Beyond decolonizing: New article in the Routledge journal Global Intellectual History

On May 10 2019, the Routledge and Francis & Taylor journal Global Intellectual History published the latest article by the historian of ideas Dag Herbjørnsrud: «Beyond decolonizing: global intellectual history and reconstruction of a comparative method.»

In the article, Herbjørnsrud proposes a comparative method to go beyond methodological nationalism and to answer the calls to decolonize the academy. The text covers examples ranging from social anthropology, Mo Zi, and Herodotus to Al-Biruni, Maya philosophy, Mahabharatha, and the Iliad.

A paper version of the article by Herbjørnsrud will be published shortly.

The DOI of the article «Beyond Decolonizing» by Dag Herbjørnsrud is: (it is possible to mail if you do not have access). Excerpts and Bibliography of the text: see below.


«This article proposes to use the three terms complexity, connection, and comparison as part of a possible method for the discipline of global intellectual history. Taking the 1993 presidential address by anthropologist Anette Weiner as its starting point, the paper argues that the discipline of history of ideas is facing a challenge similar to that confronted by social anthropology a quarter of a century ago: It needs to reject the constrictions of ‘cultural boundaries’ and demonstrate ‘a commitment to a global comparative perspective’ instead.

A global intellectual history of this nature would also be consistent with Arthur B. Lovejoy’s statement that ‘ideas are the most migratory things in the world’. The text proposes a method for global intellectual history based on the three aforementioned terms – exemplified by cases from Asia, Africa, Europe, and America.

Scholars within several disciplines are increasingly arguing for the Academy to ‘decolonize’ and to offer a less ethnocentric narrative. By proposing a methodological draft for a global intellectual history, this paper argues that we can move beyond deconstruction and decolonization and focus instead on ‘reconstruction’ of a global and comparative perspective as a fruitful way forward for the discipline in the twenty-first century.»


I. Introduction: The Call for a Global Comparative Perspective

In November 1993, New York University professor Anette B. Weiner (1932–1997), the outgoing president of the American Anthropology Association, relinquished her commitments with a speech on the methodology of her discipline and its future path. The context at the time was the end of the Cold War and the new challenges facing anthropology as its professional terms, ‘ethnicity’ and ‘culture,’ became common currency in other disciplines, and for the public at large. Weiner stressed that the world’s new-found interest in the terms of her discipline, and the marginalization of anthropologists as the sole experts on them, was not a crisis but rather an opportunity in an era of transition.

Hence, Weiner argued in her speech entitled “Culture and Our Discontents,” one should ‘envision a boldly integrative anthropology that makes new alliances with other disciplines and perspectives, while seeking cross-fertilization amongst its own numerous subfields and constituencies, without fearing fragmentation, loss of identity, or other disciplines encroaching on anthropology’s domain of study…’[i] She believed that moving forward required one to regard the discipline’s main challenges as its ‘future strengths’ instead.

Weiner singled out three areas of epistemological shifts which she considered it important for her discipline to face: The first area was postmodernism – defined as local responses to globalization – which required the discipline to ‘make use of its interdisciplinary breadth by situating its theoretical impetus more critically than ever before – not only within but also against the history of Western theory and practice,’ in order to be in the vanguard of ‘intellectual thought.’ The second area was the increasing fragmentation of research interest, so that ‘the discipline must find ways to integrate diversity more centrally into departmental and interdepartmental interests…’ The third area was the appropriation of anthropology’s ‘culture concept’ – its signature symbol – by other disciplines, which made it necessary for the discipline to address its ‘comparative breadth.’[ii]

In her critique of the culture concept as ‘a grand, overarching disciplinary synthesis,’ Weiner referred to Mary Douglas, who in 1975 disavowed it as a ‘fluffy notion.’[iii] She could also have referred to their discipline’s forebear, Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, who argued against the fairly new concept of ‘culture’ as early as 1940, when it was starting to become popular within the discipline. Radcliffe-Brown, often regarded as a founder of structural functionalism, stressed that, in fact, scholars ‘do not observe a culture, since that word denotes not any concrete reality, but an abstraction, and as it is commonly used a vague abstraction.’ [iv] Thus, the term itself makes comparison difficult, in contrast to more concrete study objects, like language and religion. Two years before Weiner’s address, the anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod argued in a similar vein that scholars should write ‘against culture,’ since the term per se will ‘enforce separations.’[v]

