intellectual history

Introduction: Special Forum on Christianity and Human Rights

By Udi Greenberg (Dartmouth College) and Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins (Yale University)

We are delighted to bring you the Introduction to the Special Forum on Christianity and Human Rights that appears in the latest issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas, by kind permission of the Journal, the University of Pennsylvania Press, and Project MUSE. You can find the Project MUSE page for this introduction here, and the entirety of volume 79, number 3 here.

The intellectual roots of human rights have been a source of much debate, but Christianity’s role in shaping the language of universal equality has been especially controversial. Historians agree that prominent Catholic philosophers, such as Jacques Maritain, were crucial in crafting and popularizing theories of rights, and that Protestant activists, such as American Protestant Frederick Nolde, were instrumental in drafting the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet the lessons that scholars draw from this genealogy are diverse. For some, such as John Nurser, history reveals Christianity as the crucial engine of the modern era’s most celebrated concept. Christians may have engaged in countless brutalities over the centuries, but the Gospel’s universal aspirations also helped bolster peaceful endeavors. Others, such as Samuel Moyn and Joan Scott, have instead claimed that the marriage of Christianity and rights reflect how deeply the language of universal equality preserved traditional hierarchies. Human rights and religious freedom, they claim, were forged by Christian Western Europeans, and were meant to combat Marxists, feminists, Muslims, and anti-colonial activists. In this provocative narrative, the concept of rights was never an equalizing force. Rather, it helped—and still helps today—sustain political, gender, and social inequalities.

This recent debate has centered on the nature of rights, but the essays assembled in this forum seek to push the discussion in a new direction. The authors explore Christian engagement with the idea of rights to better understand the scope and evolution of Christian thought over the last two centuries. Indeed, if the project of mapping human rights’ origins and ascendancy may be now reaching its conclusion, scholars still have much to say on Christianity’s seminal role in shaping modern politics, ideologies, and culture. Having long stood on the margins of modern intellectual history, thinkers who self-identified foremost as Christian—theologians, philosophers, and social theorists—have received growing attention. Protestants and Catholics alike developed comprehensive visions of economic, social, and sexual relations, and repeatedly sought to explain the Gospel’s message regarding varied topics such as Judaism, racial tensions, marriage, and international politics. These projects—which often defied the secular categories of left and right—enjoyed considerable influence, especially in Europe and North America where Christianity remained dominant. They often resonated well beyond theological seminaries and churches, inspiring state laws and policies in a variety of regimes, in colonial, democratic, fascist, or authoritarian settings. Rights often figured prominently in these efforts, as thinkers sought to explain who has what rights and under what conditions. The concept of rights therefore provides a crucial window to an expansive and ongoing intellectual effort.

What is more, exploring the ways in which Christian thinkers grappled with rights helps chart the dramatic shifts that characterized Christianity in the modern era. While the nature and meaning of Christianity had never been stable and was always contested, the centuries that followed the French Revolution brought a new kind of turmoil. Protestants and Catholics confronted a proliferation of ideological projects rooted in non-religious and even atheist assumptions, such as utilitarian morality, racial science, and socialist revolution. For many Christians, secularism’s assumed corrosive impact necessitated a recalibration of Christian life. Many came to believe that if the Gospel were to triumph, the churches would have to rethink their approach to state institutions, foster new alliances with other Christian denominations, and even treat other religious groups (such as Jews or Confucians) as legitimate. Debating the scope and nature of rights stood at the heart of these efforts. Tracing the trajectories of these disputes helps shed light on the complex redrawing of Christianity’s content and borders.

The following essays uncover diverse Christian reflections on rights, from their first sustained appearance in the late eighteenth century until their zenith in the mid-twentieth century. They examine how a panoply of thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic, largely Catholic but also Protestant, utilized rights to rethink Christianity. Taken together, they offer new ways of understanding the transformations of Christian thought in one of its most dynamic and fascinating periods.

Udi Greenberg is an associate professor of European history at Dartmouth College. He is currently writing a book titled Religious Pluralism in the Age of Violence: Catholics and Protestants from Animosity to Peace, 1879-1970.
Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins is a lecturer at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. He is currently writing a book for Columbia University Press titled, The Neoconservative Moment in France: Raymond Aron and the United States

Graduate Forum: The Radical African American Twentieth Century

This is the third in a series of commentaries in our Graduate Forum on Pathways in Intellectual History, which is running this summer. The first piece was by Andrew Klumpp, the second by Cynthia Houng.

This third piece is by guest contributor Robert Greene II.

“Remember the ladies.” This is a line from Abigail Adams’ famous letter to her husband, John Adams, defending the idea of rights and equality for women. “Remember the ladies,” however, could easily also serve as the defining idea of modern African American intellectual history. Many historians of the African American intellectual tradition have taken great pains to emphasize the importance—indeed, the centrality—of African American women to that intellectual milieu. At the same time, other fundamental questions have been raised of not just who to privilege in this new turn in African American intellectual history, but what sources are appropriate for intellectual history. Finally, the ways in which the public remembers the past animates newer trends in African American intellectual history. In short, African American intellectual history’s recent historiographic turns offer much food for thought for all intellectual historians.

 

The field of African American intellectual history has come a long way since the heyday of historians August Meier and Earlie E. Thorpe, both prominent in the then-nascent field of African American intellectual history in the 1960s. Meier’s Negro Thought in America, 1880-1915 and Thorpe’s The Mind of the Negro: An Intellectual History of Afro-Americans were both written in the 1960s and set the standard for African American intellectual history for decades to come. Both books were focused heavily on male intellectuals, however. As such they both set the standard for the field and, along with so much of African American history up until the late 1980s, left out the important voices of many African American women.

The rise of historians like Evelyn Higginbotham in the early 1990s ushered in new ways of understanding the intersection of race and gender through American history. Her book Righteous Discontent (1992) and essay “African American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race” (1992) both provided templates for how to easily meld women’s history and African American history into texts that became essential works of understanding the past through viewpoints and sources normally ignored by most male historians.

Today, the field of African American intellectual history has been influenced by the evolution of several related fields: African American women’s history and Black Power studies. Both fields have attempted to both overturn older assumptions about African American history and do so by focusing on previously marginalized sources and historical figures. Much of the recent historiographic trends in African American history—namely, a deeper understanding of Black Nationalism and its relationship to broader ideological trends in both Black America and the African Diaspora—would not have been possible without both a deeper understanding of the importance of gender to African American history, and a willingness to expand the definition of who are “important” intellectuals “worthy” of study.

In just the last year alone, numerous books about the intersection of Black Nationalism and gender have challenged earlier assumptions about the histories of both fields in relationship to African American history. Both Keisha Blain’s Set the World On Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018) and Ashley D. Farmer’s Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era (UNC Press, 2017) stretch the time period in which historians should understand the origins of Black Power—getting further away from just understanding the 1960s-era context and situating Black Power and larger Black Nationalist trends in a long era of resistance and struggle led and strategized by African American women.

Set the World on Fire follows up on other works about the Black Nationalism of the 1920s, arguing that it did not end with Marcus Garvey’s deportation from the United States in 1927. Instead, argues Blain, it was women such as his spouse Amy Jacques Garvey who kept Black Nationalist fervor alive across the United States. Meanwhile, Farmer’s book shows how the ideas of women associated with the Black Power movement of the 1960s owe a great deal to the longer arc of radical black women’s history in the twentieth century—from the agitation of black women within the Communist left of the 1930s and stretching well into the 1970s and 1980s. For Farmer, the history of a radical black nationalism does not end with the collapse of the Black Panther Party in the late 1970s.

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Amy Jacques Garber, with her husband, Marcus Garvey.

