philosophy

Book Forum: A Practical Past Beyond the Historical Past?

by guest contributor Sophie Marcotte-Chenard

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).

In a book impressive by the vast array of themes, authors and traditions from which it draws, Jeffrey A. Barash proposes a dense reflection on the theoretical and practical aspects of collective memory, its symbolic institution in the public sphere, and its scope in contrast with what he calls the “historical past.” Barash’s inquiry plays on these two levels: the specificity of the distant past on the one hand, and the conditions of the lived experience given through collective remembrance on the other. The advantage of latter is that it escapes the problem of the remote past, which only exists through the operation of the historian. The specific object of history—the past—is by definition a reality that ceased to be. Therefore, we have a better chance to grasp memories created out of the experience of living generations (the shared experience of Martin Luther King’s speech, for instance, or the memory of the survivors of the Holocaust). Barash argues that collective memory, as an object of investigation, only comes at the forefront after a radical shift from a metaphysical and atemporal conception of human nature to a reflection based on an anthropological turn. An epochal change took place in the inter-war period in Europe: the tragic events of the 20th century paved the way to a vision of history and temporality based on discontinuity rather than continuity. The interplay, or tension—or even to a certain extent dichotomy—Barash draws between memory of lived experience and the “historical” past lies at the core of his demonstration and will be the focus of my intervention.

?The Ghosts of Vimy Ridge? from Au stralian artist William Longstaff (1929) depicting Canadian soldiers' ghosts marching up Vimy Ridge.jpg

The Vimy Ridge Memorial in Nothern France (Captain William Longstaff;
© Beaverbrook Collection of War Art,  CWM 19890275-051)

In chapter six entitled “The contextualized Past: Collective Memory and Historical Understanding,”Barash sets himself to “radicalize” the insights into historicity brought this distinction (p. 169). Briefly stated, collective memory has a specific limit, that of the temporal finitude of groups who share these experiences of remembrance. Collective remembrance will inevitably fade in the past and in the process become more opaque to us. For Barash, experience is the condition of collective memory. In that sense, his approach has definite phenomenological undertones. Temporal change and discontinuity make collective memory slip into the “historical past,” of which we can only have “passive recesses” and not a direct and full experience. The conclusion Barash draws follows accordingly: “In view of the historicity, contingency, and discontinuity of human groups, of the radical shifts between successive horizons of contemporaneity, the ongoing continuity of the êthos, deposited in the passive recesses of shared symbolic forms, is more often a source of ideological claims and political mythologies than of empirically ascertainable comprehension” (p. 170).

From that affirmation, one might think that Barash completely rejects the “historical past.” There are two main reasons for that. The first is quite clear: he insists on the fact that any supposed historical continuity—and its corollary, the idea of a stable identity of groups—could be instrumental in justifying ideological claims. The second reason has to do with the way we approach the past. Echoing Merleau-Ponty’s notion the “flesh of the world” (la chair du monde), Barash claims that collective memory is based on the experience of the social and the political “in the flesh.” Given that, the remote past cannot but become a second-order “reality,” a “secondary form of recollection” (p. 35). There is, in the theoretical reflection on history broadly construed, an irremediable gap between Erfahrung and Wissenschaft, between experience and knowledge. In Barash’s view, there seems to be an unbridgeable distance between written historical accounts of the past and collective remembrance that spans generations, but still remains available in a more immediate manner.

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Unveiling of the Vimy Ridge Memorial on 26 July 1936 (© George Metcalf Archival Collection, CWM 19910181-036)

As it turns out, Barash’s enterprise is more nuanced: the distinction between the two spheres serves the purpose of preserving the specificity of the latter as much as of the former. He does not develop extensively on that point, but it seems as though the “historical past,” narrated through specific forms and “mises en scène” (such as in historical novels) performs a function of its own. Barash writes: “However biased and incomplete even the most impartial attempt to recover vestiges of a past beyond living memory may be, its significance, far from limited to the status of a fictive invention of the present, reveals itself not only where it is capable of illuminating what has preceded current times, but where it enables us to place the fluctuating horizons of our own present in perspective” (emphasis mine; p. 196). The question is thus: does he propose something like a “practical past” beyond, or drawing from, the “historical past”? What is the specific ethical or normative function of the historical past that could make it “practical”? And can it intervene in the shaping of collective memory?

My suggestion is that his distinction involves a third sphere, that of a “practical” past. In his most recent book, Hayden White revives Oakeshott’s distinction between a “historical past” and a “practical past” (Oakeshott, On History, p. 19, 42). The historical past possesses no definitive existence: it is only an inference the historian makes in order to understand and explain what happened. In contrast, the practical past concerns everyday life. The former is primarily theoretical, while the latter is oriented toward matters of practical conduct and representation of our social and political world. As White points out, the practical past includes ordinary people carrying “archive of experiences” (White, The Practical Past, p. 99).

A substantial interpretation of the “practical past” would be tantamount to seeing history as providing lessons. This, in turn, would imply that there are unchanging features of human nature or at least transhistorical elements that would authorize the transposition of past actions and judgments to present circumstances. The stronger normative version of the practical past as historia magistra vitae faces serious objections: one would have to embrace a strong metaphysical claim such as the existence of natural law.

Jean-Pierre Houel - Prise de la Bastille (1789) - Carnavalet Museum

Jean-Pierre Houël, « Prise de la Bastille » (1789; source gallica.bnf.fr)

Doubts about a “practical past” in the sense of history providing normative guidance are not new. Hegel already expressed skepticism at the idea that we could learn anything about what one ought to do from studying the past. However, the purpose, in White or in Koselleck’s case, is not to recover some lost conception of history as a teacher of life. There seem to be another possible interpretation, one that is also found in Barash’s book: seeing the historical past as foreign leads to a more acute awareness of the contingency of the present.

White proposes to conceive of the practical past as a “space of experience.” (White, The Practical Past, p. 14) The recuperation or re-enactment of the past, it is true, could reinforce or justify “political mythologies,” but it could also serve to reactivate neglected past experiences or past concepts in order to challenge dominant views. One could think here of Quentin Skinner’s renewal of the Machiavellian republican conception of liberty. Koselleck’s notion of the party of the “vanquished” (Besiegten)—those writers of the past whose vision or doctrines have not triumphed – performs a similar function (Koselleck, Zeitschichten, p. 77). Both are illustrations of an indirect, yet practical usefulness of the past seen as foreign in essence. This, in turn, presupposes discontinuity: the renewal of the past is only possible in light of its alterity.

This idea of a practical past is perhaps best expressed by Claude Lefort’s notion of the “unthought” (impensé). Some events, social symbols or shared experiences carry vast reservoirs of meaning, which appear to be inexhaustible. In contrast with the “historical past,” the practical past could be constituted of such elements that provide continuity amid the discontinuity in temporality. As such, these events—revolutions, moments of foundation—connect past and present. It relates to what we could call a “politics of temporality” insofar as it concerns political and social events that “do not pass in the past” to use Claude Lefort’s expression (ce qui ne passé pas dans le passé (Lefort, Le travail de l’oeuvre Machiavel, p. 64-65). Some experiences and their remembrance endure in time and provoke a constant necessity of re-enactment. In other words, these events carry an “unthought”: something that has not yet been thought or has to be thought through again. Could it be the case that such a renewal of the past participates in shaping collective remembrance, not only in an instrumental way, but also in a meaningful one? In that regard, the role of imagination described by Barash makes it possible to envision such as relation to the past.

The idea of a “practical” past certainly supposes more temporal continuity than what Barash is ready to concede. Yet there is a sense of temporal continuity that goes beyond collective memory. Barash’s view presupposes what I would call a “minimal continuity thesis.” As in Koselleck’s thought, there are in Barash’s philosophy of time “structures of repetition” (Wiederholungsstrukturen) observable in the shared symbolic representations. Furthermore, minimal temporal continuity is a necessary condition of measuring and diagnosing temporal change. Far from being an obstacle to overcome, the opposition between continuity and change is a dynamic and productive tension in interpreting collective memory and the historical past.

Barash’s version of what I presented as a “practical” past is not, however, mainly about reactivating past concepts or ideas. Rather, it concerns a more fundamental insight: that of contingency in history and the illusion of an absolute standpoint. In the end, there is no vantage point: one can never achieve a totalizing perspective on history or look at collective memory from above. His interpretation of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu exemplifies this point (p. 201).

The past was once an uncertain future. As such, it is as contingent as the present and cannot teach what to do in specific circumstances. That being said, looking at the remote past, even through imperfect historical sources, could highlight the contingency of our situation and in turn demonstrate the need for a plural reading of the present. Seeing the past as practical—and not simply historical—means recognizing the plurality of possible outcomes and the multiplicity of narratives that can emerge out of it and shape our collective representation of the past and the present. The past puts the present in perspective, even when, as Barash reminds us, historical accounts cannot deliver an objective and unbiased view of historical “reality.”

Sophie Marcotte Chenard is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Political Philosophy at the University of Toronto and a Postdoctoral Associate at the Centre for Ethics. She received her Ph.D. in Philosophy and Social Sciences from the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) in Paris. Her research focuses on theory and philosophy of history, 19th and 20th-century German and French thought, contemporary political philosophy and interpretive methods in the history of political thought. She has published on Claude Lefort’s phenomenological approach and Quentin Skinner’s contextualism and has a forthcoming article on R.G. Collingwood’s historicism in The Journal of Philosophy of History. She is currently working on her forthcoming book entitled Encountering History in the Making: Political Philosophy and the Challenge of Historicism, which focuses on the relationship between political philosophy and history in the early writings of Leo Strauss and Raymond Aron.

Book Forum: History as Critique

by guest contributor Michael Meng

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).

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University of Chicago Press (2016)

Jeffrey Andrew Barash has written a highly insightful and erudite book on the complex relationship of the past to the present. Moving capaciously from the ancient period to the present, he addresses a wide range of issues regarding what it means to remember. Chapters include discussions on some of the central theorists of memory from Sigmund Freud to Maurice Halbwachs to Gerald Edelman; on the centrality of the image in twentieth-century mass media; on the reputed ‘skepticism’ of Roland Barthes and Hayden White in regard to the capacity of history to distinguish itself from fiction; and on the origins of “collective memory” as a theoretical concept to interpret the enduring “quest for stability and permanence” in the wake of twentieth-century challenges to metaphysics by Martin Heidegger and many others broadly influenced by him in post-1945 France (128).

Behind these different explorations lies, however, an ambitious attempt on Barash’s part to identify an “impartial” or “critical” space for historical reflection in the sociopolitical sphere of public life in which historical thinking unfolds. Barash defines the critical function of history in the public sphere mostly by what it does not do: history is most clearly different from mythic, ideological recollections of the past but also, if more subtly, from the emergence of the ostensibly human quest to imbue the past with a common meaning through the nourishing of what Barash calls collective memory. In what follows, I consider his attempt to identify a space for history independent from collective memory and myth. Beforehand I will briefly establish as Barash himself does the central dilemma at stake.

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Plato (Silanion Musei Capitolini MC1377)

Barash astutely begins his book with Plato’s concept of anamnesis. In the Meno, Phaedo, and Phaedrus, Socrates suggests that anamnesis recalls in the present what was always already known by the immortal soul prior to embodiment. Recollection brings one back to the hyperouranian vision of eternal truth that the soul had before falling into this world of flux and death. The political consequence of Plato’s doctrine of anamnesis is significant as Hannah Arendt understood in her important essay on authority (Arendt, Between Past and Present, 91-141). Arendt discusses Plato’s attempt to establish a system of authority that would transcend the conflictual and violent life of the polis. According to her, Plato sought to establish the hegemony of reason in the person of the philosopher king as the possessor of the truth gained through anamnesis. The philosopher contemplates the ideas that “exist” in a realm beyond this world of uncertainty and change. The philosopher contemplates the truth, and the truth is unassailable precisely because it transcends the uncertainties, imperfections, and perspectivalism of finite human existence.

The collapse of this Platonic notion of truth since the late nineteenth century has opened up for Arendt and others the possibility of embracing time or contingency as the basis for a democratic politics of equality. The argument being this: if timeless truth cannot exist for mortals, then no one single person or group can claim the right to rule over another (Arendt, The Promise of Politics, 19; The Human Condition, 32). The lack of absolutes or indubitable foundations precludes any one view from becoming dominant—a community comes together in shared recognition of the fragility of any view. This anti-foundationalist notion of democracy has been embraced by a range of post-1945 thinkers from Theodor W. Adorno to Jan Patočka to Jacques Rancière. In what can be viewed as an important addition to this post-1945 conception of democracy, Barash suggests that history—including the one he writes—brings to public awareness the “group finitude” that subjects any given collective memory to “modification” (215-216). History also underscores the impossibility of ever bringing to full clarity the “opacity” of the past (105-106, 113, 170). Hence, history reveals the fragility and limits of memory as the collective product of mortals who cannot transcend the gap between past and present, since a holistic view of time eludes the “finite anthropological vision” (113).

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Hannah Arendt (© Fred Stein Archive/Archive Photos/Getty Images, 1949)

A historical awareness of the finitude of collective memory proves especially important because it can undermine the ideological mobilization of collective memory for an exclusionary politics. One of the hallmarks of the radical right’s assertion of authority in modern European history has been the creation of myths about the alleged eternal homogeneity of the community whose interests it claims to represent. The radical right perpetuates a nationalistic memory that claims to be absolutely correct. By insisting on the fragility and limits of any collective memory, history challenges the ideological assumption that the past can be known with absolute certainty.

History also challenges ideological interpretations of the past in another way, as Barash shows in his gentle critique of Barthes and White’s portrayals of history as a form of fiction. In Barthes’ words: “Historical discourse is essentially an ideological elaboration or, to be more precise, one which is imaginary” (quoted in Barash, 179). While Barash appreciates Barthes’s and White’s challenge to naïve empiricism, their view is nevertheless “too extreme” for him (176). Many historians will probably agree, but I think it might be worth considering alongside Barash the deeper issue at stake here regarding the status of critical thought. Barthes’s deployment of the word ideology brings us back to the relevant nineteenth-century debate between British empiricists and German idealists over the question of whether reason is independent of history. Is reason universal and necessary? For Marx, a student of Hegel and Kant on this question, if reason is not universal and necessary, then it has to be conventional or ideological. And, if reason is ideological, then how can philosophy possibly fulfill its critical task? Herbert Marcuse lucidly summarized the issue in Reason and Revolution, writing that empiricism “confined men within the limits of ‘the given’” (Marcuse, Reason and Revolution, 20).

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Herbert Marcuse

Barash’s project aims to rescue “critical” thinking from the conventions of the present as well but he does not do so through Hegel (177 and 216). How does he proceed? He locates a critical space for history by distinguishing it from myth, the central difference being that history relies on “the critical methods of reconstruction on a factual basis” (216). The historian builds a narrative partly from the facts of what happened. This view may sound like conventional empiricism at first glance, but it turns out not to be. To understand the nuance of Barash’s argument, we must ask a basic question: What is a fact? The strict empiricist claims that the facts are the unassailable truth that renders the authority of the historical narrative indisputable. The empiricist is an inverted Platonist who forgets the history of the fact. The word fact comes from the Latin factum, which means human actions and deeds. The facts are wrought by humans and that which is wrought by humans –– in the western metaphysical tradition at least –– has long been viewed as contingent beginning with Plato who views history as the study of the shadows of the cave.

Barash is not an empiricist in the traditional sense as just described. He strikes me as advancing what I might call a “contingent empiricism” –– an empiricism that strives to remain open to modification and change in full awareness of the temporality of one’s own exploration of the past. There is no Platonic escape from time in Barash’s account other than the “illusory” escape of myth (113). If there is no escape from history, if our perspective of what happened changes as we change and we change as we explore what happened, then the past cannot be grasped in a final or certain manner. The “opacity” of the past always withdraws from one’s temporal grasp. The only way to claim a final account of the past consists in turning the past into a constantly present thing that never changes.

If all is equally temporal, one might express worry that such a view leads to a vitiating relativism whereby every claim and behavior is equally justified. But this worry overlooks a central presupposition of critique. Any critical project, if it is to engage in an egalitarian exchange of reasons and is not to be mere apodictic Declaration (a “Machtspruch”), implicitly holds some value constant as the basis of the critique it offers. Returning to Barash’s book might illuminate the point. In the end, I see Barash as orienting history towards an affirmation of temporality or transience. The critical edge of such a view of history is not only that it challenges the mythic assertion of homogeneity but also that it undermines the ideological impulse to declare a secure and certain interpretation of our world. History disrupts certainty by affirming the complex condition of change that humans have struggled to make sense of since the ancient period. Ironically, history holds time constant as the basis of its critique of ideology and myth.

To conclude, let me return to my initial praise of Barash’s book. It raises a host of important questions about memory and history, while placing an important emphasis on history as an affirmation of the transience of human life. In this respect, I look forward to the exchange on his stimulating book.

The editors wish to thank Michael Meng for his graciousness in volunteering to write the inaugural post.

Michael Meng is Associate Professor of History at Clemson University. He is the author of Shattered Spaces: Encountering Jewish Ruins in Postwar Germany and Poland (Harvard, 2011) and co-editor of Jewish Space in Contemporary Poland (Indiana, 2015). He has published articles in Central European History, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Constellations: An International Journal of Critical and Democratic Theory, The Journal of Modern History, and New German Critique. He is currently writing a book on death, history, and salvation in European thought as well as a book on authoritarianism.

Socialism and Power: Axel Honneth in Paris

by guest contributor Jacob Hamburger

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

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Axel Honneth

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

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

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Polity (2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Brain-for-Itself: Soviet Psychoneurologists Debate the Psychophysical Problem

by guest contributor Jamie Phillips

At a meeting of the Society of Psychoneurologists-Materialists in Moscow in 1930, the Chairman of the Society, Aron Zalkind, appraised the current the state of their field in the Soviet Union, and spoke in particular about the work of the Institute of Higher Nervous Activity at the Communist Academy: “here they not only work experimentally,” he said, “but also sometimes philosophize” (Arkhiv Rossiiskoi Akademii Nauk [ARAN], f. 351 op. 2 d. 25 l. 23ob).

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Workers at the Institute for the Study of Higher Nervous Activity, part of the Communist Academy, Moscow, 1931. It is not immediately clear from their behavior to what extent they are philosophizing. (Image Source: Arkhiv Rossiiskoi Akademii Nauk, f. 350 op. 1. d. 1077 l. 15)

Such a remark might evoke Monty Python-esque images of a workday never begun, of materials left untouched on tables, as white-robed scientist-philosophers pace about the lab in anticipation of the eureka moment. Coming from Zalkind, however, these were words of praise. Soviet psychoneurologists frequently bemoaned and disparaged what they saw as the naïve empiricism of their Western scientific counterparts, their lack of theory, their reluctance to philosophize. And nowhere was this truer than at the Communist Academy, and its Society of Psychoneurologists-Materialists, formed in 1928 with the express goal of bringing ideological direction to the scientific study of psyche, brain and behavior, and of uniting the work of these sciences into a materialist, dialectical theory of the human.

But what was a materialist—let alone dialectical—theory of the psyche? The Soviet Union in this period saw some rather spectacular attempts at reductive explanations of the psyche through correlations in the structures of the brain. Most famously (or notoriously), a group of researchers at the Moscow Brain Institute spent several years cutting Lenin’s brain into thirty thousand little slices in search of the material substrate of his genius, and claimed to find it, at least in part, in an exceptional development of the pyramidal cells of the third layer of the cerebral cortex. Around the same time, the psychoneurologist Vladimir Bekhterev issued a proposal for a “Pantheon of the USSR,” a Pantheon of Brains, in which the brains of outstanding dead Soviet individuals would be displayed in glass cases, alongside their biographies and list of works, with accompanying diagrams and explanations to demonstrate the correlation between them. Such a Pantheon, Bekhterev suggested, would serve both to advance scientific understanding of the brain and psyche and as “propaganda for the materialist view on the development of creative human activity.” (V. M. Bekhterev, “O sozdanii panteona SSSR,” Izvestiia, June 19, 1927).

For all the fanfare of such endeavors—and they seem to have been greeted enthusiastically by both government and public—doubts remained. Bekhterev’s own brain, removed from his skull mere months after its proposal for the Pantheon (and intended, ironically, to be its first occupant), proved in death to be rather unremarkable, in mute defiance, as it were, of the ideas of its living predecessor, as if to say, ‘What, after all, is there to see here?’

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The material substrate of his genius: microphotographs of slices of the brain of Lenin (right) and an “ordinary person” (left). From N. I. Prozorovskii, “Problema anatomicheskoi osnovy odarennosti i mozg V. I. Lenina,” Chelovek i priroda No. 2, 1929, p. 16.

The claims made of Lenin’s brain provoked skepticism as well. A discussion in the Presidium of the Communist Academy briefly considered whether it might be possible to put the brain back together again to subject it to other methods of study. “They’ve shredded it to smithereens,” one lamented, “the conclusions are negligible, and the brain is lost” (ARAN f. 350 op. 1 d. 188 ll. 36-39). More than mere empirical questions, there were conceptual concerns about the overly “mechanistic” understandings of the psyche that such explanations offered. Where in these big or small cells, to paraphrase one objection, was class consciousness? (ARAN f. 350 op. 1 d. 269 l. 8). Such research might be useful, it was argued, but was in need of ideological direction, a push toward more “dialectics.” They didn’t philosophize enough, it would seem, or they philosophized badly.

It was in the context of such concerns that, in late 1928 and early 1929, philosophers, psychologists, physiologists and others came together at the Society of Psychoneurologists-Materialists for a discussion between mechanists and dialecticians on the psychophysical problem. The transcripts remain preserved in the archive of the Communist Academy in Moscow (ARAN f. 350 op. 2 d. 337, 393). They make for dense and at times inscrutable reading; a full exegesis would require volumes. But a brief consideration might provide some insight into what—if anything—came of this meeting of minds and brains.

Comrade V. N. Sarab’ianov, a mechanist philosopher, gives the principal paper. Are our thoughts, or ideas, our sensations, he asks, material or not? When Marx says that “being determines consciousness,” does he mean to oppose consciousness to being, in the sense that consciousness is not being, is not objective, spatial, material? Absolutely, as Sarab’ianov affirms: he opposes them. That which in itself is objective, a physical act in the body, Sarab’ianov continues, , is for me subjective, a psychical act. To the disappointment of the reader, he then launches into a long disquisition on primary and secondary qualities, from Locke and Galileo to Plekhanov and Lenin. (Sarab’ianov’s preferred example, fitting for the circumstances, was the quality of red-ness). But his point, in effect, comes to this: subjective phenomena are immaterial and cannot be objectively observed, and the only path to an objective materialist science of the psyche is through what is directly observable in the body and behavior. The dialecticians’ attempts to treat the psyche as “objective being,” Sarab’ianov contends, prove essentially wrong-headed.

The dialecticians, in turn, counter that

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What is there to see here? A cabinet full of brains in the Institute for the Study of Higher Nervous Activity, Moscow, 1931. (Image Source: Arkhiv Rossiiskoi Akademii Nauk, f. 350 op. 1. d. 1077 l. 18)

Sarab’ianov has confused the ontological problem with an epistemological one, and that the mechanists fail to understand, as one dialectician puts it, “the development of the world,” the emergence of new orders of lawfulness at different stages of development. The mechanists, they argue, conceive of the world only in terms of physical and mechanical forms of motion, and either attempt to reduce the psyche to primary elements, to the brain and physiology, or—what amounts to much the same—isolate consciousness from the world, and render it unintelligible. Either way, they are “unwitting idealists,” for they ignore the problem of the psyche as a distinct property of highly organized matter, as a distinct property of that specially organized piece of matter called the brain. The problem with the mechanists, the psychologist-dialectician Iu. V. Frankfurt asserts, is that they cannot imagine that matter can think. They fail to understand the brain as a thinking thing; they fail to understand the brain, he says, as a “thing in itself and for itself.”

Does any of this make any sense? Certainly, there is no eureka moment here—or in the discussion that follows—and indeed the prevailing sense is of an immense confusion. The psychophysical problem is not solved. Rather, what we begin to see is that they are in fact posing different questions. At the risk of stretching Frankfurt’s use of the term here (though not, I think, the stakes of a broader intervention), the problem of the brain ‘for-itself’ for the dialecticians was not, in the first instance, a question of matter and sensation, but of the possibility of conscious and purposeful action, of the active role of consciousness, as they liked to say, in human behavior. It was a problem of the place of the psyche in the world.

In this respect, we might begin to see how a push towards “dialectics” could point to a different approach to the brain, and to what a materialist explanation of the psyche would be. On one hand, it entailed a turn away from the physical and immediately observable as the privileged form of explaining the psyche: thinking the brain as a thinking thing, the demonstration of “substrates” and “correlates” in itself was of no explanation at all. On the other, it focused attention, above all, on the question of development, and the relation of the brain to the structure of consciousness. Posed in this way, the question to be answered was not one of how the brain produced ideas and sensations, but rather of why, of the role of thought and affect in conscious human activity. In this vein, a number of Soviet psychologists in these years would turn to evidence from the clinic, from child development, and even from socialist construction, to understand the development of specifically human higher psychological functions. As Alexander Luria would later say of the work done in this period by Lev Vygotsky (himself one of the participants in the psychophysical discussion), it was a question of how “history ties new functional knots in the cortex” (Luria, “L. S. Vygotsky and the Problem of Localization of Functions,” p. 391).

The fate of that research is a story for another time. The idea here is not that such attempts to rethink the brain came out of this one discussion, or even that they had much to do with dialectics as we might understand it. Rather, it is to consider how such attempts at “ideological direction” may have raised significant questions about what it is we can see, and what it is we explain, when we look at the brain—dead or alive. In this respect there is still perhaps some value in not only working experimentally, but also, sometimes, philosophizing. And, just maybe, in thinking historically as well.

Jamie Phillips is a Ph.D. candidate in modern European history at NYU. His dissertation examines the history of psychoneurology as a total science of the human in early twentieth century Russia, and its relation to the project of creating a ‘New Man.

Further reading:

For more on the dispute between the Mechanists and Dialecticians, see David Joravsky, Soviet Marxism and Natural Science, 1917-1932 (Routledge, 2009)

For lighter fare, join Joy Neumeyer as she takes A Visit to Moscow’s Brain Institute to explore what’s left of the Pantheon in a delightful article for Vice.

 

“Good men are God in the flesh” : Frederick Douglass, Virtue Philosopher

by guest contributor Daniel Joslyn

In his most famous speech, “Self-Made Men,” written in 1854, and performed for the rest of his life, Frederick Douglass contends that: “from the various dregs of society, there come men who may well be regarded as the pride and as the watch towers of the [human] race.” Social class does not determine one’s virtue or worth. For the last thirty years of his life, between the legal demise of chattel slavery in 1865 and his death in 1895, Douglass gave hundreds, if not thousands, of speeches, published countless articles, and two books, offering an alternate vision for how humans could conceive of difference between one another. In an 1865 speech, Douglass asserts that good “poets, prophets and reformers,” must act as “picture-makers,” painting for their audiences visions of the future of the human race. They must keep, “ever present” in their “mind some high, comprehensive, soul-enlarging and soul-illuminating idea, earnestly held and warmly cherished, looking to the elevation and advancement of the whole [human] race.” Douglass’s vision, in the last thirty years of his life, is of a world built on virtue.

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Photographic portrait of Frederick Douglass by George Francis Schreiber, 1870. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Frederick Douglass fought for an America beyond slavery. He believed that emancipation had not merely “emancipated the Negro, but liberated the whites” as well. In an Emancipation Day Address, titled “Emancipation Liberated the Master as Well as the Slave,” Douglass held that the institution of slavery enacted violence against all of its member. In another speech, “Strong to Suffer, yet Strong to Fight,” Douglass declared that since emancipation, people are no longer “required to defend with their lips what they must have condemned in their hearts.” Slavery was a system that forced people to deny the fundamental, to Douglass, truth, that all humans are created equal. By enslaving another person, slaveholders had to violently strip them of a central tenant of their humanity, and had to support their dehumanization with systematic, normalized violence. Slaveholders had to present a united front. They could not speak out against, or even question, the violence and domination that was central to the system.

However, the American promise of Emancipation dissipated. Lynch law dominated the whole nation, as it begun amassing overseas territories. In an 1895 speech, “The Color Line,” he declared that in this supposedly emancipated and advanced society, the “rich man would have the poor man, the white would have the black, the Irish would have the negro, and the negro must have a dog, if he can get nothing higher in the scale of intelligence to dominate.” Though slavery had ended, the mindset that underlay it had survived. People still placed themselves in relation to each other based on characteristics about which they had no power.

Throughout the last thirty years of his life, Douglass fought against all outgrowths of a philosophy built upon prejudice and discrimination. He fought against sharecropping. He supported the work of women’s rights, calling himself a “radical women’s suffrage man” and declaring that granting women the power to vote would be “the greatest revolution” that the world had ever seen. Douglass lent his voice to the struggle for reparations for the formerly enslaved, arguing across a number of speeches and in a widely circulated pamphlet that “American slaves were emancipated under extremely unfavorable conditions. (…) even despotic Russia gave a plot of land and farming implements to its emancipated serfs and (…) when the Jews left Egypt they were allowed to take their former masters’ jewelry.” On this basis, he called for reparations for the formerly enslaved in America. Douglass rhetorically supported the rights of Christians in the Ottoman Empire, Jewish people in Europe, and stood behind oppressed Chinese laborers in California. The philosopher even supported the rights of animals to be treated well, admonishing farmers not to beat their work animals.

In the vision of the world that Douglass offered his listeners, the highest ideal of a person was one who was like God. In a speech of the same name, Douglass argues that “Good men are god in the flesh.” Across a number of eulogies and public speeches, he extolls as examples of this his fellow abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and Lucy Stone. In Douglass’s phrasing, Garrison becomes “the man–the Moses, raised up by God, to deliver his modern Israel from bondage.” Abraham Lincoln, he declares in a speech on “Great Men,” likewise, possesses “a more godlike nature than” any man he had ever met. Though he often uses wealthy and famous men as his examples, Douglass acknowledges “wealth and fame are beyond the reach of the majority of men.” Still, “personal, family and neighborhood well-being stand near to us all and are full of lofty inspirations.” If everyone worked towards the betterment of themselves and their communities, Douglass contends, “we should have no need of a millennium. The world would teem with abundance, and the temptation to evil in a thousand directions, would disappear.” Everyone could become godlike.

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Frederick Douglass’ study and library in 1962. Note portraits of Toussaint L’Ouverture, himself. Out of frame are pictures of his other heroes: Abraham Lincoln, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Philips, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and others. Image courtesy of the National Park Service.

Frederick Douglass’s philosophy of virtue was not wholly new. It fit into a tradition of radical humanist and liberal thought going at least far back as the reformation. In a 16th century poem, the Settennario, God appears to the author, only known as Scolio, and explains that he had given to each group of people on earth “Ten Commandments to each of them The same, but which they comment on separately.” He goes on to explain that each group of people could go to heaven if they just followed their own set of commandments, which were quintessentially the same.

Douglass took many ideas from the famous Scottish historian and enlightenment thinker, Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes and Hero Worship (1840). In the work, Carlyle argues that “the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men.” Each chapter is dedicated to a different form of innate greatness and a different person who exemplified such greatness in their society’s history. All but one of Carlyle’s great men are white and European. The only exception is the prophet Muhammad, whom Carlyle describes as “by no means the truest of Prophets; but I do esteem him a true one.” While Carlyle evinces a theory of virtue as based on thought and action, he ends up supporting a tautology. Someone is great because they greatly impacted the world. Carlyle’s philosophy, then, implies that people who do not greatly impact the world must be morally inferior. Consequently, Carlyle held that the “African race” was incapable of producing Great Men. In 1849, nine years after publishing Heroes, Carlyle anonymously published an article titled “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question,” in which argued that African people were naturally inferior to whites and because of their inherent degradation, fit to be slaves. In the face of derision and public humiliation, Carlyle stuck to his beliefs, republishing the piece with an even more overtly racist message as a pamphlet in 1853.

As an abolitionist, woman’s suffrage man and radical, Douglass sought to open up greatness to all people. As a result, he needed to have a clear conception of what godliness did and did not look like. In an outline to a speech, written during his visit to Egypt in 1884, Douglass accuses Egyptian Coptic Christians of being “Mohamedan in custom” and points out disparagingly that “their women are veiled.” Only American missionaries could bring true Christianity and education to the Egyptians. “It is the redeeming of the land” from misrule and misbelief, Douglass wrote, and “the bringing to people our knowledge of the” gift of education “that is its great need.” They have been “establishing schools, distributing Bibles, showing the people how to be clean, how to live virtuously, which is to live healthfully + honestly.” American protestants needed to teach the “degraded” people true virtue. By opening up virtue to some, he had closed it off to others. Carlyle’s definition of virtue could be malleable, allowing even Muhammad to be great, because he had restricted virtue to the achievements of a single class and, essentially, geographic setting.

However, in an era marked by the rise of Lynch Law, across the U.S. American South, restrictions on voter rights, and a turn away from African American rights across the nation, Frederick Douglass travelled widely, and used his podium to argue that any person, notwithstanding physical attributes, class, or caste, could attain virtue. Douglass built his conception of virtue on a long tradition of a not-quite-universal universalism. Douglass was, and remains, far from alone in not being able to accept that other systems of virtue could be equally valid, nor that other gods could be equally divine.

Daniel Joslyn is a PhD student studying History at New York University. He is currently interested in histories of joy and emancipation in the United States, and the Ottoman Empire (though he’s figuring that one out slowly). He completed his B.A. at Hampshire College studying “Frederick Douglass’s Poetry, Prophesy and Reform: 1880-1895.” He holds that good history is good philosophy and good philosophy teaches us how to live. 


Further Reading:

Philology Among the Disciplines (II): Roles, Limits, Goals

by John Raimo

“Those who don’t know, do theory.” As per Nikolaus Wegmann, this slogan of modern philology touches upon something odd this “ancient form of knowledge” and its persistence into the present day. Philology fitfully attempts to absorb theory in his reading: it historicizes both the scholarly subject at hand and the attendant methodology at a stroke. Different sorts of distances open up between the two according to the field, the scholar’s present moment, the lengths of historical and cultural distance involved, the languages present, and finally the great accumulations of previous scholarship. The philologist stands on the shoulders of giants rather than astride a cemetery. Yet it would be a disservice to varied scholarly traditions and achievements to consider philology an impossibly-idealized historicization or plain recognition of temporal distance. Something more rests at stake. It requires the most ecumenical mind to start making sense of what may no longer be a discipline, but which nevertheless continues to inform all our work.

Scholars at Notre Dame’s Rome Seminar’s “Philology Among the Disciplines” continued to move between philology’s definitions and applications, limits, roles, and problems. The primary fields of discussion included literary study, classics, philosophy, and theology. Each conversation unearthed issues regarding hermeneutics, exegesis, historical semantics, and finally practical techniques—both our own and those of past readers. At least one larger question nearly began to answer itself, namely what relationship pertains between Sach- and Wortphilologie. That is, clear historical developments and scholarly practice link text-driven philology with other disciplines and (crucially) vice-versa. The scholarly traffic ran and runs both ways. The larger question haunting the seminar, however, concerned neither philology’s influence nor history per se but rather its status as a body of techniques, a science, a proto- (or even a post-) discipline, and its potential roles today. Is it a “sublime form of craftsmanship” practiced by scholars rather than anything like a science, as Lorenzo Tomasin recently charged? Or do philology’s claims to authoritative interpretation extend more broadly and perhaps somehow more ‘particularly’ today?

Example of a 'stemma' tracing text transmissions in the model proposed by Karl Lachmann (Stemma for De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii by Martianus Capella proposed by Danuta Shanzer. "Felix Capella: Minus sensus qum nominis pecudalis," Classical Philology 81,1 (1986), p. 62-81).

Example of a ‘stemma’ tracing text transmissions in the model proposed by Karl Lachmann (Stemma for De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii by Martianus Capella proposed by Danuta Shanzer. “Felix Capella: Minus sensus qum nominis pecudalis,” Classical Philology 81,1 (1986), p. 62-81).

No single conversation definitively answers such questions, of course. Yet some brief notes drawn from the conference may at least underline these problems’ significance and the intellectual openness they provoke for scholars across fields and more particularly for intellectual historians.

Ralf Grüttemeier’s talks on literary trials and authorial intention opened the second week of seminars. The angle of legal history clearly binds the two. If a single, authoritative recovery of one coherent authorial intention remained a philological ideal for a great deal of time, it persists well into today’s categories of libel, blasphemy, and obscenity. Landmark literary trials such as those surrounding Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du malOscar Wilde, Joyce’s Ulysses, and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover as well as the Obscene Publications Act of 1959, the Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship (helmed by Bernard Williams), and the United Kingdom’s current libel laws together demonstrate drives to institutionalize philology within modern state judiciaries. That is, this does not concern literature-as-law or vice-versa but rather attempts to identify interpretation with social consensus and enforce disciplinary boundaries in the matter of professional expertise–whether literary, juridical, or otherwise.

Sketch of Closing Trial Scene: half page (Illus. Police News, 5/4/1895)

Sketch of Closing Trial Scene: half page (Illus. Police News, 5/4/1895)

For Grüttemeier then (borrowing from Bahktin), independent philology can otherwise act as a break on centrifugal flows of knowledge both into state control and within disciplines. Historicization and scholarly differentiation occur even in the act of positing authorial intention. The process itself affords a varied and still contentious history from Augustine and Hugh of St. Victor (with untroubled authorial intent available to recover), Schleiermacher’s imperative to “understand the text at first as well as and then even better than its author,” Wimsatt and Beardsley’s famous injunction against the “intentional fallacy,” and the great moment of the ‘death of the author’ in thinkers as diverse as Kristeva, Barthes, Foucault, and Derrida among others held against the so-calledCambridge School’ of intellectual history and indeed all historians of ideas. Whether the idea of intent remains a necessary or even possible working fiction in different fields remains as much a philosophical and political question as one for philologists.

The history of philology itself presents different challenges for classicists, not least when looking to perhaps the most fundamental object of philology—etymologies. Enrica Sciarrino and W. Martin Bloomer looked to Roman translations and transformations of Greek philology. Latin translators and poets from Livius Andronicus and Ennius to the playwright Terence worked in a dual capacity as philologists and writers. A recognizable literary space grew in the shadow of imperial conquest as Rome absorbed Greek culture. That is, demonstrable philological skill with Greek lent original literary authority until a gradual rift opened between creative writers and professional critics.

From Terence, Comoedia: mit Kommentar von Aelius Donatus und Johannes Calphurnius (for 'Heauton Timorumenos'; printed Venice: Reynaldus de Nimwegen, 1482).

From Terence, Comoedia: mit Kommentar von Aelius Donatus und Johannes Calphurnius (for ‘Heauton Timorumenos’; printed Venice: Reynaldus de Nimwegen, 1482).

Yet etymologies and semantics (especially as a matter of innovation) remained huge decisions, as Bloomer made clear when discussing Varro’s etymologies in his De lingua latina libri. A rough sort of early antiquarianism combined with social, political, and moral imperatives to record the past. That is, Varro saw morphological changes, the preservation of texts, and political consensus as intimately related in a project of historical transparency. Hence a ‘politics’ of philology was present from the beginning as actual methodologies—appeals to a complex sense of natura (something apart from social usage), analogy, grammarians, custom, authorities, and citation—crossed from Greek refugees to the Roman elite. Etymology as such possesses its own particular rhetoric of fundamental nature and politics which has enchanted thinkers from Isidore de Seville to Martin Heidegger and beyond.

In the wake of modern classical studies, however, the question remains: has philology become a self-justifying, “normal science” or does it remain a sensibility, orientation, or even a simple goal? Dieter Teichert approached the impasse via a reexamination of Hans-Georg Gadamer’s work on hermeneutics. In extraordinarily brief terms, one can well ask whether Gadamer’s notions of understanding prior to scientific explanation, hermeneutic circles, ‘historically-effected consciousness’ (wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewußtsein), and ‘less-subjective’ exegesis together pose the gravest challenge to historicization. Is philology still possible? Naturally—even Gadamer’s own readings of Celan suggest as much as opposing philosophical claims from Husserl, Dilthey, Ricœur and others such as Gregory Currie and Joseph Margolis. What may be more broadly deduced, however, would be that philology itself cannot level purely hermeneutic claims against competing interpretations.

Justin Martyr presenting an open book to a Roman emperor (Jacques Callot, c. 1632-1635)

Justin Martyr presenting an open book to a Roman emperor (Jacques Callot, c. 1632-1635)

Lewis Ayres‘s talk on the development of early Christian thinking demonstrated another important register of philology, namely its ideological presuppositions. This characterization is not quite right, however, in the light of early Christian reading practices drawing apart from Hellenistic traditions. Ancient philosophy (its links to rhetoric and grammar), dogma, and polemics were tightly interwoven into considerations of what constituted scriptural texts—let alone how to actually read them. IrenaeusAgainst Heresies invented something like textual commentary in the act of contesting Valentinians via close readings of soon-to-be-canonical texts, while Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho demonstrated shifts between literal and figurative readings as permitted (or demanded) by theological dogma. A distinctly Christian hermeneutics arose in the circle again between text and practice; yet as Ayres demonstrated, the philological assumptions were embedded from the beginning.

The Rome seminar’s concluding symposium brought all these terms together in a final framework: disciplinarity. Carsten Dutt offered a forceful characterization of philology as an epistemic means and an end unto itself, then as a Hilfswissenschaft (or ancillary discipline) in historical and comparative linguistics as well. This is not exclusively tied to textual studies, however. More importantly, philology serves to historicize the objects of scholarly study as a means towards “a disciplinary framework whose constitutive aim is to acquire historical knowledge about language and texts.” This methodologically-disciplined historicization may be well-termed normative and problematic at the most detailed levels, yet neither scholarship nor scholarly communities can function in its absence.

Brad Gregory seconded this claim while emphasizing philology’s role as a common denominator or even basic ideology with and between disciplines. That is, philology’s ideals at the least serve as the basis for any interdisciplinary endeavor in the humanities. Similarly, its pervasive presence admits the possibility of wider scholarship within the proper fields themselves: one can think here of classicists making recourse to pottery fragments in reconstructing texts, or legal historians turning to literature. Philology is not always visible, but its ideals guide almost every scholarly humanistic practice, as James Turner, Rens Bod, and Sheldon Pollack among many others have persuasively argued.

If philology generally forbids one from making generalizations—even ones primarily intended for intellectual historians–I will nevertheless hazard a few. The same gap between Sach- and Wortphilologie calls for an awareness of other disciplines’ methodologies and research agendas (past and present). Moreover, some sense of the history of one’s own respective discipline remains necessary at the methodological level. Interdisciplinary studies need not be forced in light of common languages and complementary bodies of expertise. The act of scholarly interpretation always functions in light of previous scholarship: even ‘the death of the author’ was not a reset-button. As such, philology can also act as a break on flows of knowledge, whether institutional or otherwise: the insistence on history also situates each individual work against the larger field of humanistic inquiry.

Finally, the imperative remains to learn languages to a deeper extent as a matter of professionalism. One doesn’t need to talk about graduate training here so much as perhaps to critique the notion of ‘reading knowledge,’ or at least criticize ignorance of scholarship in other languages. This entails something more than renewed self-reflection or a more conservative turn against theory. Take the rise of global history. ‘The state’ in the abstract has become the premier unit of analysis. Yet moving beyond questions of classical origins to flatly equate ‘the state’ with ‘stato,’ ‘état,’ ‘Staat,’ ‘estado’ and so forth rings a false note. Every one of those words has multiple histories and hence presupposes different techniques, competencies, bodies of knowledge, and finally methodologies to study in full depth.

Where then does philology ultimately land us? It’d be nice to say on the page itself, but the better answer would be to say continually looking up from the text and then back again.

ca. 1940, London, England, UK --- Holland House Library is left roofless following an air raid, ca. 1940, London. --- Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Holland House Library is left roofless following an air raid, ca. 1940, London. (© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS)

The author thanks W. Martin Bloomer, Carsten Dutt, and Brad Gregory among all the seminar presenters and participants for their work and thoughts—many of which unfortunately had to go unaddressed above. Anthony Grafton, Suzanne Marchand, Madeleine McMahon, and Gregory Mellen also deserve thanks for key references and exchanges.

Philology Among the Disciplines (I): The problem of definitions

by John Raimo

What is philology? The question may be almost perfectly academic, yet more people have begun to ask it. Scholars such as James Turner and Rens Bod argue that philology as a loosely-associated body of practices proved the seedbed of the modern humanities. Jerome McGann and others advocate for a return to “philology in a new key” for literary studies, and the comparative scope of latter day philologists continue to grow. All this activity marks something new in a very old history dating back to the classical world, to say nothing of classical studies: what was once a pejorative roughly on par (and perhaps rightly so) with pedantry now readily finds a larger hearing—and not just in an Anglophone context. Yet what philology meant, means, and holds for all the disciplines remains very much in question.

James Turner's

James Turner’s “Philology” (Princeton University Press, 2014)

For this reason a number of senior scholars and graduate students have gathered at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study in Rome for two weeks under the banner “Philology Among the Disciplines.” The seminar organizers deliberately choose the widest ambit for discussion: lectures and seminars have revolved around epistemology, philosophy, exegesis, hermeneutics, traditions, practices, and above all disciplinary histories. In the first week, those entailed archaeology, art history, classics, history, and philosophy. Perhaps it’s to the credit of the discussion that any clear answers may be receding, however. What follows consists then more of my own thoughts and observations as we head into the second week (and a follow-up post later on).

If one thing is clear, it would be that philology can be extended past the textual practices of emendation, collation, and historical semantics often associated with the term. The breaking point is less clear. As per the archaeologist Alain Schnapp, philology becomes almost an ahistorical means of historical reflection. Material remains of one sort or another evoke memories in two directions: a present long past which planned for the future via monuments, coins, and so forth, and the possibility (or at least rhetoric) of a direct connection to the past from our current present. The problem of reconstruction versus memory rears its head, however, to say nothing of dropping what we might call philological rigor in imagining that we can skip over the intervening historical distance. The sheer materiality of stone or of syntax affords this illusion of direct access.

Put another way, there’s no such thing as an isolated ruin, vestige, or trace of the past. Here one might well consider numismatics or the study of currency like ancient coins. Yet this hardly remains a signature delusion of archaeologists. The same goes for texts no matter how thoroughly or obsessively contextualized and reconstructed, the self-aware knowledge of accumulated scholarship (often centuries’ worth) in the best cases non-withstanding.

According to Elisabeth Décultot, the case of Johann Joachim Winckelmann sheds some light on this dynamic. How could philology buttress interpretations of art? Or might it serve to construct universal histories, especially those adjudicating between civilizations and ages? In the case of Winckelmann as well as of the Comte de Caylus and Herder, historians of scholarship can find philology in its capacity as a Hilfswissenschaft or subsidiary discipline of sorts. This might entail claims of societal progress and artistic achievement held on par with a respective language—especially when broaching rather mistier sorts of Ur-origins. Hence for Winckelmann, philology ran parallel to and partly tempered aesthetic experience.

But philology could also simply mean employing philological prowess as a sort of polemical sidearm. Errors of reading could disqualify an opponent; those with little Latin and less Greek still know about this. Philology otherwise evidently proved crucial as means of professional distinction. Winckelmann was not simply a connoisseur practicing on an exponentially broader canvas but rather positioning himself as something like a modern art historian.

The Ara Pacis in Rome

The Ara Pacis in Rome

A trip to the Ara Pacis in Rome bodied out some underlying issues here. Perhaps especially in looking to classical remains, philology can find itself in the double-traffic between image and text. That is, it serves as a check (rather like the ‘semantic check’ theorized in Begriffsgeschichte) on the range of possible interpretations afforded by historical objects, texts or otherwise. Here philology can run counter to the sort of contextualization amounting to the process of association—often carried to the extent of an object taken to represent the whole of a civilization—and embedding historical traces into external narratives of a certain sort.

Put another way, according to Martin Bloomer, philology presupposes limits as it carries its own. It almost unconsciously entertains hermeneutic presuppositions: that a whole exists to be reconstructed from a fragment, that correct emendations and interpretations exist, that historical unities of style can be discovered, that synecdoche might recover a worldview, that the one best reader (e.g. the most talented linguist) gets to write the commentary and paratext, that monumentality and preservation best serve interpretation. At its best, however, philology can also prove “self-policing” in such a way as to ideally form a toolbox of sorts, namely one comprising practices (emendation, error-detection, &c.) within ‘negative’ or falsifiable and hence professional constraints.

Dedication page for the Historiae by the Greek historian Herodotus, translated into Latin by Lorenzo Valla (1494)

Historiae by the Greek historian Herodotus, translated into Latin by Lorenzo Valla (1494)

For Suzanne Marchand, the later receptions of Herodotus among historians demonstrated how hard this proves in practice. His unusually complicated text poses more problems (and possibilities) than I can address here. In brief though, what a broader history of the champions and detractors of the same “father of history” and the fantastical “father of lies” demonstrates is that regimes of philological truth exist: that is, Herodotus has been variously held to be accurate or false in different ways at different times, and all of them broadly convincing for period readers.

Where does that leave us? For philosopher Christiane Schildknecht and classicist Glenn W. Most, philology amounts to a renewed focus upon epistemology. For the former, this renews the distinction of propositional from non-propositional knowledge in the act of interpretation. Hermeneutics, aesthetics, and historical scholarship hold equal weight and distinguish different values of truth. For the latter, philology implies a return to the history of science. A ‘top-down’ account of material practices of philology might stand in for the best history. Here one might look to Carl Friedrich Gauss and Karl Lachmann alike: how they came to distinguish between random and systematic errors is one story, but how both came to see that even random errors could be consistent proves another. Such implicit epistemological challenges have never left scientists or scholars in the humanities.

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The Coliseum at Rome (courtesy of the author)

In both Schildknecht and Most’s telling then, philology becomes more a matter of methodological orientation or even self-consciousness. Beyond a body of certain textual practices, philology serves as a willingness to revise theory in light of pragmatic and experimental difficulties rather than vice-versa. Here philology’s polemical value today also comes to light in the age of ‘distant reading,’ the long ascendancy of theoretical schools in various humanistic disciplines, and pedagogical trends and desires. To return to philology’s position today, however, this requires more historical scrutiny than ever. Back-formations of what philology never in truth was easily enough serve for a counter-politics of sorts. Nothing would be further from the historical truth of philology across and between the ages.

Old Ships, New Harbors

By John Raimo

Transatlantic Theory Transfer: Missed Encounters?, a wonderful conference held last weekend at Columbia University’s Deutsches Haus, explored the American reception of key twentieth-century German thinkers. So capacious a theme may seem untenable at first, and so indeed it proved in the best possible way. Every paper called the conference title into question. Anna Kinder and Joe Paul Kroll began by suggesting how the extraordinarily messy processes of circulation and reception could substitute for clean conceptual ‘transfers.’ These former include an author’s reputation, initial sales figures, publishers’ stature and funds, the sale of foreign rights, government assistance schemes, copyright law, available translators, informal intellectual connections, formal academic networks and US teaching positions, citations and reviews in journals, varying audience interests, and—it may finally turn out—something inherently resistant or hard to assimilate in texts wherever foreign audiences are concerned.

Dr. Joe Paul Kroll

Dr. Joe Paul Kroll

Style and intellectual difficulty as such do not quite catch at that last possibility. To borrow from Tim Parks, could it be that cultural specificity and baggage limit theory’s range just as much as they do fiction, say? And do certain ideas and ways of thinking wholly frustrate effort translation? As per Philipp Felsch and Robert Zwarg, ‘theory’ considered as a genre here opens certain doors while closing others. How does one consider theory as an export or place it on an academic map? How does one narrow it to a disciple or a department, let alone go about teaching it in the university or using it as a means towards social change (as one exhausting debate after another from 1968 onward in such journals as Telos insist)? Moreover, just how far each author identified their writing as ‘theory’—even those within the famous publishing phenomenon of the “Suhrkamp Culture” (as George Steiner termed it)—remains an open question, even if a ready definition could be derived from the ‘theory’ shelves of college bookstores. It may even be that theoretical texts meet wholly different expectations and needs among readers, say social and political ones as Dagmar Herzog reasons happened with the psychoanalyst Alexander Mitscherlich (an eclectic or even incoherent thinker) among the German and American New Left as well as among student movements.

‘Missed’ turns out to be misleading. So too does ‘encounters’ in the briefer or more climactic sense. Figures such as Gershom Scholem, Siegfried Kracauer, Hans Blumenberg, Reinhart Koselleck, Niklas Luhmann, Mitscherlich, Friedrich Kittler, and Alexander Kluge all indeed found interest among certain groups of readers. Yet this happened belatedly and in unexpected quarters just as these thinkers also failed to gain larger traction in America. Their great unspoken counterparts would be the figures associated with the Frankfurt School, including Walter Benjamin, and then ‘obliquely’ theoretical figures such as Max Weber. Wholly ‘missed’ receptions occurred much more rarely, though as Ernst Bloch’s publisher (the great Siegfried Unseld) conceded, they do happen.

Much more interesting and perhaps even common were overlapping, diffused, partial, and blocked receptions. Hence in Scholem’s case, as Yaacob Dweck argues, it might be that a popular reception threatened to overwhelm a strictly academic reception. As Johannes von Moltke suggests in situating Kracauer’s readers, influence can also be so variously pervasive as to become invisible. The failure of an ‘instrumental reception’ can doom a thinker to smaller historical and philosophical readers, as William Rasch believes became the case for Luhmann once American sociologists gave up on what (even admirers will admit) is pretty turgid prose. And ‘homegrown’ thinkers like David Riesman or the so-called ‘Cambridge School’ of historians can present such strong affinities to German theorists like Mitscherlich and Koselleck that the latter (fairly or quite the opposite) never gain a foothold. Someone beat them to some of the punches.

Johannes von Moltke

Professor Johannes von Moltke

Similarly, only parts of different œuvres found ready audiences on political, disciplinary, and pedagogical grounds. According to Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann, Koselleck’s late work garnered relatively less attention than his early studies given how neatly the latter slotted into Cold War categories. Strongly-marked early, middle, and late career stages stretched Kittler between media, communication, and German studies as his commentator and translator Geoffrey Winthrop-Young finds. And for Paul Fleming, another scholar-translator, the lack of a ready “hook,” exemplary methodological statements, introductory texts, or full translations (e.g. of Latin passages, &c.) keep Blumenberg from both undergraduate and graduate syllabi.

Finally, temporality further muddies the picture as concerns de- and re-canonization (just think of used books’ circulation), waxing reputations in America and waning ones in German (and vice-versa), and the sheer speed and availability of good translations. Unsung translator heroes emerge (such as Fleming and Winthrop-Young) as do such editors as Thomas McCarthy of the MIT Press series Studies in Contemporary German Thought. And indeed, several instances of retranslated works or books translated decades after their initial appearance undercut any notion of a flash-in-the-pan trend. One here can also consider a critical interregnum, say regarding an unsettled posthumous status in Kittler’s case or—as Devin Fore, Kluge’s American editor, contends—a strange moment before canonization could or even should occur.

Neither ‘missed’ nor ‘encounters’ quite work. ‘Transatlantic’ fails as well. The incontestable prominence of French theorists drawing on Heidegger, Nietzsche, and other German thinkers makes this a triangular affair rather than a one-way crossing. Similarly, reputations made in the US cross back to Europe and—quite often—migrate south to the Latin American world and elsewhere. Any sense of a clean map or linear narrative explodes.

What then remains to say? Each figure discussed at the conference encountered unique obstacles in finding an American readership. Yet there were also common challenges, as suggested above, and these in turn imply new directions for twentieth century intellectual history. Social and political history as well as the history of publishing, of the book, and even of reading—as Marxist study groups shaded into looser book clubs, for instance—perfectly complement the history of ideas in the postwar period. As far as reception and circulation go, new figures, subjects, and periodizations will emerge in the latter field, now an increasingly and truly global history leading right to the present moment.

The author would like to thank all the participants who granted permission to take their photos (whether used here or not).

The Sounds of History

by John Raimo

So far as writing history goes, the British historian G.M. Young wrote, “The secret is to treat every document as the record of a conversation, and go on reading till you hear the people speaking.” This characterization remains striking, and it cuts to a certain number of timeless historiographical issues. A first one seems clear enough. Many of the great texts which intellectual historians look to easily enough afford monolithic interpretations, that is, as worlds unto themselves. (Lest the point seem simple enough vis-à-vis intertextuality, &c., one can look to any number of recent studies delightfully lost in the tangle of Hobbes.) Recapturing the dialogues and polemical dimensions of such texts poses a different challenge—not least in reading demolished, perhaps boring, and justly or not forgotten arguments and thinkers. Few are likely to end up on most syllabi. Then archival work also enters the equation. What kinds of scaffolding fell away in correspondences, marginalia, pamphlets, and newspapers? Moreover, what sort of actual spoken conversations leave only the slightest traces in written documents or other forms of evidence?

At this point ‘hearing the people speaking’ begins to suggest a deeper level of comprehension. It cuts toward style. Appreciating this in full entails something more than teasing out allusions, references, and even the connotations of central terms. It means understanding something like the context, backgrounds, and circumstances of syntax, diction (not least regionalisms), rhythm, color, and the pitch of an author’s language. Style naturally enough implies an audience, or at least betrays expectations and anxieties floating behind the text. The hermeneutic demands were already daunting enough: now literary sensitivity, a lifetime’s worth of broad reading, and something like native fluency in a language all become necessary. So far as methodology goes, there’s nothing left but to “go on reading” until those voices begin to sound—and hopefully not the crazier ones.

Historians of the intellectual history of the twentieth century may have an easier job of this. Namely, television and radio all furnish not only a different source of evidence, but also evidence of a new order: the aural record as such. Here rich resources await anyone with patience, YouTube, and access to interlibrary loan programs. Before, during, and after the Second World War, public intellectuals of all kinds began making conscious use of all the media at their disposal. One fascinating earlier instance comes to mind in Thomas Mann’s BBC broadcasts to Nazi Germany (which were indeed later published), though Mann’s first broadcast actually happened more than ten years earlier. And so it’s little wonder that, another ten years after the war, the great intellectual Hans Magnus Enzensberger would begin his career in part as a Hörfunkredakteur of “Radio Essays” under Alfred Andersch at the Süddeutscher Rundfunk.

The floodgates open in postwar Europe with everything from the BBC’s renowned Reith Lectures to Günter Gaus’s famous interviews, André Malraux’s grand public speeches, and the Nobel Prize banquet speeches. This was hardly unusual: media groups such as the ARD in West Germany, Radio France (with quite an interesting chronology), and the BBC among others all made eager use of novelists, philosophers, and other public figures to both reach and create new audiences beyond print. Some scholars such as Tamara Chaplin have written sensitively about this as a phenomenon in its own right, and indeed it continues in many places until the present day.

Yet there is also a dearth of twentieth century studies connecting audio, visual, and print sources in terms of intellectual history. Here I mean how form modified the content, often through successive rounds or versions. This includes lectures recorded in the classroom, round-tables, interviews, and talks given before academic audiences, say Raymond Aron at the Sorbonne in 1963 for instance. These figures tailored and tried out formulations before committing themselves to print (and then often revising the texts afterwards). One particularly interesting case here might be Theodor Adorno, a wonderful public speaker who tested his 1964 attack on Heidegger in lecture form (an uncut form can be purchased here). The text is slightly different and, perhaps more importantly, his listener can’t escape the heavy irony laden in Adorno’s voice. And he’s quite funny to boot (an idea which likely has yet to take in studies of the great thinker). Or similarly, one hears not only Berlin but a Berlin of another time and place in Gershom Scholem’s autobiographical recollections.

Does listening to old recordings automatically make historians better readers? Of course not. Nor do historians hear things the way they were once heard, with all the hermeneutic baggage that texts pose alongside additional ones drawing on what can only be called our aural formations (i.e. our native languages, academic experiences, tempo of daily speech, and so on). Nothing threatens to pull written texts down from their pedestal unless we specifically turn to film, music, art, and other materials. On the other hand, nothing precludes a movement between sound and word for historians so fortunate as to have this great legacy at hand. So it may still make for better readers among intellectual historians and—just as importantly—it also humanizes the endeavor. One hears the tired, young, provincial, sick, laughing, charismatic, high-pitched (e.g. Otto von Bismarck) and even occasionally boring people behind, in, and sometimes escaping beyond the text.

*There are several resources to recommend here. Ubuweb, the Institut national de l’audiovisuel (INA) the Bibliothèque national de France (where I recently stumbled onto a recording of Émile Durkheim), the British Library, and the ubiquitous YouTube are wonderful Internet resources. Many archives also have scattered holdings, albeit ones which must be visited in person. There are also lines of recordings, however, which can purchased from INA, the British Library, Hörverlag, Gallimard, Fremeaux et Associés, and Quartino among other publishers, including more boutique companies like Brigade Commerz and Supposé. A few others spring to my mind, but I’d like to hear comments and suggestions from other audiophiles among the intellectual history community.

Neoliberal Dogma? Revisiting Foucault on Social Security, Healthcare, and Autonomy (Pt. I of II)

by guest contributor Luca Provenzano

Was Michel Foucault “seduced” by neoliberalism? Daniel Zamora and other scholars voice this allegation in Critiquer Foucault: Les années 1980 et la tentation néolibérale (English translation forthcoming). Last month, an interview with Zamora (translated from the French) and a later essay resonated among Foucault readers (See post by Stuart Elden). A vibrant debate also reignited last week at An und für sich (usefully curated here).

In my take, the accusations (often hyperinflated online, most strikingly here) disclose more about the production of knowledge under neoliberal conditions than they reveal about Foucault. To set up this argument for my forthcoming second post, I look to a 1983 interview about French Sécurité sociale and healthcare rights (the speakers were Michel Foucault and Robert Bono, the general secretary of the CFDT French trade union). The interview is “Un système fini face à une démande infinie” in Foucault, Dits et écrits IV (English translations are my own). For two reasons, this seems as good place as any to criticize the seduction claims: first, its brevity; second, the essentially “normative” mode pursued by Foucault. I consider only whether Foucault’s discussion of social security substantially reproduced “neoliberal” dogma about the dependent poor or the negative economic effects of social provisions. Far from serving as an active contributor to the destruction of social security, I believe Foucault attempted to re-envision it so as to reduce its limitations. (NB: French Sécurité sociale has a more extensive meaning than our “social security” and denotes the ensemble of social provisions for workers).

Let’s work through the interview. Foucault concluded his first statements about social security thus:

Finally, Sécurité sociale, whatever its positive effects, has also had ‘perverse effects’: the growing rigidity of some mechanisms and situations of dependency. This is inherent to the functional mechanisms of the institution [dispositif]: on the one hand, we give people greater security and, on the other, we increase their dependency. Rather, we should be able to expect our social security to grant each person their autonomy in relation to dangers and situations that would subordinate or subject them (Foucault, 368).

Foucault later qualified this statement:

There really is a positive demand for a [social] security that opens the route to richer, more numerous, more diverse and more supple relations to the self and to its milieu, all the same assuring to everyone a real autonomy. This is a new fact that should weigh upon contemporary conceptions when it comes to social protection (Foucault, ibid).

From the start, Foucault bracketed but acknowledged the positive effects of French social security. His inquiry concerned the more ambiguous effects of the contemporary system on personal autonomy, but Foucault apparently thought that social security and autonomy were potentially compatible. In my interpretation, he implicitly denied the claim that situations of mounting dependency were necessities of any social security; rather dependency inhered in the “functional mechanisms” of the contemporary system. Foucault further prodded his interlocutors to consider a renovation of these structures: “Shouldn’t we rather try to conceive of a system of social coverage that would take into account the demand for autonomy that we are talking about in such a fashion that these famous effects of placement into dependency [mise en dependence] would almost totally disappear?” (ibid., 370)

Notably, Foucault categorized the two sorts of “dependency” reinforced or produced by post-war French welfarism as “placement into dependency through integration” and “placement into dependency through marginalization or exclusion” (ibid., 369). “Dependency through integration” originated in the distribution of social aid through certain “normal” institutions like the family, the workplace, or the geographic region. “Dependency through marginalization” originated in exclusion from aid or marginalization from aid by the same administrative mechanisms. “Our systems of social coverage impose a determinate mode of life to which it subjects individuals and any person or any group,” he wrote, “that, for one reason or another, does not want or cannot integrate to this mode of life finds himself marginalized by the very play of the institutions” (ibid., 372). This is a critique of contemporary conditions of access to social provisions.

In my view, it was not a “neoliberal” critique in the sense that it was not at all about the purported negative macroeconomic effects of socialized coverage or how social provisions supposedly encouraged unproductive behavior among recipient populations. Foucault also took seriously the notion that non-access to coverage could be a source of “dependency” or heteronomy. His comments complimented the CFDT proposal to renounce “the absurd juridicism” of a French social aid system that discriminated against “marginals” through a bureaucratic firewall and to decentralize social welfare institutions in order to make them more accessible. Foucault envisioned not the destruction of social security but the move towards a system that would prove more agnostic towards the modes of life of its recipients: “the objective of an optimal social coverage conjugated to a maximum of independence is very clear” (ibid).

In short, Foucault asked: “what are the limits to autonomy posed by the way our social democracy administers and adjudicates claims to aid?” The critique of the mechanisms of access to social security fit Foucault’s contemporary philosophical inquiries into how systems enforced professions of identity; he wanted to investigate how the state validated dominant identities and modes of life via the distribution of aid and how to limit that effect. Foucault thought that the state should establish new forms of access to Sécurité sociale that were less contingent on the adherence of aid recipients to “normal” social categories insofar as these procedures tended to force individuals to identify as “X,” and in turn reinforced dominant institutions. The problem of social security reform for Foucault was “how to act so that the person would no longer be a ‘subject’ in the sense of l’assujettissement…” (ibid., 373) – a subject subjected to prevailing societal norms. In my view, the link to neoliberalism is at best a retrospective illusion.

Luca Provenzano is a second year doctoral student at Columbia University. He is currently working on Louis Althusser, May 1968, and the concept of ideology.