Justin E. H. Smith on six types of philosophers

Smith jacketThe Natural Philosopher, the Sage, the Gadfly, the Ascetic, the Mandarin, and the Courtier. What would the global history of philosophy look like if it were told as a series of job descriptions—ones that might have been used to fill the position of philosopher at different times and places over the past 2,500 years? The Philosopher: A History in Six Types by Justin E. H. Smith does just that, providing a new way of looking at the history of philosophy. Why six types? Are some types superior to others? Recently, Smith took the time to answer these questions and more about his latest book.

This book doesn’t have a conventional structure or approach. In addition to straightforward scholarly exposition, it also contains autobiographical elements, as well as what appear to be fictional excursuses, written from the perspective of invented historical figures who represent different philosophical types. What are the reasons for this experimental approach?

JS: When I began speaking with my editor at Princeton University Press, what intrigued him most were some reflections of mine on the relationship between the activity of a philosopher and the practical need we all have to earn money and pay the bills. I had recently moved to Paris, was having trouble making ends meet with my modest French university salary, and so had begun experimenting with some ‘freelance’ philosophical dialogues with people willing to pay—mostly Anglo tourists who were looking to experience the frisson of sitting in a Parisian café and talking about love and death and stuff just like Sartre and De Beauvoir. So when I began writing, that personal experience served as the point of departure for reflecting on the long history of the problematic relationship between money and philosophy—after all, one of the most common foundation myths of the tradition is that it began when Socrates refused remuneration, thus liberating whatever it is we’re doing qua philosophers from whatever it is the Sophists had been doing. This approach then sort of expanded to other parts of the book: launching into an investigation of some aspect of the definition of philosophy by revealing something about my own personal engagement with it.

As for the fictional elements, I suppose this is just an irrepressible symptom of the sort of writing I’ve come to believe can best get across what I’m trying to do philosophically. I’m with Margaret Cavendish, who explicitly lays out at the beginning of her delirious 1666 novel, Blazing World, how it is that fantasy can be harnessed and utilized for the exploration of philosophical questions in ways for which the faculty of reason alone might be less ideally suited. I faced some resistance to these portions of the book from some readers of drafts. They wanted me to more clearly mark off and explain what I was doing in them, somewhat as Martha Nussbaum does when she introduces a fictional figure in one of her books to guide as through the exposition of arguments that follow. But I didn’t want my characters to serve simply as didactic aides. I wanted rather for the work to be, at least in part, a work of fiction, a product, like Cavendish’s, of the literary imagination.

Is this book philosophy, or is it about philosophy?

JS: I don’t know that there can really be a valid distinction here. By the same token, I’ve never understood what people mean when they talk about ‘metaphilosophy’. We’re all just trying to come to a clearer understanding of the nature of this activity we’re engaged in, in order, in part, to better engage in it. Philosophy is peculiar in that a great deal of effort is expended, by those who profess to practice it, in seeking to determine where its boundaries are, and what falls outside of them. This is a problem sedimentologists, say, don’t have, and one might easily suspect that philosophy is essentially constituted by this activity, that there’s not much left over to do once philosophers have stopped trying to determine what philosophy is not. I think my approach, the transregional and wide-focused historical survey of the very different ways people we think of as philosophers have themselves conceived what they were doing, helps to establish this point: ‘philosophy’ is said in many ways, to paraphrase Aristotle. I’m sure some critics who have some stake in portraying philosophy as essentially thus rather than so, or vice versa, will be quick to say that this book is ‘not philosophy’. But I think I can survive that, and in fact I think they’ll be helping to support my thesis.

Why six types? Is this list exhaustive or arbitrary?

JS: I make it very clear in the book that there has been no transcendental deduction of all possible types of philosopher, or anything like that. My approach is more like the one Kant accused Aristotle of taking in his elaboration of the ten categories: his listing of them continued until he grew tired. I also make clear that what we usually see when we look at actual philosophers is hybrids of two or more of the types, or different dimensions of the types becoming apparent at different moments in their work. The point of thinking in terms of types is to help reveal the degree to which the expectations placed on a person occupying the social role of the philosopher will determine in part the range of questions or problems that philosopher considers worthy of attention. I think of types as social categories, and for this reason certain social circumstances need to obtain in order for a given type of philosopher to make an appearance. Is an amateur observer of the way snails copulate in Central Park in 2015 a philosopher? No, but someone who was doing the same thing in the Jardin des Plantes in 1665 probably was.

You seem to be more sympathetic to some types than to others. Why?

JS: My training as a scholar, and so to speak my spiritual home base, is in the 17th century, which I see as a brief period of tremendous openness, of liberality and of true love of knowledge, inserted in the middle of what has generally been, philosophically speaking, a long, dark history of tedious scholasticism, provincialism, and submission to authority. Not coincidentally, this is also the period in which most of the philosophical action was going on outside of universities.

While I didn’t mean to structure things in this way when I began writing, as it turned out the chapters, each of which focuses on a particular type, move from my most to my least favorite. The first chapter is on what I call the ‘Curiosa’ (or, masculine, ‘Curiosus’), and the fictional personnage is inspired by none other than Margaret Cavendish. She represents the intellectual virtue that I believe is most lacking in university-based philosophy since at least the moment, sometime around the end of the 18th century, when the natural sciences broke off from philosophy and ‘natural philosophy’ ceased to be a vital and central concern of philosophers. My least favorite figure is the Courtier, whose fictional representative is based loosely on Jan Sten, the Soviet philosopher who was called in to tutor Stalin on Hegel and dialectical materialism and whatever other profound things the dictator was having trouble understanding, and who was eventually purged in the Moscow show trials. Serves that groveling worm right, we’re inclined to say at our safe distance, but the truth is many of us are doing something somewhat similar when we bend ourselves to the reigning ideology of market-driven university research, and pretend to ourselves and others that that’s still philosophy.

You draw on many sources that are not traditionally considered philosophy in the narrow sense. What is the purpose of this?

JS: I just don’t know how one could possibly coherently define the corpus of texts that deserve to be included in, as it were, the imaginary library of the history of philosophy. Recently (too recently to be included in the book) I’ve been thinking a great deal about the philosophical problem of the concept of ‘world’, as it developed in the 17th century, and the way in which this development is central for our understanding of the metaphysics of possibility, counterfactuals, one of Kant’s three transcendental Ideas, and so on. I’ve learned a great deal about the history of this concept from the work, in French, of Édouard Mehl. One thing I’ve come to appreciate is that this concept simply cannot be adequately understood without reading early modern novels, particularly the ones we might call ‘proto-science fiction’, such as Cyrano de Bergerac’s Les états et empires de la Lune. Am I supposed to exclude that just because it’s not a treatise? But then I will fail to adequately understand the philosophical problem that interests me, and that would be bad.

Often we are willing to pay attention to things that canonical philosophers say that are, quite frankly, no less fantastical than 17th-century lunar fantasy novels, simply because they are already categorized as canonical philosophers and therefore, we presume, everything they say is of interest. So Leibniz says that every drop of water in a pond is a world full of beings, and that is poetic and wonderful, but is it any more worthy of our attention as philosophers than when, say, Walt Whitman finds that he incorporates “gneiss, coal, long-threaded moss”? Both capture something profound about nature and our place in it. Whitman says it better, in my view, and there’s no reason not to pay attention to it, as philosophers, on the grounds that Whitman didn’t also come up with the principle of sufficient reason or the infinitesimal calculus.

In the end you describe the work as ‘aporetic’? Does this indicate a failure?

JS: No, it’s philosophy’s fault.

Justin E. H. Smith is university professor of the history and philosophy of science at the Université Paris Diderot—Paris VII. He is also the author of Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference: Race in Early Modern Philosophy and Divine Machines: Leibniz and the Sciences of Life (both Princeton). He writes frequently for the New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, Cabinet Magazine, and other publications.


McGovern scholar Thomas Knock on classic presidential reads

election blog banner logoThomas Knock is the author of The Rise of a Prairie Statesman: The Life and Times of George McGovern, the first volume of the first major biography of the 1972 presidential candidate and eloquent critic of the Vietnam War. Called “the standard bearer of all future biographies” by the San Francisco Chronicle, Knock’s reconsideration of the politician is a perfect pick for election season. Recently we asked Knock what classic books on presidents we would find in his own library.

By Thomas Knock

I’m happy to recommend five books about major presidents and the politics of their times— from the early 20th century to the early 21st century—all classics in their field and favorites of mine. My list of personal favorites encompasses several historically great presidents or otherwise quite notable ones—Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton— who still have something to say to us today.

1.  John Milton Cooper, The Warrior and the Priest, Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt (Harvard, 1983).  This is a dual biography of two progressive presidents—one a Republican, one a Democrat—and the two most literate chief executives of the 20th century.  Together TR and Wilson recreated the modern presidency and, in their respective programs (the New Nationalism and the New Freedom) they laid the foundations for Big Government as we have come to know it today.  Cooper has definite and persuasive reveries about who is the Warrior and who is the Priest.

2.  Robert McElvaine, The Great Depression and the New Deal (Times Books, 1993).  A sweeping account of the crisis of the 1930s that gives both Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt their due and even stresses a significant element of continuity between the policies of the two antagonists.  In this, while providing a most lucid interpretation of New Deal politics and culture, one also can see a parallel between Hoover and FDR, on the one hand, and George W. Bush and Barack Obama, on the other, as the latter pair struggled to contain the gathering disaster of 2008-09.

3.  Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson and his America (St. Martin’s, 1976, 1991).  This remains one of the two or three best, and most moving, books ever written about Lyndon Johnson, who I myself would describe as half a great president.  Perhaps the most important thing to take away from this work are the implications of a single remark of Johnson’s to Goodwin:  that he believed when he entered office that he had only 18 months or so to get done whatever it was he was going to accomplish.  And that—the concept of the 18-Month Presidency, so to speak—is something that too many presidents have never grasped.

4.  Sidney Blumenthal, Pledging Allegiance, The Last Campaign of the Cold War (Harper/Collins, 1990).  This study offers a trove of insights into American politics at the end of the Cold War.  Its most significant achievement is to establish Reagan and Gorbachev as an irreducible team–that the advent of each was fundamental to the other’s well being if either was to have the salutary legacy that they are both credited with today.  Along with the entire cast of candidates in the 1988 knock-down, the volume also addresses the matter of the presidential sex scandal, something new in the politics of the ensuing post-Cold War era, which fatally ensnared the formidable Gary Hart, a former McGovern protege.

5.  David Maraniss, First in His Class, A biography of Bill Clinton (Simon and Schuster, 1995).  An essential work about the first post-Cold War president, this biography also includes substantial instructive coverage of the early life of Hillary Rodham.  The thrust is the striving of the first Boomer to enter the White House, who left Arkansas to be schooled at Georgetown, Oxford, and Yale Law; lived the politics of the Sixties and Vietnam and earnestly embraced McGovern’s campaign (learning chastening lessons along the way); and then returned to Arkansas as his means to power.  From a 2016 perspective, one can fully appreciate his enormous capacities while apprehending the bridge the two Clintons constitute between past, present and future.

KnockThomas J. Knock is Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor at Southern Methodist University. He is the author of the prize-winning To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order and the coauthor of The Crisis of American Foreign Policy: Wilsonianism in the Twenty-first Century (both Princeton). He lives in Dallas, Texas.

The Arab Imago: A slideshow of portrait photography

The Arab Imago book coverThe dawn of photography coincided with the expansion of European imperialism; as a result, many of the oldest photographs from the Middle East come from the skewed colonial perspective of Europeans. In his forthcoming book, The Arab Imago: A Social History of Portrait Photography 1860-1910Stephen Sheehi offers an alternative history via numerous Arab and Armenian photographers who created their own images of Middle Eastern people. Sheehi seeks to define the past by these insider photographs, not the Orientalist pictures first circulated by foreign photographers. Many of the images come from posed studio portraits, showcasing the intricacy and clarity of the style, as well as the wide range of people who chose to be photographed.

This slideshow represents just a small selection of the early photographs featured in the book. Click on an image to enlarge and read the caption.



Q&A with Fawaz A. Gerges, author of ISIS: A History

Iisis gerges jacketSIS has become a notorious menace in today’s world, its name synonymous with ideologically motivated savagery. But what exactly explains the group’s spectacular rise and its unsettling recruiting success? In ISIS: A History, (April, 2016), Fawaz A. Gerges argues that ISIS is a manifestation of the breakdown of state institutions and intense foreign intervention. In contemplating its future trajectory, Gerges takes a look at the group’s weaknesses, including what he terms “extreme totalitarianism, even with its allies”, as well as the absence of “a social and economic blueprint”. Today, Gerges answered a few questions about why this written history is so important and what needs to be understood about ISIS.

What makes your book different from other recent books on ISIS?

FG: In the last two years a significant amount of books on ISIS have been published, and more are yet to be released. While most books do a great job at presenting ‘ basic’ facts about the organization and the chronology of its activities, with this book I want to produce an approachable analysis of ISIS’ mission, ideology, struggle and strategy. The book highlights some important features and aspects of ISIS history that have received at best limited coverage in the other available works.

In a way, ISIS: A History is an extension of my two previous books on the global jihadist movement: Why Jihad Went Global [Cambridge University Press, 2005] and The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda (Oxford University Press, 2011), in that it contextualizes the organization, its growth and evolution within the global jihadist movement. My aim is for the reader to understand how ISIS emerged out of the complexities of militant jihadist politics and to explain the ideological framework within which the organization operates and how it consolidates and expands its influence near and far. I also provide an important analysis of the relationship(s) between the “Arab Spring” uprisings and the rise of ISIS, which in my opinion, is an aspect that has too often been neglected and side-lined.

What’s the most important thing you want your readers to understand about ISIS?

FG: I would want the reader to understand that the spectacular surge of ISIS should be understood on one level, as the symptom of a severe, organic crisis of Arab governance and on another level, as a manifestation of decades of developmental failure in the Arab world and the social and economic pauperization of Arab societies. Moreover, ISIS is in part a product of intense and persistent foreign intervention in the internal affairs of Arab countries.

Among the important arguments and conclusions presented in this book is the recognition of diversity among radical religious activists: global jihadists are not a monolith and their internal conflicts and power struggles are significant in shaping their actions. Similarly, it is shown that while these groups are embedded in local, regional and global context, in the case of ISIS, the local dimension of the movement is pivotal.

What do you think would most surprise your readers to learn about ISIS?

FG: While the world is captivated by ISIS’ brutality and institution of a modern sex trade, less is known about the group’s capacity to govern, how it is digging in, and embedding itself deeper into the fabric of life in war-torn Iraq and Syria. By increasingly acting like a pseudo-state, ISIS makes the inhabitants dependent on its services, planting the idea in their minds that they are in control. In zones torn out by war, insecurity and abject poverty, ISIS has increasingly co-opted local communities under its control by filling a governance void and providing public services and good salaries. According to local residents in Raqqa, Deir al-Zour, Mosul, Fallujah, and other cities, ISIS has set up rudimentary bureaucracy and administration and functioning institutions; it improved security and law and order, if harsh, and provided jobs in decimated economies. Residents report that ISIS delivers important services, such as bakeries, policing, a swift sharia-based justice system, identity cards and birth certificates, consumer watch, garbage collection, dare-care centres, clean and well-run hospitals, and procured teachers to work in its schools, even though the quality of these services is neither stellar nor free.

As a result, ISIS is both welcomed and feared by Sunni communities who have lived through decades of repression, tyranny, corruption and violence.

What is the most understood aspect of ISIS?

FG: The most understood aspect of ISIS is its brutality. The group is synonymous with savagery, which the group is itself openly advocating. From the videoed beheadings of hostages and dissidents to the ethnic cleansing of minorities, ISIS makes a point of disclosing its goal to cleanse Sunni society of other cultural influences. In Iraq, it clearly aims at dismantling the diverse social fabric made up of Sunnis, Shia, Kurds, Yazidis, and Christians. A case point illustrating ISIS’ ethnic cleansing is its extraordinary punishment against the Yazidis, in the summer 2014, after its capture of Mosul.

How does your explanation of the rise of ISIS differ from that of others?

FG: As I mentioned earlier, while jihadist groups are embedded in local, regional and global contexts, in the case of ISIS, its local dimensions are significant. Although ISIS is an extension of the global jihadist movement in its ideology and worldview, its social origins are rooted in a specific Iraqi context, and, to a lesser extent, the Syrian war that has raged since 2011. Its strategic use of sectarian clashes between Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims within the Iraqi and Syrian contexts has greatly benefited the organisation and shaped its activities. In addition, like the Taliban, if ISIS retains control over territory and peoples and delivers public services, it would likely consolidate its hegemony and gain the inured consent of the governed. This makes ISS radically different from and more dangerous than Al Qaeda Central, which never controlled territory and people or had immediate designs to create a state of its own. In contrast, ISIS is building a rump state in both countries and offers a subversive vision that dates back to seventh century Arabia. By doing so, it threatens the foundation of the Middle Eastern state system in a fundamental way than no other non-state actor has done before.

What are the most important differences between ISIS and Al-Qaeda?

FG: What sets ISIS apart from other non-state actors, including Al Qaeda Central, is possession of material capability, will power, and ideological capital, which it combined to deadly effects. ISIS controls a wide swathe of territory in Iraq and Syria that contains a population estimated at over 5 million people. In addition it controls a sectarian army numbering more than 30,000 fighters. In contrast during the height of its power in the late 1990s, Al Qaeda Central possessed fewer than 3,000 fighters with no territories of its own. Moreover, while Al Qaeda’ s Osama bin Laden was under the protection of Mullah Omar, the late Taliban leader in Afghanistan, by anointing himself supreme ruler of Muslims worldwide, ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi directly challenged Omar’s claim to the same title. ISIS’ blatant challenge of the Al Qaeda leadership and its imperial ambitions show an organisation determined to impose its will as a new major player in the region and a de facto State as well.

There is also an important ideological distinction between the two organisations. Al Qaeda emerged from an alliance between ultraconservative Saudi Salafism, or Wahhabism, and radical Egyptian Islamism, known as Salafi-jihadism. In contrast, ISIS was born of a marriage between an Iraq-based AQI (Salafi-jihadism) and an identity frame of politics. The ISIS ideological lineage of Salafi-jihadism, a union between Saudi Wahhabism and revolutionary Egyptian Islamism, forms part of the ideological impetus, the other part of its ideological nature is a hyper Sunni identity driven by intrinsic and even genocidal anti-Shia ideology.

Is ISIS more or less dangerous to the West than Al-Qaeda? Why?

FG: From a Western perspective, ISIS’ swift conquests in the Arab heartland, which is strategically and economically significant, constitutes a serious security dilemma facing pro-Western Arab regimes. Western governments also fear the potential spill-over effects of the expansion of ISIS’ power on their own national security in the long term. More than 20,000 foreign fighters from more than 90 countries have travelled to Syria and at least 3,400 of them come from Western countries. The fact that the number of foreign fighters continues to increase is particularly alarming and reflects a phenomenon that deserves critical scrutiny. European and American leaders are also anxious that the foreign fighters radicalized and militarized in Iraq and Syria could return home and carry out terrorist attacks. The Charlie Hebdo attack in France on 7 January 2015 did little to qualm such fears.

Do you think ISIS is a longterm threat?

FG: Yes I do. ISIS’ umbilical cord is tied to the raging sectarian fires in Iraq and Syria and the clash of identities that is ravaging Arab countries. If those problems are not dealt with, even if ISIS is defeated, there is always the risk of another like-minded militant group, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, the official arm of Al Qaeda Central, filling a power vacuum in the region. If as I argue ISIS is a manifestation of the breakdown of state institutions, then the fragile authoritarian state system must be rebuilt on a more solid, legitimate foundation. What we need is for governments in the region to be transparent, inclusive and representative of their population. They need to deliver public goods, including jobs, and give millions of young men and women a stake in the future of their countries. A more complex challenge is also to confront ISIS’ ideology and worldview. Following the repression or, in the case of Iraq and Syria, the abortion of the Arab Spring uprisings, a lot of people feel that peaceful demonstrations had failed to provide them with the justice, freedom and dignity they had called for. As a result we now need to (re)-convince them that there are nonviolent options that can bring about meaningful and substantive political change. Until we do, the menace of the “Islamic State” will remain a problem both for the Arab-Islamic world and for the international community.

Has ISIS gone global?

FG: Although ISIS attracts recruits from various countries, as of now, it remains more interested in the ‘near enemy’ than ‘the far enemy’. Clearly, ISIS has placed the struggle against the Americans, Europe and even Israel as a distant secondary goal that must be deferred until liberation at home is achieved. One needs to recall that at the height of the Israeli assault on Gaza during the summer of 2014, after being criticised by militants for failing to intervene, ISIS insisted that its main struggle was the one it wages against the Shias. ISIS is more interested in building a Sunni “Islamic state” in the heart of Arabia and consolidating its grip on the Iraqi and Syrian territories in which it occupies than marching on Rome or Washington. In his second address to the world, Baghdadi explained that ISIS’ grand ambition is to expand in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. The group has also managed to obtain pledges of allegiance from factions who had been part of Al Qaeda in Egypt, Libya, Somalia, and Nigeria. ISIS has even made inroads in Yemen, home to Al Qaeda’s strongest affiliate (AQAP), in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and is also beginning to challenge the Taliban in Afghanistan and several prominent figures among the Al Qaeda-linked Pakistani Taliban factions have pledged allegiance to Baghdadi.

What do you think is most likely to happen with ISIS in the near 
future? In the long term?

FG: The menace of the “Islamic State” needs to be taken seriously. As “Islamic State” militants swept across Syria and Iraq, they destroyed, damaged and looted numerous cultural sites and sculptures, condemning them as idolatry. For an authentic Islamic state to be erected, the Sunni militants of ISIS feel that the Islamic lands must be cleansed of apostasy and heretics regardless of the human or civilizational costs. In fact, ISIS’ planners are keen on displaying ideological zeal and purity to outbid rival Islamists and show that they are the sole defender of the faith and the (Sunni) umma.

For example, in an attempt to cleanse Sunni society of other cultural influences, ISIS has sought to dismantle the diverse social fabric made up of Sunnis, Shia, Kurds, Yazidis, Druze, and Christians that have developed and persevered from the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia, today’s Iraq.

A case point illustrating ISIS’ ethnic cleansing is its extraordinary punishment against the Yazidis, a tiny religious minority who represent less than 1.5 percent of Iraq’s estimated population of 34 million and whom ISIS considers heretics. After the capture of Mosul and its outlaying towns in summer 2014, including Sinjar, near the Syrian border, home to tens of thousands of Yazidis, ISIS engaged in systemic cultural cleansing, forcing hundreds of thousands of minorities from their homes, and using sexual violence as a weapon by indiscriminately raping Yazidi girls and women. ISIS viciously attacked the Yazidis, killing men and boys of fighting age and abducting a total of 5,270 Yazidi girls and women (at least 3,144 are still being held at the time of writing), which were subsequently forced into sexual slavery, according to human rights organisations, United Nations figures and community leaders. To handle the modern sex trade, ISIS has developed a detailed bureaucracy of sex slavery, including sales contracts notarized by its Islamic courts. And systemic rape has become an established and an increasingly powerful recruiting tool for ISIS to lure men from deeply conservative Muslim societies, where casual sex is taboo and dating is forbidden.

One of the weaknesses of ISIS is its extreme totalitarianism, even with its allies, as well as lack of a social and economic blueprint. The schism between ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, the official arm of Al Qaeda Central, in Syria shows that its strategy to impose itself as the absolute jihadist movement does not always work out in its favour. Instead, it can lead to internal splits and turn former allies into enemies. ISIS has mastered the art of making enemies of the entire world, including potential allies, and top militant clerics and theorists. Although for now ISIS is ascendant, its long term prospects are grim. Once ISIS’ military fortunes decline it would face a reckoning. Under ISIS, there is no breathing space for social mobilization and political organization, including like-minded Salafi-jihadi activism. ISIS possesses a totalitarian, millenarian worldview that eschews political pluralism, competition and diversity of thought. Baghdadi and his associates criminalize and excommunicate free thought and the idea of the “other” is alien to their messianic ideology. Any Muslim or co- jihadist who doesn’t accept ISIS’ interpretation of the Islamic doctrine are apostates who deserve death.

Fawaz A. Gerges is author of ISIS: A History. He is professor of international relations and Emirates Professor in Contemporary Middle East Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His many books include The New Middle East, Obama and the Middle East, and The Far Enemy. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, Foreign Affairs, and other publications.

James Axtell on writing a “genealogy” of the modern American research university

wisdom's workshop axtellPope Gregory IX described universities of the middle ages as “wisdom’s special workshop”, but today’s American universities bear only a passing resemblance to the European institutions that founded their most basic principles. In In his newest book, Wisdom’s Workshop: The Rise of the Modern UniversityJames Axtell writes an 800-year evolution of the modern research university, outlining the trials and successes that occurred while these universities were taking root in America. He recently took time to explain why this examination of higher education is so necessary.

You’re probably best known as the author of eight books on colonial Indian-white relations or “ethnohistory.” How and why did you make the transition to the history of higher education?

JA: I didn’t shift to higher education but back to it. I began my scholarly career in the history of education with a study of one-time Oxford don John Locke’s educational writings, followed by a book on education at all levels in colonial New England, including Harvard and Yale. Then, partly as a result of the “Red Power” protests of the late ‘60s, I was drawn to the ethnohistory of Indian-white relations in colonial North America. After 20-plus years probing the ins and outs of those relations, I was drawn back to the history of higher education. After finishing most of a book of essays on The Pleasures of Academe: A Celebration and Defense of Higher Education (1998), I spent a dozen years researching and writing Princeton’s history from Woodrow Wilson’s transformative presidency (1902-10) to 2005. Retirement from William & Mary in 2008 took me to Princeton for a semester of teaching and the organization of a conference on “The Educational Legacy of Woodrow Wilson,” which resulted in an edited book in 2012. When Peter Dougherty, the director of Princeton University Press, suggested the genealogy of the modern American research university as a much-needed book, I immediately saw it as a perfect fit for my longtime experience and love of universities.

Do you see that shift in interests as a sharp break?

JA: Not as much as it must seem to others, because I chose to write the history of Princeton as the first ethnohistory of a collegiate university. From my study of Indians and colonists I brought a focus on cultures and en- and ac-culturation as the best way to understand the transition of an educational institution from a relatively small, hidebound college to a world-class research university. So I devoted substantial chapters to the century-long development of the faculty, admissions, curriculum, student life and extracurriculum, library, art museum, graduate school, and university press–all the participants in and agencies of education.

Wisdom’s Workshop similarly focuses on the educational process (teachers, students, courses, and books), but with slightly more attention to institutional foundings, leadership, and architecture. It also covers a much longer time-span in tracing a clear and specific genetic lineage from medieval foundings and Tudor-early-Stuart Oxbridge, to 9 colonial American colleges, innumerable academies and c. 250 colleges before postbellum university developments and, in the 20th c., what Clark Kerr called “multiversities.”

Are the sources for university history much different from those for colonial ethnohistory? Are the questions?

JA: While some of the questions were framed similarly, the sources were of course quite different. I didn’t use archaeology, linguistics, or oral memory as much, but I did pay close attention to material culture, student jargons and dress, and faculty, administrator, and student memoirs. As centers of manuscript and then print culture, colleges and universities were founded on and sustained by the intellectual activities and written products of learned classes, who have left myriad clues to their pasts in libraries and archives around the world. The 19th-century invention and spread of photography has given university history an important additional source, which I have used in numerous illustrations in the Princeton and present histories.

You have written an 800-year “genealogy” of the modern American research university. What surprised you about what you found?

JA: A whole lot of things, some major, some interestingly “factoidal.” First, three persistent myths. I found no evidence to support the notion that Harvard was modeled after Emmanuel College, Cambridge. The second myth was that antebellum student mayhem was caused largely by a static college curriculum and a dull “recitation” system of teaching: the curriculum was prescribed but not static, and recitations were used almost exclusively in introductory courses to ground students in the basics. The third myth posited that American higher education was transformed after the Civil War by the wholesale importation of German academic features by returning American graduate students and scholars: instead, borrowings were carefully selected and adapted to American needs and conditions.

I was happily surprised to find that some medieval matriculants could not write; hazing of freshmen (“yellow-beaks” or “goats”) began in the Middle Ages; student spies (lupi or “wolves”) reported classmates who didn’t speak Latin outside of class as required; undergraduates were prohibited from using medieval libraries because they were places and “occasions for [presumably coeducational] sin;” four Tudor university chancellors were beheaded by King Henry VIII for not toeing the party line; 17th-c. Oxbridge students were forbidden (rather than recruited) to play football; parchment pages declared “heretical” were used as toilet paper, book bindings, and soap wraps; 17th-c. Harvard graduated an average of only 8 B.A.s a year; Yale College moved location five times in its first 18 years; campus was coined by Princeton’s president in the 1770s and spread quickly; antebellum academies enrolled far more students (including women) than did colleges and offered curricula that often earned advanced college placement; in copying older eastern college architecture, newer western colleges often built dorms with long hallways, perfect for student conspiracies (or rebellious “sprees”) and cannon-ball bowling games; the libraries of student literary societies were often larger (and more up-to-date) than college libraries; the only 19th-c. German university degree was the Ph.D. and only a quarter of students bothered to take it: the majority studied for state professional exams; 19th-c. German (and postbellum American) Ph.D. dissertations were article- rather than book-length; American college rankings began as early as 1910; Harvard wisely rebuffed a philanthropist’s offer to build a Harvard dorm in the “Turkish style;” diplomas (as opposed to degrees) were not given regularly until the late 19th c.; older veterans admitted to American colleges on the G.I. Bill after WW II (many with wives and children) performed so well that younger students cursed them as DARs (“Damned Average Raisers”); research conducted on government contracts at U.S. universities during the war contributed mightily to Allied victories, as did the influx of Jewish scientists and scholars exiled from Axis countries (the “Rad Labs” at Harvard and MIT and the atomic HQ at Los Alamos, NM were key); the loss of a Class of 1907 son on the Titanic led eventually to the building of the world’s largest university library system at Harvard (despite which, a New York Times article in 2014 declared Harvard “The Stanford of the East”).

The modern American university comes in for a lot of criticism. How do the consistently high global rankings of America’s research universities jibe with those criticisms?

JA: The global rankings are based primarily on research productivity, patents, and commercialization, faculty “star” power (especially Nobel Prizes), and other quantitative measures such as library holdings, endowments, and operating budgets. Most of the criticism is aimed at undergraduate education and the very diverse public and private American (non-)system below the 50 or 100 elite research universities. The two measures are not inconsistent or incompatible. In trying to serve more than 20 million students, America’s institutions of higher education perform very well for many, less well or poorly for many more, often because of inadequate secondary preparation, economic inequalities, or family circumstances. There is plenty of room for improvement in the “system” as a whole, but Wisdom’s Workshop, focused on America’s best universities, seeks to explain why they continue to earn a majority of the top global rankings.

The university is a medieval European creation. Has it maintained its essential identity and focus through eight centuries of social and intellectual change? If so, how?

JA: According to former University of California chancellor Clark Kerr in 1982, it had done so. “The eternal themes of teaching, scholarship, and service, in one combination or another, continue.” “Universities still turn out essentially the same products–members of the more ancient professions…and scholarship.” “The faculties are substantially in control….” “Looked at from within, universities have changed enormously in the emphases on their several functions and in their guiding spirits, but looked at from without and comparatively, they are among the least changed of institutions,” not unlike the Roman Catholic Church, several monarchies, and a few parliaments, all of which they outnumber by large margins.

Thirty-four years later, much the same could be said. For wherever they are founded or maintained, they serve society in familiar ways. Their participants may be more diverse, their purviews broader, their resources more extensive, their tools more sophisticated, their administrations larger and more involved in their operations. But they are today still recognizable for what they do, how they look, and who and what they produce because they are conservative as well as progressive institutions at the very crossroads of modern society.

You obviously enjoy writing: what do you like the most? Did or do you have any models?

JA: As a teenage sports reporter for two local papers and school publications, I was fond of adjectives and adverbs. Now, besides utter clarity and factual accuracy, I seek the richest nouns and verbs, internal rhythms, and unconscious (but once recognized, stet-ed) wordplay. I never consciously patterned my writing after that of any models, though I’ve admired and still do admire many historians and writers (Tony Grafton, Jim Turner, John Elliott, David Quinn, George Kennan, Edmund Morgan, Bill Bowen, John Fleming, Peter Brown, Erwin Panofsky, Natalie Davis, Rolena Adorno, John McPhee, and Inga Clendinnen to name just a few) Instead, I relish and applaud their lifelong professionalism, productivity, and stylistic brio.

James Axtell is the Kenan Professor of Humanities Emeritus at the College of William and Mary. His many books include The Pleasures of Academe, The Educational Legacy of Woodrow Wilson, and The Making of Princeton University (Princeton). Axtell was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His most recent book is Wisdom’s Workshop: The Rise of the Modern University.

Presenting the new book trailer for Strange Glow: The Story of Radiation

Five years ago on March 12, following a devastating tsunami, Fukushima Prefecture in Japan experienced the largest release of radioactive materials since the infamous nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl 30 years before. The world, understandably, was braced for the worst. But molecular radiation biologist Tim Jorgensen, author of Strange Glow: The Story of Radiation says this accident was no Chernobyl. The levels measured at Fukushima after the meltdown aren’t much higher than the annual background levels that already existed—a fact that does little to allay fears for many. How much then, do we really know about radiation and its actual dangers? Though radiation is used in everything from x-rays to cell phones, much of the population still has what Jorgensen considers an uninformed aversion to any type of exposure. In this fascinating scientific history, he describes mankind’s extraordinary, often fraught relationship with radiation.

We are pleased to present the new book trailer for Strange Glow:

Q&A with Zoltan Barany, author of How Armies Respond to Revolutions and Why

barany how armies respond to revolutions jacketWe know that a revolution’s success largely depends on the army’s response to it. But can we predict the military’s reaction to an uprising?  How Armies Respond to Revolutions and Why argues that it is possible to make a highly educated guess—and in some cases even a confident prediction. Zoltan Barany recently took time to answer some questions about his book.

What prompted you to write this book? What gap in the literature were you trying to fill?

ZB: The book’s original motivation came from President Barack Obama. He publicly criticized the intelligence community for its inability to foresee the collapse of Tunisia’s authoritarian regime and the army’s refusal to prop it up in early 2011. I started to think about armies and revolutions in general and then read everything I could find on the Tunisian military. I came to the conclusion that the President was right, the Tunisian army’s behavior – supporting the demonstrators rather than a repressive regime that marginalized it for decades – did not seem all that difficult to anticipate.

I began to research the topic of military responses to revolutions and I realized that there was very little up-to-date work that would be useful for intelligence and policy analysts. Aside from two important books written in 1943 and 1974 – both very insightful but neither systematic analyses into the factors that military elites consider as they decide how to react to uprisings – there was no major study on this subject. I thought it was important enough to take another stab at it.

What was your objective as you were researching and writing this book? Who was the audience that you had in mind?

ZB: The purpose of this book is to present an analytical framework that helps analysts, policy-makers, scholars, students, and the interested public in analyzing, explaining, and ultimately anticipating the way in which generals react to domestic uprisings. No revolution can win without the support of the old regime’s armed forces. Therefore, I believe that once you can anticipate which side the generals will back, you can also make a “highly educated guess” regarding the revolution’s outcome.

My goal was to offer an analytical tool that is easy to use and can assist people whose job is to think about foreign affairs generally and conflicts more particularly. In other words, my aim could not be more practical: to offer a concise, policy-relevant book devoid of social science jargon that asks simple but fundamental questions and advances a straightforward argument illustrated by a manageable number of targeted case studies.

What is required to confidently anticipate the army’s behavior? What are the main components of your framework?

ZB: Most importantly, the analytical framework does assume a relatively high level of knowledge about the given state and its military. Unfortunately there is no shortcut, no substitute for having an in-depth knowledge of the individual case. The analyst who wants to anticipate a military’s behavior must be familiar with that institution and the context in which it operates.

The framework is divided into four spheres of information the generals take into account as they reach their decision. The first and most important source of information is the armed forces itself. Is it cohesive? If not, what are the sources of divisions within the military? Is the army made up of conscripted soldiers or volunteers? Do the generals consider the regime legitimate?

The second group of relevant factors pertains to the regime. How has the regime treated the military – its officers and the army as an institution? How much decision-making authority has the regime bestowed on the generals? Has the regime forced the military into unpopular and unwise missions? During the uprising do regime leaders give clear instructions to the generals?

The third sphere of variables has to do with society or, more precisely, the challenge the military faces. The generals must know the size, composition, and nature of the demonstrations. Are the protesters mainly radical and violent young men or peaceful demonstrators whose ranks include women, children, and old people? Is there fraternization between the protesters and ordinary soldiers? Is the uprising popular?

Finally, the external environment also influences the army’s decision regarding its intervention. Are the generals expecting foreign involvement in the revolution? If so, will foreign forces support the regime or the demonstrators? Will the army’s suppression of an uprising jeopardize the continuation of military aid from foreign powers? In addition, revolutionary diffusion – the quick spreading of the revolutionary ‘virus’ from one often neighboring country to another – might well shape the generals’ decision.

What are some of the factors that are overlooked in the few existing accounts of the army’s behavior in domestic conflicts?

ZB: There are several potentially significant variables that tend to be overlooked or trivialized. Let me mention just three. Perhaps the most important of these has to do with ordinary soldiers. First of all, analysts often focus exclusively on the top generals and occasionally on the officer corps as well while neglecting to study the men they are supposed to motivate to shoot demonstrators. When looking at the soldiers, the conscripts-volunteer dichotomy is key but one must also think about the backgrounds, experiences, and attitudes of these soldiers when trying to anticipate whether they would be willing to use their guns against demonstrators.

The fact that regime leaders often give the military no clear instructions or contradictory instructions is another issue often ignored by analysts. The period of uprisings usually is marked by great political instability and often debates and disagreements between top regime leaders. The notion that they issue conflicting orders or, in the rare case, they are paralyzed and give no clear instructions at all, is a possibility careful analysts must consider. Finally, most analysts tend to discount the importance of the external environment. The sensitivity of generals to the reaction of foreign governments to their response to uprisings is seldom taken into account.

Are there factors that are consistently more useful than others in explaining the military’s response to uprisings?

ZB: Yes. The framework rank-orders factors in terms of expected utility. Generally speaking, the two most important variables are the composite factors of the military’s cohesion and the regime’s treatment of the armed forces.

One wishes, of course, that a clever model could be devised into which one “plugs in” all the pertinent variables and it would “spit out,” as it were, the correct answer. But individual context matters a great deal that’s why it is so important to know the cases well. Some variables that are decisive in one setting may be trivial or entirely irrelevant in another.

So, did your framework pass the test? How useful is it in explaining past uprisings?

ZB: The framework explains the reasons why military elites settled on the course of action they did very well. Having said that, it is important to realize that some cases are easier explained than others. I actually rate the relative difficulty of explaining cases from ‘no brainer’ (such as Bahrain in 2011) to ‘difficult’ (e.g., Iran, 1979). Of course the timing of one’s prediction also makes a big difference: the longer an uprising lasts, the easier it gets to make an accurate prediction. Therefore, the framework includes a section that evaluates how challenging it is to anticipate the correct outcome at three different times: three months before the first mobilizational event of the uprising; one week after the first important demonstration; and three weeks into the crisis.

I am quite confident that my analytical framework can successfully anticipate the army’s behavior in future uprisings. In fact, in the book I used two hypothetical cases – Thailand and North Korea – and explain how one could examine them using my framework.

Why did you select these cases?

ZB: My guiding principle in choosing these cases – uprisings/revolutions in Iran, 1979, Burma 1988 and 2007, Romania and China in 1989, and six Arab states in 2011 – was to be able to say something directly relevant to contemporary audiences and to construct a tool for those who wish to conjecture about the military’s likely reaction to uprisings in the future. I wanted to select both revolutions that succeeded and failed. Another goal was to look at uprisings that took place in different world regions. Finally, to show that from the perspective of this framework it makes no difference what kind of regime follows a successful revolution, I included uprisings followed by sectarian dictatorship (Iran), emerging democracy (Romania, Tunisia), and various hues of authoritarianism (Egypt) or, indeed, state failure (Libya, Yemen).

Zoltan Barany is the Frank C. Erwin, Jr. Centennial Professor of Government at the University of Texas. His books include The Soldier and the Changing State: Building Democratic Armies in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas and Democratic Breakdown and the Decline of the Russian Military (both Princeton). His most recent book is How Armies Respond to Revolutions and Why.

Adrienne Mayor busts five myths about Amazon warrior women

Mayor_TheAmazonsContrary to popular belief, the Amazons were not “man-haters” who gave up their motherhood to be warriors. While many throughout history have considered these women to be figments of Greek imagination, they were in fact very real, and roamed a vast expanse far beyond Greece, from the Black Sea to Mongolia. From today’s piece on CNN:

History often remembers them as fearsome, war-loving lesbians, who killed baby boys and cut off their own breasts to better fire a bow and arrow.

But just who were the Amazons, these legendary horsewomen-archers depicted across ancient Greece, Egypt, and China?

The truth is no less gripping than the myth, as Stanford University historian Adrienne Mayor reveals in her book: “The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World.”

What should the presidential candidates be reading? WSJ: Robert Gordon’s book

Election_Blog_Series_Banner2[1]gordon jacketAccording to this piece in the Wall Street Journal, “Every presidential candidate should be asked what policies he or she would offer to increase the pace of U.S. productivity growth and to narrow the widening gap between winners and losers in the economy. Bob Gordon’s list is a good place to start.”

What does Gordon say about growth? For starters, he challenges the view that economic growth can or will continue unabated. So how would today’s presidential candidates meet this challenge? Read the Wall Street Journal article here:

In his new book, “The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War,” Northwestern University economist Bob Gordon argues that the century between 1870 and 1970 was exceptionally good for U.S. households (particularly 1920 to 1950) but that the years since 1970 have been disappointing and the future looks disappointing too.

His postscript includes a few thoughts that deserve immediate attention in today’s economic policy debates: Whatever the causes of the distressing slowdown in the growth of productivity (the amount of stuff produced for each hour of work) and the increase in inequality, what policies might both increase productivity and decrease inequality?

Many years ago, economist Art Okun argued that we had to choose between policies that increased efficiency and those that increased equity. Perhaps. But  if there are policies that could achieve both, it’s time to try them.

Mr. Gordon lists several at the end of his book, some conventional and others less so.

To read what these policies are, continue reading the Wall Street Journal article here.

Robert J. Gordon is the Stanley G. Harris Professor in the Social Sciences at Northwestern University. His books include Productivity Growth, Inflation, and Unemployment and Macroeconomics. Gordon was included in the 2013 Bloomberg list of the nation’s most influential thinkers.

New History Catalog

Our History 2016 catalog is now available.


Fass In The End of American Childhood, Paula S. Fass describes the history of childhood and parenting in the United States, and the shift that has recently taken place in how children are raised.
McGreevy John T. McGreevy sheds light on the significant impact that Jesuits have had on Catholicism and how they achieved such influence despite major challenges in American Jesuits and the World.
Laqueur The Work of the Dead by Thomas W. Laqueur is a cultural history of attitudes toward death and the dead from antiquity to the present. Why do humans feel compelled to care for the bodies of those who have passed? Read this sweeping work to find out!
Green Check out The Love of Strangers by Nile Green, in which he relates the story of when six Iranian students came to London to study in the early nineteenth century. Pick up a copy to learn what happened when East met West.
Fitzpatrick Finally, On Stalin’s Team by Sheila Fitzpatrick draws the curtain back from the loyal men who served in Stalin’s inner circle from the late 1920s to his death in 1953.

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PUP will be at the American Historical Association Annual Meeting in Atlanta from January 7 to January 10. Come see us at booth #505.

Lynn Gamwell on math and the visual arts’ shared cultural history

GamwellMathematicians and artists have historically shared a common interest: inquiry and comprehension of the intricacies of the world around them, whether through numerical or aesthetic design. Illustrating the relationship between math and art from antiquity to present day, Lynn Gamwells Mathematics and Art highlights the significant impact these two linked worlds have on one another. Gamwell recently took the time to answer some questions about her book. Examining the modern disciplines of art and math, she reveals the profound philosophy of self-reflection that these two cultural and intellectual pursuits share. Don’t forget to check out the stunning slideshow following the Q&A.

What’s the basic idea of your book?

LG: I started with the assumption that how people understand reality relates directly to the concepts of mathematics that develop in their culture. Mathematics is a search for patterns, and artists, in turn, create visualizations of the patterns discovered in their time. So I describe a general history of mathematics and the related artwork.

Since you begin in Stone Age times, your book covers over 5000 years. Is there a historical focus to the book?

LG: Yes, there are 13 chapters, and the first gives the background up to around 1800 AD. The other 12 chapters are on the modern and contemporary eras, although I occasionally dip back into pre-modern times to give the background of a topic. A central question that drove my exploration of the modern era was: where did abstract, non-objective art come from? Between around 1890 and 1915, many artists stopped depicting people and landscapes and start using pure color and form as the vocabulary of their art. Why? I argue that modern art is an expression of the scientific worldview. Beginning in the late nineteenth century and continuing today, researchers describe bacteria, cells, radiation, and pulsars that are invisible to the unaided eye, as well as mathematical patterns in nature.

Can you give a few examples of the relation of math and art?

LG: Italian Renaissance artists, such as Leonardo da Vinci, constructed the space in paintings such as The Last Supper using linear perspective, which is a geometric projection invented in the 1430s by the architect Filippo Brunelleschi. In the twentieth century, Swiss Constructivists such as Karl Gerstner created symmetrical patterns based on the mathematics of group theory, which measures the amount of symmetry in a system, such as atoms and sub-atomic particles. The contemporary America artist Jim Sanborn uses topology, which is the projection of geometric shapes onto surfaces that are stretched and distorted. For example in photographs of cliffs in Ireland, Jim first projected concentric circles onto the rocks and then took the photograph with a long exposure at moonrise. These artists are, of course, interested in many other things besides mathematics; aesthetic issues are their primary focus.

The examples you give are artists who are inspired by math; are mathematicians ever influenced by art?

LG: Mathematics are rarely inspired by a particular piece of art (since most artists use elementary arithmetic and geometry), but rather they aspire to include in their proofs general aesthetic qualities, such as purity, simplicity, and elegance.

You mention Leonardo da Vinci; didn’t he use the Golden Ration?

LG: No. It is a common misconception that a ratio described by Euclid as “mean and extreme ratio” has been used by artists throughout history because it holds the key to beautiful proportions. This myth was begun in the early nineteenth century by a German scholar who called Euclid’s ratio “golden.” The myth took a tenacious hold on Western intellectuals because, as science was beginning to take them off their privileged pedestal, it assured them that all beauty is based on a ratio embodied in human anatomy. There is no science supporting this claim.

Your book is a global history; did you find that there is a difference between math in the East and West?

LG: Yes, because a culture’s understanding of mathematics is based in its understanding of reality. In antiquity, Eastern mathematics in based in Taoism, the view that nature is composed of myriad parts that came together by self-assembly into a harmonious whole. Thus Chinese mathematicians discerned patterns in numbers, such as the Luoshu (magic square), in which numbers in the rows, columns, and diagonals have the same sum (the harmonious whole). On the other hand, Western cultures believed that a divine person (The Egyptian sun-god Ra, the God of Abraham, Plato’s carpenter) had imposed order on formless chaos. Thus Westerners went looking for this order, and they found it in the movement of the stars (the Babylonian zodiac), and the planets (Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion). Although there was a difference between Eastern and Western math when there was little contact, in today’s culture there is one global math.

The book includes the diverse fields of art, philosophy, mathematics, and physics; what is your educational background?

LG: I have a BA in philosophy and a PhD in art history. I’m self-taught in the history of science and math.

At 576 pages, this is a long book with extensive endnotes and 500+ illustrations; how long did it take you?

LG: 12 years of research and writing, plus one year in production.

Did you make any discoveries about art that especially surprised you?

LG: Yes. When I started my research I thought that artists during the modern era (the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries) would have only a vague knowledge of the math of their times, because of the famed “two cultures” divide. But I found specific historical evidence (an artist’s essay, manifesto, interview, or letter), which demonstrated that the artist had direct knowledge of a particular piece of mathematics and had embodied it in his or her art. Examples include: Aleksandr Rodchenko, Henry Moore, Piet Mondrian, Max Bill, Dorothea Rockburne, as well as musicians, such as Arnold Schoenberg, and poets, such as T. S. Eliot and James Joyce. Again, I would stress that for such artists mathematics is a secondary interest at best, and they are concerned with materials, expressive content, and purely aesthetic issues.

Any surprising discoveries about math and science?

LG: Yes, here are two. Much of what is taught as physics is really philosophy (interpretation) of physical data. An example is the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics, which was taught as THE gospel truth from its announcement in 1927 to around 1960. In fact, there are other ways to interpret the same laboratory data, which were largely ignored. I’m used to such dogmatism in the art world, where artists and critics are known to proclaim what art IS, but I expected to find a more cool-headed rationalism in the laboratory. Alas, we’re all human beings, driven by our passions. Another example is the strong resistance to Platonism (the view that abstract objects exist outside time and space) in modern culture, even though Platonism is the view held by most working mathematicians (i.e., they believe they are discovering patterns not creating them). While doing research, I found myself viewed with suspicion of being a religious missionary (disguised as a scholar) because I gave a sympathetic reading of historical religious documents (in other words, I tried to describe reality from their point of view). In fact, my outlook is completely secular. I came to realize that many secularists are unable to separate Platonism from its long association with religious doctrine, which touches a nerve in certain otherwise dispassionate academics.

Are you planning another project? What are you going to do next?

LG: I’m going to take some time off and regroup. I’ve started to think about writing something for children.

Check out the slideshow highlighting just a few of the book’s stunning images:

Lynn Gamwell is lecturer in the history of art, science, and mathematics at the School of Visual Arts in New York. She is the author of Exploring the Invisible: Art, Science, and the Spiritual (Princeton).

Six Muslim Students in Jane Austen’s England

A true antidote for the tenor of recent discourse, this is the most welcome of stories about the Middle East and the West: one of friendships. Nile Green, Professor of History at UCLA, chronicles the frustration and fellowship of six young men abroad and the transformative encounter between an Evangelical England and an Islamic Iran at the dawn of the modern age.

Selections from the Persian Diary of Mirza Salih Shirazi

Translated by Nile Green

Muslim Views on the Enlightenment: On Famous Thinkers & Social Niceties

Green jacketAs part of their quest for learning, Mirza Salih and his companions became fascinated by the lives of famous Western thinkers, both male and female. As Muslim conduits of the European Enlightenment, they were especially interested in social reformers and philosophers. In his diary, Mirza Salih included a long summary of the historical writings of David Hume, the paragon of the Scottish Enlightenment. But the Muslims students also understood that ideas have social contexts. Like pioneer anthropologists, they tried to understand British manners and habits with sympathy. Sometimes that meant demanding forms of Austenesque etiquette; sometimes it meant finding new ways to charm Miss Austen’s Regency misses.

On the pioneering woman writer Hannah More: “Because Miss More has written a number of books of her own, and published them as well, everyone – whether foreigners or locals, of high or low standing – comes to call on her. She has a large library of her own and lives in a house twelve miles outside Bristol, set between two mountains and positioned alongside the foot of one of them.”

On Newton’s statue in Cambridge: “Sir Isaac Newton was a philosopher who was both the eyes and the lantern of England.”

On Americans: “Benjamin Franklin was one of the philosophers and learned ones.” Mirza Salih goes on to describe with sympathy Franklin’s unsuccessful mission of conciliation to the English parliament and to respectfully describe “General George Washington” and his war for independence.

The Original Bluestocking: Hannah More

The Original Bluestocking: Hannah More

On breakfasting with the British: “Before arriving at the breakfast table, it is important to don elegant dress, to wash one’s hands and face, and for men to shave. At table, no-one is allowed to exchange their utensils with those of another person. And one must also display good manners and make polite table-talk throughout the meal.”

On cultural assimilation: “If they strive to make me wear English clothes because they think that way I will learn something and that it is the appropriate thing to do, then that is easy enough for me. And anyway, being in conflict with this or that, whether to prefer a fur hat to a foreign beret, is also quite enjoyable.”

On social calls: “Gentlemen like to call on ladies at around four in the afternoon. The ladies then serve them cheese and wine. They call this ‘tiffin.’”

Muslim Tourists in Miss Austen’s England: On the Virtues of British Cities

Birmingham Persian: ‘Justice’ Coin Minted by Matthew Boulton (1219/1804)

Birmingham Persian: ‘Justice’ Coin Minted by Matthew Boulton (1219/1804)

Although they were based in London, the six Muslim students made tours to other parts of England, all of them described in Mirza Salih’s Persian diary. Wherever they went, they were greeted like celebrities, with the tabloids of the day describing their fashionable taste in clothes and books. In Bath, they flaunted their fine fur pelisses; in Cambridge, they showed off their knowledge of Milton. At times, they wandered right into Jane Austen’s milieu, even walking past her former home in Bath. At other times, their tours of factories and textile mills remind us of the industrializing England that was hidden behind the hedgerows of Pride & Prejudice’s Pemberley.

On London’s parks: “One is Hyde Park; another is St James’ Park; another is Green Park; and another is Regent’s Park. In each of them, the people of London come there at one o’clock in the afternoon to spend time strolling around and conversing. Men and women, who might be family of friends, lock hands as they stroll. Those who have their own carriages go there in their carriages; other people ride horses. They stay there, ambling around, till it gets dark. But it is the custom there that no-one at all speaks loudly. If a blind person went there, he would imagine that none of the English can speak or that speaking has been banned there!”

On visiting Bath: “They have built six hammams around the hot waters and in those baths the hot water flows directly out of the ground. Men and women go together to the same hammam. But so that it is not unseemly, the women wear dresses that cover their entire bodies.”

On the lackluster view along the Thames: “There are some good houses, buildings and other places along the way.”

On the booming British arm’s industry: “Birmingham is a city that is famous for manufacturing weapons of war, including muskets (tufang), swords (shamshir), pistols (tubancha), daggers (chaqu) and other weapons. There are many factories there with large crowds of people are busy at work.

A Muslim Assessment of Oxford: A Baffling Visit to the Varsity

After working so hard on their English grammar and Latin prose, Mirza Salih and Mirza Ja‘far dreamt of becoming the first Muslims to study at Oxford. At a time when Catholics and even Baptists were banned from studying there, it was a high ambition. And as they learned more about the social hierarchies that surrounded English learning, they realized they needed more than an acquaintance with subjunctives and Cicero to win them entry to the varsity. They would also need patrons. For over a year, they networked hard. Then, at the beginning of Michaelmas term 1818, Salih and Ja‘far boarded the Oxford stagecoach from London. They had been invited to attend Encaenia, the dazzling degree ceremony that attracts thousands of tourists to this day. But the young Muslims were no fans of ritual and pageantry. They had seekers of science.

We ate lunch and then went out to the palace in which the Vice Chancellor, who is the master of Oxford, examines people for the degree of doctor… When the Vice Chancellor came in all the people rose from their seats. Several persons walked in before him bearing long maces of gold and silver, and after them came the Vice Chancellor himself, dressed all in scarlet and wearing a garment like a bashliq thrown over one shoulder. He entered with extreme pomp and then sat down at the head of the assembly. On two chairs to either side of him were sat two other people known as ‘proctors.’ Two other men, previously among the lords of learning, had examined the scholars of the colleges, written something and passed it to their hands; this was composed in the Latin tongue. So the Vice Chancellor stood up from his place and read out this announcement as the whole assembly listened. Then the two proctors rose from their seats… There were three such to-ings and fro-ings in this way before the gaze of the whole assembly. In our eyes especially it seemed nothing but tomfoolery and excess.

 At the degree ceremony, two people were given scarlet gowns and awarded the title of Doctor. Several people from among the examiners testified in Latin that they were proficient in such and such a subject, the Vice Chancellor awarded the two candidates their degrees and then the assembly disbanded. Both of their names, degrees and branches of learning were recorded in ledgers. Although the Vice Chancellor is no greater a doctor than anyone else, as the master of Oxford he is one of the notables and great ones of England, such that the aforementioned doctors become his deputies. For this reason, he was arrogant towards us in a way that none of the other khans of Oxford were. Indeed, from when we entered the hall until the time we left, he did not so much as utter a word to us, nor even offer a glance in our direction. And so neither did we utter a word to anyone as we exited and walked towards the festivities in the ‘botanic’ garden….

“We Are All Made of Stars: The Radcliffe Observatory as the Students Saw It”

We Are All Made of Stars: The Radcliffe Observatory as the Students Saw It

 Nearby is a mansion that is called the ‘Observatory’, which is a place where astronomy is taught. Huge telescopes and astrolabes are kept there, and the people who are studying astronomy go there and with these telescopes trace the orbits and trajectories of the planets. The setting of the mansion is a place like paradise; the building itself large and splendid.

Nile Green is professor of history at UCLA. His many books include The Love of Strangers and Sufism: A Global History. He lives in Los Angeles.