 

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Derrick White’s The Challenge of Blackness: The Institute of the Black World and Political Activism in the 1970s (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2011)

Meanwhile, other trends within African American intellectual history point to the utilization of previously ignored or forgotten sources to provide a deeper understanding of the past. Derrick White’s The Challenge of Blackness: The Institute of the Black World and Political Activism in the 1970s (University Press of Florida, 2011) argues for diving deeper into relatively recent African American intellectual history to provide a fuller picture of the post-Civil Rights Movement era. For White, the African American think tank was an important ideological clearing house for not just African Americans, but the broader Left in the 1970s.

 

A third movement within the field is the study of African American history itself. Pero Dagbovie has led the way in this, writing several key works detailing the rise of African American history over a broad timespan. Works such as African American History Reconsidered (University of Illinois Press, 2010) and The Early Black History Movement (University of Illinois Press, 2007) detail not only historiographic trends in the field, but the ways in which the institutions necessary for the growth of African American history were born and nurtured against the backdrop of Jim Crow segregation.

Finally, the importance of understanding memory to African American intellectual history has changed the way African American intellectual historians think about the intersection of ideas with public discourse. In reality, much of the understanding of “memory” by African American intellectual historians concerns forgetting by the vast public. Books such as Jeanne Theoharis’s A More Beautiful and Terrible History (Beacon Press, 2018) emphasizes how much of the American mainstream media—along with most politicians—have been complicit in hiding the deeper, more complicated histories of the Black freedom struggle in the United States.

African American intellectual history offers plenty of new opportunity for scholars interested in linking intellectual history to other sub-fields. African American activists and intellectuals never existed in a vacuum, whether geographic or ideological. They made alliances with a variety of groups and forces, all for the sake of freedom across the African diaspora. The new turns in African American intellectual history reflect this aspect of black history.

Robert Greene II is a Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Claflin University. He studies American intellectual and political history since 1945 and is the book review editor for the Society of US Intellectual Historians.

Dispatches from Princeton’s History of Science Colloquium: Jutta Schickore’s “Contributions to a History of Experimental Controls”

By Guest Contributor Alison McManus

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Prof. Jutta Schickore

Princeton’s History of Science Colloquium series recently welcomed Jutta Schickore, professor of History and Philosophy of Science at Indiana University, to present a talk titled, “Contributions to a History of Experimental Controls.” In addition to her position at Indiana University, Schickore is a member of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study for the 2017–18 academic year. As I listened to her talk earlier this month, I found myself fully immersed in uncharted territory. Experimental controls are themselves an under-studied problem, but Schickore’s attention to the practice of experimental controls rendered her project a truly novel intervention. Though her project remains in its early stages of development, it no doubt pinpoints the need to historicize the “controlled experiment,” and it lays further claim to the established strategy of examining experimenters’ practical concerns prior to grand scientific theories.

 

 

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John Stuart Mill

Schickore’s scholarship is better defined by theme than by scientific discipline. Her previous monographs examine the long history of the microscope (2007) and a yet longer history of snake venom research from the seventeenth to the twentieth century (2017). Both monographs emphasize debates about scientific method, and the latter is particularly attentive to nonlinear, contingent methodological developments, which stem from the intricacies of experimental work rather than unified theory. Schickore’s current project extends this approach to new territory. Despite their manifest importance to scientific work, experimental controls have rarely been a topic of inquiry for historians and philosophers of science. The unique exception is Edward Boring’s 1954 paper in the American Journal of Psychology, in which he distinguished between colloquial and scientifically rigorous uses of the term “control.” In a further move, he identified John Stuart Mill’s “method of difference” as the first notion of a controlled experiment, a concept that Mill outlined in A System of Logic (1843). Boring’s identification of a theoretical rather than experimental origin of “control” reflects the state of the field prior to the “material turn” of the 1990s, and the time has come to integrate the controlled experiment into studies of scientific practice.

 

Even with a precise definition of the term, any effort to identify the first controlled experiment will likely end in failure. Probing the origins of the term’s modern popularity is a far more productive exercise. A preliminary Google search indicates that the term rose to prominence in late nineteenth-century scientific scholarship, and the same is true of its German counterpart (Kontrollversuch/Controllversuch). In order to identify the roots of its popularity, Schickore selects case studies from ostensibly marginal German agricultural field trials nearly one century before the “controlled experiment” took a prominent position in the scientific literature.

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Wilhelm August Lampadius

The German pharmacists Sigismund Friedrich Hermbstädt and Wilhelm August Lampadius both sought to apply their chemical expertise toward agricultural production in the early nineteenth century. Both men had engaged with Lavoisier’s chemistry in their work, albeit to differing degrees. Whereas Lampadius was a staunch advocate of Lavoisier’s theory, Hermbstädt remained closer to the German chemical tradition, despite having published translations of Lavoisier’s work. Hermbstädt and Lampadius conducted near-contemporaneous field trials on fertilizer, both seeking to minimize product loss and thereby improve Germany’s economic position. However, theirs and others’ experiments reveal an inconsistent, multivalent use of the term “control.” Schickore notes that “control” occasionally served its now-familiar function as an unmanipulated unit of comparison, as in the case of Hermbstädt’s comparative category of “infertile land.” Yet Hermbstädt and Lampadius also used the concept in conjunction with other management terms. A third notion of control emerged as improved apparatuses for organic analysis began to circulate in the mid-nineteenth century. In addition to making Lavoisier’s approach less costly for agricultural scientists, these novel instruments enabled scientists to perform repeat analyses and apply different analytic methods to the same problem.

 

 

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Sigismund Friedrich Hermbstädt. Line engraving by G. A. Lehmann, 1808 (Wellcome Collection).

To add to this already complex terrain of meanings, Schickore notes that even in its most familiar scientific usage, the controlled experiment poses an implicit epistemological problem. When designing an experiment, each researcher must select which features shall remain unmanipulated, according to their own worldview. In the case of Hermbstädt’s experiments, his aforementioned category of “infertile land” meant land devoid of organic matter—a reflection of his vitalist notion of plant nutrition. Schickore’s observations identify a dire need to historicize both the text and the subtext of experimental controls.

 

The experience of my young career has led me to approach historical questions with a sort of inverse Occam’s razor, which holds that the more nuanced and heterogeneous causal accounts are the better ones. By turning away from theorists’ concerns and engaging instead with experimenters’ array of pragmatic preoccupations, the historian of science vastly expands her sites of methodological and conceptual production. Given Hermbstädt’s and Lampadius’s keen sensitivity to economic exigencies and technological innovation, I imagine that the larger field of nineteenth-century European agricultural science also developed its methods in conjunction with site-specific economic and instrumental circumstances. Schickore’s approach promises to extract a fruitful bounty of experimental practices from this uneven terrain of pragmatic concerns.

Alison McManus is a Ph.D. student in History of Science at Princeton University, where she studies twentieth-century chemical sciences. She is particularly interested in the development and deployment of chemical weapons technologies.

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.

The challenge of contingency and Leibniz’s cybernetic thinking

By guest contributor Audrey Borowski

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Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, painted by Christoph Bernhard Francke

According to the philosopher of science Alexandre Koyré, the early modern period marked the passage ‘from the world of more-or-less to the universe of precision’. Not all thinkers greeted the mathematization of epistemology with the same enthusiasm: for the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, this marked a watershed moment when modern nihilism had taken root in the shape of the reduction of the world to calculation and recently culminated with the emergence of cybernetics. One of the main culprits of this trend was none other than the German mathematician and polymath Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), who in the late seventeenth century invented the calculus and envisaged a binary mathematical system. Crucially, Leibniz had concerned himself with the formalization and the mechanization of the thought process either through the invention of actual calculating machines or the introduction of a universal symbolic language – his so-called ‘Universal characteristic’– which relied purely on logical operations. Ideally, this would form the basis for a general science (mathesis universalis). According to this scheme, all disputes would be ended by the simple imperative ‘Gentlemen, let us calculate!’

