domingo, 5 de outubro de 2014

Nitzan Lebovic on nihilism and Israel

LEBOVIC, Nitzan. The history of nihilism and the limits of political critique (Rethinking History, 2014)

This article by Nitzan Lebovic in the forthcoming edition of Rethinking History discusses the history of the concept of nihilism, later on taking Israel as a case study of its uses. Here are two quotes, the first indicating a general conclusion, the second a more specific one:

“The evolution of the concept of nihilism up until today demonstrates that the concept of nihilism is situated in the crowded crossroad between nothingness, the undermining of authority, the negation of the I, the inherent ambivalence of meaning, the suspension of time, the Death of God, and the end of metaphysics. The revival of nihilism in our own time shows that after ‘the end of time,’ the end of a historical era, the death – literal or metaphorical – of a sovereign, when only a shade of legitimate power is left, a nihilist revolutionary project often represents a desperate confrontation with the frozen time, by striving for an absolute new beginning and assuming the inevitability of a substantial destructive act. When change is stalled, nihilism builds on the stasis of the period and has no problem accelerating its end, with violent means if needed.”

“If nihilism signified during the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries, the ‘annihilation’ of sovereign power, nihilism in the present is nothing more than a critical tactics of undermining legitimacy, used by both the ruler and the ruled. Still, as such, it is a sharp mirror that reflects where the ‘common–exceptional’ or ‘normal–abnormal’ distinctions end. In Israel, the open space for legitimate democratic critique in the public sphere has shrunk dramatically and the ‘abnormal’ is now fully eclipsing the ‘normal’: the continuous refusal of the Israeli government, since 2001, to discuss attainable solutions to a century-long conflict, and the ongoing effort to win larger territory under the guise of weakness and victimhood, signified to this group not only a false argument, but a cynical tactic meant to silence any opposition and critical discourse by labeling it ‘nihilist.’”

Further reading

Catastrophes: The History and Theory of an Operative Concept, edited by Nitzan Lebovic and Andreas Killen

Thomas Dixon. “Emotion”: The History of a Keyword in Crisis

DIXON, Thomas. “Emotion”: The History of a Keyword in Crisis. Emotion Review, Vol. 4, No. 4 (October 2012) 338–344. Link.

Professor Dixon’s article affirms that “emotion” “is certainly a keyword in modern psychology, but it is a keyword in crisis. Indeed […], it has been in crisis, from a definitional and conceptual point of view, ever since its adoption as a psychological category in the 19th century.” (338)

He divides his text “into three sections which correspond to three different dimensions of [the] multiple meanings” often attributed to the term: “categories, concepts, and connotations”.


“The first books written on the subject of “the emotions” appeared between the 1830s and 1850s” (340). Until then, “[t]heorists distinguished especially between “passions” on the one hand and “affections” on the other.” (339) This distinction, Dixon shows, arose in the response of Augustine and Aquinas to the Stoic view of passions as “violent forces that could conflict with reason and lead an individual into sin”. They agreed with that, but “on the other hand, they did not agree that a state of complete Stoic apatheia was one to be wished for”. (340) In different ways, they then proposed a “distinction between passions of the sense appetite and affections of the intellectual appetite”, which “undergirded moral-philosophical thought for many centuries”. (339)

According to Dixon, no substantial change would appear until the 19th century, when Thomas Brown simplified the previous typology:

“The 18th century saw a proliferation of new ideas about sentiments and sensibility, as well as about passions and affections. But in almost all theoretical works, the various feelings and emotions of the human heart and intellect were understood to fall into at least two categories: the more violent and self-regarding “passions” and “appetites” on the one hand, and the milder and more enlightened “interests,” social “affections,” and “moral sentiments” on the other”. (339) “This more differentiated typology was lost with the rise of the capacious new category of ‘emotion’ during the 19th century. The key figure in this transition was the Edinburgh professor of moral philosophy Thomas Brown, whom I have previously designated the ‘inventor of the emotions’ (Dixon, 2003, p. 109). Brown subsumed the ‘appetites,’ ‘passions,’ and ‘affections’ under a single category: the ‘emotions.’” (340) The popularity of Brown’s terminology made impossible for anyone to “devise a single theory, or a simple conceptual definition, that could cover such a wide range of different mental states”. (340)


“The word “emotion” first arrived on British shores from France in the early 17th century. […] In both its French and English forms, “emotion” was a word denoting physical disturbance and bodily movement.” “Increasingly, during the 18th century, “emotion” came to refer to the bodily stirrings accompanying mental feelings.” (340) “Finally, from the mid-18th century onwards, ‘emotion’ moved from the bodily to the mental domain. As early as 1649, Descartes had attempted to introduce the term émotion as an alternative to passion”, but “[h]is suggestion was not generally followed”. (340)

According to Dixon, Thomas Brown,  a Scottish “physician and poet as well as a philosopher, was the first to treat “emotion” as a major theoretical category in the academic study of the mind, and his use was the most systematic and most influential of the period.” Dixon even adds: “Here, then, in the lecture halls of Edinburgh University in the years between 1810 and 1820, we arrive at the key moment in the history of our modern concepts of ‘emotion.’” (340)

One problem with Brown’s terminology is that it lacked precision: “’The exact meaning of the term emotion,’ Brown told his students, ‘it is difficult to state in any form of words.’” But he did try to elucidate its meaning, claiming that, in Dixon’s words, “unlike sensations, which were caused directly by external objects, emotions were caused by the mental ‘consideration’ of perceived objects; and, unlike intellectual states, they were defined as noncognitive ‘vivid feelings’ rather than as forms of thought.” (340)

Brown’s lectures, according to Dixon, “exercised a very wide influence in the decades between 1820 and 1860”. “Two hundred years later, we are still living with this legacy of Thomas Brown’s concept of ‘emotion’” (340), a “strongly noncognitive” one. “His stark separation between intellectual thoughts and emotional feelings”, says Dixon, “was endorsed by many of the leading psychologists of the late 19th century.” (341)

Dixon then adds – somewhat suddenly – “a second key figure” in the historical trajectory of the concept, “another Edinburgh physician and philosopher, Charles Bell.” “Where Brown was the key theorist of ‘emotions’ as vivid mental feelings with mental causes, in Bell’s work we find a concept of ‘emotion’ which for the first time gave a constitutive role to bodily movements.” (341) Dixon points out that Bell’s work on expression and emotion provided foundations for Darwin’s and James’ later ones.  According to his definition:

“For Bell an “emotion” was a movement of the mind. His brief definition of the term was that “emotions” were “certain changes or affections of the mind, as grief, joy, or astonishment,” which could become visible through “outward signs” on the face or body (Bell, 1824, p. 19). The additional interest of Bell’s work, however, is the importance he gave to bodily movements, especially of the heart and lungs, as not only outward signs, but also as constitutive causes of emotional experience.” (341)

So there were two different models, and the tensions between them “were never fully resolved” (341): “For centuries, theorists have debated what should be considered the true seat of the emotions: the soul or the body; the heart or the brain [Dixon credits here Bound Alberti’s 2010 Matters of the heart]. In view of the importance of Brown and Bell in this conceptual history, I would suggest that the true seat of the “emotions” was in fact the University of Edinburgh, circa 1820 (Dixon, 2006).” (341)


“Passion” and “affection”, now replaced by “emotions”, “were both terms whose etymology and core meanings emphasised passivity, suffering, and disease.” (341) “Since the key early “emotion” theorists, including Brown and Bell, were almost all trained medics, it is significant that they chose to use a word for the vivid mental feelings which detached them from this medical thought-world and its pathological associations [...]” (341) Alongside with that, what also happened was “the detachment of ‘emotion’ from the established languages of morality and religion”. So far, “[m]any of the most influential theorists of “passions” and “affections” had been moral philosophers, clergymen, or both.” But, unlike these and other terms, “emotion” and “emotions” “were detached from the linguistic worlds of theology and moralism.” (342)

“The linguistic shift from ‘passions’ and ‘affections’ to ‘emotions’ thus both reflected and enabled shifts in institutional and intellectual authority. By the end of the 19th century the view was on the rise in European and American universities that a properly scientific account of the human mind would be produced only through a thoroughly physiological investigation.” (342)

But a conceptual consensus was never achieved:

“So, when W. James famously asked in 1884, “What is an emotion?” he was not engaging with an age-old conundrum, but was seeking to define a psychological category that had been in existence only a couple of generations. James’s answer to his own question, one which revealed his indebtedness to Brown, Bell, and Darwin, was that emotions were vivid mental feelings of visceral changes brought about directly by the perception of some object in the world.” (342) But “James’s theory had a curious early career”: “On the one hand, it became, along with the similar theory of the Danish psychologist Carl F. Lange, the flagship emotion theory of the fledgling science of psychology. On the other hand, the theory entirely failed to create consensus among the psychological community except, perhaps, a consensus that it was wrong.” (342) “So, by the 1890s, although the idea that “emotion” was the name of a psychological category had become entrenched, the nascent psychological community had neither an agreed definition of the extent of the category, nor a shared idea of the fundamental characteristics of the states that fell within it.” (342) “The founders of the discipline of psychology in the late 19th century bequeathed to their successors a usage of “emotion” in which the relationship between mind and body and between thought and feeling were confused and unresolved, and which named a [very broad] category of feelings and behaviours […]”. (342)

So contemporary theorists of emotion, for Dixon, still face the need “to articulate the assumed relationships between physiological processes and mental experiences, and between states of feeling and states of thought.” (344) For him, the history of the concept might shed some light on the problem:

“[…] [P]erhaps now that the definitional crisis in “emotion” theories has reached a new peak, the time has come to reinstate in psychological science some version of that distinction between ‘passions’ and ‘affections’ which structured modern thought about mind and morality for so many centuries. […] If the lessons of history and philosophy are taken on board, then, it is just possible that the ideas of Augustine and Aquinas might yet turn out to be just what is needed to inspire a new scientific paradigm of emotions research for the 21st century.” (343)

Further reading

Augustine. The City of God.
Carroll E. Izard. The Many Meanings/Aspects of Emotion: Definitions, Functions, Activation, and Regulation. Emotion Review, October 2010, v. 2, n. 4, pp. 363-370.
Thomas Dixon. From Passions to Emotions: The creation of a secular psychological category. The article above summarized seems to draw on the longer argument of the book, according to the description available at the Cambridge University Press’ website:

“Today there is a thriving ‘emotions industry’ to which philosophers, psychologists and neuroscientists are contributing. Yet until two centuries ago ‘the emotions’ did not exist. In this path-breaking study Thomas Dixon shows how, during the nineteenth century, the emotions came into being as a distinct psychological category, replacing existing categories such as appetites, passions, sentiments and affections. By examining medieval and eighteenth-century theological psychologies and placing Charles Darwin and William James within a broader and more complex nineteenth-century setting, Thomas Dixon argues that this domination by one single descriptive category is not healthy. The over-inclusivity of ‘the emotions’ has hampered attempts to argue with any subtlety about the enormous range of mental states and stances of which humans are capable. […]”

See also Professor Dixon's other texts in this link.

Gerhardt Stenger: Diderot's intellectual biography (in french)

On the occasion of the publication of his book Diderot: Le Combattant de la Liberté, Gerhardt Stenger gave this lecture (in french) about the book. It is a nice introduction to Diredot's life and thought, covering his activities as philosopher, romancist, editor of the Encyclopedia, and political thinker.

Further reading
Denis Diderot. Political Writings (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought)
Denis Diderot. Rameau's Nephew and D'Alembert's Dream (Penguin Classics)
Robert Darnton. The Business of Enlightenment: Publishing History of the Encyclopédie, 1775-1800
James Fowler (Ed.). New Essays on Diderot
Gerhardt Stenger. Diderot (in french)

sábado, 4 de outubro de 2014

International conference “Intellectual History. Traditions and Perspectives” (Bochum, 17-19 November 2014)

Here's the description of the aim of the forthcoming conference "Intellectual History: Traditions and Perspectives", that will be held at Ruhr-Universität Bochum in november. Professor Quentin Skinner will deliver the keynote adress.

"Historians currently working in the field of intellectual history can take pleasure in the increasing acceptance of this discipline amongst other historians. There have been increasing indications of its renewal and reevaluation, especially in Germany, since the last decade so that one might say that intellectual history is currently enjoying a high reputation, greater than it has known for decades. But with the rising popularity also comes the need to take stock of the methodological tools that are in use as well as the position intellectual history has within the general historical discipline. The international conference “Intellectual History. Traditions and Perspectives” seeks to intervene in this current debate. It will explore what traditions are still alive today and which perspectives should be opened to intellectual history. The following aspects will be addressed at the conference:

(a) Traditions: What methodologies and theories that have underpinned research in intellectual history in the past remain alive and vital today? Which ones should be sanctioned? What traditional methodologies within intellectual history must be course corrected or reevaluated? Where do schools such as conceptual history, Cambridge School, or discourse analysis stand in the field of intellectual history today?

(b) Perspectives: Can intellectual history learn anything from the „spatial turn“ or the “practical turn”? What new fields of research should be sought and extended? Should global history, science studies, actor-network theory or entangled history give intellectual historians cause to rethink approaches to intellectual history? What new methodologies and theories should be integrated into the current practice of intellectual history?"

More info is available at the event's website:

Disqus - Prefigurations