mindful of the way in which collective memory is invoked for political purposes.  There is a normative-critical point to the distinction between collective memory and historical work. The historian or scholar of collective memory is someone who holds our memory work to account, scrupulously attending to myth-making and historical over-reach in political discourse. The historian is in the business of re-contextualising, of rediscovering the coherence of a set of events in the real. And so Barash takes a position on the reality of the past, and we see the importance of establishing the level of the real in the analysis of symbols (p. 175ff).

We can see some clear implications for historical methods as a result of Barash’s careful analysis. Collective memory is a part of how archives and diverse sources come into existence. History work needs collective memory, and it needs to understand its various forms. However, rather than take up debates about the reality of the past, or the distinction between the forms of collective memory and historical understanding, I am interested in a rather different and less explicit theme, which my preceding commentators have already raised. Let us think a bit more about the normative and political emphasis that Barash lays on historical understanding.


Fête de l’Être suprême (Pierre-Antoine Demachy, 1794)

While collective memory is limited to living generations, there are nevertheless long-term patterns to community life that reach beyond memory. Martin Luther King, for example, called attention to the political promises of the Declaration of Independence, and of Lincoln, in the shadow of whose memorial he stood with those who had gathered with him. King, Lincoln, and their contemporaries belonged to a larger unity, an ethos; a particular rendering of democratic freedom. Michael Meng argues that Barash is drawing on a democratic emphasis in his insistence on finitude. Êthos, as in Aristotle’s Politics, translates as “custom.” Barash’s symbolically oriented theory incorporates ethos as an “articulation of long-term continuities in the symbolic reservoir upon which collective memory draws” (p. 105). While Barash’s examples consistently point to progressive and radical democratic examples (he also discusses the French Revolution’s republican calendar), the concept of ethos launches an analysis of the ideological invocation of memory by radical right wing movements.


Front National (Marie-Lan Nguyen, 2010)

Right wing groups sometimes evoke age-long memory in direct connection to social homogeneity. There is a French focus; Maurice Barrès, the late 19th and early 20th century conservative political figure and novelist, and Jean-Marie Le Pen and his party, the Front National, are Barash’s primary examples. Le Pen wrote in 1996: “When we denounce the terrible danger of the immigration invasion, we speak on behalf of our ancient memory” (cited at p. 109). The theoretical construction of symbolic collective memory has reached its sharp, critical point. For the finitude of collective memory, in its anchoring in a living generation, disallows the age-long memory and homogeneity of national identity that the right call upon. So while collective memory is not simply imaginary, as Barash has shown, the latter metaphorical use of it is mythical. Finitude must be, ought to be, reasserted.

Finitude is a common hymn amongst intellectuals today. And yet the normative argument for the critical function of historical work is not very strong here. I disagree with Meng’s interpretation then. Finitude does not supply a normative principle which would tell us how collective memory ought to be invoked. The alternative progressive examples show the point. Martin Luther King could equally draw on an ethos; so too should progressives today. And this is a practical, normative point, as Sophie Marcotte Chénard suggests. Repetition is not continuity, however. We must draw on the historical past and collective memory to defend progressive normative principles. Where else do they come from? Of course, a normative choice by the historian is that—a choice of what to inherit.

Barash bases his argument on a formal analysis of memory, symbols, and temporal intentionality. Finitude for him is a matter of logical form: living memory can only extend a certain length; the selection of what we remember is secondary for him. Finitude itself supplies no clear ethical principle, however. Which normative struggles, which injustices breathe life into “living memory”? Often such struggles far exceed that memory, as I have argued elsewhere. Barash, to my mind, implies these questions at various points, but does not make them explicit. Barash’s work is a provocative opening. When we come to reflect on our heritage, whether age-long or recent, the point is to choose what is worth preserving, and what needs changing.

Andrew Dunstall  is Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Wollongong, where he teaches political philosophy. His research interests are in phenomenology and critical theory. His recent work studies the way that normative principles draw upon historical precedents, especially those beyond the “modern” era. You can read more about his work here.

“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.”