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A graphic representation of second-order cybernetics by Mark Côté

For having mechanized reasoning, cyberneticist Norbert Wiener touted Leibniz as a ‘patron saint for cybernetics’ (Wiener 1965, p. 12) in the ‘Introduction’ to his 1948 seminal work Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. In it, he settled on the term ‘kybernetes’, the ‘steersman’ to describe a novel type of automatic and self-correcting reasoning which consisted in the deployment of mathematics, notably via a feedback mechanism, towards the domestication of contingency and unpredictability. Cybernetics does not ‘drive toward the ultimate truth or solution, but is geared toward narrowing the field of approximations for better technical results by minimizing on entropy––but never being able to produce a system that would be at an entropy of zero…. In all of this, [it] is dealing with data as part of its feedback mechanism for increasing the probability of a successful event in the future (or in avoiding unwanted events).’

Cybernetic applications are ubiquitous today from anti-aircraft systems to cryptography; an anti-aircraft system, for instance, receives input data on a moving target and delivers the navigation of bullet to the target as output after a computing process.  Cybernetics’ aim is first and foremost practical and its method probabilistic: through the constant refining of the precision of a prediction, it helps steer action through the selection between probabilities. Under those conditions, a constant process of becoming is subordinated to a weak form of determinism; real infinite complexity is deferred in favour of logical symbolism and ‘disorganization’, that ‘arch-enemy’ endemic to intense mutability as Nobert Wiener put it, gives way to ontological prediction.

In his works The Taming of Chance and The Emergence of Probability Ian Hacking traced the emergence of probabilistic thinking away from deterministic causation. In fact and against commonly-held positivist narratives of the triumph of objective rationality, historians of mathematics generally acknowledge that the seventeenth century witnessed the birth of both probability theory and modern probabilism perhaps most famously epitomized by Pascal’s Wager. With the emergence of contingency, the question of its conceptualization became all the more pressing.

Perhaps no thinker was more aware of this imperative than Leibniz. Leibniz is often portrayed as an arch-rationalist and yet he did not view pure deduction as sufficient for reasoning; the ‘statics’ inherent to his characteristic (Leibniz, 1677) were simply ill-suited to a constantly evolving practical reality. Finite calculation needed to be complemented by probabilistic reasoning (1975, p. 135) which would better embrace the infinite complexity and evolving nature of reality. Although the author of a conjectural history of the world, The Protogaea, Leibniz did not merely conjecture about the past, but also sought to come to grips with the future and the state of mutability of the world. To this end, he pioneered the collection of statistical data and probabilistic reasoning especially with regards to the advancement of the modern state or the public good (Taming of Chance, 18). Leibniz had pored over degrees of probability as early as his 1665 law degree essay De conditionibus and the ability to transmute uncertainty into (approximate) certainty in conditions of constant mutability remained a lifelong preoccupation. More specifically, he set out to meet the challenge of mutability with what appears as a cybernetic solution.

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An example of Leibniz’s diagrammatic reasoning

In a series of lesser-known texts Leibniz explored the limits and potentially dangerous ramifications of finite cognition, and the necessity for flexible and recursive reasoning. In 1693 Leibniz penned The Horizon of the Human Doctrine, a thought experiment which he subtitled: ‘Meditation on the number of all possible truths and falsities, enunciable by humanity such as we know it to be; and on the number of feasible books. Wherein it is demonstrated that these numbers are finite, and that it is possible to write, and easy to conceive, a much greater number. To show the limits of the human spirit [l’esprit humain], and to know the extent to these limits’. Building on his enduring fascination with combinatorial logic that had begun as a teenager in 1666 with his De Arte Combinatoria and had culminated ten years later with his famous ‘Universal Characteristic’, he set out to ‘show the limits of the human spirit, and to know the extent to these limits’. Following in the footsteps of Clavius, Mersenne and Guldin, Leibniz reached the conclusion that, through the combination of all 23 letters of the alphabet, it would be possible to calculate the number of all possible truths. Considering their prodigious, albeit ultimately finite number, there would inevitably come a point in time when all possible variations would have been exhausted and the ‘horizon’ of human doctrine would be reached and when nothing could be said or written that had not been expressed before (nihil dici, quod non dictum sit prius) (p. 52). The exhaustion of all possibilities would give way to repetition.

In his two later treatments on the theme of apokatastasis, or ‘universal restitution’, Leibniz took this reasoning one step further by exploring the possible ramifications of the limits of human utterability for reality.  In them, he extended the rule of correspondence between possible words to actual historical events. For instance, since ‘facts supply the matter for discourse’ (p. 57), it would seem, by virtue of this logic, that events themselves must eventually exhaust all possible combinations. Accordingly, all possible public, as well as individual histories, would be exhausted in a number of years, inevitably incurring a recurrence of events, whereby the exact same circumstances would repeat themselves, returning ‘such as it was before.’ (p.65):

‘[S]uppose that one day nothing is said that had not already been said before; then there must also be a time when the same events reoccur and when nothing happens which did not happen before, since events provide the matter for words.’

In a passage he later decided to omit, Leibniz even muses about his own return, writing once again the same letters to the same friends.

Now from this it follows: if the human race endured long enough in its current state, there would be a time when the same life of certain individuals would return in detail through the very same circumstances. I myself, for example, would be living in a city called Hanover situated on the river Leine, occupied with the history of Brunswick, and writing letters to the same friends with the same meaning. [Fi 64]

Leibniz contemplated the doctrine of Eternal Return, but it was incompatible with his metaphysical understanding of the world. Ultimately, he reasserted the primacy of the infinite complexity of the world over finite combinatorics. Beneath the superficial similarity of events – and thus of description- lay a trove of infinite differences which superseded any finite number of combinations: paradoxically, ‘even if a previous century returns with respect to sensible things or which can be described by books, it will not return completely in all respects: since there will always be differences although imperceptible and such that could not be sufficiently described in any book however long it is.’. [Fi 72]’   Any repetition of event was thus only apparent; each part of matter contained the ‘world of an infinity of creatures’ which ensured that truths of fact ‘could be diversified to infinity’ (p. 77).

To this epistemological quandary Leibniz opposed a ‘cybernetic’ solution whereby the analysis of the infinite ‘detail’ of contingent reality would open up a field of constant epistemological renewal which lay beyond finite combinatorial language, raising the prospect of an ‘infinite progress in knowledge’ for those spirits ‘in search of truth.’ (p. 59) The finite number of truths expressible by humans at one particular moment in time would be continuously updated to adapt itself to the mutability and progress of the contingent world. ‘Sensible truths’ could ‘always supply new material and new items of knowledge, i.e. in theorems increasing in length’ in this manner permitting knowledge to approach reality asymptotically. In this manner, the theoretical limits which had been placed upon human knowledge could be indefinitely postponed, in the process allowing for incrementally greater understanding of nature through constant refinement.

Leibniz thus set forth an ingenious solution in the shape of a constantly updated finitude which would espouse the perpetually evolving infinity of concrete reality. By adopting what may be termed a ‘cybernetic’ solution avant la lettre, he offered a model, albeit linear and continuous, which could help reconcile determinism and probabilism, finite computation and infinite reality and freedom and predictability. Probabilism here served to induce and sustain a weak form of determinism, one which, in keeping with the nature of contingency itself as defined by Leibniz, ‘inclined’ rather than ‘necessitated’.

Audrey Borowski is a historian of ideas at the University of Oxford.