Weiner’s take was that, in order to achieve a ‘global comparative perspective’, it is necessary to rethink the popular notion of ‘culture,’ as the postmodern decentring and the altering of the terminology ‘means that culture is no longer a place or a group to be studied.’[vi] In a global world where objects or ideas are crossing borders in unpredictable ways, there are few scientific reasons to think within the concept of ‘culture’ in scholarly studies.

How could anthropology shape, rather than be shaped by, the challenges within the social sciences fields after the Cold War? Weiner’s answer was to rethink the discipline’s methodology; to return to a global comparative scope, which has been lost for too long in an era when the main narratives have been influenced by colonialism and nationalism:

In this way, a commitment to a global comparative perspective can provide an innovative postmodern frame of reference that, in emphasizing and cherishing our diversity, will integrate anthropology with the subject matter of other disciplines. In this way, anthropology will not be sidelined as it was, for example, in the recent debates about multiculturalism.[vii]

Unfortunately, Weiner died shortly after her speech was published. Her discipline has changed dramatically since her days, becoming less centred on ‘other’ cultures, distancing itself from a colonial fascination with the ‘primitive’ – and understanding itself instead as part of a global world. But even though Weiner had already redefined modern anthropology in the 1970s – her doctoral thesis pointed out that the legendary Malinowski had missed a vital part of the Trobriander society by leaving out the contributions from the women – few, if any, within her discipline have referred to her argument for ‘a commitment to a global comparative perspective.’ This would not surprise Weiner, who warned that her vision for the 21st century ‘requires enormous breadth and expertise,’ as well as ‘revisions in our own theories and assumptions,’ in order not to ‘simply reproduce ourselves.’

            Yet, the Rhodes Must Fall-movement, which started at Cape Town University in the March 2015, and the increased calls for a decolonizing of the academy are now also making an impact on anthropology as a discipline. While the term postcolonial implies that one has moved past and beyond the colonial era, the term decolonial states instead that the main narrative of the academy, its reading lists, and public discourse are still characterized by the colonial and imperial system of the last couple of hundred years. Political decolonisation is one thing, intellectual decolonisation another. Or, as expressed by the title of Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s influential book, which stressed the need to use one’s mother tongue to escape colonial narratives: Decolonizing the Mind (1986).

More than a decade later, Susan Buck-Morss (2000) summarised the challenge of promoting mainly national histories, noting that studies on Hegel and Haiti have no natural home in the current structuring of the specialised academic disciplines:

[I]t is perhaps more surprising present-day writers, while fully cognizant of the facts, are still capable of constructing Western histories as coherent narratives of human freedom. The reasons do not need to be intentional. When national histories are conceived as selfcontained, or when the separate aspects of history are treated in disciplinary isolation, counterevidence is pushed to the margins as irrelevant. The greater the specialization of knowledge, the more advanced the level of research, the longer and more venerable the scholarly tradition, the easier it is to ignore discordant facts.[viii]

            The unintentional ignorance is as hard to deal with as the deliberate removal of historical facts from the reading lists. Some months before the article of Buck-Morss, Gayatri Spivak used the term ‘sanctioned ignorance’ for the ‘reproducing and foreclosing of colonialist structures.’[ix] This concept denotes a purposeful silencing through the ‘dismissing of a particular context as being irrelevant’; an institutionalised and ideological way of presenting the world.

Hence, the recent calls for the decolonisation of scholarly institutions can be regarded as a challenge to a colonial, imperial, and nationalist ideology that is ingrained in the modern academy, which was established during the hey-day of colonialism and racism.[x] The decolonise movement can be summarized in three intersectional demands: One, a more balanced presentation of the world’s scientific history within the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences – not based on a selective Eurocentric narrative. Two, an account of the so-called Global South without Orientalism and an account of the so-called ‘Western Countries’ (Western Europe/North America) which acknowledges its complexity and diversity in the past as well as the present. Three, a more subject-critical evaluation of what we study, select, and present – an increased awareness of the narrative one nurtures and its possible feeding of ideological extremists.