“Many thanks to Teddie Adorno”: Negative Dialectics at Fifty

by guest contributor Jonathon Catlin

Ten days after the fateful U.S. presidential election, several leading scholars of the Frankfurt School of critical theory gathered at Harvard University to reevaluate the legacy of the German-Jewish philosopher Theodor W. Adorno. The occasion—“Negative Dialectics at Fifty”—marked a half-century since the publication of Adorno’s magnum opus in 1966. Fitting with the mood of the political moment, co-organizer Max Pensky (Binghamton) recalled Adorno’s 1968 essay “Resignation” in his opening remarks: “What once was thought cogently must be thought elsewhere, by others.” To use Walter Benjamin’s phrase, dialectical work as demanding as Adorno’s has a Zeitkern, or temporal core: its meaning unfolds over time through constant re-interpretation. As participants reflected on this work’s profound legacy, they also translated its messages into terms relevant today. Time has served Negative Dialectics well. Fulfilling Adorno’s call for philosophy to restore the life sedimented in concepts, the critical energy of this conference demonstrated that both the course of time and the practice of intellectual history do not necessarily exhaust texts, but can instead reinvigorate them.

Adorno’s work has received a surge of recent attention for the ways in which it speaks to our present moment. The New Yorker’s Alex Ross went so far as to title a recent article, “The Frankfurt School Knew Trump Was Coming,” writing: “If Adorno were to look upon the cultural landscape of the twenty-first century, he might take grim satisfaction in seeing his fondest fears realized.” Ross notes that our time’s “combination of economic inequality and pop-cultural frivolity is precisely the scenario Adorno and others had in mind: mass distraction masking élite domination.” In his opening remarks, co-organizer Peter E. Gordon (Harvard)—author of “Reading Adorno in the Age of Trump”—addressed the sense of intellectual defeat palpable in the wake of the election. Yet this prognosis endowed what followed with a certain urgency that made the rigorous intellectual history of Gordon and Martin Jay (Berkeley) feel just as timely as the new critical work of theorists like Rahel Jaeggi (Berlin) and Jay Bernstein (New School).

Participants gathered in Harvard’s Center for European Studies, which, suiting Adorno’s cultural tradition, once housed the university’s Germanic Museum and resembles a fin-de-siècle European villa, ornamented with sculpture and inscribed dictums from the likes of Kant, Goethe, and Schiller. Yet Michael Rosen (Harvard) rightly described Adorno as a “Jeremiah” within German society for decrying the ways it had not come to grips with its Nazi past and then foretelling catastrophe still to come in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Adorno’s disciple Jürgen Habermas once remarked that he wouldn’t speak of Adorno and his time’s other great German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, in the same breath—and Adorno himself once claimed that he returned to Germany to “finish off” his compromised rival. But while Heidegger’s affinities with Nazism have recently left his work mired in controversy, Adorno’s corpus has re-emerged as a source of critical resistance. Without the space to address each conference speaker’s contributions, my aim here is to illustrate some reasons why they all still found Negative Dialectics compelling today.

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Axel Honneth, Rahel Jaeggi, and Martin Jay (author’s photo)

It would have been quite a feat to produce a unified conversation around a work like Negative Dialectics, which proclaims itself an anti-system and even anti-philosophy. Alas, the nearly three-hour-long conference panels often meandered far from their prescribed topics. Still, there was one theme nearly every presenter circled around: Adorno’s resistance to the overweening tendencies of concepts, a problem engaged most concretely through Adorno’s relation to his dialectical forbearer, Hegel. Negative Dialectics attempted to develop a mode of dialectical thought that harnessed Hegel’s negativity to counter his triumphalist narrative of the “slaughter-bench” of world history, which glorified existing reality and thereby undermined the possibility of critiquing it. As Adorno wrote in Negative Dialectics, “Regarding the concrete utopian possibility, dialectics is the ontology of the wrong state of things. The right state of things would be free of it: neither a system nor a contradiction.” The end goal of negative dialectics, then, is to transform present conditions into those that would render dialectics itself superfluous. If the challenge confronting Adorno in the 1940s was to develop a form of critical thought that could break through the blind, positivistic reproduction of the world order that had produced Nazism, Negative Dialectics can be seen as proposing a constellation of tentative solutions.