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

By guest contributor Pranav Kumar Jain

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt, Brothers of Continuity

By guest contributor Audrey Borowski

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, a young German polymath ventured into the heart of the South American jungle, climbed the Chimborazo volcano, crawled through the Andes, conducted experiments on animal electricity, and delineated climate zones across continents.  His name was Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859). With the young French scientist Aimé Bonpland and equipped with the latest instruments, Humboldt tirelessly collected and compared data and specimens, returning after five years to Paris with trunks filled with notebooks, sketches, specimens, measurements, and observations of new species. Throughout his travels in South America, Russia and Mongolia, he invented isotherms and formulated the idea of vegetation and climate zones. Crucially, he witnessed the continuum of nature unfold before him and set forth a new understanding of nature that has endured up to this day. Man existed in a great chain of causes and effects in which “no single fact can be considered in isolation.” Humboldt sought to discover the “connections which linked all phenomena and all forces of nature.” The natural world was teeming with organic powers that were incessantly at work and which, far from operating in isolation, were all “interlaced and interwoven.” Nature, he wrote, was “a reflection of the whole” and called for a global understanding. Humboldt’s Essay on the Geography of Plants (1807) was the world’s first book on ecology in which plants were grouped into zones and regions rather than taxonomic units and analogies drawn between disparate regions of the globe.

In this manner, Alexander sketched out a Naturgemälde, a “painting of nature” that fused botany, geology, zoology and physics in one single picture, and in this manner broke away from prevailing taxonomic representations of the natural world. His was a fundamentally interdisciplinary approach, at a time when scientific inquiry was becoming increasingly specialized. The study of the natural world was no abstract endeavor and was far removed from the mechanistic philosophy that had held sway up till then. Nature was the object of scientific inquiry, but also of wonder and as such, it exerted a mysterious pull. Man was firmly relocated within a living cosmos broader than himself, which appealed equally to his emotions and imagination. From the heart of the jungle to the summit of volcanoes, “nature everywhere [spoke] to man in a voice that is familiar to his soul” and what spoke to the soul, Humboldt wrote, “escapes our measurements” (Views of Nature, 217-18). In this manner Humboldt followed in the footsteps of Goethe, his lifelong friend, and the German philosopher Friedrich Schelling, in particular the latter’s Naturphilosophie (“philosophy of nature”). Nature was a living organism it was necessary to grasp in its unity, and its study should steer away from “crude empiricism” and the “dry compilation of facts” and instead speak to “our imagination and our spirit.” In this manner, rigorous scientific method was wedded to art and poetry and the boundaries between the subjective and the objective, the internal and the external were blurred. “With an aesthetic breeze,” Alexander’s long-time friend Goethe wrote, the former had lit science into a “bright flame” (quoted in Wulf, The Invention of Nature, 146).

Alexander von Humboldt’s older brother, Wilhelm (1767-1835), a government official with a great interest in reforming the Prussian educational system, had been similarly inspired. While his brother had ventured out into the jungle, Wilhelm, on his side, had devoted much of his life to the exploration of the linguistic realm, whether in his study of Native American and ancient languages or in his attempts to grasp the relation between linguistic and mental structures. Like the German philosopher and literary critic Johann Gottfried Herder before him, Humboldt posited that language, far from being a merely a means of communication, was the “formative organ” (W. Humboldt, On the Diversity of Human Language, 54) of thought. According to this view, man’s judgmental activity was inextricably bound up with his use of language. Humboldt’s linguistic thought relied on a remarkable interpretation of language itself: language was an activity (energeia) as opposed to a work or finished product (ergon). In On the Diversity of Human Language Construction and its Influence on the Mental Development of the Human Species (1836), his major treatise on language, Wilhelm articulated a forcefully expressivist conception of language, in which he brought to bear the interconnectedness and organic nature of all languages and by extension, various worldviews. Far from being a “dead product,” an “inert mass,” language appeared as a “fully-fashioned organism” that, within the remit of an underlying universal template, was free to evolve spontaneously, allowing for maximum linguistic diversity (90).

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Left to Right: Friedrich Schiller, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Alexander von Humboldt, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, depicted by Adolph Müller (c.1797)

To the traditional objectification of language, Wilhelm opposed a reading of language that was heavily informed by biology and physiology, in keeping with the scientific advances of his time. Within this framework, language could not be abstracted, interwoven as it was with the fabric of everyday life. Henceforth, there was no longer one “objective” way of knowing the world, but a variety of different worldviews. Like his brother, Wilhelm strove to understand the world in its individuality and totality.

At the heart of the linguistic process lay an in-built mechanism, a feedback loop that accounted for language’s ability to generate itself. This consisted in the continuous interplay between an external sound-form and an inner conceptual form, whose “mutual interpenetration constitute[d] the individual form of language” (54). In this manner, rhythms and euphonies played a role in expressing internal mental states. The dynamic and self-generative aspect of language was therefore inscribed in its very core. Language was destined to be in perpetual flux, renewal, affecting a continuous generation and regeneration of the world-making capacity powerfully spontaneous and autonomous force, it brought about “something that did not exist before in any constituent part” (473).

As much as the finished product could be analyzed, the actual linguistic process defied any attempt at scientific scrutiny, remaining inherently mysterious. Language may well abide by general rules, but it was fundamentally akin to a work of art, the product of a creative outburst which “cannot be measured out by the understanding” (81). Language, as much as it was rule-governed and called for empirical and scientific study, originated somewhere beyond semio-genesis. “Imagination and feeling,” Wilhelm wrote, “engender individual shapings in which the individual character […] emerges, and where, as in everything individual, the variety of ways in which the thing in question can be represented in ever-differing guises, extends to infinity” (81). Wilhelm therefore elevated language to a quasi-transcendental status, endowing it with a “life-principle” of its own and consecrating it as a “mental exhalation,” the manifestation of a free, autonomous spiritual force. He denied that language was the product of voluntary human activity, viewing instead as a “mental exhalation,” a “gift fallen to [the nations] by their own destiny” (24) partaking in a broader spiritual mission. In this sense, the various nations constituted diverse individualities pursuant of inner spiritual paths of their own, with each language existing as a spiritual creation and gradual unfolding:

If in the soul the feeling truly arises that language is not merely a medium of exchange for mutual understanding, but a true world which the intellect must set between itself and objects by the inner labour of its power, then the soul is on the true way toward discovering constantly more in language, and putting constantly more into it (135).

While he seemed to share his brother’s intellectual demeanor, Wilhelm disapproved of many of Alexander’s life-choices, from living in Paris rather than Berlin (particularly during the wars of liberation against Napoleon), which he felt was most unpatriotic, to leaving the civilized world in his attempts to come closer to nature (Wulf 151). Alexander, the natural philosopher and adventurer, on his side reproached his brother for his conservatism and social and political guardedness. In a time marred by conflict and the growth of nationalism, science, for him, had no nationality and he followed scientific activity wherever it took him, especially to Paris, where he was widely celebrated throughout his life. In a European context of growing repression and censorship in the wake of Napoleon’s defeat, he encouraged the free exchange of ideas and information, and pleaded for international collaborations between scientists and the collection of global data; truth would gradually emerge from the confrontation of different opinions. He also gave many lectures during which he would effortlessly hop from one subject to another, in this manner helping to popularize science. More generally, he would help other scholars whenever he could, intellectually or financially.

As the ideas of 1789 failed to materialize, giving way instead to a climate of censorship and repression, Alexander slowly grew disillusioned with politics. His extensive travels had provided him insights not only on the natural world but also on the human condition. “European barbarity,” especially in the shape of colonialism, tyranny and serfdom had fomented dissent and hatred. Even the newly-born American Republic, with its founding principles of liberty and the pursuit of happiness, was not immune to this scourge (Wulf 171). Man with his greed, violence and ignorance could be as barbaric to his fellow man as he was to nature. Nature was inextricably linked with the actions of mankind and the latter often left a trail of destruction in its wake through deforestation, ruthless irrigation, industrialization and intensive cultivation. “Man can only act upon nature and appropriate her forces to his use by comprehending her laws.” Alexander would later write in his life, and failure to do so would eventually leave even distant stars “barren” and “ravaged” (Wulf 353).