Vital parts of social anthropology as a discipline have answered the call. The fall 2018 issue of the journal American Anthropologist, which printed Weiner’s presidential address close to a quarter of a century ago, is dedicated to “Decolonizing Disciplines.” In the “From the Editor” column, Deborah A. Thomas argues for the need to rediscover, once more, ground-breaking anthropologists like Zora Neale Hurston (b 1891) or the Haitians Anténor Firmin (b 1850) and Suzanne Comhaire-Sylvian (b 1898).[xi]

More than 25 years have passed since Weiner’s presidential address. Now, one could argue, the discipline of intellectual history – used here interchangeably with history of ideas or history in ideas[xii] – may be facing a fundamental challenge similar to that confronted by anthropology a quarter of a century ago. Below, I will try to use a ‘global comparative perspective’ similar to that set out by Weiner – transferring the global issue from anthropology in the early 1990s to the discipline of the history of ideas in the 2020s.

Like Weiner, I would stress the importance of being aware of the discipline’s framework, its main narrative, its terminology, its basic method – in this case within the fairly new and growing field of global intellectual history. Thus, I intend to propose a methodological sketch for a history of ideas which can, I hope, live up to ‘a commitment to a global comparative perspective’ – contributing to an updated narrative of what we also might call a more connected, cross-cultural, or contextual history of ideas. This article can be regarded as an attempt to take a step beyond the debates on deconstruction and decolonisation, outlining instead a possible route towards reconstruction of a method for global intellectual history.

Inspired by the perspectives of Weiner – and basing the article on a rather eclectic field of texts from recent and classic scholars within the history of ideas in an attempt to show by example how ideas can be studied across borders and artificial notions of ‘cultures’ – I will propose an outline for a method within global intellectual history based on the three concepts of complexity, connection, and comparison[… more below picture]


«Obviously, there are challenges involved in the method and the term ‘unit-ideas’ which Lovejoy formulated, as he himself acknowledged and warned.[i] If the unit-ideas are understood as unchanging through time and space, one may fall into the trap of essentialism, committing an ‘essentialist fallacy.’[ii] Furthermore, as Quentin Skinner has pointed out, Lovejoy’s concept of unit-ideas can easily result in far-fetched similarities.[iii] The author and the text need to be understood on their own terms and in their own context, not based on later needs.

            At the same time, the Skinner perspective is in danger of shutting the door to comparative philosophy and the search for common problems and solutions across borders and time. Skinner stated not only that Lovejoy’s attempts to track a theme sometimes go wrong but that they ‘can never go right.’[iv] In Skinner’s words, ‘there simply are no perennial problems in philosophy: there are only individual answers to individual questions.’[v] Thus: ‘There is in consequence simply no hope of seeking the point of studying the history of ideas in the attempt to learn directly from the classic authors by focusing on their attempted answers to supposedly timeless questions.’

Furthermore, Skinner and Lovejoy differ when it comes to the treatment of ideas of ‘the others.’ According to Skinner, a ‘danger must arise, in any kind of attempt to understand an alien culture (….)’[vi]

In contrast – despite working within a Christian American world – Lovejoy emphasizes, when writing about the reasoning of Christian Schoolmen on plenitude, that this reasoning, ‘of course,’ was not the monopoly of these Schoolmen: ‘… it has its parallels in the writing of both Moslem and Jewish medieval philosophers.’[vii] And in his main work, Lovejoy quotes the 12th century Arab philosopher Averroës (Ibn Rushd) .

Moreover, when it comes to views on otherworldliness, Lovejoy accentuates that Catholic thinking was no less extreme in degree ‘than that of the Vedanta or of other Indian systems.’[viii] He then compares Augustine, John the Scot, and Thomas Aquinas with the Indian Upanishads and the 9th century Indian philosopher Shankara.

Following Lovejoy, one might say that ‘there are no alien cultures.’ Human ideas can be studied and understood beyond the modern concepts of borders and nations, regardless of one’s ‘cultural background’ – as long as one takes into consideration the context of both the text and oneself.»