Gordon’s paper situated Negative Dialectics in a long intellectual tradition of disenchantment (Entzauberung) from the Enlightenment to our present “secular age.” Yet beyond the traditional sense of alienation, Gordon also identified a positive, critical potential in another use of the term: “the disenchantment of the concept.” If one historical marker came to represent disenchantment in modernity for Adorno, it was Auschwitz, an event referred to in nearly every presentation. Lambert Zuidervaart (Toronto) in particular grappled with Adorno’s search for a new mode of truth that would be adequate to a new reality after Auschwitz: “The need to lend a voice to suffering is a condition of all truth.” He suggested that this demand necessitates a material turn in Adorno’s thought toward a “thinking against thought” undergirded by a bodily revulsion at what happened at Auschwitz. Zuidervaart argued that metaphysical experience “after Auschwitz” must make contact with the nonidentical, which he connected to a practice of redemption, an undying hope for the possibility that reality could yet be otherwise.

Negative Dialectics is thus centrally motivated by a critical relationship to history. As Henry Pickford (Duke) remarked, Adorno’s task in Negative Dialectics was to attempt to see things “in their becoming,” opening up a space of possibility beyond the “hardened objects” and “sedimented history” of the reified social world as it exists in late capitalist modernity. In one of the most original presentations, Rahel Jaeggi grappled with how Adorno’s philosophy of history at the same time challenges and requires a view of history as progress. As “indispensable as it is disastrous,” Jaeggi remarked, a progressive view of history must be posited if history is to become available to consciousness as something changeable. Hegelian universal history thus exists insofar as antagonism, agency, and resistance do. Jaeggi called for an Adornian philosophy of history open enough to allow progress without requiring it. The task of progressive history would be, fitting with Adorno’s “determinate negation,” to extract progress step-by-step from the regressive historical problems with which we are confronted. This process would define progress not as teleological but as free-standing, open, and even anarchic.

Yet this critical operation remains as difficult as ever, and several speakers questioned its political efficacy. Max Pensky’s presentation on “disappointment,” noted the difficulty of Adorno’s uneasy hybrid of philosophy and empirical social theory. Since negative dialectics offers no moral sanctuary or inner realm, a critical thinker must be both in the midst of objects and outside them. Yet philosophy’s isolation from the world, its essential “loneliness,” would also seem to entail permanent disappointment. Pensky’s reading of Negative Dialectics as an anti-progress narrative was sharpened by the observation that progress for Adorno means that “the next Auschwitz will be less bad”—echoing the title of a recent book on Adorno’s practical philosophy, Living Less Wrongly. Pensky began from Negative Dialectics’ opening line: “Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed.” This recalls Hegel’s image of the “owl of Minerva,” whereby philosophy always comes too late to shape the present that has always already outpaced it. Marx’s last “Thesis on Feuerbach” subsequently called for philosophy to stop interpreting the world and start changing it. For Maeve Cooke (University College Dublin), who sought to reconcile Adorno’s apparent “resignation” with a form of political protest, Adorno always seems in the end to side with Hegel against the possibility of changing history. Seeing no way to square Adorno’s thought with Horkheimer’s early conception of critical theory as inherently emancipatory for the proletariat, Cooke instead proposed an analogy with the “vagabond” or “resistant” politics of the French novelist Jean Genet, who participated in activism from Algeria to the Black Panthers but refused to ever sign a manifesto or explicitly declare his revolutionary intentions. In his response to Pensky, Rosen connected Adorno’s disappointment to present responses to the election of Donald Trump: like Auschwitz for Adorno, Trump represents for the intellectual left today the sudden dissolution of a shared humanistic project of an ongoing, regulative commitment to liberal Enlightenment values.

One of the final panels on aesthetics led the participants, at the urging of Lydia Goehr (Columbia), into the sunny renaissance-styled courtyard, where a makeshift “chapel” was arranged.

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Peter Gordon, Lydia Goehr, Espen Hammer, and Lambert Zuidervaart (author’s photo)

The session addressed a question raised earlier by Brian O’Connor (University College Dublin) as to whether, if intuitions of truth are in the end not “reportable” in language, philosophy is not therefore “singular,” or fundamentally lonely. Goehr and Bernstein noted that, for Adorno, only particular, fragmentary works of art can be true precisely in their singularity and incommunicability. It is the negativity of this aesthetic that gestures toward utopia, for, as Adorno wrote, “In semblance nonsemblance is promised.” Goehr convincingly argued for the centrality of aesthetics in Adorno’s negative dialectics: his notion of “necessary semblance” holds that art does not merely point toward rational truth, but rather constitutes a conception of truth that is itself aesthetic.

