«Beyond decolonizing»: paper

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The paper «Beyond decolonizing: global intellectual history and reconstruction of a comparative method» by the historian of ideas Dag Herbjørnsrud was published online by the journal Global Intellectual History on May 10, 2019. The journal published the print version in Volume 6, Issue 5 (pp. 614-640) in November 2021. Below is an extended excerpt from the pre-edited version of the article.

To cite this article: Dag Herbjørnsrud (2019): Beyond decolonizing: global intellectual history and reconstruction of a comparative method, Global Intellectual History, 6:5, 614-640, DOI: 10.1080/23801883.2019.1616310

To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/23801883.2019.1616310

Beyond decolonizing: global intellectual history and reconstruction of a comparative method

Dag Herbjørnsrud

Center for Global and Comparative History of Ideas (SGOKI), Oslo, Norway

KEYWORDS: Global intellectual history; method; comparative; decolonizing; postcolonial


«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.»

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(NB! The paper «Beyond decolonizing» is covered in an article in the Winter 2020 issue of the journal The Review of Higher Education. More info here. The paper has been discussed at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, etc. Herbjørnsrud has held lectures about the paper at University of Cambridge (UK), Royal Holloway (Univ. of London), etc.)

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«Beyond decolonizing» (2019): Altmetric score, September 2021.

1.   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 newfound 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 … ’1 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’.2

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’.3 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’.4 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’.5

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’.6 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.7

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 twenty-first 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 decolonization is one thing, intellectual decolonization 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) summarized the challenge of promoting mainly national histories, noting that studies on Hegel and Haiti have no natural home in the current structuring of the specialized 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.8

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’.9 This concept denotes a purposeful silencing through the ‘dismissing of a particular context as being irrelevant’; an institutionalized and ideological way of presenting the world.

Hence, the recent calls for the decolonization 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.10 The decolonize 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 Euro-centric narrative. Two, an account of the so-called Global South without Orientalism and a more precise account of Europe and North America which acknowledges their 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).11

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 ideas12 – 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 has also been called a 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 decolonization, 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.

These three terms all have a prefix that stems from the same Latin root: ‘com’, which means ‘together’. The word stem of these three concepts, meanwhile, evolved from the Latin verbs entwine (complexity), bind (connection), and equal (comparison).

The first two terms, complexity and connection, can be summarized in the concept of context, which stems from Latin contexere: ‘to weave together’. While the first notion, complexity, highlights the ‘internal context’ of a study object, a study of its connections illuminates the context’ (*). These two concepts, in turn, pave the way for the third study object, and the third term, discussed here: comparison. A comparison of units that are sufficiently well-defined to be treated as comparable equals.

Thus, this article can be understood as a framework for an introduction to the discipline of global intellectual history, and as a proposal for a possible global comparative narrative for the discipline based on the notions of complexity, connection, and comparison. In order to move forward – and to face the demands for a decolonial, balanced, and non-ethnocentric outlook – practitioners within the field of global history of ideas now need to be extra aware of the methodology they apply. After all, the word ‘method’ stems from Greek methodos, which combines the word for move/change (meta) with the word for expedition/way (hodos). To find one’s way in the constantly fluctuating scholarly expeditions, one needs to use updated and relevant methods. This text is a sketch for one suggested method for the discipline of global intellectual history, or – hopefully, one day – for history of ideas as such.

2.   The context of global intellectual history in the twenty-first century

Before elaborating on the practical implications of the proposed methodological approach, we need to consider the context for the recent surge of global intellectual history within the discipline. Unlike anthropology and the social sciences, the field of intellectual history – like the humanities in general – was apparently not shaken to its core by the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, nor by the new geopolitical situation after the Cold War, or some political scientists’ popular claims of the ‘End of History’ or ‘the Clash of Civilizations’.

Rather, the 1990s produced a new wave of books in Europe and the US that stressed the standard ‘Western’ classical canons of the humanities, like Harold Bloom’s best-selling The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (1994) – a ‘Western trend’ that can potentially be interpreted as an indirect reaction to the contemporary political upheavals.

But things started to change around the turn of the millennium. The internet and the possibilities of a ‘global village’ allowed ideas to breed and spread across borders as never before. This in turn has also challenged the present ‘Canon’: after all, a recent study finds that 77 percent of all historical research in the UK and North America is still devoted to Europe and the USA, which account for 17 percent of the world’s population. Only 8 percent of that historical research focuses on East and South Asia, home to half of humanity.13

But there are alternatives. In 1999, Linda Tuhiwai Smith published the ground-breaking and influential Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. Smith, who identifies as a Maori, was ‘researching back’– working out a methodology for non-imperial and non-colonial preconditions:

Western knowledge and science are ‘beneficiaries’ of the colonization of indigenous peoples. The knowledge gained through our colonization has been used, in turn, to colonize us in what Ngugi wa Thiong’o calls the colonization ‘of the mind’.14

Two decades later, a new generation of students and scholars are now demanding an alternative to Eurocentrism and a wider scope than texts claiming to represent a  ‘Western culture’; they are arguing for balance, diversity, and for a decolonized curriculum that includes global, non-nationalistic, and non-ethnocentric perspectives. In 2018, university staff in several disciplines took up the challenge by publishing books on Decolonising the University and proposing ‘a radical call for a new era of education’.15

Several disciplines are now answering the calls for less colonial, ‘unscholarly’, and nationalistic narratives. Within ‘classical studies’, meaning (parts of) Greco-Roman antiquity, scholars like Sarah E. Bond, Donna Zuckerberg, and Dorothy Kim have demonstrated how the standard curriculum lists mislead students and the public to believe that ancient Europeans were homogenous.16 But neither the Greek nor the Roman statues and buildings were ever marble white, even though they are presented as such in textbooks and museums.

After all, since the early nineteenth century, several institutions have deliberately removed the original colours on their statues to make them ‘clean’, white, and colourless, by chance also fitting a colonial supremacy ideology. Just recently, in the twenty- first century, scholars like Vinzenz Brinkmann have uncovered the full depth of the polychrome past of the Greeks and the Romans, who prided themselves with their use of pink, ‘Egyptian Blue’, and other colours. New studies, using X-ray and laser technology, reveal striking resemblances between the art of the Greeks and the multi-coloured art of the Egyptians, Phoenicians, Babylonians, and Persians. Such findings can substantiate the arguments from Herodotus, Plato, and  Aristotle  –  who all argued that the Greeks were inspired by, and learned from, Egypt, Carthage, and Babylon.17 In a new book on polychromy in the ancient world, Brinkmann thus asks scholars in the humanities, the social sciences, and beyond to change the present mono-chrome misconceptions:

We should no longer be quietly content to imagine the ancient word in black and white – neither should this be the case in academic circles. One of the greatest challenges in our subject at the moment is the dissemination of knowledge of color and its significance for the sensual experience of, and first and foremost for, the narrative character of the art of classical antiquity.18

In addition, scholars like Monica H. Green, working on the period after the fall of Rome, have recently launched the concept of ‘Global Middle Ages’ to highlight that era’s complexity and connections as well.