Furthermore, while Wilhelm was perhaps the more celebrated in his time, it was Alexander’s legacy that would prove the more enduring, inspiring new generations of nature writers, including the American founder of the transcendentalist movement Henry David Thoreau, who intended his masterpiece Walden as an answer to Humboldt’s Cosmos, John Muir, the great preservationist, or Ernst Haeckel, who discovered radiolarians and coined our modern science of ecology” Another noteworthy influence was on Darwin and his theory of evolution. Darwin took Humboldt’s web of complex relations a step further and turned them into a tree of life from which all organisms stem. Humboldt sought to upend the ideal of “cultivated nature,” most famously perpetuated by the French naturalist the Comte de Buffon, whereby nature had to be domesticated, ordered, and put to productive use. Crucially, he inspired a whole generation of adventurers, from Darwin to Joseph Banks, and revolutionized scientific practice by tearing the scientist away from the library and back into the wilderness.

For all their many criticisms and disagreements, both brothers shared a strong bond. Alexander, who survived Wilhelm by twenty-four years, emphasized again and again Wilhelm’s “greatness of the character” and his “depth of emotions,” as well as his “noble, still-moving soul life.” Both brothers carved out unique trajectories for themselves, the first as a jurist, a statesman and a linguist, the second arguably as the first modern scientist; yet both still remained beholden to the idea of totalizing systems, each setting forth insights that remain more pertinent than ever.

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Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt, from a frontispiece illustration of 1836

Audrey Borowski is a historian of ideas and a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford.

In Dread of Derrida

By guest contributor Jonathon Catlin

According to Ethan Kleinberg, historians are still living in fear of the specter of deconstruction; their attempted exorcisms have failed. In Haunting History: For a Deconstructive Approach to the Past (2017), Kleinberg fruitfully “conjures” this spirit so that historians might finally confront it and incorporate its strategies for representing elusive pasts. A panel of historians recently discussed the book at New York University, including Kleinberg (Wesleyan), Joan Wallach Scott (Institute for Advanced Study), Carol Gluck (Columbia), and Stefanos Geroulanos (NYU), moderated by Zvi Ben-Dor Benite (NYU). A recording of the lively two-hour exchange is available at the bottom of this post.

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Left to Right: Profs Geroulanos, Gluck, Kleinberg, and Scott

History’s ghost story goes back some decades. Hayden White’s Metahistory roiled the profession in 1973 by effectively translating the “linguistic turn” of the French deconstruction into historical terms: historical narratives are no less “emplotted” in genres like romance and comedy, and hence no less unstable, than literary ones. White sparked fierce debate, notably about the limits of representing the Holocaust, which took place alongside probes into the ethics of those of deconstruction’s heroes with ties to Nazism, including Martin Heidegger and Paul de Man. The intensity of these battles was arguably a product of hatred for one theorist in particular: Jacques Derrida, whose work forms the backbone of Kleinberg’s book. Yet despite decades of scholarship undermining the nineteenth-century, Rankean foundations of the historical discipline, the regime of what Kleinberg calls “ontological realism” apparently still reigns. His book is not simply the latest in a long line of criticism of such work, but rather a manifesto for a positive theory of historical writing that employs deconstruction’s linguistic and epistemological insights.

This timely intervention took place, as Scott remarked, “in a moment when the death of theory has been triumphantly proclaimed, and indeed celebrated, and when many historians have turned with relief to accumulating big data, or simply telling evidence-based stories about an unproblematic past.” She lamented that

the self-reflexive moment and the epistemological challenge associated with names like Foucault, Irigaray, Derrida, and Lacan—all those dangerous French theorists who integrated the very ground on which we stood—reality, truth, experience, language, the body—that moment is said to be past, a wrong turn taken; thankfully we’re now on the right course.

Scott praised Kleinberg’s book for haunting precisely this sense of “triumphalism.”

Kleinberg began his remarks with a disappointed but unsurprised reflection that most historians still operate under the spell of what he calls “ontological realism.” This methodology is defined by the attempt to recover historical events, which, insofar as they are observable, become “fixed and immutable.” This elides the difference between the “real” past and history (writing about the past), unwittingly taking “the map of the past,” or historical representation, as the past itself. It implicitly operates as if the past is a singular and discrete object available for objective retrieval. While such historians may admit their own uncertainty about events, they nevertheless insist that the events really happened in a certain way; the task is only to excavate them ever more exactly.

This dogmatism reigns despite decades of deconstructive criticism from the likes of White, Frank Ankersmit, and Dominick LaCapra in the pages of journals like History and Theory (of which Kleinberg is executive editor), which has immeasurably sharpened the self-consciousness of historical writing. In his 1984 History and Criticism, LaCapra railed against the “archival fetishism” then evident in social history, whereby the archive became “more than the repository of traces of the past which may be used in its inferential reconstruction” and took on the quality of “a stand-in for the past that brings the mystified experience of the thing itself” (p. 92, n. 17). If historians had read their Derrida, however, they would know that the past inscribed in writing “is ‘always already’ lost for the historian.” Scott similarly wrote in a 1991 Critical Inquiry essay: “Experience is at once always already an interpretation and is in need of interpretation.” As she cited from Kleinberg’s book, meaning is produced by reading a text, not released from it or simply reflected. Every text, no matter how documentary, is a “site of contestation and struggle” (15).

Kleinberg’s intervention is to remind us that this erosion of objectivity is not just a tragic story of decline into relativism, for a deconstructive approach also frees historians from the shackles of objectivism, opening up new sources and methodologies. White famously concluded in Metahistory that there were at the end of the day no “objective” or “scientific” reasons to prefer one way of telling a story to another, but only “moral or aesthetic ones” (434). With the acceptance of what White called the “Ironic” mode, which refused to privilege certain accounts of the past as definitive, also came a new freedom and self-consciousness. Kleinberg similarly revamps White’s Crocean conclusion that “all history is contemporary history,” reminding us that our present social and political preoccupations determine which voices we seek out and allow to speak in our work. We can never tell the authoritative history of a subject, but only construct a possible history of it.

Kleinberg relays the upside of deconstructive history more convincingly than White ever did: Opening up history beyond ontological realism makes room for “alternative pasts” to enter through the “present absences” in historiography. Contrary to historians’ best intentions, the hold of ontological positivism perversely closes out and renders illegible voices that do not fit with the dominant paradigm, who are marginalized to obscurity by the authority of each self-enclosed narrative. Hence making some voices legible too often makes others illegible, for example E. P. Thompson foregrounding the working class only to sideline women. The alternative is a porous account that allows itself to be penetrated by alterity and unsettled by the ghosts it has excluded. The latent ontology of holding onto some “real,” to the exclusion of others, would thus give way to a hauntology (Derrida’s play on the ambiguous sound of the French ontologie) whereby the text acknowledges and allows in present absences. Whereas for Kleinberg Foucault has been “tamed” by the historical discipline, this Derridean metaphor remains unsettling. Reinhart Koselleck’s notion of “non-simultaneity” (Ungleichzeitgkeit) further informs Kleinberg’s view of “hauntology as a theory of multiple temporalities and multiple pasts that all converge, or at least could converge, on the present,” that is, on the historian in the act of writing about the past (133).

