Moyn's and Sartori's: Global Intellectual History

Just finished reading the Kindle version of this book published in 2013 - completed in one trans-Pacific trip. Lot's of food for thought: on methodology especially in the opening and closing sections, and specific episodes in global intellectual history in the main chapters.


Opening Chapter

1. What approaches / models of doing global intellectual history interests me, given I am looking at it as a potential aspect of an undergrad World Humanities curriculum? In the opening chapter, three distinct types are mentioned:

a) First, the global as a meta-analytical category of the historian

b) Second, the global as a substantive scale of historical process, and hence a property of the historian's subject matter

c) third, the global as a subjective category ussed by historical agents who are themselves the objects of the historian's inquiry

Given my interest in pre-1800, that will be mostly a) and maybe with leakage into b).

Three different modes:

i) universal history and comparative history

ii) various approaches that emphasize intermediating agents or modes of circulation

iii) theories of larger structural transformations (Maxism, notably) that allow for new conceptual movement or networking practices

My interest will be mostly in i) and may leak into ii).


2. Under "universal history," the following are discussed:

a) Hegal - who placed an extraordinary premium on the role of thought in organizing and driving forward the unfolding of a world history. Not interested in his teleology.

b)Joseph Levenson: "the Hegelian supersession of Chinese by Western universalism forced Chinese intellectuals into choosing between the radical embrace of modern universalism or a new traditionalism, in which tradition was valued for its particularity rather than its universality. This gets more interesting.

c) Black intellectuals have challenged the parochialisms of Hegelian universal history to find a place for both Arica and black people in a reconstituted and cosmopolitan universal history. Idea is like what I am trying to do, though my interest is mostly around canonical texts and mostly pre-1800.


3. Comparative history: a global intellectual history might compare intellectuals or intellectual practices or ideas and concepts geographically or chronologically. This is likely what students will be asked to do after reading comparable canonical texts from different traditions. "Might be seen as merely a call to create a more inclusive intellectual history that respects the diversity of intellectual traditions ..." Sounds right to me.

i) in Chapter 2 where author compares Herodotus, Sima Qian and Ibn Khaldun on their views of the steppe civilizations: "the global scale of the enterprise is established by the intention of the investigator and the terms of the investigation. It is not an actor's or native category, nor does it depend on specific historical conditions of interconnectedness on which many of the other approaches focus." This is a classic example and explanation. "... a global juxtaposition offers many opportunities for new interpretations."

ii) Joseph Needham

iii) G.E.R. Lloyd: "develops a more general notion of 'systematic inquiry' that allows the comparison of drastically different systems of knowledge without judgment as to the relative success or failure of either side to anticipate or lay the groundwork for modern approaches."


4. On approaches involving intermediaries: "insisting on an implicit holism according to which cultural, social, linguistic, civilizational, or geographical boundaries are always occupied by mediators and go-betweens who establish connections and traces that defy any preordained closure." This would reflect my preference for Herodotus vs. Thucydides, the inclination to include Xuan Zhuang, al-Biruni and Ibn Battuta and the likes in a World Canonical texts course.

i) In one version that focus on translation and circulation, "the study or how words and texts from one place were received somewhere else offers one model for forging a global concept history." I am interested in this, but not only this - I think the history and sociology of canonical texts transmission in general -- whether "within a tradition" or "across traditions" -- is something clearly under-studied."The translation model ... is ... interested ... in the historical and often power-laden settings of enacted translations. ... the translation model frequently concludes wtih visions of language zones, or even the globalization of specific concepts or words across such zones." "The general point is that a series of intellectual, institutional, and political factors conditioned the features of the proprietary networks through which particular traditions of thought traveled." "... a global intellectual history might try to disaggregate a history of that text's multiple receptions in the face of its apparent unity." All these are interesting, but unlikely to be the focus of an introductory curriculum.

ii) "The dynamic between the 'local and regional' and 'the supra-regional, even the global," in which the circulation of cultural forms was generated from several sites neither systemically integrated nor culturally insulated, was already a key characteristic of this era [early modernity.]" This refers to Sanjay Subrahmanyam's work, very exciting stuff I have to say. 


5. The editors classify Sheldon Pollock's work (the full book in 2006 I have also read) under the category of global as an actors' category. "Such an approach might look into the history of spatial imaginations, mapping, world pictures and representations of the globe, or the history of cosmopolitanisms." All in the area of my personal interests. "As Sheldon Pollock demonstrated, there is no need to presume modernity in order to begin comparing the universalistic -- and, in a sense, global -- worldviews fo various traditions." "... different cultural and textual traditions have linked the premise of common humanity to wildly different institutional bases and schemes of power." "The success of Pollock's brand of global intellectual history founded on comparison, however, makes it difficult to imagine the evolutionary stories of the rise of global consciousness favored in certain traditions of liberal political philosophy that celebrate the rise of universalism or by pundits for whom the world is finally flat. Instead of a tale of asymptotic progress toward closer and closer approximation with the geographical earth, studies of actor's categories center on deciphering how contextual factors predominate." Good, and needed perspectives!


6."As important as the what of global intellectual history is the when. Broadly speaking, we might say that there are three approaches: alway, sometimes, and never." My take on this is somewhat complex. I can agree that as a reality intellectual influence is not truly global yet (i.e. everyone thinking some key issues would be influenced by what has been thought about in the past globally), but it can always be tried if one makes the efforts now. Substantively, now is the right time to talk about global intellectual history, because there is a growing upper-middle social class that lives their lives crossing cultures - flight data is a good indication of how much international and long-distance travel is taking place these days. Adding internet traffic and social media data will makes numbers even more impressive. Probably still not affecting more than 15-20% of the world, but this group is real, and truly emerging.


Chapter 12

7. In this first concluding chapter, the author Frederick Cooper makes a good point that relevant, broad intellectual history probably needs to be written at a level lower than "global." Some quotes: "The histories of polities and peoples ... are filled with earlier connections, earlier conversations, and earlier mutual influences, as well as earlier extensions of imperial power, with all the political and cultural asymmetry that this implies. In other words, commernsurability has been with us for a long time, and the units in which intellectuals operated, in South Asia or elsewhere, should not be seen, as Pollock puts it, as a "history of emergence of primeval and natural communities." "Empires are big but finite, and thinking about their role in the movement of ideas and knowledge around the world is one way to avoid the problems of a too hasty leap to the 'global.'" "Religious, political, and other cross-empire networks ... also encouraged divisions in how people thought as well as the linkages among them." "The more important problem is to figure out what intellectual's frameworks were, with their openings and closures, linkages, and dead ends. Unless we give more than a nod to the plurality of universalisms, to the time depth of connections, and to the ways in which different frameworks combine and conflict, we will be extending our twenty-first-century parochialism. If we can avoid the linkage of 'global' and 'modern,' we might have a better understanding of the limits of contemporary claims to the unbounded circulation of ideas." "The path to an intellectual history that takes in most of the world will lead us to a less-than-global intellectual history." This is right on point, and this is why Marshall Hodgson's work still looks so good today after half a century.


Chapter 13 (Final Chapter by Sudipta Kaviraj)

8. "Some historians want to understand how large intellectual ideas or trends cause the events that make history. Their object of epistemic interest is social history, in which they wish to assess the significance of the causal efficacy of ideals and intellectual processes. For a second group of scholars, the objects of analysis are the intellectual systems, or processes themselves." I have to say my interest is the latter - ore more specficially, the sociology / history behind the intellectual systems rather than the intellectual systems behind history. In this sense may be my inclination is more Marxist.


9. "In some cases the globality of approach or address is a result of the analysts' optional intentionality, and in others, the authors believe that the nature of the intellectual field can be approached only globally, going beyond the usual 'national' template on the study of social thought." Clear, mine interest lies in the former space.


10. "... both Pollock and Sartori are skeptical of the unassisted diffusion of ideas, whether religious, poetic, or cultura." For them, cultural forms spread because of a casual force ..." I wouldn't go so far as "causal" force (as I don't think what constitute 'causal' or good 'explanation' is generally well thought-through in history), but at least the underlying patterns are of interest.


11. "In contrast ... Pollock's model of the premodern, centers on what I call 'intrinsic globality': it is the careful and rigorous scholarly pursuit fo an intellectual culture that invents a universalistic principle and spreads across an enormous area." Good summary, exciting program. "Modern Western civilization has an interesting dual relation with earlier instances of universalist cultures like the Sanskrit cosmopolis, global Christendom, and the Islamic religious community."


12. "Aydin argues persuasively, however, that before the advent of modernity, the Islamic world community meant little substantive or even imaginatively agentive. ... Aydin shows that before the emergence of modern cognitive apparatuses, there was no concept of a global Islamic ummah. Probably the material scale of self-recognition of Islamic groups was not possible earlier, and in addition, there was no condition to conceive of a collective agency, in however minimal a sense. In contrast, however, Aydin demonstrates the significant role of non-Western intellectuals in poducing a conception of global forms." "the global community has embraced as universal such norms as nationalism, sovereignty, and even human rights, but not as a result of the Europeanization of diverse intellectual traditions in different parts of the world." Aydin's study is fascinating, but it is also clear that a cultural self-identifcation is easily formed when faced with "another." That is part of the reason why it is now easy to talk about broad cultural groupings, but it is hard to talk about "human intellectual tradition" as a unified whole - because there are no aliens on the horizon yet.


13. "... abstrat ideals like nationalism must be mediated to audiences inhabiting specific cultural milieus, often of powerful vernacular regional cultures. Mediation is a condition of the expansion." ... "Savarkar . This also shows the longevity of the peculiar structure of two-tiered cosmopolitanism." "It is essential to remember that the movement of ideas leads to something like a 'translation process' in which the receptive language has thick connotative features that are never quite turned off when foreign ideas are received, and therefore this process cannot be understood except through a truly linguistically and culturally double-sided history." The vernacular regional level is fascinating, especially in that it brings back the "national" level (in the case of Europe) that modern theories are so prone to discard without second thoughts.


14. "As long as the only sources of intellectual history are written texts, they will unavoidably overlook those people who did not themselves write but made others' writing possible." I sympathize with this, yet find it hard to get energized around the idea that the canons may not be texts - thus I am never as interested in "canonical" hymns, songs, TV shows or movies. Probably because of my bias as a bibliophile.


15. "The central insight in Hill's narrative is his assertion that the farther a universal ideal travels, the more it will forget its origins and become usable for other and entirely local historical purposes, assisted by the often overlooked but important fact that users in other cultures do not always access ideals from high texts, but from vulgates."  "Even concepts that were not meant to be universal are often taken from their original context and applied to contexts that historically have been very different." "For historians the ultimate measure of the universality of an idea must be its incorporation into social practice in places far from its origin, including not only behavior in the world of ideas but also modes of governance and, potentially, resistance." These ideas of "context forgetfulness", "vulgates" intermixing with "universality" is fascinating. More reminder about the Sanskrit cosmopolis, and the importance of the sociology of reception / transmission.


16. "Marxists generally agree that capitalism was 'modern but not Western in any profound way." Somehow regarding intellectual history, I often find the Marxist take - or the focus on capitalism as a distinct form of social organization - less compelling.  


17. "The forces of modernity spread irresistably across the globe -- but unevenly, unequally, and differently. Modernity, therefore, is not a force that makes the world more uniform but actually what makes it more divers." Probably true!

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