Book Review

Coincidence? Probably Not: Suddenness and Intellectual History

Human Rights Samuel MoynI’ve been reading both Samuel Moyn’s The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, which came out in 2010, and his new book, Human Rights and the Uses of History, which is just out this year. The latter book is a collection of essays—mostly review essays published in The Nation between 2007 and late last year—and it continues the arguments and general project of The Last Utopia. But far more explicitly than that book, Human Rights and the Uses of History makes a diffuse but vigorous argument about what constitutes good historical practice—particularly what constitutes good intellectual historical practice.

One of the more surprising arguments along this line, at least to me, is how frequently Moyn throws cold water on intellectual historical work that constructs rather long intellectual lineages, asserting that the “root” of this or that idea lies in some noble predecessor many centuries prior. Moyn seems constitutionally averse to this kind of claim: on one occasion, he acerbically remarks that a certain figure supposedly influential on a tradition of thought was in fact “too idiosyncratic a thinker to be anyone’s ancestor.”

A very large part of that aversion has to do with the nature of Moyn’s argument about human rights. The most pointed intervention The Last Utopia makes is to knock down the pious narratives of human rights that locate the concept’s essential origins in Stoicism, or in Christian universalism, or (drawing closer) the Age of Revolution or (much closer) the UN’s founding moment, arguing that none of those influences explain the truly salient features of the human rights movement that arose in the 1970s. Moyn insists in The Last Utopia—and also throughout Human Rights and the Uses of History, where he takes on some of the purveyors of these long lineages for human rights, including Lynn Hunt—that this is essentially wishful thinking, resembling church history—which is not a compliment:

[Historians of human rights] regard the basic cause—much as the church historian treated the Christian religion—as a saving truth, discovered rather than made in history. If a historical phenomenon can be made to seem like an anticipation of human rights, it is interpreted as leading to them in much the way church history famously treated Judaism for so long, as a proto-Christian movement simply confused about its true destiny. Meanwhile, the heroes who are viewed as advancing human rights in the world—much like the church historian’s apostles and saints—are generally treated with uncritical wonderment. Hagiography, for the sake of moral imitation of those who chase the flame, becomes the main genre. And the organizations that finally appear to institutionalize human rights are treated like the early church: a fledgling, but hopefully universal, community of believers struggling for good in a vale of tears. If the cause fails, it is because of evil; if it succeeds, it is not by accident but because the cause is just. (Last Utopia 6)

But at times, the intensity of Moyn’s rejection of long, rather abstract intellectual lineages seems to me to suggest more of a general rule for him rather than simply an argument about the history of human rights. He complains that one scholar writes as if “history were a game of connect the dots,” and that’s precisely the problem: Moyn, it seems to me, wants intellectual historians to choke up a bit on their attributions of influence and causality—not to swing from the heels in order to knock the ball from dot to dot, but just to put the ball in play, dropping it in that space between the dots.

In The Last Utopia, Moyn quotes from Philip Roth’s American Pastoral: “People think of history in the long term but history, in fact, is a very sudden thing.” The next sentence in Moyn’s book applies this thought directly to the history of human rights, but it also seems to be more or less apothegmatic for the way that Moyn thinks about how history—maybe especially intellectual history—works. In Human Rights and History, he briefly discusses a passage from Marc Bloch’s The Craft of History which I take to be making the same point. He writes:

In order for the contemporary human rights movement to emerge, old meanings and associations had to be dropped and new ones formed. What Hunt presents as an epilogue to a creation long ago turns out to be what really needs explaining. This is what Marc Bloch meant when, in The Historian’s Craft, he indicted “the idol of origins.” A distant precondition for something is never its cause or trigger, and even continuity in history has to be explained in virtue of not just the long run but also the short term. (Human Rights and the Uses of History, 15)

Moyn insists upon the necessity of a certain quotient of creative destruction within intellectual history that intellectual historians seem to forget to account for. “Distant preconditions” get obliterated under the force of emerging exigencies, and historians later come around, find the fragments of those preconditions and guess at their significance, often reconstructing too much. (I’m borrowing this image partly from my recollection of the Israeli film Footnote, which is, I think you’ll agree if you see it, the greatest film about historicism and language ever made.)

I’m reminded of a joke of sorts that I came across in Jennifer Fleissner’s excellent Women, Compulsion, and Modernity: The Moment of American Naturalism:

[new historicism’s] characteristic move has often been said to lie in the discovery that a tiny element in one piece of writing is mirrored in another, seemingly unrelated text, from a far-removed field of cultural production: “motivating the arbitrary,” as Joseph Litvak puts it… As a result, a “recurrent joke” about the methodology suggests that its “motto” might be “Coincidence? Perhaps!” (47)

It’s a pretty good joke if you’ve read one too many new historicist articles, or too many cultural history articles of a certain vintage.