Kleinberg fixates on the metaphor of the ghost because it represents the liminal in-between of absent presences and present absences. Ghosts are unsettling because they obey no chronology, flitting between past and present, history and dream. Yet deconstructive hauntology stands to enrich narratives because destabilized stories become porous to previously excluded voices. In his response, Geroulanos pressed Kleinberg to consider several alternative monster metaphors: ghosts who tell lies, not bringing back the past “as it really was” but making up alternative claims; and the in-between figure of the zombie, the undead past that has not passed.

Even in the theory-friendly halls of NYU, Kleinberg was met with some of the same suspicion and opposition White was decades ago. While all respondents conceded the theoretical import of Kleinberg’s argument, the question remained how to write such a history in practice. Preempting this question, Kleinberg’s conclusion includes a preview of a parallel book he has been writing on the Talmudic lectures Emmanuel Levinas presented in postwar Paris. He hopes to enact what Derrida called a “double session.” The first half of the book provides a secular intellectual history of how Levinas, prompted by the Holocaust, shifted from Heidegger to Talmud; but the second half tells this history from the perspective of revelation, inspired by “Levinas’s own counterhistorical claim that divine and ethical meaning transcends time,” telling a religious counter-narrative to the standard secular one. Scott praised the way Kleinberg’s two narratives provide two positive accounts that nonetheless unsettle one another. Kleinberg writes: “The two sessions pull at each other, creating cracks in any one homogenous history, through which portions of the heterogeneous and polysemic past that haunts history can rise and be activated.” This “dislodging” and “irruptive” method “marks an irreducible and generative multiplicity” of alternate histories (149). Active haunting prevents Kleinberg’s method from devolving into mere perspectivism; each narrative actively throws the other into question, unsettling its authority.

A further decentering methodology Kleinberg proposed was breaking through the “analog ceiling” of print scholarship into the digital realm. Gluck emphasized how digital or cyber-history has the freedom to be more associative than chronological, interrupting texts with links, alternative accounts, and media. Thus far, however, digital history, shackled by big data and “neoempiricism,” has largely remained in the grip of ontological realism, producing linear narratives. Still, there was some consensus that these technologies might enable new deconstructive approaches. In this sense, Kleinberg writes, “Metahistory came too soon, arriving before the platforms and media that would allow us to explore the alternative narrative possibilities that were at our ready disposal” (117).

Listening to Kleinberg, I thought of a recent experimental book by Yair Mintzker, The Many Deaths of Jew Süss: The Notorious Trial and Execution of an Eighteenth-Century Court Jew (2017). It tells the story of the death of Joseph Oppenheimer, the villain of the infamous Nazi propaganda film Jud Süss (1940) produced at the behest of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Mintzker was inspired by the narrative model of the film Rashomon (1950), which Geroulanos elaborated in some depth. Director Akira Kurosawa famously presents four different and conflicting accounts of how a samurai traveling through a wooded grove ends up murdered, from the perspectives of his wife, the bandit they encounter, a bystander, and the samurai himself speaking through a medium. Mintzker’s narrative choice is not postmodern fancy, but in this case a historiographical necessity. Because Oppenheimer, as a Jew, was not entitled to give testimony in his own trial, the only extant accounts available come from four similarly self-interested and conflictual sources: a judge, a convert, a Jew, and a writer. Mintzker’s work would seem to demonstrate the viability of Kleinbergian hauntology well outside twentieth-century intellectual history.

Kleinberg mused in closing: “If there’s one thing I want to do…it’s to take this book and maybe scare historians a little bit, and other people who think about the past. To make them uncomfortable, in the end, I hope, in a productive way.” Whether historians will welcome this unsettling remains to be seen, for as with White the cards remain stacked against theory. Yet our present anxiety about living in a “post-truth era” might just provide the necessary pressure for historians to recognize the ghosts that haunt the interminable task of engaging the past.

 

Jonathon Catlin is a PhD student in History at Princeton University. He works on intellectual responses to catastrophe in German and Jewish thought and the Frankfurt School of critical theory.

 

 

William Plumer and the Politics of History Writing

By guest contributor Emily Yankowitz

On December 30, 1806, on the inner cover of his first attempt at writing a historical work, the New Hampshire statesman William Plumer wrote, “An historian, like a witness, is bound to relate the truth, the whole truth, & nothing but the truth.” He would take up his project of writing a “History of North America” in November 1809 after three years of research. In what appears to be typical of Plumer’s personality, he intended to write a history of the United States government, but the project quickly expanding into “a general history of the United States” from its discovery by Europeans to his own time It was to include accounts of administrations, laws, presidents, heads of departments, members of Congress, judiciary, foreign relations, negotiations, relations with Indian tribes, purchases of lands, and commerce. Reaching even further into the past, he began with an overview of classical history, including the invention of hieroglyphics, and a detailed study of European political events, before arriving at the settlement of Jamestown in 1607 over 220 pages later. Yet having worked on the project for nine years and seeing little progress, Plumer unceremoniously put it aside, writing, “The undertaking I have abandoned” on the last page.

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William Plumer, engraving by Charles Balthazar Julien Fevret de Saint-Mémin (1806). Photo credit: Library of Congress

A Federalist senator in a Congress dominated by President Thomas Jefferson and the Republicans, Plumer had little hope of influencing politics. Watching his vision of the world collapse around him, Plumer recalled that with nearly every measure Jefferson proposed, he was reminded of the angel’s declaration to Ezekiel, “Turn, & thou shall behold yet greater abominations” (Plumer to Jeremiah Smith, January 27, 1803, quoted in Turner, “Thomas Jefferson,” 207). These “abominations” included the Louisiana Purchase, the Twelfth Amendment, and the impeachment of New Hampshire judge John Pickering. Frustrated and alarmed, Plumer helped to plan a scheme for New England secession in 1803–1804, hoping to create a “Northern confederacy.” But the project quickly fell apart, although intransigent Federalists would take up a similar plan at the 1814–1815 Hartford Convention.

 

Amid a career in jeopardy and anxieties about the future, Plumer found solace in historical pursuits. Overwhelmed by his country’s fast-paced development, history offered Plumer a method of “preserving facts & opinions” that were “rapidly hasting to oblivion” as a result of the “changes & revolution of time and parties” (May 2, 1805). Unlike other senators who indulged in horse racing and gambling, Plumer spent his free time hidden for hours in the Congressional Library, reading voraciously. This curiosity was one of Plumer’s most pronounced traits; the son of a farmer, Plumer received little formal schooling beyond elementary studies, and pursued much of his education through books.

Over time, Plumer’s intellectual interests expanded. Spotting a mound of scattered government documents in the damp, mildewed lumber room above the Senate chamber, he devoted himself to preserving them, methodically sorting through the soiled records. Through the next four years, Plumer collected journals of every Congress from 1774 to his own, enough to fill between four and five hundred bound volumes. He eventually came to possess one of the largest and most complete collections of public papers held by a private citizen, even after he donated a substantial amount to the Massachusetts Historical Society. This effort rescued valuable documents from destruction, and also provided Plumer with a substantial number of sources for his later historical works. According to his son, it was this collecting effort that inspired Plumer to write a history of the country (For more information, see Freeman, Affairs of Honor, 262-4).

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President Thomas Jefferson, painted by Rembrandt Peale (1800)

With the end of his term approaching, Plumer set about preparing for this enormous task—consulting with government officers, copying private letters shown to him by friends, and corresponding with antiquarians and scholars. He conferred with Albert Gallatin, Secretary of the Treasury, who offered him any materials needed from the Treasury department. Not everyone was supportive—at least one friend advised Plumer to publish his history posthumously to avoid giving “mortal offence” to contemporaries (February 28, 1807). His meeting with President Jefferson showed how complex the publication of his history might be. Plumer observed that Jefferson’s “countenance […] repeatedly changed.” Jefferson expressed “uneasiness and embarrassment—at other [moments] he seemed pleased.” Seemingly affected by a range of emotions, Jefferson alternated between looking at Plumer and staring at the floor. Jefferson’s reaction perplexed Plumer, who reasoned that Jefferson must have been “embarrassed,” and “disapproved” of the project (February 4, 1807). But he also discussed Jefferson’s strange response with John Quincy Adams, who informed him that Jefferson “cannot be a lover of history,” as he did not want certain “prominent traits in his character” and “important actions in his life” to be outlined and communicated to posterity (February 9, 1807). Jefferson’s own actions appear to echo this sentiment. Out of a desire to control how he would be remembered, Jefferson later professed to have “no materials whatever” for Plumer’s project despite its usefulness to the country.

