Samuel Moyn & Andrew Sartori on Global Intellectual History

Over at one of our favorite blogs, the Imperial and Global Forum run by the Centre for Imperial and Global History at the University of Exeter, Professors Samuel Moyn (Harvard) and Andrew Sartori (NYU) have authored a useful contribution to discussions about the future of global intellectual history. In their piece, “What is Global Intellectual History – And Should It Exist At All,” Moyn and Sartori partly respond to some of the charges levied against their recent volume, Global Intellectual History, by UCLA historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam in a review.

In response to the criticism, Moyn and Sartori argue that:

our volume on Global Intellectual History is as much devoted to whether there ought to be such a field as to what it should look like. Our goal is to slow down in the face of enthusiasm, not unthinkingly ride its wave, as otherwise seems so tempting given the proliferation of books, courses, even chairs in the subject.
Lurking in contemporary historical writing, for the most part below the level of explicit argument, are a series of provisional approaches to how we might understand the global scale of intellectual history. If we are to approach these questions about the global connectedness of ideas with any clarity and directness, we must begin by recognizing the differences between various approaches. Only then can we be confident that we are talking about the same sets of historical problems, and invoking coherent and compatible frameworks for analyzing them.
One influential conception of human history has been in terms of a gradual evolution from bad ideas to good ones. That history would then imply that the locations with the most developed and adequate ways of thinking would therefore be most likely to produce ideas that were increasingly unshackled from spatial limitations.
To take a classic example from the work of Berkeley Sinologist Joseph Levenson, when the West confronted China, the longstanding claims of Chinese scholars to the universal significance of their ideas was brought into crisis by the universal power of modern Western ideas. Mitchell gets at this one-way relationship in highlighting the enthusiasm with which the novel thinking of political economy was greeted in the east. From this perspective, the non-Western world is forever trapped in one of two roles: grateful recipient of Western truth, or irrational recalcitrant.

The point, they continue, is not only to investigate the reverse process (“the West” learning from its subalterns), nor only to place into question, as Subrahmanyam does, the value of a research agenda that places the diffusion or acceptance of Western ideas at the centerpiece of global intellectual history.  More than that, they argue for what one might dub a global topography of concepts, investigating how phenomena that have little to do with ideas per se – the divides between sedentary and nomadic societies, or the Iron Curtain, say – have had a profound effect on the contexts in which ideas could be received.

Such a research agenda – embracing the wide geographic and temporal bounds that Subrahmanyam pleads for – would not only hint at the non-intellectual reasons for the non-globalization of certain ideas; more than that, and perhaps more profoundly, it might suggest why certain ideas have found limited or unintended resonance even in settings where intellectual transfer did take place. As the pair conclude,

It might also soon turn out that those whom we (whoever “we” might be) want to listen have heard perfectly well. It might be that they articulate the same sets of concerns in terms we don’t readily recognize. Or it might be that, of the many things they hear from elsewhere, they have chosen to engage some ideas but not others. Or it might be that they have heard all too well, learning not only our meanings but also how to transform them to their ends. 

Readers can consult the full piece at Exeter’s blog. Alternatively – or additionally – Moyn and Sartori’s edited volume comes out in paperback this April.

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