What connects, I think, this coincidentalism and the church history that Moyn castigates is a sense that history kind of glides through the empty spaces between the pieces of evidence we’ve found, and that we are entitled to go along for the ride. Moyn, I think, advises us that this is very dangerous, that just as we can no longer assume (for fear of being called Whiggish) that history has an upward trajectory, we also can’t assume that the empty spaces between our piles of evidence do not become suddenly very rough without our noticing it. We have to find those rough patches, and explain their sudden emergence. It is a hard and exacting standard.

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. The resurgence of the neocon “pundits” who got us into Iraq in the first place makes me despair sometimes of history being of any use. How long do lessons last in the public mind?

  2. Andy,
    An interesting post. I have Last Utopia on my shelf and have looked at it, i.e., read bits here and there. I won’t address, at least not now, what you say is Moyn’s general point about too much emphasis on lineage, etc. However you might be interested to know that Moyn’s specific argument about the 1970s and human rights is criticized in Christian Reus-Smit’s recent book. (Title in next box, I want to look it up to make sure I’ve remembered it right.)

  3. C. Reus-Smit, Individual Rights and the Making of the International System (Cambridge Univ Press, 2013)

  4. P.s. It seems to me that whether one shd “swing from the heels in order to knock the ball from dot to dot” or “choke up” on the bat depends on the specifics of the case and the evidence, and the particular project. Not sure a general rule is helpful, though predispositions about such things are probably unavoidable.

  5. Lovely piece, Andy.

    I particularly like the way Moyn writes about Bloch (as a way of setting his own historiographical table) in this passage from The Last Utopia:

    “In criticizing what he called the “idol of origins,” famed historian Marc Bloch put the essential point best It is tempting to assume that the trickle of melted snow in the mountains is the source of all the water in a great downstream flood, when, in fact, the flood depends on new sources where the river swells.

    They may be unseen and underground; and they come from somewhere else. History, Bloch concluded, is not about tracing antecedents. Even what continuity there is depends on novelty, and persistence of old things is due to new causes as time passes. And when it comes to human rights, it is not a persistent stream but a shocking groundswell that has to be explained. Tempting myths aside, they are something new in the world that transformed old currents-and not least the idea of rights before-beyond recognition in unprecedented circumstances and as a result of unsuspected causes.”

    At the same time, my own apprenticeship in history leads me to a commitment to tracking the “long fetch of history,” as George Lipsitz often speaks about–the way in which small waves transport things over long distances, even when, to all appearances, there is no reason to hope for the survival of things that were good that were apparently stamped out by things that were bad. Thus, there is certainly an alternative “human rights” tradition (this is, I think, one way of reading Cedric Robinson’s project, as well as a good deal of radical African philosophy, as well as E.P. Thompson and Christopher Hill, and, indeed, certain latter-day exponents of “church history”–writers in the Left “political theology” key).

  6. LFC,
    Thanks for the pointer to Reus-Smit’s book–I will definitely check that out. Moyn’s argument about the history of human rights is obviously incredibly controversial, and quite a number of the scholars whom he critiques directly in Human Rights and the Uses of History have responded in one way or another. It looks to me like a classical historiographical battle that will likely continue for years, especially with so much at stake. But as for general rules, I don’t know, maybe I’m overreading, but I do think it’s useful–even salutary–for historians to encourage us to think carefully about our tendencies or predispositions, and introducing general rules certainly does that.

    Thanks for pointing out this passage in TLU–and for defending the “long fetch.” A large part of me chafes as well at any urge to truncate the long lines of historical change and influence. But I think what Moyn means–and the passage you quote describes this better than I have–is that historians are so often unprepared to give due weight to nearby or intermediate causes because we have been trained so well to assume that all roots strike very deep–that if we don’t reach back to the top of the mountain, then we aren’t doing our job properly.
    I don’t know, does that make much sense?

  7. Great post Andy. Last Utopia is a great book, but I actually think Moyn is wrong about what it is historians tend to do, and how his approach challenges a central convention of intellectual historiography. It seems to me that, since Quentin Skinner and Thomas Kuhn, (and maybe even since Herbert Butterfield!), intellectual historians have been generally adverse to long-range narratives and to looking for roots of ideas and beliefs in a distant past, and have been far more interested in local and specific contexts, historical rupture and difference, and identifying points at which an idea or word means something quite different from an earlier meaning. In this sense, Moyn’s approach is quite consistent with prevailing practice, even if his challenge to the idea that the notion of universal human rights can be located in the eighteenth century (a la Lynn Hunt) is a bracing and unexpected application of that practice.