As Pickford remarked, Adorno has at once been seen as a failed Marxist, a closeted Heideggerian, and a precocious postmodernist. Peter Sloterdijk has critiqued him for positing “a priori pain,” while Georg Lukacs accused him of taking up residence in the “Grand Hotel Abyss.” Adorno may have been among the loneliest of philosophers and yet, as Seyla Benhabib reminded us, he was also a Sozialpädagog for a generation of Germans who listened to his lectures and unrelenting radio addresses on everything from classical music to “working through” the Nazi past. Perhaps it is on account of, and not in spite of, such contradictions that Adorno continues to engage philosophers, Germanists, political theorists, and intellectual historians in equal measure. Martin Jay no doubt spoke for many in the room when he aptly dedicated his paper: “Many thanks to Teddie Adorno, who’s been troubling our sleep since the 1970s.”

Jonathon Catlin is a PhD student in History at Princeton University, where he studies modern European intellectual history. He is particularly interested in responses to catastrophe in German and Jewish thought.

Foucault from Beyond the Grave

by guest contributor Michael C. Behrent

Few living thinkers have been as prolific as the dead Michel Foucault. In the thirty-two years since his death, he has published thirteen book-length lecture courses, four volumes of interviews and papers (totaling over 3,500 pages), and countless bootlegs. Meanwhile, the fourth volume of his History of Sexuality, completed shortly before his death, sits, inaccessible to all, in an archive in Normandy—a rare text to have found no way around his estate’s prohibition on posthumous publications.

His will notwithstanding, one can only imagine that Foucault himself would have reacted to this state of affairs with a caustic laugh. For as two recently published volumes remind us, Foucault was haunted by the bond between language and death, as well as the notion that writing always, in a sense, comes from “beyond the grave.”

41pbmufcnrlThe two books in question both appear in a series put out by the Éditions de l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales called Audiographie, which publishes texts that were first delivered in a spoken form. La grande étrangère (The Great Foreigner, 2013), consists of a radio program on madness and literature from 1963, two lectures on literature given in Brussels in 1964, and a talk on the Marquis de Sade delivered at SUNY Buffalo in 1970. The other, Le beau danger (The Beautiful Danger, 2011), is the transcript of an extended interview on the theme of writing that Foucault gave to the literary critic and journalist Claude Bonnefoy in 1968, but which has never before appeared in print.

If there is a common theme linking these interventions, it is that of Foucault’s obsession with the connection between writing and death. The texts in these volumes all deal with literature and writing; the problem of death figured prominently in the literary essays that Foucault, in the 1960s, devoted to Bataille, Blanchot, and Roussel. Yet what the Audiographie books make clear is that the problem of literature and death was not, for Foucault, some esoteric side problem. It was integral to the ideas he was developing in his major publications. Thus modern literature exemplifies, Foucault maintains, the fact that the modern mind is steeped in what, in The Order of Things (1966), he dubbed the “analytic of finitude.” One of the many consequences of the growing consciousness of the radically finite character of human existence that follows the death of God is, he argues, the enormous significance that modern society assigns to literature. The value we attribute to literature is inseparable, Foucault suggests, from a cultural horizon shaped by human mortality.

In the 1964 Brussels lectures, Foucault contends that early modern Europe (during what he calls “the classical age”) did not, strictly speaking, have literature—at least in the way we have since come to understand the term—for the simple reason that it interpreted itself culturally as the tributary of the word of God. People in this period, of course, wrote novels. Some even experimented with the kind of knowing self-consciousness about their own literary artifices—referring in writing to the fact that they were writing—that would later become associated with literary modernism (Foucault offers a fascinating analysis, for instance, of Diderot’s Jacques le fataliste). Yet what distinguishes these earlier endeavor from the literature of the modern age is the fact that, during the classical age, “any work of language existed as a function of a certain mute and primitive language, that the work was charged with restoring.” This “language that [came] before languages” was the “word of God, it was the truth, it was the model” (La Grande étrangère, 100). Rhetoric was the means through which human utterances, in all their obtuseness, could acquire something of the limpidity of divine speech. But what we have come to call literature only emerges once God has died—or become dumb, to be precise. Literature is the attempt from within the unremitting chatter of discourse to mark language, to dent it, possibly to re-enchant or overcome it—hence modern literature’s frequently transgressive character. But once it has ceased to represent the word of God, once it has become simple the words filling a page, literature becomes an emblem of human finitude. As such, it cannot be other than “beyond the grave” (104).

Foucault’s claim that, strictly speaking, literature does not exist as an independent realm of discourse until the late eighteenth century parallels the claim he would soon make in The Order of Things that “man” (in the sense of the “human”) did not exist as a specific object of knowledge until the same period. The birth of the human sciences and the genesis of literature are both, Foucault, maintains, consequences of t God’s retreat.

The problem of writing also lies at the heart of Foucault’s 1970 lecture on Sade. His question is simply: why did Sade write? What compelled him to fill volume after volume with his transgressive yet mind-numbingly repetitive fantasies? Foucault’s analysis is characteristically complex, yet his argument harkens back, however indirectly, to the themes of the Brussels lecture. Sade’s libertinism is, needless to say, directed against God. Yet it is not atheistic as such; God is not dismissed as mere illusion. God, Sade believes, exists, but as an abomination, as evidenced by the “meanness” (méchanceté) of the world—and indeed, by the fact that there are libertines. In Sade’s peculiar logic (which Foucault calls “anti-Russellian” [199]), it is because God is abominable that it is necessary that he not exist. This theme illustrates what Foucault sees as the ultimate function of Sade’s writing: the intertwining of discourse, truth, and desire. Sade needs God “insofar as he does not exist, and insofar as he must be destroyed at each instant” (204), as both his writing and his desire depend on him.

41W+Fo8Tv1L.jpgThe reason Sade wrote is thus because in discourse, truth and desire become enmeshed in spirals of reciprocal stimulation and impulsion. Yet his originality, Foucault claims, lies in the way he emancipated desire from truth’s tutelage, pulling it out from under “the great Platonic edifice that ordered desire on truth’s sovereignty” (218). The point is not (as with Freud) that desire has its own truth, which is more or less hypocritically covered up by social norms; it is also, Foucault seems to be saying, that truth is a form of desire. Truth is not the neutral and transparent element through which words can name beings. It is a libidinal force, as seen in Sade’s relentless insistence, despite his novels’ preposterous plots, that he is telling the truth. Foucault’s account of the truth function in Sade recalls the themes of his first Collège de France lectures, on the “will to knowledge” in ancient Greece, which he would deliver the following year: the sophists, who believed that arguments are not proven logically, but won or lost like battles, resemble in many ways Sade’s approach to writing. Language, here, is no longer just a rumbling murmur that literature seeks to transform into a voice. God is dead, and we—or our truth-creating discourse—have killed him.

Yet at least according to Foucault’s position in Le Beau danger, language—or at least writing—has less to do with killing than with—as he put it in Madness and Civilization—the “already thereness of death” (“le déjà là de la mort”; cf. Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique (Paris: Gallimard, 1972 [1961]), 26). Foucault explains: “I would say that writing, for me, is tied to death, perhaps essentially to the death of others, but that does not mean that writing would be like murdering others,” in a way that “would open before me a free and sovereign space.” Writing, rather, means “dealing with others insofar as they are already dead. I speak, in a sense, over the corpses of others. I must confess, I kind of postulate their death” (Le Beau danger, 36-37).

In this sense, the death of God, Foucault suggests, is not only the cultural situation that his thought attempts to assess; it is the condition of possibility of his own work. The idea of writing as a form of resurrection, a way of rendering present the “living word” of “men and—most likely—God” is, he says, “profoundly alien” to him. Writing, for Foucault, is “the drifting that follows death, and not the progression to the source of life.” He muses: “It is perhaps in this sense that my form of language is profoundly anti-Christian”—even more so than themes that he addresses (39).

In these texts, the reader will find few of the concepts for which Foucault is best known. There is no or little mention of archaeology, epistemes, genealogy, or power (discourse is the one exception, though it is discussed in a far less technical manner than in, say, The Archaeology of Knowledge). What they remind us of are the philosophical preoccupations that presided over his early work—and that no doubt continued to shape his later thought, works such as Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality, albeit in a more subterranean way. Here, we have a Foucault concerned with finitude, mortality, and the death of God. Perhaps this Foucault is in need of—how else to put it?—resurrection.

Michael C. Behrent teaches modern European history at Appalachian State University. He is currently working on a book exploring the origins of Foucault’s project.