In a parallel development over the past decade, some of the foremost scholars within the discipline of intellectual history have also published important works on the new opportunities created when one frees oneself from the colonial and national mentality that have shackled academics to rigid disciplinary boxes for too long. Below is a short sketch trying to summarize the recent methodological debates with the field of global history of ideas.

In 2013, Samuel Moyn and Andrew Sartori published Global Intellectual History, based on a conference in New York in April 2010. In this anthology, they emphasized that the discipline was fairly new in a modern academic sense, meaning that ‘it is a moment of early planning and primitive construction for the field of “global intellectual history.”’19 As for methodology, Sudipta Kaviraj points out that in any description of global intellectual history, ‘scope and method have an intimate connection’.20 Consequently, the methodological issues are mostly discussed when ‘relevant to their particular body of material’. Kaviraj stresses that ‘global intellectual history is bound to have many methodological choices’, yet there is a demand for greater clarity on what and how the discipline is being studied.21

One year later, David Armitage published ‘The International Turn in Intellectual History’. He pointed out that he had predicted the emergence of ‘a renaissance in the history of international thought’22 a decade earlier, but that it had taken a decade more of work on global history – and several historians’ efforts to break free from methodological nationalism23 – to create the framework within which the discipline of global intellectual history could also flourish.

After all, the humanities have been shaped for years by nineteenth century notions of ‘nations’ and ‘cultures’, which created imagined national or ‘cultural’ communities among both the public and scholars.24 The late modern era has made methodological nationalism, or the concept of ‘Western’ or ‘Eastern’ cultures – and thus also a subgroup like methodological Eurocentrism25 – a basic ingredient across a wide range of different disciplines within the humanities and the social sciences. There are pedagogical advantages to such a worldview and narrative, but, as Sanjay Subrahmanyam stated in 1997: ‘Nationalism has blinded us to the possibility of connection (…)’26

Strikingly, around the turn of the millennium, several scholars took a global turn, and opened up to the possibilities of connections. The pursuit of post-ethnocentric perspectives can be understood in the context of the field of global history, which has been growing since the 1990s, including works that have attempted to reconstruct a non-national or non-Eurocentric description of history.27

One of the early significant signs was historian William H. McNeill’s preface to the 1991 edition of his modern classic The Rise of the West. A History of the Human Community (1963). In his new preface, he rejected much of his former writing, stating that ‘the central failure of the book’ had been his ‘residual Eurocentrism’ and his failure to analyse China.28 McNeill admitted:

It follows that my vision of the world’s past can be dismissed as being no more than a ration- alization of American hegemony, retrojecting the situation of post-World War II decades upon the whole of the world’s past by claiming that analogous patterns of cultural dominance and diffusion had existed always.29

In the past two decades, influential works and new global perspectives have been published within comparative literature,30 connected sociology,31 comparative philosophy,32 multicultural philosophy,33 comparative political thought,34 and comparative religion and mythology.35 Hence, first postcolonial36 and then decolonial studies seem to have arrived on the doorstep of the discipline of the history of ideas.

Within intellectual history, J.G.A. Pocock published his interdisciplinary, six-volume Barbarism and Religion between 1999 and 2015, in which he studied the spread of ideas after the Roman Empire among so-called ordinary people. As pointed out in this journal,37 Pocock called for Maori history38 to be established as a subject as early as the 1960s. In addition, Pocock studied the writings of Chinese philosophers39 and the Arabian historian and thinker Ibn Khaldun, while simultaneously deconstructing the idea and term ‘Europe’ perceived as an entity with a common history.40

Still, as late as 2014, Armitage pointed out that intellectual historians in general had as yet written little about the global possibilities, which could – or should – become a main project for the discipline in the twenty-first century:

Historicizing conceptions of space – of the national, the international, the transnational, and the global – may in fact be the implied agenda for intellectual history after the international turn, just as historicizing conceptions of time was a major project for intellectual history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.41

Armitage stressed that global intellectual history could contribute in important ways to the general academic turn mentioned earlier – the shift away from the ethnocentric and nationalistic perspectives in the twenty-first century: ‘Intellectual history may therefore have as much to offer the international turn as the international turn has to offer to intellectual history’.42 At the same time, and in line with Moyn and Sartori, Armitage pointed out that it was still too early to conclude whether a global turn in intellectual history would be an extension of the international turn or a distinct endeavour in its own right: ‘Quite what a global intellectual history would comprise, or even what its subject matter will be, is still far from clear, though vigorous debate has already begun about these matters’.43

In the coming years, the chosen subject matter will likely become a bit clearer, as the academic publisher de Gruyter is about to launch its ‘Critical Readings in Global Intellectual History’. More importantly, the journal Global Intellectual History started publishing in 2016, opening a new realm for scholars that is not confined to a single cultural sphere. One of the rationales behind the journal is explained in its ‘Aims and Scope’: ‘Intellectual historians can learn to appreciate the different values held by societies whose modes of living may clash with our own, and realize that the rationales of such values are explicable’. In the second issue of this journal, Subrahmanyam emphasizes the importance of not letting global intellectual history slip into Eurocentrism, describing other continents and actors according to so-called Western premises:

… it appears to me that the principal problem today in writing a global intellectual history lies in striking an appropriate balance between what are normally the more familiar elements (that is established thinkers and trends of the Western pantheon), and the less familiar ones, whose works are considered to be obscure and arcane because they have not been in any way canonized beyond their immediate contexts.44

Subrahmanyam’s analysis seems to be in accordance with the theories of ‘sanctioned ignorance’ of Spivak (…). Hence, Subrahmanyam concludes, as part of his six schematic conclusions: ‘A “global” intellectual history must be more than the familiar western European history writ large’. And: ‘Rather than focus on comparison alone, a focus on connection (rather than on the absurd notion of “entanglement”) remains fecund’.

As one can see below, Subrahmanyam’s concept of connection is included in the sketch for a methodology for a global history of ideas. In the same issue of Global Intellectual History, Martin Mulsow contends in the introduction that the different ‘theories of “entangled history” do not yet have the finesse to analyse the complicated relations of intellectual circulation and the entanglement of ideas’.45 Mulsow concludes as follows regarding the quest for a new method:

Overall, we are still at the beginning of a global intellectual history informed by a cultural–historical approach. We will see what this history can learn from the debates of the past decades on cultural translation, globality and entangled history, but we cannot yet know for certain what specific categories it will come to develop in relation to knowledge and ideas.46

Hence, there is work to be done to clarify which methods can be used within the relatively new discipline of global intellectual history. Or to quote the introduction by Moyn and Sartori regarding the different models that one might eventually choose from while awaiting ‘pioneering examples of global concept history’:

The problem is far more one of theory than one of practice, for posing the difficulty (evidentiary, linguistic, professional, and so forth) of enacting a global history depends, first, on developing plausible models of what the subject matter of such a historiography ought to be.47

3.   Classical, modern intellectual history: Lovejoy, Skinner, Nakamura

Below, I outline a proposed method, which builds on the aforementioned reflections of Subrahmanyam, Mulsow, Moyn, Sartori, and Armitage. In addition, it takes into consideration, and is inspired by, earlier global and comparative perspectives in the field of intellectual history.

One example of this is A Comparative History of Ideas (1975), among the most compelling works in the comparative area from the late twentieth century. The volume, mainly covering philosophy, religion, and mythology in Asia, Europe, and  North  Africa, is written by Hajime Nakamura (1912–1999) – professor at the University of Tokyo – and based on his concept of ‘Universal History of Ideas’ (Fuhen-teki Shisou- Shi). In his preface to the second edition of this work, Nakamura writes:

We are in need of a global history of ideas in which the developments of ideas should be viewed in the global scope (…)48

Nakamura does not explicitly mention Arthur O. Lovejoy (1883–1962) – yet the work can be described as ‘an extension of Lovejoy’s “History of Ideas”’.49 In his introductory remarks, Nakamura underscores that ‘there is a need now to reconsider some of the problems of the history of thought from a comparative perspective (…)’.50

By chance, Lovejoy touched upon a similar perspective in his ‘Reflections on the History of Ideas’ (1940). On the second page in his ‘Introduction’, in the first issue of   the Journal of History of Ideas, he stated:

And ideas are the most migratory things in the world.51

This understanding, of ideas as migratory across oceans and continents, was hardly to become the hallmark of the discipline in the twentieth century. If the idea of a global transmigration of ideas had been the basis of the discipline of intellectual history over the past decades, there would be no need for new journals like Global Intellectual History. The discipline seems instead to have seized upon another of Lovejoy’s statements, a far more prosaic one, printed some pages later in his first text in the journal, in which he stresses that he would especially welcome contributions which investigate the ‘influence of classical on modern thought, and of European traditions and writings on American literature, arts, philosophy, and social movements’.52

With this invitation, Lovejoy might have been speaking to his main audience – scholars who defined themselves as belonging to the American ‘majority’. In practical terms, the ideas under scrutiny were presented as the ones that were appropriate for the time  ‘since Western men came historically minded’.53 This kind of geographical understanding of the influence of ideas seems to have become widespread within the discipline.

Yet it is possible to find more inspiration for a method of global intellectual history in Lovejoy’s primary texts. The continuing change in the scholarly framework was something Lovejoy had in mind, as he pointed out in his main work, The Great Chain of Being (1936). He also argued for the need to clarify the ‘unit-ideas’ – a term which resembles, in more ways than one, the anthropologist Radcliffe-Brown’s ‘unit entities’, as both were concerned with comparison. Lovejoy concluded that the study of unit-ideas should be ‘traced connectedly’ through as many phases ‘as the historian’s resources permit’.54

The epistemological resources available today are undoubtedly greater than those Lovejoy had at his disposal in the 1930s, and in his main work we may find a path that can lead us forward even in the present context. Like Subrahmanyam six decades later, Lovejoy stressed that nationalism blinds us to the possibility of connection. He was searching for comparative perspectives that transcend artificial borders. One of Lovejoy’s defining principal types of the discipline was that

in common with what is called the study of comparative literature, the history of ideas expresses a protest against the consequences which have often resulted from the conventional division of literary and some other historical studies by nationalities or languages.55

Lovejoy asserted that one needs to study ideas or tendencies in one country to under-stand the real causes of events in another. In other words; no man is an island, nor is any idea – and comparison is the context. Lovejoy claimed that any thorough investigation ‘must inevitably disregard national and linguistic boundary lines; for nothing is more certain than that a great proportion of the  processes  to  be  investigated  disregard  those lines’.56

Hence Lovejoy argued that an average New Englander and an Englishman of 1930 have more in common than a New Englander of 1630 and his present posterity – and we might add that there is more common ground today between a student in New York and a student in New Delhi than between them and a person from their own city but a  different century. Consequently, Lovejoy hoped for a reorganization of the humanities:  A separation of studies by periods would ideally be ‘more appropriate than a division   by countries, races, or languages’.57

Obviously, there are challenges involved in the method and the term ‘unit-ideas’ which Lovejoy formulated, as he himself acknowledged and warned.58 If the unit-ideas are understood as unchanging through time and space, one may fall into the trap of essentialism, committing an ‘essentialist fallacy’.59 Furthermore, as Quentin Skinner has pointed out, Lovejoy’s concept of unit-ideas can easily result in far-fetched similarities.60 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’.61 In Skinner’s words, ‘there simply are no perennial problems in philosophy: there are only individual answers to individual ques- tions’.62 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 (… .)’63

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’.64 And in his main work, Lovejoy quotes the twelveth 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’.65 He then compares Augustine, John the Scot, and Thomas Aquinas with the Indian Upanishads and the nineth 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.

On the other hand, on another level, one might also conclude, like Skinner, that there is a danger ‘in any kind of attempt to understand an alien culture’. Because one can regard all non-contemporary texts as belonging to ‘an alien culture’. The original ancient Greek texts are alien to any modern mind, whether one lives in Greece, England, or Japan. Similarly, Japan’s earliest novel, the psychological and complex The Tale of Genji (1021), often described as the world’s first novel, was written by the female author Murasaki Shikibu   (b. 978) in a language that is unreadable for modern-day Japanese readers, so this rather ‘alien’ text even has to be translated to be understood in Murasaki’s hometown today.

Together with the concept of ‘nation’, the term ‘culture’ creates an imagined community on both a synchronic (right now) and a diachronic (throughout time) scale. Such imagined communities constitute a challenge to the discipline of global intellectual history, as they also indirectly restrict scholars from studying and comparing freely on a global scale. Thus, since scholars in general do not refer to the mythical ‘feelings of the nation’, but rather to polls of the people or to actions by the states, they can also free themselves from the constrictions set up by the notion of culture.

Because all texts written by others are ‘alien’. Intellectual history is per se a dangerous affair. Or, as Lovejoy emphasized when stressing the importance of having an eclectic mind and using several disciplines to trace the world’s history of ideas: ‘The history of ideas is therefore no subject for highly departmentalized minds; and it is pursued with some difficulty in an age of departmentalized minds’.66

By chance, six decades later, Susan Buck-Morss had a similar point when it comes to the problems of specialization. It is not only that specialized minds – which in general are indispensable in the academy – might have a hard time doing global intellectual history. The rather new, scholarly boundaries threaten the inclusion of facts that don’t fit the main national or European narrative, for example the polychromy of the Greeks mentioned earlier. As she writes:

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. Disciplinary boundaries allow counterevidence to belong to someone else’s story. After all, a scholar cannot be an expert in everything. Reasonable enough. But such arguments are a way of avoiding the awkward truth that if certain constellations of facts are  able to enter scholarly consciousness deeply enough, they threaten not only the venerable narratives, but also the entrenched academic disciplines that (re)produce them.67

4.  Classical global intellectual history and the three methodological terms

There are other forebears as well when it comes to a method based on the concepts of complexity, connection, and comparison. Roughly contemporaneously with Lovejoy, the intellectual Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964) was sitting in prison in India writing his global magnum opus: Glimpses of World History (1934–1935). Nehru highlighted the importance of intellectual history – as when he described the influence of the Vedanta philosopher Ari Shankara (c. 790–820) because of his appeal ‘to the mind and intellect and to reason’.68 If we move backwards in time, to the earliest modern European practitioners of the history of ideas, they were often strikingly cosmopolitan, as Donald Kelley has demonstrated.69 The French scholar Bonaventure d’Argonne, who considered the global community from China to Peru, wrote in 1699 that ‘ideas were colourless, ageless, raceless, genderless’.70

Thus, Armitage recently pointed out that ‘the best way to go forwards may be to look backwards, to the roots of intellectual history itself in the period before historiography had been adopted as a handmaiden of national states’.71

Following this vein, we can look backwards to the roots of sociology and modern historiography in the Muqaddimah (Introduction, 1377) by the North African historiographer Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406). In this massive work, Khaldun acknowledges that he had to limit himself to describing the history and ideas mainly of the complex North African and West Asian region; at the same time, the aim was to write a ‘history of the world’ which can ‘be a vessel for philosophy, a receptacle for historical knowledge’.72

Preceding Khaldun by more than three hundred years, the Persian polymath Al-Biruni (973–1048) travelled to India, where he lived for years and wrote a work on both the humanities and the natural sciences – comparing and connecting the thought systems of the different continents in both past and present. In his Preface to his Indica, Al- Biruni states:

I shall place before the reader the theories of the Indians exactly as they are, and I shall mention in connection with them similar theories of the Greeks in order to show the relationship existing between them.73

A comparative methodology concerning thought systems across language borders is also proposed by Aristotle. In Politics, he compares the idea of good rule in the three states that are founded on the best-regarded constitutions: Sparta, Crete, and Phoenician Carthage, the latter situated in today’s Tunisia. Aristotle regarded this North African state as the oldest, the best governed, and the most immune to tyranny because it had the best balance of democracy: ‘Carthage also appears to have a good constitution, with many out-standing features as compared with those of the other (…)’74

An even older source for the canon of the modern humanities is Herodotus’ Inquiry (Historai), which starts and ends with the point of view of the Persians. Herodotus lived under the Persian empire, and much of his magnum opus involves tracing and comparing different ideas from today’s India via Egypt to the Ethiopians – in most cases correcting the Greeks who, he writes, ‘tell many stories without thought’.75

Thus, commitment to a global comparative perspective is both very old and very new among the foremost writers and scholars. Going forwards also means looking backwards, to the roots of global intellectual history. This is what underpins the proposed sketch for a method based on the terms complexity, connection, and comparison – presented below in a rather eclectic and non-departmentalized way. The aim is to strengthen the discipline of global history of ideas by outlining a method that can be used on more than one particular body of material.

In writing his A Comparative History of Ideas, Nakamura stated that he would follow a ‘problem approach’ instead of the more usual ‘-isms approach’.76 As he says about his method: ‘The idea will be located, analyzed and reviewed in a wider scope, and the unique feature of the idea or concept will be made clear’. By these means, Nakamura tried to ‘locate modern thought in its incipient stages’,77 finding surprisingly parallel developments across continents and centuries. He gave weight to features of thought which are common across borders, as he wished to ‘avoid the old dichotomy of East and West’.78

Similarly, the sketch below, an updated attempt to describe not one but several possible methods for a global intellectual history, tries to build on the works of Lovejoy and Naka- mura, while also taking into consideration both Skinner’s contextual history and the post-colonial and decolonial perspectives of recent years.

In order to draw comparisons across boundaries and regain a global scope, the notion of ‘culture’ will be dismissed. As Kaviray concludes: ‘When ideas reach other cultures, their futures become strange and uncertain and cause surprises’.79 Such surprises might arise because ideas are not bound by borders or ‘cultures’, since, after all, ideas are the most migratory things in the world.

Recently, the philosopher Seyla Benhabib has argued against the idea of the purity of cultures, stressing instead that all cultures are formed through complex dialogues with other cultures.80 But the next step will be to think, read, and write without culture, to follow up on the previously mentioned arguments from the leading social anthropologists Radcliffe-Brown, Douglas, Abu-Lughod, and Weiner. The methodological sketch described below is similarly based on a study of global intellectual history without using the notion of ‘culture’.

After all, both texts and new ideas are often, if not always, created in contrast to the majority rather than representing a ‘majority’. Such texts and ideas are concrete objects of studies rather than representatives of an imagined, syncretized ‘culture’ – a notion which easily becomes just a ‘vague abstraction’. If we are not constrained by ‘culture’ – which implies that some, by birth or nationality, are more connected to certain ideas than others – we can more easily study ideas as they travel around the world, treating persons or ideas equally in a global scope.

Based on the descriptions above, the proposed global comparative method below can be summarized in the three terms of complexity, connection, and comparison. The first two notions (complexity and connection) can be regarded as a vital part of the context of the text or study object, which in turn opens up the possibility of applying the third concept on a global scale: comparison. The three terms can be understood as part of an inclusive global intellectual history that encompasses different branches, such as connected or contextual history of ideas.

Ideally, I would argue that one can analyse and locate all three fields in one’s studies to activate the potential of a thorough global methodology for the discipline of global intellectual history. I would like to stress, though, that one does not necessarily need to discuss all three terms, but that one hardly can study connection or contact without first consider- ing the complexity of the study objects. Similarly, one cannot compare two or more thought systems without first analyzing whether there has been any connection across time or space. Thus, below, we begin with the term complexity and give examples on how it can be applied.

  • Complexity the term, examples

The word complex derives from the Latin complecti, which means ‘to entwine around, to embrace’, which again is partly based on the word plectere (‘to braid’). One vital part of doing global intellectual history might be to first clarify the complexity of the study object, or the unit-idea. In other words, to embrace the possible multifaceted reality    and to braid the different threads together into a complex pattern.

Using Homer’s The Odyssey as an example, one might recognize the complex identity of the story’s gods and its main protagonist, Odysseus. We can recall that in Greek mythology, the African region called Ethiopia was a place for feasting and celebration for the Greek gods – ‘Zeus went off to the Ocean River to feast with the Aethiopians, loyal, lordly men, and all the gods went with him’81 – in addition to being the birthplace of the Ethiopian princess Andromeda, the ancestress of Heracles, and of Memnon, the African king who came to the aid of Troy.

So, in chapter 16 of The Odyssey, ‘Father and Son’, the ragged old Odysseus is about to see his son Telemachus for the first time since the boy was an infant when the goddess Athene intervenes. She touches Odysseus with her magical wand, dresses him up in a fine tunic and makes him taller and darker: His beard grows dark (or ‘blue’) and ‘once more he became black-skinned’.82

Consequently, when Telemachus meets his father in the next paragraph, he lowers his gaze in respect, as he thinks he is meeting a god descended from the sky. Even when Odysseus states that he truly is his father, Telemachus cannot believe it, as the person in front of him looks like a divinity.

For the last hundred years there have been some interesting and vital differences when it comes to the English translation of Odysseus’ change of skin colour. The Greek word melagkhroiēs was translated as ‘dark of colour’83 in the early twentieth century (1919) but as ‘dark-skinned’84 later (1951). Interestingly, more recent translations have rendered the original Greek on a spectrum ranging from ‘dark complexion’85 (2016) towards ‘ruddy tan’,86 (1997) ‘skin tanned’,87 (2000) and ‘tanned’88 (2017); one even gives the phrase as ‘his skin took back its bronze’89(2000). The most recent translation simply skipped the term (2018).90

Hence, this one word, melagkhroiēs, constitutes a complexity at the heart of the Greek classics and our modern interpretations of them.

Similarly, in chapter 19 of The Odyssey, Odysseus returns to Penelope after a separation of twenty years. He tries to prove that he is still alive by mentioning his preferred valet, a man older than him, who saved him in the Iliad: Eurybates. It is this companion who unites Penelope and Odysseus through his trustworthiness. In this crucial section, Eury- bates is described physically for the first time, namely as having ‘black skin, round shoulders, woolly hair’.91 The original Greek word is melanokhroos, which seems to be easier to translate as ‘black skin’ when used to describe an African-looking man than when melagkhroiēs is applied to Odysseus.

We can also note the explanation for Eurybates being the preferred companion of The Odysseys hero: ‘Odysseus valued him above all his other companions, for they thought in the same way’.92 At the core of this key Greek classic, the most important thing is the ideas; the union of like-mindedness transcends artificial boundaries and physical differences. The message of the author of The Odyssey seems to be that humans are united by their thoughts and minds, not by superficial physical resemblances.

The need to clarify the complexity in one’s study object is also pertinent when it comes to describing a period or a region. If, for example, one plans to study the ideas of ancient India, scholars like Amartya Sen have stressed the importance of the atheistic philosophical school of Lokayata (‘worldly’ or ‘of the people’), which is more than 2,500 years old and was later also called Carvaka.93 Throughout the centuries this atheist, sceptical and materialistic school of Indian thought has been a vital part of the subcontinent’s existential discussions. We can track this complexity, for example, in the second of the ‘Dighya Nikaya’ discourses, ‘The Fruits of the Life of a Recluse’ (‘Samaññaphala Sutta’), a part of Theravada Buddhism’s Pali Canon, supposedly from around 500 BCE and formally transcribed at the fourth Buddhist council in Sri Lanka in 29 BCE. This discourse presents the arguments of the Jains (Purana Kassapa), the agnostics (Sanjaya Belattha), and the non-religious Lokayatas (Ajita Kesakambali). Kesakambali argues that there cannot be a life after death, as he states: ‘There is neither fruit nor result of good or evil deeds. There is no such thing as this world or the next’.94

Thus, the existential ideas and discussions of India – often studied or presented as a land of religion – were more complex than they are usually perceived to be. The issue of complexity is also relevant in the presentation of genders in the history of ideas. Continuing on the Indian classics, we can see that a woman, Ghosa, is credited with writing at least one of the hymns in The Rigveda – the oldest of the Veda texts (ca 1000 BCE) – presenting the woman as a subject and giving her a voice.95

In the ‘Shanti Parva’ chapter of The Mahabharata (4th c BCE–4th c), the single woman Sulabha, an ascetic Yogic wanderer and a Rishika, launches an energetic philosophical argument for equality between the sexes and indeed all human beings. In the end, Sulabha wins a longer debate against the philosopher king Janaka, who goes quiet after she sets the record straight: ‘My body is different from thine. But my soul is not different from thy soul’.96

The conclusion of Sulabha’s argument has practical implications, Ruth Vanita points out: ‘Since the same Atman animates both women and men, women are capable of pursu- ing the same paths as men’.97 These two examples from Rigveda and The Mahabharata are consistent with the report by Megasthenes, the Greek Seleucus’ ambassador to Pataliputra, India, in around 300 BC: he wrote that women in India were discussing philosophy with men in order ‘to share in the philosophical life’.98

Hence, the issues of complexity are vital for a global intellectual historian – and the applied method – when it comes to both colour or gender, text or period. After analyzing the complexity of one’s study object within the field of history of ideas, one can more easily go on to determine the possible connections.

  • Connection the term, examples

The term ‘connection’ derives from Latin, connectere: While the first part comes from Latin com, together, the last derives from nectere – ‘to bind’. Hence, connection means to ‘bind together’.

One part of the term connection is contact. In his self-critical preface of 1991, the previously mentioned historian McNeill stressed that his book was meant to be ‘built on the notion that the principal factor promoting historically significant social change is contact with strangers possessing new and unfamiliar skills’.99 But the concept of connection implies something more than just physical contact, it also includes the more indirect influences of thoughts – which can bring about reactions and change in often-unexpected ways.

In 1997, Sanjay Subrahmanyam coined the term ‘connected histories’, which has also inspired sub-disciplines such as ‘connected sociologies’. Subrahmanyam argued that

we not only compare from within our boxes, but spend some time and effort to transcend them, not by comparison alone but by seeking out the at times fragile threads that connected the globe, even as the globe came to be defined as such.100

The term connection can be used to study influences across borders and seas. While the notion of complexity describes the ‘internal affairs’, connection highlights the ‘external contacts’. One of the examples Subrahmanyam uses is the discussions about the end of the world that took place in 1581 between the Mughal emperor Jalal al-Din Muhammad Akbar (1542–1605) and the Portuguese Jesuit António Monserrate, then on a mission to the Indian court; these evidenced the mental connectedness that transcended the great landmass and the different religions. After all, Akbar believed in ‘the pursuit of reason’, and invited the different religions and thought systems to his new ‘House of Worship’ in Agra from 1575, to put forward their views about this world and the next.

More recently, Jonardon Ganeri has demonstrated that the connections and the exchange of ideas between India and Western Europe were (*) also vital in the crucial century to come, and he names the era 1450–1700 India’s ‘Age of Reason’. In 1656, the French philosopher Francois Bernier set sail for Mughal India. He ended up cooperating with the intellectual son of the emperor and patron of arts, Dara Shukoh (1615–1659), who commissioned the world’s first translation of the Upanishads, into Persian. Bernier was very well connected to the early European Enlightenment thinkers, and for years he frequented the leading ‘new reason’ philosophers, like Jayarama, in Varanasi. Bernier had brought with him the foremost of European scholarship, and  in  a  letter  from Shiraz in 1667 he writes:

When I became weary of the explaining to my Agha the latest discoveries of William Harvey and Pequet in anatomy, and to reason with him on the philosophy of Gassendi and Descartes, which I translated into Persian (because that is what I did during five or six years) it was up to our pandit to argue.101

The ‘Agha’ Bernier refers to, is the intellectual Danismand Khan; the pandit is the influential scholar-poet and Sanskrit bibliophile Kavindra Sarasvati. This example demonstrates yet again the ‘global circulation of ideas’, since ‘the migration of ideas was already remarkable swift’, as Gonardon points out.102 And thus, I would argue, the statements of Lovejoy, Nakamura, and Al-Biruni are again confirmed: Ideas are the most migratory things in the world. Neither Bernier nor Dara Shukoh, Jayarama nor the Indian philosophers of their time would have seen ‘danger’ in any attempt to understand an ‘alien culture’, as Skinner argued. Rather, Descartes was discussed among the Indian Varanasi scholars around 1660; a mere decade after his death, and earlier than in several European countries.

When Bernier arrived in India, similar connections and contact zones had existed for at least two and a half millennia, as Thomas McEvilley demonstrates in his magnum opus, The Shape of Ancient Thought. Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies (2002). He documents ‘two massive transfers of ideas or methods of thinking, first from India into Greece in the pre-Socratic period and again from Greece back into India in  the Hellenistic (…)’.103

We should note that the term connection can also include more intellectual journeys that do not involve physical contact. In her ground-breaking work on the hugely influential seventeeth century English author Samuel Johnson, Wendy Laura Belcher demonstrates how he was formed and transformed by the texts on the Abyssinian highlands in today’s Ethiopia, as in his translation of A Voyage to Abyssinia (1735). Johnson’s ‘Ethio- pian novel’ of 1759, the The Prince of Abissinia (Rasselas), plays a role for example in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Hence, she ‘proposes a new model of transcultural intertextuality – one that illuminates how the Western literary canon is globally produced’.104 Belcher’s term for this ‘comparative literature model’ is dis- cursive possession. Through her dramatic case study on the influence of African discourse on Johnson’s works, she is ‘attempting to shift postcolonial literary studies’ by adding a ‘perspective on the power of other people’s discourse to infuse European texts and to render European authors the objects of their subjects’.

Following up on Belcher’s notions of discursive possession and energumens – texts that are ‘spoken through’ – we could mention another striking example: the influence of Chinese, Japanese, and Dao philosophy on two of the most influential German thinkers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.105 Martin Buber translated the philosophy of Zhuangzi (fourth century BCE) in 1910; a book of Dao and ‘the Way’, to which Martin Heidegger referred in 1930.106 In ‘A Dialogue on Language between a Japanese and an Inquirer’ (1959), Heidegger reveals that he read Husserl with Yamanouchi Tokury (1890–1982), Shuzo Kuki (1888–1941), and other Japanese philosophers in Freiburg from 1921.107 The dialogues with the Asian thinkers inspired him in his work on Being and Time (1927), as phenomenology ‘presented us with possibilities of a way’.108 After the war, Heidegger started translating the work of Lao Tzu, before pursuing a ‘thinking experience’ which ‘would offer the assurance the European-Western saying and East Asian saying will enter into dialogue such that in it there sings something that wells up from a single source’.109

It may therefore be difficult to say where the philosophies of Lao Tzu and Zhuangzi end and where the most influential German thinking of the twentieth century starts; this could be a study object itself within connected global intellectual histories. Such connections go several ways: The first discussions of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy in China began as early as 1902, with Lu Xun and others referring to the concept of ‘transvaluation of all values’ prior to the fall of the Emperor in 1911 and the New Culture Movement.110 Nietzsche’s term ‘Superman’ (Übermensch) may have been understood in a more precise way by Zhang Yiping (1900–1947) than by his European counterparts, indicates Cheung Chiu-yee, who has collected the Chinese Nietzsche discussions.111 Nietzsche also became a ‘rock star’ among Chinese students wanting to ‘revaluate all values’ and was the main philosophical inspiration during the Spring protests of 1989 – when a survey showed that a staggering one-third of all students in Beijing had read a book by Nietzsche.112

Such connections, from one end of the world to another, are not confined to the modern world. The fairly new field of inter-contextual archaeology, combined with the studies of comparative symbolism and cosmological thinking, has gained new insights into how ideas were spread and shared throughout a wide area from South Asia via Northern Africa to Northern Europe during the Bronze Age. By integrating hitherto separate fields of research, a prize-winning study has revealed that the constant movement of people during the fifteenth–twelveth centuries BCE, trading both tin and amber, and exchanging customs and ideas, can explain the ‘compelling correspondences in social and religious institutions between India and Scandinavia during this period’.113  In order to understand the worldviews of the people of Bronze Age Europe, one needs to read the Indian classics, the researchers conclude, as ‘we have preserved in the Rig- Veda a unique door to Bronze Age society and cosmos’.114 The petroglyphs of Northern Europe, carved into rock more than 3,000 years ago, can be interpreted as an example of discursive possession and energumens, to use the terminology of Belcher.

We might infer as Lovejoy did eight decades ago: Specialization is indispensable, but ‘more and more have come to see that specialization is not enough’.115

  • Comparison the term, examples

The discipline of global history of ideas also has the potential to supplement the terms complexity and connections by doing comparison as well. When one has clarified the complexities and connections of one’s study objects, it is possible to compare – also, or especially, in cases where no connections have been identified.

The term ‘comparison’ stems from the Latin verb comparare, to couple, from par – ‘equal’. In other words, by comparing one can sort out what is similar or not; what is the same. And, by chance, if we compare the words for ‘same’, we find that they stem etymologically from Old Norse samr and the older Sanskrit, sama (सम). To find the same, or to compare, is sammati in Sanskrit. The world is not only connected by ideas but also by their vehicle: language. And thus, we can compare.

So, there is a wide field of comparative global intellectual history in which one can also study and compare ideas that were, to use the words of Subrahmanyam, ‘somehow “fixed” by physical, social and cultural coordinates, who inhabited “localities” in the early modern period and nothing else’.116

The possibility of comparison was vital for Radcliffe-Brown when stressing the importance of ‘unit entities’: ‘The use of comparison is indispensable. The study of a single society may provide materials for comparative study, or it may afford occasion for hypotheses, which then need to be tested by reference to other societies; it cannot give demonstrated results’.117

Similarly, Lovejoy highlighted the need to discriminate between the components and the basic unit-ideas and their compounds, their patterns – like different isms and ideologies. Thus, when one compares the basic ideas, one might find that ‘there is a great deal more that is common to more than one of these provinces than is usually recognized, that the same idea often appears, sometimes considerably disguised, in the most diverse regions of the intellectual world’.118 Hence, comparison – across land, oceans, or time- spans – can be a vast resource within global intellectual history.

One example of such comparison has been demonstrated within comparative philosophy. Building on Martha Nussbaum’s distinction between ‘thick’ (detailed) and ‘thin’ (broad) descriptions, Bryan W. Van Norden uses a ‘comparative methodology’ in order to compare the virtue ethics of classical philosophers in China (Confucius, Mencius, Xun Zi, Zeng Zi) and ancient Greece – thinkers who supposedly could not have been connected. Van Norden, who dispels any notion of ‘culture’ in order to compare on equal terms, concludes:

Most of us will, I think, be more attracted to the conception of human flourishing suggested by Zeng Zi and seconded by Confucius in Analects 11.26 than we will be by any of the major Western views.119

Hence, the comparative approach can often yield surprising results that break new ground within global intellectual history.

Within the field of comparative philosophy, Alexus McLeod has made an even more innovative leap in the first systematic study of Maya philosophy of Meso America. The ideas of the pre-Columbian era can now be discussed, since most of the Mayan script has been deciphered during the past two decades. Building on the trailblazing studies of Aztec and Maya intellectual history by Miguel Leon-Portilla and inspired by Toshihiko Izutzu’s comparison of Sufism and Daoism, both from the early 1960s, McLeod uses what he calls a ‘comparative analogical’ method. By comparing the scripts of the Maya ideas, like the pre-Columbian book Popul Vuh, with the far more studied Chinese philosophy tradition, two traditions that surely have never been connected, he opens new

insights into each of them. He compares by analogy: ‘One determines that if there is enough similarity concerning a key cluster of views between two thinkers, then they may share another view related to this cluster’.120

Now, there will certainly be arguments against such a comparative analogical method – and McLeod discusses most of them in his book – but it is at least possible also to consider such a cross-continental take within a comparative method of doing global intellectual history. After comparing Maya and Chinese philosophy, McLeod concludes that one seems to understand the two traditions better by reading them against one another.  Maya philosophy yields new insight into Chinese philosophy, and vice-versa.

Another example of cross-continental comparison is the study of the three historical writers Herodotus (Persia/Greece, 5th c. BCE), Sima Qian (Han China, 1st c. BCE), and Ibn Khaldun (North Africa, 14th c.). More specifically, Siep Stuurman compares their description of the sedentary-nomadic frontier: respectively the Scythians, the nomadic Xiongnu of the steppes, and the Bedouins of the Sahara. By comparing these three historians, Stuurman demonstrates that one can ‘reinterpret and recontextualize their writings, discovering similarities where others have perceived mostly differences’.121

Stuurman uses the terms of common humanity (a universalism that ‘transforms a stranger into a fellow human being’) and the anthropological turn (which concentrates on differences) to analyse how the three urban writers described the nomads. He concludes that nowhere in the writings of either Herodotus, Sima Qian or Khaldun is there any trace of a ‘civilizing mission’, or of any anthropological turn. Rather, their works can be decoded ‘as contextually determined, inventive variations on a common theme’.122

Thus, a method that takes comparison into consideration has the potential to illuminate more ‘common human concernment’.123 A comparison across oceans and borders, after discerning the complexities and connections, can make it possible to pursue a comparative methodology within the discipline of global intellectual history.

5.   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 twenty- first 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 twenty-first 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’.124 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’.125

A couple of centuries later, the historian Polybius, writing in Greek, introduced The Histories by stating that he would start his work in the late third 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 (…)’126

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 decolonization – 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 who 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’.127 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’.128 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 and terms 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.129 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.130 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 counterarguments 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 fifth century, including the rational, enlightened, and reason-based philosophy of Zera Yacob (1599–1692).131 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 twenty-first 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 (…)’132


1. Weiner, “Culture and Its Discontents,” 14.

2. Ibid., 15.

3. Douglas, “The Self-Completing Animal,” 886.

4. Radcliffe-Brown, “On Social Structure,” 2.

5. Abu-Lughod, “Writing Against Culture,” 137.

6. Ibid., 18.

7. Weiner, “Culture and Our Discontents,” 19 (my italics).

8. Buck-Morss, “Hegel and Haiti,” p. 822.

9. Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason. Description of the term is based on Lucy Mayblin, GlobalSocialTheory.org.

10. Bhambra, Nisancioglu, and Gebrial, Decolonizing the University.

11. Thomas, “Decolonizing Disciplines.”

12,. See Armitage, Civil Wars.

13. Clossey and Guyatt, “Small World.”

14.     Smith, Decolonising Methodologies, 59.

15. Bhambra et al. Decolonizing; and Arday and Mirza, Dismantling Race. Kim, Digital Whiteness.

Herbjørnsrud, “Philosophy of Egypt”.

Brinkmann, Dreyfus, and Koch-Brinkmann, Gods in Color, 25.

Sartori and Moyn, “Approaches,” 25.

Kaviraj, “Global Intellectual,” 310. 21. Ibid., 317.

Armitage, “Fifty Years,” 108–9.

The term methodological nationalism was launched in Martins, “Time and Theory.” Regarding the term ‘imagined community’, see Anderson, Imagined Communities; Regarding

‘culture’, see Clifford, Predicament.

  • Miike, “Culture,” 194–5.
  • Subrahmanyam, “Connected Histories,” 761.
  • Frank, ReORIENT; Goody, Bose, and Manjapra, Cosmopolitan; and Frankopan, Silk Roads.
  • Ibid., xix–xx.
  • McNeill, Rise, xvi.
  • Behdad and Thomas, Comparative; Khanmohamadi, Anothers Word; Domínguez, Saussy, and Villanueva, Introducing.
  • Bhambra, Connected Sociologies; Alatas, Applying.
  • Scharfstein, World Philosophy; Chakrabarti and Weber, Comparative Philosophy; McLeod,


  • Ganeri, “Philosophy Global”; van Norden, Taking Back.
  • Freeden and Vincent, Comparative.
  • Sharma and Young, Feminism; Waltz, Mythologies.
  • Spivak, Aesthetic; Douglas Robinson, Intercivilizational.
  • See Haakonssen, “Global Possibilities.”
  • Pocock, “Introduction.”
  • Pocock, “Ritual.”
  • Pocock, “Europe?”
  • Armitage, “International Turn,” 21.
  • Ibid., 5.

43. Ibid., 21–2.

  • Subrahmanyam, “Beyond Usual,” 3x.
  • Mulsow, “New Perspectives,” 2.
  • Mulsow, “Globalized Ideas,” 87.
  • Moyn and Sartori, “Approaches,” 4.
  • Nakamura Comparative, v.
  • Ikeda, “Cosmopolitan,” 83.
  • Nakamura, Comparative, 4.
  • Lovejoy, “Reflections,” 4.
  • Ibid., 7.

53. Ibid., 12.

54. Lovejoy, Chain, 15.

55.  Ibid., 17.

56.  Ibid., 18.

  • Ibid.
  • Lovejoy, Chain, 21.
  • Bevir, Logic, 201.
  • Skinner, “Meaning,” 10–11.

61.  Ibid., 35.

62.  Ibid., 50.

63.  Ibid., 24.

64. Lovejoy, Chain, 82.

65.  Ibid., 93.

66.  Ibid., 22.

  • Buck-Morss, Hegel, and Haiti, 822.
  • Nehru, Glimpses, 128.
  • Kelley, Descent, chs. 1–2.
  • Quoted in Armitage, “International Turn,” 234. 71. Ibid., 233.
  • Khaldun, Muqaddimah, 9.
  • Alberuni, India, 7 [Hindus replaced with Indians, my replacement].
  • Aristotle, Politics, 157 (1272b).
  • Herodotus, Histories, 114 (Book II, 45).
  • Nakamura, Comparative, 5.
  • Ibid., 6.
  • Ibid., 4.
  • Kavirjay, “Global Intellectual,” 318.
  • Benhabib, Culture, ix.

81. Iliad, 91–2 (506–8/1.423–42).

  • Odyssey, 16.175. Original: μελαγχροιής (Roman letters: melagkhroiēs). This translation follows from melagkhroiēs: melas translated as black, khroi as skin.
  • Odyssey, Murray, 131.
  • Odyssey, Lattimore, 244.
  • Odyssey, Verity, 213.
  • Odyssey, Fagles, 344.
  • Odyssey, Lombardo, 245.
  • Odyssey, Watson, 190.
  • Odyssey, Hammond, 166.
  • Odyssey, Green, 413.

91. Odyssey, Watson, 328 (19.245).

  • Odyssey, Verity, 256.
  • Sen, Argumentative, 23–7.
  • Chattopadhyaya, Lokayata, 48. 95. Rigveda, 264–6 (10.40).
  • Mahabarata, 483 (Book 12, ch. CCCXXI/321).
  • Vanita, “Self,” 88.
  • Ancient India, 101.
  • McNeill, West, xvi.
  • Subrahmanyam, “Connected Histories,” 761–2.
  • Quoted in Ganeri, Age of Reason, 14.
  • Ibid.
  • McEvilley, Ancient Thought, 642.
  • Belcher, Johnson, 1.
  • Cho, Crowe, and Choi, Transnational Encounters.
  • Herbjørnsrud, “Global History of  Ideas.”
  • May, Heideggers Hidden Sources, 84–85.
  • Heidegger, “Dialogue,” 6.
  • Ibid., 8.
  • Chiu-yee, Nietzsche, iii.
  • Ibid., vii.
  • Zhao, Power, 133.
  • Kristiansen and Larsson: Bronze Age, 364.

114. Ibid., 365.

  1. Lovejoy, “Reflections,” 5.
  2. Subrahmanyam, “Connected Histories,” 762.
  3. Radcliffe-Brown, “Structure,” 5.
  1. 118.     Lovejoy, Chain, 15.
  2. Van Norden, “Virtue Ethics,” 117.
  3. McLeod, Ancient Maya, xvi.
  4. Stuurman, “Common,” 35.

122. Ibid., 54.

  1. Lovejoy, “Reflections,” 6.
  2. Mo Zi, Mo, 76.

125. Ibid., 90.

  1. Polybius, Histories, 4.
  2. Bevir, Logic, 315.
  3. Cooper, “Global,” 287.
  4. Adler, “Global History Now?”
  5. Swenson, Rise of Heritage, 7.
  6. Herbjørnsrud, “The African Enlightenment.”
  7. Lovejoy, “Reflections,” 6.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.


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