    The more I think about this pragmatically, the more I see the debate between those committed, like Moyn, to the novel cultural formation, and those committed to long-range contextualism in the form of genealogy or development of long-standing cultural predispositions (e.g. liberalism, modernism, etc.) as a kind of metaphysical (rather than methodological) debate that might be better put aside. That is, continuity and change, development and rupture, influence and innovation, are really two sides of the same coin, and which is more or less salient will depend upon the kinds of questions you are asking, rather than on the metaphysical nature of History (big H!) itself. I don’t think Hunt is wrong, nor do I think Moyn is wrong–rather they have defined their object and question in different ways. I think both illuminate the history of the idea of human rights, although in different ways.

    I do think that we, as historians, make choices about methods, concepts, sources, and how to frame problems that necessarily preclude other choices–the idea that we could write a “total history” now seems like a charming but antiquated ideal. But Moyn here and elsewhere seems wedded to a form of argument in which the value of his arguments seem to mean accepting the inadequacy of the choices others have made. Perhaps, when it comes down to it, we are all wedded to some form of that argument.

    By the way, have you read Moyn’s essay on “Imaginary Intellectual History” that appears in the recent volume he and Darrin McMahon edited, entitles _Rethinking Modern European Intellectual History_? There’s another interesting, although rather different, set of claims about what historians have done and failed to do.

    • Dan,
      Thank you for this great comment. I haven’t read that essay you cite, but will definitely try to get my hands on it.
      You’re absolutely right that the long term trend in intellectual historiography has been toward rupture and the event rather than continuity and structure, but I do think there has also been something of a renewed investment in intellectual formations that took much longer to develop fully, that span the whole lives of at least one generation, if not more, or that can be denominated “Age of…” (I’m thinking here, recently, of Andrew Jewett and Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s books, for instance, and obviously Daniel Rodgers, but also of Mark Greif’s excellent dissertation.) Then again, one generation is not really such a longue durée! But in contrast to a more event- or rupture-driven history, I feel that a generational narrative, or a multi-generational saga, or an “Age of” narrative, is something of a departure.

  8. I mostly agree with Dan (and Andy before–thanks for a great post). All history is a balance of continuity and change, and proper emphasis typically dictated by situation or opponent, never solely by the materials since there is always a present audience and contemporary purpose to writing history. I felt that in emergent hr historiography, the balance was way off, for specific and unconvincing political reasons. I think the Foucault/Kuhn “metaphysical” intervention is always very useful, but would reject the notion that continuity is non-existent or illusory in all cases (though it often is).

  9. If the Rev. Justice Nino Scalia may have the floor for a moment, it may be probative at least for the American reader. [No longer available on its original website, but thank the Wayback Machine]:

    “Those of you who are lawyers will remember that, in the bad old days, that is to say, before Erie RR v. Tompkins [304 US 64, 78 (1938)], the courts believed that there was a single common law, it was up there in the stratosphere.

    Now, the state courts of California said it meant one thing, the state courts of New York said it meant something else, and the Federal Courts might say it meant a third thing. But one of them was wrong! Because there really is a common law, and it’s our job to figure out what it is. So in those days, any common-law decision of one state would readily cite common-law decisions of other states, because all the judges were engaged in the enterprise of figuring out the meaning of what Holmes called “the brooding omnipresence in the sky” of the common law.

    Well, I think we’ve replaced that with the law of human rights. Which is a moral law, and surely there must be a right and a wrong answer to these moral questions — whether there’s a right to an abortion, whether there’s a right to homosexual conduct, what constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, and so on — surely there is a right and wrong moral answer.

    And I believe there is, but the only thing is, I’m not sure what that right answer is. Or at least, I am for myself, but I’m not sure it’s the same as what you think. And the notion that all the judges in the world can contemplate this brooding omnipresence of moral law, cite one another’s opinions, and that somehow, they are qualified by their appointment to decide these very difficult moral questions . . . It’s quite surprising to me, but I am sure that this is where we are. There really is a brotherhood of the judiciary who indeed believe that it is our function as judges to determine the proper meaning of human rights, and what the brothers and sisters in one country say is quite relevant to what the brothers and sisters in another country say. And that’s why I think, if you are a living constitutionalist, you are almost certainly and internationalist living constitutionalist.

    That there is an overarching moral law–in the old days they called it “natural law,” today it’s called “human rights”–is pace Scalia–still held as a truth and Rx for the human condition.

    The 1970s as Moyn’s Rubicon is a defensible analysis of modern “rights talk.” [Although so is Mary Ann Glennon’s Tiber…]

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