V. Conclusion: Challenges, Possibilities, a Way Forward

A quarter of a century after Anette Weiner made her call for ‘a commitment to a global comparative perspective,’ The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology dedicated an issue to the topic of ‘decolonizing the curriculum’ in the fall of 2018. The context is different now, and the call from Weiner seems lost even to her own discipline. But the first two decades of the 21st century, which have witnessed growing ethnocentrism and nationalism, have also increasingly accentuated her call for global perspectives, within several disciplines.

            In a similar way, the discipline of intellectual history can go back to its roots in order to find a more global narrative in the 21st century. 2,400 years ago, the Chinese philosopher Mozi (c. 470–390) argued that people should be global citizens, working for ‘universal mutual love in the world.’[i] Mozi stressed universal kindness as a means of realizing that the ‘exchange of mutual benefit are both beneficial and easy to practice in very many ways.’[ii]

A couple of centuries later, the Roman historian Polybius, writing in Greek, introduced The Histories by stating that he would start his work in the late 3rd century BC, because ‘ever since then history has resembled a body, in the sense that incidents in Italy and Libya [Africa] and Asia and Greece are all interconnected (…)’[iii]

            Hence, postcolonial and decolonial arguments for the beneficiality of mutual knowledge and respect – and for the importance of studying not only difference but also contact, influence, and interconnectedness in a comparative perspective – have their forebears in the global history of ideas. One could, as Weiner argued, regard the main challenges facing the discipline of global intellectual history as its ‘future strengths’ instead. In this way, one can also move beyond deconstruction and decolonisation – giving priority to a reconstruction of new and more global narratives, which fit both the past and the future.

This article has explored some methodological ways forward for a global intellectual history. It has tried to demonstrate how the discipline of history of ideas is facing challenges and opportunities similar to those Weiner described for anthropology a quarter of a century ago:

First, intellectual history also needs to ‘make use of its interdisciplinary breadth’ in order to be in the vanguard of ‘intellectual thought,’ and not sidelined. Secondly, the fragmentation of research interest could be countered by finding ‘ways to integrate diversity more centrally into departmental and interdepartmental interests…’ And thirdly, the general appropriation of the ‘idea concept’ could enable the discipline of global history of ideas to address its ‘comparative breadth.’

Thus, our discipline has the potential to reject the constrictions of ‘cultural boundaries’ and instead demonstrate ‘a commitment to a global comparative perspective.’ That said, there are many influential voices that will oppose such a reconstruction of a truly global intellectual history. From the debates of recent years, one might discern three main counter-arguments against a global intellectual history and the proposed method outlined above:

First, in his influential work The Logic of The History of Ideas (1999), Mark Bevir uses the ‘contextual history’ of Skinner to argue against Lovejoy’s ‘pure reason,’ opting instead for ‘local reason.’[iv] Bevir gives priority to the defense of ‘the idea of local reasoning’ by arguing that historians could arrive at ‘objective knowledge’ of the past by criticizing sets of theories against the criteria specified. He argues that such criteria only exist within one’s ‘tradition,’ or ‘culture’. In this article, I have tried to show by example that global intellectual history can make us conclude otherwise.

Secondly, critics such as Frederick Cooper have pointed out the problematic nature of the concept of ‘global’ in global intellectual history, pointing out how, far too often, such studies tend to focus, often at best, on the ‘engagement of African and Asian intellectuals with the cultural force of Europe.’[v] Cooper’s advice is to avoid making an automatic linkage between ‘global’ and ‘modern,’ in order to avoid ‘a twenty-first-century parochialism.’ This is an important point, but the solution is hardly to return to a colonial or national narrative. Rather, one can overcome this challenge within global intellectual history by using Subrahmanyam’s concept of ‘connected histories’ or the other examples in this text in order to be as non-ethnocentric as possible.