Plumer’s background and personality did not make him a particularly obvious candidate for the project. In his diary, he mulled over his doubts about his efforts, noting his personal shortcomings, the complications of his private life, and the magnitude of the project. He was not a “scholar” or a “master of the English grammar,” he noted, and could not read any foreign language or express his ideas quickly on paper. Regarding his personal life, his wife was often sick and he himself had a “weak & feeble constitution.” However, Plumer was also highly aware of the shortcomings of existing “historic performances,” namely state histories, which were written too quickly. They contained factual errors, had a “loose & slovenly” style, and “fall short of the true style & dignity of history.” He found Benjamin Trumbull’s Complete History of Connecticut to be “written in the style of a low dull Chronicle,” while James Sullivan’s History of the District of Maine was a “jumble of fact & fable” (July 22, 1806). Yet his task would take “indefatigable industry, & patient labour to render it useful to others and honorable to myself.” Virgil took twelve years to write the Aeneid, Plumer worried, while Edward Gibbon took twenty years to write The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Plumer would exceed both Virgil and Gibbon, ultimately devoting the remainder of his life to historical works that ultimately remained unpublished.

While Plumer believed the work would be useful for “future statesmen,” he also hoped to enhance his reputation. If he successfully produced the work, it would be an “imperishable monument that would perpetuate” his name. Highlighting the inextinguishable impact of history, Plumer noted that it would exist when “columns of marble are dissolved & crumbled to dust.” However, if he did not execute it well it would “tarnish & destroy” the little “fame” he had acquired (July 22, 1806). Thus, writing history had political as well as personal consequences.

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William Plumer, Jr., depicted in The Granite State Monthly (1889)

Plumer was not alone in using history to achieve a recognition he would never receive through politics. In fact, one of his sons, William Plumer Jr., would take up a similar project in 1830, after completing his term as a representative. Reflecting on the project, he noted that if “executed with any tolerable success, it would be a more important service rendered to the public than I can hope in any other way to perform” and he might be able to acquire a “reputation, however small” if the work was successfully produced (“Manuscript History of the United States”). While the boundaries of Plumer Jr.’s intended project were smaller (he planned to begin with Columbus’s voyage in 1492), he made little progress.

 

Unable to acquire national political fame, Plumer sought recognition through history, while also pursuing a political (though nonpartisan) agenda. Even after his formal political party had changed to the Republican position, Plumer retained much of his Federalist view of the world, in part because of his own distaste for partisanship and in part because he lived in Federalist-concentrated New England. In particular, much like the Federalists of the 1790s, Plumer never fully supported the existence of political parties, viewing them as agents of division that distracted men from effectively evaluating candidates based on their abilities. Just as Plumer disapproved of partisanship in politics, he also disapproved of it in historical writing. For example, he wrote that historians and biographers should have “no other object than faithfully narrate facts & justly delineate characters” for when they “stoop to the support of a party or a sect” their “facts are misstated and their reasoning is sophistry” (“May 25, 1808”). Plumer argued that a historian should be “of no party in politic’s [sic] … without prejudice, & have more judgement than fancy” (“October 1, 1807”). Thus, for Plumer, historians did a disservice not only to the integrity of their subject, but also to the influence of their work, if they espoused partisan views.

Looking a bit further into the nineteenth century, historians would divide over whether it was acceptable to combine history and politics. In particular, following the decline of the Federalist party and the rise of Andrew Jackson, New England historians attempted to use history as a mechanism of regaining the power and influence they had lost in politics. Some followed both paths, like George Bancroft, who pursued a political career while working on his History of the United States, while others such as William Prescott and Jared Sparks believed that the two disciplines were incompatible (Cheng, The Plain and Noble Garb of Truth, 36-41). However, many members of both groups believed that history could be used as a method of advancing political agendas.

In an attempt to save their party from destruction in the wake of the Hartford Convention, some Federalists wrote historical works that tried (largely unsuccessfully) to shape how posterity remembered the event. Prompted in part by the publication of Matthew Carey’s wildly successful The Olive Branch and the Nullification Crisis, Federalists turned to writing histories to justify their actions. These works included Theodore Lyman’s 1823 A Short Account of the Hartford Convention, Harrison Gray Otis’ 1824 Letters in Defence of the Hartford Convention, and the People of Massachusetts, and Theodore Dwight’s 1833 History of the Hartford Convention. However, these works were generally unsuccessful.

Eager to shape both policies and how they would be remembered, early American politicking occurred both in the halls of Congress and in the pages of books. Plumer hoped to play a central role in constructing the young nation’s emerging identity and its memories of the early figures of the founding era. Thus, his historical writings—which he would continue for decades after his failed “History,” but largely never publish—serve as a reminder that our very understanding of the past has often been shaped by the individuals in the moment who had the foresight to record it. Given how the historical discipline has changed over time, it is perhaps tempting to dismiss early historian’s writings. However, they nonetheless offer a useful perspective on how contemporaries perceived the world around them and how they wanted it to be remembered.

Emily Yankowitz recently graduated from Yale University and is an incoming M.Phil. student in American History at the University of Cambridge. She is interested in the intersection of politics, culture, and memory in the early American republic.

THE MODERN SCENE TESTIFIES: GILBERT CHINARD AND THE HUMANITIES IN WARTIME

by guest contributor Benjamin Bernard

Editors’ Note: given the summer holidays, for the month of August JHIBlog will publish one piece a week, together with our regular What We’re Reading feature on Fridays. 

The mood was grim when literary historian Gilbert Chinard delivered one of five Trask Lectures at Princeton University. With sentiments similar to much of the hand-wringing of today, his colleague, philosopher Theodore Meyer Greene explained: “the whole world is drifting or being driven with ever greater acceleration into a state profoundly antagonistic to the values which the humanist method most sincerely cherishes.” Greene warned that this was due in part to “the deliberate activities of certain individuals and groups whose ideologies are monopolistic and totalitarian and who, in one way or another, have acquired autocratic power in our society.” Prefacing the edited collection of these lectures, Greene insisted that such men had “succeeded in arousing in their supporters a passionate and uncritical devotion to a ‘common’ cause. The modern scene testifies with tragic eloquence to the immediate effectiveness of this anti-humanistic strategy.”

That spring, Hitler annexed Austria.

Gilbert Chinard’s own transatlantic trajectory—born in France, he spent his career in America—mirrors the content of his scholarly work in a field he dubbed “Franco-American relations.” In what we might today recognize as an amalgam of literature, history, and international relations, he studied flows of ideas across space and time; but, alongside European intellectuals like his Mercer Street neighbor Albert Einstein, he also participated in a migration of his own. Upon Chinard’s hiring in 1937, after nearly two decades in America, The Daily Princetonian remarked on his “Franco-American accent.”

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Princeton bustled with martial activity. Some students and even faculty advocated that professors teach technical skills like engineering and military tactics in order to better prepare student-officers for war. Walter “Buzzer” Phelps Hall, the popular Dodge Professor of History and expert on Britain, advocated this position in The Daily Princetonian: “The war will not be won by propaganda; no wars are,” he wrote. History could only help “to a minor degree” in a war; he lamented that “those of us on the Faculty untrained in science and too old to act” were relegated to “guarding the treasured culture of the past.” The university surveyed professors in other departments to determine what war-related courses they might be qualified to teach. Many undergraduates opted for technical studies electives, like Professor Kissam’s popular aerial photogrammetry course, over humanities ones. Chinard’s department, Modern Languages, made a minor capitulation in order to resist more extreme changes. Around 1941-42, Princeton added a vocational French class that, even if only a summer crash course, was unprecedented. It taught a skill needed to prepare students for possible deployment to Europe: French conversation.

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Princeton in wartime. Princeton University Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box MP208, Image No. 5496. From the Mudd Manuscript Library Blog.

Not all faculty and students, though, agreed with such changes. Chinard defended arts and letters on surprising grounds: their utility. He took to the pages of the campus newspaper on February 2, 1942 to respond to Buzzer Hall, to defend the humanities against practical pre-military courses. He argued that Americans needed critique in order to combat propaganda; without such skills, America could collapse just as France had. “Men can be well shod, clad and fed,” he wrote, but “unless they can analyze and disbelieve, in a crisis, rumors spreading like grass fire, unless they have developed what I would call a healthy Missourian attitude, they will rapidly change a partial setback into a total rout.” Old frontier skepticism serves here as a foil for a passive French imagination occupied by German political ideology. Rather than memorizing facts about the past, students should adopt a critical posture. Than the sword, he might have said, the typewriter is mightier. With wry understatement, he noted, “When Hitler’s mind seems to be obsessed by the memory of Napoleon, it may not be entirely out of time and out of place for the men who fight Hitlerism to know something about the French emperor.” Chinard’s colleague Americo Castro supported him, invoking a conceptual framework central to Chinard’s writings. “The war happens to be between two forms of civilization,” he wrote, “and people are going to kill or to be killed because they are fighting on behalf of a certain form of civilization. I do not think that there is any other place to learn what a civilization is except a school of Humanities.”

Chinard understood the process of humanist scholarship, “traditional” French culture, and the war itself via a common metaphor: as the slow accumulation and rarefication of virtue over time, leaving a stable precipitate. In 1940, Chinard had received a form letter questionnaire from Rene Taupin, secretary of La France en Liberté, a new quarterly of French refugee writers whose advisory board included Princeton’s Christian Gauss as well as Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, and William Carlos Williams. Taupin asked: “Do you think that French culture can live under a Totalitarian regime?” Chinard replied in French on October 15, 1940, and took care to preserve a copy of his outgoing message:

Yes, without any doubt. All of history is there to prove to us that in a country with an old civilization, political vicissitudes cannot in any fundamental way affect the culture of the country. A political regime can snuff out a culture being born, or can prevent a still barbarous country from developing; it can make the superstructure disappear, or constitute an obstacle to the expression of certain ideologies. But what Louis XIV, the Jacobins, Napoleon I, and the none-too-liberal December 2 government all failed to do cannot be accomplished by repressive measures which, moreover, can only be temporary (Gilbert Chinard Papers [C0671], Box 12, Princeton University Library).

In Scènes de la vie française, his French culture reader for intermediate university classes, Chinard described his fictionalized, composite hometown in similar terms: “[My village today] represents the continuous effort of successive generations, tweaking themselves according to the era, but who always retained their essential traits.” Yet, turn Chinard’s historical tapestry upside down and it would tell a different, yet still intelligible, story: those same high-water marks of French culture—resistance to the baroque court, to the Revolutionary tribunal, and so forth—that Chinard interpreted as evidence for a liberal tradition could instead argue for an ancient French tradition of concentrated authoritarian power.

In light of this contradiction, I suggest that this intellectual and rhetorical position was fundamentally political. Chinard sought to understand this culture, how it developed, and how it interacted with American culture. His essay in the inaugural issue of the journal he co-founded, the Journal of the History of Ideas, serves as a useful exemplar for approaching the history of ideas in this political context. Social media-adept readers may recognize Chinard’s article from JHIBlog‘s Facebook cover photo. In “Polybius and the American Constitution,” he argued that while scholars rightly apprehended an intellectual link between French Enlightenment thinkers like Montesquieu and scholar-politicians like Thomas Jefferson, too little attention had been paid to the fact that the ideas thus transmitted originated in classical antiquity, for which Polybius and the notion of the separation of powers served as a convenient synecdoche. Chinard hoped that studying literature through the framework of the history of ideas could help make the case that, rather than the “dilettantism” of “mere questions of form… the framework of literary works… [or] the noxious and convenient divisions into genres,” studying literature could provide important raw material for understanding “the larger body of human intellectual activities.” His article underscores a particular vision of a politico-cultural heritage—in other words, a definition for true France, a concept over which French intellectuals with political clout sparred from exile in New York.

Bernard piece, France Forever membership card

Chinard’s France Forever membership card

The war reached him in many more ways, even in the relative haven of verdant suburban New Jersey. Chinard sounds indignant but matter-of-fact in his letters that allude these years. He resigned himself to never again seeing his in-laws: the Blanchard family remained in occupied territory. It would take him years to recover and renovate his country house in Châtellerault, where he had previously taken his family each summer. Although he did support the American Field Service and help find job placements for some French expatriate academics, these were not the primary target of his energies. He did engage in lecturing for elite east coast audiences and mobilized his political expertise to advise non-governmental advocacy groups like France Forever, a New York-based Gaullist organization presided over by industrial engineer Eugène Houdry.

Chinard seemed more troubled by broad political changes than by humanitarian concerns of refugee subsistence. Most distressing was the perception that an international disregard for Western values enabled authoritarian powers to trample on endogenous liberties. In one characteristic letter, he opined: “The Vichy government has allowed neither any journalist nor any neutral investigator to make a thorough investigation of the situation.” His disdain for Communism, organized labor, and a new, insular coterie of “depressives” coming to be known as “existentialists” is palpable. Instead, he located true Frenchness, in his advocacy for De Gaulle just as in his scholarship, in a particular constellation of ideas.

During the war, Chinard had the chance to implement his earlier writings about humanism’s instrumentality, which nonetheless met certain limits. As far as I know, Chinard never published an op-ed explaining how the reception of the image of Napoleon contained the key for defeating masculine authoritarianism. Yet I suspect Chinard’s pre-war sentiments about the value of studying the humanities, from his Trask Lecture of 1937-38, did not change much: that training in the “careful analysis of the elusive meaning of words… is an absolute necessity in a democracy.” Chinard’s individual influence is difficult to assess. What is clear, however, is that he contributed to a postwar liberal discourse that relied on a narrative of an ancient and Revolutionary political heritage. Wartime resistance and academic life found common cause under this banner.

A strategic dilemma for intellectuals emerges out of considering this historical moment. What if, by pursuing sweeping research into phenomena that we might take decades or centuries to influence, scholars inadvertently neglect present-day politics such that anti-humanist forces destroy the very institutions that enable their work? Theodore Greene remained at once resigned and optimistic on this point.

[Humanists] cannot, however, hope for immediate or spectacular success; they cannot avert a sudden social cataclysm, if that is the fate presently in store for us…. Now, as ever, our chief concern must be not the changing scene or the passing crisis but rather the nature of the human spirit in its eternal quest for enduring values.

For Chinard, at least, these words fell short of the role he would eventually play. He struck a balance between pursuing an ambitious intellectual research agenda and speaking to the urgent political issues of his day, engaging in work on multiple time scales.

Benjamin Bernard is a Ph.D candidate in the History Department at Princeton University, where he studies early modern European history. His dissertation investigates moral reform in France circa 1700. Elements of this research were first presented at the “So Well Remembered” conference organized by Neil Safier at the John Carter Brown Library in April 2017. All translations are the author’s.