Thirdly, Jeremy Adelman underscores that global history may have enjoyed its heyday after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of internet and the global markets. The global financial crisis and the rising nationalisms of the 2010s have led to a return of national histories, he argues.[vi] This is a vital challenge. And actually, the reaction against the image of a “new” global world started far earlier – Pierre Nora’s influential volumes on “places of memory” (les lieux de mémoire), finished in the early 1990s, increased the writing of more patriotic national narratives in Europe and beyond.[vii] This challenge might prove fatal to a more outward-looking narrative: global intellectual history might not fit the new ideologies; the discipline might become even more alien in a world which, on its way into the 2020s, may be descending into more nationalism, tribalism, and more thinking within – rather than across – borders and boundaries.

That said, the counter arguments above can also be interpreted as a rallying cry for the global intellectual historians of today. Academics have a responsibility not to let ideologues and neo-colonialists re-write history and remove the memory of global intellectuals like Mozi, Herodotus, Al-Biruni, Zera Yacob, Dara Shukoh, Lovejoy, and Nakamura.

After all, exciting times lie ahead. New studies and translations have recently been published from several important regions: The massive corpus of texts from Ancient Egypt, spanning a wide range of genres from philosophy, to proto-novels, to teachings, poems, and satires; the thousands of manuscripts from Timbuktu, Djenne, and Western Africa – several dating back a thousand years; the many texts from Ethiopia in Geez, dating back to the 5th century, including the rational, enlightened, and reason-based philosophies of Zera Yacob (1599–after 1652).[viii] Also important is the new series on the translations of the classics of India by Harvard University Press and the Murty Classical Library of India: publishing five classics a year, the first five hundred Indian classics are set to be finished by 2115… And then there are new studies and texts coming to light from the Arab, Chinese, and Meso-American history of ideas, to mention but a few. Global intellectual history is set to be rewritten, again.

Regardless of world affairs; implementing a commitment to a global comparative method within the discipline of intellectual history will demand great awareness of the importance of its basic narrative, terms, and its methodology. The proposed method is based on the three notions of complexity, connection, and comparison. The use of such concepts in a global and comparative intellectual history will, one hopes, more easily make it possible to follow up on Arthur B. Lovejoy’s statement that ‘ideas are the most migratory things in the world’ – thus contributing to a strengthening of the discipline in the 21st century. In this way, we can continue the quest to explore how, in the words of Lovejoy, ‘thoughts have arisen, combined, interacted with, or counteracted, one another (…)’[ix]


This is an Accepted Manuscript of the article «Beyond decolonizing: global intellectual history and reconstruction of a comparative method» published by Taylor & Francis Group in Global Intellectual History on 10/05/2019, available online:

[i]       Mo Zi, Mo, 76.

[ii]       Ibid., 90.

[iii]      Polybius, Histories, 4.

[iv]      Bevir, Logic, 315.

[v]       Cooper, “Global,”, 287.

[vi]      Adler, “Global history now?”.

[vii]     Swenson, Rise of Heritage, 7.

[viii]     Herbjørnsrud, “The African Enlightenment.”

[ix]      Lovejoy, “Reflections,” 6.

[i]       Lovejoy, Chain, 21.

[ii]       Bevir, Logic, 201.

[iii]      Skinner, “Meaning,” 10–11.

[iv]      Ibid., 35.

[v]       Ibid., 50.

[vi]      Ibid., 24.

[vii]     Lovejoy, Chain, 82.

[viii]     Ibid., 93.

[i]       Weiner, “Culture and Its Discontents,” 14.

[ii]       Ibid., 15.

[iii]      Douglas, “The Self-Completing Animal,” 886.

[iv]      Radcliffe-Brown, “On Social Structure,” 2.

[v]       Abu-Lughod, “Writing Against Culture,” 137.

[vi]      Ibid., 18.

[vii]     Weiner, “Culture and Our Discontents,” 19 (my italics).

[viii]    Buck-Morss, “Hegel and Haiti,” p. 822.

[ix]      Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason. Description of the term is based on Lucy Mayblin,

[x]       Bhambra, Nisancioglu, and Gebrial, Decolonizing the University.

[xi]      Thomas, “Decolonizing Disciplines.”

[xii]     See Armitage, Civil Wars.


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This is an Accepted Manuscript of the article «Beyond decolonizing: global intellectual history and reconstruction of a comparative method» published by Taylor & Francis Group in Global Intellectual History on 10/05/2019, available online: